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Forgiveness and Our Way Forward

Human beings are an unfinished species, both in the sense of having some rough edges and in having a potential that is not yet fully actualized. At different times in history our immaturity has pushed us to the ledge of suicide where we almost gave in to an either/or, all-or-nothing wager on destiny. Thankfully the better parts of ourselves pulled us back for a second thought.

Today we live in one of those times.

Most likely it isn’t disease, starvation, or over-population that will be our undoing. One thing that our growing population is forcing on us, however, is the challenge of learning how to get along and work together for the maximal benefit of all. As our living quarters become more crowded and the crowd becomes more diverse, we are confronted as never before by our differences. Strangers and outsiders have always threatened our neat, closed horizons of identity and mutual trust. We can get along with what we know, with others like ourselves. But with those we don’t know, or who have a different worldview and way of life from ours – what are we to do with them?

The great traditions of spiritual wisdom developed their distinctive visions around this challenge of getting along, particularly at the flashpoint of our differences. Whether it was the ideal of covenant fidelity introduced by Judaism, the universal compassion that awakened Siddhartha and became the central insight of Buddhism, the radical message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness that Jesus lifted into our collective consciousness, or the ideal of full surrender to the divine will beyond our constructs of god that brought Muhammad to his knees – the initiating provocation in each case was a quest for the way of salvation, for a way that leads to genuine community.

Obviously I’m not using “salvation” in the popular sense, as a program of deliverance, escape, and everlasting security in the next life. The word literally refers to a process (spontaneous or gradual) whereby injury is healed, health is restored, division is repaired, hope is renewed, and wholeness is actualized.

If salvation in the history of religion has been mythically and metaphorically represented as being set free, made clean, pardoned from guilt, and saved from certain perdition, the deeper energizing concern has always been over the forces within us and between us that keep us out of paradise, locked up in our suffering, and tragically short of our higher ideal.

As long as human beings have been around we’ve lived in societies – from small clans and larger tribes, to neighborhoods and nation-states. And so, for that same period of time we have had to learn how to get along, work through our differences, and contribute creatively to the formation of genuine community.

I’ve used that term – genuine community – a few times now, so it demands some definition. What I mean by it is a certain qualitative and transformational shift that happens when individuals in partnership make an empathetic connection and experience a deeper communion. Out of this grows a shared intention, a cooperative spirit, and a common vision of their life together. In other words, community is not just a synonym for “assembly” or even “congregation, and it doesn’t just happen. Instead it must be created – cultivated, nurtured, fortified, and regularly renewed.

And that’s where forgiveness is important.

I should really say, that’s where forgiveness is essential, since without it a strained or broken relationship cannot heal and continue to grow. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when the bond of trust at the heart of a healthy partnership is ruptured. Or maybe the partnership was never healthy to begin with. How can you – we might as well make this personal – be an instrument of salvation where there presently is abuse, betrayal, misunderstanding, or estrangement? Although none of us is off the hook as perpetrators in causing harm to others, for now we will pretend that you are the victim.

Whenever you are injured, offended, or betrayed, you will notice – if, that is, you can manage a little introspection – that two impulses arise simultaneously in you. One is the impulse of anger: You didn’t deserve this, it’s not right, that other person is guilty and should pay the price for his or her sin. I’ll call this the vengeance impulse, and as it rises within you in reaction to what’s been done to you by that other person, your anger is preparing to fight back and get even.

The other impulse is fear, which I will call the avoidance impulse. You don’t want the hurt to happen again, so your survival strategy marks a quick departure and takes long detours to keep it from happening again. As long as you maintain your distance and avoid crossing paths with your enemy, you stand a chance of staying safe. Because getting even will likely provoke further assault and additional suffering, your fear might be regarded as the wiser of these two impulses. Just cut this person out of your life. Push him away, leave her behind. You deserve better.

The thing about vengeance and avoidance that you need to understand is that they don’t lead to community. In fact they are serious digressions from what I earlier called the way of salvation.

