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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Safe Inside Our Truth

With what’s going on geopolitically around us these days, and of course right here in our own backyard, I am reminded once again just how dangerous convictions can be. If I’m short on tolerance, it’s shortest when I bump up against someone’s absolute, inflexible, and righteous conviction that their way is the “one and only way.”

True enough, religion has often been the breeding ground of convictions. But a belief doesn’t have to be particularly religious in content, oriented on god, or rooted in a faith tradition to make the mind its prisoner. Human beings have a weakness for convictions. They make us feel better, at least about ourselves, even if they have the longer-term effect of damaging our soul and foreshortening the human future.

Before we dig into the genealogy of conviction, let’s take a couple minutes to identify its salient features. By definition – although this is hardly ever commented upon – a conviction is a belief that holds our mind captive, just like a convict inside a prison cell. There was a time when the belief was a mere proposition, a narrative construct perhaps as simple as a single thought or elaborate as a story, floating like a cloud through our mind-sky.

In fact, this is going on for each of us all the time.

But then something happens: We believe the thought or story, and with this agreement we invest ourselves emotionally in its truth. At that point (and not before) the narrative construct in our mind engages an internal state of our body and we have an experience.

The thought becomes a feeling. This fusion of mind and body, of thought and experience, is the mentallurgy of conviction.

A common assumption of our top-down, logocentric, and essentially gnostic Western bias is that thoughts produce feelings. Thinking so makes it so. But what this head-heavy paradigm fails to properly understand and tragically underestimates is the part of us that gives agreement to whatever thoughts or stories are floating through.

“To believe” comes from the root meaning “to set one’s heart,” so it makes sense to call this part of us our heart.

So we can think something or listen to a story someone else is telling us, but it won’t engage our experience until we set our heart and give agreement to the thought or story. And once fusion is achieved, that thought or story becomes our “truth” – which I have to put in scare quotes to remind us that just believing something doesn’t make it so. In other words, we can give agreement to a narrative construct that has no basis in reality whatsoever; but we are convicted and it no longer matters.

Once a conviction is made, our mind closes around the belief. And in time, the belief closes around our mind, becoming the proverbial box we can’t think outside of. Years go by, the world around us changes, and there may even be mounting counter-evidence and good logical reasons why we should let the belief go – but we can’t.

Oddly enough, all of these factors can actually be used to justify and strengthen its hold on us. As an early architect of Christian orthodoxy put it, “I believe because it’s absurd.” It’s so unlikely, it just has be true.

So, a conviction is a belief – which is our agreement with a thought or story – that has taken the mind hostage and doesn’t permit us to think outside the box. This captivity can be so strong as to prevent our ability to consider or even see alternatives. There is no “other way” for this is the only way. Period.

Such are the distinctive features of a conviction. But how does it form? How do we get to the point where we are willing to give our agreement to something that is without empirical evidence, logical consistency, rational coherence, or even practical relevance?

My diagram offers a way of understanding how convictions form in us. Remember, they are not simply true beliefs but beliefs that must be true. What generates this compelling authority around them? Why does a conviction have to be true?

The answer is found deeper inside our ego structure and farther back in time, to when our earliest perspective on reality was just taking shape.

As newborns and young children, our brain was busy getting oriented and establishing what would soon become the “idle speed” or baseline state of its nervous system. Specifically it was watching out for and reacting to how provident the environment was to our basic needs to live, belong, and be loved.

A provident environment made us feel secure, allowing us to relax and be open to our surroundings. An improvident environment stimulated our brain to set its idle speed at a higher RPM – making our nervous system hypersensitive, vigilant, and reactive. This baseline adaptation wasn’t a binary value (either-or, on or off) but rather an analog (more-or-less) setting regarding the basic question of security.

I’ve placed the term “insecurity” on the threshold between the external environment and our body’s internal environment because it is both a fact about reality and a feeling registered in our nervous system. As a matter of fact, the reality around us is not perfectly secure. Any number of things could befall us at any moment, including critical failures and dysfunctions inside our own body.

For each one of us, the timing of delivery between our urgent needs and the supply of what we needed was not always punctual, reliable, or sufficient; sometimes it didn’t come at all.

