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Christian Mythology Through A Post-theistic Lens

After leaving Christian ministry as a church pastor my journey has taken me deeper into the frontier of post-theism, and it’s been my new “calling” since then to clarify the meaning of this emergent form of spirituality. I have worked hard to distinguish post-theism from its progenitor (theism), as well as from its much younger sibling (atheism) who seeks to discredit their parent and be done with the whole family affair.

Even as a church pastor I was intrigued by the mythology of early Christianity, which was inspired no doubt by the historical disturbance of Jesus himself, to be later developed by the likes of Paul and the four Evangelists into a story of world-historical and even cosmic scope. Intuitively I sensed that the story was not really about long-ago events or faraway places, despite what my denomination and its theological tradition wanted me to believe and preach to the congregations I served.

Maybe I didn’t need to get out of church in order to find the deeper truth of Christianity, but it certainly helped.

Outside the imaginarium of stained-glass windows, vestments, liturgies, rituals, and hymns, the transforming effects of its originary experience coalesced for me in a singular revelation. It was – and for now we have to speak in the past tense since both popular and orthodox Christianity have all but lost their sightlines to the source – not about being saved from hell or rescued to heaven, pleasing god and getting our reward.

All of these negative and positive incentives hook into something without which they would have no power. It’s not that we had to wait for modern science to demythologize the underworld and outer space, or for anthropological studies to expose the historical origins of religion before we could let go and move on. Their hooks are in us, quite independent of whether and to what degree we may be children of the Enlightenment.

In my investigations into the development of religion through the millenniums of human history, it struck me that its three major paradigms – classified as animism, theism, and post-theism – are each centered in a distinct dimension of our human experience.

Animism is centered in our animality with its immersion in the fluid forces of nature, life, and instinct. Theism is centered in our personality and particularly involved with the formation and maintenance of ego identity in the social context. And post-theism – that latter-day evolution of religion “after god” – is centered in our spirituality, where we begin to cultivate the grounding mystery of our existence and live in the realization that all is One.

My objective in this blog has been to show how theism prepares for the emergence of post-theism, and where alternatively it gets hung up, spinning out more heat than light. We happen to be in the throes of that dynamic right now, as the paroxysms of pathological theism – in the forms of fundamentalism, dogmatism, terrorism, and complacency – multiply around us.

With all of this in view, it’s tempting to join the chorus of atheists who are pressing to extinguish theism in all its forms, or at least to ignore it in hopes it will just go away.

But it won’t go away: another recurring theme in this blog of mine. Theism has a role to play, and pulling it down will not only destroy what core of wisdom still remains, but also foreclose on a flourishing human future on this planet by clipping the fruit of post-theism before it has a chance to ripen. This fruit is what I call genuine community.

Theism evolved for the purpose of preparing the way for genuine community, although its own inherent tendencies toward tribalism, authoritarianism, and orthodoxy have repeatedly interfered. This is just where the struggle for post-theism will make some enemies.

Returning to my autobiographical confessions, over time and with distance I came to realize where it is that Christian post-theism emerges from Christian theism, and it is precisely where Jewish post-theism emerged from Jewish theism. One place in particular where a post-theistic breakthrough in Judaism was attempted but ended up failing was in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This failure eventuated in the rise of Christian theism (or Christianity), which made Jesus the center of its orthodoxy, though not as revealer of the liberated life but rather the linchpin of its doctrinal system.

Just prior to the point when the early ‘Jesus movement’ was co-opted and effectively buried (for a second time!) beneath layers of dogmatic tradition and ecclesiastical politics, the apostle Paul and the four Evangelists had grasped the energizing nerve of Jesus’ message. Immediately – or rather I should say spontaneously, out of what I earlier called an originary experience – they translated its transforming mystery into metaphorical and mythological meaning.

Whether they borrowed from the cultural store of symbolism available at the time or brought it up from the depths of their own mythopoetic imaginations (which is really where the shared store originates), these mythmakers of earliest Christianity employed images of divine adoption, virgin birth, heroic deeds, resurrection, ascension, and apocalypse, lacing these into the Jewish-biblical epic of creation, exodus, Pentecost, promised land, and a future messianic age.

