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God Above and The Ground of Being

It’s interesting how the evolution of life, the development of a species, and the maturation of individuals within a species all tend to proceed from simpler to more complex forms and stages of existence. The human embryo carries vestigial gills and a tail from our prehuman ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar fashion, children grow into mental abilities following the same sequence as our species over many thousands of years. What we see at one level (life, species, individual) is evident in the other levels as well.

Culture is the construction zone where the degree of advancement in our human species gets transmitted from individual-level breakthroughs, into the collective consciousness of society, and back again to the individual in the form of innovations in the traditional way of life.

In the interest of social cohesion and stability, a preferred path of change would be able to keep some of what has been (as tradition), as it moves forward into what will be. The role of institutions can be understood in this sense, as conservative and stabilizing structures in the flow of cultural change. The very definition of religion, from the Latin religare meaning “to connect or tie back,” identifies it as an institution in this sense – indeed as the conservative and stabilizing structure in culture.

When the European Enlightenment got the intelligentsia excited about the possibility of throwing off the superstitions of the past to embrace a future of science, religion was the obvious and easy target. Without a doubt, there was much about the institution of Christendom that wouldn’t listen and constructively respond to new discoveries and developments going on at the ground level of human experience.

As the official Church condemned new theories and excommunicated the brave souls who dared contradict its now-archaic orthodoxy, the best (and perhaps the only) recourse for many was to simply push the whole outfit into the ditch and move on with progress. The modern West turned its attention to factual evidence and the technical possibilities of this world, content to leave spirituality, religion, and God Above in an early chapter of its new autobiography: The Enlightened Man’s Emancipation from Ignorance and Myth.

The Christianity we all know (and fewer of us love) is a type of religion known as theism, for the way it is oriented on and organized around the belief in a supreme being who is large and in charge. Our fortunate birth and prosperity in this life, followed (hopefully, if we get it right) by beatitude in the hereafter, is our Pilgrim’s Progress supervised by God Above.

We happen to be living in the twilight of theism, during a late phase known as orthodoxy. At this point it is primarily about believing the right things, and doing whatever it takes to defend and propagate “the one true faith” around the world. By now, for a large majority of Christian true believers, the present mystery (we can even call it the real presence) of God has receded permanently behind something much more pressing and important – and manageable: the right opinion (ortho+doxa) about God.

At the end of the day it’s all a very heady enterprise and increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. People are leaving the Church in droves, with the Enlightenment campaign of atheism once again on the rise. As a counter-measure, the engines of orthodoxy are locking into gear and plowing full steam ahead, until Jesus comes again or all hell breaks loose (rumor has it these might be the same event).

Fundamentalists, ultra-conservatives, and right-wing evangelicals are certainly not helping their cause, as bright and reasonable people who continue their quest for a grounded, connected, and personally relevant spiritual life are leaving the crazies to their end-game.

I spend more time than I would like trying to explain how the impulse to cast theism out with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic and dysfunctional religion, while certainly understandable to some extent, is not the real solution to our problem. For one thing, the theistic paradigm and its role in society should not be simply identified with any of its historical incarnations.

In other words, a corrupt version of theism is not necessarily a reason to reject theism itself outright. It happens that every institution is prone to desperate measures when threatened by the natural course of change. In this way, an institution is the cultural equivalent of an individual ego – a conservative and stabilizing construct of identity that resists becoming what it isn’t used to being.

What follows is a perspective on theistic religion, exploring its development through distinct phases starting with its rise out of animism and following through its twilight into post-theistic forms of spirituality. My model for this developmental schema is not only based in the evidence of archaeology, but, just as important and even more useful, on the phases stretching from early childhood to maturity in the living individual today.

Evolution of ReligionEarliest theism, just like early childhood, was lived in a world constructed of stories. There was no obvious boundary separating “fact” from “fiction,” the given facts of reality from the make-believe of fantasy. Theism was born in mythology (from the Greek mythos referring to a narrative plot, which is the structural arch that serves as the unifying spine of a story).

Its gods began as literary figures personifying the causal agencies behind the order and change of the sensory-physical realm. Myths were not regarded as explanations of reality (as a kind of primitive science), but instead were performances of meaning that conjured the gods into being with each rendition.

It’s difficult to appreciate or understand this phenomenon as we try to grasp it with adult minds, but perhaps you can remember how it was for you back then. The fantasy world of myth doesn’t merely fade into the metaphysical background when the story concludes. Rather, that world exists only in the myth and is called into expression every time the myth is performed afresh.