Getting even or running away actually destroys the conditions in which genuine community can flourish. Think about it. When has the retributive reflex, where vengeance “pays back” hurt for hurt, worked out to the satisfaction of both sides involved? The vengeance impulse will wait for its opportunity – whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or three generations from now. The score will be settled: that’s just the way vengeance works. And running away or hiding out? How can individuals learn to live in community if they are living in separation?

This is the question that Jesus pondered. For our future to be long, prosperous, and happy, human beings can’t keep trading violence or seeking refuge from each other. We have to get along. We must learn how to create genuine community. And everyone needs to be included – the stranger, the outsider, especially our enemy. It was his focus on this particular relationship between enemies that inspired Jesus to understand, profess, and exemplify a new way.

This is the way of unconditional forgiveness. And even though his message got buried underneath centuries of Christian orthodoxy that took his movement in the exact opposite direction, this gospel of Jesus is finally being heard again.

Let’s come back to the very moment when your friend, or someone you trusted, became your enemy. No doubt, our most significant enemies are not those on the other side of the world, but who share our bread, our bed, and maybe even our genes. We opened ourselves up to them and made ourselves vulnerable. We trusted them, and they took advantage of our trust. There you are. What will you do next?

If you let your anger or your fear determine what you do next – whether you allow vengeance to make you into a combatant or avoidance into a defector – you will be giving power to your enemy, for the simple and straightforward reason that your identity in that moment is defined by what they did to you. Your attitude, character, and behavior will be decided in reaction. If you get even, it is in reaction. If you pull away, it is in reaction.

In either case, you are allowing your enemy to define you and limit your options. Fight back or get out. What other choice is there? This is where Jesus saw a third option.

Not as a reactor and giving power to your enemy, but by getting centered in your true nature as a creator. Picture that flashpoint immediately following the moment when the injury, offense, or betrayal takes place: let’s just call that “the space” between you and your enemy. As a creator, your challenge is to step into that space, stand your ground, and demonstrate love.

The ‘standing your ground’ part sounds as if you should be preparing for a fight, but that’s not what Jesus meant. When he counseled his disciples, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well” (Matthew 5:39) he was not suggesting that they should just submit themselves passively to violent treatment by others. For a right-handed assailant to slap your right cheek, he’d have to use the back of his hand. This is how an aggressor intends to humiliate you and put you in your place. In order to “turn the other cheek” you would have to straighten up again and face your assailant, asserting yourself as his equal.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration for his nonviolent resistance to British rule in this very passage from the teaching of Jesus. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Baptist pastor who was additionally empowered by Gandhi’s more recent example, took it to the urban streets for the sake of race equality and human rights.

The message of Jesus was not a glorification of weakness and suffering; his was a gospel about power – specifically about the power of love.

So you step into that space, stand your ground, and then demonstrate love. I say “demonstrate” because chances are, you probably don’t feel much love for your enemy. He just hurt you; she just betrayed your trust. Your anger and fear are both very real. The point here is not that you should have gooey compassion and warm fuzzies towards the one who just “slapped you on the right cheek.” To demonstrate love is to act out the behaviors of love – even if you don’t feel very loving. What are those behaviors? You probably already know:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In the spirit of fake it till you make it, demonstrating love in such ways eventually brings about two very interesting outcomes. First, your anger and fear dissolve away, and in their place arises a creative force that has no equal in all the universe. This force is the bond of partnership, community, and wholeness. A second outcome is that you will completely “disarm” your enemy. Where he was inwardly preparing for your vengeance or avoidance, your forgiveness removes the fuel for his fire, and it won’t be long before he loses all confidence in his power over you.

Forgiveness, then, starts in letting go (the literal meaning of the Greek word) of anger and fear. Jesus taught that it is really not about pardoning sin or absolving guilt. It may be the case that your enemy doesn’t even see the need to repent, and perhaps doesn’t care enough about you to make the effort. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. He may need to be held accountable for the damage he’s done, but it won’t be about appeasing your anger. You may need to move out of the relationship and get on with life without her, but it won’t be as a victim of fear.

You are free, and that’s what matters. Genuine community is where individuals are learning to live together, in the freedom that love makes possible.