The product of their efforts was indeed vast in scope and deeply insightful into what in my ministry days I called “the first voice of Jesus.”

As briefly as I can, I will now lift out of that early mythology the kernel of Jesus’ message, focusing his intention to move Jewish theism into a post-theistic paradigm. Although it largely failed with the rise of orthodox Christianity, there’s still a chance that we can pick up his cause and work together in realizing his vision of genuine community.


Very quickly, my diagram illustrates an extremely compressed time line of cosmic history, starting with the so-called Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and progressing by stages (or eras) from matter to life, from life to mind, and in this last second of cosmic time, from sentient mind to the self-conscious center of personal identity that you name “I-myself” (Latin ego).

As the picture suggests, the story doesn’t stop there, since the formation of ego is intended to connect you with others, serving also as the executive center of self-awareness and your uniquely personal aspirations.

The formation of an individual center of personal identity creates the illusion of separateness – that you and another are separate individuals. There is truth in this illusion, of course, in that you are in fact not the same person but two different persons with your own experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. This illusion of separateness is what post-theism seeks to help you transcend by making you aware that it is an illusion, or in other words, a mere social construction of identity.

Self-transcendence, then, does not mean ripping down the veil of illusion, but rather seeing through it to the higher truth of unity beyond your apparent separateness. That is to say, your separate identity is affirmed in order that it can be used to support your leap beyond it and into relational wholeness (or at-one-ment).

It is critically important to understand, however, that in genuine community otherness is not subtracted or dissolved away, which would leave only an undifferentiated ‘mush’ and not the dynamic mutuality you are longing for (according to post-theism).

Hand in hand with this theme of atonement is another page from the teachings of Jesus and post-theism generally, which goes by the name apotheosis (literally a process of changing into [the likeness of] god). This is not about becoming a god, but expressing out of your deeper human nature – which according to the Jewish myth was created in the image of god (Genesis 1) – those virtues whereupon genuine community depends and flourishes.

Compassion, generosity, fidelity, and forgiveness: such are among the divine virtues that theism elevates in its worship of god. Apotheosis is thus the ascent of self-actualization by which these virtues attributed to god are now internalized and activated in you, to be carried to expression in a life that is compassionate, generous, faithful, and forgiving.

This is another way, then, of pulling aside the illusion of separateness in which personal identity is suspended.

My depth analysis of early Christian mythology thus revealed two profound thematic threads reaching back to the first voice of Jesus. From inside theism and beneath the picture-language of its mythology, god is apprehended as both Other and Ideal. As Other – or more precisely, as the divine principle of otherness – god represents the irreducible interplay of one and another in genuine community. And as Ideal, god is the progressive rise of those deep potentials within each of us, surfacing to realization in the higher virtues of genuine community.

In early Christian mythology (found in the extended Gospel of Luke called the Acts of the Apostles) we are presented with the symbol of Pentecost, as the transforming moment when the Holy Spirit (or the risen Jesus) comes to dwell within the new community, which Paul had already named the Body of Christ. From now on, the life of this new community would be the communal incarnation of god on earth.

Had it taken root, the ensuing adventure would have marked a new era of spirituality, on the other side of – but paradoxically not without or against – god.

Jesus himself envisioned this in his metaphor of the kingdom of god – or more relevantly, the kindom of spirit. In truth we are all kin – neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike. All is One, and we are all in this together. Good news indeed!

 

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Moving Into Wholeness

My last post ended with the controversial statement that a religion which is organized around the goal of getting the individual ego safely to heaven is really a delusion from which we need to be saved. It is widely assumed that religion generally is about everlasting security in the next life, including all the obligations – moral, doctrinal, and devotional – a true believer must satisfy to be worthy of its reward. “True religion” (if I can dare use the term) is actually our path out of this delusion.

It’s insufficient, of course, to define true religion exclusively in this negative fashion – as breaking the spell, escaping the trance, exposing the delusion and leaving it behind. If a system in service of the ego, by which I mean the individual human ego as well as the Absolute Ego it projects as its god, interferes with our spiritual progress as a species, liberation is only a preliminary step – however strategic and urgently needed it is. We need to further ask: “So what? To what end?”

