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The Filters of Illusion

Constructivism is a philosophy that regards the mind as not merely active in our experience of reality (as opposed to some early modern theories which regarded it as a ‘blank slate’ written upon by experience), but creatively active in the way it constructs the mental models we take as our reality. In the course of ordinary experience we don’t typically discriminate between our constructs and the reality they are meant to represent. Constructivism makes such discrimination foundational to its method.

One important implication of this is that because meaning is constructed by the mind, and because our constructs are mental models and not reality itself, what we normally take as real is really being mistaken as such. In other words, our constructs are illusions that shape and filter our perceptions of reality. Truth, then, becomes a question of how reality-oriented (or realistic) a particular illusion is.

Reality-itself remains a mystery, and every time we construct a model (e.g., a concept, belief, or even a theory like constructivism) to make sense of it, we are spinning a veil of meaning – an illusion that removes us to some degree from what is really real.

The application of these insights as therapy, which is to say, as a method for not only understanding the nature of illusion but living as much as possible in communion with the present mystery of reality, is yet another persistent fantasy of mine. I don’t presume that our goal should be to break entirely and permanently free from illusion, but rather that we should self-consciously step into our creative authority as meaning-makers, storytellers, theory-builders, and make-believers.

Instead of mistaking our mental models for reality, we can acknowledge their character as illusions and proceed to look through them, as veils parting (literally revelations) before our minds. Once we see it, we can then do something about it.

It can happen, however, that an illusion is particularly persistent, in which case the veil doesn’t part but instead traps our mind inside its own delusion. Here there is no difference between a construction of meaning and the reality it represents – there cannot be, simply because what is believed must be the way things really are. We have too much invested in our illusion, too much of our security and identity tied up in the web of meaning we have constructed. We are not free, nor do we wish to be. For without meaning reality would be … well, meaningless, and who could bear that?

Actually, the mystical discovery that reality is perfectly meaningless is wonderfully liberating.

In this post we will analyze three filters of illusion that characterize normal psychology, but which of course can conspire in distressed, demented, or radicalized minds to put individuals so out of touch with reality that great harm can come to them, and through them to others. My interest is with normal and not abnormal psychology, since this is where most of us live. If we can understand how normal people lose touch with reality, we might also gain some insight into what happens when someone falls pathologically into delusion.

My diagram depicts an eye looking out on reality – not the so-called reality represented in our mind, but the present mystery of reality independent of our mental models. It is ineffable: indescribably perfect and perfectly meaningless. The first and most massive filter of illusion is our personal worldview, which is not only the internal picture we have of what’s outside us, but a projection of what’s going on inside us as well.

The philosophy of constructivism received strong confirmation as commerce, conquest, and migration revealed a diversity of cultural worldviews on our planet. This challenged us to consider the possibility that such local distinctions at the societal level might continue down into even more granular detail for individuals – which, of course, it does. Each of us maintains a filter of illusion that represents our place in the scheme of things.

Throughout life our worldview will be updated and evolve in response to greater depth and scope in the range of our experiences.

It is possible for our worldview to lock up and resist this normal process of reality-checking what we think we know. To understand the cause behind such resistance we need to go one step deeper into the filters of illusion. What we find there are ego ambitions that drive and define our personal life – craving those things we feel we can’t be happy without, and fearing the prospect of not getting them or losing them once we do.

This dual drive of desire and fear is the mechanism that defines ambition (ambi = both or two). Our ambitions can be so powerful as to make us insist that reality must be set up in such a way as to support our fantasies of happiness; hence our worldview as a projection of deeper forces within us. Our mental models are less about reality in some objective sense, and more about the restless ambitions that subjectively preoccupy us.

According to the anonymous maxim, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

But we’re not yet at the deepest filter in our construction of meaning. One last step carries us into those earliest and most urgent points of interrogation by which our sense of self and reality is forged – what I name our feeling-needs. Whereas our conventional notion of need refers to a correlation between an internal requirement and an external resource, such as the need for nutrition and the provision of food, a feeling-need refers to our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy.

A key to understanding feeling-needs is recognizing that they are not necessarily correlated to external reality. We may be safe in actual fact and completely sheltered from danger, but if we don’t feel safe, that’s what really matters. I’ve written about feeling-needs in other posts, so we won’t go much farther into them here, except to point out the way they are developmentally implicated in each other.

A lack of feeling safe compels us to satisfy this need at the level of love, which turns relationships into attachments. Because real love only grows in freedom, our need to feel loved cannot be satisfied here. So we employ our capabilities in an effort to earn, flatter, please, impress, or coerce others to love us. As a consequence, our sense of worthiness gets tied to acceptance and approval by others, whether we are useful in their feeling-need satisfaction strategies.

In this way individuals become mechanisms in a codependent dysfunctional system, neither one getting what they really need but each too anxious to let go.

Following this sequence in reverse, we now have a better understanding of the filters of illusion. Our unique profile of frustrated feeling-needs fuels our ego ambitions, which in turn predispose us to imagine and construct a personal worldview where our hopes can be fulfilled.

