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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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The Long Adventure

As we search for a fuller understanding of ourselves as human beings, it’s necessary to beware of explanations that reduce us to essentially one thing. On one side, scientific materialism wants to insist that we are nothing more than a highly evolved marvel of organic chemistry. On the other, metaphysical realism says that we are nothing less than an immortal spirit-being on a brief earthly sojourn. Whether we are nothing more or nothing less, each side presumes to reduce to simpler terms the complexity of what makes us human.

If we can set aside our Western penchant for reductionism and take a different approach, a much more interesting picture begins to emerge. In earlier posts I introduced the notion of ‘mental location’ as a vantage point for consciousness in its engagement with reality. Sentient awareness in human beings engages with reality at three distinct realms: (1) a sensory-physical realm at the mental location of the body, (2) an interpersonal realm at the mental location of the ego, and (3) a mystical-intuitive realm at the mental location of the soul.

Such a notion avoids the pitfalls of thinking in terms of parts or pieces, where inevitably one part (body, ego, or soul) is regarded as essential as the others are reduced to mere ‘accidents’ or dismissed outright.

Just a quick check-in with your own experience will verify that you connect with your physical surroundings through your body, with your social situation through your ego, and with the mystery of being through your soul. The convention of regarding these aspects or modes of being as somehow belonging to us (e.g., my body, your soul) encourages the mistake of separating them into parts and property of the self.

In actuality, however, there is no self that has these in its possession, no ‘fourth thing’ beyond the three modes under consideration. If anything, self is the consilient (‘leaping together’) effect of body, ego, and soul working together – and sometimes less cooperatively. In any given moment, you can turn your conscious attention on reality as mediated at the mental location of body, ego, or soul. Sentient awareness is continuously monitoring your engagement with reality at all three simultaneously.

To help with my explanation, I have a diagram that lays out this idea of mental locations or modes of consciousness. You should notice an arcing arrow sweeping across from left to right, which represents the progression of time. In addition, a spatial arrangement displays the three modes and their relative positions with respect to what I name the grounding mystery.

Briefly, ‘grounding mystery’ refers to the depth-structure of our individual existence, descending from the center of self-conscious identity (or ego), deeper into sentient awareness, organismic life, and peering into the abyss (from the perspective of consciousness) of physical matter and quantum energy farthest down (or within). It’s important to understand that the grounding mystery is only within and not outside the forms of existence. Engagement with the grounding mystery is an introspective affair.

As far as the relative position of the three modes with respect to the grounding mystery is concerned, you’ll notice that both body and soul are in direct contact with it whereas ego is slightly elevated in its own separate space. This makes the point that body and soul together constitute what we are as human beings, while ego is who we (think we) are.

The various roles we play in society are not essential to what we are; rather they are masks of identity that make sense only inside the niches and stories of our interpersonal experience. We need to be reminded that our word ‘person’ (and its cognates personal and personality) derive from the Latin persona, referring to the mask an actor wore on a theater stage.

Ego, then, is your mental location of personal identity, which is not natural or essential to what you are but instead is socially constructed as your sense of being somebody (having roles) separate from the roles played by others. The process of individuation gradually detaches this center of identity from the grounding mystery and suspends it inside the performance space of social interactions we call society.

In many early myths, the hero, who on this reading stands for the ego on its adventure of discovery and conquest, must gain escape from some monster or dark force that seeks to devour him. This captures perfectly in metaphor the uneasy relationship of ego to the animal energies of the body from which identity must be ‘saved’ again and again. A portion of consciousness must be liberated from the urgencies and instincts of the body in order to be installed at the new mental location of personal self-conscious identity (ego).

What ‘saves’ personal identity from falling into the body and getting swallowed up are the numerous rules, routines, moral codes, and role-play scripts that validate who you are and keep ego suspended – or, as another way of saying it, that keep you firmly enmeshed in the web of interpersonal and tribal affairs. We can think of these social conventions as programs directing your interaction with others, each one a kind of algorithm (a fixed and closed sequence) of moves, actions, and commands that start and finish a distinct subroutine of the larger performance.

