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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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What’s Next For God?

My inquiry into the future of god will sound strange – and probably blasphemous – to believers who regard him as an immortal being, beyond the world and outside of time, without beginning or end. That’s how Christian orthodoxy defines god at any rate. There can be no ‘future’ for such a timeless and unchanging metaphysical absolute.

But then again, I’m not talking about the god of theologians – referring to those who talk about god and make a living putting definition around a mystery that cannot be named. Long before the theologians were mystics and storytellers, who rather than making the mystery into an object of thought, sought its direct experience (the mystics) or mediated through the veil of metaphor (the storytellers).

The contribution of theologians was to detach from the mystery and turn it into an object of thought – something separate from the mind and its immediate experience.

Direct experience gave way to metaphorical depiction, which eventually lost its transparency and finally condensed into a separate thing – god as a being possessed of certain powers and attributes. Whereas god had earlier been acknowledged as representing the creative ground and abyssal depths of being itself, his identity as a character of story was later relocated to the objective realm where he became the god of theologians.

This mystery is indeed timeless – or eternal, according to the original meaning of that word. Our experience of mystery is ineffable (i.e., indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words) since it transpires far below (and was felt long before) the active language centers of the brain. To translate the experience of mystery into language – into names, nouns, adjectives and verbs – is to move out of experience and away from the mystery.

As a product of human imagination and language, the objective god of theologians is the principal artifact of religion. It has a past, and we can legitimately ask whether it has a future.

To give my answer to that question, it’s necessary to see religion and its god in historical context. The construct of god hasn’t always been with us – in fact, in the longer run of our evolution as a species, the concept of deity is a late arrival. For many millenniums the human experience of, and response to, the present mystery of reality was carried in the thought-forms of animism.

This mode of reflection was – and still is, particularly when we are very young children – deeply in touch with the urgencies and rhythms of the body, and the profound ways this embodied life-force connects with, depends on, and participates in the rhythms and cycles of nature all around. Our bodies, other animals, the trees, the seasons, Sun, moon, and stars are animated (made alive and moved) by forces we cannot control or understand.

Over time human curiosity, imagination, and technical ingenuity began to thicken the layer of culture mediating our experience of nature and the mystery of life. Symbols preserved the connection but were themselves symptoms of our growing separation. Mythic narratives weaved patterns of meaning and tribal ceremonies provided for social engagement, keeping the community synchronized with the great rounds of natural time.

A crucial advancement also came with the concept of a higher purpose behind things – no doubt reflecting the way that the programs and techniques informing human culture are directed by our own strategic objectives and desired outcomes.

Everything happening was hereafter regarded as happening for a reason – not so much according to an antecedent causality (a line of reasoning that would eventually inspire the rise of science) but by fulfilling the aims of a transcendent will – the god(s) of theism.

The narrative invention and developmental career of deity is a primary feature of the type of religion known as theism. Historically this career moves through three distinct phases. An early phase charts a time when the layer of culture is still thin enough to be subordinate to the life forces of nature. A deity serves as provider of the resources a society requires, as well as of the protections that shelter it from natural catastrophes.

In theism’s high phase, the thickening of culture correlates also to the formation of ego, to that social construction of personal identity each of us knows as “I, myself.” As its counterpart and transcendent ideal, a deity authorizes a morality of obedience and personifies the higher virtues of ethical life. God is to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed. In doing so, individual egos are motivated to conform to social norms, as they strive to please the deity and gain his (or her) favor.

Late theism marks a transition where the deity is invoked less in sanctuaries than contemplated in the depths of the soul. A transactional morality of obedience – be good and god will be good to you – gives way to a more adult aspirational morality. Those divine virtues which had been elevated and glorified in worship become the internalized ideals of a more self-responsible, compassionate, and benevolent way of life.

An inherent (and building) tension in late theism has to do with the fact that its tradition, liturgy, and orthodoxy remain focused on an objective god, just as the orientation of many believers is starting to shift to a mystically inward and ethically engaged spirituality.

So far, then, we can observe an advancing focus in religion, invested early in the sentient experience of our body and the rhythms of natural life (animism); then graduating upwards, so to speak, with concerns related to ego formation, becoming somebody, finding one’s place in society and striving to be a good person.

Theism might be thought of as a ‘second womb’, providing the social support, cultural instruction, and moral incentives for the development of personal identity.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a burst to represent the moment when we ‘see through’ the veil of our myths and symbols. This insight may be experienced as an epiphany (an “appearing through”) or more like an apocalypse leaving us utterly disillusioned – that is to say, where the illusion of those sacred fictions and orthodox beliefs that had for so long nurtured the formation of our identity is ripped from its rings like a great curtain coming down.

In some religious traditions this is represented as the labor pains of a second birth, of being lifted out of the warm trance of social conformity and into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness.

Four possible paths lead from this point. Two of them, named absolutism and ātheism (with the macron long ‘a’), stay fixated on the question of literal truth. Is the featured deity of those sacred stories a literal being, a supernatural or metaphysical personality out there and separate from us – a supreme being among beings?

Absolutism (aka fundamentalism) has to say ‘yes’ unless everything is lost. Ātheism says emphatically ‘no’, since a literal god in that sense is contradicted by science, besides being logically incredible and an offense to our ethical freedom as humans.

These paths, then, don’t really lead anywhere because they both remain stuck on god.

A third path, opening into a fourth, seeks to better understand what god means rather than argue for or against his literal existence. As a literary figure (i.e., a principal character of myth) the deity serves a purpose – the ones identified above: representing a provident purpose behind things (early theism), authorizing a moral system (high theism), and exemplifying the higher virtues of a liberated life (late theism).

The commitment to understanding (i.e., seeing through) what god means rather than debating his existence is what distinguishes ătheism (with the breve ‘a’, as in “apple”) from simple ātheism. The present mystery upon which the whole enterprise of religion has been a contemplation – from the embodied experience of sentient life (animism) to the heroic adventure of self-conscious identity (theism) – now prepares to transcend merely personal concerns for a universal truth, that All is One.

The advent of our awakening to the full capacity and higher potential of our human nature is what I mean by apotheosis. This is the future of god.

How ought we to live, in view of this higher wholeness and our place in it? According to post-theism, we devote ourselves to the provident care of our resident animists (infants and young children). We exemplify the virtues of community life and inspire our resident theists (children and adolescents) to follow our example. And when their minds and hearts are ready, we encourage them to step through the veil and join us in this work, on the other side of god.

 

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