We modern adults entertain a delusion which assumes the persistence of reality in the way we imagine it to be, even when our stories (at this later stage known as theories) aren’t actively spinning in our minds. The paradigm-stretching frontier of quantum physics is confirming how mistaken this assumption is, and how much we really understood (though perhaps not consciously) as children.

At some point in late childhood and early adolescence the individual recognizes that real life requires an adjustment from imaginary friends, magical time warps, and free-spirited performances of backyard fantasy, to the daily grind of household chores and lesson plans.

A more complex and complicated social experience means that opportunities for reigniting the creative imagination must be “staged,” that is, relegated to a consecrated time and location that will be relatively free of interruptions. Here, in this sacred space, the stories will be recited; but in view of limited time, only the major scenes and signature events are called to mind.

The required investment of time, attention, and energy in social responsibilities will not return the degree of enchantment and inspiration an individual needs to be happy. There needs to be a place for mythic performance and reconnecting with the grounding mystery. Besides, the mythological god can’t be left hanging in suspended narrative when it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

Theism had to adapt along with this emerging division between sacred and secular (temporal, daily) concerns. It did this by creating a special precinct where the majority could enter and observe an ordained minority dress up, recite the stories, and enact mythic events linking their broken time (divided and parsed out among countless duties) back to the deep time of an eternal (timeless) life.

Just as the holy precinct of ceremony served to connect a profane existence “outside the temple” (Latin profanus) to the sacred stories that weaved a tapestry of higher meaning, the god who originally lived in those stories was relocated to a supernatural realm overhead, standing by and watching over the business below. Even if the stories weren’t actively spinning, people could take comfort in knowing (technically believing) that he was in his place and doing his job.

On a designated day the community gathered in the temple, and at just the right moment an official would sound a bell, light a candle, unveil an icon, or recite a scripted prayer invoking (calling in) the presence of the god. At that very moment, all were in agreement (at least those paying attention) that the deity would descend from his abode in heaven and receive their worship.

A ritual enactment of sacred story would typically culminate at a point where the congregation was invited to step into deep time once again. Afterwards a signal was given bringing the ceremony to an end, and the people would depart to their workaday worlds.

With a growing population and the inevitable pluralism that comes with it, getting to the chapel on time becomes more of a challenge for a lot of people. How can theism survive when the ceremonies and sacred performances start losing attendance? What happens when god above no longer has an official invitation to condescend to the supplications of his gathered assembly of devotees?

This is what happens: former true believers give up their denominational affiliation and do their best to continue on their own. They will still look up when they speak of god, point to heaven and cross themselves when they score a goal, and perhaps bow their heads and say a prayer before breakfast.

Once in a while they might make their way back to the chapel (maybe on time) to observe a performance of one of the really big stories. As they watch, a dim memory of childhood enchantment will stir somewhere deep inside them and they will feel the magic once more.

How can theism hold on when its ceremonial system – the land and buildings, the gold-plated symbols and silken vestments, the professional staff of ordained ministers, and the hard-won market share of rapidly defecting souls – is sliding into obsolescence and bankruptcy? The answer brings us to the third and final phase in the lifespan of theism, the twilight of institutionalized religion known as orthodoxy.

The enchanted storytelling of early childhood gives way to staged ceremony in young adulthood, which in turn and with further reduction eventually gets packaged up into neat boxes of truth called doctrines. An obvious advantage of this reduction of theism to doctrines lies in its handy portability, in the way it can be carried conveniently inside the head and transferred into more heads by rote memorization and Sunday School curricula.

If the first phase of theism (storytelling) featured the bard, and the second phase (ceremony) depended on the mediation of priests, this third phase (orthodoxy) belongs to the theologians. They are the experts who tell us what to believe about god and other metaphysical things.

Since theism at this point has become a rather sophisticated set of beliefs, the best (and perhaps only) way to impress their importance on its members is to make the doctrines necessary to what more and more people are lacking and so desperately looking for: security and longevity – specifically that odd fusion of security and longevity defined in the doctrine of everlasting life.

As time goes on, this notion of a future escape from a life burdened by fatigue, boredom, and absurdity grows more attractive, until the true believer is willing to give up everything – or, if necessary, to destroy everything – for its sake.

