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Curriculum Spiritus

Curriculum SpiritusIn a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.

But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.

I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.

What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.

Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).

Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.

So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.

Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.

By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.

We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.

Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.

The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.

What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.

What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?

The world would be a very different place, would it not?

 

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Stuck On God

Low_High TheismThe rise of theism and the reign of god correlates exactly with the emergence of our separate center of identity as human beings, with what is known as ego consciousness. In other words, the provident forces active in the universe were personified as humanlike (as personalities) at the same time as humans were coming to self-consciousness as standing out somehow from the spontaneous instincts of our animal nature.

The opportunity – and to some extent the survival necessity – of living together in larger and more sophisticated social groups required constraints around our natural impulses and inclinations. Certain drives, reactions, and behaviors had to be domesticated, tempered and refined for life in society, while others were ruled out as unacceptable for members. It was in fact this shift of concern from survival to membership that prompted the creation of an authority structure which could impose and reinforce this tribal morality, presided over by the patron deity.

Whereas animism – the form of religion preceding theism – had been more about maintaining (succoring, celebrating, and reciprocating) a relationship with the provident forces active in the universe (i.e., the power in the storm, the fruiting tree, the spirit of the bear and other totem animals, etc.), theism made these secondary to the moral function, as conditional blessings and rewards for obedience to god’s will. The exact correspondence between the “will of god” and the system of morality was interpreted to mean that the rules of society had originated with god, and not the other way around.

I’m deeply interested in this correlation between theism and humanism (which of course includes egoism), of how the conception of a supernatural ego (the patron deity) served to authorize and justify a moral system in which human beings could further evolve. The challenges and opportunities of society, in the way it pulled us out of communion with nature and into the role-plays of identity and membership, was (and still is) a necessary stage on our way to becoming fully actualized.

My diagram above illustrates the career of the patron deity, ascending with our growing need for moral orientation in society, reaching its peak in what might be called “high theism,” and then descending – or as I will argue, dissolving – into a new mode of spirituality where god is no longer regarded as separate, “up there” and over all. The terms underneath the arcing career of the patron deity (obedience, worship, and aspiration) represent the primary investments of theism in its function of upholding the “sacred canopy” of morality (Peter Berger).

I’ve also divided the arc of theism and its patron deity into “early” and “late” phases, both still focused in the activity of worship where the deity is exalted and glorified in the congregation of devotees, but sharply distinguished by a shift of accent from obedience (early theism) to aspiration (late theism). In early theism the preoccupation is on the task of shaping behavior to the values and aims of society, or more specifically to those of membership.

God’s will and command are represented as putting constraints on our natural impulses, inducing guilt or inspiring altruism as the case may be. Because the patron deity speaks against something in us that must be overcome, or alternately calls out of us behavior that is still to some degree unnatural, god is positioned in early theism as strictly outside and apart from us. We still need to be told how to behave, and this moral instruction implies a source of authority outside ourselves.

In late theism we can hear the message shifting from “Do this, or else” to “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” – to take an example from the teachings of Jesus, whose spirituality marked a key transition beyond the conventional theism of his day. Here we move from objective commands to the more subjectively oriented virtues of moral life. Along the way, god is becoming increasingly more patient, compassionate, gracious, and forgiving than he was in his early life. Correspondingly the focus in theism shifts from obedience (i.e., following rules and doing what we’re told) to aspiration, where the challenge is to become more like god.

The culmination of late theism would accomplish the complete assimilation of god into a fully awakened and self-actualized humanity. While from a naive perspective this might look just like secular atheism, the difference between them in the quality and depth of spiritual life is profound. Whereas atheism seeks to dismiss or argue god out of existence, post-theism affirms the patron deity’s role even as it releases and transcends the need for his separate existence. Secular atheism throws god out, and with him all moral authority; post-theism takes god in and intentionally promotes the spread of inclusive community, unconditional forgiveness, and reverence for life.

