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The Mirror of Religion

If god is not “up there” and heaven is not “after this,” then why would anyone get involved with religion?

One obvious answer might be to make money – speaking primarily on behalf of TV evangelists and other hucksters who exploit our fantasies of immortality and our craving for absolute answers. They hook us in by the thousands with a promise of prosperity in this life and everlasting security in the next.

Not surprisingly, the only ones getting richer are the hucksters themselves.

Once upon a time religion provided people with big stories, deep traditions, and vital connections to their communities, the larger environment of life, and to the present mystery of reality. Religion gave us grounding and orientation, identity and purpose, meaning and hope.

Then something happened.

Our mind began to open to reality in new ways. Where all that business of religion had focused our contemplation on the mysteries of life within and around us, we became increasingly aware of an impersonal objectivity to things. This has famously been called the “disenchantment of the world,” and it came as the consequence of a kind of centripetal integration of our individual personality, bringing with it a newfound ability to discriminate between external facts and internal feelings.

This evolution of consciousness didn’t necessarily mean that the sacred myths and sacramental cosmology of religion had to be abandoned. The change in awareness, however, did invite us to interpret the stories in a new light.

Whereas our mythopoeic imagination was the generative source of the myths, we could now appreciate their principal metaphors as translucent revelations of a deeper mystery.

Take this analogy …

A landscape painting can be “read outward” for its representational realism and factual accuracy. Something separate from the work of art is that by which it is recognized and evaluated. But a true appreciation of the painting as art requires that we also “read inward” to its creative source and inspiration in the artist’s personal experience. We are not thereby attempting to go back to its origin in the past; rather we are going deeper into something that is genuinely a mystery, of which the painting is a revelation in this present moment.

As we meditate on it, that same experiential in-sight is awakened in us.

The shift of consciousness mentioned earlier, where seemingly all of a sudden reality confronted our mind as an objective fact, is paradoxically when this inward path into the grounding mystery of being became available for the first time. Having established our separate center of personal self-awareness (ego), reality opened simultaneously beyond us in the objective order of existence, and within us as the subjective depths of our being.

Those sacred stories of religion could now be read inward as poetic and metaphorical revelations of our own grounding mystery. For so long they were spun almost by instinct like spider webs out of our creative imagination, captivating our attention and making life fascinating and meaningful. But whereas earlier their action and imagery had been projected around us, now for the first time we could follow that projection inward to its spiritual source.

To interpret god metaphorically, reading inward to its deeper significance and expressive potency, necessitated a shift in religion’s self-understanding. Instead of orienting us outward to some supernatural being “up there,” god’s metaphorical meaning urged upon us a newfound sense of our creative authority.

As a poetic construct of the human imagination, the character and virtue of god as played out in the myths (and read inward) turned the sacred narratives from windows into mirrors.

Our “window” on reality – that is to say, on the objective and factual realm – would become the special portal of science. And our “mirror” into the subjective and intuitive realm was now positioned to serve religion’s own progress as a system of stories, metaphors, meditative practices, and ethical commitments that could guide human evolution into a “post-theistic” future.

The prefix “post” in this term shouldn’t be mistaken as “anti” or “a” (as in atheist) since post-theism is not focused on – or even concerned with – the existence of god. Instead, it provides the structure and vocabulary for making meaning, building community, and actualizing our higher nature as human beings – “after” (post) we have learned to contemplate god as a mirror into ourselves and taken responsibility for our creation.

Our own individual development through the early years and into adulthood traces the same path as our cultural evolution.

There was a time when stories and their performance, otherwise known as imaginative play, were the world we lived in day and night. We regarded their characters, plots, and adventures as laced invisibly into the landscape of everyday life. Some characters became magnetic attractors in the shaping and orientation of our developing personality. In a way, they were more “real” to us than the flesh-and-blood members of our own house and neighborhood.

But then something happened.

Partly as a consequence of our socialization, and partly a natural stage in the development of our mind, the mapping of language onto an objective reality separate and apart from us began to demand more of our attention. This “real world” of impersonal facts would eventually become the realm of our adult everyday life.

Those childhood stories of the backyard playground needed to be left behind, put on the shelf … or read inward for new meaning.

It’s not news that most adults in advanced societies nowadays are caught on the Wheel of Suffering, in lives that have been flattened out and drained of creative imagination. We have to turn on a screen or sit in a theater for the experiences we can barely recall from childhood.

If and when we go to church, we are likely to hear about a god “up there” and a heaven “after this,” but there is little if any inward depth-experience of a mystery that cannot be named or fully known.

