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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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The Gravity and Glory of Existence

What is the meaning of Easter?

Is it just about someone who died nearly two thousand years ago and came back to life? For almost half its history, Christianity celebrated Easter as its principal message to the world. As the Middle Ages dawned, however, the focus shifted to the Atonement where Jesus was supposed to have accomplished his world-saving work. Since then, Easter has been the ups y-daisy to Good Friday’s (only apparent) tragedy.

Just look at the difference in iconography between the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Latin) traditions. In the former, Jesus is risen, radiant, and very alive, while in the latter he hangs on his cross, gaunt, emaciated, and dead. And even though the Protestant churches replaced the Catholic crucifix with an empty cross, the centrality of Jesus’ sacrificial death continued into the Reformation. Consequently, the narrative of Easter has been interpreted as God’s “Yes” (on Sunday) to the world’s “No” (on Good Friday) – a great reversal where the humiliation of the cross was trumped by the glory of resurrection, ascension, and celestial coronation (as depicted in so much late-medieval and Renaissance art).

My frustration has to do with how this focus on Good Friday and Easter as events in the career of Jesus, while presumably benefiting the world by extension, keeps them back there in history and locked inside a literal Bible. Perhaps our invention of the literal Bible – of a Bible that must be taken literally – is more a political tactic designed to protect our possession of truth against competitors, heretics, and potential converts, than it is out of reverence for the Holy Question at the heart of existence which it seeks to answer across its pages.

Religion is not principally about the supernatural, immortality, or getting to heaven. It begins (or once began) in the realization that human existence is not entirely enclosed by nature and instinct, but stands rather as an open question that subsequently gets worked out (but never finally satisfied) in our quest for belonging, identity, and purpose. This open question calls to us from a beyond within ourselves and asks “Why am I here?” – the primitive and mystical origin of the later philosophical conundrum “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Religion, then, is the more or less systematic way that this question of existence – this Holy Question – is answered. We call it holy because it has the character and feel of otherness, of addressing us from elsewhere. Perhaps because it is so relentless and restless, refusing to leave us alone, human beings universally have acknowledged it as “Thou.” Significantly, in our Bible the recurring word “repent” refers to a turn in response to being called.

Everything in religion, from its symbolism and mythology (sacred stories), to its rituals and devotional practices, is in effect an elaborate answer to this Holy Question of why I am here, why you are here, why are we here together. Where do we belong? How are we related? What are we here to do?

Even our theological construct of God as the supreme being who created the universe, watches over us, puts expectations on us and holds us accountable, is a projected personification of what human beings have believed to stand on the sending side of the Holy Question.

So when I contemplate the story of Easter, I want to listen for how it answers the question “Why am I here?” I won’t be distracted by the popular, and as I said, very modern assumption that the truth of the story is reducible to historical events – supernatural interventions and miracles purported to have happened long ago. There’s no need to trade our twenty-first century cosmology (theory of the universe) for the first-century cosmology assumed by the Gospel writers, where the up-and-down traffic between earth, heaven, and the underworld presented a perfectly acceptable plot for sacred story.

Since it’s not concerned with describing objective events, I don’t need to leave my intellect at the door before entering the imaginarium of myth.

With the Easter story, as in any sacred myth, we need to stay observant for those epiphanies at the surface where something more is being said or shown. Such locations are marked by images, metaphors, and archetypes that, as it were, pivot the axis of meaning from the horizontal plane of the narrative plot in order to engage deeper (or higher) dimensions. This is where we find an answer to the Holy Question, and if we stay engaged at this level, without allowing the metaphor to flatten out and lose its power, we stand a chance of being confronted and grasped by a profound truth.

For me, there is one image in the Easter story that speaks in this way. It’s not the empty tomb or the angels or even the appearance of the risen Jesus to early morning visitors. Actually, it is an appearance of Jesus, but one that happens on Easter evening among the company of disciples who had closed themselves inside a locked room out of fear that the authorities might come looking for them next.

Only the Third and Fourth Gospels (Luke and John) include this epiphany – this archetypal answer to the Holy Question “Why am I here?” – so it either originated with Luke (who wrote earlier) and was adapted by John, or it was circulating in some early Christian source outside them both.

So there stands Jesus, probably in his skivvies or buck naked. (He had been stripped of his clothes while hanging on the cross, and, according to John, the linen cloths that some women had used in his funerary preparation on Friday evening were found neatly folded inside his burial cave Sunday morning.) “Relax, it’s okay” – or “Peace be with you,” he says to his friends. And then …

Gravity_GloryAnd then the risen Jesus holds out his hands and feet, bearing the wounds of crucifixion where spikes had been driven through into wood. (In John’s version he also shows them the gash in his side where a Roman spear had confirmed his death.) The wounds of a dead man borne in the body of a living man.

