RSS

Tag Archives: Friedrich Schleiermacher

Faith and Discovery

Schleiermacher: “If there is religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of human beings. There is also a spiritual nature which we have in common with others of our species, which demands that we express and communicate all that is in us. The more violently we are moved and the more deeply we are impressed, the stronger that social impulse works.”

Contemplating the likely origins of religion helps us appreciate its roots in individual experience rather than in what might be called “orthodox instruction.” For those who believe that religion – their religion, the true religion – was lowered from heaven already fully assembled and given by revelation to a founder, prophet or saint, faith must be taught. You must read your Bible, listen to your teachers, and take in the points of doctrine upon which your salvation depends.

The credibility of this long tradition of orthodox instruction requires that your Bible is inerrant, your teachers enlightened, and those points of doctrine absolutely infallible. If there’s a break anywhere in the chain – maybe scripture is metaphorical or made-up, just one teacher was mistaken or confused, or just one dogma is derived from a mistranslation – then the whole institution loses authority and disintegrates.

To protect itself, institutional religion implants in us a virus of doubt and suspicion against the validity of individual experience. Because you are fallen, ignorant, sinful and depraved, your own perceptions, insights and judgments are corrupt and unreliable. In fact, if you allow their seduction you will be lured away from truth. Don’t think for yourself. Don’t pay attention to your misgivings over how far-fetched, fantastic and irrelevant to daily life the orthodoxy seems. Certainly don’t trust yourself, your human nature, or the greater nature of reality within, beneath, and all around you.

Mystics throughout history and across cultures – and I would also say, the mystic in you – have regarded the orthodox instruction of institutional religion with mild tolerance, outspoken criticism, or active opposition depending on how authoritarian and abusive it can become. They typically won’t spend too much time and energy in the effort, partly because the errors are deep and long-standing, but also because they understand that the entire system of religion is more a human production than a divine revelation.

To say that religion is a human production, however, is not to discredit it, as orthodoxy claims (unless, of course, you’re talking about other religions). The source of religion is in discovery, not revelation. Whereas revelation is something the mythological god did to get the truth to us (from up/over there), discovery is a process whereby the present mystery of reality (the really real) is gradually or suddenly perceived, as our assumptions and expectations are removed.

Questioning our long-standing beliefs, conducting careful experiments, and generally paying closer attention to what’s going on is how discovery unfolds. To the degree that institutional religion discourages or straightaway condemns such practices, it is the enemy of discovery – the enemy of experience.

Out of this age-old process of discovery, individuals just like you have drawn deep insights concerning human nature, the real presence of mystery, and the present mystery of reality. Their first efforts at translating these powerful intuitions into symbols, metaphors, story and song/dance – for the purpose of expressing them and communicating them to others – mark the beginnings of religion.

Symbols don’t capture the mystery, but only provide a way of consciously participating in it. Metaphors aren’t literal descriptions but merely poetic representations of experience. For their part, story (sacred myth) and song/dance (earliest ritual) are the outpouring of spiritual discovery into the social arena of cultural life.

Schleiermacher identified an “impulse” in you that cannot allow these spiritual breakthroughs to be kept to yourself and quietly cultivated in some kind of private religion. Where it begins is undeniably private, by which we mean individual, profound, and deeply internal. But once expressed – and the power, magnitude and anticipated repercussions of spiritual discovery push it irresistibly up and out into your shared life with others – it enters the public sphere.

You talk about yours. I talk about mine. Through dialogue we find connections and resonances in the ways we separately represent our deeper experience. We translate something profound and ineffable into words, art, melody and movement. Inwardly we know that all this expressive meaning is ultimately a futile exercise, however irresistible, of enclosing the formless infinite in our mental boxes. The stories we tell are imaginative portrayals of what cannot be represented. The symbols we elevate for our mutual contemplation are acknowledged as mere allusions to a wordless mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp.

We know this, you and I. But that guy over there – he’s new to the conversation. So we invite him in and show him our work. We tell him our stories and teach him a few steps of the dance.

