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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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Science, Spirituality, and The World To Come

I probably spend too much time defending the role of religion in our lives, especially in the opinion of those who identify themselves as nonreligious or atheist. While they tend to define religion as a belief system oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience, I don’t regard any of those components as essential to religion.

It’s not the components – these or any others – that properly define religion, but its function in  connecting and holding them together as a coherent worldview and way of life.

Properly understood, religion is the world-building enterprise that has preoccupied humans since our evolutionary arrival to the scene. Its principal task has always been to nurture and refresh the connection between an objective realm of observable facts (around us) and a subjective realm of intuitive feelings (within us). Just in case my reader is about to resurrect the overworked dualism that pits facts against feelings, where facts are reliable data about reality and feelings are … well, only feelings and nothing we should count on, we need to be reminded that facts are still constructions in the mind and not simply what is ‘out there’.


If you point at something in the objective realm and say, “That is a fact,” I will have to ask, “What, exactly?”

“That, over there,” you’ll reply, and proceed to describe what you’re looking at. But of course, over there only makes sense as a proximal location from our shared point of reference (here), and the words you use will carry connotations from the echo chamber of language – assumptions, for instance, regarding how properties adhere to substances, how single objects are distinguished from their surroundings, how entities are different from events, what associations inform your concept of it, the degree in which my concepts and assumptions match yours, and so on.

In other words, whereas the objective realm of facts appears as if it is separate from the mind, our perceptions, assumptions, and representations of it hold space nowhere but inside the mind. At the same time, our mind is registering a subjective realm of internal feelings – or as we should more properly name them, ‘intuitions’. These are no less real than the facts we observe, just real in a different way. The bias of Western epistemology favoring empirical knowledge of the objective realm has preferred to throw intuition under the bus when it comes to providing information we can count on.


A tricky question has to do with what, exactly, intuition reveals – and that word is chosen carefully as well, since the concept of withdrawing a veil is so prominent in religion. What it reveals is not an object, but, in keeping with the subject-object duality of consciousness, something that has been metaphorically represented in subjective terms as the Supreme Subject, the creative source and essential ground of being itself, or God – not in the sense of a supernatural or metaphysical entity, but the grounding mystery of all things.

The ground of being cannot be observed as separate from us, for it is the deepest truth of what we are – as human manifestations of Being.

Religion, then, speaking more historically perhaps than to its present forms, has the task of keeping the self-conscious center of personal identity (my “I,” your “I”) oriented outwardly to the objective realm by way of a relevant model of reality (or cosmology) and simultaneously oriented inwardly to the grounding mystery within. Over its many millenniums – except in the present day for many believers – religion has worked to align the outer and inner, the universe as we know it and the ground of being, thereby supporting a sense of our existence as grounded in a provident reality.

As our conscious engagement with these two realms has evolved, we’ve come to regard them by the terms ‘science’ (engaged with reality external to the mind) and ‘spirituality’ (engaged with reality internal to the mind).

A shorthand definition of religion, therefore, conceives it as a dynamic system of symbols, metaphors, stories, and sacred performances (i.e., rituals) that maintains a relevant conspiracy of science and spirituality. The stories it tells are a braid of theory (explaining the objective realm) and myth (revealing the subjective realm), which until very recently were complementary narrative strands in our self-conscious engagement with reality.

The product of these two strands working together is what constructivism calls our ‘world’, which exists entirely inside our mind, or in what I have named in this context the imaginarium of belief. As suggested in my diagram, our world opens outwardly to the objective realm and inwardly to the subjective realm, situating us meaningfully within the present mystery of reality. When all is working well, our knowledge of the universe (out and beyond) is relevantly aligned with our intuition of communion (down and within). Religion is relevant and effective and doing its job.

But things do fall out of alignment. Science can move so fast and far ahead in its discoveries that the myths of religion can’t keep up. This is what happened in the West. The myths of creation, providence, and salvation were composed on a cosmological framework arranged vertically in three levels (Heaven, Earth, and Hades or hell). For our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, lived and taught and was killed, at which point he went farther down, but then came up again, and a little later went still higher up, back to heaven where he is currently preparing for his final descent at the end of time.

All that up-and-down business made perfect sense against the backdrop of a three-story universe. Not so much in one that is expanding radially and has no absolute vertical orientation.

Another kind of disorientation happens when our inward sense of grounding is lost. Trauma, tragedy, and chronic stress can sever the anchor-line of faith in a provident reality, motivating us instead to latch onto something we can control, which the Buddha called attachment and the Hebrew prophets idolatry. Idols can range from physical statues, orthodox doctrines, and mental concepts of God, to anything we believe will make us happy and secure (e.g., wealth, possessions, status, glory, or even a utopian “no place” like heaven).