In the Age of Orthodoxy people still speak of the god above, of the miracles of long ago, or of a coming apocalypse and future rapture of the saints, but you’ll notice that the critical point of reference is consistently outside the present world. Celebrity hucksters and pulpiteers try to fill the vacuum with staged demonstrations of “faith healing” and prophetic clairvoyance, but the inspiration is cheap and unsatisfying. Mega-churches and sports stadiums become personality cults centered on the success, charisma, theatrics, and alluring ideal of their alpha leaders.

In a sense, this transformation of old-style sermon auditions into entertaining religious theater represents a final attempt of theism to push back the coming night. There’s no getting around the fact that orthodoxy just isn’t that interesting, and as it rapidly loses currency in the marketplace of relevant concerns, more and more people are saying good-bye to church, to organized religion and its god-in-a-box.

As a cultural transition, the crossover from managed religion to something more experiential and inwardly grounded corresponds to that phase for the individual, when a deeper thirst for life in its fullness forces him or her to push back from the table of conventional orthodoxy and its bland concoction of spiritual sedatives.

In the twilight of theism, people are starting to give voice to their doubts, but also, increasingly, to their questions, their long-buried intuitions, and their rising new-world aspirations. They want more than anything to be real, to be fully present, and deeply engaged in life with creative authority.

This inward turn is the critical move of post-theism. It’s not about pulling down orthodoxy or refuting its god, but rather simply letting go and quietly sinking into being. Quietly is a reminder that words at this point are like hooks that can snag and slow one’s descent, running the risk of turning even this into another religion with its own esoteric orthodoxy.

The ego and its constructed word-world of meaning need to be left behind so that consciousness can softly settle into the still center of contemplative awareness. Here all is one. There is only this.

Here is born (or reborn) that singular insight which inspired us to tell stories in the first place. Now, perhaps, with a lifetime of experience and some wisdom in our bones, we can tell new stories.

It’s always been and will always be here and now.

 

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Lost in The Message

Present Mystery FullWhat’s your message? What philosophy of life – theories, beliefs, values, and aims – do you live by? Each of us has a message, a personalized interpretation of what life is about, what really matters. Some of us are more consistent in the way we put our philosophy of life into practice, and some philosophies of life are more thoughtfully composed than others. But we all have one – or I should say, each of us has one, which means that all of us taken together represent billions of different messages concerning the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, the meaning of life, and how we ought to live.

If we shift focus from individuals to societies, we can see that entire groups of people are characterized by the messages of their respective traditions. There’s a Christian message and a Buddhist message, and inside each we will find variations on the principal message: Roman Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical or Progressive Christian; Mahayana, Theravada, Zen or Pure Land Buddhist. These group-level distinctions are more numerous than you might first expect, and the variations on a message will multiply exponentially the deeper we look, until, once again, we find ourselves face-to-face with this individual Christian or that individual Buddhist (or whatever brand of message we happen to be considering).

Any message (at whatever level) can only speak out of the range of experiences informing it. No human being can hold everything inside his or her frame of reference, and even when we adopt someone else’s message into our own, we are unable to escape the limitations inherent to just having a perspective. Some cultural messages, like the religions mentioned a moment ago, claim that their perspective on reality was revealed to them by someone who did (or does) in fact comprehend everything in a limitless perspective, which is a contradiction supernaturally transcended in this case.

But you have only to study it in closer detail to discover that their so-called revealed message carries assumptions about the universe that are millenniums out of date, along with ethical values and directives that today many regard as barbaric at best. Even if their message once had the mystique of encompassing all of reality, it’s obvious now that it cannot – and didn’t back then, either.

So all of us carry messages that articulate a philosophy of life, conclusions and conjectures that orient us meaningfully in reality. My message is not exactly the same as yours by virtue of our different backgrounds, histories, situations and personalities (to use very broad categories). And neither of us holds the same philosophy of life today as we did, say, ten years ago. The slow process of maturity changes us, and along the way we come upon opportunities, suffer losses, and learn things that our former self could not have imagined or wished for.Present Mystery 3So many messages, so many different philosophies of life might inspire a more thoughtful exploration of meaning, if only we could get past the outer orbit where we all are promoting our messages as the best or only right one. But let’s say for now that we can. If there are so many variants in how human beings interpret reality and make sense of things, what can be said about the nature of meaning itself? If you have yours and I have mine, then at least we should be able to agree that meaning is more complex than our divergent messages would have us believe.

