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Tag Archives: human destiny

A Closer Look at Growing Up

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Michelangelo’s scene in the Sistine Chapel of the temptation and expulsion of the First Couple from Eden follows the mythic narrative of Genesis 3 fairly closely – except perhaps for their depiction as meaty white Europeans. But we can forgive the artist for creating in his own likeness, as we all tend to do that.

Myths of creation and of how we humans found ourselves in, or brought about, our present predicament are widespread among the world cultures. Typically things start off in a paradisaical state and then some act of ignorance, stupidity, or disobedience breaks the spell and we find ourselves on the outs. The orthodox Christian interpretation has long taken this as historical, which soon enough ran up against the findings of anthropology and evolutionary science.

The Church authorities made the mistake of insisting on the literal-historical meaning of this and other biblical myths, making it today impossible for an orthodox Christian to also be a well-informed and reality-oriented world citizen. If the Bible isn’t telling the literal truth, they worry, then nothing in it can be trusted. If the story of our expulsion from the garden didn’t really happen, then why do we need to be saved? Finally, if the Bible is the “word of God” but turns out to be more myth than history, then what the hell … and heaven, for that matter?!

There is a way to understand this Bible story without having to reject science, logic, and common sense. But it requires that we loosen up on our insistence that truth can only be literal. It can also be metaphorical, referring to the way a word, scene, or entire story reveals a mystery that can only be experienced, not explained. When you read or hear such a story not as an explanation of prehistorical facts but rather as a veil drawn aside on your own human experience, that is truth in another sense.

So how does the Genesis story show us what’s really going on, about what’s true of our human experience? Let’s take a closer look.

Serpents make appearances in many world myths and their metaphorical meaning will be different depending on the cultural and historical context. They might represent the principle of time, in the way they slither in lines and shed their skin to be reborn. There’s probably an acquired reflex deep in our hominid genes that jumps at snakes but reveres their lethal power.

To observe a slithering serpent as a “traveling esophagus” (Joseph Campbell) is to identify it with the most elementary of survival drives. We know from science that our body is not a spontaneous and unique expression of biology, but instead has genetic roots deep in life’s adventure on Earth. Over many millions of years this organism and its nervous system evolved by seeking out niches of nourishment, safety, mastery, and procreation. These are the survival drives of our animal nature, represented by a serpent in the Genesis myth.

It takes at least a second reading for Christians, especially, to realize that the garden serpent is not an evil principle but rather belongs to Yahweh’s created order which he declared “very good.” In other words, this isn’t the devil (or Satan) as later orthodoxy would insist. (When the myth was first invented, there was as yet no such absolute principle of personified evil working in opposition to an absolute good.) The serpent merely tempts Eve to seize an opportunity that might work to her advantage – that she will be “like god, knowing good and evil.”

At this stage of the story, Adam and Eve are still innocent and naive. They only know what they’ve been told by their higher power. Their world was created by someone else, is managed by someone else, and the way they should behave is dictated by someone else. Sound familiar? In other words, Adam and Eve are children – not literally children in the story, but serving as archetypes of “the child.”

When we are young children, our own animal nature and its survival drives compels behavior that inevitably runs up against the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of morality, that is to say, of the rule system that lays down the code of what sorts of behavior are commanded or prohibited. Because our animal nature has been at it for millions of years already, it takes time and repeated disciplinary actions for our tribe to bring these impulses in line.

In those early years when our animal nature is ‘tempting’ us to cheat, lie, and manipulate others for what we need, our sense of right and wrong is contained by what we might call a morality of obedience. It’s not necessary that we understand why some action is right or wrong, only that we obey the rule that tells us how to behave. Our taller powers said it, they call the shots, and we must do as they say. When we obey there might be a reward, but more certain still is the penalty (both physical and emotional) that follows our disobedience. The psychological consequence of disobedience is called a guilty conscience.

Part of growing into a mature adult involves breaking free of this morality of obedience where our behavior is motivated by external incentives. While it’s a social necessity that the animal natures of children are brought into compliance with the rule system of the tribe, adults are expected to take responsibility for their own lives and behavior. In one sense, it’s nice to have everything laid out for us, with all the “shalts” and “nots,” lollipops and paddles at the ready.