We can’t get close enough to, or get enough of, what we hope will make us happy and secure because nothing can. The more desperate we become and the harder we try, the farther we get from our true center.

When such anxiety overtakes an entire culture and historical era, a consequence can be that individual development is compromised – particularly in regard to the critical achievement of ego strength. This term shouldn’t be confused with ego-centrism, where an individual can’t consider any reality beyond his or her own urgencies, ambitions, and convictions. Ego strength is the goal of individuation, of becoming an individual with a unique center of personal identity and creative authority.

Because anxiety motivates attachment and attachment interferes with individuation, such individuals lack a stable center and have a neurotic need for their world to stay the same. They refuse to accept the new scientific model of reality, and they can’t drop their attachments for a deeper (transpersonal) spirituality. Their religion tends to be oriented on the supernatural, driven by superstition, stuck in the past, prone to fanaticism, and utterly irrelevant to the real challenges of our postmodern experience.

Their religion, not religion itself. The world to come might be more of the same, which is bad news for everybody. Or it might be different, but that’s up to you and me.

 

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Unqualified Mystery

De Mello: “The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it.”

Here’s a piece of calculus predicting our human future: Calculus FutureTranslated into narrative the formula states that our representation of God, divided by our identification of self, multiplied by our interaction with others equals the evolutionary future of humanity. Let’s break it down.

Our representations of God come from many sources – scripture and tradition, intuition and revelation, reason and logic, imagination and fantasy. Whatever its source, we must be careful not to confuse any representation with the reality it represents.

This is, in fact, the classical and orthodox definition of idolatry, even though much of the new orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the world’s religions fall – and fall passionately – to this temptation. Any representation of God will necessarily be less than God, an understatement, a reduction to ideas, words, and images of an ineffable mystery.

And yet, it is an irresistible impulse of our minds to mentally represent the mystery in ways that make it intelligible, relevant and useful. What we call God – the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality – must be rendered meaningful by the mind, which it does by telling stories, playing with metaphors, or simply dancing out the ecstasy.

What is produced from this creative activity is not a substitute for the mystery or some final definition, but rather a symptom of the inexpressible, a sign pointing beyond itself, a suggestion of Something More.

Still, for whatever reason, we come to settle on our preferred representations. Perhaps our religious tradition requires it, we find it convenient, or maybe it just “fits” with the general picture of reality known as our world(view).

But our representations of God must always include (whether by expression or concealment, projection or compensation) our identifications of self. Since these representations come out of us, we should expect them to reflect and bear the signature of our nature and personality.

What I call the mythological god – which refers to the narrative character at the center of the sacred stories (or myths) of religion – is at once the creative expression of an evolutionary ideal (power, goodness, love), a reflex of our insecurity as a species, and a dramatic counterpart to what we admire, despise, or fear in ourselves.

Just as a providential god compensates for our dependency on a larger order, so a judgmental god confirms the shame and guilt we try to keep to ourselves, and an all-loving god externalizes and covers everything with a caring intention. Whose god is the “true god” is a question without an answer, for the simple reason that it is based on a false assumption that our representations of God (in other words, our various “gods”) match up to the reality we generically name God.

My formula suggests that our representations of God are just as much, if not more, about us than they are accurate portraits of the divine mystery.

It might sound as if I’m building an argument for atheism, when in fact it’s “post-theism” I’m boosting here – the idea that the real presence of mystery is always and necessarily beyond (and after: post) the patron deities of religion. To the degree that we get caught up in devotion to our god (lowercase = representation), the stage is set for interreligious competition through the ordination of bigotry and violence.

As my formula shows, the package of how we identify ourselves, along with the representation of God that complements or compensates for it, gets carried out into our interactions with others. It’s here that orthodoxy – our “correct” beliefs about God – translates into ethics. Our god will tend to inspire and justify a certain regard for others, a certain way of behaving towards our neighbor – whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

It seems obvious that a religion which generalizes love, encourages compassion, and challenges us to forgive and get along would be preferable to one that excludes, condemns and justifies violence as a means to redemption. The evolutionary future of humanity on this planet – if there’s any chance of it being a long and prosperous one – will depend on our ability to reach out and make benevolent connections with each other.

But didn’t god (the mythological god of the Bible) require the death of his son for the salvation of those who believe? Isn’t he poised (and morally obligated) to condemn to hell all unbelievers? The myth of redemptive violence is a strong current in Christian orthodoxy – one that reflects (and exposes) something about the myth-makers who invented it in the first place, as well as those who defend it today.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity is all this way, or that it is exceptional in this regard among the world religions. There are many Christians who reject the myth of redemptive violence, which of course calls for a critical, less literal reading of the Bible and a more conscientious stance on sacred authority.

As our planet continues to move into a global culture, the motivation and consequences of our interactions grow in importance.