And all of this as we live, right now, in the present mystery of reality.

 

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Above Us Only Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Harmony of Intelligence

mood_mode_modelI recently offered up the idea of our “quadratic intelligence,” of four distinct types of intelligence in us that open up and come online in developmental stages, each one engaging us with a dimension of reality. I pointed out how Western psychology and education theory have only recently come to realize that our earlier notion of an “intelligence quotient” (IQ) was really measuring only one of these types and not intelligence as a whole.

The ensuing scholarly “discovery” of emotional intelligence (EQ) and spiritual intelligence (SQ), of how both of these bring deeper support and expanded horizons to the rational intelligence so highly prized in our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) culture, is challenging us to adjust our categories around what it means to “be intelligent.” In addition to these three types of intelligence, I suggested that we complete the set with a fourth: visceral intelligence (VQ), which is more or less equivalent to what we already know as the autonomic nervous system.

I took my reader for a quick ride up the channel, starting in the unconscious internal state of the body (VQ), connecting emotionally to the environment outside the body (EQ), parsing and classifying the object of experience into a rational system of meaning (RQ), and breaking out of this logical box into the spontaneous intuition of a higher wholeness (SQ). A successful breakthrough of spiritual intelligence to some extent depends on an equanimity of emotional and rational factors – not so engaged (EQ) or detached (RQ) that genuine transcendence is prevented.

In this post I want to clarify this theory further into its distinct modes of intention and how they work together in the full harmony of intelligence. “Mode” is derived from the root mod, which refers to a way, manner, form, or style in which something exists or behaves. I hope to show how our human way of being and manner of life grows more distinctively human as we ascend through the network of our four intelligences.

Visceral intelligence (VQ) represents a mode of intention that anchors consciousness in its deeper ground. The internal state of our nervous system seeks to hold the body in a dynamic equilibrium where an electro-chemical conspiracy of events sustains us in life. Out of this provident ground arises consciousness itself, which must preserve its anchor in the body, and through the body to the living earth.

A step up from the largely autonomic processes of our internal state brings us into emotional intelligence (EQ) where the mode is to engage with the environment around us. Emotional engagement begins very early in life and serves the function of connecting our internal state (VQ) to the realm outside the body, adjusting state as necessary and motivating behavior that is adaptive. Another derivation of mod is “mood,” referring to this matching of internal and external, internal state to external situation, in a generalized temperament that bridges the two realms.

From emotional intelligence we move into rational intelligence (RQ, formerly IQ) where the mode of intention shifts from engagement to detachment. Obviously this mode serves us well when our objective is to grasp something for what it is in itself rather than how it may be affecting us personally. Western science has perfected this modus operandi of detached observation in its experimental method, which has enabled us to take control of our environment in remarkable ways.

Our characteristically Western preference for rational operations over emotional feelings when it comes to what we believe we can really count on for a truthful experience of reality, has led to the unfortunate consequences of environmental degradation, inter-human violence, and neurotic disorders. We have become adept at constructing thought “models” – yet another term with roots in mod, involving our conceptual ability for abstract representation – as our emotional programs remain snagged in adolescence and early childhood.

The healthy balance of emotional and rational modes of intention is how I define equanimity – a high value in many wisdom traditions around the world. Importantly equanimity is not about suppressing or subtracting from our animal nature, but rather harmonizing its deeper impulses in a mode of conscious life where passion (EQ) and reason (RQ) complement and support each other. I would agree that equanimity is all too rare in society today, where part of ourselves seethes in raw emotion as the other part analyzes everything (literally) to death.

This is exactly where our widespread lack of “ego strength” (a related idea to equanimity) has us stuck: collapsing spontaneously into mental chaos (borderline personality), swinging wildly between emotional extremes (bipolar mood), and splitting into a variety of subpersonalities that contend for the seat of control (dissociative identity). Absent a secure center of self-conscious autonomy (ego), these inner demons take us over – especially when we are stressed, anxious, or frustrated, which is to say more and more of the time these days.

When I identify the intentional mode of spiritual intelligence with transcendence, I want to guard against any tendency to separate it from our embodied life. As I see it, it’s been a mistake of rationalism to represent the soul as metaphysically alien, existing apart from the body as its resident ghost. Transcendence, here, should not be interpreted as going beyond the body and leaving it behind. What we transcend are the rational constructs by which we define and classify reality, and believe one thing or another.

To grasp all at once the unified mystery of existence requires us to “go beyond” what we think we know. The tightly interlocked system of meaning that we spin around ourselves like a spider’s web may answer our needs for security, identity, and significance, but it also separates us from the present mystery of reality. This veil must be pulled aside for the sake of mystic communion with reality as such. It is in that higher mode of intention that we realize All is One.

If we had equanimity and ego strength, and were firmly anchored in the provident ground of life, the invitation of spirituality to step through the illusion of meaning and into oneness would be accepted with joy and celebration. The centerpiece of this illusion is our self-concept as separate and fully autonomous individuals, immortal beings on our way through to something better on the other side.

