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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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The Topography of Myth

If you had three choices and you had to pick one, which of these words would you choose to name your core value: attachment, autonomy, or achievement? By ‘core value’ I mean a priority concern that is positioned at the solar center of a system of associated values. Attachment has connection, security, and belonging orbiting around it. Autonomy is anchor for the values of control, freedom, and self-determination. And Achievement is at the center of purpose, progress, and success.

Most likely you recognize the importance of all three core values, and we should more accurately think of them as comprising a cluster rather than as mutually exclusive alternatives. But still, you can probably identify one over the others – at least at this time in your life – as having priority. Which one?

My returning reader might hesitate in choosing attachment as a core value, since I tend to regard it as complicating factor in our development toward creative authority as individuals. The larger multicultural discussion around the topic of attachment acknowledges it as the positive bonding characteristic of healthy relationships (Western), but also as a compensatory maneuver whereby we cling to other people with the impossible expectation that they make us secure, happy, and whole (Eastern). In reality it’s both the connection that makes for positive partnerships and the latching-on that can ruin them. I’ll let it be a paradox (both/and) for you to sort out.

In this post I’d like to reflect on what Joseph Campbell identified as the hero’s journey, the particular shape and pattern that myths from around the world share in common. Beyond their local differences and unique climes, these stories describe a path that is universal. As Campbell pointed out, we might attribute this similarity to cultural diffusion, where it moved outward from one (originating) society to the others by way of migration, conquest, commerce, or evangelism.

His own study inspired him to adopt a different explanation, however, which traces these universal themes, symbols, and storylines into the depths of human psychology. In this case, hero journeys across cultures trace a similar mythos (or narrative plot) because they emerge from and speak to what human beings everywhere experience in common. Another influence on my thinking was Northrop Frye, who in The Great Code: The Bible and Literature conducted an archaeological dig into Western literature, following the diamond vein still deeper into biblical myth, and there uncovered the archetypes of our storytelling imagination.

I will pick up here, in fact, by taking the major moves of the Bible as myth – not merely of the myths found in the Bible, but the Bible itself as constructed on a primary mythic pattern. Here we find three major moves anchored to geographical locations that serve more as timeless archetypes than specific places (here or there): the Garden, the Desert, and the City.

Genesis itself begins in a garden, and Revelation ends with the fulfillment of all things in a New Jerusalem, the city of God. In between is the desert, where the Hebrew slaves made their escape, the exiles reinvented Judaism, Jesus endured his temptations – and through which each of us must pass on our way to adulthood.

My proposal is that these three themes – Garden, Desert, and City – correspond to the three major phases in our growing up as human persons. Thus the Garden represents childhood, the Desert is the setting of youth, and the City stands for our establishment as adults. The storyline that links them together is the hero’s journey.

Part of the reason you selected the core value that you did has to do with your individual experience on this journey, a good portion of which was supervised by your parent(s) and other taller powers of the adult world. Your taller powers were responsible for you, and for your journey to be a success they needed to provide certain things to you early on.

The Garden is where (and when) your most basic needs for survival, comfort, and intimacy found their ‘answer’ in reality. You needed to experience reality as provident, as sufficient to your needs and a safe place to be. In a word, your parent(s) and other taller powers were responsible for your protection. In my diagram I have placed a triangle to symbolize what in psychology is called a secure base, which originally referred to mother and subsequently was transferred to other things, places, and people.

In the beginning it was natural for you to seek protection in your mother and attach yourself to her (in the positive, Western, sense of attachment). But eventually you needed to internalize your secure base, to self-soothe and rely more on your own ability instead of grabbing onto whatever and whomever could make you feel better (in the negative, Eastern, sense of attachment).

Just because you may have picked attachment as your core value doesn’t necessarily mean that you are insecure and emotionally dependent on others. You may have had a very positive and supportive experience in the Garden, which instilled in you a strong preference for connection, security, and belonging.

But as is required of every one of us in growing up, you eventually needed to let go of mother and leave the Garden for the journey ahead, on your way to becoming a self-standing and responsible adult. The Desert between Garden and City is a region of trials and tribulations, as we can find in hero myths all around the world. There is no ‘covering’ (the literal definition of protection) to hide beneath; exposure to the sun, extreme temperatures, and predators is a real danger.

As the Garden is associated with attachment, the Desert is about autonomy: learning how to take control, step into freedom, and strengthen your self-determination. Even before you formally left the Garden for the Desert, your parent(s) and other taller powers were encouraging you to “do it yourself.” Using the potty, tying your shoes, reading books on your own, and riding a bike: everyone had an interest in helping you become a less dependent member of the household.

Encouragement is a demonstration of love and is distinguished from compassion by its kind refusal on the part of the parent (or teacher, trainer, coach, or therapist) to take over and finish the task.

