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Becoming a Person of Influence

A video version of this blog post can be found here


Here’s the backstory:

You work in a company that manufactures technology goods for the public market. Your job entails oversight of product quality and safety, ensuring that the manufactured goods meet or exceed industry standards. Your product line is highly innovative, but other companies are rising fast and challenging your share of the market.

And here’s your challenge:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

The first level of ethical reasoning doesn’t really use much reasoning in making a choice. It is called Self-interest, and its primary value is in the pleasure, satisfaction, or advantage it brings to ‘me’ – as quickly and risk-free as possible. As the one faced with this challenge, your interest is the only one that counts.adam-smith

Individuals who make choices and take action on the values of Self-interest typically assume that others are choosing and acting on the same basis. They believe that deepest-down people are looking out for themselves and their own interests. The economist-philosopher Adam Smith put forth the theory that market competition among self-interested actors serves to strengthen and improve the economy, by eliminating those who lack ambition or who produce goods and services of inferior quality or at too high a cost.

The next level of ethical deliberation broadens the scope of concern beyond self-interest alone, to include the local groups, teams, classes and organizations in which individuals are members. At this level you understand that social endeavors in which individuals must interact and somehow cooperate for common goals require a set of rules for everyone to follow. The primary value at this level is in the success I can have as a player, employee, member, or citizen in helping my team be its best.

We’re used to thinking of Game Rules as the codes for “right” and “wrong” behavior in the field of sports. Each sport has its own set of rules, and anyone who wants to compete and succeed in a given sport must follow the rules. By definition Game Rules are known as conventions – not absolute laws that apply across all of life, but guidelines and consequences invented for the purpose of defining what it means to win and how to play fair.thomas-hobbes

Game Rules can be found across the social landscape – not only in sports and leisure games, but in school, business, and civilian life as well. Your first exposure to Game Rules was likely in your family of origin where you learned how to behave yourself, wait your turn, do your part, and take only your share. Following the rules doesn’t always mean that you get your way. But overall, when your team succeeds, so do you. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that Game Rules, or what he called the Social Contract, are necessary in order to get self-interested individuals to cooperate and not destroy each other.

In addition to Self-interest and Game Rules as stages of ethical reasoning, a third level has to do with a standard of Moral Character. The primary value is in keeping my integrity and staying true to the person I want to be.

Integrity literally refers to the state of being whole, not falling to pieces or changing your values from one situation to the next, but remaining consistent in your Moral Character. A ‘character’ in story is a figure that may grow and develop as the narrative mlkprogresses, but whose core identity is consistent from one scene to the next.

In the same way, Moral Character holds to a standard of self-consistency – presumably as someone who is responsible, trustworthy, and committed to being a ‘good’ person. Understandably, this is also known as Virtue Ethics.

At this level, you are less concerned with how others view you than how you see yourself. In fact, an individual may refuse to play by the Game Rules because one or more rules violate moral values that he or she is committed to live by. An example from history is Martin Luther King, Jr., whose belief in racial equality and human rights motivated him to protest by civil disobedience the Game Rules of white privilege.

You have probably noticed how each higher level in ethical reasoning holds a larger context in mind. First it’s only you and your Self-interest. Next, you take into consideration the various groups, teams, and organizations you belong to, and the Game Rules that govern behavior inside them. With Moral Character the frame expanded still farther, to take in the longer view of your life and the responsible person you are aspiring to be.

So you may be thinking, Is it possible to expand the frame any farther? What else is there beyond me, the groups where I’m a jeremy-benthammember, and the moral core of who I am? One more level of ethical reasoning invites you to be mindful of everyone, anywhere, who could be impacted by your choices and actions. This concern over the ‘utility’ or usefulness of your action in producing consequences that matter is central to Jeremy Bentham’s ethical theory known as Utilitarianism.

At the level of Maximal Benefit, the primary value is in contributing to the health, happiness, and well-being of myself and all those affected by my actions. Me, but not only me. The groups, teams, and organizations I belong to, but more than these as well. An aspiration to stay true to my character as a moral being, but going beyond even that.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit takes into consideration the fact that nothing is really separate from anything else, and that what we call The Universe is essentially a complex system of relationships between and among countless individuals. Some of these individuals are like you, but a vast majority are very different from you. And yet you and they exist in a web of connections, actions, and consequences.

ethical-reasoningIn this diagram, the outer circle and lines projecting from the center are dashed and not solid, to signify an ever-outward expansion. If your action is thought of as a stone tossed into a pond, how far out does the outermost ripple go? If your choices and behaviors are affecting the larger system, what will the consequences be for other forms of life and the generations still to come? Really, how big is the ‘pond’ you live in?