Where did all this come from? he asks with fascination.

I look over at you, and you wink back at me. From god, we answer in unison.

A long time ago and in a land far away, earlier than our history books can reach and in a place inaccessible to science, the truth was given to our ancestors by supernatural revelation. Since that time, the countless generations of true believers have preserved what you see here, for the sake of your salvation. Have a seat, forget what you think you know, and pay attention to our every word.

Thus was religion born. And then we forgot how it happened …

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Mystical Turn

Schleiermacher: “Study yourselves with unswerving attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the eternal.”

Taking the images of religious art and mythology at face value – and we should include the more abstract images of theology as well – promotes the misunderstanding that the ultimate object of religion is, well, an object. Something out there, over there, up there. It’s important to remember that all these artistic images, sacred stories, and more heady conceptions of what we call God have been produced out of our creative imagination, not “caught on tape” or encountered just so.

A favorite metaphor of mystics worldwide and across the ages for the “ultimate concern” of human spirituality is ground, or the ground of being. As with all metaphors, this one can be misunderstood if we take it literally, as referring only to something outside and beneath us. It is beneath us, but only metaphorically, as the deeper support and primal source of our existence itself.

You won’t find this ground separate from yourself, except as shining through and indirectly represented in the countless forms round about. From a mystical vantage-point, all things exist only as embodiments of the one ground. As thus lit up from within, as it were, the entire universe is a turning mystery of epiphany.

But many religious people don’t see things from a mystical vantage-point. Instead they are metaphysical realists and mythological literalists, convinced that their god is really just as the stories depict him/her. Scholarly studies take off from this point and seek to examine and explain the nature of god in big words and thick volumes of systematic theology. As most true believers don’t have the time or patience to wade through this complicated web of arguments, they simply accept the assumptions and profess the conclusions as their own articles of faith.

My personal experience while an ordained pastor in Christian ministry revealed time and again how suspicious orthodox religion is of a mystical spirituality. Mystics tend to hold on loosely to the doctrines of theology, insisting that the real mystery of presence is not something that can be boxed up and codified, or even labeled except with metaphors drawn from our everyday experience.

As we might expect, this reluctance to even speak of the mystery, let alone their persistent suspicion of any attempt to reduce it to doctrines, has resulted in mystics being unwelcome in most churches and frequently persecuted by the custodians of orthodoxy.

In an attempt to put mystics on the defensive, true believers will occasionally accuse them of being fixated on themselves – with all this “study yourselves with unswerving attention.” Proper piety, they insist, must be self-negating, even self-reproachful. Self – and they really mean ego in this sense – is the enemy of god, the ultimate damnable distraction that keeps us from devoted attention to the proper object of our worship. By turning inward, mystics are guilty of sin; and their guilt is multiplied to the degree that they successfully seduce others to their path.

Fundamentalism in religion betrays itself by the nervous insecurity, narrow-mindedness, and propensity for violence that eventually show up in its business. Out of allegiance to the tribe and for the promise of a heavenly reward, true believers across the religions have willingly – even earnestly – committed violence against other human beings, against nature, and against themselves. Ironically they end up behaving in ways that utterly contradict their founder’s teachings, and then justify themselves in his/her name!

The true mystical path does not involve self-infatuation. In fact, obsession with ego identity and personal destiny is typically an outstanding feature of religious orthodoxy, not mysticism. I need to fit in. I need to be right. I need my reward. I need to live forever.

In order to directly experience the ground of being, you must release your hold on concerns of identity. As nothing more than a construct of social conventions, ego is not what you are but only who you are as conditioned and defined by your tribe. What you are is much deeper. It’s your authentic self, the being that you are, rather than your constructed self, the roles that you play. Letting go is often described by mystics as stepping out of the costumes and slipping off the masks that hold your place in society.

The self that is left after all this disrobing is not some metaphysical and immortal soul, but simply you, right now, as you really are. Real presence.

