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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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Creative Authority

A friend in an engagement community that I weekly attend asked recently, “What, exactly, goes into this idea of ‘creative authority’?” – an idea (or ideal, really) that occupies a strategic position in the theory of human fulfillment that I’ve been working to clarify in a conversation on post-theism.

It is critically important that post-theism not be defined as a reactionary movement, as an effort to throw off theism and its antiquated god for the sake of something like secular materialism or atheistic humanism. Quite the contrary, post-theism holds a vision for what life is like after (“post”) theism – not after theism has been discredited and finally abandoned, but when it has served its evolutionary function and releases the self-transcending human spirit into a new existence as an enlightened partner and co-creator in the great community of life.

Before I offer a response to my friend’s question, let’s quickly recall where “creative authority” fits into my broader theory of human fulfillment. We started life fully immersed in an animal nature (body), with all its biological requirements and urgencies keeping consciousness oriented outward to the resources we need. Gradually, and with success in satisfying our basic needs, awareness began to open inwardly as well – not just to this pang or that urgency inside the body, but deeper into a sense of our grounding in a provident mystery. This sense of provident grounding is registered in the nervous system at an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level, which is why I call it animal faith.

Immediately with our birth our tribe went to work shaping our identity (ego). Through guidance, directives, feedback, and discipline we were given clear (but sometimes not so clear) messages about what it means to be a good boy or girl, a member in good standing, a person of value. Because the foundations of identity are constructed early on and are primarily emotional in character, I call the construct of identity itself our inner child.

With sufficient animal faith underneath us, supported by the caring and responsible influence of our tribe, identity can achieve a level of healthy development known as ego strength. Key attributes of ego strength are a stable personality, balanced mood, and a unified sense of self.

This is where things really get interesting, since social security, group membership, shared purpose, and personal value are like four sides of the box containing a meaningful existence. Why would we ever want to leave? Where else would we possibly go anyway? Outside the box is meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, and certain despair – or at least the heresy of someone else’s meaning. This is a necessary part of our programming.

An essential part of this project of identity construction is the tribe’s representation to the youngster of what a “good person” looks like – not in physical appearance necessarily, but how a good person behaves, how they treat other people (insiders and outsiders), what values they hold, how they handle conflict and common challenges of life.

Beyond merely listing these features in something like a bullet-point format, this ideal of a good person is represented in the role models of parents and other respected adults, but also in stories that depict super-human, supernatural superegos who are engaged to the tribe as divine protectors and providers.

Theism is a religious system that orients the individual to taller powers (adults) and higher powers (gods) that exemplify the character of a “good person.” These role models are intended to inspire similar developments in youngsters and devotees, but typically in theism the deity demonstrates the virtues in their more or less pure form. (We must not forget that this is a “dramatic” demonstration, since the god lives only in the fictional space of sacred dramas or myths.)

The deity, for example, who is worshiped for having shown compassion to the tribe when they or their ancestors were lost and without hope, exemplifies this degree of loving concern and will typically have expectations (in the form of injunctions or commandments) on the community to aspire toward a similar level of compassion for others in need. In this way, worship, as the exaltation into collective aspiration of the deity’s praiseworthy virtues, flows naturally into morality and obedience for the tribe.

We should acknowledge a flow in the opposite direction as well. The particular historical concerns currently pressing upon a tribe’s existence will “select” those divine attributes most needed in the moment, or possibly even alter the portrait of god in story and theology in order to provide some timely justification. Neglect of the needy, persecution of outsiders, and violence against unbelievers are either dug up from the mythological archives – you can always find a verse for that in the Bible – or else insinuated into the script of orthodoxy from the local church pulpit.

A similar dynamic as what we find in parental role models with their children is also present in theism proper: When a virtue demonstrated by the exemplar is imitated successfully by the aspirant (child, devotee) and internalized – which means integrated into the individual’s ethical character and way of life – an external representation is no longer required and can be transcended. Because the virtue (say, of forgiveness) now informs life from within as an authentic expression rather than from outside by imitation, we might say that the individual has progressed to a post-parental, post-theistic mode of being.

True enough, there are complications that can slow this process down and even arrest it altogether, but in this post I want to pretend as if development has advanced according to design – and by “design” I mean according to the inherent tendency of a human being to mature into a self-actualized adult.