Over time these numerous subroutines of personal and interpersonal engagement became your habit of identity, the second nature of who you are.

In my diagram I have placed the image of a robot (or android: a more humanlike robot) to represent your second nature – the separate center of personal identity (ego) and social codes that dictate your values and direct your behavior in the role-play of society. I’m using this image less in the sense of advanced robotics or artificial intelligence than as something not quite human, human-like but less than human. Your second nature moves and reacts quite automatically according to these encoded programs, closing off or channeling the energies of your first nature (as a primate) into something more conventional and morally compliant.

At the temporal transition from body to ego I’ve put a cube (or box) which symbolizes this process of socialization, where your animal (or first) nature is eventually domesticated in the formation of your personal (or second) nature. The box stands for all the codes that define who you are, determine what you believe, and direct how you behave, as something humanlike but not yet fully human.

At the following transition, between your second and higher natures, you can see that the box is breaking open in a creative release of spiritual energy. In other posts I have explored this event of disillusionment (the liberation from illusion) as the deeper significance of apocalypse in mythology: the imposed veil of meaning falls away and you are finally fully present to what is.

This is what we mean by self-transcendence and moving into a transpersonal mode: you use your center of personal identity as a point of release into a deeper center of awareness (soul), which corresponds outwardly to an enlarged horizon of communion and wholeness.

If we can get past the debate over the metaphysical existence of angels, taking them instead as metaphorical representations of the liberated life – not as self-interested animals or social androids, but as creators, messengers (the literal meaning of angel), and guardians of wisdom – we will come to appreciate their significance as our own higher ideal calling to us.

Interestingly our technology-infatuated generation is more enamored with androids than angels these days, which is no doubt partly due to the irrelevance of literal angels in our scientific cosmology, but may also represent a seduction away from transpersonal to artificial intelligence as our anticipated key to the future.

The automatic life has a certain attraction over one where you need to live with a higher wholeness in mind. In a sense, you can’t be held responsible for the programs driving your thoughts, feelings, and (so-called) choices.

The liberated life is paradoxically about taking responsibility for the world you are creating. Your long adventure as a human being leads to your awakening, waking up from the trance of who you are and living with wide-awake holy intention.

 

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Above Us Only Sky

In my continuing effort to clarify the meaning of post-theism, I’m always looking for creative ways of making it not only understandable but relevant to our times. I happen to believe that more of us than we realize are post-theistic, in both orientation and practice, and that if this movement is to be accepted as a bona fide expression of healthy spirituality, we need to carefully distinguish it from other types and anti-types of religion.

The diagram above presents several of what I regard as the most important distinctions that need to be made. Three panels or lenses represent the crucial stages and transitions in the evolution of theism to post-theism, which I will follow in sequence.

A frequent protest I encounter from nonbelievers or the religiously unaffiliated is that theism isn’t relevant to their experience. They don’t go to church or even believe in the existence of god, so my model is meaningless to them. But I don’t limit theism to its name-brand institutional varieties. Even Buddhism, which is conventionally characterized as a ‘non-religion’ since it doesn’t espouse belief in a separate deity, still orients its neophytes and practitioners on the ideal of the Amida (or “celestial”) Buddha whose grace and salvation can be summoned at death or in times of need.

This devotional focus on an external model of providence, character, and virtue is central to my definition of theism. And that’s also the reason for my claim that every family system, regardless of culture or period in history, is a theistic system with taller powers who manage, provide for, discipline, and inspire underlings on their early path to maturity. In exchange for their respect and obedience, the taller powers offer protection, provision, comfort, and blessing.

Admittedly, because families aren’t traditionally ad hoc volunteer organizations where members agree to a contract beforehand, this value-for-service exchange isn’t as formalized as it can be in institutional religion. But the societal model of higher (parental or taller) powers and devotees (children) is functionally identical.

This also explains why, again across cultures, the deities of religion are imagined and addressed as mothers and fathers, with believers self-identifying as children and siblings, brothers and sisters in faith.