 

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Becoming a Person of Influence

A video version of this blog post can be found here


Here’s the backstory:

You work in a company that manufactures technology goods for the public market. Your job entails oversight of product quality and safety, ensuring that the manufactured goods meet or exceed industry standards. Your product line is highly innovative, but other companies are rising fast and challenging your share of the market.

And here’s your challenge:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

The first level of ethical reasoning doesn’t really use much reasoning in making a choice. It is called Self-interest, and its primary value is in the pleasure, satisfaction, or advantage it brings to ‘me’ – as quickly and risk-free as possible. As the one faced with this challenge, your interest is the only one that counts.adam-smith

Individuals who make choices and take action on the values of Self-interest typically assume that others are choosing and acting on the same basis. They believe that deepest-down people are looking out for themselves and their own interests. The economist-philosopher Adam Smith put forth the theory that market competition among self-interested actors serves to strengthen and improve the economy, by eliminating those who lack ambition or who produce goods and services of inferior quality or at too high a cost.

The next level of ethical deliberation broadens the scope of concern beyond self-interest alone, to include the local groups, teams, classes and organizations in which individuals are members. At this level you understand that social endeavors in which individuals must interact and somehow cooperate for common goals require a set of rules for everyone to follow. The primary value at this level is in the success I can have as a player, employee, member, or citizen in helping my team be its best.

We’re used to thinking of Game Rules as the codes for “right” and “wrong” behavior in the field of sports. Each sport has its own set of rules, and anyone who wants to compete and succeed in a given sport must follow the rules. By definition Game Rules are known as conventions – not absolute laws that apply across all of life, but guidelines and consequences invented for the purpose of defining what it means to win and how to play fair.thomas-hobbes

Game Rules can be found across the social landscape – not only in sports and leisure games, but in school, business, and civilian life as well. Your first exposure to Game Rules was likely in your family of origin where you learned how to behave yourself, wait your turn, do your part, and take only your share. Following the rules doesn’t always mean that you get your way. But overall, when your team succeeds, so do you. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that Game Rules, or what he called the Social Contract, are necessary in order to get self-interested individuals to cooperate and not destroy each other.

In addition to Self-interest and Game Rules as stages of ethical reasoning, a third level has to do with a standard of Moral Character. The primary value is in keeping my integrity and staying true to the person I want to be.

Integrity literally refers to the state of being whole, not falling to pieces or changing your values from one situation to the next, but remaining consistent in your Moral Character. A ‘character’ in story is a figure that may grow and develop as the narrative mlkprogresses, but whose core identity is consistent from one scene to the next.

In the same way, Moral Character holds to a standard of self-consistency – presumably as someone who is responsible, trustworthy, and committed to being a ‘good’ person. Understandably, this is also known as Virtue Ethics.

At this level, you are less concerned with how others view you than how you see yourself. In fact, an individual may refuse to play by the Game Rules because one or more rules violate moral values that he or she is committed to live by. An example from history is Martin Luther King, Jr., whose belief in racial equality and human rights motivated him to protest by civil disobedience the Game Rules of white privilege.

You have probably noticed how each higher level in ethical reasoning holds a larger context in mind. First it’s only you and your Self-interest. Next, you take into consideration the various groups, teams, and organizations you belong to, and the Game Rules that govern behavior inside them. With Moral Character the frame expanded still farther, to take in the longer view of your life and the responsible person you are aspiring to be.

So you may be thinking, Is it possible to expand the frame any farther? What else is there beyond me, the groups where I’m a jeremy-benthammember, and the moral core of who I am? One more level of ethical reasoning invites you to be mindful of everyone, anywhere, who could be impacted by your choices and actions. This concern over the ‘utility’ or usefulness of your action in producing consequences that matter is central to Jeremy Bentham’s ethical theory known as Utilitarianism.