Theism of one form or another is necessary (but not sufficient!) to a fully developed human being. (I should remind my reader here that every family system is a form of theism, with its higher (or taller) powers supervising the emerging identities of a new generation.) Problems arise when the proper arc of theism and its patron deity is prevented from advancing; functionally (or I should say dysfunctionally) it gets stuck in its early phase. Obedience is a persistent preoccupation, which is correlated with a deep mistrust of oneself and others. God is worshiped as the rule-giver, moral supervisor, end-time judge and executioner.

As theism fixates itself on our need for correction – to be straightened out, made clean, redeemed from sin, and ultimately rescued from final destruction – it effectively holds the human spirit captive and unable to progress. (This is the dogmatic, authoritarian, and militant religion that atheists rightly reject.) Tangled in its dragnet of obligations, believers are given no liberty to think outside the box or reach beyond the circle to a larger mystery. The higher virtues of human nature are closed off from us, relegated to second position in the character of god and heavily qualified by his supreme demand for repentance, righteousness, and retribution. Ego remains in control.

But we must advance. Forces of an arrested and corrupt theism around our planet today must not dissuade the waking (and growing!) minority from growing fully into god.

We have a job to do.

 
 

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Flow in the Creative Life

I am of the opinion that a human being desires. Before this desire gets directed along a particular channel and attached to a specific object, it is life in its purest form. Life, desire, creativity and spirit – these are deeply synonymous terms in the vocabulary of what it is to be human.

Think of desire as the current that activates and inspires our experience at different levels. Oriental philosophy offers the idea of chi or energy and the various chakras or activation points along the vertical axis of the spine. Each center opens out to reality at a unique frequency of intelligence and concern. When the chakras are fully aligned and activated, an individual experiences “flow,” fulfillment and well-being.

The West has its own chakra system, although it hasn’t been developed to the degree of detail and sophistication as in the East. Typically these activation points go by the names “mind,” “heart,” and “will” – where mind thinks, heart feels, and will moves you to act. Medieval philosophy in many ways is best understood as a sustained contemplation and dialogue on these three energy-centers in human experience.

For their part, soul and body are not regarded as additional centers but refer rather to the deep interior (soul) and animal nature (body) of a human being. It was only later that a third dimension was clarified – not a “power” or energy center but what I have elsewhere characterized as a standpoint in reality – named ego. This is the socially constructed and self-conscious identity of an individual person.

As a construct, ego lacks the “substantiality” of the soul and body, and for that reason it would be acceptable to say – with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) – that it doesn’t even exist. It’s a project and projection, a rather neurotic contraction of defenses, attachments and delusions.

In the language of liberation, awakening, and the creative life, ego is our primary obstacle. It’s what needs to “die” – in the words of Jesus (the Christ) – so that our deeper life can rise up and find its wings.

Back to the energy centers. This idea has become particularly interesting to me of late, as I reflect on creativity, desire, and spirit. I am appreciating more how the truly creative individual is one whose mind, heart and will are perfectly aligned and fully activated. In order to work out the implications of this, let’s look more closely at each of these Western chakras.

For our purposes I will use the organs of the brain, heart and gut as visual representations of mind, heart and will. And even though we are born with all our organs intact – with the brain nevertheless continuing to mature still into our third decade – I am going to begin this reflection at the gut level and move upwards, following the direction of development.

GutWhy is it that you feel sick to your stomach or have issues with your intestines when you feel distressed or threatened? Your gut is a system of organs working together to metabolize nutrients and remove toxins. When stress hormones are released into the bloodstream, your gut gets thrown into high gear so that you can have all the energy you need to get out of danger.

Your gut is the energy point where you feel either securely grounded or dangerously at risk of not getting what you need to stay alive. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as provident and supportive, something greater in which you can trust and have faith.

Of course, the indisputable fact that you are alive is proof enough that you live in a provident universe. Not only “this place,” but this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, and the entire cosmos are conspiring at this moment to provide what you need to stay alive and flourish.