That’s the image, the answer to the Holy Question. It’s presented in the myth as an ironic metaphor, one that contains a contradiction (a living dead man) and holds open an irreconcilable paradox.

If Jesus is The Archetypal Man in early Christian mythology – and this is clearly the case as the apostle Paul pointed out many times in his writings (which predate the Gospels) – then in this particular story he is representing all of us; or more poignantly, each of us.

A human being is both subject to the gravity of existence and the bearer of its glory.

During his brief public ministry, Jesus had demonstrated deep compassion for those afflicted under the grind of abject poverty, chronic pain, spiritual emptiness, and political oppression. Instead of preaching to them of pie in the sky or training them in techniques of meditative detachment, he got down into their suffering with them and did what he could to help them out. (The stories of miracle healings, which all the Gospels employ in their portraits of Jesus, carry this memory of how Jesus stepped into the suffering of others with caring support and saved them from despair.)

In addition to taking on the human condition evident in the afflictions of others, Jesus was remembered by the way he accepted – but not merely in a passive mode; rather, how he embraced – his own mortality, especially with the growing prospect of a violent death on his horizon. His challenge to the disciples to “take up your cross,” even if the overt reference to crucifixion was a gloss added later by storytellers, expresses an understanding that commitment to human solidarity and liberation will likely land one in trouble with authorities.

And Rome loved its crosses.

In the face of death, Jesus didn’t back down. As the political and religious heat grew around his notoriety and it was clear there would be no way out, he remained steadfast and resolute in his vision of a world free of bigotry, dogmatism, violence, and fear. True enough, he died for his belief – but more importantly, for the way he demonstrated his belief in action.

Perhaps at first, in the period of time represented in the story as a sabbath of sorrow when all hope seemed lost, Jesus’ vision was regarded a failure.

At some point, however – and again, a three-day event cycle in the narrative probably conveys the meaning of complete transformation, as it still does in contemporary fiction and film – someone in the company of mourners remembered the character of their leader as one who had lived a compassionate, brave, and authentically human life. Upon reflection, he had shown them how to combine grace and courage, passion and humility, how to live like you’re dying.

This is where I think the Holy Question surfaced in the consciousness of Jesus’ bereaved disciples. “Why am I here?” The gravity and glory of human existence had been paradoxically revealed in Jesus, and the ironic metaphor of him standing there in their midst – a living dead man, a man who answered the Holy Question by living fully into his death – ignited their hearts and started a revolution.

Just before he leaves them, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Now it’s your turn.”

That’s what Easter means to me.

 

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The Seduction of Identity

ParadigmsThe average person is obsessed with identity. We come through childhood with all the instructions and labels that have been put on us by our tribe, and we can spend our entire adulthood trying to justify and live up to them, reverse them and prove them wrong, or we simply allow these programs to push us along without much self-awareness. It could also be said that the average person is tormented by this obsession, since there really is no way of breaking free.

Conventional culture and religion have accommodated this ego fixation. We invest more and more in protecting the security of who we are, and the whole “meaning of life” has become for many the hopeful prospect of securing immortality in heaven when they die. Theism – the belief that (an) identity stands apart from and above reality as its maker and manager – both reflects and reinforces this preference of glorifying ego as our highest concern.

As a product of “social engineering,” the ego of personal identity is shaped and directed in ways that promote the collective identity of our tribe. This is not necessarily conducted with intention, but rather insinuates itself into the more or less automatic routines of parenting, education, politics and civil law. We are told to be “good” children, “good” Americans, “good” Christians – which means compliant with the tribal structures of family, nation, and religion. To be out of compliance (naughty, criminal, heretical) is to risk the forfeiture of our identity, and by extension the culturally supported meaning of life.

To either side of this narrow ridge of personal identity (as illustrated above) are two distinct paradigms for answering a more philosophically interesting question: not who you are as a person, but what you are as a human being. These two paradigms – which we can call “science” and “spirituality” – are not necessarily competing frameworks of research and explanation, despite the fact that they are popularly regarded as such. The real tension, however, is between the cult of identity and the paradigms on either side.

