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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your life has gone something like this as well.

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

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

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

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

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

But believing doesn’t make it so.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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The Galilean Rocket Man

Rocket ManAfter his natural life and rather sudden death, Jesus the Galilean started on a mythological career which carried him all the way to the top-floor corner office of the universe, as none other than God Incarnate. A surprising majority of those who confess to be Christian have little knowledge of how a backwater itinerant teacher eventually became the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The obvious reason for this ignorance is rooted in their belief that Jesus was God Incarnate from the very beginning, just as Christian orthodoxy says. In other words, the story starts there.

But the advancement in our knowledge since the fourth century, when Jesus was officially promoted to his fully-divine status, makes such a confession today a matter of willful ignorance. Discoveries from the study of history, cosmology, sociology, mythology, psychology, and the development of Christian doctrine itself have to be deliberately ignored for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’. In this case, faith becomes a matter of believing it anyway, as if intentionally sweeping aside all evidence, rationality, and common sense against the claims of Christian orthodoxy is somehow a demonstration of spiritual virtue. All it really demonstrates, however, is that individuals prefer the security in what they believe to the risk of being wrong.

Having served in professional ministry as a church pastor for fifteen years I am well acquainted with this phenomenon, technically known as fideism – the exclusive reliance on faith as a substitute for rational thought and reality-testing. Many believers don’t realize how they are being gamed by a system that constructed its most prized doctrines in the head, but cautions parishioners against using theirs.

This rise of the Galilean Rocket Man progressed by stages, like a rocket breaking through the stratosphere as it disengages and drops off the weight of parts no longer needed. By the end of his mythological career Jesus had become the most significant item in existence – nothing less than God himself, the supreme Lord of the universe. At the stage just before this one he had achieved the status of World Savior, whose crucifixion and resurrection saved the world from sin, the devil, and death itself – or we should say, he saved those who can believe this.

Earlier still, before the focused effort of orthodoxy got underway, Jesus walked the storyland of the gospels as a Miracle Worker healing the sick and bending laws of nature. Actually he was one of many highly honored and well-remembered holy men in and before his time. It was common practice to represent such figures in narrative scenarios, short stories, and hero legends giving miraculous performances in exhibition of their unusual powers. To suspend or transform conventional reality, even if only in storyland, served to keep the holy man alive in the memory of his disciples and descendants.

It would be a tragedy for Christians to remember the one who worked miracles, saved the world, and took his place as god, but not give serious reflection to what he had to say or how he lived. Granted, it is not easy to sift the authentic message of the historical Jesus from the embellishments of hero worship, myth-making, and emerging orthodoxy in the Bible. But the tragedy turns into a double catastrophe when those who profess to be Christian follow the Rocket Man into heaven and completely eclipse the vision he had for life on earth. As long as they have assurance of joining him when they die or witnessing his return in the meantime, what he said and how he lived before his mythological ride into abstraction has little relevance to them.

Am I saying that Jesus isn’t (or wasn’t) God Incarnate, savior of the world, or a wonder-working miracle man? Yes, at least not in any literal or factual sense. If he is or did all those things he is worshiped for, then he is and did them inside the mythopoetic construction of an early Christian worldview – a vertically oriented three-story cosmos, a fallen human condition in need of rescue from above, and the popular portrayal of important historical figures as possessing supernatural powers. Look around. Our view of reality today (i.e., our contemporary scientific worldview) is very different.

Interestingly enough, we do still flock by thousands to watch celebrity faith healers and charismatic self-proclaimed prophets perform miracles – right before our credulous eyes. Something inside us knows that it’s a put-on, but we fail to pause and ask why these faith healers don’t have an office inside local hospitals where so many more of the suffering and ill could benefit from their extraordinary gifts.