The early responsibility of our brain, then, was to match the nervous state of our internal environment (how secure we felt) to the physical conditions of our external environment (how secure we actually were). To the degree we felt insecure, we were motivated to manipulate our circumstances in order to find some relief, assurance, and certainty about the way things are.

Stepping up a level in my diagram, I have named this motivated quest for security “ambition,” with its dual (ambi-) drives of craving for what we desperately need and fretting over not finding it, not getting enough of it, or losing it if we should ever manage to grasp an edge.

This exhausting cycle of craving and fear is what in Buddhism is called samsara, the Wheel of Suffering.

Ambition keeps us trapped in the Wheel for a reason that amounts to a serious bit of wisdom: We will never find anything outside ourselves that can entirely resolve our insecurity, which means that the harder we try, the deeper into captivity we put ourselves.

This is where conviction comes in. Earlier I said that a thought or story in the mind won’t become an experience until we agree with it and accept it as truth. But a stronger process plays upward from below, in the body and its nervous system.

If we feel insecure, we will be motivated by ambition to find whatever will relieve our insecurity, either by latching onto some pacifier (“Calm me! Comfort me! Complete me!”) or closing our mind down around a black-and-white judgment that resolves the ambiguity and gives us a sense of safe distance and control.

A conviction is therefore a reductionist simplification of something that is inherently ambiguous and complex – and what’s more ambiguous and complex than reality?

We should by now have some appreciation for a conviction’s therapeutic value in resolving ambiguity, simplifying complexity, and providing some measure of security in a reality which is surely provident but not all that secure.

If its therapeutic benefit were all that mattered, we would be wise to leave everyone alone with their convictions. But there is one more piece to the picture, which is how a conviction screens out reality and serves as a prejudgment (or prejudice) against anything that doesn’t quite fit its box.

By buffering our exposure to what might otherwise confuse, challenge, upset, or harm us, we can feel secure inside our box, hiding from reality.

Once we have filtered out what makes another person uniquely human (just like us), our prejudice will justify any act of dismissal, discrimination, oppression, abuse, or violence – all in the name of our truth.

 

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Peaceful Soul, Creative Spirit

A friend and blog follower of mine posed an important question after reading my recent post “Where is God?”

Here are his words:

The traditional God was a human-created myth that is no longer needed, and any debate over God’s reality needlessly wastes time and energy, and leads to conflict. Better to just leave it behind. I’m down with that, as far as it goes.

My hang-up is over the need to ponder “spirituality.” Can we not give up that as well, and just get our “awe fix” by trying to comprehend the wonder of a leaf or of Earth’s orbit around the sun?

Even though leaving behind the debate over god’s reality is important to post-theism, leaving god behind is not, since the meaning of god (as a metaphorical construct) is what needs to be properly understood and incorporated rather than simply discarded on our way forward.

It’s the baby-and-bath-water thing again. The dirty bathwater is all the toxic convictions generated in defending and denying god’s literal existence, which has come to obscure the baby still in there somewhere. That’s why changing our question from existence to significance – from “Does god exist?” to “What does ‘god’ mean?” – helps us appreciate where post-theism transcends the debate and opens a path through theism.

But isn’t post-theism just a matter of breaking free of theism, being done with the debate over god’s existence and perhaps done with religion altogether? Why then do I insist on holding on to spirituality? For my friend, I suspect it sounds too much like religion all over again. If we say we’re done with that, let’s just leave it behind and get our “awe fix” – love the term! – by contemplating nature and things that definitely do exist.

An “awe fix” sounds like something we have a persistent need for, so what is that need all about? I happen to know that my friend is deeply fascinated with cosmology and the evolution of our universe. He certainly wouldn’t be alone in having an occasional seizure of existential astonishment over the provident marvels of Earth and her starry heavens.

No doubt, it is that same radical amazement that must have inspired the earliest stories, songs, and dances of our species that got bundled up as mythology so many millenniums ago.

To name this susceptibility to wonder, this sensitivity to being caught up in rapturous awe over the present mystery of reality, spirituality, is for me an acknowledgment that such experiences resonate in the human nervous system. They are not merely speculative wonderment over what we don’t yet know, or wide-eyed stupefaction in a brain too small to take it all in. In other posts I have named it our spiritual intelligence (SQ), and in recent decades ample evidence has validated its crucial contribution to our overall wellbeing.

