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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego

As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.

Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.

And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.

Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.

Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.

Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.

I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.

PerinatalThe transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.

A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.

(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)

Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.

The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.

When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.

DevelopmentalFollowing our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.

“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.

Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.

There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.

Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.

This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.

EsotericThis final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.

Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.

A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)

After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”

 

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As If

  1. God has a plan and is in control.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. You have an immortal soul, but …
  4. Don’t trust yourself.
  5. A better place awaits those who obey God.

I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions.

This is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while hiding from authorities in a boat, after he and his brother had successfully carried out their mission of bombing the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan died on his way to the hospital from gunshot wounds by pursuing police and from being dragged under their own get-away car.

We Muslims are one body: you hurt one you hurt us all. Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven. Now how can you compete with that?

Now we might spin this into an exposé of Islamic fundamentalism. But if we did, it would only be to put a buffer of dissociation between an ideology that motivated these young men to violence in God’s name, and the more respectable theism of American Christianity. Of course, in the process of pushing this ideology away and condemning it as against what God is really all about, we protect ourselves against the possibility of a revelation – also known as disillusionment.

It can be expanded and morphed into countless variations – as it is among the world’s many religions – but this ideology consists of just five beliefs. A belief is when we pretend to know something, but don’t realize that we are pretending. In our trances of conviction and in the name of our delusions, human beings commit atrocities against other people, life on earth, and future generations. It doesn’t really matter what name you attach to the delusion; the essential mechanics of the phenomenon are the same across the board.

As we look at the five statements that make up this dangerous ideology, it should be obvious that they can be turned in the interest of emotional comfort or unconscionable violence. What decides the difference? If these were diametrical opposites the answer would be easy. The purpose is to calm anxiety, promote peace, and connect us meaningfully to the world around us. But could it have another purpose as well?

An unresolvable fact of our life in time is that things come at us randomly. Kind people suffer and mean people flourish; and yes, mean people suffer as kind people flourish. Televangelists can pump the notion that God favors those who are obedient, generous, and forgiving (although that last one doesn’t get as much airtime), but actual experience and just a little honest reflection will easily pry the lid off that deception. Still, it’s comforting to know (or pretend to know) that someone is watching over us and will someday give us what we deserve.

When, exactly? There’s no telling, but you can rest assured that if it doesn’t come in this life, God will bless you richly in the next. For a lot of people, just knowing (or pretending to know) that we don’t really die but merely continue on after the eye-blink of death in everlasting perpetuity is sufficient to reconcile them to the hardship, trauma, and bereavement that are inevitable in this life. That makes this bearable. We can put up with a lot here, with the assurance that it will all be better there.

For the Tsarnaev brothers, the promise of an after-life reward provided more than enough motivation to rip off limbs and kill innocent bystanders. Even the prospect of dying for their cause wasn’t a deterrent – if anything, it was a stimulant to what they did. God’s plan involves the triumph of his religion, which will come about either by the conversion or destruction of unbelievers. God is in control and is moving human events in the direction of a preordained destiny. Whatever happens along the way, you can know (or pretend to know) that it’s all happening according to plan.

Every statement in the above set has a metaphysical anchor, except one. The existence of an external deity who has a plan and is in control, whose reasons may be inscrutable (and therefore beyond question), and who will reward our obedience and sacrifice with endless beatitude in the next life – the hook for each one of these beliefs is importantly just (or far) outside the horizon of direct experience or presentable evidence. This is frequently used as an argument for their authority, strangely enough.

Religion is about metaphysics, and metaphysics can only be known by revelation. Charismatic prophets, inerrant scriptures, and orthodox doctrines all give warrant to the validity of our faith. Don’t worry over the fact that you haven’t encountered the personal deity as he is depicted in the sacred stories. It happened, and that’s all you need to know (or pretend to know). Besides, who are you to question it? Your sinful nature, mortal ignorance, personal stupidity, or undeveloped faith (multiple choice, and “all of the above” is the best answer) preclude you from any kind of claim to authority.