Ethical development refers to your growing capacity for acting deliberately within an expanding horizon of values.

With ALL OF THAT in mind, what is the best thing to do in a given situation? What action will benefit the maximum number of stakeholders – all those who will be, are likely to be, or one day might be affected? That’s what is meant by Maximal Benefit.

Now let’s come back to the ethical challenge posed at the beginning:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

An ethic of Self-interest disregards any values that have no obvious and direct gain to you. Your decision will be determined by whether you feel that the personal payoff outweighs the risk of getting caught. If you can get away with it and there’s a chance for a pay-raise, then you will allow the safety compromise without much hesitation.

An ethic of Game Rules is most interested in rules and shared expectations governing your behavior. Your decision will be determined by a desire to play fair and help your team succeed. The dilemma is complicated by the fact that other companies competing with you in the bigger game called the Free Market are not playing by the rules. Even though safety standards have been in place for a while, perhaps the times are changing and your company needs to keep up.

An ethic of Moral Character strives to stay true to yourself by acting in a way that is consistent with your understanding of a ‘good person’. Your decision will be determined by this inner voice of conscience. One complication here has to do with the matter of whether one’s conscience is inherent to human nature or a product of social upbringing. To the degree that it is learned and reinforced by society, some individuals go into adult life without much of an inner moral compass.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit considers what effect your action is likely to have in the bigger picture and longer view of things. Your decision will be determined by a pursuit of greatest well-being. In the case of your decision over product safety standards, a possible salary raise, the competitive advantage of your company, and even whether or not a compromise would break your commitment to moral integrity are secondary to the bigger question of what consequences your decision might have farther out and later on for all concerned.

 

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Mythic Rhythms and The Meaning of Life

narrative-rhythmsThe revelation that meaning is something we construct rather than uncover in the objective nature of reality marks a crucial breakthrough in our self-consciousness as creators. Such an apocalyptic realization can be found in myths that are thousands of years old, but until very recently the end of our world was regarded as a future event. Contrary to this literal-historical reading of the Apocalypse, I’ve argued that its function in our myths is to serve as a ‘veiled insight’ into our creative authority as storytellers. Now that the secret is out, we have an opportunity to create a new heaven and a new earth.

The ability to see our myths as products of our own creative imagination, rather than naively looking through them and mistaking them for the way things really are, gives us a chance to appreciate them as art and ourselves as artists – or, even better, as artificers (inventors) of meaning and our human worlds. In this post I will identify the distinct registers of meaning that contribute to the tapestry we are weaving – individually, interpersonally with each other, in the company and traditions of our tribe, and those deep, slow rhythms of cultural mythology that carry our primal inklings as a species of belonging to a mystery we cannot fully grasp.

It’s important to remember that cultures don’t compose stories, individual storytellers do. And yet, some insights into existence and our own creative authority – as in the example of seeing through the veil of meaning by the narrative mechanism of apocalypse – were planted in myth but depended on cultural traditions to preserve them over many generations before they could be demythologized and consciously understood. Obviously then, while we as individuals tell stories and live out our own personal myths from day to day, we can expect that some universal themes of our shared human condition are coursing through those idiosyncrasies as well.

For instance, our deep inner life as a species is only accessible to us as individuals. While numerous metaphors and concepts of a culture’s language are employed for the purpose of interpreting our experience of this grounding mystery, it is only by intuitive recognition (and not, say, technical explanation) that another individual can agree and feel profoundly understood. As a metaphor, the ground of being is our attempt to put into words an experience that is too deep for words and was intuitively known by us before we acquired the language to name and describe it; it is therefore essentially ineffable.

This existential support and provident uplift of being felt within us is the source-experience behind all of our most treasured cultural representations of ultimate reality – of God as that upon which (or whom, when personified) our existence, life, and fulfillment depend. When these same representations are taken as literal descriptions of an external being, rather than as metaphorical depictions of the grounding mystery of being itself, the interpersonal recognition of truth, mentioned earlier, is bypassed for a tribal definition of god as the patron deity who demands our worship and obedience.

Of whatever tribal origin and cultural background, mystics have been relentlessly critical of religious orthodoxies that claim to have the authorized version – all others are fakes and heresies – of the “one true god.” Their second mistake was to confuse these theological constructs for some objective being, but the real problem – we might think of it as the original sin – lay in trading away the validity of inner experience for an idol of language that could be standardized and mandated from above.