Genuine spiritual freedom is about getting over ourselves.

 

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How Do You Lean Into Reality?

Compass MandalaWho among us can resist the invitation to identify ourselves on some grid or scale or chart of personality characteristics? As long as we don’t have to feel as if we are being stuffed inside a box or stabbed to a pin-board, classified and labeled as only this, the exercise can be endlessly fascinating. There’s nothing ego enjoys more than gazing into a mirror. The mystery of what we are, underneath who we think we are, lures us into contemplation, willing to check boxes or circle numbers that promise to unveil “the real me.”

There is a strong industry in personality testing designed to help us understand ourselves, get along with others, and find the secret to a happy (or happier, since it’s never enough) and more successful life. To be honest, Americans probably top the chart when it comes to vanity and self-obsession. We spend more money and effort on improving ourselves – enhancements, reductions, tucks, infusions, exotic therapies, and best-selling self-help programs – perhaps mostly because we’ve been conditioned to measure ourselves against the perfect fakes of celebrity culture.

So, I appreciate you stopping at my booth to see what I have to offer. You’ll be glad to hear that I have no questionnaire for you to fill out or pre-cut “types” for you to try on. What I offer is a simple way to identify how you lean into reality and make sense of life. Similar to the popular personality type-finders, we will begin with some key terms that distinguish major ways that all human beings engage with the Big Show. What It’s All About will vary across interpretations according to our individual preferences, inclinations, and concerns – that is to say, how we lean into reality.

My use of a compass analogy (see the illustration) is intended to make the point that we lean into reality not only by virtue of the way we have been wired and conditioned, but also in response to the situational and developmental challenges that life brings our way. Regardless of where you’re going, a compass can provide reference and orientation, although it can’t tell you where to go or how to get there. It will faithfully tell you where north is, without insisting that you always (or ever) travel in that direction. In the same way, my compass model can help clarify your preference for leaning into reality, but it won’t point you to a goal and prescribe your path.

Let’s begin with some definition around the cardinal terms of my compass model.

Reason (North)

You might be someone who leans into reality with Reason, which means that you have a preference for rational, logical, and objective modes of engagement. To look for the “reason” in things is to search for causes, patterns, principles and ideas that correlate and unify the myriad data-points of experience.

Urgency (South)

Standing opposite of Reason is Urgency, which is all about what needs to happen NOW. Urgency is rooted in urges, in the pulsing, throbbing, and driving desire of life itself. If you lean into reality with Urgency, you have a preference for embodied, visceral, and instinctive modes of engagement.

Passion (West)

If you lean into reality with Passion, your preference is to be moved – attracted, enticed, inspired, provoked – to an experience of intense feeling. Passion doesn’t typically initiate the experience it seeks, but opens to reality in an attitude of expectancy, excitement, and romantic adventure.

Purpose (East)

Standing opposite of Passion is Purpose, which is more about intention than objective. In other words, leaning into reality with Purpose – or as we say, “on purpose” – speaks to a kind of mindful engagement with what’s going on, at least as much as where it’s going or whether a goal is reached.


You might notice how the cardinal terms on my compass match up in interesting ways to the geographical orientation of world cultures, with northern zones tending to be more rational, southern zones more sensual, western zones more romantic, and eastern zones more meditative. Once again we need to be careful not to pigeon-hole entire cultures and ethnic groups, just as we want to keep our options open as individuals. But the correlation is at least a curious one.

As you consider these four general preferences, you will probably realize that one term alone is insufficient in representing how you lean into reality. For instance, you might see yourself as oriented by a combination of Reason and Purpose, in which case your preference would be more of a northeast (NE) style (or EN, if Purpose is stronger than Reason) than a straightforward North or East. Or maybe you tend to combine Passion and Urgency, in which case your preference would be more of a southwest (SW) style (or WS, if Passion is stronger than Urgency) than a straightforward South or West.

My personal observation is that if we strictly identify ourselves by one cardinal preference alone, the term opposite to it on the compass will often haunt our happiness and success as a menacing “shadow” principle. This doesn’t imply that it is sinister or diabolical, necessarily (although it can show up in such guises as the Trickster, Devil, or Adversary), but only that its status as a denied or excluded part of ourselves forces it to break in where it’s not welcome. The psychologist Carl Jung believed that such unreconciled splits within ourselves are ultimately behind the conflicts we have with each other.

The ideal, I suppose, would be a dynamic balance among all four orientations. By that I don’t mean that we should strive to occupy the center of my compass, in an imperturbable state of absolute neutrality – which is a pretty good definition of what it means to be dead. Rather, a dynamic balance would mean we still have our preferred way of leaning into reality, but that we are not so “convicted” (held captive) by it that we can’t shift and adapt our mode of engagement to creatively meet the challenge of a new situation.

Finally, there is the question of how this idea of leaning into reality and the four cardinal preferences might help us better understand why we click or clash with the other people in our lives. Does an “opposite type” (across the compass) or an “adjacent type” (in a position next to ours) make a better life partner, coworker, teammate, or friend? Or should we be looking for associates just like ourselves, who hold essentially the same beliefs, values, and motives as we do?