Central to my larger argument is a perspective on personal (ego) consciousness as a critical stage in our ongoing evolution as a species (and development as individuals), but as only a stage and not the goal. When religion, which had long been dedicated to keeping our inner being (soul) and outer life (body) in holistic balance, got distracted and then utterly derailed by the rising preoccupation with social identity (ego), this shift marked a “fall” of consciousness out of communion and into a state of self-conscious estrangement.

The entire scheme of mythology was subsequently reoriented on “the hero’s journey” and final atonement with the Absolute Ego of god. Personal salvation became the whole purpose and litmus test of “true” religion. If you ask true believers to contemplate for a moment what their religion would be if the award ceremony of heaven were out of the picture, certainly a large majority of them would protest: “Then what’s the point?”

This religion of ego, ego’s god, and personal salvation is precisely what Jesus (and Buddha before him) sought to leave behind. His parables and social conduct introduced a shock to the morality of his day – as they still would in ours – and effectively shook off the trance for a few who got the message. “It’s not about you,” he said in so many words. “Get over yourself.” 

And that is exactly what the ego seeking salvation cannot do.

So if it’s not about me (or you) and we need to get over ourselves, just what will that mean? Again, getting over ourselves is a requirement if we are to see what’s beyond us. But then the program needs to advance from disillusionment (breaking the spell) to a new vision of reality. Jesus (and Buddha) had a lot to say about that as well, but it only makes sense in the way he intended when consciousness has been liberated from the tightening spiral of “What’s in it for me?”

The diagram below is my attempt to map out the major components, trajectories, and possibilities of human fulfillment – of our evolution as a species in the way it prepares for and then “leap frogs” our development as individuals. For the sake of orientation in my diagram, we’ll begin at the bottom, zig-zagging left and then right as we move upward to the intended culmination of a life lived in conscious communion with others and all things – what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

Ego Quad

Human beings have a need to know, intuitively more than intellectually, that reality can be trusted. When conditions inside and outside the womb are provident and nurturing, our nervous system settles into a baseline state of calm and spontaneous release to What Is. This ability to relax into being, to let go and rest in reality, is precipitated by the real support that reality provides and is gradually strengthened (or compromised) as new challenges arise. Security may be the way things objectively are, but the individual (fetus, infant, child, adult) needs to feel that reality can be trusted in order for it to become the foundation we call “faith.”

If all goes well, security will undergird the next developmental opportunity, which involves the internalization of control. “Autonomy” doesn’t mean complete independence from external resources or absolute control over everything going on inside. It rather refers to an established center of freedom, perspective, intention, and choice in which the individual has some creative control. Autonomy isn’t the end-goal it has become in some Western therapeutic traditions, but its developmental achievement is arguably essential for progress to maturity.

And because it doesn’t always go well, we should pause a moment to reflect on what typically happens when security is compromised and autonomy fails. A reality that in general cannot be trusted will compel a coping strategy called attachment – not the healthy attachment between infant and mother, but a neurotic attachment where the insecure individual “submits” emotionally to someone or something with the expectation that security will be found there. Inevitably submission pulls development off a healthy path (to autonomy) and takes it hostage to codependent relationships, repressive ideologies, and damaging addictions.

A personality that is held captive by its “idols of security” will tend to take on an inferiority complex where shame – the conviction of being deeply flawed, stained, depraved and unworthy – attracts a dark shadow of helplessness and hopelessness. If it gets dark enough, the individual will go to any length to justify and promote the idol’s absolute authority – and violence is never out of the question.

As you might guess, I am of the opinion that much of the “redemptive violence” committed in the name of god and religion – human sacrifice and substitutionary atonement, persecution of minorities and heretics, acts of terrorism and holy wars – has insecurity and shame at its roots.

But let’s move on.

Assuming a healthy establishment of autonomy with the executive ego in control, an individual is prepared for higher experiences beyond the self. Think about such transcendent experiences as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love, and notice how each one “gets over” the ego for the sake of a higher truth of some kind. Indeed, if an individual is only calculating the prospect of personal advantage or reward in these experiences, they will simply not be available.

