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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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The Way of Dialogue

One sure mark of maturity is our ability as individuals to engage others in constructive dialogue. This term is not meant as a synonym for mere conversation, argumentative debate, or the pursuit of agreement in how we see things. To communicate with others of a different perspective means at least that we are able to listen, ask questions, understand, and reach an empathetic connection with them.

Needless to say, genuine dialogue is rarely taught and practiced these days, and is steadily disappearing as an art-form of healthy human cultures.

Just now at this period in history, our globe is deeply divided. A vast majority of the human population holds a different perspective from ours on the nature of reality, the hierarchy of values, the meaning of life, and how best to live. Whereas once upon a time we could entertain a meaningful conversation with someone of a different perspective because we shared with them certain backgrounding assumptions of a common culture, our global situation today breaks beyond the cultural commons and is forcing us to engage difference of a more radical sort.

In order to understand and start developing our skill for constructive dialogue, we need to resolve some confusion regarding its family resemblance to other forms of human interpersonal engagement (conversation, debate, negotiation) and then dig deeper into the dialogical process itself. For reference as we move along, I’ll refer to the diagram above.

The top part of my diagram illustrates the dilemma of confronting someone of a different perspective. A vertical (but broken) line separates the two, right down to the divergent meaning of the words they are speaking to each other. Assuming our interlocutors are speaking the same language (e.g., English), the words they use likely carry meaning that doesn’t match exactly. They may both speak of “freedom,” for instance, but their constructions of meaning around that idea might be literally worlds apart. This should remind us that words are not just sounds in the air or logical operators of propositional thought; additionally they are elements in our articulation of meaning, basic building blocks in our determination of what really matters.

Each opposing side might be speaking similar words, then, but be interpreting those words in a very different way. In the thought bubble behind each brain in my diagram are certain highly charged symbols that represent a few of the lines currently dividing our human experience on this planet. And of course, there are many others.

Depending on whether you are an American or a Russian, a Republican or a Democrat, a Christian or a Muslim, how you spin a word – that is to say, the meaning you assign to it – will be expressive of that particular identity.

Let me say right off that I am not suggesting that American, Republican, and Christian go together as a set (and similarly for the other side). While the differences directly across the way tend to be more mutually exclusive, it is possible, say, that you are an American Democrat who is Muslim, or a Russian Christian who favors strong republican government. It’s much less likely that you would be an American Russian (although you could be a Russian with American sympathies), identify as both Republican and Democrat (but you might be a Republican who supports domestic government programs), or a Christian Muslim (however, there are some who mix their own eclectic religious identity from different brands and traditions of world religion).

A key aim of constructive dialogue is what I earlier called empathetic connection. This requires understanding, which in turn is dependent on taking turns and listening carefully to what each other says. In the end, dialogue can be considered “successful” when partners come to appreciate each other’s humanity.

Argumentative debate – or its degenerate form so popular these days: bigoted accusation – doesn’t have this goal, as its purpose is to present the superior and persuasive position on a topic. Polite conversation will typically leave the matter of a partner’s humanity suspended in the background as less provocative opinions are exchanged. And whereas negotiation looks for potential points of agreement and compromise, dialogue strives for a place underneath our different worldviews, ideologies, opinions, and even of words themselves.

Before we go there, I need to acknowledge one thing that can derail the whole effort. Actually, this thing I’m speaking of is what prevents dialogue from making any progress at all. It has to do with the very interesting phenomenon where a belief once held by the mind ends up taking the mind hostage. If you are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever membership holds your identity), that self-identification obligates you with certain value-judgments and opinions about the way things are.

As beliefs, they provide orientation and guidance for living your life.

It can happen, however, and for various reasons, that a given belief stops operating as a meaningful preference in your interpretation of reality, and becomes instead the only way of looking at it. Now, what formerly had been held by your mind comes to hold your mind prisoner, like a convict behind bars. This often happens during a conversion experience where an individual is rather suddenly overtaken with the certainty of a competing truth. Or it might come on gradually as the habit of belief slowly pushes all variances out of view, leaving just this one – “the way it is.” However it happens, the result is what we call a conviction.

I made the case in Deliver Us From Conviction that this phenomenon, where a belief takes the mind captive, is the principal threat to our human and planetary future. All the other problems we face – nuclear armament, global warming, market bankruptcy, international and intertribal warfare, human rights violations around the planet or interracial conflict at home – are driven by convictions, beliefs that have made us into their convicts.

A conviction forecloses on all questions and rules out every doubt. There is no “other” way.

The way through this impasse is dialogue. But obviously, if we are to have any hope of making progress, each of us needs to examine the degree in which conviction is a driving force in our lives. The following steps of constructive dialogue can assist in this self-examination, and hopefully inspire us as well to choose its path in our dealings with difference in others.


Even the foregoing reflections on the nature of ideology, membership, and identity as the backgrounding influences behind our beliefs and the words we use to articulate them, might have already helped us loosen our grip on what we believe to be true. Notice that I didn’t say that we should let go of our truth-claims, but merely refresh our relationship to them as constructions of meaning. They are human creations after all, and we advance our cause considerably when we can remember ourselves and each other as creators.

Let’s start digging, then.

Beneath the words we use to articulate our constructions of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) are the feelings we have around them (symbolized by a heart in my diagram). Even though belief fuses a proposition of language with an emotional commitment to its truth-value, dialogue challenges us to loosen this bond sufficiently so we can notice the deeper feelings in play. You may have a strong commitment to a number of beliefs, and while they may be very dissimilar at the propositional level (e.g., the objective existence of god and the fundamental disparity in a proposed healthcare reform bill) your feelings are what make the belief in each case important to you – quite apart from the question of whether, really, it has any anchor in actual fact.

That’s not to say that belief statements should be scrapped, or that our constructions of meaning are secondary to how we feel about them. In fact, the strength of feeling associated with a particular proposition or article of belief is less about how firmly it ties into objective reality (whatever that is), than how deep its roots reach into our needs as persons and human beings.

In other words, we feel strongly about ideas that impinge critically on our existence, security, livelihood, close relationships, personal well-being, and opportunities for the future.

In my diagram such concerns are represented by an atom, symbolizing matters of life, desire, love, and joy.

The dialogical process is a timely reminder that underneath our different perspectives and beliefs each of us experience life in very similar ways, and, still deeper down, that our needs and those of the other are fundamentally the same. How have we forgotten that before we are American or Russian, Republican or Democrat, Christian or Muslim (or whatever horizon of identity we might choose), we are human beings?

Every major awakening of spiritual intelligence in history has turned on this foundational insight – both obvious and strangely obscured – of our common humanity: with our neighbor, a stranger, an outsider, and even with our enemy.

Yes, it takes time, effort – and patience. But once we can look through our different constructions of meaning to the feelings we attach to them; and then down through these feelings to the human needs we all share, the project of building genuine community and world peace will surprise us in its transforming effect. Once we are delivered from our convictions, the creative human spirit is set free.

It only takes one individual to open the way. Why not you?

 

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