Personally, I don’t vote for that last one.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2015 in The Creative Life

 

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Pushing on Belief

A human being creates a world like a spider spins a web. As an innate impulse of the mind, this need to construct meaning is irresistible, and the prospect of living without meaning – of living a meaningless existence – is widely regarded as a fate worse than death. We are ready to give up on life, and willing to take the lives of others, when our meaning is lost or threatened.

Like other propensities and reflexes of our deeper nature, this impulse to make meaning carries the authority of reality. That is to say, we can easily assume that the meaning we construct and the habitations of meaning (or worlds) we live in are a property of the way things really are, independent of us and inherent to reality itself.

This assumption has been part of the “mental lens” of our mind as a species for many thousands of years, and it is responsible both for our cultural progress around the planet and the natural disasters following in its wake. It’s only been very recently that we have begun to realize that how we see reality is much less about the way things really are, and more about our need for security, identity, purpose and significance.

Constructivism is a philosophical approach to understanding meaning as a product of human nature rather than a fixed property of reality itself. Meaning is made, not discovered in the traditional sense of finding it “out there,” buried beneath the facts or dropped out of heaven and waiting to be found.

Of course, this means that constructivism is itself a construct of meaning. It does not presume to offer any kind of “final theory” or last word on the subject. Indeed, if this approach is valid (and I believe it is), then a final theory or last word is a self-contradiction – unless we are referring to the theory that finally takes out our species, signaling the end to a nuclear age and the likely extinction of life on Earth.

What needs to happen in order for that scenario not to happen is that we individually learn how to be more responsible creators of the worlds we inhabit. How can we step out of the naiveté that is accelerating us to the edge of extinction – ironically for the sake of our precious meaning – and into a more adult mode of creative authority?

Part of the answer is that we need to understand the relationship of meaning to belief, which is the insight of constructivism. Another part of the answer moves deeper into an understanding of how beliefs form and then fuse together into the webs of meaning we live in and are all too willing to die or kill for. Let’s start with the question of what it means to believe something.Pushing BeliefBy definition a belief (from the root meaning “to love or hold dear”) is an emotional commitment to a judgment you make about something. Some judgments are tentative and provisional until you make an emotional investment in them, which effectively personalizes these judgments and makes them meaningful to you.

When someone makes a statement and you don’t believe it, you are withholding emotional investment from that statement and choosing not to take it personally. Very likely you are simultaneously forming a judgment about the person who just made that statement, investing yourself emotionally in a conclusion about him or her. You have constructed a belief.

A belief, then, is a conclusion or a closing-down on something with your mind in order to render a judgment about it, together with some degree of emotional commitment to its truth. Some beliefs might be true, while others must be true. These different emotional values determine where a particular judgment resides in your belief system.

As my diagram above illustrates, a belief that holds less emotional commitment (and which only might be true) is called an opinion. Because you take them less personally and their truth-value is not essential to your web of meaning (or “world”), you likely enjoy sharing your opinions with others and hearing theirs in turn. With a lower charge of emotional commitment, opinions are characteristically flexible, experimental, and easily modified or abandoned.

Whenever someone presses on your belief system by engaging you in conversation about a topic you find interesting but not essential to your life’s meaning, you can be open-minded and tolerant where your perspectives don’t quite match up. Your conversation partner might know more about the topic than you, and you can accept what he or she has to say without getting offended, even modifying or updating your opinion as the conversation progresses.

But then this person, with whom until now you’ve been receptive and open-minded, says something that you find incredible, offensive, or blasphemous. You have a history with this particular belief and you take it much more personally. The umbrage or horror you feel, along with the felt need to debate the statement and defend your truth, indicates that this belief is more deeply situated in your web of meaning and has a lot more riding on it. In pressing on this belief, the other person has poked deep enough to activate a conviction.

Convictions don’t allow open-minded dialogue. As the word suggests, a conviction is a belief that incarcerates thought and holds the mind hostage. Whereas once upon a time you may have held this belief as an opinion, over years of anchoring other opinions to this one and thereby making it more essential to your life’s meaning, it now holds you captive.

The certainty it provides is really a rationalization of how secure the conviction makes you feel, and security is not something you want to risk. Pulling on that thread might cause the entire web to tear and unravel, which could result in a global crisis of meaning and world-collapse. Your strategy, whenever a conviction gets poked, will either be to lash out in retaliation, debate your challenger into submission, move quickly to safer ground, or dismiss your opponent as ignorant, impious, and simple-minded.

In fact, you are deluded, and the same can probably be said of your opponent as well. The nature of your delusion lies in the degree in which you have stopped actively thinking and instead given your mind over to the closed loop of a mental script. You can tell when this intellectual bypass is occurring by how irrational you become in defending your conviction. Again, by this time the argument is not about how reasonable, coherent, or evidence-based your belief might be, but about how much is at stake in its truth for you.