Our religions presume to be windows on reality, telling us what to believe about a being that no one has ever encountered. Their “windows” are not the true window of science, yet their competing (and archaic) accounts of objective reality are obligated on devotees under threat of excommunication and eternity in hell if they cannot believe.

The tragic irony is that the stories these religions take so literally are actually reflecting back to them insights into our own deeper nature, and truths with power that can set us free for the liberated life.

 

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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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Breaking Free

At this very moment your nervous system is idling at a frequency that registers your confidence in reality as provident to your basic needs to live, to belong, and to be loved. It isn’t something you have to make a decision over or even think very much about.

As far as thinking is concerned, it is preconscious, serving as the filter which determines much of what gets your attention and holds your interest.

The history of this, what we might call your existential confidence or trust in reality, reaches all the way back to the time you were in your mother’s womb, through your birth experience, and into the first days and weeks of your life as an infant. Even though your existence wasn’t absolutely secure in an objective sense, your internal feeling of being supported and cared for allowed your nervous system to relax – for the most part.

But you know what? Your taller powers weren’t perfect, and they couldn’t show up promptly every time your needs announced themselves. The cumulative effect of delays, shortfalls, mistakes, and oversights on their part caused your nervous system to become a bit more vigilant and reactive. If gross neglect, abuse, and general bad parenting were also factors, the consequence on your nervous system was that much more severe.

In addition to decreasing your tolerance threshold, this external insecurity motivated you to reach out a little sooner, grip down a little harder, and hold on a little longer to whatever could make you feel secure.

In this way, insecurity generated attachment, which in turn served to pacify the dis-ease in your nervous system.

Attachment refers both to an emotional-behavioral strategy that seeks to resolve internal insecurity and to the external object used to mediate this resolution – what I call a pacifier. A pacifier is what you can’t feel secure without, but which is inherently incapable of satisfying your deeper needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

We’ve switched to the present tense to make the point that although your demand for pacifiers was established very early, throughout your life and still today you turn to certain things – objects and people, food and drink, ideas and beliefs – to help you calm down and feel less anxious.

Over time all these various pacifiers got incorporated into your developing sense of identity by a process known as entanglement. Your craving for a pacifier wasn’t optional, nor were you free to refuse its sedative effect. You can think of attachment as the combined strategy-and-fixation on some specific pacifier, while entanglement hooks and ties the attachment object into your very sense of self.

You become convinced that you can’t be happy without the pacifier, that you cannot function in its absence, and that without it you might even die.

As depicted in the diagram above, attachment ramifies (or branches out) into the self-world construct of your identity, which in turn ratifies (or locks in) the pacifier as a critical piece to your life and its meaning. The construction of your world thus contains and is largely built around the things that help you feel secure and will hopefully satisfy your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

But is this world of yours and the identity supported inside it really real? That’s an important question, since every human construction of meaning is a mental artifact that may have little or no basis in reality. Your idea of a rose, for instance, is not itself the rose. One is a mental artifact and the other is an actual fact. In this case, your idea of a rose has a definite anchor in objective reality, but the idea itself is only in your mind.

Some mental artifacts have no anchor in actual fact, such as religion’s concept of god. This doesn’t necessarily falsify the construct, since many such concepts are acknowledged as metaphors of experiences that elude objective representation. They may not represent real facts, but they are nevertheless reality-oriented in the way they reveal, express, or clarify an experience of reality.

If the insecurity, attachment, and entanglement are strong enough, your self-and-world construct might be profoundly delusional, making it impossible for you to discriminate between what you believe and what is real. The delusion thus serves to justify (or make right) your entanglement by providing you with all the reasons you need to defend and promote it on others.

It is under the spell of delusion that humans have wreaked all kinds of destruction, terror, and death on each other throughout our history.

In my diagram I have depicted your (partly delusional) worldview as a three-dimensional sphere enclosing black and white blocks. The sphere itself represents the more-or-less coherent collection of ideas that carries your current understanding of things, while the black and white blocks depict emotionally charged convictions, especially around your needs to live, to belong, and to be loved.

Ideas farther out toward the periphery are things you can negotiate, modify, and even abandon for better ones if necessary. But those convictions deeper in are nonnegotiable absolute claims that simply must be true for the whole thing to hold together.

If you are like most people, open dialogue around these claims is not only impossible, it’s simply not necessary since the one and only truth is already in your possession.

