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Tomorrow’s Religion

Let’s begin with a definition. Religion is a more or less systematic framework of values, beliefs, commitments, and practices that serves to orient a human being in reality, connect her with others, and inspire the lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment.

I’m taking the term on its etymological cash-value – the Latin religare means “to link together” – rather than its popular definition as believing in the existence of god or cultivating a fascination with the supernatural. Such misconceptions of religion have been invented for the surreptitious purpose of setting it apart from the realities of everyday life and ultimately dismissing it altogether as irrelevant nonsense.

But if we go with my straightforward definition of religion, then two important observations follow. The first is that religion is an essential formality of our life as human beings in the way it provides structure around and gives expression to our deeper intuitions, communal affections, and higher aspirations.

Whether or not you “believe in god” or “go to church,” you have a religion – some framework of values, beliefs, commitments and practices that serves to orient you in reality, connect you with others, and inspire your lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment. It may not be very intentional or all that effective, but you have one nonetheless.

Secondly, given that our human future hangs in the balance and depends in no small way on how mindful, compassionate, and responsible we are with respect to our planet and each other, it should be obvious that our future will be as long and prosperous as our religions are properly grounded and successful in fulfilling their mandate.

If our religions are not so grounded and successful these days, it is incumbent on us to bring them back into alignment – seeing as how they are human constructions and manifestations of our own psychospiritual condition.

The essential formality of a healthy religion can have the salutary effect of shaping consciousness and guiding our development in provident ways, but a “sick” religion will only make its adherents sicker still.

All around us these days we can see how widespread this sickness is: moral complacency and fanatical devotion, small-minded dogmatism and militant sectarianism – these are symptoms of the same underlying spiritual disease.

In this blog I give a lot of attention to the challenge of understanding where we are individually and as a species on the trajectory of evolution, and particularly to the role of religion in facilitating our progress. Regardless of the fact that many religions today are insular and regressive, my interest is in how religion itself evolves – or needs to evolve, if it is do its job and not pull the world down upon our heads.

The very busy diagram above spreads out the canvas of our big picture. Ascending along the diagonal axis are the major eras and levels in the architecture of our universe: beginning 14 billion years and 3 minutes ago with the flaring-forth of quantum energy in what we quaintly name “The Big Bang”; telescoping through the formation of matter, the emergence of life, the ignition of sentient awareness (mind), and the differentiation of self-conscious identity (ego); reaching fulfillment finally in each individual’s breakthrough awakening to the transpersonal spirit of community.

With all of that in front of us, I will devote the rest of this post to that phase transition in the upper left, where the religion of theism, which is centered on the relationship of ego and deity (superego, or the “ego above”) in the social context of group membership, transforms into the religion of post-theism.

I need to remind my reader that the post- in “post-theism” is not concerned with the debate over god’s objective existence, but is instead critically engaged with what our theological constructions of god say about us, and what hint they may provide regarding our prospect of a liberated life after, beyond, and on the other side of (post-) theism and orthodoxy.

Arranged to the left of those three major types of religion (animism, theism, and post-theism) are the “stages of faith,” as formulated by James Fowler – with a slight revision of the stage that marks, according to my scheme, the transition from theism to post-theism.

For its part, theism develops through three distinct phases. The first phase (“early”) is focused on the tribe’s founding myths (world creation, ancestral heritage, stories of heroes, saints, and saviors). A second phase (“high”) is oriented on the devotional cult, the moral code of obedience, and the ordination of earthly authorities.

Eventually it may advance into a third (“late”) phase where the individual takes up the work of constructing a personalized worldview and philosophy of life, one that is relevant to his or her experience and no longer satisfied with borrowing on the experiences (or purported experiences) of others.

Late theism can be particularly stressful and traumatic for the individual whose faith development is needing a religion suitable to his or her psychospiritual progress. In what I earlier called “sick” religion, the response of theism to the individual’s emergent aspirations is that of closing down, using shame, guilt, or the threat of excommunication to coerce him or her back into the fold.

Tragically many give in, if only because they don’t necessarily want to lose the fellowship, but also because their vision of a post-theistic spirituality is as yet unclear.

We happen to be at a point in our history, and on the trajectory of evolution itself, where an unprecedented courage is required – at least on a broad view, since a relative few have already achieved the breakthrough – for each of us to persist on our adventure into the farther reaches of human nature.

What I’m calling a “dialogical-conjunctive” faith (Fowler’s stage is named conjunctive) takes into account the wide diversity of belief systems, worldviews, and ways of life sharing the planet with us. These are brought together (“conjunctive”) for a comparative understanding and mutual exploration, in the interest of co-constructing a larger horizon of meaning (“dialogical”) that can appreciate the differences, even as it provides for their radical inclusion.