When this sequence of obedience, aspiration, internalization, and authentic expression reaches fulfillment in the stable, balanced, and unified personality, ego strength is achieved and the individual is finally capable of a new mode of being and a higher way of life. Earlier concerns over belonging and recognition, security and freedom, of maintaining membership in the tribe as a person of value, are no longer the preoccupations they once were.

Consciousness has shifted to a new and higher mental location, one that supports a realization of deep communion and universal participation – or more simply stated, the realization that All is One. At this point the tribe has given up custodial possession of the individual (as ego), and the individual begins a new life “after god” (the lower-case ‘g’ referring to the patron deity of the local tribe). This higher mental location for consciousness is what I understand by soul – not “the real me” inside a body or just a new (spiritual) name for the ego, but the individual’s existence as grounded in mystery and connected to all things.

A perfect word for this new arena of life, combining deep communion and universal participation, is community – from com (with, together) and unity (as one). Here the awakened soul understands, by direct intuition and not hearsay, that the separation so important to establishing a clear identity for the ego was really a delusion of consciousness at that level. In some sense, the entire tribe is under this same spell, which is probably why spiritual awakening is frequently described as the breaking of a trance and coming to see things as they really are.

So this is what I mean by “creative authority”: the individual taking for him- or herself the authorial rights to a new story. Siddhartha’s new story was the dharma of his Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path. Jesus’ new story was his gospel of forgiveness and solidarity with the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr’s new story was about a world where our children won’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Each of them stepped intentionally and courageously into creative authority, come what may.

With that, I can finally respond to my friend’s question about what creative authority entails. In the diagram below are listed five virtues that I find in the dharma, gospel, and Dream stories just mentioned; but they are also well represented across countless others. Since the diagram depicts the path of human fulfillment organically, as growing up from a body-centered mode, through an ego-centered (and theistic) mode, and into a soul-centered (post-theistic) mode of being, my visual display of these five terms is meant to be interpreted in a similar bottom-up fashion.

Creative Authority_virtuesContemplative

Even though “contemplation” is commonly used in the West as a synonym for “meditation,” I want to avoid this confusion. While a meditation practice is essential for descending the inward path to the grounding mystery of being, contemplation is closer to the idea of “mindfulness.”

Creative authority is contemplative in the way it holds a mindful perspective on reality. This includes a big picture and long view on one’s place in the great community of life. Contemplatively the individual acknowledges that s/he is both a participant in and a manifestation of oneness.

The opposite of contemplative mindfulness would be something like conviction, where one’s beliefs about reality actually separate the mind from reality. A conviction is a belief that holds its owner hostage. Contemplation, on the other hand, opens the mind to the present mystery of reality.

Empathetic

With “reality in mind,” creative authority is open at deep levels to the connectedness of things. As a cell in the great body of community, an individual feels the dynamics of well-being or deterioration in the connective tissue of relationships. Empathy is similar to “sympathy” and “compassion,” but adds to these a degree of rational understanding to the direct and spontaneous feeling.

In the profession of counseling today empathy is what the helper needs in order to truly help the one who is suffering. Drawing on the big picture and long view afforded by contemplation, the helper can offer perspective and recommendations that have a larger context in mind. The helper is careful not to jump down into the dark hole of suffering for the sake of merely providing some company in the misery, but instead confirms genuine care and understanding while holding open the horizon of possibility and hope.

Responsible

Whereas in the ego realm of the tribe responsibility is about following through on what’s assigned or expected, for creative authority this element of obligation is transcended. The self-actualized adult doesn’t act or refrain from acting because of what someone else (human or divine) might think. In this way, the motivation of responsibility is not externally coerced but rooted in empathy, coming directly out of a grounded and connected life.

Within a much broader and deeper context than ego consciousness is capable of grasping, soul-centered responsibility understands that “the right thing” is not always what feels good, gets rewarded, or even promotes individual self-interest. Sometimes, in fact, doing the responsible thing involves transgressing on tribal rules (or divine commands) that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, bigotry, oppression or violence against others. The resulting “conscientious guilt” – willingly bearing the indictment for the sake of a higher good – is something the individual must learn to live with (and care less about).