In addition to encouraging your effort, your parent(s) also had to empower you with the necessary knowledge, skills, and resources for what needed to be done. Again, empowerment is very different from the over-used tactic of intervention, where someone more capable steps in and helps the process along. Empowerment, on the other hand, typically takes more time and patience (which is why schools today prefer to intervene), but its far superior benefit is the individual’s self-confidence and inner strength.

Your autonomy therefore was a consequence of being both encouraged (“You can do it!”) and empowered (“Here’s how: Watch me, then you try”) in your progress toward taking control in your life. It’s associated with the Desert and its dangers because progress doesn’t always come easily, but is fraught with setbacks and numerous failed attempts. If your parent(s) and other taller powers – we should throw siblings and peers into the mix as well – were less helpful, patient, and forgiving, you may have learned that taking control was not safe. In failing to satisfy their expectations, you were risking the loss of their love and acceptance as well. Or it might be that their demands were impossible to ignore with impunity, so you became a “control freak” and perfectionist just to stay on their good side.

If the archetype of Mother (however close your actual mother came to incarnating it) represents a secure base where you could always go to to feel safe and loved, the archetype of Father (and to some degree your actual father or father figure) stands for what I call the proving circle. I’ve placed it in my diagram next to ‘achievement’ since it was (and still is) where your ability was tested and your accomplishments validated.

A critical part of becoming a responsible and productive adult involves submitting yourself to the judgment and feedback of others. Depending on how this feedback was delivered and how personally you took it, you came to regard yourself as an individual of worth with a valuable contribution to make. Or not so much.

The Desert, then, is where you learned how to accept the loss of having someone always looking after you, where you needed to be on your own in order to discover both your capacity and your limitations. It’s also where you learned the importance of determined effort (work) in getting where you want to go in life. And if all went well enough, you learned that risk – making yourself vulnerable to failure and rejection in your pursuit of what really matters – is a paradoxical amplifier of life’s meaning, for it is out of those experiences that we grow the most.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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A View on Religion

I have a friend who’s in midlife and struggling with the creeping irrelevancy (my term) of his religious beliefs. His personal history with religion (Christianity) doesn’t go all the way back into childhood, but it’s deep enough to have been a significant force in shaping his adult worldview. He and his wife raised their children in a denomination committed to staying as close as possible to the New Testament church model.

It’s probably fair to say that he’s never been in full agreement with the positions his religion has taken with respect to sexual ethics, gender equality, cultural engagement, or truth in religion. But it allowed for some flexibility, at least in the private holding of his individual faith. Over the years, his involvement in church connected him to other believers who became good friends. They raised their kids together and shared a lot of life.

As his doubts rise over the real truth-value of his particular brand of religion, my friend is wondering if there’s truth in any religion. Over the past half-decade, he and his wife have stepped out of church-going. Their children are adults and out of the house, making choices of their own regarding religious affiliation and faith practice. So the obligation of raising a family in a supportive community with clear moral values can be released.

But they still get together with the same friends, only now their conversations are becoming increasingly strained and uncomfortable – particularly as they orbit around issues of doctrine, the Bible, and exclusive salvation in Christ alone. My observation is that he’s also struggling somewhat with the metaphysical assumptions that have invisibly supported his fading convictions.

If you no longer believe in heaven and hell as destinations of the soul, is it necessary to give up believing in the soul? If you are having second thoughts around the claim of exclusive salvation, does the notion of salvation itself need to be abandoned? And if the very idea of a god “up there,” “out there” and external to the world feels contrived and irrelevant to daily life, is atheism the only alternative?

My friend is searching for a new vocabulary that can adequately articulate his evolving spirituality and connect it meaningfully to his life-world. He is understandably concerned that his unwillingness to simply accept as truth what he once believed, and what his church friends still believe, will alienate him from people he doesn’t want to lose from his life.

Of course, many of us arrive at points along the way where the strength of a relationship is tested by our differences over important matters. Religion, politics and morality are frequently powder-keg topics that have a reputation of blowing apart long-standing friendships. Each of us needs to come to terms with how much trust, acceptance, accommodation and forgiveness we are willing to invest in any relationship.

If I reject you just because your beliefs have changed and no longer match my own, can I really be said to have known and accepted you for who you are?

This “new vocabulary” my friend is seeking is also something that I’ve been trying to work out over the years since stepping out of professional church ministry. Here’s something that’s become an essential starting point for me, in order to set up a fruitful conversation about religion, truth, and experience.

Religions are mystically convergent, but doctrinally divergent.

ReligionLook into the center of the picture above. Soon enough you’ll begin to see the pupil of an eye dilating and contracting as it stares back at you. That center represents what I call mystical experience. Like a black-hole pulling you through and beyond the world you think you know, the mystical experience transpires in a place that is “no place.” And yet, this now and here (now/here, nowhere) is the starting point of your existence.

The term exist literally means “to stand out,” and what you stand out from is the present source and support of your being. Mystics name this source “the ground (of being),” and experiencing it is to experience the present mystery of reality itself, the deep creative support of all things – including, of course, your life in this moment.