Again, post-theism is not about a “one-world religion” – either as an outcome of interreligious competition (one wins and eliminates the others) or by blending religious differences into a generic stir-and-serve. It acknowledges a “spiritual intelligence” in all human beings, and even affirms the constructive place of religion in its development. Our representations of God are useful to the degree that they provide community support, devotional focus, and fresh inspiration along the way.

At a certain point, however, this process can get bogged down in the specialized vocabulary of a tradition’s god-talk. More and more is “known” about God – more accurately, about god (the orthodox representation) – as less and less of God is experienced. How God is represented eventually eclipses a direct (mystical) vision of, and communion with, the present mystery.

Worse, this worship of the representation can – and increasingly will – result in spiritual frustration. The progression of our continuing evolution as a species is capped off and boxed up in an ideology incapable of lifting us to the next level. A living spirituality gets strangled in the net of commentary.

Can we set our idols aside?

 

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Necessary Idols

Heschel: “What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.

This quote from Heschel is taken from his chapter titled “Religion and Race,” which was originally an opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race in January of 1963. Although well-grounded in the Jewish mystical tradition, Heschel was also a social activist and prophet. His opinions on racism and religion – as negative forces in twentieth-century American culture – were both passionate and thoughtful, as he took his inspiration from the Hebrew prophets of the Bible.

The biblical prophets were radical theologians, meaning that they cut to the “root” (radii) of our human impulse to talk about god. One may have a deeply spiritual experience, but once the process begins of interpreting it, clarifying it, and connecting it linguistically to the meaning of life, it becomes theology – and simultaneously steps out of the spontaneous flow of inspiration. Can’t we just have the experience and choose not to engage in the commentary?

Let’s not forget that meaning-making is not only a shared industry of the tribe, but is going on constantly in the “private” space of the ego as well. The fact is, ego needs meaning because it gives security and purpose to life; which is to say that ego talks incessantly.

The mystery of life, the present mystery of this moment, the mystery of presence and the ground of being are all names and metaphors of the reality available to us from the center of experience called soul. Using the term mystery is an acknowledgement that this reality is elusive and inherently unknowable – beyond the reach of thought and the qualifications of language. It simply cannot be pinned down, boxed up, or strung out in word-webs. As one of the basic building blocks of language and primary units of thought, metaphor functions to carry the mystery of experience into our worlds of meaning.

Once we have the tool of language in hand, so to speak, it is incredibly difficult to resist the impulse to cut the mystery up into pieces and hammer them into configurations that make sense to us. The problem with this – from the higher perspective of the world religions – is that the grimy fingerprints of our egos are all over the meanings we construct. An experience of divine mystery eventually becomes “my” experience “of god,” which means “my” god, the only god that matters. When the mystery has been resolved, divided up, and installed as the gods we believe in and are ready to die for, we are mentally a long, long way from the divine presence.

Heschel makes the point that “my god” is by definition an idol. Unavoidably, as the spiritual experience of mystery is taken up and packaged into meaning, our bias and perspective are reflected in the way we represent God. Of course, in our worse moments we don’t distinguish between the reality that may have inspired the portrait and the portrait itself – a confusion that has motivated more bigotry and violence than just about any other error in thinking. The god I regard as mine, different as it may be from the god you regard as yours, is – both yours and mine – an “untruth,” to use Nietzsche’s term.

So let’s do away with religion and religion’s god altogether. Why not? Won’t we cure the illness of religious dogmatism and militant fundamentalism if we just throw aside theism for good? While the equally dogmatic atheists may scream their endorsement, a more thoughtful and developmentally sensitive post-theism rejects this terminal solution. The reason: the mythological god – the god we tell stories about, the god of religion and therefore the gods of all religions – is necessary, just as the ego (in this view) is necessary in the greater process of human maturity, responsibility and fulfillment.

Humanity is on an evolutionary ascent, and over many generations and millions of years we are slowly actualizing the dormant potential of our nature as a species. (I’m not suggesting that we’ve reached the “end” or “top” of this ascent; surely we still have far to go.) Along the way – just as is the case in our individual development over a lifetime – the pursuit of identity, membership, morality and meaning becomes a powerful preoccupation.  Nevertheless, the system of the ego and its world, a god who presides over it and the mythology that provides narrative space for that god to move in and step out as needed, all works to support humanity in its upward climb.

Post-theism is psychologically paradoxical. Ego is a necessary fixation. Meaning is a necessary fiction. “My god” is a necessary idol. We need these, just as we need a ladder to get to the roof of a house. It would be stupid to kick away the ladder once the roof is reached; we will need it again to get back down. And it’s important that we teach our children how to use the ladder, or else they may mistakenly regard it as a place to hold on and hang out.

The real problem is that, on your ladder or mine, there’s only room for one.

 

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