I’ve placed key terms to label the three panels (or lenses) themselves, as well as the critical moves, transitions, or phases that track progress across them. Let’s begin with the panel on the left and see where the path leads.

Theism (left panel or lens) identifies a devotee as one who honors and serves a deity, the principal role of whom is to provide what devotees need – e.g., security, solace, resources, intervention, revelation, final salvation – in exchange for their submission, worship, and obedience. Every theistic social system enforces a moral code based on Thou Shalts (symbolized by a carrot in my diagram) and Thou Shalt Nots (a stick). The purpose of this binary (either-or) morality is to draw clear boundaries separating desired behavior from merely acceptable, forgivable, and forbidden behavior in its members.

The sun in my diagram symbolizes the higher power of the deity (or parent), while the figure below represents the devotee (or child). Throughout my blog I use the color codes of black, orange, and purple to stand for our animal nature (body), personal identity (ego), and higher self (soul), respectively.

In this first panel, then, the morality of theism gets focused early on the project of shaping natural impulses and reflexes into behavior that is more in line with the shared interests of the tribe. One of the first important achievements in this disciplinary process is to establish in the individual an executive center of self-conscious control (or ego) which will keep him or her in compliance with group norms.

Besides providing for what a devotee needs, the deity also serves as an exemplar of character and moral virtue. It’s important to note that this divine exemplar has shape only in the storytelling imagination of his or her devotional community. Theological concepts, sacred artifacts, iconography, and elaborate architecture help to translate the narrative character of god into the communal experience and life-situation of believers – but no one has ever had a direct encounter with a deity outside the imaginarium of belief.

In the recital and ritual performance of these sacred stories, the aspirations of devotees are focused on the virtues of god, who in this sense is an idealization or glorification of virtues for believers to imitate. To be good is to be like god.

There are obviously many more details and nuances in every system, but this model of membership morality and devotional aspiration is the basic chassis of theism. As we sweep our gaze across the varieties of theistic religion today, the deities, stories, symbols and ritual ceremonies will be different, but this central frame is consistent throughout.

In healthier forms of theism there comes a time when the devotee starts to suspect that the imaginarium of belief does not perfectly coincide with the realm of factual knowledge. Whereas the physical settings (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) and symbols of worship still provide a place where story and reality can fuse into one, a deeper extension of daily life into the factual realm increasingly exposes gaps and shortfalls in the once seamless veil of myth.

Just as a child these days will eventually come to see that Santa Claus “isn’t real,” a devotee of theism will need to update his or her juvenile concept of god merely as a function of having a longer and wider experience of life.

We shift, then, to panel two, initiated by a gradual or sudden disillusionment over what had been believed. At this point the individual might go in one of two directions: either to a position of altogether rejecting the earlier set, or to something else. The difference between these two options is reflected in the long (macron) and short (breve) vowel sound of the letter ‘a’.

The macron over the ‘a’ in ātheism identifies this decision to deny and reject the existence of god as a matter of fact. An ātheist might be willing to leave the deity as a narrative character in myth, which now gets labeled as an untrue story, but a deity’s existence outside the story is categorically denied. Ātheists are the historical opponents of theists, and their disagreement is over the literal (rather than merely the literary) status of god.

Another path out of disillusionment agrees with the ātheist on the matter of god’s literal existence, but follows a more contemplative investigation into god’s literary (i.e., metaphorical and representational) significance. I designate this position by a breve over the ‘a’ (the sound in apple): an ătheist, therefore, accepts the non-existence of god, even as he or she takes the symbol of god with renewed seriousness.

It is possible, of course, for this symbol to carry a meaning quite apart from its correspondence to anything in the objective realm of facts. This is the special function of metaphors: to facilitate awareness across the threshold between fact and mystery, between what can be known and what can only be experienced.

Going back to my earlier secular example, Santa Claus is not an actual person but rather a metaphor that connects us to the mystery of compassion, generosity, and goodwill. We can agree that Santa doesn’t exist, but nevertheless – or perhaps we should say, precisely because we are able to see through the myth of Santa Claus – the deeper significance of the metaphor can be appreciated. The contemplative take-away would be that we can individually become benefactors of altruism and charity in the world as well. Indeed, ‘Santa Claus’ can live in us.