Benevolent

I said just now that the soul-centered responsible adult commits his or her life to a higher good, which is to say that this individual wills the good, chooses the path of well-being, and puts it into action. Benevolence continues the organic progression of creative authority – as one who mindfully holds the big picture (contemplative), deeply understands what is going on (empathetic), uses his or her influence for the benefit of the whole (responsible), and now wills that greater good into an intentional way of life.

Most likely the ego was instructed in the importance of having “good will” toward others. The so-called “golden rule” of Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself (quoted by Jesus but originating in the Jewish book of Leviticus), are typically limited in their practical application to the in-group where ego is a member.

Jesus’ exhortation to Love your enemies and do good to those who commit evil against you (Matthew 5:44) represents a decidedly post-theistic direction, which neither the patron deity of the Judaism of his day nor the patron deity of later Christian orthodoxy was capable of fulfilling. Theism will always have “outsiders,” who necessarily live and perish outside the saving mercy of (the insiders’) god.

Forgiving

This, I suppose, is where the real test lies. How far does the benevolent life of creative authority reach? Where is the edge, where is the boundary that defines the extent of lovingkindness? For the ego there must be a limit, past which it is not only dangerous and foolhardy, but positively blasphemous to go. If god will finally cast his enemies into everlasting torment – even if it is out of a reluctant obligation to condemn the sinner – who am I (asks the ego) to presume that god might be outdone?

I have made a case that this was precisely the message (new story, gospel) of Jesus, summarized in the simple yet revolutionary appeal of “unconditional forgiveness” – loving anyway, doing good anyway, choosing benevolence over retribution, letting go of the past and moving into a shared future. (For more on that, see “Jesus Against Christianity” @ http://wp.me/p2tkek-mT.)

Forgiveness, as “letting go,” concerns more than just our relationships with others, even if that’s where it is most difficult and most urgently needed. Releasing the past allows the individual to take from it the valuable lessons that constitute wisdom, without having to drag an unexamined life behind him or her like – in the wonderful metaphor of Robert Bly’s – “a long, black bag.” We forgive so we can be free to grow and learn and fulfill our creativity authority in the great community of life.

 

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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Jesus Against Christianity

The biblical deity Yahweh has a deep history going back to the habiru, which is a generic term used in reference to a migratory population of nomadic tribes that swept down from the north into the Fertile Crescent roughly between 1800 and 1100 BCE. These northern invaders were resisted as outlaws by the settled cities and agricultural villages they flooded into, and at least in Egypt during the rule of Ramses IV some were taken into slavery.

Egypt

Yahweh was the patron deity of habiru (Hebrews) who inhabited mountains of the Sinai peninsula. His specialty was violence. In exchange for the obedience, sacrifice, and worship of his devotees, Yahweh provided protection and victory in their raids. Over time a number of neighboring habiru formed a federation that would eventually cross into Canaan and take possession of the land. On the way, many indigenous peoples and innocent citizens would be slaughtered or displaced, fulfilling a destiny promised to the invaders by their god.

Whether you are an invader or a native, your response in encountering “the other” tends to be very different. When religion grows out of the conditions of diversity, people work intentionally to build rapport, accommodate each other, and form cooperative relationships. In such regions, religion itself will be a rather pluralistic phenomenon, with perhaps many deities represented across a geographical region – an example being the ancient Indus Valley where “Hinduism” has flourished for millenniums.

But when religion comes in from outside a cultural context, bringing with it alien values and imperatives, the confrontation with difference is typically aggressive, invasive, and violent. Either “the other” will need to be converted – that is, bent into agreement with the invading orthodoxy – or subjugated (which can include oppression, exploitation, marginalization or extermination). Even though dialogue and cooperation may be possible, the prevailing impulse is either/or, in-or-out, good versus evil. The irony is that “good” in this case is identified with invasion, conversion, and violence in the name of god.

Most people are unfamiliar with this backstory to the religion of the Bible and its patron deity. As Judaism – taking its name from a southern tribe (Judah) of the federation that “settled” Canaan and held the first capital city (ancient Salem, renamed Jerusalem) – advanced its international presence, a mythology evolved to help establish this presence inside the arena of regional empires. The myth cycles of Creation, Covenant, and Conquest reconstructed history in a way that elevated Yahweh to supremacy and designated his people (the community telling these stories) as chosen and special.