Because so much of Christian identity is invested in an outdated cosmology and in a mythology taken literally, the religion will continue to decline, breaking into numerous sects, cults, and extremist factions on its way to extinction. And along the way, more damage will be done. The way out of this tragic predicament is to take one more step down to earth with the Galilean Rocket Man – out of mythology and the abstractions of orthodoxy, and back to the vision and way of life of a Wisdom Teacher.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘the’ Wisdom Teacher. That’s because as a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not, as we say, one of a kind. I realize that may sound disrespectful, irreverent, and even blasphemous to many Christians. But in the great stream of wisdom teachings which has been coursing through the world cultures for thousands of years, the personal identity of a teacher is much less important than the clarity, depth, and real-world relevance of the wisdom he or she has to share. As a Wisdom Teacher Jesus was one of many. But as is true of all the others, his unique personality, family background, life experience, and historical situation conspired to bring this wisdom to bear on the concerns of his time in a highly individualized way.

Wisdom is about the challenge and opportunity of being human, profoundly (i.e., thoroughly) mortal yet grounded always in an eternal now. How can we live out this life with integrity, authenticity, mindfulness, and compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for the whole community of life? How can we step beyond fear, suspend judgment, and be more genuinely present in the moment, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves? Jesus had some very timely things to say, but the wisdom he shared is timeless.

Before he became the Rocket Man of Christianity, Jesus the Galilean was a human being. That was his true glory.


In my diagram above I have distinguished two terms often used interchangeably: significance (vertical axis) and relevance (horizontal axis). As the root-word suggests, significance (from sign) is value we can point to. We talk of ‘high’ significance to acknowledge such value as up and above common or ordinary values. When Jesus got promoted to the status of God Incarnate, his significance was made absolute. But in the same stroke he also became utterly irrelevant, for relevance has to do with timely, real-world value. If Jesus was/is God Incarnate, what practical difference does that make in daily life? On the other hand, as a Wisdom Teacher Jesus is very relevant but not highly significant – that is to say, his value is not ‘up there’ or outside our situation in life, but in the very heart of it.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2016 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Easter Without Miracles

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Jesus was crucified by a conspiracy of Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire. His message was about the ‘good news’ (gospel) of human liberation and the invitation to life in community. The opposition he confronted on the political, religious, and personal levels was not interested in surrendering control to the spiritual power he both embodied and awakened in others. ‘The world’ – a term used in the New Testament as shorthand for this conspiracy of dark forces – had no choice but to put him away. For Ego, Orthodoxy, and Empire, surrendering is not an option.

A good deal of energy has been wasted on the interpretation of Easter as a physical miracle where the dead Jesus was brought back to life. The so-called resurrection might as well have been a mere resuscitation, had less time elapsed after his death. Even though the New Testament’s biggest advocate (and probable originator) of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus never mentions an empty tomb or the revival of a dead body – indeed for Paul resurrection (literally a raising up) names the process by which Jesus was liberated, exalted, and glorified to the status of Lord – an overwhelming majority of Christians today have reduced it to a mere miracle of coming back to life.

This is supposed to be significant, as it vindicated Jesus as god’s victim of child sacrifice, who saved us from our sins. It’s essential that the body which came out of the tomb is the same that went in; thus the insistence on a ‘bodily resurrection of Jesus’ – one of the Five Fundamentals of evangelical Christianity. If he wasn’t literally (actually, physically) brought back to life, then death hasn’t been vanquished and we are still in our sin, lost forever. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the miracle upon which the entire plan of salvation turns.

After all, didn’t the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 15) say as much?

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 

This sounds very much as if Paul regarded the resurrection of Jesus as a physical miracle. It is necessary, however, to hear these words in the mythological context that Paul had in mind. For him Jesus is the Second Adam (or New Man), the archetype for a new age whose saving work offers a revolutionary counterexample to the First Adam of Genesis. Whereas the First Adam had regarded equality with god as something to be grasped and exploited for his personal advantage, Jesus as the Second Adam surrendered himself totally to god’s purpose (see Philippians 2 for another Pauline meditation on this theme).

For his hubris the First Adam was evicted from the garden wherein stood the tree of life, which is another way of saying that the penalty for his overreaching pride was mortality, or death. As the archetype of humanity (according to this mythology), the First Adam set the pattern for all subsequent generations and was spiritually active (we might say) in each and every one of us – until Jesus, that is. In acknowledgment of the humble devotion and self-sacrifice of Jesus, god ‘raised him up’, metaphorically giving him access to the paradisal tree of life. Identifying with the Second Adam rather than the First makes Jesus spiritually active in the individual Christian. In his letter to the Christians in Galatia Paul says,

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. 