As a path through the disillusionment after theism, ătheism shifts away from the question of god’s existence in order to dig deeper into what the god-metaphor represents. Whereas the theism-ātheism debate gets hung up on whether or not the mythological deity corresponds to an actual metaphysical (or supernatural) being, the insight that it refers to nothing (or more technically, ‘no thing’) outside the myth but instead expresses something internal to the mystery of existence and becoming fully human, is crucial.

Here we come back to the deity’s role as exemplar of the higher virtues that promote genuine community – which of course is a leap beyond merely managing social order: responsibility, altruism, love, cooperation, forgiveness, wisdom. This is not an exclusive set by any means, but it does trace out the trajectory of god’s character development in mythology. Over time, the deity becomes increasingly humane, which both registers the community’s ethical progress in this direction and inspires their ongoing advance into a fuller awakening.

When theism directs the adoration of a devotee upon these higher virtues of the deity, a god-focused glorification activates a self-conscious aspiration to realize them in the devotee’s own life. Now, in place of a personified set of ethical virtues (i.e., the deity), these same ethical virtues come to infuse the personality of the devotee. The god is internalized, so to speak, and ătheism transitions into post-theism.

Many today are lingering in a state of disorientation, just on the cusp of an ătheistic descent of contemplation while the higher virtues of human fulfillment and genuine community are just out of reach. Either they can’t get past the debate over god’s existence, or they can’t let go of god without feeling guilty and sacrilegious. For others, the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell don’t motivate anymore, but they value the fellowship and don’t want to lose it. In all cases they are stuck. It certainly doesn’t help that many forms of institutional theism these days persecute their own members who are waking up with new insights, real questions, and a much bigger vision.

The good news (gospel) of post-theism is that there is life after god – not without god, for that just pitches us back into a needless debate, but on the other side of god. Many are there already, and they are expecting you. In the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

 

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Reality Shift

Reality ShiftsA somewhat naive understanding of human evolution and individual development assumes that with each advancing stage, former ones are simply outgrown and left behind. We know, however, that this is not how nature evolves. Earlier and more primitive structures are not abandoned, and neither do they merely lie inert beneath the exciting progress higher up. Instead they get incorporated into the emerging design, differently managed or re-purposed in light of a greater functional complexity.

This matters a lot when it comes to the interpretations of our own progress as individuals and a species. The naive approach has treated our mythological past, for instance, as over and done, leaving us free to face reality (finally!) as it is. Scientific theories relentlessly pursue objective truth, while the ancient myths may entertain us but in the end only obfuscate our view of what’s real. We need more facts, not superstition. The presumption is that our ancestors and other distant cultures stumbled around in ignorance, whereas we now clearly see the way things really are.

A closer look reveals that earlier versions of ourselves – whether bygone generations or former decades in our own lifetime – continue to operate underneath and behind whatever ‘executive functions’ are currently at the helm. In developmental psychology we commonly speak of our ‘inner child’ which refers to an infantile and juvenile subpersonality (Assagioli) that sometimes takes over when we’re tired, sick, hungry, stressed, or threatened. But we should also take into account a still more primal animal nature that lurks in the unconscious and is governed by instinct. These deeper and developmentally earlier versions may not determine our engagement with reality as they once did, but a mature adult must learn how to incorporate ‘gut feelings’ and playful spontaneity in a more socially responsible way of life.

Most likely our biggest limitation has to do with the fact that each advancing stage in development reconnects us with reality in a new way. Or we might say that each stage in development initiates a shift in reality itself, for the straightforward reason that our mode of engagement with reality must be included in what is meant by the term. Along the path of human evolution, then, our species has confronted a new reality at each turn. And across the arc of our evolution these developmental advances have carried forward former versions of ourselves, still operating at deeper and less conscious levels.