                                                                                  

What interests me is the extent to which this invader mentality (with its imperative to move in and then displace or destroy the other) got encoded into the Bible and became a driving impulse of Western culture. Some important recent authors (Walter Wink, John Howard Yoder, William Herzog, and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer among them) have named this impulse “redemptive violence” – the use of violence as Yahweh’s preferred means of bringing about human salvation. The important extension of this code, of course, is that Yahweh’s preference motivates and justifies the violent behavior of his devotees.

fist

As Yahweh’s career progressed with the establishment of Christianity, this impulse continued to drive Western expansion – first in the evangelistic mission to the Gentiles, then under the administration of Constantine, and later into the missionary excursions and New World migration of the Americas. As it went on, this impulse also grew more violent, until with the English colonists and European settlers an entire native civilization was all but wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny (our god-given right to possession).

It’s also important to understand that a patron deity (such as Yahweh) serves a dual role in the psychological development of his or her people. Firstly the deity is a projection of what concerns the security and ongoing survival of his tribe. In this way, our god validates and reinforces our present identity. God hates his enemies and therefore so must I – although the projection is really working the other way around: I hate my enemies and therefore so does my god.

The second role of the patron deity is to represent in ideal what is still only dormant (or latent) in his devotees. As a general trajectory across the world’s cultures, deities tend to develop in the direction of mercy, grace, compassion, and benevolence. That is to say, the ideal of a liberated and morally enlightened humanity is “forecasted” (projected into the future) in the narrative depiction of the deity. In the Bible, for instance, we can observe the gradual maturation and softening of Yahweh into a more loving and universally generous god.

As the literary character of Yahweh was evolving, he increasingly took on an “ambivalent” or schizoid nature. One moment he could reach out in tenderness, and in the next with merciless wrath. By the time of Jesus, this bipolar tendency had inspired various sects and divisions within Judaism. It seems that Yahweh could turn any which way he was needed. His benevolent side was perhaps his dominant function, but he also possessed a stern and violent shadow.

In some traditions this shadow was split off into a malevolent and diabolical counterpart (Satan), while in others it was reconciled as something of a reluctant obligation in god to condemn sinners. God had made the rules, humans disobeyed the rules, and Yahweh was constrained by his own morality to destroy those who failed or refused to repent.

What did Jesus have to say about it?

                                                                               

Because the First Voice of the historical Jesus is buried beneath and tangled into later Christian mythology, it’s not easy to tease out the “red letter” thread of his original gospel. But once you catch hold of it, the power of his message begins to resonate with certain sayings, stories and primitive recollections in the Gospels. The force of it can be summarized as “unconditional forgiveness,” or loving the enemy, and it runs in direct opposition to redemptive violence throughout.

open hand

As I have tried to expound on this radical message of Jesus in other posts (e.g., “Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World“), I’ll just make a few remarks on it here. Basically, Jesus advised that the only way into a human future of freedom, community, and lasting peace is to “let go” of (literally forgive) our neighbor’s guilt. The “good news” (gospel) according to Jesus is that God has already done this for us: nothing is holding us back but our own attachments to shame, fairness, proper reckoning, and moral satisfaction.

There is sufficient textual evidence to suggest that Jesus did more than merely accentuate Yahweh’s “good side” over his violent propensities – his right hand over his left, as it were. Instead he proclaimed, and lived out as if it were true, that God has only love for all people. The only way to love our enemies is to forgive, which is to let go of what you have against them by moral rights (their guilt) and return good for evil. This is why the qualifier “unconditional” is so critical to an accurate understanding of Jesus’ revolutionary teachings on the power of love.

As it happened, his revolution was short-lived. The code of redemptive violence was so deeply insinuated into the cultural DNA of the Bible that his followers soon reconstructed his death (and for the most part disregarded his life and teachings) into a transaction of vicarious suffering for the sake of our salvation. By dying on the cross, he was supposed to have paid the penalty for sin and satisfied Yahweh’s need for retribution. His torture and death, in other words, were necessary to the final solution.