Over many generations of tribal life, a people constructs a model of reality that serves to orient them within the turning mystery of all things. As cultural counterpart to the individual’s grounding mystery, a model of reality (or cosmology) functions as the universal frame in which space, time, life and destiny unfold. The great sacred narratives of mythology assume this model of reality as the framework underneath and behind their dramatic drapery, as the backgrounding map across, through, and against which the mythic action takes place. The up-and-down travels of the gods, divine messengers, religious heroes, and world saviors in the ancient Near East assumed a three-story model of reality. An account of Jesus ascending to heaven after coming up from the underworld with his victory over death, for instance, made perfect sense to its first-century audience.

It’s been pointed out many times that because our present-day (scientific) model of reality is not so vertically arranged and neatly stacked, these early Christian myths strain the credulity of modern minds. Regardless of what defenders of orthodoxy maintain, it is decidedly not an act of faith to believe them anyway – or worse yet, to reject scientific cosmology in favor of the Bible’s literal truth. This is yet another complication brought on by the original sin of forgetting the origins of spirituality: a literal reading of myth locks the sacred stories to a model of reality that is no longer accurate, relevant, or believable. We either have to leave them behind as so much superstitious nonsense, or else abandon our own intellectual integrity for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’.

In the back-and-forth dialogue between an individual’s inner experience of the grounding mystery and the model of reality by which his or her culture is oriented in the turning mystery, the daily round of our life together in society (the interpersonal and tribal registers of meaning in my diagram) evokes the question of our ethical bearing. What, after all, constitutes a ‘good life’? Our actions and interactions either bring us together in community or push us farther apart. The choices we make as consumers, the votes we cast as citizens, and the company we keep around us are continually shaping who we are, individually and collectively. Our way of life is how we work out our dreams and pursue a meaningful existence.

But, once again, if we are not internally grounded, and if we lack a sense of our place in the universe, our way of life and our life together can become a nightmare. Not inner peace, but chronic anxiety. Not holy wonder, but clinical depression. Not love, but suspicion, aggression, and violence against neighbors and nations. Psychospiritually adrift without grounding and orientation, we also lose the golden thread of our own personal myth and become susceptible to the extremes of conviction or complacency, simply because we have no real sense of ourselves. Instead of thinking ethically and with a greater good in mind, we twist morality around the pursuits of security and self-gratification.

There is good news in all of this, which is that we can always wake up from the nightmare. We are living now at the end of the world, and it’s time to begin again. We don’t have to spin the scripts of yesterday or 2,000 years ago. A new day is dawning and we need better stories, so let’s get started.

 

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Stepping Back For the Big Picture

beyond-egoFrom time to time it’s important to take a step back from the detail work of theory-building in order to catch hold of the big picture of what you’re doing. I’ve offered up some wide-ranging ideas on such topics as consciousness, spirituality, post-theism, and human self-actualization, and now I’ll try to bring together the major sight lines of a larger vision.

Backing up conceptually as far as we can brings us to the origins of our present universe. Contemporary cosmology (study of the cosmos) is coming ever closer to a grand unified theory (GUT) that can account for the flaring-forth of energy into the most basic constituents of matter – in an event (or ‘singularity’) popularly known as the Big Bang. Since the fabric of space-time is thought to have emerged at this point, there is no way for scientists to determine when (i.e., at what moment in the past) this occurred, but they have calculated the age of our universe to be somewhere around 14 billion years old.

In my diagram I have represented this primordial transformation of energy crystallizing into the subatomic latticework of matter as the elementary stage of the universal process (or ‘universe’ for short). As I will continue to use this convention of stages, it’s important to understand that I don’t regard a stage as merely a formative period in the historical past that has been left behind. In addition to thinking of it as a previous era in the course of change, I’m using ‘stage’ in its spatial connotation as well, as a supporting platform for ongoing progress. In other words – and this should not come as a surprise – the elementary stage in the rise of our present universe is still very active, providing the energetic and material support to what we’ll look at next.

Stage 2 of the process (comprised of levels 3 and 4) is named the evolutionary stage, since this is when (and where) life first emerges. Technically speaking, the term ‘evolution’ should be reserved for the adventure of life (on our planet and possibly elsewhere) and not for the quantum dynamics at work in the energetic transformations of matter. Life introduces something unique and unprecedented in the way it ‘rolls out’ (or evolves) into more adaptive and complex organisms over time. Organic names the basic life-force, while sentient is how the evolution of life has gradually produced organisms that are more aware, responsive, and engaged with their environment.