Having surrendered our idols of orthodoxy, we can now descend by a contemplative-mystical path into our own grounding mystery, as we ascend together by a transpersonal-ethical path into the liberated life of community.

 

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Our Moment of Decision

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?  – Don Cupitt, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking

This quote from Don Cupitt struck me when I read it, in the way it corresponds to my own theory of religion’s development out of primitive animism, through the egocentric period of theism, and ultimately into a fully secular (this-worldly) post-theistic spirituality. Cupitt is a proponent of post-theistic Christianity who urges us to abandon the metaphysics of classical theology (deity, devil, angels, soul and the afterlife) in favor of a fully embodied here-and-now religion of outpouring love.

One way of reading Cupitt’s words is in the mode of comparative religion, where Christianity is positioned between non-theistic Buddhism on one side and hyper-theistic Islam on the other – hyper not intended as a synonym for extreme, militant, or fundamentalist, necessarily, but in the sense that Allah is ontologically separate from his creation and very much out there. Historical Buddhism can be regarded as a post-theistic development within Hinduism which abandoned a concern with gods and metaphysics for a commitment to end human suffering.

But we might also read Cupitt relative to a tension within Christianity itself, between its own hyper-theistic and post-theistic tendencies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Jesus himself should be seen as a post-theistic Jew who sought to move his contemporaries beyond the god of vengeance, retribution, and favoritism, to outdo even god in the practice of unconditional forgiveness and love of enemies. This tradition certainly represents a minority report in Christianity, whereas its orthodoxy has been more “Muslim” than “Buddhist” – much more about the Lord god, his exalted Christ, the Second Coming and Final Judgment than Jesus’ new community of love and liberty.

In my view, post-theism is the inevitable destiny of all religion. I’ve worked hard to distinguish post-theism from the more or less dogmatic atheism that is in fashion nowadays, where god’s literal and objective existence is disputed on logical, scientific, moral, and political grounds. Post-theism does not see the point in arguing the empirical status of a literary figure. Indeed, as a figure of story rather than a fact of history, god’s place in religion is rationally defensible.

The problem arises when religion forgets that its god is a metaphorical representation of the providence all around us and of the grounding mystery within us. A literary character then becomes a literal being, the dynamic action of myth evaporates into the static atmosphere of metaphysics, and the supernatural object draws attention away from the real challenges before us. Tragically the opportunity of growing into our own creative authority is forfeited in the interest of remaining passively dependent on an executive-in-charge who is (coming back around again) a metaphor of our own making.

My own experience, along with what I observe in my friends and remember from my sixteen years in church ministry, has exposed a real “moment of decision” in spiritual development, where the healthy progression of faith would move us into a post-theistic (Cupitt’s “Buddhist”) orientation, but which is prevented by an overbearing theistic (Cupitt’s “Muslim”) orthodoxy that keeps it (in my words) “stuck on god.” The result is a combination of increasing irrelevance, deepening guilt, intellectual disorientation, and spiritual frustration – the last of which tends to come out, Freudian-style, in a spectrum of neurotic disorders and social conflicts.

Two popular ways of “managing” this inner crisis are to either suck it up and buckle down inside a meaningless religion, or else flip it off and get the hell out, bravely embracing one’s new identity as a secular atheist. From a post-theistic perspective, however, neither solution is ultimately soul-satisfying. Trying to carry on in the cramped space of a box too small for our spirit only makes us bitter and depressed, whereas trying to get along without faith in the provident mystery and in our own higher nature – what religion is most essentially about – can leave us feeling adrift in a pointless existence.

If Pope Francis as the figurehead of Catholicism can open his arms to other religions, embrace the scientific enterprise, advocate for the voiceless poor, and celebrate spiritual community wherever he finds it, then we might be encouraged to think that our “mystical and ethical” sensibilities can unite us and lead us forward. Perhaps the world’s interest in him has to do with the way his down-to-earth and inclusive manner resonates with something inside us that hasn’t felt permission to live out of our own center.

Chakra_treeWhen the mystical (our grounding in the present mystery of reality) and the ethical (our connections to one another and to life in general) fall out of focus as functions of healthy religion, the doctrinal (what we believe and accept as true) and the devotional (our worship and sacrifice on behalf of what we regard as supreme in value and power) start to take over. What is intended to be a balanced, evolving, and reality-oriented system of meaning collapses into conviction and becomes oppressive.

As our planet changes and the globe shrinks, as our economies become more intertwined and volatile, as technology is reshaping society and putting potentially catastrophic influence into the hands of more individuals, we need to come together for solutions. The old orthodoxies and their gods cannot save us. Neither terrorism nor complacency will see us through. We need wisdom now more than ever.

Yes, we are at a moment of decision.

 

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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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