Indeed, the “meaning of life” that each of us is busy constructing is incapable of being reduced to a publishable message. There is just too much information, too many angles and perspectives, too many different ways of arranging and connecting the countless points of human experience, to break it all down into a single exhaustive philosophy of life. If we can step deeper into the complexity of what we might dare call THE human experience, we have to be willing to leave behind the either/or logic of competing messages and develop a tolerance for paradox.

It is possible that your message and mine are two legitimate spins on the meaning of life, constructed out of two distinct vantage points on the present mystery of reality and generated out of experiences that are deep-down unique according to the specific conditions that make us two different individuals. Our competing messages or philosophies of life may be irreconcilable, but perhaps all our efforts at negotiating a total agreement or eliminating our competition are fundamentally misguided. We are finally coming to understand that our ambition for one supreme and absolute message will most likely lead to our collective extinction.

Meaning, then, has to do with the haphazard and more intentionally systematic ways that human beings select from the moving stream of experience those sensations, impressions, and patterns that correspond to the apparatus of our nature as sentient beings. We “tune into” reality along frequencies matching our human needs for safety, nourishment, intimacy, identity, freedom, purpose and significance. It’s that last (and highest) need, for significance, which drives our incessant activity of meaning-making: constructing a “world” and composing a philosophy of life (our message) that will orient us meaningfully in reality.Present Mystery 2The construction of meaning begins in the act of reflecting on experience and forming a mental image that depicts it internally to the mind. As we would expect, the images which first ascend into consciousness are generated out of the primary experiences of being in the provident garden of our mother’s womb, falling out of union and pressed through a narrow passage into exile, thereafter compelled by the pang of need to find the sustenance, protection, and warm bonds of security that will ensure our survival.

The entire drama of birth is preserved in this way, as powerful archetypal impressions coded into our subconscious memory. These reflex images continue to serve as primal templates for what concerns us existentially as human beings; they are foundation for everything else we construct “higher up” in the configuration of meaning called our world. (I’ll refer the reader to the work of Stanislav Grof for more on that topic.)

Because they provide this bridge from direct and spontaneous experience into the organized construction site of our world, these reflex images are known as metaphors (from meta, across + phorein, to carry). Not to be confused with the similes and analogies by which we compare and make sense of things we know in other ways, metaphors operate as grounding for language, anchors that tie our otherwise free-floating world systems to the present mystery of reality. When they are engaged (typically at deep intuitive levels), these images draw consciousness down to its source. Rather than representing something (some thing) external to the mind, an archetypal metaphor is a “dark depiction” of our own essential ground.

And what is this ground exactly? We can’t say, for the simple reason that its reality as the ground of being is deeper than words can reach. Once the threshold between meaning and mystery is crossed, in the direct and spontaneous experience of reality, we leave meaning behind and enter the ineffable presence of being-in-the-moment. Not a being, but being-itself.Present Mystery 1This is where everything begins – not in the once-upon-a-time sense of begin, but as the timeless source of your existence in each moment. The present mystery of reality, which might also be named the Real Presence of Mystery, is evident all around you in its countless manifestations. As one of these manifestations of the present mystery, you also have the opportunity to descend through the interior of your own being, into deeper and deeper registers of contemplative experience until, releasing the last (which were really the first) forms of self-definition, awareness breaks through to … this.

We can review the long history of religion as the pouring-forth of mystery into meaning, and meaning into the numerous messages or philosophies of life encircling our planet today. With so many parties and denominations calling at us to join in agreement and have a seat in the sanctuary, more people than ever before are feeling lost in the message. So much of it leaves us baffled, but also slightly offended at the demand that we distrust ourselves and let someone else do our thinking for us.

More people now than ever are seeking to push through the mob of placards and pickets, ready even to drop their own heart-crossed creeds in the quest for a deeper truth. Because they are straining against the outflow of world construction that’s been going on for many generations, the effort and intention of these seekers is interpreted by the custodians of orthodoxy as defiance, disobedience, and rebellion. But they are not interested in anarchy. They aren’t promoting atheism or dabbling in New Age superstitions.

What they seek is Real Presence – in themselves, in their relationships and communities, in the way they live on the earth. For all I know, you may be one of them.

 

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God Beyond Belief

In his popular lectures on the topic, Joseph Campbell would frequently start out with a definition of mythology as “other people’s religion.” Curiously the assumption of insiders is that the depiction of their god in the sacred stories of scripture came by supernatural revelation, while stories of other deities outside their tradition are quickly dismissed as just mythology.

