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More Than You Think

Let’s start with an interesting scientific fact. You have 100 billion neurons in your brain, 40 thousand neurons in and around your heart, and 500 million neurons in your gut. We’re used to thinking of neurons as “brain cells,” but that’s a serious misnomer perpetuated by our brain. Neurons are not simply nerve cells, but a very special type of nerve cell that conducts electrical impulses and networks with other neurons to generate the miracle of consciousness.

We have some justification to assume, then, that consciousness resides in these three nodes: the cephalic (head) node, the cardiac (heart) node, and the enteric (gut) node. We can also assume that these three nodes communicate among themselves, supporting a highly integrated global state of consciousness in our body.

It’s likely a mistake, however, to conclude that what’s going on in our heart and gut is similar to the business transpiring in our head.

This post offers a “theory of mind” that significantly expands our common notions of where it is and what kind of experience it facilitates. My diagram depicts the internal anatomy where consciousness is generated and resides, along with the distinct way each node engages with reality.

The spinal axis or corridor along which the three nodes of consciousness are situated suggests the kundalini system of Oriental psychology, and I will adopt a similar developmental scheme according to which things first get established lower down and rise upward, with the cephalic node (brain) taking much longer – more than two decades! – to come fully online.

One more interesting observation to make is how your brain’s anatomy is a triune (three-in-one) structure, with a primitive (basal or ‘reptilian’) layer enveloped by an ancient (limbic or ‘old mammalian’) layer, and capped with a more recent (cortical or ‘new mammalian’) layer most highly developed in our own species. It’s interesting how each of these layers in brain anatomy correlates with a distinct node of consciousness.

Thus the primitive basal brain shares a strong communication link with the enteric node in your gut, as the ancient limbic brain links with the cardiac node in your heart, while the newest cortical brain constitutes its own self-involved loop.

Rather than tracking this exploration with the rise of consciousness through the three centers, it might be easier to begin where you spend almost all of your conscious time: in your head. The idea of a self-involved loop is significant because of its suggestion that cephalic consciousness might be wrapped up in its own business more than the other nodes. And this starts to make sense when we remember that the cortical brain is responsible for constructing the mental model of reality affectionately known as your ‘quality world’ (William Glasser).

As a construct, your quality world is entirely inside your mind and maintained within the logical network of language, imagination, and thought. I will designate the cephalic node of consciousness your logical mind, taken from the Greek root logos (word, thought, theory, order, reason and meaning). And because world is the objective counterpart to a subjective self, the logical mind is also where your ego identity (“I”) is housed.

In The Heart and Hope of Democracy I defined ‘separation consciousness’ as the consequence of constructing identity upon its own separate center of self-conscious awareness and casting everything else into the position of ‘not-me’ (other, object, It). The logical mind is the Storyteller whose autobiography is your personal myth, constructed around a main character (ego) and unfolding inside a narrative world of its own creation.

“I” stands apart from reality inside a personal world, just like an actor inside a theater.

If all of that sounds a little psychotic, let’s not forget that our developmental progress as individuals and our evolutionary progress as a species depend in no small way on this sophisticated production in make-believe (also called ‘meaning-making’). The entire complex of human culture exists only in our minds, yet where would we be without it?

Although meaning is arguably not ‘out there’ in reality to be found, humans have been more than willing – even eager, and devotedly so – to surrender or destroy everything for its sake.

But now I’ll ask you to allow awareness to drop down from this cephalic node of your logical mind and into your heart-center. You might even experience a sensation of being suspended in a web of – what is it, energy? Feeling? Presence? The cardiac node of consciousness is what I will call your sympathic mind. Not sympathetic, but something more basic than that: an experience of resonance with your surrounding environment, a subtle perception drawn from your participation in an invisible web of communion.

Such a drop out of the trance-state of separation consciousness and into this experience of sympathic communion is one of the critical achievements of an effective meditation practice, according to the spiritual wisdom traditions. The departure can be compelled by an apocalyptic (world-collapsing) event such as a catastrophic loss or personal trauma. Or it can be more gradually and deliberately facilitated through a method of contemplative engagement with the present mystery of reality.

