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Evolutionary Faith

Even though I’m an amateur blogger, I like to pay attention to which posts my readers are visiting more often. Presumably more visits indicates a greater interest in a particular topic or idea, and I like to think there’s an opportunity for advancing the dialogue together. Among the things I write about, the topics of faith, spirituality, and religion seem to be most interesting – to my readers as well as to me personally.

I know that some would prefer to drop the whole set and get on with life in the modern age, seeing how much confusion, bigotry, persecution, and suffering have been perpetrated for their sake and in their name. But I’ve argued for a long time that these three forces in human history and experience cannot simply be dismissed just because they happen to be problematic.

Indeed, they are problematic precisely because they are so critically important and essential to our continuing human story.

Back in the 1970s James Fowler, a Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, set about exploring the nature and development of faith, which he broadly defined as the act of relating to reality (“the universal”) and creating meaning. Fowler worked closely with Erik Erikson’s psychosocial model of development, which was and remains the standard theory in the field. His definition of faith cuts beneath the popular notion of it as either a more or less fixed set of religious beliefs (e.g., the Christian faith) or a willingness to believe something without evidence or logic to support it.

Fowler’s idea of faith as a basic orientation to reality and life in the world is therefore nonreligious in any formal sense, and much more experiential.

In his research, Fowler identified six stages of faith – seven including a “pre-stage” condition which he named undifferentiated or “primal” faith. Out of this undifferentiated state the developing individual’s mode of engaging reality and making meaning evolves – through childhood, into adulthood, and beyond. As in Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Fowler found numerous points where development can get arrested, delayed, or fixated, resulting in a kind of spiritual pathology that slows progress and compromises the individual’s successful transit to fulfillment or self-actualization.

My diagram correlates Fowler’s stages of faith with the historical development of religion through its three main types: animism, theism, and post-theism. A way of understanding this correlation would be to see individual faith as the prompt (inducement or drive) for changes in the character of religion at the cultural level; but also reciprocally, in terms of the way a society’s religion supports, shapes, and promotes (or stunts) the faith development of its members.

Finally, the big picture is revealed by those Yin-and-Yang poles of “communion” (mystical oneness) and “community” (ethical togetherness), which I recently explored in my post Human Progress. Once a separate center of self-conscious identity (ego) is established, reality can be engaged by going (1) deeper within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being, but also (2) by going farther beyond ourselves to the turning unity (universe) of all things.

The first path is a via negativa, releasing and subtracting all that goes into our individuation as separate individuals until only an experience of ineffable oneness remains: the mystical path. Stretching out and beyond us is a via positiva, affirming our unique existence and joining it to others in the experience of diversified togetherness: the ethical path.

Just seeing the dialectical continuum of communion (Yin) and community (Yang) there in front of us reveals the evolutionary principle working its way through Fowler’s stages of faith. From its genesis in the undifferentiated or primal experience of oneness where consciousness rests in its own grounding mystery, our engagement with reality progresses through ego formation and, finally, to the breakthrough realization that All is One – all of it together, including us. Our orientation in reality and the meaning of it all shifts, sometimes dramatically, from one paradigm to the next.

In the space remaining, I want to focus in on the three stages of faith that correlate to theism, the type of religion that is organized around the priorities of personal identity (deity and devotee), group membership, and a morality of obedience. Theism itself can be analyzed as evolving through three distinct phases: early, high, and late theism.

Early theism corresponds to the “mythic-literal” stage of faith, where the founding stories of world creation, tribal formation, heroic achievement, special revelation, and the consummation of history are taken quite literally, as setting our orientation in space and time.

In high theism, faith takes on a “synthetic-conventional” mode and the pressures of conformity motivate us to match our attitudes and outlook to the general view of our group. This is typically when the transcendence of god (the deity) is emphasized in worship and devotees are exhorted to worship god in humble submission, as they aspire to be more godly in their daily lives.

Because high theism has a tendency of getting locked into its arrangements of power and authority, it can often and actively work against the prompt of “individual-reflective” faith. As the individual awakens by a deeper curiosity and critical reason to doubts and insights that seem to challenge the tribal orthodoxy, religion can become a repressive force using guilt, along with the threat of excommunication and everlasting punishment, to bring the heretic back into its fold.

But it can happen that theism actually stimulates and encourages an individual’s quest for a relevant and secular (this-worldly) philosophy of life. The metaphorical foundations of theology (“god-talk”) are not only admitted but celebrated, and those sacred stories (myths) which had provided the incubator for our emerging identity back in childhood are now reappropriated as poetic lenses into the creative paradoxes of body and soul, self and other, humanity and nature.

Late theism need not be regarded as the “death” or “eclipse” of theism, but can rather be understood as the transition into an entirely new expression of spirituality and type of religion.

Post-theism – literally “after theism” – is about the farther reaches of human nature and the further stages in the development of faith. Fowler’s “conjunctive” faith actively brings together the heretofore disconnected and alienated aspects of our life: the shadow in our personality, the enemy we had worked so hard to keep at a distance, and the many variations on the theme of Truth that play out across the world cultures.

A “universalizing” faith beholds it All as One, seeking to live in and creatively cultivate genuine community, by such intentional practices as covenant fidelity, universal compassion, unconditional forgiveness, and absolute devotion to the wellbeing and fulfillment of all.