But our adult experience is not so simplistic or clear-cut. We need to accept the full burden of our existence along with its unresolved, and in many cases unresolvable, ambiguity. To merely “trust and obey,” as the orthodox hymn goes, would be to refuse the responsibility of being an adult. It becomes imperative, then, that we shift from a morality of obedience to an ethic of responsibility.

There will be times when our own higher adult self sees the inherent egoism of obedience – doing something for a reward, refraining to avoid punishment, thinking all the while “what’s in it for me?” In the adult world more variables have to be considered, differing perspectives allowed, and in some cases doing the right thing puts us in conflict with the morality of our tribe. We need to be willing to bear some conscientious guilt by departing from the norm or disobeying a rule when these are enforcing oppression, exploitation, and privilege.

So what does the Genesis myth tell us? That we all need to grow up. That we need to listen to our animal nature as we obey those in charge. But that eventually we will have to step from under the authority of those telling us how to live and figure it out on our own. Taking for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil,” making our own decisions and accepting the consequences, constructing a world that is safe, stable, and provident for those young Adams and Eves now depending on us – this is our destiny as responsible adults, making our way just “East of Eden.”

 

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Becoming Human

The challenge for religion today – one of its many challenges – is to offer an understanding of the human being that is relevant to contemporary life, compatible with our present model of reality, prescient of where our  evolution as a species may be leading, and in deep agreement with that stream of enduring insights concerning the fundamental nature of things which Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy.

In actual fact, however, religion – particularly so-called popular religion – is failing us on all four points. It is increasingly losing currency as a way of providing real guidance for today, locked in a stalemate between complacency and terrorism. In one of the supposedly more advanced societies, courts are jammed by legal efforts to throw aside scientific theory for biblical myth in deciding what our children should be taught in school.

As far as a vision for the future is concerned, popular religion is exploiting our inherent insecurity as a species by promising true believers a final escape from this corrupt world. And many of the deep discoveries of our long adventure have been all but forgotten if not rejected outright as myth, magic and New Age. Instead of discovery, which involves a process of looking deeply into things, religion today campaigns for truth as revelation from above and outside of things.

My efforts aren’t the last word, obviously. But they are dedicated to the task of continuing our human quest with these four frontiers in mind – daily life, our model of reality, the human future, and that fund of deeper insights carried across the cultures and millenniums of our collective history. Just because I challenge traditional notions of god, truth, immortality and salvation, it’s probably easy for someone to conclude that I must be an enemy of religion, when in fact I am one of its outspoken advocates. Not of this or that religion, but of religion as the system of sentiments, theories, ideals, values and practices which link us back (religare) to the present mystery of reality.B_E_SThe illustration above provides a way around our current impasse, where much of popular religion holds the human spirit hostage to outdated ideas, long-abandoned worldviews, and adolescent moralities of reward and punishment. My diagram is intended to be interpreted dynamically rather than statically; that is to say, as representing the progressive transformation of human beings over time, instead of a snapshot of what we are and always have been.

We know that individual human beings develop as they mature, but their development might not result in maturity. It often happens that development gets arrested around neurotic fixations and emotional attachments, holding back at least part of the personality in “infantile” or “adolescent” attitudes and mindsets.

We can, of course, use this same lens to appreciate where entire societies and cultural systems get hung up and held back as well. Real problems come when this arrested development degenerates into a pathology of profound insecurity and holy conviction, producing a readiness (even eagerness) to kill and die for the truth in our possession. When we are prepared to trash this world for the sake of a better one elsewhere – whether it be the suburbs, a neighboring planet, or heaven after we die – we carry the principle of destruction inside ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before we turn this paradise into ashes and need to move on to the next promised land.

Across the horizontal axis of my diagram is a depiction of the sequence by which human individuals and cultures develop. Going up along the vertical axis are three centers of consciousness and the rising transcendence of distinct stages that provide different perspectives on reality. These mental locations of awareness engage peculiar sets of concerns, values and aims. As we evolve from one stage to the next, the task is to carry forward and upward our gains in development, integrating them somehow in a holistic and meaningful vision of human destiny. Let’s take these centers and stages one at a time and see where this fit-and-flow design can lead, but also where it has gone bad.