Because by arriving here you have already released the self-world construct of personal identity, your experience is of a seamless continuity between and among all things. It’s no longer “I” in here and “all of that” (others, objects, its) out there, but everything together as one. This explains why the heart plays such a central role in your participation and sense of connection with what’s going on around you, as the node of consciousness registering feelings of intimacy, belonging, compassion, gratitude, and bereavement.

One more drop downward and you release your place in the vibrant web, descending into the enteric node of consciousness and what I call the grounding mystery (or ground) of your existence.

Here there is no separate self, not even a sympathic communion with everything around you. Those 500 million neurons are generating a deep and slow frequency of consciousness that manages the internal state of your living body, as a metabolic conspiracy among your visceral organs, glands, and cells. This node of consciousness is the seat of your intuitive mind.

Intuition is classically regarded a special power of clairvoyant perception, a “sixth sense” that enables one to ‘see things’ that aren’t objectively there or are still in the future.

However, rather than subscribing to some theory of metaphysical realism where these invisible and impending images are taken as actually out there somewhere, a simpler explanation is that your intuitive mind is picking up information from that deeper register of what Carl Jung named the ‘collective unconscious’, where the archetypes (“first forms”) of your animal nature, with roots deep in evolutionary history, carry the ‘racial memory’ of our species.

Similar to how the accumulation of experiences over your lifetime gives you more exposure to the variety of opportunities and challenges of being alive, and thus a larger memory store from which you can derive wisdom and anticipate the future, so your intuitive mind draws on the collective experience of countless generations stored in the visceral organs of your gut. Its images are therefore not received from some metaphysical realm beyond, but instead arise as ‘revelations and foretellings’ inspired out of this grounding mystery within.

This interpretative shift from metaphysical realism to depth psychology is a crucial part of the phase transition from theism to post-theism.


Your mind is not just what’s going on inside your head. Together with your heart and gut, your brain is engaging with reality and generating an experience far bigger than you think. If you can just drop deeper into the present mystery of reality, you will come to realize that all along you have been “standing on a whale, fishing for minnows” (Polynesian saying).

 

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Deliver Us From Conviction

In The Great Triathlon of Religion I attempted to put more definition around the type of religion called post-theism. If we are to really appreciate its distinctive contribution to our development as individuals and our evolution as a species, the meaning of post-theism needs to advance beyond being seen as nothing more than a resolution for getting on without god.

A post-theist is not merely a formerly outspoken atheist who just doesn’t care enough anymore to argue the obvious point of god’s nonexistence. In other words, getting on “after god” (post + theos) is a very different mode of life than getting on “without god” (a + theos).

I characterized each of the three types (or phases) of religion as motivated partly out of a need to address a pressing problem of our human condition. Animism has to deal with the inevitability of death, and finds salvation in the promise of rebirth – not individual reincarnation (which is a theory that comes later) but in the cycling rhythms of life that turn within and all around us. The religion of our early life (as a species as well as individuals) is all about participating in this provident web of life with reverence and gratitude.

Theism carries these same themes forward, but in a more self-conscious and socially oriented way, as the emerging center of identity (ego) takes the stage. By now, that impersonal life force moving through all things has taken an anthropomorphic turn, as any number of patron deities who authorize and oversee the world-order. The problem that theism must resolve is the tendency in the individual to deviate from group norms, to “selfishly” pursue his or her own gratification and transgress on the rules for “proper” behavior. If individuals won’t comply with this moral code, the very existence of a civil order is at risk. Guilt is induced with disobedience, and atonement provides the repentant ego a way back into good standing with the community.

The great themes of sin and redemption, fault and forgiveness, transgression and reconciliation are key ideas of theism, as it has to do primarily with interpersonal relationships, the threat of social breakdown, and the process of restoring harmony in the body politic. Toward this end, even the individual might be sacrificed for the common good – perhaps as a vicarious offering, to appease an offended deity, or to satisfy the penalty for sin.

Obviously the great theistic systems of Judaism and Christianity, as represented in the Bible, are very much in this groove. Less obvious – or rather buried underneath multiple layers of theistic commentary and myth-spinning known as the New Testament – is the First Voice of Jesus whose message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness marked a potential (but ultimately failed) transition to post-theism. His teachings were soon obscured behind a transactional theory of salvation, where his death on a cross for our sins became the turning-point of a conditional redemption (only for the elect or true believers).world religionsThe example of Christianity is illustrative, if mostly in the negative, of the threshold dynamics of post-theism. Our primary problem according to post-theism is not death (as in animism) or sin (as in theism), but conviction, which refers to a critical reversal where beliefs once held by the mind come to hold the mind captive, in a mind-set of absolute certainty.