By closing down active thought and conscious engagement with the way things really are, convictions separate your mind from reality. An unavoidable consequence is that your life’s meaning is always several steps (or several decades) behind the way things presently are. When we move our consideration to the societal level, this means that entire traditions and cultural worldviews can be hundreds or thousands of years out of date, promoting mandatory belief systems (or orthodoxies) that are wildly out of touch with the concerns and opportunities of contemporary life.

You might think that a belief system is composed only of lightweight, variable opinions and these deeper-set, mind-locking convictions. But there is a third level of beliefs, which are difficult to talk about for the simple reason that they are invisible to your normal conscious operations. This invisibility of your assumptions has nothing to do with secrecy or sophistication, but is rather a function of their role as primary support structures in your web of meaning.

While opinions can be shared and exchanged in your circle of friends, and convictions are either recited in unison among fellow believers or strenuously defended against ideological opponents, assumptions typically never make it to the surface of conversation. Like the lens of your eye which filters and skews the visual information coming in, assumptions are the unquestioned beliefs that determine your most rudimentary mental grasp on reality.

Should someone challenge one of your basic assumptions of meaning, if it even registers at all – and quite often the mind is mentally deaf and blind to such profound challenges – it will likely strike you as literally incredible and not open for discussion. You will probably blink incredulously and shake your head as if to dislodge the strange idea, then abruptly change the subject or quietly walk away.

The key insight of constructivism is an example of just such a challenge to our core assumptions, with its suggestion that meaning is what human beings “make up” and is really a kind of necessary delusion that our nature (and sanity) requires. To press on belief to the point where such assumptions are poked will predictably agitate an all-or-nothing response. Most often it is nothing, so you just dismiss the challenge and move on.

Of the three types of belief comprising your web of meaning, assumptions change least and most slowly – and it should be obvious why this is so. Because many assumptions (probably the vast majority) were adopted and set in place very early in life – indeed, your deepest assumptions were installed into the default state of your autonomic nervous system and preceded the acquisition of language, putting them beyond words (ineffable) and direct conscious access – the very groundwork of what you are is at stake in their preservation through time.

But assumptions can change. Even more importantly you can change assumptions, however longstanding, that have been separating you from the present mystery of reality in unhappy, maladaptive, or pathological ways.

Instead of only playing it safe at the surface where opinions come and go, or occasionally digging deeper into the convictions that electrify the cage around your mind, you might tap open a few of those sacrosanct assumptions that are restricting your soul and keeping you from being fully present to life in this moment.

As you learn to let go and just relax into the grounding mystery, you will find that meaning isn’t all it is made up to be.

 

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God Above and The Ground of Being

It’s interesting how the evolution of life, the development of a species, and the maturation of individuals within a species all tend to proceed from simpler to more complex forms and stages of existence. The human embryo carries vestigial gills and a tail from our prehuman ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar fashion, children grow into mental abilities following the same sequence as our species over many thousands of years. What we see at one level (life, species, individual) is evident in the other levels as well.

Culture is the construction zone where the degree of advancement in our human species gets transmitted from individual-level breakthroughs, into the collective consciousness of society, and back again to the individual in the form of innovations in the traditional way of life.

In the interest of social cohesion and stability, a preferred path of change would be able to keep some of what has been (as tradition), as it moves forward into what will be. The role of institutions can be understood in this sense, as conservative and stabilizing structures in the flow of cultural change. The very definition of religion, from the Latin religare meaning “to connect or tie back,” identifies it as an institution in this sense – indeed as the conservative and stabilizing structure in culture.

When the European Enlightenment got the intelligentsia excited about the possibility of throwing off the superstitions of the past to embrace a future of science, religion was the obvious and easy target. Without a doubt, there was much about the institution of Christendom that wouldn’t listen and constructively respond to new discoveries and developments going on at the ground level of human experience.

As the official Church condemned new theories and excommunicated the brave souls who dared contradict its now-archaic orthodoxy, the best (and perhaps the only) recourse for many was to simply push the whole outfit into the ditch and move on with progress. The modern West turned its attention to factual evidence and the technical possibilities of this world, content to leave spirituality, religion, and God Above in an early chapter of its new autobiography: The Enlightened Man’s Emancipation from Ignorance and Myth.

The Christianity we all know (and fewer of us love) is a type of religion known as theism, for the way it is oriented on and organized around the belief in a supreme being who is large and in charge. Our fortunate birth and prosperity in this life, followed (hopefully, if we get it right) by beatitude in the hereafter, is our Pilgrim’s Progress supervised by God Above.

We happen to be living in the twilight of theism, during a late phase known as orthodoxy. At this point it is primarily about believing the right things, and doing whatever it takes to defend and propagate “the one true faith” around the world. By now, for a large majority of Christian true believers, the present mystery (we can even call it the real presence) of God has receded permanently behind something much more pressing and important – and manageable: the right opinion (ortho+doxa) about God.

At the end of the day it’s all a very heady enterprise and increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. People are leaving the Church in droves, with the Enlightenment campaign of atheism once again on the rise. As a counter-measure, the engines of orthodoxy are locking into gear and plowing full steam ahead, until Jesus comes again or all hell breaks loose (rumor has it these might be the same event).