A human being is a biological organism, a complex organization of molecules, cells, tissues and organs conspiring together in a pulsing symphony of life. The deep history of this symphony stretches into a pre-human past, modifying along the way a basic template by adapting it to changing conditions of its environment. This is our animal nature, compelled by instinct and guided by reflex to seek out niches of safety, resource, and opportunity over the long course of many millions of years. As a providential arrangement of protoplasm and vital urges, our body is carnal (flesh) and incarnates the energy of magnetism, matter, and light.

The body is our mental location in the natural realm, with a set of concerns, values, and aims organized around the singular priority of survival. Our most powerful instincts are dedicated to keeping us alive, bonding us to our group, and passing our genes into the next generation. Thankfully the fulfillment of this survival mandate hasn’t required much careful consideration and deliberate choice; unconscious drives simply get it done.

Whatever number of decades brings you back to early childhood, an exponential factor of that time span suggests a distant era when our species was beginning to transcend mere survival concerns in the interest of functioning cohesively as a tribe. Successful reproduction presents us with the challenge of raising children in a social context, in such a way that our offspring eventually can assume identities compliant with the pressing needs and occupational roles of the group. Through this process of socialization, an animal nature is disciplined into a personal ego – into a person with a separate and special identity, but still “one of us.”

As the next-higher mental location of consciousness, ego provides a perspective on the landscape of cultural meaning, consisting of the artifacts, traditions, assumptions and conventions that support a sacred canopy called a worldview. Personal identity is thus a socially constructed point of reference where consciousness is shaped and bent upon itself as self-consciousness, reflecting back on the individual an image of “who we are.” The dutiful ego is expected to do its part, promote the values of the tribe, and contribute meaningfully to the commonwealth.

A culture’s sacred canopy is woven of narrative threads called stories. They are not simply reports of fact – what would the point of that be? – but imaginative representations and entertaining plots (from the Greek mythos) that serve to articulate a cross-referencing web of significance. The productive power of this web is fantasy, the very same power that pretended and animated your world as a child. Fantasy is not a weak attempt to describe reality as we see it; rather it is a literally fantastic project in meaning-making, constructing a habitat for the mind. I call the part of our personality responsible for the ongoing defense and repair of our worlds, the inner child. It is spontaneous, playful, and dependent on the support of others; but it can also be neurotic, insecure, and prone to tantrums.

Now, I would say that the form of popular religion summarized at the start is stuck exactly here – at the stage of development where humans are heavily invested in the identity project of ego. Just as your inner child operates according to a model of reality perhaps decades out of date, many present-day religions are still trying to manage meaning inside a worldview thousands of years old and equally outmoded. We need to engage the present reality of our situation, but it’s like performing brain surgery with a paleolithic flint chip.

Jesus, the Buddha, and others have tried to help us see that the source of our suffering is self-preoccupation – the emotional cravings and dogmatic convictions that disable us spiritually. We cannot really know freedom, love, and truth until we learn to let go, open up, and reconnect in more creative ways.

Transcending ego brings us to the mental location of soul, where “me and mine” no longer entrance us. I am of the opinion that this higher self of the soul is a distinguishing mark of maturity. It is not about identity or even meaning. Soul doesn’t fuss with the question “Who am I?” but rather seeks authentic life beyond the masks we wear. It is our spiritual self – the creative spirit in us that contemplates the mystery, celebrates life, and consecrates the precious value of each passing moment. Whereas ego separates us from reality by its veil of meaning, soul reaches through the veil to realize oneness with (communion) all things.

The set of concerns, values, and aims organized around this priority of communion constitutes what is meant by wisdom. Instead of the urgency of survival or the project of identity, wisdom is about living in view of the ever-expanding context of daily life. We make choices and take action, the consequences of which ripple out into our relationships, leach into the soil and water, choke the atmosphere and threaten life. These rippling rings of effects and side-effects should be evidence enough that we are not separate from anything but rather one with everything.

And so, becoming fully human is a destiny still calling to us from the other side of meaning.

 

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