Science

According to the scientific paradigm, ego (personal identity) is not an object of study in and of itself. Because the ego cannot be dislodged from the multiple lines of social influence that define it, science treats it as a byproduct (technically an epiphenomenon) of something else rather than a separate existence in its own right. Social science has made great progress in seeing the ego as a nexus of cultural meaning and social control, interpreting personal identity as a function of its environmental (tribal) context.

In addition to expanding out into the cultural context for an understanding of what a human being is, science is also investigating the biophysical foundations of personality. Ego can be analyzed into the conflict between the instructions of society and the animal impulses of the body, as Freud did. It might also be broken down into genetic and temperamental factors determining an individual’s mental order and orientation. Drug therapy is a treatment protocol based on this notion of identity (personality, ego, and mental health) as a secondary effect of the physical conditions underlying it.

For the fun of it, I’m going to make up a word and say that science (all science) is the empirical quest for the “componence” of things. Everything that exists has a “componential” nature, which is simply to say that it is a component (part) in a larger order and is itself made up of smaller and deeper components that might be further analyzed. Because there are no egos that exist apart from bodies, science proceeds on its commitment to explain personal identity in terms of the body – its deeper componence as well as its participation as a component in the social system.

As you would expect, devotees in the cult of identity criticize science as “impersonal” (which it can be) and on an offensive campaign to undermine religion (which it isn’t). The problem, of course, is that because popular religion has taken on the immortality project of the ego as its driving mission, the scientific challenge to the belief in a metaphysical and everlasting center of identity is rightly regarded as a threat.

Spirituality

Just like science, spirituality seeks to understand and celebrate what it is to be human. Although there are teachers and esoteric schools that capitalize on our disillusionment with popular religion, they typically take up the immortality project and merely cast it under another set of metaphysical claims. This might amount to a return to paleolithic rituals, ancient secrets, and exotic doctrines, but it remains organized around the disguised status of the believer as divine and destined for higher planes of bliss.

My use of the term spirituality is not in reference to special revelation or the supernatural. Like science, spirituality is a quest for what is really real. If it begins this quest from the position of identity, spirituality quickly leaves behind the obsessions and ambitions that captivate the ego. Instead of proceeding in a biophysical direction, however, it moves along a psychospiritual (and transpersonal) path of investigation, exploring the threshold between individual self-consciousness and the provident reality to which it belongs.

Recent efforts in psychotherapy have managed to bring the topic of spirituality and religion back into the clinical conversation. Religious values and beliefs are recognized once again as important to the mental health of some clients. The emerging therapeutic models, though, are mostly classical theories of the mid-twentieth century with an “annex” of spiritually-oriented strategies attached – just in case.

Again, spirituality (and science) asks not “who” you are, but “what” you are. What is a human being? A characteristically “spiritual” phrasing of the question might be: What is the nature of being in its manifestation as a human. This is the question of essence (from the Greek esse, being).

Being doesn’t merely name the fact of existence, but refers to the act of existing (from the Greek existere, to stand out). The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich translated it as “the power to be” or being-itself. As a human being you stand out, just as you are. Instead of digging into your componential nature as science will do, spirituality takes you as “just this” – not something else, and nothing less than the present mystery of reality.

As a human manifestation of being, your existence isn’t a final term, however, for you share this power-to-be with other manifestations, human and nonhuman. If you are a manifestation of being in human form, and that thing over there is a manifestation of being in (horse, tree, rock, cup, cloud,               ) form, then what is this power manifesting as you both? Spirituality names it “ground” or “the ground of being.”

This power is nowhere other than in its manifestations. But it is more than any single manifestation simply because it exists or “stands out” over there as well. Reality is present here in human form as you, and it is present over there in another form. I’m putting an accent on this matter of location (here and there) because existence is always situated somewhere. The ego may seek to escape here-and-now for something better elsewhere or later on, whereas the soul seeks communion with the present mystery of reality.

In contrast to ego religion and its otherworldly aspirations, spirituality engages the present situation with full attention and total freedom. It doesn’t crave to be anywhere else or hide from the accidents and conditions of mortality. Trouble, affliction, and bereavement will come, but your faith in the provident support of reality in this moment enables you to be present in the situation with generosity, compassion, and gratitude. It’s not that you do nothing, but that you bring the full force of your soul (Ghandi’s satyagraha) to the challenge at hand.

As we would expect, the cult of identity is suspicious of spirituality as well. Nothing good can come from setting aside your petty agendas, nervous attachments, and ulterior motives – can it? Life will lose its meaning if you take a deep breath and open up to the real presence of mystery – right? If the human adventure isn’t really about getting somewhere else later on, then all we’re left with is … this!

Breakthrough.

 

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