Because ego looks out through filters, your grasp on reality is superficial and highly selective. As you “pass by all foreign elements” – all the add-ons and attachments that qualify who you are – your experience of reality is increasingly direct, singular, and unified. This is what Schleiermacher means by “universe”: the single turning mystery of being in which your existence is rooted.

Inward contemplation is not about gazing upon your true self or reveling in your indestructible nature, but rather sinking past yourself altogether, into a inner space where all is one. Not a jigsaw of oneness but pure and essential oneness. Without specific content yet containing all there is. Obviously descriptive words and word-heavy theories won’t stick to this mystery, so it’s best to remain quiet and just be there.

And this – letting go and finding your ground, sinking past all your titles and achievements, all your honor and shame, past your first word and your last defense – this is faith.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Getting Back to Here and Now

Schleiermacher: “The goal and character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time, behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution of which we are forever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.”

I’ve already mentioned how Schleiermacher criticized two of the foundational doctrines of Christian orthodoxy – the providence of god and the immortality of the soul. Later on, Nietzsche would pick up this criticism with new vigor. Together they stand in a philosophical time-stream that has come to be called by several names – perspectivism, constructivism, nonrealism – and generally postmodernism.

Whereas the modern West had rested on the confidence of a fixed objective world (out there), postmodernism has realized how much of what we assume as out there is really our own projection. The modern mind had also looked “up” to a god who actually existed in a supernatural space (heaven) above and outside the world, while the postmodern mind rejects metaphysical realism. And if modern religion had regarded the individual soul as indestructible and immortal, postmodernism (if it has a place for soul at all) defines it merely as our “inner life” where individual existence emerges from and dissolves into the present mystery of reality.

So Schleiermacher was an early postmodernist, living at a time when the modern paradigm was losing energy and falling apart. His challenge wasn’t merely to reinterpret traditional religion for a new (nontraditional) audience, but rather to reconnect Christianity to its spiritual grounding. For him, this grounding is subjective and experiential – in the human experience of reality – and not objective or external to us. In his magnum opus The Christian Faith, he defined faith as “the feeling of absolute dependence” on the living presence of God.

In Christian orthodoxy the doctrine of providence refers to god’s control over world events and his predetermined purpose for the future. I shifted to a lower-case “g” to indicate that we’re talking about the god of Christian mythology, the main protagonist of the Bible who created the universe, chose a favorite nation, handed down a law code, intervened on historical events, raised Jesus from the grave, and now governs all things from a high point outside human affairs.

For Schleiermacher – and others like me – providence has to do with present existence and not future destination. In each moment, I am grounded in a reality that is creative, supportive and interdependent. To the degree that I can release my ego need for security and personal control, my life begins to relax into being. This heart-beat, this breath, this life, this passing moment are simply “provided” to me. I don’t need to grip down and worry them into effect. Indeed, my nervous effort to control them actually interferes and puts them in jeopardy.

Just as we can distinguish between the mythological god and the living presence of God, the soul can be defined as the part of me that lives forever (immortality in the temporal sense) or as that deep place in my life where I am grounded in the divine presence. This is where the distinction between “everlasting” and “eternal” becomes especially important. Immortality is about now, not later. It is about going deeper into reality (and becoming more real), not farther ahead in time; it’s authentic life, not life without end.

Of course, this process of redefining religious terms – or rather recovering their original meaning as metaphors of religious experience – is still enmeshed in words and thoughts about the mystery. The modern commitment to building systems and constructing meaning can get caught in the web of its own making. A postmodern spirituality simply regards all of this as secondary reflection on the primary process of experience itself.

We need to get back to experience, which might involve back-tracking through this construction site to the original inspiration that got it all going in the first place. This is Schleiermacher’s agenda as a late-modern clergyman and Christian theologian. But we might also just skip the project of rehabilitating doctrines and go directly to experience itself. Once there – a place we always are and only leave in our minds – we can begin to feel our absolute dependence on the greater reality beneath us (ground) and all around us (universe).