It is understandable if you find offense in my suggestion that you are living under the spell of delusion. Other people may be spellbound and out of touch with reality, but not you! I feel the same way. How I see things is the way things really are. There is no discrepancy between what I believe and what is real. There is no distortion in my representation, no self-serving bias in my personal worldview.

When you hear me say it, it sounds rather presumptuous, does it not? The truth is, our personal (and cultural) constructs of meaning will always fall short of reality, if only because they are mental artifacts and not really real. And given that each of us has arranged our world in some degree to compensate for the insecurity we once felt (and maybe still feel), our worldview not only falls short of reality but actually distorts it or ‘makes believe’ in the interest of helping us feel better.


The spiritual wisdom traditions are unanimous in their diagnosis of our present condition as enthralled by delusion, along with a deep-cutting ethical admonishment against our readiness to kill and die for things (our absolute truths) that are merely in our minds. Our only way forward according to them is by breaking the spell and waking up, which amounts to running the delusional process in reverse.

First, acknowledge that your ideas and beliefs are not (exactly) the way things really are. The idea of a rose is not the rose itself. This step is crucial in moving you out of delusion and into a position where you can begin to see the illusory nature of all mental constructs.

Next, perform a comprehensive inventory of your worldview and pay close attention to those beliefs that lack a strong reality orientation or empirical basis. Some beliefs only make sense because other beliefs are taken as true. But what makes those other beliefs true?

As you analyze your web of beliefs, it will become increasingly apparent that its persuasive character is more due to this cross-referencing bootstrap dynamic than to any foundation in direct experience. This is just another name for entanglement, only now you’re looking at it from above rather than from below.

Now try to isolate the lines of attachment that anchor your strongest beliefs. Keeping in mind that attachment is an emotional-behavioral strategy which fixates on specific pacifiers that you expect will make you feel more secure (or at least less insecure), persist in your effort to identify those pacifiers which you’re certain you can’t be happy or live without.

Trace those present-day pacifiers back to their primordial archetypes in your infancy and early childhood. Such a methodical deconstruction of attachment will begin to uncover the places where your nervous system was primed to be especially cautious, guarded, and tense.

Finally, become aware of these very places as vital touchpoints of your dependency on something greater. You have a need to live, to belong, and to be loved precisely because you are not a perfectly self-sufficient island unto yourself.

These needs are openings inviting your release to the present mystery of reality. Your essential emptiness is paradoxically the very ground of your being.

This is the truth that can set you free.

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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A Closer Look at Growing Up

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Michelangelo’s scene in the Sistine Chapel of the temptation and expulsion of the First Couple from Eden follows the mythic narrative of Genesis 3 fairly closely – except perhaps for their depiction as meaty white Europeans. But we can forgive the artist for creating in his own likeness, as we all tend to do that.

Myths of creation and of how we humans found ourselves in, or brought about, our present predicament are widespread among the world cultures. Typically things start off in a paradisaical state and then some act of ignorance, stupidity, or disobedience breaks the spell and we find ourselves on the outs. The orthodox Christian interpretation has long taken this as historical, which soon enough ran up against the findings of anthropology and evolutionary science.

The Church authorities made the mistake of insisting on the literal-historical meaning of this and other biblical myths, making it today impossible for an orthodox Christian to also be a well-informed and reality-oriented world citizen. If the Bible isn’t telling the literal truth, they worry, then nothing in it can be trusted. If the story of our expulsion from the garden didn’t really happen, then why do we need to be saved? Finally, if the Bible is the “word of God” but turns out to be more myth than history, then what the hell … and heaven, for that matter?!

There is a way to understand this Bible story without having to reject science, logic, and common sense. But it requires that we loosen up on our insistence that truth can only be literal. It can also be metaphorical, referring to the way a word, scene, or entire story reveals a mystery that can only be experienced, not explained. When you read or hear such a story not as an explanation of prehistorical facts but rather as a veil drawn aside on your own human experience, that is truth in another sense.

So how does the Genesis story show us what’s really going on, about what’s true of our human experience? Let’s take a closer look.

Serpents make appearances in many world myths and their metaphorical meaning will be different depending on the cultural and historical context. They might represent the principle of time, in the way they slither in lines and shed their skin to be reborn. There’s probably an acquired reflex deep in our hominid genes that jumps at snakes but reveres their lethal power.