All of this is to show that Paul, who is widely respected by Christians as our biblical authority on the resurrection of Jesus, did not see it as a miracle in history but as representing a seismic shift for human nature and destiny played out in the archetypal realm – that is to say, in the realm of mythology. This doesn’t mean that ‘nothing happened’, but rather that it’s always happening, that it’s poised to happen again, right now, if we’re prepared to take the myth seriously … but not literally. Taking a myth like this literally, treating it as if the figures and events it describes are in the past (or in the case of apocalyptic myths, the future) drains it of life and power, reducing it to something which must be believed or otherwise dismissed as incredible.

So let me come back to my original statement:

Jesus of Nazareth went into the tomb, and Christ the Lord came out.

Because he challenged the politico-economic system (Empire) of his day and championed the rights of the poor, Jesus was arrested and crucified by Roman authorities. His advocacy on behalf of the many who were suffering under the boot of Roman oppression, pushed ever deeper into debt just to survive, made him an enemy of those in positions of wealth and power. Empire is not simply a form of government, but a domination system that thrives on the exploitation of labor, the burden of debt and confiscation of property, along with a ruthless response to protest, disobedience, and rebellion.

At the time, religious leadership in Judaism was doing its best to regulate what ‘seemed right’ (ortho-dox) with respect to proper behavior, moral purity, observing the Sabbath, and keeping themselves separate from sinners. Jesus played loose with these rules and even deliberately transgressed on them, to the point where these leaders also wanted him gone. As Orthodoxy takes the mind captive to certain convictions, closing down on meaning and ruling out any sense or experience of the grounding mystery and greater community of life, his refusal to give up creative authority for blind obedience made him a threat here as well.

And his essential message, which had to do with an urgency upon the individual to set aside self-interest (Ego) in service of the greater good, effectively called for a reversal in values and motivation, from the centripetal preoccupations of ‘me and mine’ to a centrifugal engagement with ‘all of us, together’. The ambitions of Ego for security, superiority, significance, and worldly success had to be surrendered for the liberation and fulfillment he promised – and for many it was too much to ask. We can blame Empire and Orthodoxy for putting Jesus away, but ultimately it was (and still is) Ego that sealed his tomb.

In the days that followed, a few of his disciples came to realize that Jesus had been so much more than an individual whose way of life had gotten him in trouble with the authorities. Paul recognized in the memory of Jesus the spirit of a New Man (or Second Adam) who opens for all of us the path to life in its fullness. His spirit – not his ghost but the vital energy and continuing influence of his exemplary life – is as real now as it was then.

It was at this point, by a fresh discovery and reorientation to what Jesus had been all about, that Christ the Lord came out of the tomb.Easter

 

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Easter Reality

Religious high holy days are anchored deep in myth and symbol. These are times when true believers – as well as the larger number of unaffiliated and “occasional pilgrims” – step into the sacred stories and reflect once again on the miracles of old. Too many of them probably do this out of family obligation or annual custom, gazing on the holiday symbols with the wondering eyes of their youth.

The following day, however, they will be back at it – back at life in the real world. No miracles here. No angelic visitations, virgin births, voices from the clouds or revived corpses in the news. It used to be that these and other miraculous events were regarded as signs, still very much set in story and not encountered in contemporary life, pointing to a higher realm of being that supports this one.

Signs are significant because they signify things. Meaning is all about reference – this pointing to that, one thing leading to another, and all of it making sense in the Big Picture. Once upon a time (here I go telling a story) people lived inside a Big Picture, and mythology served the valuable function of pulling them back from the daily distractions of secular life and reorienting them in a single coherent system of meaning.