However, just as before, we need to say something about what happens when security and autonomy are not in place, yet the impetus of transcendence is nevertheless lifting the ego in that direction. What results is a pathology which seems to be the inverse of an inferiority complex, where the ego becomes inflated with conceit, glory-seeking, and self-importance. This is the lesser known superiority complex, and while it seems to be caught up on issues utterly opposite to feelings of shame and inadequacy, ego inflation is really just another coping strategy for the insecure personality.

Even if grandiosity is discouraged by religion in its members, the superiority complex can still be celebrated (and justified) in the patron deity who blusters and brags about being the best and greatest, the one and only, who deserves and demands all the worship, praise, and glory. As Absolute Ego, the deity who so comports himself is serving to sublimate otherwise deplorable behavior for human beings into something they can validate and promote through their god.

The way Yahweh carries on in some Bible stories has to make you wonder.

Before we take our final step of ascent in my diagram and contemplate at last the “so what” of true religion, I want to quickly comment on the telltale marks of ego strength, along with their opposite pathologies. Ego strength is a necessary and desirable achievement of healthy development and shouldn’t be confused with egoism, which is actually a symptom of its absence. In other words, personal identity (ego) becomes stuck on itself when it is weak – insecure, manipulative, and craving attention.

A “strong” ego by contrast serves to stabilize the personality, balance its moods, and unify its numerous substreams of impulse, affect, and perspective – what Roberto Assagioli named “subpersonalities.” When these strengths are not present, the individual can be flooded by rising urgencies in the body (borderline personality), swing uncontrollably between emotional extremes (bipolar), or get overrun from within by divergent attitudes and motivations (dissociative identity). I’m doing my best to save these terms from their classification as “clinical disorders” so that we can acknowledge and deal responsibly with them in normal life.

At last we can consider where all of this might be leading, assuming that our zig-zag progress from security to autonomy has gone reasonably well – which is not a safe assumption, as I’ve tried to show. So let’s just pretend that we are not caught in the trance of personal salvation, but have seen the vision and heard the invitation to our intended fulfillment. What sort of experience is that?

My word is communion: the awareness, the participation, the commitment, and the responsibility of living together as one. Importantly, the prefix “com” when added to the base word “union” prevents the couple, several, or many from dissolving into homogeneity where individual distinctions are annihilated. The valued gains of autonomy and ego strength are not canceled out in communion but instead are connected to other centers, in those higher experiences mentioned earlier: inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love.

That is where our liberation finds its fulfillment.

Communion doesn’t need to be defined in exclusively human terms of course, even though our most pressing challenge is in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Jesus understood the challenge as especially critical and urgent in our relations with our “enemies,” which doesn’t only – or even most importantly – mean our adversaries across the ocean, the picket line, or the political aisle.

The enemies we really need to love most are the ones who daily let us down, betray our trust, exploit our insecurity, abuse our generosity, and don’t even seem to care. They are our family members, our neighbors, our former friends.

But that’s another topic – kind of. 

 

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Unconditional Forgiveness and the Bankruptcy of Retribution

Recently I’ve been exploring the topic of forgiveness and how Jesus’ teaching on the topic moved the West beyond theism with respect to human morality. The gist of my argument is that Jesus clarified forgiveness of the enemy as the only way through the impasse of retribution, vengeance, and redemptive violence – the latter term referring to a “solution” which requires someone to suffer for sin before things can be made right.

In the early days, Yahweh (tribal deity of the Hebrews) was rather violence-prone and bloodthirsty, taking life as satisfaction for disobedience and iniquity. There are even hints in the Bible that Yahweh took some time to get past his need for the blood dedication (sacrifice) of human firstborns – an advance, certainly, toward a more enlightened morality.

During the intervening centuries Yahweh developed the ability to look upon outsiders with compassion and even forgive sinners … up to a point. While his human devotees – especially some of the prophets – were envisioning what the world would be like if Yahweh simply “let go” of his need for vengeance and appeasement, dreaming of the day, with Jeremiah, when god would forgive without the prerequisite of repentance, Yahweh just couldn’t let go of his reluctant obligation to condemn sinners.