At the level of Maximal Benefit, the primary value is in contributing to the health, happiness, and well-being of myself and all those affected by my actions. Me, but not only me. The groups, teams, and organizations I belong to, but more than these as well. An aspiration to stay true to my character as a moral being, but going beyond even that.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit takes into consideration the fact that nothing is really separate from anything else, and that what we call The Universe is essentially a complex system of relationships between and among countless individuals. Some of these individuals are like you, but a vast majority are very different from you. And yet you and they exist in a web of connections, actions, and consequences.

ethical-reasoningIn this diagram, the outer circle and lines projecting from the center are dashed and not solid, to signify an ever-outward expansion. If your action is thought of as a stone tossed into a pond, how far out does the outermost ripple go? If your choices and behaviors are affecting the larger system, what will the consequences be for other forms of life and the generations still to come? Really, how big is the ‘pond’ you live in?

Ethical development refers to your growing capacity for acting deliberately within an expanding horizon of values.

With ALL OF THAT in mind, what is the best thing to do in a given situation? What action will benefit the maximum number of stakeholders – all those who will be, are likely to be, or one day might be affected? That’s what is meant by Maximal Benefit.

Now let’s come back to the ethical challenge posed at the beginning:

Across your industry, a decrease in auditing has led a number of your competitors to compromise on product safety in order to get their goods to market faster and make a quick profit.

You are a loyal employee, and the one who could approve a similar safety compromise in your company. Doing so would keep your company on the competitive edge and likely increase its annual earnings. Who knows?  You might even get a raise!

What values do you consider as you make your decision?

Which level of ethical deliberation holds the superior value and finally determines your decision and justifies your action?

An ethic of Self-interest disregards any values that have no obvious and direct gain to you. Your decision will be determined by whether you feel that the personal payoff outweighs the risk of getting caught. If you can get away with it and there’s a chance for a pay-raise, then you will allow the safety compromise without much hesitation.

An ethic of Game Rules is most interested in rules and shared expectations governing your behavior. Your decision will be determined by a desire to play fair and help your team succeed. The dilemma is complicated by the fact that other companies competing with you in the bigger game called the Free Market are not playing by the rules. Even though safety standards have been in place for a while, perhaps the times are changing and your company needs to keep up.

An ethic of Moral Character strives to stay true to yourself by acting in a way that is consistent with your understanding of a ‘good person’. Your decision will be determined by this inner voice of conscience. One complication here has to do with the matter of whether one’s conscience is inherent to human nature or a product of social upbringing. To the degree that it is learned and reinforced by society, some individuals go into adult life without much of an inner moral compass.

An ethic of Maximal Benefit considers what effect your action is likely to have in the bigger picture and longer view of things. Your decision will be determined by a pursuit of greatest well-being. In the case of your decision over product safety standards, a possible salary raise, the competitive advantage of your company, and even whether or not a compromise would break your commitment to moral integrity are secondary to the bigger question of what consequences your decision might have farther out and later on for all concerned.

 

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Creative Authority

A friend in an engagement community that I weekly attend asked recently, “What, exactly, goes into this idea of ‘creative authority’?” – an idea (or ideal, really) that occupies a strategic position in the theory of human fulfillment that I’ve been working to clarify in a conversation on post-theism.

It is critically important that post-theism not be defined as a reactionary movement, as an effort to throw off theism and its antiquated god for the sake of something like secular materialism or atheistic humanism. Quite the contrary, post-theism holds a vision for what life is like after (“post”) theism – not after theism has been discredited and finally abandoned, but when it has served its evolutionary function and releases the self-transcending human spirit into a new existence as an enlightened partner and co-creator in the great community of life.

Before I offer a response to my friend’s question, let’s quickly recall where “creative authority” fits into my broader theory of human fulfillment. We started life fully immersed in an animal nature (body), with all its biological requirements and urgencies keeping consciousness oriented outward to the resources we need. Gradually, and with success in satisfying our basic needs, awareness began to open inwardly as well – not just to this pang or that urgency inside the body, but deeper into a sense of our grounding in a provident mystery. This sense of provident grounding is registered in the nervous system at an unconscious, visceral, or “gut” level, which is why I call it animal faith.

