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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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