Christianity, as it continued to develop and expand its empire, eventually became the embodiment of what Jesus had sought to transcend and leave behind.

The Judeo-Christian West has a long record of redemptive violence. I read recently that one out of five adult Americans today are either incarcerated, awaiting trial, or on probation. The most charitable nation on earth also has the largest percentage of its population in prisons. The religion that has the most to say about love and how “God is love” is also the most outspoken about retribution and people getting what they deserve.

If the revolution intended by Jesus has any hope of taking hold on a large scale, more people will need to see the irreconcilable contradiction between Christianity’s current message of salvation and his original gospel. It’s not enough to simply lay fresh tile on a faulty foundation. We need the courage to call redemptive violence when we see it in ourselves and in each other, but we need even more courage to extinguish this impulse and make a way for love instead.

 

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The Spirituality of Dropping Out

In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about purpose and the importance of living a “purpose-driven” life. In Christian circles especially, the message has been that knowing god’s purpose for you and living with a mission-in-mind is what it’s all about. This has turned out to be a “best-selling” proposal, as apparently many people are looking for purpose in life. Whether specifically religious or not, we like to think there’s something we can do or jump on board with to give our lives direction and meaning.

But what is purpose, and what does it mean to have one? For most of us it’s probably identified with being useful or having a function. We are reassured in knowing that god has a use for us, that we fit into his design scheme and have something we can wake up to each day. If there was no grand purpose to existence, then life would be meaningless. If this moment in life isn’t hooked into a forward trajectory of end-values, then there would be no reason to go on.

And if there happens not to be a god up there directing our lives toward the goals of prosperity, salvation, and a better setup later on, then we’re screwed. In previous posts I’ve made the case for god as a construct of meaning, and purpose as a positive illusion that keeps us sane and tilted to the future with hope. It hasn’t been my agenda to discredit these things – I’m neither an atheist nor a nihilist – but only to explore their importance to the general guidance and inspiration in what may be regarded a meaningful life.

In this post, however, I want to say something about the even greater importance of “dropping out” of meaning from time to time. While religion – the meaning, the message, the morality and the mechanics of what is going on at the surface – is concerned with keeping people plugged into the mission, our soul (and spirituality) really has no interest whatsoever in “making it,” fitting in, or “getting there.” Instead, what we seek at the deepest level is what I name the present mystery of reality, or real presence.

Let’s unpack this a bit more so we can see the difference between a “purpose-driven” life and one that is “presence-seeking.”

skipping stoneIn the illustration above, daily life is represented as a skipping stone on its trajectory through time. The stone itself is the “I” of ego, the construct of personal identity that carries the imprint of my earliest relationships and the role assignments of my tribe, along with the peculiar neurotic styles that defend and compensate for my emotional wounds. Ego suffers under the delusion of substance – that “I” have reality and matter more than anything, though it’s nothing but a reflex of contractions, preferences, attachments, and convictions.

As I said, none of us get very far along in life without our share of bumps, bruises and emotional wounds. Ego is the part of me that I want you to see: my glow, my charisma, my accomplishments and lofty goals. I am careful to play this to the audience so they will regard me highly, approve of me and give me accolades, and maybe (if I’m lucky) envy me for my magnanimity. I am a handsome actor.

Underneath me – or rather, on the underside of ego – is my shadow. This includes those parts of myself that I don’t want you to see, the parts I’m ashamed of or unsure about. At the pain-center of my emotional wounds, inside the ring of self-defense and coping strategies, is a sense of vulnerability and “not enough.” If I can keep these hidden, or maybe outwardly project their opposites into a moral crusade of some kind, then I’m safe.

But here’s the thing. Every time I arc closer to reality, the reflection of my shadow on the water’s surface confronts me with a challenge to acknowledge and confess what I’m up to. As I approach the real presence of mystery, this forsaken and repressed part of myself comes closer to the threshold of self-awareness. When I make contact with reality, this negatively charged shadow repels me into another launch – and off I go for another arc across the pond of life.

