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A Dangerous Certainty

BES CycleIt’s good to pause every so often as you are trying to make a point, if only to ensure that your latest statement is consistent with what got you going in the first place. You might well be making a worthwhile claim, but if in the meantime you have wandered so far off the path and run out of breadcrumbs, your audience will grow tired and let you go.

My starting point was the question about the role of religion in human development, and how religion itself evolves with the advancement of individual consciousness over the lifespan. One of my basic claims is that individual consciousness engages reality at three distinct mental locations, each location opening out to a realm of experience corresponding to this point of contact.

Thus body, ego, and soul are not pieces or separate parts of a human being, but mental locations where individual consciousness opens out to the animal, personal, and spiritual realms. I’ve done my best to head off the tendency of regarding these so-called realms as metaphysical planes of existence. Alas, metaphysical realism is a sticky trance to shake off. Another gross misreading identifies the ego-soul (a disastrous conflation that leads to numerous corruptions) as “the real me,” literally throwing off the body like a cheap coat or temporal costume.

Body is our animal nature, animated by the life-force (anima), and the mental location where consciousness is involved in animality (i.e., in the dynamics of animal life). Ego is our personal identity, which is acted out through a variety of personae (social roles and masks), and serves as the executive center of our personality. And soul is our spiritual presence, the inner wellspring of spirituality and deep ground of the human spirit. Their associated realms comprise the sensory-physical (body), socio-cultural (ego), and intuitive-esoteric (soul) – as long as I can rescue the term “esoteric” (literally inner) from the secret-knowledge (gnostic) spiritualists and crackpot metaphysicians.

As the above diagram illustrates, these three mental locations are oriented respectively on the three concerns of life (body), self (ego), and being (soul), with each concern attracting secondary concerns and values into a coherent system of motivation and behavior. We are interested in different things depending on where (at what mental location) we are engaging reality at the moment. It’s also important to see that this arrangement of concerns is not static, but rather evolves dynamically over the course of a lifespan.

Infancy and early childhood is a “body-dominant” developmental period that gives rise to an “ego-dominant” period in later childhood and adolescence, which may in turn break through to a “soul-dominant” mode of being. To a certain degree the success of each of these transitions is a function of how well things went in preceding periods. A body that wasn’t providently supported in early life, for instance, will become an insecure base for the developing personality.

As a way of compensating for and coping with a jittery (and alternately exhausted) nervous system, the ego will adopt a neurotic style to get its needs met. Examples of such adaptive strategies are the common passive-aggressive, phobic-avoidant, explosive-aggressive, and obsessive-compulsive neurotic styles. (For a deeper dig into these and other neurotic styles, see http://wp.me/p2tkek-cU.)

The neurotic styles are “adaptive” not because they support higher health and wholeness, but because they help our juvenile personality resolve the body’s underlying insecurity by taking control – “acting childish” in some way. Throw a tantrum and a higher power will pay attention and try to pacify you: that’s how you get your way. Of course, the effectiveness of such tactics drops off dramatically as we enter the adult sphere of relationships and responsibilities.

Needless to say, ego formation is a complicated business and none of us comes through the gauntlet without some emotional bruises, scars, hooks, and quirks to show for it. One way that we compensate for insecurity is by gripping down on what we believe – about ourselves, others, or god; about the way it was, is now, or will be. Cognitive certainty, as unshakable confidence in the absolute truth of our statements about reality, doesn’t really address the insecurity knotted up inside us. But with time and practice we can eventually fall under the spell of our own convictions.

In my post “God Above and The Ground of Being” I took a closer look at the phases through which personal identity develops, along with the type of religion (theism) that orients, guides, spurs and attracts its development. Those phases are labeled in the diagram above: the dawn of identity in storytelling (imagination, fantasy, role-play), through the midday of ceremony where the broken time of secular life is ritually joined to the deep time of sacred story, and at last entering that twilight phase of orthodoxy, with its blessed certainty concerning the ultimate nature of things.

While this cognitive certainty (or dogmatic orthodoxy) might serve as adjustment therapy for the insecure ego, it is dangerous indeed in the way it blocks progress into a more spiritually grounded existence. Holding fast to belief may calm anxiety and shush our doubts, but it also pumps more energy into something that needs to be dropped and left behind: the ego itself. As a legitimate mental location of consciousness, ego engages us with the realm of tribal membership, conventional morality, and social recognition. It’s here that we work out who we are and hope that God Above is pleased with us.

But what happens when the deeper impetus of our human development, which must ultimately transgress the boundaries of social identity to engage the soul and its grounding mystery – what happens when this gets held up and pulled back into the ego? My word is inflation: the ego becomes even more dogmatic, conceited, bigoted, and defensive. At this point, its counterpart in God Above starts to take on the character of a judgmental, glory-seeking, and vengeful deity. Coincidence? I bet you can look down through history to those periods when God Above was especially stern, vindictive, unforgiving and merciless, and you will find insecurity and ego-inflation running rampant among his devotees.

This is where orthodoxy, that twilight phase of theism, is ready and willing to burn down the world for the sake of its truth. It has no qualms consigning unbelievers (technically any who don’t agree with it) to everlasting torment, driving out heretics, and crucifying those who challenge its authority. Even as its own are starving for relevancy inside, a dying theism will throw all its resources into buildings, publicity, and “outreach.” (I feel I’m on the verge of a rant, so I’ll stop there.)

Don’t get me wrong, as a system of religious support and orientation theism promotes human fulfillment – or I should say, healthy theism does this. As long as egos are around and people live in societies where membership means something, theism and its patron deity are here to stay.

In the best of all possible worlds, orthodoxy wouldn’t exist. Believers would be encouraged to the edge of certainty and allowed to contemplate the mystery that can’t be named. They would be challenged to let go of their need to be right, to let go of their need for assurance, to let go even of their god.

And with a gentle push, they would learn that they can fly.

 
 

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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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