It’s not about being right, but being real. Aware of my relative position in the grandeur of it all, and cultivating my own internal access point to the present mystery of reality, I no longer feel the need to cling regretfully to the past or wait anxiously for the future. This is where I Am.

Where are you?

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Birth of God

Schleiermacher: “Suppose there is someone who rejects the idea of a personal God. This rejection of the idea of a personal Deity does not decide against the presence of the Deity in his [or her] feeling.”

Because personality is the filter through which we humans experience reality, our long-standing assumption has been that it represents the crowning achievement of evolution. As energy condensed into rock and rocks made way for the first living organisms, so is the vibrant and self-conscious personality a miraculous leap of advancement beyond mere biology. As we move up the hierarchy of life, tree shrews are more complex and interesting than earthworms, dogs are more like us than tree shrews, but a human person – a personality – is essentially incomparable to anything else in our known universe.

I remember as a little boy how I personified things in my world. My toys had personalities, as did just about everything I encountered outside at play. Even now at midlife I find myself getting angry at inanimate objects, like a cupboard door that swings out as I bend over to empty the dishwasher. When I straighten up and hit my head on that damned door I have an urge to hit it back, to punish it for hurting me. It’s important – somehow and somewhere deep inside the more primitive part of my personality – that I teach the door a lesson. There are no accidents in the animated world of childhood simply because intention flows out of the center of each existing thing and connects it to everything thing else.

This is one theory of how religion began: our early ancestors looked out on reality and saw numerous intentional forces impinging on their survival as they settled in or migrated across the globe. Gradually these intentional forces were imbued with personality, depicted in local art and mythology, and duly worshiped for their influence in human affairs. Like the scripts I conjured up for the various genies and higher agencies of my childhood play-world, these divine (and demonic) personalities were not invented and installed by anything resembling an objective and critical self-awareness. We were primed for it and it just flowed spontaneously out of our creative imagination.

The psychological value of this theory is two-fold. First it acknowledges our human need to be in relationship with the greater environment that both supports and threatens our existence. Whether it be our mother’s womb, our family of origin, our native tribe, the patch of Earth we inhabit or the universe entire, we have a yearning inside us – Schleiermacher would locate this yearning in our intuitive intelligence, or heart – to belong. What better way of fulfilling this need of ours than to reach out to this otherness in trusting release, earnest petition, humble reverence, and devoted worship?

Secondly, and really building on this first value, the theory establishes the mythological god on more respectable ground. Rather than beginning its critical examination with the assumption of the divine personality as an actual being whose existence must be proved or disproved, it takes its start from the side of human experience. (This was the turn to phenomenology, or to the study of how consciousness apprehends, perceives and represents reality that was revolutionizing philosophy in Schleiermacher’s day.) The question is not whether or not the personal god exists, but what it means – or perhaps what it might have once meant – to be in relationship with a universe that notices you and interacts intelligently with you.

Because he started with experience and not with the objective existence of a mythological god, Schleiermacher didn’t have to defend or discredit the belief in one. Concern over the biblical legitimacy or theological orthodoxy of your representation of god is really secondary to your awareness of and encounter with “the Presence of the Deity.” In my vocabulary this is the real presence of mystery or present mystery of reality that supports, surrounds, permeates and dissolves your existence in this very moment.

Our mental representations, or models, of god are not as clear-cut and immutable as we may think. Just as your concept of god has developed and changed countless times throughout your life – do you regard “the Deity” the same today as you did when you were a child? Let’s hope not – so too even a cursory reading of the Bible observes a mythological god who develops over time. God creates and then later regrets his creation, deciding to drown but a boatload of all living things; he wants to incinerate a wicked city but then is persuaded by Abraham to change his plans; he orders ruthless violence against the enemy, but then commands us to love and do good to them. This is an obvious problem for someone who takes the Bible literally and then reads in James 1:17 that god doesn’t change.

