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Dead Certain

Other animals will engage in violent conflict with members of their own species over territory, resources, access to mates, and protecting their young, but only humans kill each other over ideas. We will go so far as to commit suicide in the act of destroying those who don’t agree with us or whose values are different from ours. This is a prime example of how ideology overrides biology, how human culture imperils human nature, how meaning can destroy life.

Because a lot of this damage is committed in the name of a god or metaphysical principle opposed to the way things are going, it is fashionable for critics to lay the responsibility on religion. Instead of regarding fanatics and fundamentalists as aberrations of religious thought and values, such critics see them as representing the pathology that is religion.

An obligation to believe in things that don’t exist or can’t be proved, things that violate rules of logic and fly in the face of common sense, takes over the intelligence of believers and drives them to extreme behavior. This is what religion does, what it is designed to do – so the critics argue.

Joseph Campbell famously defined mythology as “other people’s religion,” exposing a built-in preference for regarding one’s own sacred stories as firmly established in reality whereas other people only believe in myths (i.e., fantasies, fallacies, and superstitions). Campbell himself didn’t agree with this bias but regarded everyone’s sacred stories as constructions of meaning. As such, they draw on both our experience of what’s around us (represented in our cosmology or model of the universe) as well as the inner workings of our own deeper nature (included in what I name the grounding mystery).

By weaving together narrative strands of observation and intuition, religion tells stories that orient us in reality and make life meaningful. But as it happens, the beliefs we hold and the stories we tell can fall out of sync with the living stream of life. This is indeed how fundamentalism finds a foothold: the stories that used to orient us meaningfully in reality are no longer relevant to the challenges of contemporary life – but we continue to defend them as the way it is.

Most of our beliefs, along with the stories that contextualize them, serve our meaningful engagement with reality. But a vast majority of them are eventually dropped or updated with the acquisition of better data.

With time and repeated confirmation, however, a consciously held belief gradually slips from active thought and into the subconscious operating system of our mind. We may never have bothered to test it against our sense observations and subjective intuitions of reality, but it takes its place anyway as an unacknowledged assumption concerning the way things are.

A once-active belief sinks away from our perspective at the surface and joins the sediment of unquestioned truths, screening out new data and selecting for data that confirms it.

A problem with this, of course, is the fact that life is a moving stream, the times do indeed change, and – what most of us fail to realize – our constructions of meaning begin to fall out of date the moment we lock them in place and start viewing reality through their lens.

A regular meditation practice would assist our disillusionment by exposing the constructed nature of our beliefs and tuning awareness to the present mystery of reality. But the majority of us don’t have the time or patience for it. The consequence is that, as beliefs sink down and behind us to become our subconscious operating system, we are less and less attentive to objective evidence and inner realizations that might otherwise bring us back into the current.

So, the longer we carry on under the spell of an assumption – and it does put our mind in a kind of trance of automatic (i.e., hypnotized) thinking – the less open to present reality and the more emotionally obligated to its truth we become. If its truth happens to be challenged, whether by the presentation of strong counter-evidence, the sound reasoning of a worthy counter-argument, or just by someone innocently asking why it has to be true, we find ourselves behind bars and unable to give an articulate defense. What do we do then? 

We may pick up the volume and try to overwhelm our challenger by the force of our passion. We might try to justify our belief by saying something like, “It’s just obvious. I mean, look around.” We might criticize our opponent (notice how quickly a challenger becomes an opponent, and then an enemy) as lacking intelligence, virtue, honor, or faith.

Or we might throw a line outside the realm of reason, evidence, and common sense, invoking a transcendent authority like god who is presently unavailable for comment, but you can consult his holy book for the proof-text you need.

When our mind has become a convict of our own beliefs, we are said to have conviction. The thicker and more rigid the bars, the more adamant and defensive we get, unwilling to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong or holding on to a belief that’s no longer relevant. The way it is, according to our unquestioned assumptions, gets defended, when they are dragged into the light, as the only way it can be. There is no other way. Too much depends on the truth of our conviction, that even reality can be damned and dismissed for its sake.