Fundamentalists, ultra-conservatives, and right-wing evangelicals are certainly not helping their cause, as bright and reasonable people who continue their quest for a grounded, connected, and personally relevant spiritual life are leaving the crazies to their end-game.

I spend more time than I would like trying to explain how the impulse to cast theism out with the dirty bathwater of dogmatic and dysfunctional religion, while certainly understandable to some extent, is not the real solution to our problem. For one thing, the theistic paradigm and its role in society should not be simply identified with any of its historical incarnations.

In other words, a corrupt version of theism is not necessarily a reason to reject theism itself outright. It happens that every institution is prone to desperate measures when threatened by the natural course of change. In this way, an institution is the cultural equivalent of an individual ego – a conservative and stabilizing construct of identity that resists becoming what it isn’t used to being.

What follows is a perspective on theistic religion, exploring its development through distinct phases starting with its rise out of animism and following through its twilight into post-theistic forms of spirituality. My model for this developmental schema is not only based in the evidence of archaeology, but, just as important and even more useful, on the phases stretching from early childhood to maturity in the living individual today.

Evolution of ReligionEarliest theism, just like early childhood, was lived in a world constructed of stories. There was no obvious boundary separating “fact” from “fiction,” the given facts of reality from the make-believe of fantasy. Theism was born in mythology (from the Greek mythos referring to a narrative plot, which is the structural arch that serves as the unifying spine of a story).

Its gods began as literary figures personifying the causal agencies behind the order and change of the sensory-physical realm. Myths were not regarded as explanations of reality (as a kind of primitive science), but instead were performances of meaning that conjured the gods into being with each rendition.

It’s difficult to appreciate or understand this phenomenon as we try to grasp it with adult minds, but perhaps you can remember how it was for you back then. The fantasy world of myth doesn’t merely fade into the metaphysical background when the story concludes. Rather, that world exists only in the myth and is called into expression every time the myth is performed afresh.

We modern adults entertain a delusion which assumes the persistence of reality in the way we imagine it to be, even when our stories (at this later stage known as theories) aren’t actively spinning in our minds. The paradigm-stretching frontier of quantum physics is confirming how mistaken this assumption is, and how much we really understood (though perhaps not consciously) as children.

At some point in late childhood and early adolescence the individual recognizes that real life requires an adjustment from imaginary friends, magical time warps, and free-spirited performances of backyard fantasy, to the daily grind of household chores and lesson plans.

A more complex and complicated social experience means that opportunities for reigniting the creative imagination must be “staged,” that is, relegated to a consecrated time and location that will be relatively free of interruptions. Here, in this sacred space, the stories will be recited; but in view of limited time, only the major scenes and signature events are called to mind.

The required investment of time, attention, and energy in social responsibilities will not return the degree of enchantment and inspiration an individual needs to be happy. There needs to be a place for mythic performance and reconnecting with the grounding mystery. Besides, the mythological god can’t be left hanging in suspended narrative when it’s time to get back to the grindstone.

Theism had to adapt along with this emerging division between sacred and secular (temporal, daily) concerns. It did this by creating a special precinct where the majority could enter and observe an ordained minority dress up, recite the stories, and enact mythic events linking their broken time (divided and parsed out among countless duties) back to the deep time of an eternal (timeless) life.

Just as the holy precinct of ceremony served to connect a profane existence “outside the temple” (Latin profanus) to the sacred stories that weaved a tapestry of higher meaning, the god who originally lived in those stories was relocated to a supernatural realm overhead, standing by and watching over the business below. Even if the stories weren’t actively spinning, people could take comfort in knowing (technically believing) that he was in his place and doing his job.

On a designated day the community gathered in the temple, and at just the right moment an official would sound a bell, light a candle, unveil an icon, or recite a scripted prayer invoking (calling in) the presence of the god. At that very moment, all were in agreement (at least those paying attention) that the deity would descend from his abode in heaven and receive their worship.

A ritual enactment of sacred story would typically culminate at a point where the congregation was invited to step into deep time once again. Afterwards a signal was given bringing the ceremony to an end, and the people would depart to their workaday worlds.

With a growing population and the inevitable pluralism that comes with it, getting to the chapel on time becomes more of a challenge for a lot of people. How can theism survive when the ceremonies and sacred performances start losing attendance? What happens when god above no longer has an official invitation to condescend to the supplications of his gathered assembly of devotees?

This is what happens: former true believers give up their denominational affiliation and do their best to continue on their own. They will still look up when they speak of god, point to heaven and cross themselves when they score a goal, and perhaps bow their heads and say a prayer before breakfast.

Once in a while they might make their way back to the chapel (maybe on time) to observe a performance of one of the really big stories. As they watch, a dim memory of childhood enchantment will stir somewhere deep inside them and they will feel the magic once more.