To observe a slithering serpent as a “traveling esophagus” (Joseph Campbell) is to identify it with the most elementary of survival drives. We know from science that our body is not a spontaneous and unique expression of biology, but instead has genetic roots deep in life’s adventure on Earth. Over many millions of years this organism and its nervous system evolved by seeking out niches of nourishment, safety, mastery, and procreation. These are the survival drives of our animal nature, represented by a serpent in the Genesis myth.

It takes at least a second reading for Christians, especially, to realize that the garden serpent is not an evil principle but rather belongs to Yahweh’s created order which he declared “very good.” In other words, this isn’t the devil (or Satan) as later orthodoxy would insist. (When the myth was first invented, there was as yet no such absolute principle of personified evil working in opposition to an absolute good.) The serpent merely tempts Eve to seize an opportunity that might work to her advantage – that she will be “like god, knowing good and evil.”

At this stage of the story, Adam and Eve are still innocent and naive. They only know what they’ve been told by their higher power. Their world was created by someone else, is managed by someone else, and the way they should behave is dictated by someone else. Sound familiar? In other words, Adam and Eve are children – not literally children in the story, but serving as archetypes of “the child.”

When we are young children, our own animal nature and its survival drives compels behavior that inevitably runs up against the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of morality, that is to say, of the rule system that lays down the code of what sorts of behavior are commanded or prohibited. Because our animal nature has been at it for millions of years already, it takes time and repeated disciplinary actions for our tribe to bring these impulses in line.

In those early years when our animal nature is ‘tempting’ us to cheat, lie, and manipulate others for what we need, our sense of right and wrong is contained by what we might call a morality of obedience. It’s not necessary that we understand why some action is right or wrong, only that we obey the rule that tells us how to behave. Our taller powers said it, they call the shots, and we must do as they say. When we obey there might be a reward, but more certain still is the penalty (both physical and emotional) that follows our disobedience. The psychological consequence of disobedience is called a guilty conscience.

Part of growing into a mature adult involves breaking free of this morality of obedience where our behavior is motivated by external incentives. While it’s a social necessity that the animal natures of children are brought into compliance with the rule system of the tribe, adults are expected to take responsibility for their own lives and behavior. In one sense, it’s nice to have everything laid out for us, with all the “shalts” and “nots,” lollipops and paddles at the ready.

But our adult experience is not so simplistic or clear-cut. We need to accept the full burden of our existence along with its unresolved, and in many cases unresolvable, ambiguity. To merely “trust and obey,” as the orthodox hymn goes, would be to refuse the responsibility of being an adult. It becomes imperative, then, that we shift from a morality of obedience to an ethic of responsibility.

There will be times when our own higher adult self sees the inherent egoism of obedience – doing something for a reward, refraining to avoid punishment, thinking all the while “what’s in it for me?” In the adult world more variables have to be considered, differing perspectives allowed, and in some cases doing the right thing puts us in conflict with the morality of our tribe. We need to be willing to bear some conscientious guilt by departing from the norm or disobeying a rule when these are enforcing oppression, exploitation, and privilege.

So what does the Genesis myth tell us? That we all need to grow up. That we need to listen to our animal nature as we obey those in charge. But that eventually we will have to step from under the authority of those telling us how to live and figure it out on our own. Taking for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil,” making our own decisions and accepting the consequences, constructing a world that is safe, stable, and provident for those young Adams and Eves now depending on us – this is our destiny as responsible adults, making our way just “East of Eden.”

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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The Big Picture

It’s true. I’m obsessed with trying to clarify the Big Picture, referring to the full view of our human situation not only inside our ethnic and national pocket cultures, but on the planet and across evolutionary time. Much of our difficulty at present, recurring through history as we tend to get snagged on the same things time and again, is a complication of losing the Big Picture and fixating instead on the troubles at hand.

It’s not that we should ignore these more local troubles and revel philosophically on only abstract and universal, but practically irrelevant things. What I mean by the Big Picture is a frame large enough to include what really needs our attention, fitted with a lens that helps us see the depths of detail and lengths of time required for making wiser, more creative and responsible choices.

In this post I introduce the idea of “culture blocks,” as distinct sets or paradigms of belief, value, and aim that drive the larger process of meaning-making and world-building unique to our species.

Culture can be usefully defined as the invented and almost completely imaginary construction of shared meaning that is downloaded into the consciousness of each new generation. Its construction is managed through a network of traditions, institutions, and ideologies that conspire to channel our animal instincts into outlets and expressions which not only help us get along, but also inspire the realization of our higher potential as a species.