I propose that human beings have evolved through three major ‘reality shifts’ and that we are currently on the cusp of a fourth. This is similar to the well-known ‘paradigm shift’ concept made popular from the history of science (T. Kuhn), except that as a constructivist – maybe even a radical constructivist – I want to make it about more than a mere shift in the (mental) “framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of scientific [or other type of] community” (Paradigm in Dictionary.com). When our framework shifts, everything about our way of engaging with reality also shifts, which means that because reality necessarily includes our way of engaging it, reality itself shifts as well.

Mythopoetic Reality

The first reality shift, and the one that launched our species on its cultural trajectory, is what I’ll call the mythopoetic. Poiein is Greek for ‘to make’, and mythos translates as ‘a narrative plot’ or story; so a mythopoetic reality is one where our engagement with existence is facilitated by the narrative construction of stories. I don’t agree with a popular definition of myth which dismisses it as ‘primitive science’, our first bumbling attempts to explain what’s going on around us in the natural world. Rather, myths articulate and embellish upon foundational metaphors that represent our deepest impressions and intuitions of the grounding mystery, or what I also call the provident ground of being itself.

It’s important to understand that a story-shaped reality has no ‘outside’ – no nonfictional or purely factual realm independent of the mythic imagination. This reality is sustained in the activity of narrative performances where stories are acted out in the tasks of daily life, with the turn of seasons, on special occasions, and around the shared concerns of a community. Whatever may lie beyond the boundaries of a particular story-world is not a ‘mere fact’ but is characterized according to its proximity and potential value to what’s going on inside the story – such as the chaos acknowledged in many ancient myths, dragons lurking at the edges of medieval maps, or the boogeyman in a child’s closet.

As that last example suggests, early childhood is when each of us lived in a mythopoetic reality. We were continuously pretending – daydreaming, fantasizing, dressing up, role-playing, embarking on one adventure after another. In those years we had no interest in, let alone an understanding of, the factual reality that would later become the bedrock truth of our adult experience. That time in our lives – whatever we can remember of it – is probably our best entry to an understanding of what prehistoric story-telling culture was like.

Historical Reality

At some point in the evolutionary past, as well as in our own personal past, the sacred canopy of mythopoetic reality came down – or at least fell just far enough to expose another reality on the other side of our stories. I will call this the shift to historical reality, a shift reflecting the progress of human consciousness beyond the security, meaning, and hope we had earlier found in our myths. For a memory of what it was like, we need to recall that strange mixture of exhilaration and anxiety we felt in adolescence.

The exhilaration came as our perception of time expanded beyond the ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ frame of the story-world, into a causal stream seemingly without beginning or end. As the boundary of our mythopoetic reality blew open to reveal a limitless field of possibilities, the opportunity as well as temptation for all things exotic beckoned to us. On the other side of that exhilaration, however, was an anxiety over our sudden ‘nakedness’ – a niggling self-conscious sense of being stared at. Both of these powerful moods (exhilaration and anxiety) announced the emergence of a separate center of personal identity, or ego.

This separate self provided a new vantage point on a reality without limits (except for those repressive rules imposed on us by authorities), arranged and revolving around ego at its fixed center. It is in this reality and corresponding version of ourselves that an irresistible impulse to throw off constraints and ‘become as the gods’ – free, powerful, and beyond accountability – acquired the drag of guilt and shame for our offense. You should be able to hear a strong theistic theme here, which resolved the problem of separation by a process of atonement and reconciliation.

The dawn of historical consciousness is accompanied by a disenchantment with the mythopoetic reality of early life, which comes as a consequence of ego’s separation from its own grounding mystery. Whereas the mythic imagination continues to operate farther below, the executive ego – or what I also name Captain Ego – is having to take into account a factual realm altogether independent of it. This forces upon ego a need to decide the truth status of those stories, and a few alternatives become obvious.

One answer is that the myths are simple stories of an era when we believed such things. Now we know better and should dispense with them in the interest of progress. A second option, related to the first, might regard the myths as amusing tales that provide a fascinating look inside a less enlightened period.

Another possibility is that myths are descriptive reports of miraculous events and supernatural things revealed in the far-distant past and recorded for our benefit, but of events and things not presently accessible to our senses. This is the option that led to converting the literary (or mythological) god into a literal being, and invented the idea of a supernatural realm above and outside historical reality.