At Stage 3 is where a uniquely human form of consciousness makes its appearance. Ego is Latin for ‘I’, referring to that separate center of personal identity which is both a construct of social engineering and the agent of social development. Our animal nature as human beings tracks downward into the instincts and urgencies of survival, while ego ‘sets the stage’ for a transpersonal breakthrough to spirituality and higher wisdom.

A critical condition of this breakthrough experience is provided in the developmental achievement of ego strength, evident in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified. This threshold (at level 5, egoic) is where a lot of my blog posts focus in, since a lack of ego strength – presenting in a neurotic tangle of insecurity, attachment, and inflexible convictions – is at the root of much of our suffering. I’ve frequently pointed out how some forms of religion, particularly of the theistic type, use this neurotic tangle to promote dogmatism, bigotry, redemptive violence, and otherworldly escapism.

Let’s assume for now that ego strength is achieved. What’s next? The transpersonal level opens in two distinct paths of spirituality, one leading inward to what I call the grounding mystery, and the other outward to the turning mystery. The grounding mystery (or more philosophically, the ground of being) is not something else underneath it all, but the creative source of consciousness within us. In other words, you don’t go looking for it out in the world – or rather, you might try to find it in the world but your quest will come to frustration. This is why the mystical turn utilizes a variety of practices and methods for conducting an inward descent of ego release to the mystery within.

A second transpersonal path takes an ethical turn, beyond ego but this time in the direction of an ascending involvement in ever-larger horizons of participation. In this case, personal identity does not drop away, as on the mystical path, but instead serves our upward leap into genuine community where ego doesn’t dissolve but connects in relationship with others. Historically, the quality of this connection proceeds in correlation with our cultural representations of the divine ideal (summarized in such virtues as creativity, benevolence, equanimity, and wisdom), which it has been the responsibility of organized religion to depict in myth, art, liturgy, and theology. (For the reasons given earlier, this responsibility of religion hasn’t been fully understood or consistently fulfilled.)

As it follows these two distinct transpersonal paths, spirituality advances our quest for a deeper center and a higher purpose. Just as our center in sentience is deeper than our center in personal identity, progress in this direction also opens our ethical considerations to a correspondingly larger horizon – beyond just ‘me and my own’ to all sentient life. The higher purpose in this case is not a set of orders legislated from above (we have already moved into post-theism at this point), but the more far-reaching principles that concern our life together with all living things on this planet. What is our responsibility to the greater community of life?

My general theory regards the cultural stage of human evolution as trending inevitably into transpersonal realms of awareness and action. While still only a relative few have achieved this breakthrough – whether held back by their own neurotic entanglement or by social institutions (e.g., family, class, religion) that are getting in the way – all the signs are indicating a planet-wide spiritual awakening. The counterforces will not likely fade away gently, however, but can be expected to redouble their efforts in holding us captive.

Insecurity, selfishness, hatred, and terror cannot be overcome by violence. We must transcend them, which we do by acknowledging them, understanding them, and then simply letting them go.

 

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Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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Does Your Religion Work?

The question is not whether religion will one day be only a memory of our brutal and superstitious past as a species, or else singularly responsible for our future catastrophic self-destruction. A lot of people feel that we would be better off without it. In their perspective religion is unnecessary baggage crowding the mental space we could be using for more relevant and practical concerns. We can’t deal rationally with these things until we abandon superstition, come to our senses, and work together for real solutions.

A returning reader is familiar with my less categorical appraisal of religion. I can be critical of every tradition and denomination with respect to how easily it gets tangled in our neurotic obsessions with glory, guilt, sex, violence and death. But at the same time I am constantly in search of what we might call ‘religion in essence’, as distinct from its countless historical manifestations. From the etymology of the term we can define religion as the system of attitudes, beliefs, values and practices that works to link us back (Latin religare) to reality, resolving the separation inherent to the rise of ego consciousness.

Personal identity is a process of social construction that gradually establishes an executive center in the ego – actually a deputy center, subordinate to the authorities of family and tribe. Ego stands above the body and apart from others, and if development has been particularly difficult or traumatic, it becomes estranged from its own inner life (soul) as well. When this condition of separation is severe enough, a profound insecurity can overtake the personality. The essential function of religion is to provide the means for ego to reconnect with reality – internally with its own grounding mystery, relationally with others, and transcendentally through a meaningful world-picture (or cosmology).Faith_Love_Meaning

Distinguishing essential religion in this sense from its various manifestations – inspired or deluded, genuine or dysfunctional as the case may be – gives us a useful model for assessing the relative health of our own. Whether or not you believe in god, say your prayers, go to church, or hold out hope of an afterlife, the real litmus test of any religion has to do with how effectively it connects you to the grounding mystery within, to others who share the world with you, and to the universe that surrounds you.