By the time of Jesus, then, there were at least two strands of theological development vying for the hearts and minds of true believers. The dominant strand insisted that god is holy and just and simply cannot tolerate disobedience. If the sinner refuses to repent, then god has no choice but to reject and condemn. If this sounds like a limitation on god’s power and love, the orthodox tradition resolved the question by saying that god had set up reality in the very beginning according to the balancing principle of retribution.

Similar to the oriental notion of karma, this principle simply says that “you get what you deserve” – maybe not right away, but eventually things are going to be made right. Yahweh’s so-called obligation is indeed reluctant – he doesn’t necessarily want to destroy sinners, but still he must abide by his own rules. The idea that there is something higher than god putting limits on divine (and human) freedom was an essential linchpin of orthodox morality, and remains so to this day.

The other tradition, definitely a minority report by comparison, was less mechanistic and more romantic – concerned less about keeping “the system” intact than promoting the dream of a nonviolent reconciliation of sinners to god. What if the god who led our nation out of captivity is also at work in other nations, providing for human liberation and prosperity in ways peculiar to their historical conditions? So dreamed the prophet Amos (see Amos 9:7).

Later on, Jeremiah looked forward to a time when god would set aside the rules, accomplish a radical preemptive forgiveness, and put the knowledge of his will in the hearts of people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). In that day there will no longer be a need for sacrificial priests, ranting preachers, or Sunday school teachers. The mechanism and official procedure for our human repentance to god – practically the entire religious establishment – would be transcended and left behind.

But of course it had to remain just a dream, for the simple reason that its progress into reality would have entailed too much revamping of orthodox religion and its incumbent deity. In fact, if god really is – not just in our dreams but in reality – for all people, and ready to forgive without repentance in order to get everything moving forward into freedom and true community, then much would need to change. Most importantly, the old god – the author, supervisor and executioner of retributive morality – would have to go.

Now, that’s something terrifying to consider, especially when just about every feature of your identity is drawn from your identification with this god. If you go forward with it, some explanation will be in order as to why for so long you used god in the justification of your superiority over others, of your bigotry and violence against unbelievers and people differently oriented in the world.

broken chain

Will you admit that you had it wrong back then? That you were advancing your own agenda and not god’s? Or will you finally realize and honestly confess that god is not an objective, absolute, and unchanging reality as you once believed?

Such are the questions that begin exploring the cultural terrain of post-theism. As we go along, it becomes easier to stay open to the idea that god is a representation in mythology, the central metaphor of the mystery that supports our existence and inspires our faith. It’s not necessary to defend the validity of earlier encounters with god as literal events, actual interventions of a deity who exists separate and apart from us. To say that such scriptural accounts are just more mythology does not diminish their meaning. Indeed it becomes possible once again to appreciate this meaning in proper context, as part of the Great Story of our spiritual awakening as a species.

What Jesus did was “simply” but bravely step into reality without the satisfaction and security in knowing that people get what they deserve. He realized forgiveness as the power to let go and move on – not away from one’s enemy but back into relationship. Taking hold of the retributive reflex before it compels an act of retaliation and vengeance provides just a moment for reconsideration, but a moment is all that is needed.

Jesus believed that waiting for our enemy to see the light and plead our forgiveness is not something that will help us forward into reconciliation, community and genuine peace on this planet. Instead, forgiveness needs to come first, it must be preemptive and unconditional, not waiting around for the conditions to be right or the risk to go away.

Bringing love back into the face of hatred – that is to say, not energizing it with matching countermeasures but responding with kindness and benevolent strength – will result in the aggression eventually spending itself into bankruptcy. It may take some time, and many will get exploited or consumed along the way, but the Day is coming when the true enemy (ignorance, conviction, hatred and violence) and its many human incarnations will simply collapse out of exhaustion.

Finally the seed will break open and New Life will spring forth.

If we are to follow Jesus in this way of radical forgiveness, something needs to be done about the tribal deity of Christian orthodoxy. Tragically, this same orthodoxy took Jesus hostage in the opening centuries of establishment, re-making him into the savior who rescued the world from god by dying on a cross and satisfying the conditions against our forgiveness.

To its credit, the orthodoxy got it half right. Jesus did rescue us from god.

 
 

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