So we can see that none of the other statements of this dangerous ideology would stand up or hold water if confidence in our own experience, intelligence, and insight were not disqualified beforehand. If you can be dissuaded from trusting yourself – or better yet, if distrusting yourself can be accepted as obedience to divine revelation – then you are absolutely dependent on the external authority of religion.

But as Alan Watts often asked: If you can’t trust yourself, is it really a good idea to trust this distrust of yourself? This is typically where orthodoxy warns us to stop asking questions.

When we believe something, we pretend to know – and then forget or never wake up to realize that we are acting “as if” we know. But isn’t this what we mean by faith? Don’t we need faith to believe in an external deity, his overarching plan, our own immortal souls, and a life after this one? The answer is “No.” All you need is the willingness to believe these things, but that isn’t faith.

PeaceIt is possible to question, doubt, and disbelieve almost every statement in the ideology under consideration and still have faith – a mystically deep, spiritually grounded, and truly relevant faith. Almost every one. But when you lose or give up trust in yourself, you really can’t trust anything else.

Faith is full release to the present mystery of reality, experienced as provident in this beat of your heart, this breath in your lungs, this thought in your mind, this moment of being, this passing opportunity of life. All of this rises up from within and all around you as support, grace, and real presence.

Until we are given permission to trust ourselves, or take it back from those who are withholding it from us, more and more people will suffer the consequences of our convictions. We will continue to take our gods as real, read our myths as literal accounts, claim the infallibility of our beliefs, and be ready to surrender everything – common sense, reason, peace, and life itself – for the sake of what we only pretend to know.

 

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God and Ground

There is a very interesting paradox at the heart of healthy religion. Our notions of God – just looking across the landscape of world religions, and then deeper into the private religion of individuals – are practically innumerable and infinitely diverse. God is represented as a personality, a force of some kind, a supreme intelligence, or as an utterly abstract perfection.

But this isn’t the paradox I have in mind.

A paradox is something that is “contrary to” (para) “opinion” (doxa) or beyond belief, in apparent conflict with how something is commonly understood. The paradox at the heart of healthy religion has nothing to do with the countless and often contradictory ways that human beings represent God. To think of God as masculine and feminine, for instance, is not a paradox but simply a more inclusive and holistic consideration of the divine personality.

The real paradox in religion has to do with the representation of something that is inherently unimaginable, with all our talk (theology) about a mystery that is essentially ineffable (beyond words). What I’m calling healthy religion acknowledges this paradox and respects it for the corrective effect it has on our tendency to get locked too tightly around what we think God is. Unhealthy religion, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge it and even seeks to invalidate the paradox by insisting that its doctrines are final and infallible.

God and GroundLet’s look inside this paradox in order to understand and appreciate its creative tension. The illustration above depicts this “contained contradiction” at the heart of healthy religion. At the bottom is an icon representing the idea of what is essentially beyond representation – what I have taken to calling the real presence of mystery. This isn’t merely stating that reality is a mystery to our minds, but that this mystery rises up and presents itself to us in the manifold nature of things; as this, that, and the other.

The icon suggests a swirling and dynamic creativity, spinning out the complex arrangement of existence all around us, as it simultaneously turns inward to a place of singular and undifferentiated oneness. This is the generative source of being; not just another being but the power of being itself. If these terms seem inadequate, we shouldn’t be surprised. We are contemplating something that is not a thing; it cannot be made into an object of thought or boxed up inside any definition.

Because this present mystery is the generative and foundational support of everything else, a favored metaphor among mystics is the “ground of being.” Everything we can sense and know moves through cycles of birth and death, emergence and dissolution, coming-to-be and passing away. Like waves on the surface of an ocean, the multiplicity of apparently separate beings, each rolling through the period of its individual lifetime, is really the dynamic action of a fathomless sea presenting itself as this, that, and the other.

The “wave” under consideration here is you. If you could take the opportunity and look deep, very deep within yourself, you would find not just more “me” but something else. Not something separate and apart from what you are, but not some indestructible center of identity either. It is presence – real presence, the presentation of a mystery rising up in this provident moment in you, as you, but also in everything else around you. As you are able to let go and fall into the gracious support of this mystery, all concern for “me and mine” dissolves away, and only a profound awareness of communion remains.