My shorthand for these dimensions and associated practices of life is illustrated to the right. I’ll unpack each term more thoroughly in a bit, but for now I’ll restate my general thesis in the following way.

Religion is the system by which human beings cultivate faith, nurture love, and construct meaning. However you do that, is your religion.

Faith

We begin with faith because its presence or absence sets the tone for everything else. From the time we were still in our mother’s womb, our nervous system was picking up clues as to whether reality was provident and supportive, or instead hostile and dangerous. This was long before we had an ego and prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently the deep impression registered in our nervous system was both unconscious and ineffable.

In the context of essential religion, faith has nothing to do with beliefs – orthodox or otherwise. The roots of the word reach far below the articulate mind and its propositional truths, into the matter of trust, surrender, and release. I prefer release because it keeps the dynamics of faith centered internally, where to trust (in) anything we must first let go and open up to what is beyond us.

Its opposite is not heresy or intellectual doubt, but anxiety – more accurately existential anxiety, a profound dis-ease concerning the nature of reality. Our nervous system is gripped with tension, skittish and hyper-reactive, which sets us up for nervous exhaustion. This anxiety is the cause of so much that goes wrong in religion.

Because faith is our trusting release to the grounding mystery of being itself, it’s not something that can be measured or manipulated. It is our spontaneous ability to surrender control, relax into being, and rest in the moment. The good news is that it’s an ability we can develop by intentional practice.

Love

We might expect that a deeply grounded faith will translate in positive ways to our relationships with others, and this is indeed the case. The ego is established in its own separate center, which suggests that reaching out for affection, intimacy, cooperation, and reconciliation is where our religion is really tested – and where many fail. A deficiency in faith (i.e., excessive anxiety) makes us suspicious of others and unable to trust them, so when they let us down as they inevitably must, our core impression of reality is confirmed. Around it goes, in a self-reinforcing loop.

Because ego-formation moves our center of personal identity into its own separate position, the real work of religion lies in caring for others, respecting their interests, understanding their needs, forgiving their faults, and helping them thrive. In short, the real work of religion is about love. We should be able to say with confidence that any religion which fails to cultivate the power of love in human relationships, even more when it arouses and justifies hostility towards others, is neither healthy nor true. This insight is what motivated Siddhartha to eschew metaphysics and Jesus to renounce orthodoxy, revealing the way of liberation as consisting in loving-kindness.

Meaning

The age of postmodernity coincides with the dawning realization that meaning is not something we find in reality, but construct for ourselves. Words are human creations, and the sentences, stories, and worldviews they make up really are made up. If there’s a crisis of meaning these days, it’s not that life has let us down but that we are doing a bad job making life meaningful.

At the highest level, our religion inspires a view of the full horizon of existence, a unified theory of how the Whole Thing moves as one. In prehistoric and ancient times such theories were dramatic narratives, which we know as myths. As we approach modern times, these stories become more mathematical than narrative in structure, and personal elements are strictly excluded. A downside of this shift from sacred stories to scientific theories is our difficulty in seeing ourselves in the bigger picture. If we reduce mind to brain, brain to body, and body to nothing but dead matter, where is the self? Where is the human spirit? How is it possible to say that we belong to the universe?

One more quick drop down to the level of faith will help us appreciate how the meaning of life is really a creative project of our shared life together, and how the quality of our relationships is directly a function of how deep and strong is our individual faith. Faith, that is to say, encourages love, and love engages us in the collaborative pursuit of meaning.

That’s when you know your religion works.

 

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Matter, Life, Spirit

Matter_Life_Spirit

One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.

Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.

One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.

But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.

One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.

Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.

I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.

As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.

This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.

Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.

In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.

This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.

We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.

 

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Mental Bypass in Religion

Intuition_Understanding_ConvictionHow did something with its origins in a mystical intuition of reality’s essential oneness become such a violent force of division in the world? If religion began as a system of symbols, rites, and sacred stories with the purpose of linking the business of daily life back to the grounding mystery of being, where did it start to lose its way and become a program of separation, deliverance, and escape from this world?

Or to make it more personal, what makes an individual who believes in ‘the god of Jesus Christ’ or in Jesus as ‘my personal Lord and Savior’ act in such ways as to utterly contradict the core teachings of Jesus himself?