 

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The Irenic Revolution

OneMy children are in their twenties now and making their way into college degrees, careers, and relationships that will hopefully support happy and fulfilled lives. They are kind, creative, and fun-loving kids who worry sometimes about drifting out of touch with classmates and childhood friends as they pursue their dreams.

One type of silent trauma we all struggle through at this time in life is a deepening sense of being on our own in the world. A system that supported and moved us along for so many years now expects us to settle into jobs, manage households, and occupy tax brackets that will help turn the wheel for others coming up behind us.

One concern of my kids has to do with finding a place where they can connect with others their age and explore, in community, the meaning of life. Churches these days are either too dogmatic and moralistic, telling people what to believe and how to behave, or else equally stuck in complacency where the question to which “Jesus is the answer” has long been forgotten. The failure of Christian orthodoxy to keep up and stay relevant with contemporary science, the current secular scene, and the irreverent curiosity of young people in their “individuative-reflective” stage of faith (James Fowler), makes it unattractive – even offensive – as an option.

What’s more, my kids and many other young people who may have grown up under the tutelage of theistic religion are no longer willing to buy into the idea of a god ‘out there’ who is watching over the world, intervening on our behalf, and waiting for our saved souls on the other side of this mortal life. The metaphysical backdrop that may have once given context to a mythology of ups and downs, incarnations and ascensions, virgin births and miraculous resurrections, garden paradises and a home in heaven, no longer fits with what we know about the universe and the adventure of life on our planet.

But they’re not ready to declare themselves ‘atheists’, either. Somehow the argument over whether or not god exists seems unimportant to them. If a literal deity (the god ‘up there’) doesn’t make sense in light of contemporary science, and if the old dualisms of body and soul, matter and spirit, insiders and outsiders no longer resonate with our current world picture, are we left only with the responsible choice of tossing it all aside and leaving religion behind?

In the heat of their reaction, many have not taken a moment to consider the possibility that god might be a literary being and not a literal one at all, and that the sacred stories (myths) where this literary figure lives might still have metaphorical significance, even as the backdrop of an archaic metaphysics has become incredible to us.

Because young adults today are separated from their peer circles by the obligation of getting on with their lives, it is common for them to feel isolated, but also aberrant and alone in their ordeal. If churches and even parachurch organizations are not providing welcome to their questions, doubts, and ‘heretical’ interests, where can they turn? Perhaps they are indeed exceptional, in the sense that no one really shares their struggle or can understand what they’re going through.

And that’s where I tell my kids: You are not alone. In fact, you are part of a worldwide majority of young people who happen to believe, quite mistakenly, that they are lone delinquents of their dominant cultures. As the regulated and gridlocked world of adult life subjects you to a shakedown of your creative intelligence and free-ranging curiosity, this is your opportunity to reach out and find each other. CircleWhat the world needs now is an irenic revolution, inspired and led by young people who want to transcend differences and explore our common ground as human beings. In communities dedicated to the shared pursuit of peace and understanding, they will help move spirituality outside the boxes of orthodoxy and atheism, into a post-theistic future. Together they will foment tolerance, loving-kindness, honest dialogue, and radical responsibility. Instead of terrorists who seek to generate anxiety, they will be irenists (from the Greek irene, peace) who cultivate a deep center of calm presence, inner strength, and creative authority. Their mission in the world will be to wage peace in every quarter until every person on this planet is fearless and free.NetworkI am part of such a gathering which meets every week to talk about the concerns, challenges, and opportunities we daily face as human beings. We call ourselves a “wisdom circle,” not because we’re so smart or have all the answers, but to remind us of our primary task, which is to listen and learn from one another as we seek to live by the principles of wisdom. We understand these principles as guiding insights into the nature of genuine community, where individuality is respected, creativity is celebrated, empathy is nurtured, and unity (not always agreement!) is our highest aspiration.Mega NetworkOur wisdom circle has no ambitions of growing our numbers to the point where we exceed the seating capacity of our homes. We would never allow our gathering to become so large that we could no longer arrange ourselves in a circle, but instead have to sit in rows (like church pews). The point is to look at the faces of each other, to listen to each other, learn from each other, and leap together in the consilient experience that is community.

One question that soon comes up is, What should we talk about? Is the topic of conversation merely a roulette wheel of whatever somebody wants to discuss? Sometimes. More often, however, the dialogue gets started around a recent blog post of mine. (It doesn’t stay on the topic necessarily, but sidetracks can be unexpectedly fruitful as well.) My “tracts of revolution” blog is a library of reflections on such topics as spirituality, philosophy, science, the brain, psychology, education, religion, post-theism, the new humanism, mysticism, ethics, favorite authors, and current events – all sharing the golden thread of my general theme, which is ‘exploring creative change’.

Why don’t we – or why don’t you, reader – find a few others who want to be in dialogue over things that really matter? Commit to gathering weekly. Set up a rotating hosting schedule; brew some coffee, spread a table, open a bottle of wine. Decide on a topic; or choose a blog post, share the link, and ask individuals to read it beforehand. Remember that consensus or agreement is not the purpose of a wisdom circle, and I certainly would not want my views and conclusions to become some kind of orthodoxy. PeaceThe purpose is to become a community, because community is why we’re here. We need to start thinking like the universe and living as one.

Join the irenic revolution.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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