What follows will be an attempt to answer my friend’s question regarding the relevance of spirituality and why we can’t just pitch it out with the bathwater.

In my view, spirituality and spiritual intelligence are unique to our species. I say this because it represents our further development beyond the formation of a separate center of personal identity, or ego. As far as we know, ours is the only species in which consciousness has evolved to the point of bending back upon itself in the fully self-conscious actor.

It’s not difficult to anticipate the survival advantages of such an evolutionary achievement, as the individual is now malleable by the group as never before. This significant breakthrough made possible both the construction of social identity and the transmission of culture – advances found only in humans and crucial to our progress.

But with this evolutionary value-added came a significant vulnerability. The center upon and around which the social engineering of personal identity takes shape stands in a unique design space, strategically separate from the individual’s animal nature (body) and separate as well from other egos, all at different stages of construction.

Each self-conscious actor (ego) is instructed by the tribe and provided roles to play, which is where our word “person” derives from – the Latin persōna referring to a stage actor’s mask through which (per) she would speak (sōna) her part.

When the family and tribe are healthy systems, this vulnerability is answered with responsible attention and nurturing care. But over the millenniums, as the human social experience has become more complicated and unsettled, these systems have fulfilled their task less well. The consequence is that the individual personality has grown increasingly neurotic over time – more insecure, anxious, and out of balance.To compensate, the neurotic ego grabs on emotionally to whatever (or whomever) might stabilize and pacify its insecurity. This is what I name neurotic attachment. In addition to clutching these emotional pacifiers, the individual will also engage in various strategies of manipulation in order to get his or her way. Such cycling back and forth between attachment and manipulation can keep the neurotic ego busy for a lifetime – or several lifetimes, if you believe in that.

Actually, this is exactly where authoritarian, repressive, dogmatic, and exclusive forms of religion can take hold. The insecure and insatiably neurotic ego desperately needs salvation – an escape to immortal glory – and such sick forms of religion promise to provide it. And if what I’ve said so far makes sense, then this is also where we can best understand what an active spirituality has to offer.In this diagram I have pushed the neurotic cycles of attachment and manipulation apart, just so we can keep them in the picture. The tricyclic structure in the middle is intended to illustrate a healthy spirituality – remembering that we are talking about a distinct thread or frequency of human intelligence (SQ) and the new dimensions of awareness and experience it opens up for us.

Now we can see that where the neurotic ego struggles most is in the dynamic balance of love and power which characterizes every relationship. This balance can be further analyzed into the ability of partners to share what they have with each other, to give to the relationship what it needs to be healthy and strong, and most fundamentally to trust themselves, each other, and the relational process itself.

The ability to trust is directly a function of how centered, grounded, inwardly secure and fully present an individual is. These qualities together serve as my best definition of inner peace, which is the essential state of a peaceful soul. Here, then, is the first part of my response to the question of why we can’t simply dismiss spirituality in our criticism of theism and its god.

Our spiritual intelligence is what opens consciousness to the grounding mystery within, to that mystical place below personal identity, relationships, and worldly concerns, where we can effortlessly relax into being.

This deep center of quiet calm is what supports the ability to trust oneself and another, and to share what we have with others. The interactions of trust, share, and give in turn name the distinct ways that spirituality expresses itself outwardly.

In many languages the metaphor of spirit (breath, wind) carries the idea of movement, freedom, and creative transformation. While the peaceful soul is spirituality’s deep inner wellspring, the creative spirit is its outreaching influence in life and the world around us.

Indeed, as a construction of meaning, the world around us is its crowning achievement, called into existence “in the beginning” (Genesis 1) of each new day.

 

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Where is God?

As an advocate of post-theism I stand in an interesting space, with suspicious theists on one side and suspicious atheists on the other. As they debate the literal existence of god, I want to know what god means – not what did god mean by this commandment or that Bible story, but what the mental construct of god means.

Because theists and atheists don’t typically give this question the attention it deserves but assume they are both talking about the same thing, any hope of a resolution must be abandoned.

Theists hear the “post” in post-theism as just a clever disguise for atheism, while atheists hear “theism” and conclude that I’m playing a word trick in order to lure them into an intellectually and ethically untenable position.

As I open our topic for meditation, let me once again clarify what post-theism means, which will also serve as a starting definition of what god means.