Immediately with our birth our tribe went to work shaping our identity (ego). Through guidance, directives, feedback, and discipline we were given clear (but sometimes not so clear) messages about what it means to be a good boy or girl, a member in good standing, a person of value. Because the foundations of identity are constructed early on and are primarily emotional in character, I call the construct of identity itself our inner child.

With sufficient animal faith underneath us, supported by the caring and responsible influence of our tribe, identity can achieve a level of healthy development known as ego strength. Key attributes of ego strength are a stable personality, balanced mood, and a unified sense of self.

This is where things really get interesting, since social security, group membership, shared purpose, and personal value are like four sides of the box containing a meaningful existence. Why would we ever want to leave? Where else would we possibly go anyway? Outside the box is meaninglessness, nihilism, absurdity, and certain despair – or at least the heresy of someone else’s meaning. This is a necessary part of our programming.

An essential part of this project of identity construction is the tribe’s representation to the youngster of what a “good person” looks like – not in physical appearance necessarily, but how a good person behaves, how they treat other people (insiders and outsiders), what values they hold, how they handle conflict and common challenges of life.

Beyond merely listing these features in something like a bullet-point format, this ideal of a good person is represented in the role models of parents and other respected adults, but also in stories that depict super-human, supernatural superegos who are engaged to the tribe as divine protectors and providers.

Theism is a religious system that orients the individual to taller powers (adults) and higher powers (gods) that exemplify the character of a “good person.” These role models are intended to inspire similar developments in youngsters and devotees, but typically in theism the deity demonstrates the virtues in their more or less pure form. (We must not forget that this is a “dramatic” demonstration, since the god lives only in the fictional space of sacred dramas or myths.)

The deity, for example, who is worshiped for having shown compassion to the tribe when they or their ancestors were lost and without hope, exemplifies this degree of loving concern and will typically have expectations (in the form of injunctions or commandments) on the community to aspire toward a similar level of compassion for others in need. In this way, worship, as the exaltation into collective aspiration of the deity’s praiseworthy virtues, flows naturally into morality and obedience for the tribe.

We should acknowledge a flow in the opposite direction as well. The particular historical concerns currently pressing upon a tribe’s existence will “select” those divine attributes most needed in the moment, or possibly even alter the portrait of god in story and theology in order to provide some timely justification. Neglect of the needy, persecution of outsiders, and violence against unbelievers are either dug up from the mythological archives – you can always find a verse for that in the Bible – or else insinuated into the script of orthodoxy from the local church pulpit.

A similar dynamic as what we find in parental role models with their children is also present in theism proper: When a virtue demonstrated by the exemplar is imitated successfully by the aspirant (child, devotee) and internalized – which means integrated into the individual’s ethical character and way of life – an external representation is no longer required and can be transcended. Because the virtue (say, of forgiveness) now informs life from within as an authentic expression rather than from outside by imitation, we might say that the individual has progressed to a post-parental, post-theistic mode of being.

True enough, there are complications that can slow this process down and even arrest it altogether, but in this post I want to pretend as if development has advanced according to design – and by “design” I mean according to the inherent tendency of a human being to mature into a self-actualized adult.

When this sequence of obedience, aspiration, internalization, and authentic expression reaches fulfillment in the stable, balanced, and unified personality, ego strength is achieved and the individual is finally capable of a new mode of being and a higher way of life. Earlier concerns over belonging and recognition, security and freedom, of maintaining membership in the tribe as a person of value, are no longer the preoccupations they once were.

Consciousness has shifted to a new and higher mental location, one that supports a realization of deep communion and universal participation – or more simply stated, the realization that All is One. At this point the tribe has given up custodial possession of the individual (as ego), and the individual begins a new life “after god” (the lower-case ‘g’ referring to the patron deity of the local tribe). This higher mental location for consciousness is what I understand by soul – not “the real me” inside a body or just a new (spiritual) name for the ego, but the individual’s existence as grounded in mystery and connected to all things.

A perfect word for this new arena of life, combining deep communion and universal participation, is community – from com (with, together) and unity (as one). Here the awakened soul understands, by direct intuition and not hearsay, that the separation so important to establishing a clear identity for the ego was really a delusion of consciousness at that level. In some sense, the entire tribe is under this same spell, which is probably why spiritual awakening is frequently described as the breaking of a trance and coming to see things as they really are.