This is how fundamentalism takes hold. What is meant by fundamentalism goes beyond religion only, therefore, to include any and all ideological systems, most importantly the ideology in our own heads. It doesn’t have to be religious in any formal sense. To the extent that our mind is closed inside convictions which motivate our separation from and violence against other views and ways of life, we are fundamentalists.

We might not strap a bomb to our chest and take innocent lives on our way out, but insisting on ours as the only way is aborting the possibility of dialogue and foreclosing on the future of genuine community. The wisdom principle here is that liberation from fundamentalism begins in our own mind.

If we’re not careful, we just may end up dead certain.

 

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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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Mental Bypass in Religion

Intuition_Understanding_ConvictionHow did something with its origins in a mystical intuition of reality’s essential oneness become such a violent force of division in the world? If religion began as a system of symbols, rites, and sacred stories with the purpose of linking the business of daily life back to the grounding mystery of being, where did it start to lose its way and become a program of separation, deliverance, and escape from this world?

Or to make it more personal, what makes an individual who believes in ‘the god of Jesus Christ’ or in Jesus as ‘my personal Lord and Savior’ act in such ways as to utterly contradict the core teachings of Jesus himself?

That last question is probably the easiest to answer. A misalignment of Christian behavior with the teachings of Jesus most likely has to do with a difference in consciousness between Jesus and the professing (but hypocritical) follower. It’s not simply a matter of imitating the actions of Jesus or parroting his words; his words and actions manifested a certain degree of enlightenment, empathy, and courage. That’s where the difference lies. It’s not that he was god and we aren’t, or that he was perfect and none of us can be.

Very simply put, Jesus was spiritually grounded and lived his life by the mystical intuition that All is One. To phrase it with more of an ethical focus: We’re all (in) this together.

And probably most of his professing followers aren’t, and don’t.

It may have been this depth of grounding and spiritual clarity that eventually got misconstrued into the metaphysical doctrines of his heavenly origins and divine nature. At any rate, the Jesus of Christian orthodoxy went in an entirely different direction. He became a virgin-born world savior, supreme object of worship, patron of generals and kings, and the one who will eventually come again to judge the quick and the dead. This is the Jesus in whose name Christians have destroyed indigenous cultures, waged war on unbelievers, drowned witches, burned heretics, and condemned homosexuals.

An entirely different direction.

Much of religion today has become identified with emotional convictions of one kind or another. This is the type of belief sponsored by orthodoxy. It’s not about articulating a profound mystical intuition into an intellectual understanding where its relevance to life in the world can be worked out. Instead it is locked inside very specific turns of phrase, tied to proof texts, cross-referenced, embedded in confessions and creeds and recited together with the standing congregation. Its lack of relevant (real-life) meaning is compensated by a fervent passion that ‘it must be so’, since a Christian’s present identity and post-mortem salvation depend on it.

A returning reader will be familiar with my low regard for conviction, as the point where a belief once held by the mind turns the table and becomes its prison. What initially may have served to frame a perspective on something eventually closes down to just ‘this way’ of seeing it. Nothing outside the frame is validated, no alternatives can be considered, no other answers to the question or solutions to the problem. Creative thinking comes to an end. When it happens in religion, wild metaphors that may have once carried an experience of mystery across the threshold into meaning now lay dead in their cages. At this point, without a lifeline remaining to its own spiritual depths, thought becomes rigid, dogmatic, and heartless.

Emotional conviction is perhaps the chief symptom of religion’s collapse. This is not to say that Jesus himself, for example, didn’t carry a great deal of passion into his teaching and way of life. Indeed, his ethical precept of ‘love your enemy’ – which is how he translated the mystical intuition of oneness into a social revolution – generates a mixture of inspiration and anxiety in any reasonable person just contemplating it.

The point is that his passion, and his passionate action, came out of an intellectual understanding of the spiritual basis and strategic purpose of unconditional forgiveness.

