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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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The Paradox of Education and the Search for Its Soul

Human Education

Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. – H.G. Wells

A paradox is something that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. Its apparent self-contradiction can generate a tension so strong that it snaps and collapses into a dualism of either this or that, this versus that, this but not that. In a paradox, this and that are held as complementary in a larger truth that can be appreciated only as their tension is preserved.

The paradoxical nature of education is suggested already in the very definition of the word. Very simply, to educate is “to lead out.” From the Latin educere, it can refer to “leading” a mind “out” of ignorance and into knowledge, or to “leading” the deeper intelligence and native talents of mind “out” of dormancy and into actualization. Which is it? If we can honor the paradox, it is both.

But the paradox of education has not been honored, particularly in the West where the operating assumption is that what we need to know and know how to do, if we have any hope of making it in this world, is something we need instruction in. Our natural ignorance must be dispelled with the information and techniques that make society work. Otherwise we will be left in a ‘state of nature’ with the beasts, infants, and idiots – ‘blank slates’ forever.

In a way, this preference for technical knowledge over self-actualization, for mastering the outer world over nurturing our inner spirit, plays out in “the two cultures” (C.P. Snow) of Western education, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) on one side; the humanities, the arts, religion and philosophy (HARP) on the other. Because STEM prepares students for professions in the industries driving our world economy, and while HARP amounts to a major distraction from real-world concerns, the Western curriculum in recent decades has been steadily shifting away from spirit and more to machines, out of feeling and more into thinking – more and more into facts, data, analytics, and the technical skills that society depends on.

As the gap widens, a general appreciation for and even an understanding of our own inner life is rapidly diminishing.

Working in higher education, the human cost of this shift is painfully obvious. As the process of education gets reduced to classroom instruction, standardized testing, grade rubrics, academic interventions, and remedial accommodations, students themselves get left out. It may appear as if students are the principal value, but in actuality they are little more than an ID number, a GPA, a graduation and job placement statistic. An expert stands at the front of the room and all the blank slates are arranged in straight rows, facing forward, passively absorbing the data-stream. More students than ever before are succumbing to boredom, depression, anxiety, and the autoimmune complications that fall out from these.

It might sound as if I’m advocating for more art and music in our schools, and while I think that would be a good thing, it’s not the point I’m making here. The leading-out-of-ignorance and leading-out-into-expression models of the educational enterprise are not mutually exclusive, as my argument for their paradoxical relation suggests. It’s not that STEM aligns with the first model and HARP with the second, and that we need more HARP to fix our problem. Our current crisis in education cannot be reduced to the disappearance of performance studios and the proliferation of laboratory classrooms.

As paradox, education is both about preparing students for the workaday world of adult life and assisting in their self-actualization as human beings.

When a paradox is functionally intact, the tension generated between its internal poles is apprehended by our minds all at once, as it were. It is one thing – paradoxically. But after its tension snaps and this unity collapses, repairing a paradox to its original state isn’t simply a matter of gluing the pieces back together. As in all dynamic unities, the whole is always more than the mere sum of its parts. So too, an active paradox is one plus one … plus. For education, I believe this non-added ‘plus’ is its soul, now lost.

In the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty is depicted as a big egg who falls from atop a wall and breaks into pieces. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” Our solution for education will not come by tape and glue; we need to contemplate the chicken (unacknowledged in the rhyme) that came before the egg.

We should agree that education is not only a matter of preparing future employees for the job market; it is also about developing human beings. When the paradox snaps and the process becomes one of filling blank slates with the technical information and employable skills they will need to punch clocks and pay taxes, we stop teaching students how to think and start imposing an orthodoxy of what to think. It’s a short but precipitous slide from there to standardized testing, academic failure, and the crisis we have on our hands.

When I consider the soul of education, what I’m getting at is the deeper spiritual source out of which human consciousness, thought, feeling, desire, and intention arise; it is the grounding mystery within. My reader needs to know that I attach no metaphysical status to this grounding mystery: it is neither some thing or some place, nor can we properly say it exists on its own. It is not god – although I do regard the grounding mystery as the inspiration behind our best metaphors of god.

Finally, in calling this deeper source spiritual I am not thereby setting it apart from the physical realm and our animal life, as in the classical separation in religion of ‘soul’ from ‘body’ – yet another symptom, along with our current malaise in education, of the Great Collapse.

In the diagram above, I offer the image of a tree to illustrate what I mean by the soul of education. My use of an organic metaphor rather than a mechanical one is intended to make the point that education is a living enterprise; it is dynamic, vibrant, and constantly evolving – or it could be, and hopefully will be again one day. Just as in the life of a tree, there is directional flow in the life of education, which I represent in the four terms arranged around the tree.