So this is what I mean by “creative authority”: the individual taking for him- or herself the authorial rights to a new story. Siddhartha’s new story was the dharma of his Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path. Jesus’ new story was his gospel of forgiveness and solidarity with the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr’s new story was about a world where our children won’t be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Each of them stepped intentionally and courageously into creative authority, come what may.

With that, I can finally respond to my friend’s question about what creative authority entails. In the diagram below are listed five virtues that I find in the dharma, gospel, and Dream stories just mentioned; but they are also well represented across countless others. Since the diagram depicts the path of human fulfillment organically, as growing up from a body-centered mode, through an ego-centered (and theistic) mode, and into a soul-centered (post-theistic) mode of being, my visual display of these five terms is meant to be interpreted in a similar bottom-up fashion.

Creative Authority_virtuesContemplative

Even though “contemplation” is commonly used in the West as a synonym for “meditation,” I want to avoid this confusion. While a meditation practice is essential for descending the inward path to the grounding mystery of being, contemplation is closer to the idea of “mindfulness.”

Creative authority is contemplative in the way it holds a mindful perspective on reality. This includes a big picture and long view on one’s place in the great community of life. Contemplatively the individual acknowledges that s/he is both a participant in and a manifestation of oneness.

The opposite of contemplative mindfulness would be something like conviction, where one’s beliefs about reality actually separate the mind from reality. A conviction is a belief that holds its owner hostage. Contemplation, on the other hand, opens the mind to the present mystery of reality.

Empathetic

With “reality in mind,” creative authority is open at deep levels to the connectedness of things. As a cell in the great body of community, an individual feels the dynamics of well-being or deterioration in the connective tissue of relationships. Empathy is similar to “sympathy” and “compassion,” but adds to these a degree of rational understanding to the direct and spontaneous feeling.

In the profession of counseling today empathy is what the helper needs in order to truly help the one who is suffering. Drawing on the big picture and long view afforded by contemplation, the helper can offer perspective and recommendations that have a larger context in mind. The helper is careful not to jump down into the dark hole of suffering for the sake of merely providing some company in the misery, but instead confirms genuine care and understanding while holding open the horizon of possibility and hope.

Responsible

Whereas in the ego realm of the tribe responsibility is about following through on what’s assigned or expected, for creative authority this element of obligation is transcended. The self-actualized adult doesn’t act or refrain from acting because of what someone else (human or divine) might think. In this way, the motivation of responsibility is not externally coerced but rooted in empathy, coming directly out of a grounded and connected life.

Within a much broader and deeper context than ego consciousness is capable of grasping, soul-centered responsibility understands that “the right thing” is not always what feels good, gets rewarded, or even promotes individual self-interest. Sometimes, in fact, doing the responsible thing involves transgressing on tribal rules (or divine commands) that perpetuate inequality, prejudice, bigotry, oppression or violence against others. The resulting “conscientious guilt” – willingly bearing the indictment for the sake of a higher good – is something the individual must learn to live with (and care less about).

Benevolent

I said just now that the soul-centered responsible adult commits his or her life to a higher good, which is to say that this individual wills the good, chooses the path of well-being, and puts it into action. Benevolence continues the organic progression of creative authority – as one who mindfully holds the big picture (contemplative), deeply understands what is going on (empathetic), uses his or her influence for the benefit of the whole (responsible), and now wills that greater good into an intentional way of life.

Most likely the ego was instructed in the importance of having “good will” toward others. The so-called “golden rule” of Do unto others what you would have them do unto you, and the biblical mandate to Love your neighbor as yourself (quoted by Jesus but originating in the Jewish book of Leviticus), are typically limited in their practical application to the in-group where ego is a member.

Jesus’ exhortation to Love your enemies and do good to those who commit evil against you (Matthew 5:44) represents a decidedly post-theistic direction, which neither the patron deity of the Judaism of his day nor the patron deity of later Christian orthodoxy was capable of fulfilling. Theism will always have “outsiders,” who necessarily live and perish outside the saving mercy of (the insiders’) god.