Behind me, then, is the momentum in this game of “Outrun the Shadow” that I’m busy playing. If my ego-and-shadow duality is sufficiently polarized, this push from behind will exhaust itself into a fall only to be recharged the moment I barely touch what is repulsive and unforgivable in myself. So I contract with renewed purpose – with the necessary look-away from the present moment and my internal conflict, along with the requisite conviction concerning the high importance of the end I am pursuing. Onward Christian soldier.

Look right there, at the very point where momentum flags but before the ego is flung out again. This is something we habitually overlook in our skipping course through life: Let’s call it intention. What is intention? It is related to purpose, but isn’t end-focused like a purpose-driven life is said to be. Very simply, intention is not living for a purpose but living with purpose – or as we commonly say, living on purpose.

Whereas “purpose” in the conventional sense gets tied to future goals and making forward progress, intention doesn’t have an outcome in mind, no end-point in the future, but rather represents the opening of awareness to the depth of life in this moment. It descends along a vertical axis into present-moment experience, into the present mystery of reality. The real presence discovered here is not a something from somewhere else; it is not a being, but being-itself, the power and freedom to be here and now.

From the surface perspective, the one who “drops out” of the official program of a purpose-driven life is a loser, a quitter, a defiant and godless mystic. He or she stops fussing and stressing over the “many things” that the rest of us are trying so hard to manage. Instead of working to please god, fit in his plan, and accomplish his mission, the mystic enjoys a deepening communion with the present mystery. He or she surrenders ambition, letting the neurotic tangle of personality unwind and dissolve away. No future salvation for this one; it’s a pity.

From below, however, the spirituality of dropping out is really about dropping in – into the here-and-now, into this body, this breath, into this quiet presence of being. In this deeper place, the ego boundary that had separated me from the rest of reality suddenly transforms into a threshold connecting me to everything. What had put me against reality now joins me to it – but not ‘it’ … just this.

Religion at the surface attaches incentives of rewards or penalties to the obligation of reaching out and helping others. A spirituality of the depths knows that self and neighbor are really one – an awareness that opens out into compassion, benevolence, generosity and forgiveness. There really is nothing to hold onto, nothing to defend, nothing to chase after, and nothing to lose.

When I rise from this contemplative state, put on my costume of identity and step back into the game, others will get a sense that the game is changing.

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Jesus, Forgiveness, and a Brave New World

In my defense of a new humanism, I made the case that Western consciousness shifted into a post-theistic morality with the radical teachings of Jesus. Where the motivation to do what is right had been conditioned by a powerful external incentive – approval, inclusion, divine favor and final salvation (or the opposite if you break the rules) – Jesus opened a new way.open_prison_door

The incumbent deity (Yahweh) had come out of a mythological background of a small near-eastern tribal confederation of nomadic invaders who managed the conquest of agricultural settlements in the land of Canaan. As a warrior god, Yahweh possessed little tolerance for diplomacy and compromise. But to his credit, over time he did start to soften up a bit, balancing wrath with mercy, vengeance with compassion, retribution with forgiveness.

Yahweh’s war box (the ark of the covenant), which had been carried at the front lines of Israel’s army, giving them a supernatural advantage over the indigenous farmers they massacred, was already lost in the misty hinterland of folklore and legend by Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, Yahweh’s accent on purity and obedience was still strong, and it resounded in the religion that remembered and worshiped him.

Let’s be clear: Yahweh was capable of forgiveness. As long as certain steps were taken – that is to say, insofar as particular conditions were met and satisfied by the repentant sinner – Yahweh could be persuaded to let the poor soul back into his good graces. There was a limit to this generosity on Yahweh’s part, of course, and repentance needed to happen first. God is no sucker.

Already 600 years or so before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had fantasized a day when god would simply drop the charges against humanity and enter a new relationship with his people. The knowledge of his will would transcend instruction and be grasped intuitively, written on their hearts. Fortunately for Jeremiah, he didn’t put a date on this future New World.

What would inspire someone, even god, to just “let go” (forgive) and rip up the rap sheet on sinners? What purpose could this serve? Why violate the Rule that had set the rules in the first place? Isn’t that tantamount to throwing out everything – responsibility, accountability, decency and fairness – upon which the moral order depends? So it seemed. And so Jeremiah’s little nightmare about unconditional forgiveness and the beginning of a New Age was rolled up, tucked away, and forgotten.