The place within, where the grounding mystery – that wellspring and spontaneous stream of consciousness – first crosses the threshold from ineffable experience into the articulate network of language, is our imagination. Metaphors (from Greek, meaning to “carry across”) quite literally are preverbal images that translate experience into meaning and serve as foundational insights into the nature of reality. Imagination is perhaps what makes us most uniquely human, and its death is the moment when education begins to lose its soul.

These primordial images rising out of the metaphorical imagination stimulate a more conscious creativity, enabling us to see beyond the given facts into a wider range of probabilities, hidden frontiers of possibility, and even into what is only conceivable but not (yet) possible. Human creativity is a productive and prodigal force in the universe, generated by a powerful urge to simply bring forth and realize what is within us. When it gets blocked, stifled, or penalized for not staying inside the lines, the consequence is spiritual frustration and all the psychosomatic illnesses that Western medicine refuses to validate.

When creativity is allowed to flow and the imagined possibilities can continue to evolve, the wonderful outcome is innovation: bringing about something utterly new. What do we see when we consider human culture – its hardware in the infrastructure, architecture, art, technology, clothing, costumes, uniforms, utensils, instruments, tools, machines and all the rest? And what about its software in the languages, disciplines, theories, paradigms, belief systems, codes, laws, principles, ideas, and ideals that comprise our many systems of meaning? These things are not mere facts of nature but artifacts of culture, and all of them started as innovations of human creativity.

Which brings me quite naturally to my fourth term: community. From previous posts my reader will know that community is not merely a synonym for ‘family’ or ‘group’ or ‘tribe’ or even ‘society’. While these other terms can be defined quantitatively, as a collective of individuals who relate or are related in specific ways, community names a qualitative up-shift in the consciousness of a group, where the intentional and empathetic interactions of members prime conditions for a consilient leap to higher unity. (For more on this, see The Promise of Consilience.)

Community in this sense serves as an incubator of innovation, a provident support for creativity and a deep engagement with the metaphorical imagination. It is itself a manifestation of all this magic happening deeper down, even as it holds sacred space for the magic to happen. In my view, this is what education is and what our schools should be doing.

We need to become communities of learning by restoring the paradox of education and recovering its lost soul.

 

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Telling Stories, Coming True

As a constructivist I regard meaning as something human beings create (construct) rather than search for and find in reality. While this has often come across as a radical and dangerous opinion, the idea that meaning might not be fixed and absolute is evident in our daily experience. The very same event or occasion can support numerous and even contradictory interpretations of what it means.

We used to think that uncovering the bald facts underneath all these competing perspectives would give us “the truth” – its actual, essential, and eternal meaning. When we dug our way to this shining core of meaning – this supposed absolute, universal, and timeless truth – what we found was something that didn’t make sense without an explanation. In other words, we learned that language, words, and narrative are what we use to make something meaningful; without this human projection, reality is quite literally meaningless.

To get at what’s behind this engine of meaning, this creative imagination that compels human beings to spin patterns of causality, identity, and significance, I’ve offered the notion of a “matrix of meaning” – something like a great loom upon which our minds compose the meaning of existence and construct the worlds we live in. My concept of the matrix incorporates the work of Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces), Northrup Frye (Anatomy of Criticism), Erik Erikson (psychosocial stages of development), and James Joyce (specifically his idea of a “monomyth,” the single underlying plot that structures and informs all stories, or at least those worth telling).

I’ve integrated the theories and insights of these authors into a framework of Four Ages of a human being, as carried in the perennial philosophy, which is a persistent and cross-cultural wisdom tradition that has seeded world religions and spiritual revolutions for thousands of years. Instead of promoting an orthodox “theory of everything,” the perennial philosophy encourages us to engage the present mystery of reality at our location in the evolutionary stream. Not male versus female, young versus old, insider versus outsider, or modern versus something else, but as an individual human being, right where we are.

monomythThe diagram above illustrates this unitive theory of human nature and development according to the perennial philosophy, again with some clarifying insights from modern-day theorists. Let’s take a walk through the model and consider how it all fits together.

The Monomyth

At the center is a reminder from the work of James Joyce regarding what he called the “monomyth” at the heart of all great stories. It is the “one plot” worth telling and writing about; everything else in story supports and serves the integrity and advancement of this plot. Joseph Campbell named it The Hero’s Journey. Instead of seeing it as a kind of abstraction from the granular details of many individual stories, the monomyth is better appreciated as the structuring principle of narrative consciousness itself.

