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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religion is losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meaning to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego

As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.

Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.

And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.

Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.

Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.

Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.

I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.

PerinatalThe transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.

A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.

(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)

Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.

The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.

When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.

DevelopmentalFollowing our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.

“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.

Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.

There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.

Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.

This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.

EsotericThis final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.

Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.

A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)

After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”

 

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Edge Religion

By definition religion is a force for social cohesion. In “linking back” (religare) the many divergent concerns of daily life to a metaphor of ultimate reality, it provides a system of values and constraints that serves to hold a community together. This metaphor isn’t just a name for something already known objectively, but is the vehicle of language that first names the mystery and represents it, locating it amidst and beyond the necessary activities of everyday experience. It is what we call God.

In this view, God (the unnamed mystery) isn’t something that comes to us from somewhere else, even if god (the metaphor) might well encourage the assumption. Whenever we talk about something, we understandably assume that there is some thing we’re talking about. Our talking about it makes this thing better known to our minds. By qualifying and explaining it, we are as it were throwing a net of definition around it and bringing it closer to us. The mystery with which religion is (or at least originally was) chiefly concerned, however, is not a mysterious object to be explained and thereby rendered meaningful. It is rather the deep support and radiant presence of reality felt in the providential uplift of conscious being, of life in this moment.

The God-metaphor, then, or what I simply refer to as “god” (with a lowercase ‘g’), is a product of our imagination, a reflex of the mind to put labels on reality, push it into the distance where we can regard it as “this” or “that,” and then grasp it as an object of understanding. As metaphor (from meta + phorein, to carry across), our representation of God facilitates the experience of mystery across the threshold and into the web of language, where it can be expressed as meaning. Further articulation of meaning is accomplished through the media of art and story, where the metaphor takes on dimension and weight, opening up various ritual ways for us to link daily life back to the present mystery of reality.

So now we can add to our starting definition of religion as the link-back of everyday concerns to a metaphor of ultimate reality, by saying that this is primarily a ritual (ceremonial, sacramental, liturgical) system of social behaviors. In coordinating tribal life in this fashion around a metaphorical representation of the present mystery, social cohesion is successfully maintained. And because it is designed to bring individuals into agreement over their shared identity and specialized responsibilities to the group, I will call this form of religion “conventional theism” (from theos, god with a lowercase ‘g’). It’s been around for many, many thousands of years, and is still the dominant form of religion in our day.Conventional TheismThe illustration above provides a way of understanding conventional theism as coordinating the hearts and minds of individuals, and individuals with the larger group, around the orthodox representation of God (or god). I don’t mean for the balloon with the word “deity” imprinted on it to be taken as a lampoon, but merely to pick up on the point made earlier, that god arises out of the metaphorical imagination and is eventually (if it gains widespread agreement) tethered to the frame of community life as the focus of worship and belief.

Insofar as the deity is made in our image – that is to say, in a way that reflects back to us the personality traits, character strengths, and waking virtues of our own higher nature – it serves to inspire us to life above our animal instincts and juvenile impulses. As we contemplate in our minds and glorify with our hearts this chosen metaphor of God, it represents to us a better part of ourselves that is to some extent still in our developmental future.

Yahweh’s career across the time arc of the Bible demonstrates this dynamic perfectly, beginning as a warrior deity to a band of near-eastern nomadic tribes; taking his place as Lord and Creator in the era of national settlement; reaching out in compassion to the poor and marginalized during the downfall of King David’s dynasty; and resolving at last – around the time of Jesus but most clearly in the life and teaching of the Nazarene – to lift the curse of guilt from his enemies by a unilateral and unconditional forgiveness. If you should put early-Yahweh and late-Yahweh side by side, you would have to conclude that the two were different gods – so great was the evolutionary distance traveled by his community of faith over the course of centuries.

Such an evolutionary view of religion, tracking the developing metaphor of God as a reflection of our spiritual awakening and moral progress in community, must beg the question: Does a time come when the metaphor has served its purpose and is no longer needed? Are there more “mature” approaches to the mystery and our own life adventure, which could help religion stay current with our evolving spirituality? I suggest there are, and even now some forms of conventional theism are beginning to invite these voices of what I call “edge religion” into the conversation.ReligionAnd so I will make yet another appeal on behalf of post-theism – not as an alternative to theism, but rather its natural fulfillment as a system for social cohesion and spiritual guidance. By definition, post-theism explores the frontiers of faith development “outside the box” of conventional religion, but without abandoning the box and trashing its patron deity. The structural support and moral orientation provided by conventional theism is, I will argue, still important and necessary to the formation of faith as individuals (especially the very young) are in the process of having their identities constructed in community with others.

But there comes a time when, for many, the conventional representation of God becomes too small, too confined by doctrines, and increasingly irrelevant to daily life. These are folks who typically begin asking questions and challenging the usual answers inside the box. They are searching for a spiritually grounded way of being in the world, one that can help them continue to evolve in their faith. They aren’t interested in disputing the existence of god, and more of them today are refusing to be converted back to the religion of their youth. Consequently they wander outside the box foraging for spiritual sustenance, sometimes feeling guilty for wanting more (or something else), and often struggling with the loneliness of no longer having a community.

But there is hope. As I said, some theistic religions and denominations are providing space for these “edge dwellers” – and they have something of great value to contribute. Basically they come in two varieties, and it’s not unusual to find both strains of post-theism in the same individual. They represent the mystical and ethical edges of conventional religion, although they have no interest in merely recovering that familiar warm feeling in worship or sifting through the commentaries of church doctrine. They bring tools.

Let’s recall the significance of that balloon tethered to the frame of conventional theism. It is the preferred metaphor of God, the orthodox representation of the present mystery within and all around us. It calls to us – reminding us of who we are, where we belong, how we should behave, and why we are here. But when (not if) the individual’s spiritual capacity and depth of experience is no longer promoted by the god we all know, something needs to be done with that balloon.

Those post-theists who are mystically oriented wield the tool of a straight pin. They help us to realize – on the likely chance we have forgotten – that our representations of God are constructs of our minds, a convenience of language in providing handles on reality. These metaphors are not simply labels affixed to a literal being “out there” and separate from us, but rather spring from the inner life of the soul where we rest in the provident mystery of Life itself. Popping the balloon is not intended as sacrilege or “atheism”; it is what’s required if we are to experience the ineffable presence, the unnamed and unnameable ground of Being.

Ethically oriented post-theists are often motivated out of a concern that the so-called “will of God” has become too predictable, too much an endorsement of our petty ambitions and self-serving moralities. They bring scissors. By snipping the balloon string, these revolutionaries want to return freedom, unbounded generosity, and creative license to our metaphor of God, which means that we need to release our patron deity into the infinite sky, into the God beyond god. Only when God is no longer “our god” will religion be able to reach out to the stranger, love the enemy, and include everyone without judgment but rather in celebration of community.

We will never be without religion. However religion will be without more and more of us until it welcomes those on the edge and listens to what they have to say.

 
 

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