How can theism hold on when its ceremonial system – the land and buildings, the gold-plated symbols and silken vestments, the professional staff of ordained ministers, and the hard-won market share of rapidly defecting souls – is sliding into obsolescence and bankruptcy? The answer brings us to the third and final phase in the lifespan of theism, the twilight of institutionalized religion known as orthodoxy.

The enchanted storytelling of early childhood gives way to staged ceremony in young adulthood, which in turn and with further reduction eventually gets packaged up into neat boxes of truth called doctrines. An obvious advantage of this reduction of theism to doctrines lies in its handy portability, in the way it can be carried conveniently inside the head and transferred into more heads by rote memorization and Sunday School curricula.

If the first phase of theism (storytelling) featured the bard, and the second phase (ceremony) depended on the mediation of priests, this third phase (orthodoxy) belongs to the theologians. They are the experts who tell us what to believe about god and other metaphysical things.

Since theism at this point has become a rather sophisticated set of beliefs, the best (and perhaps only) way to impress their importance on its members is to make the doctrines necessary to what more and more people are lacking and so desperately looking for: security and longevity – specifically that odd fusion of security and longevity defined in the doctrine of everlasting life.

As time goes on, this notion of a future escape from a life burdened by fatigue, boredom, and absurdity grows more attractive, until the true believer is willing to give up everything – or, if necessary, to destroy everything – for its sake.

In the Age of Orthodoxy people still speak of the god above, of the miracles of long ago, or of a coming apocalypse and future rapture of the saints, but you’ll notice that the critical point of reference is consistently outside the present world. Celebrity hucksters and pulpiteers try to fill the vacuum with staged demonstrations of “faith healing” and prophetic clairvoyance, but the inspiration is cheap and unsatisfying. Mega-churches and sports stadiums become personality cults centered on the success, charisma, theatrics, and alluring ideal of their alpha leaders.

In a sense, this transformation of old-style sermon auditions into entertaining religious theater represents a final attempt of theism to push back the coming night. There’s no getting around the fact that orthodoxy just isn’t that interesting, and as it rapidly loses currency in the marketplace of relevant concerns, more and more people are saying good-bye to church, to organized religion and its god-in-a-box.

As a cultural transition, the crossover from managed religion to something more experiential and inwardly grounded corresponds to that phase for the individual, when a deeper thirst for life in its fullness forces him or her to push back from the table of conventional orthodoxy and its bland concoction of spiritual sedatives.

In the twilight of theism, people are starting to give voice to their doubts, but also, increasingly, to their questions, their long-buried intuitions, and their rising new-world aspirations. They want more than anything to be real, to be fully present, and deeply engaged in life with creative authority.

This inward turn is the critical move of post-theism. It’s not about pulling down orthodoxy or refuting its god, but rather simply letting go and quietly sinking into being. Quietly is a reminder that words at this point are like hooks that can snag and slow one’s descent, running the risk of turning even this into another religion with its own esoteric orthodoxy.

The ego and its constructed word-world of meaning need to be left behind so that consciousness can softly settle into the still center of contemplative awareness. Here all is one. There is only this.

Here is born (or reborn) that singular insight which inspired us to tell stories in the first place. Now, perhaps, with a lifetime of experience and some wisdom in our bones, we can tell new stories.

It’s always been and will always be here and now.

 

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Post-Theism and the Great Work of Religion

The progress of religion towards post-theism has its critics on either side, with devoted theists decrying it as just another form of atheism, and atheists voicing their suspicion that it’s taking us backwards into superstition and tribalism when we need to be moving forward into the enlightenment of science and technology. Theists are sure that the “post” in post-theism is motivated out of a desire to get rid of god, to get past our need for what god represents and provides. On the other side, atheists hear “theism” in post-theism and are convinced that it’s nothing more than a postmodern reconstruction of the same old neurosis.

But the “post” and “theism” in post-theism are misunderstood in each case. In fact, post-theism represents the direction religion must go – indeed it’s the direction that religion is already going, despite the slide at its margins into the corruptions of complacency and terrorism. You might be surprised to learn that you are a post-theist, but I make no presumptions.

Animist_TheistReligion began in the body, where the visceral urgencies of our animal life resonate with and link into (religare means to connect) the rhythms of nature. Earliest religion was animistic, preoccupied with the provident support of reality and the life-force that ebbs and flows along the rhythmic cycles of natural time. The pressing concern was to live in accord with these cycles, to flourish in the fertile grooves of dependency and to celebrate the mystery, both tremendous and fascinating (Rudolph Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans), in which we exist.

There were no “gods” as yet, no external causes or agencies behind the forces impinging on us. The thunderstorm, for instance, wasn’t regarded as controlled or sent by some supervising intelligence separate from the storm. Rather the thunderstorm was itself the violent and refreshing expression of life-force. Its power manifested a vital energy and aroused sympathetic vibrations in our nervous system.

As time went on and the smaller family clans of our early human ancestors grew larger and more socially complex, this new cultural environment of the tribe gradually eclipsed a direct relationship with nature. In order for the individual to become a compliant member of the group, animal urgencies of the body had to be “trained” into morally acceptable behavior as befit the tribal order. The social construction of identity thus domesticated our animal nature and installed a deputy manager in the ego, with the authority of executive management retained by the tribe.