“Post” refers to what follows or comes after something, as in “post-war times” or “post-democratic age.” It doesn’t mean that the thing on the far side of the hyphen (war, democracy) didn’t happen or no longer matters. Indeed, its reality or validity is accepted, along with a recognition that it had a place and served a role in what followed. But what followed is after, even if the influence of that earlier thing has been incorporated and transcended in the new form.

Post-theism doesn’t give any time to arguing for or against the existence of god, but rather inquires into what’s after god. How is god being incorporated and transcended in religion today?

So what does god mean? We get closer to our answer by noting the significant roles that god plays in theism. First of all, god is a personification of the creative and provident intelligence evident in the universe. Notice that we’re not saying that god is evident, but that the universe presents us with evidence of causality, intention, maybe even purpose, which we personify in our construct of god.

A second thing to note about god is his* personal development over time, as depicted in the chronological sequence of myths featuring him. God’s character grows increasingly more refined and universally appealing in the general narrative. Early stories of god represent him as jealous of competition (i.e., the gods of neighboring tribes and nations), vengeful toward his enemies (which invariably are also the enemies of his tribe), and nitpickingly scrupulous when it comes to the moral and ritual behavior of his devotees.

As the centuries roll on, however, and importantly as his biographers are confronted with a wider diversity of human needs, beliefs, and ways of life, god grows into the higher virtues of compassion, loving-kindness, and, with particular clarity in the storytelling of Jesus, preemptive and unconditional forgiveness.

As I’ve already slipped it in, I should just make explicit the causal link between a construct of god and the growing self-understanding and world awareness of his human authors. In theism this relationship isn’t merely unilateral, with god as the personified projection of human ethical progress through time. It goes the other way as well, with the narrative ideal of god’s character evoking the worship and aspirations of his people.

In glorifying god as compassionate and forgiving, these same ethical virtues are exalted by the people as worthy of pursuit in their daily lives.

When theism is healthy, this combination of a deep faith in the provident mystery of reality, along with the progress of believers in their efforts to internalize and express what had earlier been projected and glorified in the character of their god, leads very naturally to its threshold with post-theism.

When god has fulfilled his role as the existential ground of faith and the transcendent attractor of human ethical progress, one question remains: What comes after god?

Once again, this will feel a little irreverent, possibly sacrilegious, and even blatantly heretical to some on the inside of theism, who see the threshold as leading away from god and into abject atheism – or worse.

As with many progression thresholds where we cross from one paradigm, mindset, or perspective on life into something profoundly different, we can feel as if we’re being asked to renounce all that we have believed to this point. Seemingly now we need to say “No” to god, “No!” to his religion, and “No!!” to those who claim to speak on his behalf.

But remember, post-theism isn’t about saying “No” to any of that, or trying to argue it off the stage. It’s about asking, “Now what? What’s next? How can we continue our spiritual journey after the veil of mythology has come down?” In some ways, this is the question of our time.

This whole evolutionary shift forward would be much less traumatic if theism could self-consciously facilitate the spiritual growth and faith development of its members – across the full arc and through all the seasons of a modern human lifespan.

Imagine what it would be like if resident post-theists, preferably in positions of teaching and leadership, helped young or new believers step into the sacred story-world where they take on new identities as god’s beloved children. As the curriculum progresses, they would be encouraged increasingly to take responsibility for their behavior and even for their beliefs.

This would involve equipping them with the critical tools and intellectual freedom to dig into what they had so far only accepted as true. At some point someone would sit them down and say, “Look, we are playing a very elaborate game here. It’s called ‘Where is god?’

“What you’ve been given so far are not final answers, but our best questions. You’ll be expected to come up with some of your own. Think of them as maps for your quest.

“The really important thing to keep in mind is this: None of us knows what god is, so you’ll have to look everywhere.

“Search outside this sanctuary. Explore the woodlands, oceans, and deserts of Earth. Contemplate the galaxies overhead and the ground under your feet. Scout about in foreign lands and forsaken urban alleyways. Look high and low, both near and far.

“Don’t forget to look inside your neighbor, the stranger on the street, and even in your worst enemy – for god loves to hide where you least expect to find him!

“Finally, don’t forget to look inside yourself; for if god isn’t there, it’s not likely you’ll find her anywhere else.”


* We’ll stick with the preferred pronoun of biblical theism … for now.
 

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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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