  • Key words here are: Providence, Support, Security, Trust and Faith.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to points above. If it’s uncertain, or if you were raised in a home where there was lots of deprivation, neglect, abuse and repression, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your gut. You can expect your health and happiness issues to be centered there.

HeartBut let’s say you are faithfully grounded in a reality that is provident and supportive. This sense of security is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your heart.

Why is it that when someone close to you decides to leave or is suddenly taken away, you feel “brokenhearted”? Why do so many people suffer from heartache? Your heart, more than any other organ, is connected to every other organ and outpost in your body. By its very nature it is about cooperation. When the connection between your heart and another organ is lost or obstructed, that organ will die.

Your heart is the energy point where you feel either intimately connected or coldly removed from the web of mutual interdependence. At this level of intelligence, reality needs to be experienced as relational and loving, something in which you can belong and find love.

A distinction between Western and Oriental cosmology is that while the latter regards the multiplicity of separately existing things as an illusion, Western philosophy and science affirm it as foundational to what the universe is. A corollary of this idea is the view that being is essentially relational and dynamic rather than monistic and unchanging.

  • Key words here are: Relationship, Communion, Intimacy, Belonging and Love.

When you have the assurance of this, the energy flow of desire is allowed to ascend the axis to the next point above. If it’s absent or doubtful, if your experience has involved more than your share of exploitation, rejection, betrayal or dysfunctional relationships, then the energy that should be ascending gets stuck in your heart. Your health issues might be centered here, in the physical consequences (or early symptoms) of losing your passion, compassion, and communion with life.

BrainBut let’s say you do feel a strong sense of belonging and healthy rapport in your relationships. This sense of intimacy is like a gate that lets desire continue on its upward circuit. Next it comes to your brain/mind.

Why is it that a lack of clarity in your efforts to make sense of something gives you a headache? Why are people so ready to trade their lack of meaning and purpose for a psychiatric diagnosis and treatment plan? Your brain is your “executive” organ, the seat of conscious awareness, and the worktable in your construction of meaning. Its dual responsibilities are to regulate the internal processes of your body and articulate the neural platform of your mind (thinking self).

Your brain is the energy point where the certainty of your life’s meaning is managed. With its unique cognitive powers you are constantly sounding a transcendent reality for echos of significance. At this level of intelligence, reality is scanned for patterns, rhythms, and correlations, which are then analyzed, synthesized, and fantasized into a cross-referencing system of meaning known as your world.

What you seek is understanding, and as you are busy with the process of constructing meaning, various checkpoints along the way (conventionally called “facts”) challenge your brain to update its world-picture.

Key words here are: Transcendence, Meaning, Certainty, Understanding and Truth.

Now, if the ascending path of desire has gotten tangled up and caught on hooks farther down, leaving only a trickle of energy by the time it reaches this point, your personal meaning can become extremely rigid, awkwardly outdated, and curiously dogmatic. When your intellectual guidance system is out of sync with the actual coordinates of reality, you should expect headaches – physical and otherwise.

                                                                           

Okay, so there you have my interpretation of the Western “chakra system.” Human creativity is an inverse function of the “impedance” in this flow of energy/desire/spirit through the primary centers of the gut, heart and brain.

The more impedance – that is to say, the greater degree in which this creative flow gets “hung up” and pulled off center into the various ailments, demons, and neuroses of our predicament – the less creative we are. (I suppose it’s obvious to also say, the more destructive we tend to become.)

The creative life is grounded in the provident mystery of reality. It flows outward into communion with all things. It strives to ask better questions, ones that will deepen understanding and open up a larger vision for our lives.

I think this model has a lot to commend it. Philosophy, theology, politics, business, commerce, art, science, medicine, ethics – we stand a chance of getting our cultural system back on track and centered again.

And just to think, it all begins with you and me.

Take care of yourself.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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