As I said, healthy religion encourages individuals to descend by this inward path into the presence of God and communion with all things. The “of God” represents religion’s final words before the soul plunges into the depths where language is no longer effective; but neither is it necessary. The word mystery comes from the root “to close,” which is gentle reproof of our tendency to open our mouths with incessant commentary on something that can’t even really be named. Our instinct for meaning takes time and practice to restrain in the presence of mystery.

But religion doesn’t just leave you there. There are also unhealthy forms of mysticism, which simply revel in communion with the present mystery but lack any interest in exploring its connections to everyday life in the world. In my experience, these unhealthy forms of mysticism characteristically denigrate the ego and renounce the realm of daily concerns. They try to press the wave flat, so that only the infinite ocean remains.

While the ocean is more than the waves at its surface, the waves are nothing less than the ocean itself. Your identity – the separate “who” that you are – is distinct from your essence which unwinds into the depths of being itself. Identity (ego) is a product of social conditioning, the place in your personality where consciousness has been bent back into self-consciousness by the disciplines of your tribe. For this reason it is commonly called the “conditioned self.” Ego is the ‘I’ who is “one of us,” an insider, both product and agent of the collective.

“Patron deity” in religion refers to the representation of God as a personality who stands in a reciprocal relationship with devotees, providing something in exchange for their worship, offerings, prayers and obedience. It is more than just an “idea” of God, then, and goes beyond mere belief. Reciprocity is the key. Devotees are aware that their patron deity calls them to something, puts a demand on them, or promises a reward for their fidelity, commitment, and sacrifice.

It’s important to understand that the patron deity is a literary figure, not a literal one; a figure of story, art and imagination rather than an actual separate being (out there, up there). Especially in a religion where sacred stories have been reduced to factual records, such a statement will be regarded as heresy, disbelief, ignorance or a loss of faith. There will also tend to be a corresponding lack of spiritual depth, and not much appreciation of mystery.

In healthy religion, the tribe orients and guides ego through the course of development, from the impulsive stage of childhood, through an imperial phase of adolescence, and eventually into the responsibilities of adulthood. The transition between childhood and adulthood – not a formal stage but rather a phase in development known as “growing up” (adolēscere) – is where ego frequently gets stuck. During this time an individual can come to fervently believe that “it’s all about me.”

The imperial ego is predictably self-absorbed, strives for superiority, seeks glory, and is jealous for the exclusive love and worship of others. Interestingly, every religion has to evolve through its own adolescent phase, where the patron deity is depicted and praised in exactly these terms. The earlier depictions of a more maternal and provident nature are rather dramatically rejected (or demoted to secondary attributes) in the exaltation of a supreme lord and king. If the evolution of religion can successfully transcend this self-centered phase, believers will eventually be empowered to take up a more stable, responsible, creative and benevolent attitude in life.

What I’m calling the patron deity, then, is complicated by the fact that it stands in a paradoxical relationship to the grounding mystery of reality, but at the same time represents progress (or arrest) in the spiritual awakening of its devotees. Just a quick survey of the Bible, for instance, reveals a “growth chart” in how its patron deity (Yahweh) gradually advanced from a jealous demand on the obedience of insiders, into a compassionate interest in outsiders and those who suffer, and opened fully at last into an unconditional love for the enemy (articulated as forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus).

Along the way, Yahweh’s devotional community (as a function of its individual egos) advanced accordingly – or I should say, along a slightly slower curve behind the guiding light of his ideal. At times it has gotten hung up. Concerns over natural resources, national security, who’s in charge, and the uncertainty of the future have occasionally provoked individual egos (and consequently entire tribes) to twist up inside themselves and grip down in fear. At this historic moment, in fact, we are in the midst of a regressive hiccup through our adolescent phase, as fundamentalists of various brands hunker behind ramparts and prepare for war.

If we can appreciate – which of course means that we must first acknowledge and accept – that our patron deities are representations-in-transcendence of what is going on (or turning off) in ourselves, then there is a chance that we will be able to not only survive the current regression into conviction and violence, but finally wake up to the real presence of mystery in ourselves, in each other, right here and now.

 

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On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one,  you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

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