In this post-theistic age, conviction becomes our greatest threat to genuine community and world peace. Individuals compelled by conviction to sacrifice themselves and persecute (or kill) others are ready to bring down the apocalypse in defense of their truth. At this point, ideology takes over in a kind of “demonic possession,” locking an otherwise creative intelligence inside a closed circuit of cross-referencing dogmatic claims and motivating violence as a demonstration of devotion.

To the degree that theism proclaims the literal (i.e., metaphysical) reality of what was originally a literary (i.e., mythological) figure, an absence of empirical evidence requires it to be increasingly self-validating. In other words, its “truth” becomes more about passion than reason, more about persuasion and intimidation than existential insight and real-life relevance. For a fundamentalist the mere suggestion that the personal god of Scripture is a narrative construct and not an objective being is tantamount to atheism and worthy of damnation in the deepest hell.

For a post-theist, however, this same observation is profoundly liberating, but not because it sets us free from superstitious belief and for a future without god (a-theos). Rather it is liberating because it helps us appreciate the need for the technical mediation of symbols, stories, and sanctuaries in the longer event of our spiritual awakening, on our way to becoming fully human. Just as the developmental process of maturity doesn’t require the self-responsible adult to engage a campaign of debunking childhood myths and disproving the objective existence of Neverland, a post-theist feels no need to debate the metaphysical reality of gods and demons, heaven and hell, immortality and the afterlife.

Post-theism affirms the vital importance and relative place of theism in the scheme of human spiritual development. The god that was earlier worshiped and obeyed must gradually be absorbed by our rising aspirations, as we step into our roles as taller powers to embody a more generous and farther reaching empathy. The real “success” of theism is when the virtue of god glorified in our sanctuaries is actively manifested by us in the streets. With the personified ideal of patience, mercy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness (as in the early Christian equation of god and love) now internalized and made flesh in us, we can take full responsibility as caretakers of earth and one another.

With growing challenges these days at all levels of concern – personal, political, and planetary – the need for us to break the chains of conviction which separate us and bravely honor the bonds of empathy that make us one is as urgent as ever.

 

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The Path to Wholeness

According to the conceptual model that I’ve been developing, the familiar designations of body, ego and soul refer to distinct mental locations, or standpoints in reality. Traditionally, the dualism of body and soul has dominated the conversation, with ego sneaking into the meeting relatively recently. Soul was identified early on as the “true self,” with body its temporary container. Now ego has become another (albeit more psychological than spiritual) name for the soul.

This confusion of terms, along with the tendency in metaphysical realism to make the soul into a “separate thing,” and the tendency in scientific materialism to reduce the soul first to the ego (personality) and then to the body, leaves one to wonder whether re-definitions are even advisable at this point. Perhaps we should simply scrap the traditional vocabulary and move on.

Such frustrations as this are common in transitional periods of culture, when the vocabulary that supported an earlier (but increasingly outdated) worldview is still being pressed into the service of constructing meaning. Of course, archaeologically it is expected that by stepping back into the mind-space of ancient languages we today can reconstruct how earlier cultures saw the world. But we also need to make sense of reality for our time, and we are stepping into a decidedly postmodern period of history.

So in the interest of reinterpreting the traditional terms of body, ego and soul for a relevant postmodern conversation, I am offering this notion of standpoints in reality. Another spin through this vocabulary revision might help put things in perspective.

BESThe diagram to the right is intended to be read from the bottom-up. I’ve arranged it this way to acknowledge the organic and evolutionary nature of the topic under consideration – i.e., what is a human being? Living things tend to grow “up,” which means that human development can be understood as progressing through phases of growth, perhaps even according to specific “stages” of relative completion along the way.

If a stage can be thought of in the spatial sense, as a specific location where one can stand and take a perspective on things (as on a theater stage), then we are very close to my notion of a “standpoint in reality.” Each stage or standpoint (body, ego, soul) provides a unique mental location where a human being engages reality. The present mystery of reality is thus revealed to us as three distinct realms: sensual/nonpersonal, social/interpersonal, and spiritual/transpersonal.

