In a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.
But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.
I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.
What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.
Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).
Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.
So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.
Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.
By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.
We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.
Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.
The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.
What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.
What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?
The world would be a very different place, would it not?