That last question is probably the easiest to answer. A misalignment of Christian behavior with the teachings of Jesus most likely has to do with a difference in consciousness between Jesus and the professing (but hypocritical) follower. It’s not simply a matter of imitating the actions of Jesus or parroting his words; his words and actions manifested a certain degree of enlightenment, empathy, and courage. That’s where the difference lies. It’s not that he was god and we aren’t, or that he was perfect and none of us can be.

Very simply put, Jesus was spiritually grounded and lived his life by the mystical intuition that All is One. To phrase it with more of an ethical focus: We’re all (in) this together.

And probably most of his professing followers aren’t, and don’t.

It may have been this depth of grounding and spiritual clarity that eventually got misconstrued into the metaphysical doctrines of his heavenly origins and divine nature. At any rate, the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy went in an entirely different direction. He became a virgin-born world savior, supreme object of worship, patron of generals and kings, and the one who will eventually come again to judge the quick and the dead. This is the Jesus in whose name Christians have destroyed indigenous cultures, waged war on unbelievers, drowned witches, burned heretics, and condemned homosexuals.

An entirely different direction.

Much of religion today has become identified with emotional convictions of one kind or another. This is the type of belief sponsored by orthodoxy. It’s not about articulating a profound mystical intuition into an intellectual understanding where its relevance to life in the world can be worked out. Instead it is locked inside very specific turns of phrase, tied to proof texts, cross-referenced, embedded in confessions and creeds and recited together with the standing congregation. Its lack of relevant (real-life) meaning is compensated by a fervent passion that ‘it must be so’, since a Christian’s present identity and post-mortem salvation depend on it.

A returning reader will be familiar with my low regard for conviction, as the point where a belief once held by the mind turns the table and becomes its prison. What initially may have served to frame a perspective on something eventually closes down to just ‘this way’ of seeing it. Nothing outside the frame is validated, no alternatives can be considered, no other answers to the question or solutions to the problem. Creative thinking comes to an end. When it happens in religion, wild metaphors that may have once carried an experience of mystery across the threshold into meaning now lay dead in their cages. At this point, without a lifeline remaining to its own spiritual depths, thought becomes rigid, dogmatic, and heartless.

Emotional conviction is perhaps the chief symptom of religion’s collapse. This is not to say that Jesus himself, for example, didn’t carry a great deal of passion into his teaching and way of life. Indeed, his ethical precept of ‘love your enemy’ – which is how he translated the mystical intuition of oneness into a social revolution – generates a mixture of inspiration and anxiety in any reasonable person just contemplating it.

The point is that his passion, and his passionate action, came out of an intellectual understanding of the spiritual basis and strategic purpose of unconditional forgiveness.

We can imagine two of Jesus’ disciples, soon-to-be founders of two distinct traditions of Christianity, holding a conversation after he is gone. “We must love our enemies because Jesus told us to, and we need to stay with his program,” one says to the other. “Although, we might need to qualify what he probably meant by ‘enemy’, since there are some people in this world that are simply impossible to love and frankly don’t deserve it.”

“You’re missing the point,” says the second disciple. “Jesus could love his enemy because he understood that our separation from others is a lie we impose on reality, when in truth we are all one. Forgiveness and love follow rather spontaneously upon the realization that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. We don’t do it because Jesus told us to, but because we are all in this together.”

Whereupon the first disciple proceeded home to begin the work of orthodoxy, and the second carried on with the work of converting truth into love.

 

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Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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Curriculum Spiritus

Curriculum SpiritusIn a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.

But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.

I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.

What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.

Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).

Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.

So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.

Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.

By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.

We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.

Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.

The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.

What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.

What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?

The world would be a very different place, would it not?

 

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The Progress of Wisdom

I write this on the day after the city of Paris suffered a coordination of terrorist attacks on its citizens. Just this morning we learned that ISIS (a radical sect of Islam that seeks to establish a theocratic state) has claimed responsibility for the slaughter of 129 innocent lives (and still counting). It’s tempting to jump on the anti-Islam wagon and talk about how dangerous this religion is to our civilized security and to the future of free democracy and human rights. How it should be pushed into extinction as quickly as possible – along with all religion while we’re at it.

But I won’t. Instead I’m going to offer a very different perspective on this religion and its place in what I’ll call the progress of wisdom on our planet. We gave our species the name Homo sapiens sapiens (“very wise person”) prematurely and perhaps in denial of the catastrophic foolishness of which we are capable. Or it might have been prophetic of the direction we are evolving, which is increasingly toward a more rational, cooperative, and ethically-minded mode of being. I realize that the atrocities in Paris argue against such an optimistic view, but I should emphasize that I am not making a claim for having arrived, only that we have been evolving in this direction over the millenniums of our ascent as a species.