Body is represented in my diagram by a circle, or more accurately a cycle. The body functions as an energy converter, taking up the vibrational oscillations of inorganic (air, water) and organic matter (food), dismantling and re-engineering it into more energetically “open” packages of living cells.

The body’s own biological clock moves through the revolutions of daily activity and nightly rest, and every level deeper into its organic interior is characterized by this same dynamic of cycles. All of this is occurring right now far below conscious awareness or direction, which is why I call it the “unconscious present.”

With an evolutionary history of millions of years, the body is animated by powerful urges and instincts. The very fact that I’m here right now is a credit to the success of these drives and reflexes in my pre-human and human ancestors. It stands to reason that I should be able to trust this animal intelligence for continued evolutionary success – if it weren’t for the additional fact that I’m involved in a tribe.

Ego is represented by a horizontal line moving left-to-right, which stands for the developmental project of constructing an identity – a “one of us.” The tribe must work with the body’s animal nature, in the interest of training and channeling its instinctual energy into behavior that supports (or at least doesn’t interfere with) social order. Sometimes this means working against its urgencies and impulses, putting restraints in place to keep it under control.

This process of imposing restraints, incentives, and permissions on an animal nature in order to shape a self-conscious identity (ego) is summarized in the term “instruction.” The most important part of constructing this “one of us” involves instructing it with the rules and values of our tribe (family, clan, club, culture). This is Nietzsche’s “morality,” and while he didn’t appreciate the way it can frustrate human freedom and stunt human creativity, some such system of constraints is necessary for a peaceful and productive coexistence.

Identity, then, is instructed. All the way from the language we are taught, the clothes we wear, the toys we play with, and the gender we express; from the family and work roles we take on, the degrees or certifications we pursue, and the destinies we chase after – who we are seems to commit us to specific ambitions in life. The judgments and preferences of our tribe gradually become internalized and situate us firmly in the mental location of “us.”

Because ego is a product of past instructions and a project of future ambitions, the present moment is nothing but a vanishing threshold between its twin obsessions. And if early socialization involved neglect, abuse, or repression, then the personality might host a significant “shadow” of insecurity, shame and resentment. The shadow tends to pull the ego into earlier configurations of itself where the personality got hooked or held back.

When the personality gets hooked in this way, ego might compensate – sometimes with considerable assistance from the tribe – by projecting the shadow forward and ahead of itself, into moral crusades against those who express outwardly what it can’t accept in itself. Since the shadow can also include talents ignored or left undiscovered, ego can become a relentless critic of those more courageous and/or successful.

As each of us is aware, the social realm of ego and tribe can be endlessly fascinating. Because dualism – past/future, shadow/mask, self/other, right/wrong, and good/bad – is woven into the very structure of identity itself, an entire lifetime can be spent sorting it all out. A spiritual consequence of this is that the individual may very rarely, if ever, become consciously present to the mystery of reality.

As I said, the present moment is inaccessible to the ego, whose identity is stretched between past (instructions) and future (ambitions). About the only way ego can add value to time is by extending it indefinitely into the future. As its developmental antagonist, the body, is time-bound and mortal, ego took to itself the virtue of everlasting life.

But everlasting life is just “more life, without end.” In order to experience true immortality, the individual must break past ego altogether. In the standpoint named soul, reality is experienced as the timeless ground and always-present universe of being.

The ground invites awareness by an inward path into the depths of being-itself, beneath and prior to the separation of ego. Mindful breathing is a widely practiced meditation technique that brings conscious attention to the softness and gentle rhythms of the body. Drop your concerns, set thoughts aside, let go of “me,” and just sink into this present moment. This is the “narrow gate” – invisible to the ego – that opens to an ineffable and unqualified mystery.

The universe elevates and expands awareness beyond the ego by a different path. Spiraling out, around, and beyond “me” is a wondrous and apparently infinite community of beings. In this moment I am connected to all things, and all things are turned into one (“uni-verse”). It is astonishing just to consider a provident universe, where conditions are just right (at least in this corner of reality) to support the emergence of life and the evolution of consciousness.

Attention itself is a miracle.