It was probably the question of “who’s in charge” – as key to the smooth operation of social roles and duties – that first inspired a reconsideration of nature as managed by external agencies, giving rise to the notion of deities as supervising directors behind what is happening around us. Conceiving a sovereign intelligence “on the other side” of our limiting conditions transformed the human-nature relationship into an exchange of services. As human devotees offered their prayers, worship, and sacrifices to a patron deity, it was hoped that the deity would in turn grant success in childbirth, a bountiful harvest, victory over an enemy, comfort in suffering, beatitude in the next life, or whatever boon was under the deity’s control and discretion.

Theist_AtheistSomewhere along the line, someone called “B.S.” and the game changed. The denial of (a) god’s existence might have been a simple refusal to accept the reality of something unavailable to direct experience. It may have come as science was starting to penetrate the veil of what’s really behind the phenomena of nature. Or perhaps it was provoked by the confrontation of a divine will and humane values, as ethical defiance of a deity’s demand for child sacrifice, for instance. Then again, our First Atheist may have simply been unable, with intellectual integrity, to accept the popular personification or orthodox theory of god.

The moment someone publicly said “No” to (this or that idea of) god, theism became an option and people had to choose between believing or not believing – that is, between taking the traditional myths and doctrines literally, or dismissing them as bunk and balderdash. Due to the morally charged nature of the tribe, and of the individual’s identity as a member of the tribe, this polarity of options quickly collapsed into a conflict of opposing views. Inevitably, it seems, theists and atheists are compelled by force of their differing convictions into dogmatic positions, each refusing to listen to the other and both fantasizing a world where the other no longer exists.

The rise of post-theism begins right here, in the tension generated between the poles of theism and atheism. It’s important to understand that post-theism is not merely a marketing makeover of theism, nor is it a postmodern restatement of atheism. And even though the dogmatists on both sides cannot (will not) acknowledge post-theism as a viable “third option,” there is a growing number of both theists and atheists who are creatively promoting its advance. This is because more contemporary thinking individuals are coming around to the realization that, one way or the other, we really just don’t know.

AgnosticBetween the dogmatic positions on either side of the theist-atheist debate, a significant population of truth-seekers around the planet and across cultures are finding space to breathe, as they acknowledge that the grounding mystery of being, which the myths and metaphors of religion attempt to name, is beyond language and the grasp of our minds. To say that it does or doesn’t exist in the guise of one deity or another is to miss the real insight of this agnostic confession. The point is that all our attempts to talk about it, as part of an effort to prove or disprove its objective existence, move us out and away from the very truth we are contemplating.

Post-theism begins, then, as theists and atheists alike humbly admit that the Real Presence of mystery (or the present mystery of reality, including, of course, the reality of our own existence) is ineffable – incapable of being described in words or reduced to meaning. Any honest thinking person cannot dismiss the awareness that language and the meaning we construct only qualifies this mystery, but will never contain it. For that reason we must renounce the tendency in ourselves towards dogmatism, and leave open a “space” in our belief systems for a deep, silent wonder.

Fighting over the existence of god is thus a contest over meaning that gets us no closer to the grounding mystery and provident uplift of life in this moment. Whether theist or atheist, each of us needs to descend through that open space and ponder the umbilical opening where meaning crystallizes and dissolves again into the mystery. Obviously this requires us to be sufficiently centered and self-aware, as well as contemplatively engaged in the moment. If you and I can both speak out of that agnostic space of not-knowing, offering our perspectives and beliefs in a spirit of humility, the Great Work of religion can proceed.

DialogicalThe theist-atheist debate is a win-lose contest (and all too quickly becomes a war). Dialogue, on the other hand, is this activity of sharing our perspective without a need to persuade or convince a dialogue partner to our position. We speak and listen with openness, curiosity, respect, and in a mutual understanding of the necessary incompleteness (and possible distortions) in our relative points of view. Through the back-and-forth of dialogue, meaning (logos) forms between (dia) the partners. It is no longer merely a reciprocal sharing but becomes a mutual co-creation of higher meaning.

Full ChartWith my illustration now complete, what I’m calling the “Great Work” of religion approaches fulfillment. With its commitment to keeping an open space of agnostic confession and enjoining other perspectives in healthy dialogue, post-theism takes up the responsibility of constructing shared meaning. This constructivist phase is where the providential uplift of the grounding mystery, experienced in the mystical depths of contemplative awareness, finally bears fruit in a paradoxical vision: The truth of both/and honors our differences as it energizes the ongoing pursuit of inclusive community.

                                                                                

Note: The color-code of text in my diagram corresponds to that in previous posts.

  • Black = Body, vitality, animal nature, carnal, instinct, urgency
  • Orange = Ego, identity, inner child, personal, fantasy, obedience
  • Purple = Soul, authenticity, higher self, spiritual, wisdom, responsibility
 

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