My second point is a bit harder to defend, which is that religion has been crucial to our advances in wisdom. Today the voice and behavior of religion tend to reinforce the growing opinion that it is a regressive force in modern culture, closing down the mind, perpetuating superstition, and putting up walls where we should be building bridges. And I agree: religion itself is frequently the most strident opponent of spiritual awakening, reluctant to validate and quick to condemn our need to transcend ritual, creed, and orthodoxy for the sake of a higher realization. But as I’ve said before, the regression and corruption of a religion (or even all religions) doesn’t automatically mean that religion itself should be rejected out of hand.

As a system for “linking back” (Latin religare) the individual to his or her community, the community to its history, its history to the cosmos, and all of it to the grounding mystery of being itself, religion has been the glue in human culture. And in its guiding fictions, known as myths, religion has provided for the contemplation of our destiny, our obligations to one another, and of our own evolving nature. Its revelations have come in stages, at precisely the times we were ready to discover more of ourselves and actualize a higher wisdom.

Once an insight was gained or a principle introduced, its transforming power didn’t always, if ever, meet with unanimous acceptance. This is where it is helpful to distinguish between the historical religions (including the history of religion) and the stream of higher wisdom that has been progressing over the millenniums. Think of it this way: as religions evolved, new ethical insights and mystical realizations were “uploaded” to a collective depository of higher consciousness that transcends each and all local cultures. Every time these insights and realizations are contemplated, taught, shared, and put into practice, that wisdom is “downloaded.” The religions exist in local time and get closer or fall farther away from these truths depending on the political intrigues, moral campaigns, or economic hardships that happen to be tying up energy. The stream of wisdom, however, is timeless.Stream of WisdomWhat is the guiding ideal to which this stream of collective spiritual wisdom leads? As I survey four of the major world religions and consider the unique “upload” of wisdom represented in each one, the answer to this question becomes obvious. Humanity is evolving in the direction of genuine community – conscious, creative, vibrant, and inclusive. The essential principles and conditions that make such community possible have already been uploaded to the stream of wisdom. It just happens that downloading activity has fallen off sharply of late, which means we are not accessing this wisdom and putting it into practice.

In choosing these four religions I am not “rejecting” others. From my study of religion, which includes a fairly exhaustive survey of the major traditions, I find that these four in particular – Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – were both originators and early outspoken witnesses of the “insights and realizations” that promote genuine community. Other religions may sound similar bells, but these voices were the first and clearest in articulating them. Let’s take them in chronological order, as suggested in the above diagram.

Covenant Fidelity

Judaism discovered and introduced the first principle of genuine community, which offered a way through the impasse caused when emotion and self-interest drive human relationships. Each individual finds pleasure in the other’s company so long as they can get along and stay in agreement. But when interests diverge and their goals fall out of alignment, or when one betrays the other or causes injury – then what? The rule of nature would likely motivate a separation, but not until the offense is redressed. And the more painful, the better.

The ethical insight of covenant fidelity places that relationship inside a system of constraints that are meant to “overrule” the impulses of emotional self-interest and retaliation. A covenant is a compromise (literally a “shared promise”) where individuals commit themselves to the health and longevity of their relationship, instead of being driven by what they get or hope to get out of each other. When disagreement, injury, or betrayal occur, the covenant holds them to their promise and exhorts their best efforts in working things out. As an ultimate aim of covenant fidelity, genuine community becomes the context for reconciliation.

It’s important to see that in Judaism’s concept of covenant fidelity, the objective is not to let wrongdoers get away with it, but neither is it the best thing to let the fur fly until the victim is fully satisfied. The rules of covenant say things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” where a punishment must fit the crime in the interest of repairing broken or strained relationships. In the normal dynamics of any partnership individuals will fall in and out of affection for each other, but faithfulness to the covenant of their relationship will keep them both oriented on a greater good.

Universal Compassion

Siddhartha Gautama took the Hindu doctrine of Brahman as the One Being in myriad manifestations and followed it all the way to its logical conclusion: If all things are manifestations of One Thing, then all things must also be connected by a sympathetic energy. For the future Buddha the implications of this mystical insight were revolutionary and far-reaching. The outcasts of his society were no less deserving of happiness than those in the highest caste, and no one is exempt from the human condition, which he compared to the chronic pain (dukha) caused by a dislocated joint.