I want to use Joyce’s term to name the “one plot” every human being is busy composing, with help from his or her family, community, and larger culture. It’s not something we sit down and write, like a screenplay of our lives, but is rather the shape of life – or the shapes life takes on – as we move through the major phases of our development as individuals.

We all start from home and depart on a journey that inevitably takes us into initiations where our character is authenticated and disillusioned. In our search for deeper meaning and higher purpose we arrive at a point where security and control (if we still have these) must be sacrificed – given up but not thrown aside – for the sake of creativity, communion, and fulfillment. Upon our return we find that the business at home invites a double vision, allowing us to perceive a precious and eternal reality in the passing little things of life.

This monomyth is like a hologram of fractal geometry, where the larger holistic pattern (the circuit just summarized) is replicated at more refined levels which play out in distinct narrative modes – what Frye named comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. These modes correspond to the primary concerns that preoccupy human beings at the different stages (the Four Ages) of life: security in childhood (birth to age 10), freedom in youth (years 10 to 30), suffering in adulthood (years 30 to 60), and fate in later life (age 60+).

Comedy

Comedy turns the monomyth around a focus on security, usually where some higher (taller: adult) power is in charge, everything is in its place, and life is just boring enough to arouse curiosity in the protagonist (most often a child) about what’s outside the door, over the wall, or down the rabbit hole. True to the mytho-logic of the monomyth, the comfortable security of home will typically be thrown into jeopardy as the youngster loses his or her way, or gets captured by some wicked thing. The nature of comedy, however, ensures that a successful escape will be made and the frightened hero or heroine returns safely home again.

Romance

Youth is the Age when the palace grounds seem limiting and oppressive: It’s time for adventure! The narrative mode of romance is not only about the lure of perfect (and even more irresistible, forbidden) love, but how the protagonist – and let’s not forget that we’re talking about ourselves – longs to explore (and transgress) the boundaries on freedom. He or she goes out in search of something, encountering obstacles and opponents along the way. The resolution to getting cornered or captured is not about making it safely back home, but rather overcoming the evil force and taking destiny in hand. Romance is the narrative mode most associated with heroes in popular culture.

Tragedy

Our thirties are the favored time for stepping into careers and starting families: We are Adults at last. But with this transition we are also crossing into a landscape of deepening shadows. Responsibilities put limits on our time and energy, and our passion for life gets tethered to mundane commitments and deadlines. At some point – what I call the midlife reset (around age 45) – we can become positively overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and disorientation. A decline in fitness and creeping challenges to our health, not to mention an increased frequency in our confrontation with death (older relatives, parents, and even close friends), force us to set aside many of our youthful dreams and ambitions. Suffering simply cannot be escaped, bravely ignored, or permanently medicated out of awareness.

Irony

The crossover into the Age of Elder might see us becoming gnarled, bitter, and cynical. Or else, if we can follow the lifeline of our monomyth, a spiritual wisdom might ascend within us, even as our animal vigor is ebbing away. For so much of our life we had reached for light and run from shadow, held on to life as if death was the enemy, chased Utopias (“no place”) in future deals, better opportunities, greener grass, brighter lands, and otherworldly paradises. Now we understand – or are understanding more keenly – that light and shadow, life and death, good and evil, joy and grief, passing time and timeless eternity are many aspects of a single, profound, and ineffable mystery.

The narrative mode of irony provides a way of contemplating existence at two levels (or more), where we no longer have a need to split reality into opposites and flatten out its paradoxes. A spirit (or the stomach) for not only tolerating such a communion of opposites but even celebrating it as the Golden Way (gospel, dharma, tao) into life in its fullness requires that we be at a place psychologically where the orthodoxies of Flatland no longer constrain us.


When we are ready we will see that the Cross of dereliction is also the Bodhi tree of enlightenment; the hemlock in our cup is also the wine of new life. Death and rebirth (or resurrection) are misunderstood if we insist on arranging them in temporal sequence, as life after death. The dark principle, Lucifer, whom we frantically try to push behind us and out of our life, holds the light (Lucifer means “light bearer”) we’ve been too afraid to accept as our own.

Across this matrix of meaning stand the great paradoxes of the wisdom teachings: security in suffering, freedom in fate. Grasped as a higher pattern, the monomyth offers us guidance as we construct meaning and compose our personal story. The truth of our story lies not in the facts, but in its power to carry a vision of what is still to come.

 

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The Story of Truth

At this holiday season we have another chance to take a deeper look into story. What is it exactly, this peculiar arrangement of words that conjures up images in our minds, sweeps us away into other times and places, to places that never were nor likely will ever be?