I say “once upon a time” because people today generally don’t live their lives with a Big Picture in mind. If there is one, it’s the rather cold and indifferent cosmos of science, now somewhere on an unfathomable timeline between BANG and FIZZLE (or maybe CRUNCH). For quite a while, as modern religion was losing its market share in the intellectual landscape of the Western mind, church leaders blamed science for the vacancies in their pews. Empirical skepticism (“I’ll believe it when I can measure it”) was accused of producing secular atheism (“God can’t be measured, and therefore doesn’t exist”).

But here’s what really happened.

The sacred stories began losing currency, not because they were scientifically discredited, but rather because they became increasingly irrelevant to daily life. And as the symbols lost their power to signify, the metaphors closed up on themselves and degenerated into “miracles.” Consequently the Big Picture that had oriented human beings for so long fell apart. Now – occasionally, on high holy days – we pause to fetch from the wreckage those dim reminders, those alien curiosities from another age.

So what becomes of these articles of religious nostalgia? If symbols need stories, and stories need other stories; and if all these stories (the collective mythology of a culture) comprise the Big Picture that once made life meaningful, what purpose is there in dusting the icons, pressing the vestments, and singing the hymns if we don’t really know it as our truth?

I didn’t say “believe it,” for we can make ourselves believe just about anything. There are a lot of true believers who talk a lot about god, read their Bible religiously and do their best to take it literally. If the biblical god doesn’t bust through the starry canopy and talk to us as he once did, it’s only because we live in the Last Days and he is busy preparing for the Final Judgment.

As for Jesus, Christmas got him into our world and Easter got him back out. It all happened a long time ago, but he’s coming again. Just you wait. In the meantime – and it is a mean time – we have to keep the faith, resist the devil, legislate for (our) religion, and guard our stuff.

I saw a bumper sticker the other day: “God – Guns – USA.” Now that’s a very small picture, which can be found all around the planet today. Just insert another god and a different tribe, and that truck might be driving down the road in Syria or Kenya or North Korea.

What can Easter mean in a time when evidence of god is lacking but the testimony for god is all too out-spoken and dogmatic? Just because it’s “in the Bible” doesn’t automatically make it relevant. After all, the Bible is testimony, not evidence. Furthermore, it’s a very special kind of testimony – not exactly the eye-witness accounts as many true believers defend it these days, but creative testimony, poetic testimony.

As mythology, the Bible wasn’t written as retrospective journalism on objective miracles and actual encounters with a supernatural personality. Rather, it issued from the creative imaginations of people just like you and me, inspired by the realization that their lives (just like ours) opened up to a greater mystery.

In those moments, in those places, and in the company of those rare and illumined ones who seemed to live in unbroken awareness of this mystery, the everyday world was touched, elevated and glorified with a higher significance.

Jesus came with a message about compassion, charity, and unconditional forgiveness. He not only talked it but he walked it as well, living it out in his dealings with others – in the company of his friends, in his encounters with strangers, and in the presence of his enemies.

It wasn’t long before the authorities caught wind of his growing reputation and grew uneasy over his dangerous influence on the people. Dangerous because he was waking people up from the trance of personal self-interest, religious orthodoxy, and militant nationalism.

The authorities were nervous that this trouble-maker might shift the axis of control that protected their privileged position as deputies of god and brokers of salvation. They quoted scripture in self-defense, accused Jesus of going against tradition, and at last succeeded in charging him with heresy, atheism and disturbing the peace (also known as the trance-state of spiritual sleep). He was executed and his followers disbanded.

But then, maybe among a small band of his discouraged survivors, memories were recalled and weaved together in stories. In recalling his words they remembered his message, and as his message reignited their hearts they realized that his vision was still short of fulfillment. The spirit of Jesus was not gone but now lived in them. The torch of his cause was theirs to carry forward.

An empty tomb and abandoned grave clothes are not evidence, but only the absence of evidence. They are signs, metaphors, and symbols opening out to a greater mystery. They say, “Not here.” But where then? Exactly where is Jesus alive?

Up in heaven, if you believe in heaven. In the sacraments of the Church, if that’s your thing.

I would say that if what we are calling the spirit of Jesus is not evident in the way we live and treat each other, then we’re still waiting for Easter.

 

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