A purely objective consideration of myth across the religions will not be able to distinguish which stories were “revealed” (by god) and which were “produced” (by humans). The god of our Bible is not less violent or more merciful than gods we can find in stories elsewhere. But even in the polytheistic age of the Bible when other gods were acknowledged if not honored and worshiped, we find this tendency to regard other people’s religion as generated out of ignorance rather than by illumination.

So let’s stay with the Bible for now, and ask why so many believe in the existence of Yahweh*, the patron deity of Jews and Christians. The popular assumption, once again, is that they believe in Yahweh’s existence because the Bible (the principal resource of Judeo-Christian mythology) contains historical accounts and eye-witness reports (encounters, sightings, and auditions) of the deity. Yahweh created the cosmos, liberated the Hebrews from Egypt, revealed himself to the prophets, and sent his son for our salvation. These things are taken and accepted as facts – historical, objective, and supernaturally validated.

Creation

What I’m calling the supernatural validation of biblical stories can be analyzed into three closely related but independent claims. First, the Bible is an inerrant resource for our knowledge of Yahweh. Every word – or in a softer variant of the inerrancy doctrine, the intention behind every word – is the revelation of Yahweh to those he elects to save. To prove Yahweh’s existence by appealing to the Bible as his infallible revelation to us is an argument of obvious circularity, so we hasten on to the next claim, which is that the Bible records literal accounts of Yahweh’s self-revelation to people much like us.

This is how to escape the fatal circularity of the inerrant Bible argument: Because the stories of the Bible are factual reports of events in history, however miraculous and supernatural, the real anchor for our knowledge of Yahweh’s existence and character is human experience. Prophets and visionaries, but also average folks like you and me, were granted the privilege of divine visitations and apocalyptic visions. They were actual witnesses; their accounts were taken down with perfect accuracy and provide us with what we know about Yahweh. If the biblical stories were not grounded in actual events outside the Bible, they would be nothing more than … well, myths.

Even with that critical move, however, believers are still on shaky ground, for how can we know that these historical “revelations” were not really hallucinations of something that wasn’t there? So-called ecstatic experiences (e.g., clairvoyance, glossolalia, out-of-body experiences, “hearing voices”) are observed among patients in mental clinics and state hospitals around the world today. I suppose it could be argued that these are the true charismatics of our age, though tragically misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed. But who’s to say that those visionaries behind the Bible were not mistaken or mentally disturbed?

To answer – and effectively silence – this question, the third and final claim for the supernatural validation of our knowledge of Yahweh is that these visionaries didn’t just “see things,” but that he showed himself directly to them. Authorization for the orthodox doctrines concerning god’s nature, character, attributes and accomplishments therefore transcends both the Bible and human experience.Ascension

The argument is thus that (1) Yahweh exists (out there as a separate being) and (2) revealed himself to people much like us, who then (3) recorded their experiences and facts about Yahweh in the inerrant resource of our Bible. Even though Yahweh isn’t speaking out of burning bushes, parting water, multiplying loaves, or raising dead people back to life anymore, the faith of a contemporary true believer is measured by how willing he or she is to simply trust that the same deity is out there, watching over us, and getting ready to ring down the curtain on history.

But what if Yahweh doesn’t exist – and by “exist” I mean out there as a separate entity, “above nature” (supernatural) and metaphysically real? What if no one has ever encountered this deity in the realm of actual human experience? What if the Bible isn’t a factual record of extraordinary encounters and miraculous interventions?

What if, that is to say, Yahweh is a literary character, the principal actor and prime mover in the collection of stories that shaped the worldview of Jews and Christians – but not a literal being?

Of course there are people today who claim to have had personal experiences of the biblical deity – or any number of countless other gods and goddesses, spirit guides, angelic or demonic beings, fairies and departed souls. Perhaps because we want to hold open the possibility of higher dimensions to existence, or because we can’t conclusively disprove their reality, or maybe we don’t want to come across as judgmental, simple-minded or faithless, we let the popular discourse continue unchecked. Who knows, but perhaps these individuals are genuinely gifted. Could they be seeing and hearing things from which our ignorance or skepticism prevents us?