The idea of culture blocks came to me recently as I’ve been reflecting on the strange culture wars breaking out among conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, between those who fantasize a utopian future and others awaiting the apocalypse. As one side looks with bafflement and outrage at the other, neither can understand how anyone in their right mind could subscribe to such ridiculous, delusional, and dangerous notions.

It’s not simply that they cannot agree on something they both see clearly, but that they are looking at entirely different things – or rather, that they are interpreting their situation through completely different paradigms. If your vantage point is located in a different culture block than the other guy, you will not only see things differently but your paradigm will be filtering for a very different reality.

Let’s get my model in front of us and try to make sense of it.

The first culture block is Morality and Religion. My arrows are indicators of time and influence, and the one coming to Morality from the left makes the point that it is probably the first element of culture to arise, with its principal line of influence coming from the past.

Morality is the set of behavioral codes that a people follow in order to get along and enjoy the benefits of social life. Each new generation doesn’t have to figure these codes out for itself, but instead receives them by instruction and example.

If morality carries the consensus on how we ought to behave, Religion anchors (or ‘links back’, religare) these social concerns to the deeper mystery of existence – not only of our provident support in the great web of life, but of that grounding mystery where awareness drops away from personal and temporal concerns into the timeless uplift of being-itself.

Religion carries our intuitions of the grounding mystery into metaphorical expression as myth. Its sacred stories serve as veils of meaning draping a mystery that cannot be explained but only revealed (literally unveiled) in each dramatic recital.

Deep within ourselves we hold a preconscious and ineffable intuition of essential oneness (communion), and religion’s first task is spinning the narrative thread that can guide us down and back again where this intuition can be applied to daily life.

Historically religion has served as the line of influence to a third element of culture, and the first in my second culture block of Politics and Economics. The arrangement of power and authority that preserves morality is given divine warrant and effectively removed from merely secular debate.

Chieftains, kings, priests, presidents, and “the people” themselves are honored as endowed by god with the right to rule. By tying political power and authority to god, who personifies the deep source and support of existence itself, government is provided the ordination it needs.

Especially as society grows larger and more complex, the distribution of wealth and access to natural resources becomes an increasingly pressing concern.

In every example we have from history, those with wealth and resources are either in positions of political power and authority, or else use these to manipulate political leadership in their favor. The one with the gold, rules.

The third culture block is Technology and Science. As necessity is the mother of invention, the need for resources has been a major driver of new technologies. Tools, instruments, machines, weapons, and sophisticated infotech are innovations that typically have their beginnings in the quest to do more with less, to turn a profit or achieve an aim with less investment of time, energy, capital, and labor.

When technology for the manufacturing of tools got repurposed into instruments for the acquisition of knowledge, the scientific enterprise was born. Technology and Science have been co-evolving for millenniums, and the resulting alterations to our cosmology (or model of reality) over that time have been truly revolutionary. By formulating and testing mathematical explanations of order on all scales of magnitude, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially.

Now we can place the three culture blocks side by side on a timeline to complete my picture. Each block serves to connect society to a dimension of time: Morality and Religion to the past for anchorage; Politics and Economics to the present challenge of government; Technology and Science to the future of progress.

Together religion and science compose the narratives (i.e., religious myths and scientific theories) that weave our social construction of meaning. By this map we chart our way of life.

An interesting dynamic has been unfolding over the past 2,300 years or so, as updates and revolutions in our scientific model of reality have completely reconstructed the cosmological frame on which religion draped its great myths. The transformation from a vertically oriented (up and down) three-story universe to a radially oriented (out and across) expanding cosmos has complicated our ability to take the myths seriously anymore.

Many are siding with science and against religion, while others are insisting that the myths aren’t myths at all – now a synonym for superstition and fallacy – but rather factual accounts of supernatural realms, metaphysical entities, and miraculous events.

As I have tried to show in other posts, both sides are misinterpreting what originally were (and still are, if we can recover our spiritual intuition) metaphorical depictions of the essential oneness in which we live and move and have our being.

Back to my starting observation about the back-and-forth misunderstanding between conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives, democrats and capitalists, dreamers and doomsayers. While many of them have important things to say, they may not realize that they are using very different filters (i.e., paradigms, or my term culture blocks) in their constructions of meaning. Consequently they can’t understand each other, which removes any possibility of reaching agreement and living in peace.

Perhaps if we can engage in dialogue fully conscious of where (i.e., in which block) our beliefs, values, and aims are located, we might make some headway together. And by acknowledging that our preferred vantage point is not the only place from which an intelligent perspective can be held, the larger discourse of culture has a better chance of including us all.

 
 

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