Forgiving

This, I suppose, is where the real test lies. How far does the benevolent life of creative authority reach? Where is the edge, where is the boundary that defines the extent of lovingkindness? For the ego there must be a limit, past which it is not only dangerous and foolhardy, but positively blasphemous to go. If god will finally cast his enemies into everlasting torment – even if it is out of a reluctant obligation to condemn the sinner – who am I (asks the ego) to presume that god might be outdone?

I have made a case that this was precisely the message (new story, gospel) of Jesus, summarized in the simple yet revolutionary appeal of “unconditional forgiveness” – loving anyway, doing good anyway, choosing benevolence over retribution, letting go of the past and moving into a shared future. (For more on that, see “Jesus Against Christianity“)

Forgiveness, as “letting go,” concerns more than just our relationships with others, even if that’s where it is most difficult and most urgently needed. Releasing the past allows the individual to take from it the valuable lessons that constitute wisdom, without having to drag an unexamined life behind him or her like – in the wonderful metaphor of Robert Bly’s – “a long, black bag.” We forgive so we can be free to grow and learn and fulfill our creativity authority in the great community of life.

 

 

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Growing Into God

Atonement_ApotheosisThe developmental aim of a human being is to become a well-grounded, fully centered, and creative authority; a caring, autonomous, and responsible adult. According to this definition, an adult is more than just a “grown up,” someone who has reached a certain age and stage of physical maturity. As I’m using the term, adult refers to an individual that has attained a level of self-actualization and fulfillment of the species. What the species holds in potential is thus actualized, or actively expressed, to some degree in the adult individual.

This process of self-actualization is illustrated in the above diagram, and in a moment I will take you on a quick tour. Anticipating the primary focus of this blog post, however, I want to direct your attention to a crucial point where the very natural adventure of becoming an adult (as I’m using the term) frequently gets hung up and held back. Here we find two words with a deep history: atonement and apotheosis. Atonement describes a procedure by which the individual sinner – using traditional Christian language – is reconciled back to the deity and, importantly, to the covenant community. (The patron deity and his tribe always go together in theism as co-evolving counterparts.)

Apotheosis is less familiar, although it too is deeply rooted in myth, politics, and religion. In the Latin (Roman Catholic) West and its Protestant step-children, apotheosis never officially made it into Christian orthodoxy – and it’s not hard to guess why.

While the term names a politically self-serving proclamation by a Roman emperor of his deceased predecessor’s deification, apotheosis in religion also refers to a human being’s progress into God; not merely getting closer to the deity in prayer and devotion, but growing into God to the degree that the human being is sanctified, glorified, and awakens to divinity. That’s why it couldn’t be allowed into orthodoxy – at least in the great Western branch (and countless splintering twigs) of Christian orthodoxy.

The Western traditions (Roman Catholic and Protestant) picked up on the Jewish-biblical theme of atonement and made it the fulcrum of orthodoxy. Humanity’s sinful condition separates us from god, and the process of returning to right relationship (called reconciliation) is conceived as a juridical transaction involving exoneration from guilt by the satisfaction of a penalty and the judgment of god (or his ordained church officials) that the sinner is forgiven (called justification). The benefit is a clear conscience, but more importantly it means restoration to good standing with god and the covenant community.

It’s this idea of being brought back to a position temporarily forfeited by the rupture of sin – or perhaps permanently forfeited if proper atonement is not made – that is particularly interesting, especially when contrasted with the progressive, forward-moving, and transformational notion of apotheosis whereby the individual advances to a heretofore unrealized state of being.

There are reasons why atonement rather than apotheosis became the fulcrum of Western Christian orthodoxy, which I won’t dig into right now. Most likely this preference was driven by such factors as religious persecution (which tends to unify the victimized community), the strong juridical theme in Jewish mythology (Yahweh as king and judge; salvation as being set free of debt and guilt), and the fact that early Christianity grew up in the Roman era with its overriding governmental, judicial, legal and military obsessions.