Someone has to say it, so I will: No.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the existence of independent realities outside the sensory-physical universe – was the inevitable consequence of mythological literalism. When the myths lost their tether to sacramental celebration, ritual reenactment, and the contemplation of mystery, they floated up and away from daily life to become “timeless” accounts, ancient records, and long-lost revelations. But before they were taken literally, while they were still serving as drama-poetic expressions of experience and the narrative structure of meaning, myths were fictional plots bearing the life-orienting metaphors on which human security, community, and the shared search for significance depend.

The stories of the Bible are indeed myths (from the Greek mythos, a narrative plot), not to be taken literally but engaged imaginatively. Much of the worldview they promote and assume is out of date with respect to our current science, politics, ethics, and spirituality. At the time of their composition, the biblical myths were very similar to those of other tribes and traditions, but with Yahweh (rather than some other deity) as the metaphor of the community’s dependency on the earth, its place among the nations, its origins and destiny, and its moral obligations.

As human culture evolved, so did Yahweh. Indeed, one of the principal functions of a deity is to model (in example and command) the preferred behavior of his or her devotees. The storyteller is sometimes at the leading edge of this evolution, as when a minority voice among the prophets began representing Yahweh as unimpressed (even offended) by the sacrificial worship of his people, demanding instead their care for widows, material help for the poor, and inclusion of the marginalized. Later, Jesus of Nazareth gave the wheel of evolution another turn when he began to tell stories of Yahweh’s unconditional forgiveness of sinners (love for the enemy).

At other times, those telling the stories and thereby controlling theology were motivated by less noble, even base and violent impulses. Yahweh’s wrath and vengeance as represented in the myths subsequently provoked and justified similar behavior in his devotees. Depending on what you are looking to justify in yourself or get others to do, chances are you’ll find Yahweh endorsing it somewhere in the Bible.

I’ve defined myths as fictional plots bearing life-orienting metaphors and shaping our view of reality, with the deity chief among these metaphors. Rather than looking outside the stories for facts that might establish their truth, I’m arguing that we need to look deeper inside the stories to the human experience of mystery and our quest for meaning that inspired them.

Theism insists on the objective existence of god, while atheism rejects it. Post-theism is our growing awareness that the argument, one way or the other, just might be distracting us from the real challenge at hand.

                                                                               

*In reading the name Yahweh, and throughout the continuing scriptural tradition, a title (Adonai, The Lord) was used in its place as an expression of reverence.

 
 

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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.

Chakra_tree

The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-ku), proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?

 
 

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Life in Perfect Freedom

Recently in my blog bibletracts (bibletracts.wordpress.com) I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.

Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.

But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?

The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.

Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?

That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-f3), I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.

Architecture of Meaning

Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.

As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.

But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.

Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.

As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?

A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).

The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.

Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).

The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.

In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (metaphorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.

Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to  orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.

Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.

In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.

But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.

This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.

 

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Check-point: The Future of Religion

Today, as the living stream of spiritual life grows increasingly frustrated behind the rigid walls of conventional religion, more and more people are looking for a way through. While a large number keep this struggle to themselves, willing to accept the problem of relevancy as a fault of their own, others are beginning to speak out.

Many are leaving church on their own accord; others are being asked to leave.

Of course, similar things have happened throughout Church history: revivals, protests, and reformations are how religion stays current and meaningful in changing times. For the most part, orthodoxy has managed to accommodate our spiritual development, translating age-old doctrines and philosophical assumptions into present-day convictions.

Until recently, that is.

As church leaders experiment with new technologies and orchestrate an experience that is consumer-oriented and entertaining, churches and denominations continue to decline in membership. Charismatic preachers and sentimental praise songs are still an attraction and have their effect, but our deeper spiritual quest is going unanswered. Instead of vibrant insight into the present mystery of reality, we are handed the reheated leftovers of tradition.

Readers of this blog are already familiar with my criticism regarding these attempts at Sunday morning entertainment and retooling orthodoxy for another go-around. The problem of declining membership is centered not in the method of delivery but in the message being delivered. We are in the midst of a shift where religion needs to empty its buckets for a fresh refill from the moving stream of spiritual life.bucket

A mystically grounded faith – that is, an existential trust in the real presence of mystery – has always been the place in religion where this refreshment of meaning happens.

However, because orthodoxy is innately suspicious of the mystical experience, the present-day solution to the problem of relevancy amounts to painting old buckets and calling them new. The water inside – if there is any left – is staler than ever.

Mystery. At the heart of reality is a present mystery. This mystery is immediately accessible yet transcendent to our minds, always within our reach but forever beyond our grasp. It is the very ground of being, not out there somewhere but deep “in here” – inherent to existence and profoundly internal to consciousness.