We can imagine two of Jesus’ disciples, soon-to-be founders of two distinct traditions of Christianity, holding a conversation after he is gone. “We must love our enemies because Jesus told us to, and we need to stay with his program,” one says to the other. “Although, we might need to qualify what he probably meant by ‘enemy’, since there are some people in this world that are simply impossible to love and frankly don’t deserve it.”

“You’re missing the point,” says the second disciple. “Jesus could love his enemy because he understood that our separation from others is a lie we impose on reality, when in truth we are all one. Forgiveness and love follow rather spontaneously upon the realization that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. We don’t do it because Jesus told us to, but because we are all in this together.”

Whereupon the first disciple proceeded home to begin the work of orthodoxy, and the second carried on with the work of converting truth into love.

 

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God On The Brain

I don’t typically talk much about the brain in Tracts of Revolution, where it’s more about how spirituality, religion, philosophy and science offer frequently contradictory (but possibly at some deeper level, complementary) accounts of reality. This three-pound organ and its central place in our ongoing efforts to live happy and meaningful lives is, however, my veritable obsession in another blog of mine, called Brain Tracts. Perhaps this brief excursion into the neuroscience of God will entice you to check it out.

Mental Theater

In order to beat down the grass a bit and make a path to this grand topic of God, let’s begin by talking about what your brain is doing right now. Throughout the day your brain is entertaining a series of loosely chained scenarios, as you move in and out of the various environments and situations of daily life. One of its important contributions is the faithful representation inside your mental theater of what’s going on outside and around you. As you drive your car on the road, sit behind your desk at work or school, or engage a conversation with friends, your brain attends to (or bends toward) the stimuli coming across its sensory outposts – the classic five (or so) gross senses of your body.

Gathering together these numerous strands of sensory information, your brain projects this composite representation on the screen of your conscious awareness. Whether it’s an apparently seamless and dynamic movie unfolding there or a “still shot” of something you are studying with concentrated effort, the focus of your attention is your mental object. As it flashes up there on the screen inside your mental theater, it is only information. In my attempt to make it as uninteresting and impersonal as possible, I will simply name it: “IT.” IT is what you are focusing on right now.

Now, your brain isn’t just a fancy mechanism for collecting and processing sensory information from the environment – although that in and of itself is pretty amazing indeed. Your mental object might instead be something you are recalling from yesterday or five years ago; or again, IT might be something you’re making up on the fly, as it were, by the wonder-working power of imagination. Perception, recollection, and imagination are thus the three channels by which your brain brings your mental object (IT) to the screen of present attention.

The debate between theism and atheism over the existence of God gets predictably hung up at this point, with one side (the atheists) refuting it on the claim that this particular mental object has no basis in the sensory-physical realm of our senses and was simply made up (imagined) by superstitious storytellers. Theists will typically counter by appealing to sacred writings that record and inerrantly preserve the actual (miraculous, supernatural) experiences of people many centuries ago. The responsibility of faith today is to trust these accounts as a reliable witness to the objective truth of God’s existence.

In my opinion, this debate is tired, boring, and pointless. The theists are misreading their sacred texts by taking the stories of God literally, and the atheists are playing right into it by taking the theists literally. For a way through the stalemate, we need to go back to the brain.

Lower BraintractYour brain is “wired” into your body through a complex nervous system that reaches out to your muscles, organs, glands, tissues and cells. I call this a braintract – specifically your lower braintract, since you have an upper one as well (which we’ll get to in a bit). With brain-imaging technology and carefully controlled experiments, neuroscience has discovered that your brain is constantly monitoring the stream of experience flowing below the threshold of conscious attention. This spontaneous engagement with the stream of experience is called intuition (or at least that’s what I’m calling it), and it’s where your brain is “picking up” all kinds of subtle impressions of what’s really going on.

Of course, “stream of experience” is only a metaphor – although I hasten to add that the word only here should not be taken to mean merely or nothing but a metaphor. Metaphors are image-words used to convey something that cannot be grasped in objective terms. Many of our most powerful experiences in life are of things that have no separate existence of their own but are nonetheless real to us by virtue of the unmistakable and frequently overwhelming feelings they evoke. Any attempt to extract such metaphors from the moving stream of experience and strip them of feeling ends up destroying them along with the connection to reality they provided.