Human beings are in a complex relationship with the universe. Out of our developing needs and expanding consciousness, the one on the “other side” of this relationship changes and evolves accordingly. It isn’t necessary – or profitable for the welfare and destiny of our species – to debate and wrangle over whose god is the true god. The “truth” of your god cannot be determined through some sort of rational calculus, comparative study, or biblical exegesis. The real question is how your concept of god – whether personal, non-personal, or transpersonal – corresponds with and meaningfully represents your experience.

If your god connects you to life and inspires the development of your higher capacities for personal responsibility, unconditional forgiveness, healthy dialogue and cooperation, and a wider outreach to the human and nonhuman inhabitants of our common planetary home, then it’s as true as anything.

Check yourself. I’ll do the same.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Faith and Being

Schleiermacher: “The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling.”

By the late-eighteenth century, Christianity had already become a house divided. On one side were those who believed that Christian distinctiveness was a doctrinal matter, while others insisted it was a matter of morals. Christians hold particular doctrines that identify them as Catholic or Protestant, Baptist or Methodist, liberal or conservative. But Christians should also behave in a way that is obedient to the great ethical precepts found in the Bible, such as loving the neighbor and following Jesus.

While both sides acknowledged the importance of doctrines and morals, each promoted one as more important than the other. Salvation is a matter of thinking right (doctrines) and doing good (morals), but either the mind or the will has priority. The “cultured despisers” to whom Schleiermacher directed his Speeches were members of both camps, and each tended to regard the other as missing the mark.

These house divisions in Christianity were reflected in the larger culture as well. Science and philosophy – disciplines of the mind – were having great success in classifying reality into separate domains of human knowledge. But so too, government and business – disciplines of the will – were beginning to regulate human behavior into the various zones of public life. Western culture at large, then, gave religion two choices on where to stand: mind or will, doctrines or morals, thought or behavior, thinking right or doing good.

Schleiermacher saw a problem in this – a big and potentially fatal problem for Christianity and the culture as a whole. Whether we are thinking about something or striving for something, the “something” is always separate and apart from us. While the mind frames and arranges its objects, and the will fixes and pursues its outcomes, the immediacy of experience itself is left behind.

Is experience essentially what we think or what we do? Neither one, says Schleiermacher. Rather it is the “feeling and intuition” of being alive in this moment. The farther we step into mind or will, the more we remove ourselves from the heart where the true pulse of the present is found.

To understand what Schleiermacher means by “feeling” we might place it visually at the bottom of a “V” shape. From feeling we can move up into emotion, which generates motion in behavior; or we can move up into attitude, which establishes the position from whence we take our perspective on reality. Both emotion and attitude are derived from feeling but stretch it out, so to speak, either into action or thought. Still farther out are the outcomes of behavior and objects of thought – the morals and doctrines of religion’s cultured despisers.

Deep within ourselves – if we will only open our attention to it – is the feeling of experience, at the point where our life is grounded in present reality. Because the immediacy of experience lies beneath and is prior to the operations of mind and will, its ground is properly regarded as ineffable (beyond words) and spontaneous (without purpose). Yet it is precisely there that we are one with all, and all is one.

To arrive at this still-point (though in fact we never left, nor can we leave) it becomes necessary at times to drop our thoughts and surrender the urgency to act. In quiet contemplation we can enter that internal space where doctrines and morals can be appreciated as but secondary extensions of a primary and eternal life. Otherwise, if we are too tied up in the beliefs and goals that make our lives meaningful, we can end up dying on the inside, strangled in our own web. When being right or doing good are taken as the keys to salvation, the forces of orthodoxy and righteousness can actually become demonic.

We forget that our true healing as human beings comes when mind and will are reconciled in the heart, when we can stop grasping and chasing after meaning and simply dwell in the real presence of mystery.

So what can we say about faith, in light of Schleiermacher’s model of the heart, mind, and will? First of all, faith must not be confused with doctrines and thinking right, nor is it about morals and doing good. It’s not what you believe or even how you live.  It isn’t about the meaning of life or how to get to heaven.

Instead, faith is about being well – grounded, present, centered and whole. Right now.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,