Take the story of The Nativity, for example. It is the founding narrative of one of the two competing traditions behind our present-day Christmas holiday. Where is the truth in this story – which is really two distinct stories told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Nativity

Matthew’s version includes a heavenly star and oriental court astrologers who visit Mary and Jesus at their Bethlehem home address. There’s the maniacal and jealous King Herod who orders all males under two years old murdered, in his effort to eliminate this contender to the throne. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus out of Bethlehem and eventually to Egypt until wicked King Herod dies. When the coast is clear, the First Family moves to Nazareth where Jesus will spend his youth.

Luke’s version has Joseph taking his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his ancestral home town of Bethlehem for tax enrollment. Upon arriving the couple discovers that every hotel room is booked, and thus is forced to stay the night in an animal shack behind the inn. There Mary goes into labor and delivers Jesus. Meanwhile, an angelic choir announces to shepherds in their fields that a savior has been born in Bethlehem. They go with haste and find the First Family in the stable, just as foretold.

There are some obvious inconsistencies between these two Nativity stories – maybe you caught them.

Joseph and Mary begin in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem in Luke’s version, whereas they end up there after starting in Bethlehem in Matthew’s. Luke’s shepherds visit Jesus in an animal stable, while Matthew’s astrologers find him in a “house.” Obviously one has to be right. If you had been there, what would you have seen with your own eyes?

Before you answer, let’s note that Luke’s shepherds are probably hired hands or day laborers, down in the socioeconomic mucky bottom. They aren’t businessmen, artisans or merchants. They represent the class just barely inside the definition of class, and definitely outside of having any political clout.

Matthew’s court astrologers, on the other hand, are pretty high up on the social ladder. They may be outsiders but they come with wealth and power. Still they leave their country and kingdom in search of the “king of the Jews,” and when they find him they lay their offerings at his feet.

So did it happen just that way? But which way?

In their effort to merge these different storylines into a single coherent narrative, commentators have suggested that Matthew’s events actually took place after Luke’s – maybe as many as two years later. That accounts for Herod’s massacre of two-year-old males and gives the First Family time to get from the stable into a bona fide residence. The astrologers and shepherds never met each other, which means that our crowded manger scenes on postcards and storybooks are an historical inaccuracy.

But it’s not necessary to merge these two narratives. They are inconsistent only if your assumption is that the truth is somehow outside the stories, in the facts of history and what must have “actually happened.”

This question of which Gospel Nativity story is true – and the question of truth in story generally – cannot be answered by jumping out of the story and looking for facts to back it up. Actually, this scramble for historical evidence and the sworn testimony of eye witnesses is a very late development. It became urgent and pressing once the spell was broken.

What spell? The spell that any great story puts on the mind of whomever is willing to “go under” its entrancing power. You can’t keep interrupting the narrative with ejaculations of “Did that really happen?” and “Is that literally how it went?” Follow the example of a young child: Once upon a time carries the imagination into another world – that is to say, into a different narrative construct from the one you’re in right now.

Don’t sweat it. You’re just leaving one spell for another. You’ll be back in no time at all. For now, simply relax, close your eyes and listen …

Luke’s Nativity introduces you to the start of a world revolution, where an insurgent savior is born to poverty. The good news (gospel) of his arrival is first announced to shepherds “living in the fields,” outside and away from the power-centers of wealth, politics and religion. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel – if you are patient enough for the whole story – continues to fill out this character who comes to level the playing field, to challenge the high and mighty, and pull the hopeless poor to their feet. Luke’s Jesus is the prince of a new kingdom, and you are invited in.

Matthew’s Nativity invites you to a revolution as well, but his messiah is fashioned on the model of Moses, the great liberator who saved his people from bondage in Egypt. In order to solidify this association, Matthew arranges for Jesus to be in Egypt (hiding from Herod) and be granted a safe exodus into the new “promised land” of Nazareth. Matthew’s story overall is about the world significance of this New Liberator, represented in a heavenly star high above and foreign magistrates from far away. Apparently no one alive “under heaven” is excluded from this very good news, not even you.

Coming back to the burning question, what can be said about the “truth” of these stories?

The Nativity stories are not true because they accurately relate how things actually went down. They were not composed as an effort to piece together evidence in a factually reliable report. We can safely make this generalization about all true stories. They are true to the degree they are successful in bringing about a transformation of consciousness, orienting the spell-bound audience to reality with a new set of values and expectations. If the story changes you, then it’s true.

But if it can’t change you, simply because you refuse to “go under” and get “caught up” in its alternative fantasy, then it’s “only a story” or “just a myth.” You might as well set it down and get on with your life, such as it is.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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