But the seed was planted. Once an “impossible” virtue like compassion for outsiders, charity for strangers, or mercy for those who just might be getting what they deserve – once the virtue is projected into the collective consciousness, it is just like a seed. It may sit there, covered by dirt and “forgotten” under the urgencies and concerns of daily life for many, many years. Decades or even centuries. But there it is nonetheless, waiting for the conditions to be right.

In Jesus’ time, the conditions were right. But just as important as a generally favorable milieu is the individual who is sufficiently inspired, courageous, and “morally reckless” to announce the moment of awakening and risk everything for its actualization.

16 When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20)

As Luke tells the story, Jesus made the announcement as part of a sabbath sermon. In that day, a member of the synagogue might walk up to the front of the room, be handed a scroll of scripture, read the passage and offer an interpretation. In this case, Jesus opened up the prophecy today known as Third Isaiah, likely written just after the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon (post 538 BCE).

The “year of the Lord’s favor” was another mythic reference, going “back” to the ancestral past when the people of Israel celebrated a Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years – after seven cycles of seven years – all debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and lost property was returned to its original and rightful owners.

Jubilee was an archetype of the New Beginning, the clean slate, a fresh chance to start again. It’s what the human spirit longs for. But it never made the transition from mythic event to actual occasion. For practical considerations alone, no society could survive such a radical shake-up of its economy as Jubilee represented. It was what we call an ideal.

In Isaiah’s original, the last phrase read by Jesus is actually part of a couplet that finishes with “and the day of vengeance of our god.” Isaiah’s fantasy, then, was of a time when Yahweh’s favor on his people would be realized and his judgment meted out on their enemies at last. There was still hell to pay.

We need to imagine the force of shock that must have seized the congregation when Jesus, after leading his audience along the lyrical rhythm of this well-known and much-loved passage, suddenly stopped short of full circle, rolled up the scroll, and sat down. In their minds that last line was screaming for validation, but Jesus denied it permission.

What he did next was even more scandalous. He looked up at the congregation and declared, “This vision is being fulfilled today, right here and right now.” Today is Jubilee. All debts are forgiven, the prison doors have been thrown open and everyone is free. A new age has begun and a new order is in effect starting today.

In his evangelistic campaign across Galilee, Jesus called this new age and new order the “kingdom of god.” It’s coming up out of the dirt, he said. It shows up around the corner, in the messiness of life, from the least likely of places.

Not long afterwards, when Christian orthodoxy did a make-over on Jesus and turned him into god, this radical challenge to conventional morality would be neutralized. Of course! Who else but Jesus – very god in the flesh – could manage such a feat? For the sake of our salvation he interceded for us, securing god’s favor and saving us from his wrath. By dying in our place, paying the penalty for our transgressions, and taking upon himself god’s judgment against sin, Jesus is our salvation.

The old game is still in effect, however. If you refuse to “believe in Jesus as your personal lord and savior,” your destination in the afterlife won’t be pleasant. At all. Jesus managed to turn god towards you; now you must turn to god by accepting Jesus as your savior. For those who don’t, “the day of vengeance of our god” awaits. Whew! Nothing’s really changed.

As Matthew tells the story, the disciple Peter approached Jesus one day with a question. “According to the rules, god expects me to forgive my enemy three times” (a number that represents perfection). “What do you think? Should I forgive my enemy as many as seven times?”

Perhaps in his desire to impress Jesus with his above-and-beyond righteousness (doubling the old rule and adding one more for effect), Peter was looking for that surprised admiration that any student craves from the teacher. See him standing there, puffed up and plucking proudly at his suspenders.

Jesus replied: “Why are you counting? Forgiveness is not a response to an acceptable repentance. It must come first and never keep a tab. Let go of your anger and your hurt will heal. Extinguish the insatiable flame of vengeance and you will be free. It’s time for you to be strong and take the initiative: Stop tracking offenses and don’t wait for your enemies to repent. Let go, open up with love, and just see what happens.”

If your god keeps a record of sins, hates his enemies, and can’t wait to make them suffer – or perhaps is bound by a reluctant obligation to condemn sinners and unbelievers – then it’s time to leave that god behind and step into a brave new world.

There, the seed is planted … again.

 
 

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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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