Authentic religion (Latin religare, “to tie back”) is motivated out of a desire to tie the business of daily life back to this Source. As a constructivist I see it as a way of keeping the mental construct of my world connected to reality, the really real. This tie-back operates in opposition to another impulse in religion, which is to fly out into the symbols, stories, theories and farther abstractions (like metaphysics) that express and explain what it all means.

I understand that not all religions have their roots in mystical experience, but my contention is that every true religion does – or at least once did, at its birth. A founder, or founding community, was inspired or disturbed by an experience of the real presence of mystery, which called for a new way of being and behaving in the world. This means that all (true) religions are mystically convergent – that is to say, they share a common ground and have their roots in essentially the same experience of mystery.

But then, the other impulse – to express and explain – takes us into the more provincial way that each religion interprets this experience of mystery into the web of meaning that connects it to the concerns of its present generation. Every community and its larger culture has a history, with all the factors of ancestry, language, geography, politics, and worldview that make it unique. If the experience of mystery is to make sense and have meaning, then it must be translated into this cultural vocabulary.

The founder of Buddhism translated his experience of mystery into a vocabulary of appearance and essence, attachment and release, illusion and enlightenment, suffering and the way of compassion. Centuries later, the founder of Christianity translated the experience (his own, not someone else’s) into a vocabulary of law and love, separation and communion, identity and inclusion, justice and unconditional forgiveness.

As you follow just these two examples of present-day world religions, your investigation will take you farther out along their divergent paths. “Nirvana” (the liberated state after selfish craving has been extinguished) is not in the Christian vocabulary, and neither is “kingdom of God” (the inclusive community of neighborly love) in the Buddhist. The farther out you go, the more divergent the paths become.

So where is truth, then? This is where my friend’s personal struggle is focused. Too many people are trying to work out this question of truth in religion at the far-out periphery of my illustration above. Their assumption is that truth is a matter of how accurate the terms (doctrines) are to the reality they describe. There comes a point, however – represented in the ring of clouds or smoke at the outer edge – where the pursuit of doctrinal clarity and precision eventually produces the opposite in a hopeless confusion of terms. (This is typically where sects, schools, and denominations take off on their separate tracks.)

To stay with my examples, either Christianity or Buddhism is the “true religion,” but not both. (Of course, a Muslim who’s caught in this same way of framing the issue, will claim that neither one is true. His own religion of Islam is the true and only way, while these others are mistaken and dangerous lies.) Truth, according to this approach, is doctrinal and all about accuracy. Who’s telling the truth? Who’s got the story right? Who’s getting saved in the end?

One problem with this line of questioning is that (as I explored in a recent post) each of these religions in its present form might be quite far off the path of its original teaching. When Buddhists, Christians or Muslims do violence against each other or their own, then it’s rather apparent that they have betrayed the revelation of their founders. It might well be the case that we are comparing somewhat (or entirely) corrupt versions of these distinct religions, which makes the project of sifting for truth especially problematic.

But here’s my point. Truth is not about how well our words and definitions match up to the present mystery of reality. The very nature of meaning is that it’s constructed (made up, put together) and conventional (supported in the agreements that a people hold in common), which also implies that meaning is relative to the context and needs to be relevant to actual life. When it ceases to be relevant – when the vocabulary and its worldview, along with the metaphysical assumptions that lie behind it, lose their connection to everyday life – should we just throw it aside and start looking for another? This is what some people are doing these days.

Or maybe we should make ourselves believe it anyway, attributing the feeling of creeping irrelevancy to our ignorance or lack of faith. If our rescue from this world and everlasting security in the life hereafter depends on getting it right, then you’d better believe it – even (or perhaps especially) if it doesn’t make sense. It’s all a mystery we can’t understand. Don’t jeopardize your salvation in your selfish insistence that religion should make a difference in this life.

I would respond to my friend this way: The beginning of true religion, as well as its proper end, is in the mystical experience where you find your ground and release yourself to the greater reality to which you belong. This experience of real presence, of the present mystery, of the really real in this moment invites you deeper into life. As you awaken to the present moment, to this moment of presence, to the Eternal Now, your neurotic compulsions will gradually relax and fall away. In that moment you will come to realize that here and now is all there is. In the real presence of mystery, all is one.

Now your task is to make sense of it, constructing a meaning to the mystery that will help you stay grounded and connected. That will be your religion. It might look a lot like the one you’ve been in for a while, but now with a refreshed relevance for having been reconciled to the same mystery that inspired Jesus so long ago. Or it might look very different.

The responsibility is yours to translate the mystery into meaning. But stay close to the mystery. Meaning will always change, as it must if relevancy is your concern.

I support you in that quest, for it is my quest as well.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2013 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.

 

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One Thing

Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”

Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.

In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.

Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?

It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.

But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.

Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.

In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”

For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.

This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.

There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.

It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.

 

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