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Tag Archives: history of religion

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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Touching Mystery and Talking about God

God talk

Religion didn’t just fall out of the sky fully assembled but evolved over many thousands of years. It emerged as a way of securing the everyday world of human concerns to the deeper mystery supporting all things. The experience of this mystery – what I call the present mystery of reality, or Real Presence – is engaged spontaneously and at a level below the reach of articulate thought. For this reason it is properly named “mystical,” available only to contemplative attention and essentially ineffable (beyond words).

If you observe anything for very long, the subject-object screen separating you from the thing observed can sometimes fall away to the realization that both you and that thing are grounded in one reality. This breakthrough to oneness doesn’t negate what makes you different from that thing, but instead helps you see beneath the difference to your co-presence in being. You are being in human form, and that other thing is being in a different form, but it is being-itself presenting (or presencing) as both.

Now, this doesn’t sound very religious. It would be some time before our minds developed the philosophical acuity to think into such abstraction. In the dawning age of religion, the first efforts at representing this experience of mystery were perhaps through rhythm, song, and dance. Gradually icons, artistically crafted images in paint, wood, clay, and stone, qualified the mystery in visual terms.

Such sensory-concrete images were eventually transmuted into conceptual metaphors and put into the framework of narratives called myths (from the Greek for plot). Elemental metaphors (personifying the forces of nature), theriomorphic metaphors (represented in animal form), and finally anthropomorphic metaphors (taking on the features and personality traits of humans) provided ways of converting an ineffable mystery into something increasingly more personal and relational. The myths of religion tell of the exploits of this or that deity, how the tribe is related to, dependent upon, and/or commissioned by the will of the deity.

If you’re coming to religion and enter by way of its metaphors, stories, and beliefs, it is easy to assume that the myths are depicting a deity which actually exists, out there in the external dimensions of metaphysical space. If a religion really gets locked into a literal reading of its myths – effectively forgetting the true “genealogy of god” – this insistence on regarding God as a separate being can become an insurmountable block to spiritual awakening and freedom. It is also a principal motivator of violence against others who don’t believe in “our god.”

If Yahweh (the patron deity of Jews and Christians) made the universe, intervened on behalf of Hebrew slaves, spoke to the prophets, and miraculously lifted the dead Jesus back to life, then why doesn’t he do similar things for us today?

Typically, literalists will guard their orthodoxy by laying the responsibility on us, saying that our age has become sinful, perverse, secular and faithless. Consequently god has abandoned us to our wicked ways and withdrawn into heaven, or we have lost the ability to feel, see, and hear god. It might also be that everything god has to say has been said, everything needing to be done has already been accomplished. Now all we need to do is believe.

For your own good you are admonished to heed the “experts” – teachers, pastors, clerics, bishops and theologians who are professionally committed to the tradition and its orthodox heritage. Don’t question the Bible, don’t challenge the preacher, and by all means don’t try to work it out for yourself. The end of the world is at hand and you can’t afford to rely on your own judgment. If your soul is to one day see the bright streets of paradise, you’d better listen up and stay in your seat.

                                                                                          

I’ll let you in on a secret.

A large number – perhaps the majority – of those professional custodians of religion don’t believe what they preach, not really. Many of them came to their credentials by way of denominational training that likely included a critical study of Christianity, its historical place among the world religions, as well as the evolution of the Bible and its competing representations of God. From the pulpit they proclaim with authority what they privately doubt and discuss over coffee in their closed circle of peers.

I know. I lived in those circles for nearly two decades.

What these professionals know is that God is more than what can be said. The discrepancy between our representations (god) and the reality (God) they qualify is so impossibly vast that our images, thoughts, and talk about God are like scratchings at the surface. “Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows,” as a Polynesian saying goes. Our concept of God is our first idol.

But don’t tell the people. They can’t handle the real truth, so we spoon-feed them from the cramped little boxes of stale theology we push to the side during the rest of the week.

If God (the real presence of mystery) is more than our words and images can express, then we also need to admit that the reality of God may be other than what we believe. In short, we just might be clinging to an idol that entirely misrepresents the present mystery and is actually preventing us from a genuine experience of God’s presence.

The transcendent God is transpersonal – beyond personality, more than we think, other than the patron deities we worship, obey, and promote. It’s important to understand that we are not talking about the hidden nature of a god out there whose actual personality is inscrutable to us. God’s transcendence is another way of saying that our representations of God are merely qualifications on something that cannot be named or known objectively. You don’t leave behind the patron deity in order to look still farther out for a bigger and better god.

Acknowledging the transcendence of God means letting go of your beliefs about god in the interest of coming again (or for the first time) to the Real Presence of mystery here and now. First your grip is relaxed, then the screen falls away. You wake up to the realization that the creative source and gracious support of all things is all around you, right here with you, and rising up from deep inside you – just as you are.

 

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