We are all off-center and out of alignment with our proper being. Insecurities drive us to attachments that inevitably magnify suffering as they fall short of our expectations, dissolve under their own impermanence, or change without our consent. In desperation we grip down all the more, only to make our problem much worse. All of our defenses and strategies, our hopes and convictions, end up pushing us deeper into suffering. What we need is to see – really see – that our suffering is self-induced, and that all of our aggressive self-promotion is counterproductive. Making it all about “me” makes us incapable of seeing beyond ourselves to the shining truth of existence.

This understanding of ourselves, where we can acknowledge the insecurity beneath the ignorance that in turn drives the damaging ways we treat each other, can ignite in us the power of compassion – not just for ourselves but for all people. With this ethical vision of universal compassion, rooted in the mystical realization of the interconnectedness of all things, our evolutionary path to genuine community made a decisive advance.

Unconditional Forgiveness

With Christianity – or I should say with Jesus, since the Christian religion was unable to institutionalize the heart of his teaching – came the invitation to accomplish something that would neutralize, or better reverse, that one inviolable moral imperative which holds every tribe together when all else fails: hostility for the out-group. Of course, the boundary separating insider and outsider can be drawn arbitrarily as impulse dictates, which means that what we’re really talking about is how we regard and respond to “the enemy.”

Obviously our enemy doesn’t have to be over the sea or outside our borders. The ones that cause us the most distress and provoke our greatest hostility are the enemies who were formerly our friends, people we trusted but who betrayed our trust, even those we had let into our deepest confidence and most private concerns. Looking around, Jesus observed how much unrest in human relationships is due to a perceived retributive imbalance between individuals and groups. One side has “gotten away” with something, has taken more than his or her share, or caused damage that must be repaired before things can be right again. The trading back and forth of this “retributive reflex” – each side getting even with the other but perpetually throwing off the balance in the other’s mind – is what locks us in never-ending border wars.

The orthodoxy of Jesus’ day had set limits to how many times one should be obliged to forgive an offender. According to rabbinical tradition a remorseful and repenting offender ought to be forgiven as many as three times – more than that puts the guilty party’s sincerity in question. Behind this limit-setting was the conviction that an unrepentant sinner doesn’t deserve the gift of forgiveness. In fact, an unrepentant sinner (as well as the perpetually insincere penitent) deserves to be punished. Instead, Jesus counseled the radical response of unconditional forgiveness. Effectively he told his disciples to just let go and stop counting; love anyway. When the retributive reflex in our hearts is extinguished, the world around us will change.

Absolute Devotion

Now we come to the contribution of Islam. As his generation was languishing amid a stifling pluralism and moral laxity, Muhammad realized that what they were missing was a commitment to something that transcended all the temptations and distractions in the foreground. This supreme reality was the will of Allah, and to submit oneself to the will of Allah would ignite a passion and purpose that no worldly power can overcome. The Muslim’s first task, then, is to vanquish the evils of greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy in his heart, by the systematic and relentless discipline of jihad.

By “absolute” devotion we are referring to an ongoing act of full surrender to Allah’s will, not calibrated on the basis of our circumstances or conditional upon our internal motivation. Absolute literally means perfect, not mixed or adulterated, free from restriction or limitation. Allah’s will is not interpreted through anything, whether it be a holy book or even The Prophet himself. It must be desired, grasped, internalized, assimilated, and realized in the world without compromise. There is an evident danger in this idea of an absolute will, and the Muslim doctrine of the Qur’an as the inerrant word of Allah that must simply be read and obeyed has made the religion especially attractive to extremists who come to regard their own wills as beyond question or debate.

Throughout its history Islam has shown vulnerability to take-over by radical ideologies. Whoever steps into power and assumes an air of authority has been able to exploit the absolute devotion of true believers. The violence in Paris is another example of how the internal struggle of jihad can get perverted and projected outward onto “the evil other” in a kind of religious insanity.

But if we can see this principle of absolute devotion in the sequence of revelations, as whole-hearted and unwavering commitment to something beyond the individual ego, a different picture emerges. I propose that each of the four principles builds on the others, extending and deepening our understanding of what genuine community entails.

Genuine community =

an abiding faithfulness to the health and longevity of relationship (covenant fidelity)

+ a profound appreciation of our shared suffering and connectedness (universal compassion)

+ a decision to release our grievances and treat our enemy with kindness (unconditional forgiveness)

+ a relentless pursuit of its realization on earth (absolute devotion)

The stream of wisdom is the property of no single religion or culture; it is ours collectively as a species. Homo sapiens sapiens.

Commence with the download!

 

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