It is the source and suchness of all beings; not another being, but being-itself. The present mystery of reality is continuously passing yet eternally Now. This moment is the narrow gate to communion with God.

Meaning. In itself, the real presence of mystery is ineffable; it can only be encountered, entered, and experienced. Putting concepts around it – or scooping it up into mental buckets – gives it form and makes it meaningful. But every image, symbol, metaphor or concept constructed by the mind is only an artifact of our intelligence, not the mystery itself.

Meaning-making is what the mind does. Drawing inferences and associations into the realm of daily concerns is how our minds translate mystery into meaning, experience into something more useful.

Self. A human being is a form of consciousness with the capacity to look outward on the present mystery as it manifests itself to our senses in our surroundings, as well as inward to the mystery of our own depths. Referring to these two orientations of awareness as “body” and “soul” has frequently led to their differentiation into opposite (and opposing) parts of the self.

Forcing this split of body and soul is a third mental location of human consciousness, known as ego (or “I”). Ego is not a primary orientation of awareness, but is rather a social construct consisting of gender instructions, role assignments, moral agreements, and cultural expectations defining what it means to be a member of the tribe.

In ego formation, the animal instincts of the body are disciplined and domesticated. For societies where this training is particularly harsh, repressive and shaming, the ego can psychologically dissociate from the body and mistake itself for the soul – but now as a metaphysically separate thing, an immortal personality detached from the life of the body.

Deity. Whereas the familiar moniker “God” (with a capital ‘g’) is useful in talking about the various ways that human beings cross-culturally represent the real presence of mystery, “deity” (also “god” with a lowercase ‘g’) refers to the portrait in art, myth, theory and doctrine of that never seen but much talked about guarantor of tribal authority.

Mystics seek the ineffable experience of real presence, while priests are social functionaries who perform on behalf of their deities, collecting the offerings from the congregation and dispensing favors of membership and the assurance of salvation.

Despite my satirical exposé, I nevertheless see a vitally important role for the patron deity of theistic religion. As The Voice of temperance, equanimity, fidelity, mercy, compassion and forgiveness, god’s command and personal example (as rendered in myth and exposited from the pulpit) serve to raise the moral aspirations of believers to the divine ideal.

As the mythological god becomes, with the advancing spiritual development of his mythographers, less vengeful and more benevolent, so too does the worshiping community grow into a more enlightened moral presence in the world.

Salvation. As human culture has evolved, the representation of our principal dilemma and its solution has changed accordingly. Earliest cultures were centered in nature and the body, and death was the obvious problem. Salvation (the solution) was not everlasting life in another world, but ritual renewal, seasonal rebirth, participating in the rhythms and priming the life cycle with appropriate sacrifices.

Gradually cultures became more socially centered, that is to say, increasingly preoccupied with tribal order, membership, and authority. As you might guess, this was the Age of Ego, when the urgencies of the body needed more than ever to be managed and the resources of nature exploited in the interest of social stability.

It was at this point that the control system of morality, dictated by the patron deity and enforced by his ordained deputies, created the very ideas of transgression, sin, and guilt. Thus did salvation become redefined as repentance and the reconciliation of sinners to god.

Most recently – but still going back 2500 years or so – a second shift occurred, corresponding this time to the awakening of a more mystical sensibility. The problem in this case was precipitated by the foregoing “solution,” where ego and the tribal deity came to oppose the body and nature – controlling them from outside, as it were – resulting in a pathological dualism.

Brokenness, division, separation and estrangement: not the enmity between sinners and god of the earlier phase, but a rupture in consciousness caused by the ego in its very formation is what needs to be resolved. Salvation, then, is the process of dropping attachments of “me” and “mine,” and releasing oneself in full surrender to the present mystery.

SunTruth. In light of this, the spiritual life becomes a quest for truth. Not a truth or even the absolute truth in doctrinal terms, but The True, the really real, life deep and abundant, authentic existence, radiant being.

Obviously this is not something that anyone (or any religion) can scoop up in conceptual buckets and carry to market. Truth, here, is not an article of knowledge but the depths and transforming power of an experience.

This is our way through. Theists don’t need to become atheists and leave their religion behind. Indeed, arguing for or against the existence of god (note the lowercase) is really a pointless exercise anyway.

The urgency today is for religion to catch up to the progress of spiritual evolution on our planet.

 

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