But let’s go back for that tour I promised, showing how this tension between the pull-back of atonement and the forward aim of apotheosis is relevant to understanding the threshold between theism and post-theism.

The hero of our story – the one we’re all so concerned about, whom I name Captain Ego – gets started on the adventure by restraining and redirecting natural impulses of the body into behavior that is socially compliant and proper. With considerable help from the tribe in the form of guidance, feedback, and discipline, individual identity (ego) gradually establishes a center of self-control, social recognition, and personal agency.

But before that center gets established, the individual needs to secure strong bonds of dependency and trust with the provident powers responsible for his or her care. The ensuing condition of attachment sustains the individual – this gestating sense of self – in a web of support where he or she feels safe, accepted, and comfortably enveloped. (There is probably a deep visceral memory of what it was like in the paradisal garden of mother’s womb that compels the infant’s quest for oneness.)

Of course, there’s no going back. Besides, the ego is compelled by a second drive, which is to separate itself from this comfortable anonymity and stand out in freedom, to be recognized as special and unique. This imperative is what’s behind that signature feature of Western civilization: its individualism, its infatuation with stand-out celebrity, unprecedented achievement, and heroic glory. As you can tell, this pursuit of freedom and self-importance stands in direct opposition to the ego’s need to fit in and belong.

Welcome to the inherently conflicted adventureland of personal identity.

Further progress into adulthood – that is, into the human fulfillment represented in the self-actualized adult – will need to continue with this formational process as the individual awakens to his or her higher self (soul). Earlier identifications will need to be transcended – such as belonging to this tribe and holding these titles or awards – which inevitably is confronted with resistance from society. This is who you are. You are only a person of value and respect because of your standing as one of us. You need to stay here and obey the rules!

A certain guilt is induced with disobedience. And here we’re not talking about ethical violations such as deceit, theft, and murder, which are genuine threats to human community; but rather the kind of disobedience where an individual sets down the masks and steps out of the roles that define identity, in order to assume creative authority in his or her life.

Before the developmentally opportune moment (what in Greek is called kairos, the critical opportunity for action), such forays into a more authentic life will convict the individual with a guilty conscience. But when the time is right and the individual is possessed of sufficient courage to bear the consequences of his or her choices, a guilty conscience will give way to conscientious guilt, willingly accepted in civil disobedience. Conscientious guilt is the price of identifying with goals, principles, and ideals that represent realities and possibilities beyond the sacred conclusions and status quo of the tribe.

Siddhartha (the Buddha) breaking a hole in the wall of the caste system to allow for the liberation even of outcasts, Jesus (the Christ) reaching out to include sinners and the ritually impure, Martin Luther King, Jr. instigating boycotts and leading peace marches against race and class inequality – these are historical examples of individuals who accepted conscientious guilt in pursuit of aims they regarded as more noble and necessary to true human progress.

As a final measure, the tribe might appeal to its patron deity and the precepts laid down by orthodoxy. How can you arrogantly believe that there is more to life than what we have for you here. We are the chosen ones. This is the covenant community, obedient to god and blessed in turn with eternal security. You’ve grown up under the grace and clear directives of our patron deity. You have enjoyed the benefits of membership all these years. And now you are ready to throw it all aside, turn your back on god and us for the sake of your own selfish fulfillment? Excommunication and everlasting torment in hell are what you are really choosing – just be clear about that!

And this is just where atonement works its magic – if it can persuade the waking soul to instead submit to the prescribed procedures of confession and repentance in order to be pardoned and reconciled back to where a true believer rightfully belongs. Things inside run more smoothly when we all stay in our proper place and do what we’re told. Heaven is up, hell is down, and the devil is locked outside. You barely made it back, but good for you!

Or else, this is just where apotheosis makes its fateful move. With the courage not of convictions but of an evolutionary purpose taking root and springing forth from within, the individual draws strength from the grounding mystery and enters more fully into the realization that all is one. It is no longer “me and mine” or “us versus them,” but all of us together, sharing this moment in faith, holding the future open with hope, releasing fear for love.

We are growing into God.

 

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