I have argued that religion began as a way of contemplating the present mystery of reality. Its deepest and earliest metaphor is the ground of being – the providential support and creative source on which all depends, moment to moment. The feeling of this ground is registered in your nervous system, generated out of a syndrome of countless synchronized events transpiring in your cells, glands and organs. The present mystery of reality is grasped intuitively and “known” spontaneously in the rhythms of your breath, your heartbeat, and the nerve cycles of consciousness.

Religion thus began with a metaphor that conveyed a profound and essentially ineffable experience of reality as the rising support of being-itself. Quickly enough – for the next task of religion is to tie the concerns of daily life back to this deeper support – it further clarified the ground metaphor into the natural incarnations known intimately by every newborn mammal: mother and (to a lesser extent) father. The earliest representations in religion of the present mystery of reality were the generative provision of Mother Earth and the supervisory protection of Father Sky (or heavenly Father) – both archetypes (or “first forms”) of the grounding mystery.

It’s important to understand that these primordial representations (and earliest mental objects) of reality were not of a being in the earth and another being in the sky. As archetypes of the ineffable mystery of being-itself (i.e., the ground metaphor), they translated a deeply intuitive experience and established a relationship to reality that acknowledged our natural dependency and communion with the universe.

Upper Braintract

So far my theory explains the origins of our concept of God, beginning in the spontaneous engagement with the stream of present (and preconscious) experience. This intuition of reality as provident support and creative source was first grasped and communicated in the ground-of-being metaphor, but pretty quickly got translated into the specific incarnations of Mother and Father – and by extension, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Once your brain fastens the focus of attention on a mental object, it sends this information via your upper braintract to your mind where its meaning will be determined. Your two braintracts are constantly working in parallel, with the lower braintract (your body) converting the information in your brain (the mental object) into an energy-state of feeling, and the upper braintract (your mind) translating it into a narrative composition (story) of meaning. Your mind is a storyteller and perpetually busy constructing narratives around your mental object, which serve to frame a context, establish causality, project possible scenarios, predict outcomes, and generally link the mental object into a web of associations that makes it mean something.

Storytelling is recursive elaboration on a mental object, or what is commonly called reflection: the bending-back of your mind on a work-in-progress, weaving strands of identification and significance around it, like a spider bundling up a trapped fly in sticky fibers. As the mind cannot help but construct meaning when your brain presents it with a mental object, telling stories (including theories, hypotheses, explanations, reports, excuses and lies) is its primary business.

Coming back to religion and its concept of God, this business of storytelling is how humans make sense of their experience and link everything back (Latin religare) to the grounding mystery. Yes, this is mythology – not fallacies, deceptive tales, or bad science, but dramatic narratives connecting our life-world and daily concerns to the provident reality supporting and supplying our existence in this moment. The many deities of religion are personifications of hidden agencies in the rhythms of life and death, the landscape and its resources, the seasons and catastrophes that shape our experience in the world.

The danger of telling stories about the gods (these hidden agencies) is in our mind’s need to perform further recursive elaboration on these elaborations – constructing the god’s genealogy and sibling relations, reputation and character, sovereign will and inner thoughts – all of which may encourage the belief in his or her separate existence. As the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky reproduced into the countless offspring deities of the regional and tribal myths, the actual origins of God were forgotten and the literary gods became literal beings. The stage was thereby set for the theist-atheist debate. Who’s right? Neither one.

Braintracts_full pic

If – and I grant this is a BIG if – we can look through our deities, descend along the winding path of our sacred stories and deeper into the intuitive experience that got everything started, we will be able to relax our grip and loosen up. It all began with the waking of consciousness to the provident uplift of life in this moment. You’ve never left it, despite your long and tired journey in its quest.

One day you will close your eyes and unwind completely into a mystery beyond name and form.

 

 

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