In the standpoint of soul, this present moment is all there is. Grounded and connected, ego is transcended and all personal references are left behind. Here and now, I am whole and all is one.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Light and Shadow

Robinson: “Faced with the shadow, the unacceptable, [the response of the West] has been to reject and exclude it. The dark has been detached from the image of God or the Christ and projected on to a Devil or Antichrist viewed as the embodiment of evil per se – though at the beginning of the process, as in the book of Job, it was not so: Satan was among the agents of God and seen as doing his work, the hand of the Almighty, albeit his left hand.

“This process comes to its climax in Zoroastrianism, post-exilic Judaism, Islam, and not least in Christianity, where the Devil came to occupy a uniquely powerful, even obsessive, position. The absolutizing of evil in a totally malignant Being has been the dark side of the absolutizing of the good in ethical monotheism. Evil is utterly banished and excluded from God.”

An inability to hold a creative opposition together results in dualism, where the internal tension strains through a bi-polar phase and finally breaks apart into a split reality of warring opposites. With one eye – let’s say the right (and all that it means to “be right”) – we see what is good, orthodox and acceptable. With the other – the left (Latin sinister, French gauche) – we see what is evil, deviant and unacceptable.

Conventional theism regards this dualism as based in metaphysical realities. On the right (correct) side is a company comprised of gods, angels, saviors, saints, and buttoned-up true believers; on the left (errant) side are devils, demons, fiends, sinners, and pants-down heretics. These opposites can have no part in each other, and in the end one or the other must win.

But why stop there? Historically on the “right” side are also males, the logical mind, and the self-righteous ego. And on the “wrong” side are females, the emotional body, and the sex-obsessed id. In other words, while the out-lying branches present a view where one side is held separate and apart from the other, following this tree of metaphors back to the trunk reveals each as a part of the same reality.

Post-theism takes a step back from metaphysical realism and tries not to get caught up in the passionate testimonials that claim to have encountered good or evil in its pure form. I’m suspicious that such a metaphysical dualism – a division in the very nature of reality itself – is actually rooted in a more home-grown dualism within ourselves.

If I can’t accept a basic part of what I am – and in the West it has tended to be my impulsive, carnal, pleasure-seeking animal nature – then it (Freud’s Id) must be split off, pushed down, depersonalized and disowned. This is the part of me that had to be managed, disciplined and domesticated in the early years of my socialization, as this animal nature was being converted into a polite and well-behaved member of my tribe.

It wasn’t socially acceptable to crouch down and relieve myself in public. I had to “hold it” and go find a restroom. In some circles it’s not socially acceptable for girls to play rough or for boys to dance. Whatever we needed to do to ensure the protection, provision and approval of our “higher powers” – even if it meant casting off some natural passions and talents, we did it.

But if a part of what I am has been shushed, punished and excluded long enough, it’s going to show up somewhere. Robinson’s point is that it shows up in our metaphysics, in our mythology, in our religion, and in our ethics. It emerges from under ground either as out-and-out deviance and rebellion, or else in the prejudice and bigotry of our moral convictions.

The mythological god is where this psychosomatic dualism gets projected and sanctified. If god hates sinners and deplores what is evil, then why should we be any different, right? If god is constrained by some reluctant obligation to condemn unbelievers – even though he supposedly loves all of us unconditionally, mind you – then why should I forgive my enemy? How can I, if even god can’t?

It seems to me that there is a whole semester of Jesus’ teachings, particularly on the topic of forgiveness and love for the enemy, that has been pushed out of the curriculum of orthodox Christianity. This “first voice” of Jesus will not be heard as long as the dualism of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong, rules and urges, “us” and “them” persists.

We worship in god what we glorify in ourselves, and we persecute in each other what we can’t accept in ourselves. As more and brighter light shines on the cultured ego, the shadow behind it grows darker and more ominous. A passionate pursuit of righteousness may really be a sublimated fear of our repressed urges. We only appear to be chasing after godliness; in fact, we are running from our own shadow.

This internal strain of the ego trying to break free of the id serves a purpose, so I’m not suggesting that it’s completely neurotic. The social expectations of the tribe need to prevail over the animal impulses of the body if the individual is to take his or her place in polite society. Certainly, the primal energies dedicated to physical survival, sexual reproduction, and pleasure-seeking have to be guided into channels that are conducive to community life.