Finally, a fourth answer to the question ‘wherefore the myths?’ would be to explore them as metaphorical clues to our deeper spiritual life. Of the four options, this one is by far the least popular; ego has a hard time with metaphors and anything deeper than its own personality. The doctrine of personal immortality, another invention of this reality shift, dismisses all notions of a spirituality that threatens to swallow up, go beyond, or dissolve away the permanent self.

Secular Reality

The shift to a secular reality came about as the inherited system of supernaturally oriented beliefs rapidly lost relevance to the challenges and opportunities of daily life. This coincides with a shift in consciousness from the insecure and self-conscious ego to a more ’embodied’ and this-worldly (Latin saeculāris) orientation. Such an orientation, while portending the end of supernatural religion and biblical literalists (option 3 above) everywhere, is energetically embraced by many atheists and mystics alike.

‘Humanist’ is probably the best term for describing the emerging value system of this reality shift, as the larger cause for human rights, individual happiness, and personal well-being informs and qualifies more of what we do. The weight and promise of our current situation calls for a clear view of the facts and a more broad-based social responsibility. We don’t look outside the world to a supernatural heaven, an end-time deliverance, or even a metaphysical underground to which we might escape the task before us. The resources and solutions we’re looking for must be found inside – within ourselves, our communities, and in our shared world – this world.

As odd as it sounds, the shift from historical to secular reality makes possible a renewed appreciation for life’s sacredness and what I call the Real Presence of mystery. A reverence for the earth’s elemental forces and exquisite beauties, for the fragile yet tenacious life-force evident all around, a reverence which had been intrinsic to the enchantment of mythopoetic consciousness but was later eclipsed by the rise of the historical ego, returns now, but in a consciousness that better understands its creative responsibility within the whole. Such a heightened sensitivity to the value and promise of what’s inside awakens empathy, inspires compassion, motivates cooperation, and reconciles consciousness to a reality that is more interconnected.

Global Reality

A fourth reality shift, simultaneously ascending within us and descending upon us by a conspiracy of technologies (travel, the Internet, communications, business and trade) opens awareness to our place in a global system. We are really just starting to understand the dynamics of systems – about the interactive forces that hold things together (integrity), connect individuals in higher forms of complexity (synergy), and pull everything down toward more stable states (entropy). (For more on these, see The Consilient Leader.)

As we better understand the nature of systems and our own place in the ecosystem of planet Earth, reality invites our engagement at a new level. Of course, we’ve always belonged to systems, but as consciousness opens up to our responsibilities and creative authority within the systems we inhabit, a new set of values begins to guide our choices, goals, and commitments. Living in a global reality doesn’t allow us to make decisions and take action only around individual self-interest, or even that of our local tribes.

Consequences flow out in waves of rippling influence, not by the linear cause-and-effect of billiard balls. What’s more, the most serious consequences come back on us by intricate feedback loops, slow amplification, and long delays that we cannot predict or control. But when they come, everything in the system is affected. Perhaps the most obvious example of this seeming ‘suddenness’ of catastrophic consequences is the phenomenon of global warming. The buildup of so-called greenhouse gases has been on a slow rise for many decades. But now, all of a sudden, polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising, entire species are going extinct, and convoluted weather systems are bringing upon us one disaster after another.

In my diagram above I have positioned a human stick figure with one foot in secular reality, and the other in global reality – or almost there. This is to make the point that, for the most part, our species is only beginning to grasp the bigger picture, deeper truth, and longer view of our place in the universe. We may hold this intuition in our mythic imagination, but it remains buried beneath an obsession with identity (ego) and a chauvinistic secular humanism. Even now, any incentive for altering routines and convictions must appeal to a concern for ourselves and future generations, rather than a genuine reverence for life and responsibility to the whole.

Global reality is where the evolution of consciousness has reached a point of the universe becoming aware of itself – in us. Instead of this higher awareness setting us apart from the other species, its aim is to inspire us to care more responsibly for the planetary community of life.

 

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