So the tension and interplay of “good” and “evil” is inherent in our human development. But when this tension becomes intolerable and the whole thing cracks apart into warring opposites (absolute dualism), reality goes apocalyptic. Relationships break up as individuals break down. As this continues, any hope for peace and community, reconciliation and love, health and happiness falls over the edge.

Interestingly enough, buried in our own fairly ancient mythology is an image that offers a way back to wholeness. Lucifer – that captain of devils who keeps whispering to us from behind the hedges of our Victorian garden-morality – is so named because he bears the light we have lost. He’s the part of us that we keep pushing away from ourselves and condemning in each other.

In order to get our light back, we need to face him, not cross ourselves and run away.

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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Ultimate Concern

Tillich: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith.”

If Paul Tillich has recognition in popular culture it is probably for his term “ultimate concern,” which can refer both to the object of one’s highest commitment as well as to the subjective degree of devotion one has for it. The reformer Martin Luther made a similar claim back in the 16th century, when he defined “my god” as anything to which I am passionately and unconditionally devoted. Devotion, in the way it fuses feeling and behavior, elevates its object to a supreme position of value and inspires sacrifice on its behalf.

As a “formal definition of faith,” Tillich says that the object of ultimate concern is really secondary to the meaning it has for the believer. That sounds right: We have witnessed many wacky cults and fanatical sects that inspired their members to forsake the world and surrender their fortunes, strap bombs to their bodies and murder innocent civilians, or willingly take poison to end their lives for a better gig on some other planet or higher plane of existence. These true believers, however deluded, were filled with “ultimate concern” for the one thing that mattered most to them.

But what about truth? If something is entirely lacking the evidence to support it; if it contradicts logic and violates rationality; if it inspires a believer to commit violent acts against self and others – then when does it begin to matter whether or not the content of faith is true in a more objective and publicly verifiable sense? According to Tillich, faith is not a guarantee that the object of one’s ultimate concern is valid, worthy, or even real. The protection of religious liberty and the separation of church and state in American democracy allows an individual to put his or her faith in any and every kind of nonsense, so long as it doesn’t endanger others or encroach on their freedom not to believe, or to believe differently.

Once upon a time, when we were all metaphysical realists and simply assumed that religion’s ultimate concern was an actual entity separate and apart from us, we could entertain this question of truth in a spirit of quiet confidence – knowing that, in the end, the “real god” would be revealed. Those poor suckers who chase after comets, take dictation from ancient spirit-beings, or steer jetliners into skyscrapers will wake up before the judgment seat of the One True God – ours, of course! However meaningful their lives had been for all the passion, certainty and invested focus, they had put their faith in lies.

They probably hadn’t read their Bible, which tells us everything we need to know about the real God – the one who made the universe, sent his son to save us, and will one day catch us up into heaven or throw us down into hell. Too bad for them.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the actual existence of a nonphysical god – is itself a necessary corollary of mythological literalism, which takes the stories (or myths) of religion at face value. Whereas early cultures seem to have appreciated how the ritual recital and reenactment of a myth could transport participants out of the “broken time” of ordinary life and into the “deep time” of archetypal life, modernity encouraged a more detached reading of the stories, which then forced a critical distinction between fact (what is actual) and fiction (what is only imaginary).

What are we to do with these stories? Unless we are ready to admit their metaphorical status, the only choice we have is to either take them literally or dismiss them as “art” (or lies). Obviously, our stories must be based in fact while the myths of other religions are – well, myths. The Bible is literally true and its god actually exists. You either believe it – and believe all of it – or you don’t. The interesting thing is that we don’t really believe it; certainly not all of it. We just lack the courage it would take to give up and get past our need to believe it.

For many today faith is caught in a loop of irrelevancy. God exists because the Bible says so; the Bible is true because it’s the word of God. Giving up a literal Bible (mythological literalism) would be giving up on the real God (metaphysical realism), and there’s too much at stake to even consider it. So we settle for a god of our own making, an extraction from the countless masks of God in the Bible, selected and modified to fit our needs. Whether you need security or fulfillment, control or freedom, forgiveness or vengeance, power or love – there’s a god in the Bible waiting for work.

Whether we get it more or less right, we try to make up the difference in faith, passionately believing where we just can’t be sure. If we put enough energy into our devotion and make a big enough sacrifice on its behalf, our “ultimate concern” will be rewarded.

Suddenly faith becomes dangerous. But what is life without it?

 

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