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Reality Shift

Reality ShiftsA somewhat naive understanding of human evolution and individual development assumes that with each advancing stage, former ones are simply outgrown and left behind. We know, however, that this is not how nature evolves. Earlier and more primitive structures are not abandoned, and neither do they merely lie inert beneath the exciting progress higher up. Instead they get incorporated into the emerging design, differently managed or re-purposed in light of a greater functional complexity.

This matters a lot when it comes to the interpretations of our own progress as individuals and a species. The naive approach has treated our mythological past, for instance, as over and done, leaving us free to face reality (finally!) as it is. Scientific theories relentlessly pursue objective truth, while the ancient myths may entertain us but in the end only obfuscate our view of what’s real. We need more facts, not superstition. The presumption is that our ancestors and other distant cultures stumbled around in ignorance, whereas we now clearly see the way things really are.

A closer look reveals that earlier versions of ourselves – whether bygone generations or former decades in our own lifetime – continue to operate underneath and behind whatever ‘executive functions’ are currently at the helm. In developmental psychology we commonly speak of our ‘inner child’ which refers to an infantile and juvenile subpersonality (Assagioli) that sometimes takes over when we’re tired, sick, hungry, stressed, or threatened. But we should also take into account a still more primal animal nature that lurks in the unconscious and is governed by instinct. These deeper and developmentally earlier versions may not determine our engagement with reality as they once did, but a mature adult must learn how to incorporate ‘gut feelings’ and playful spontaneity in a more socially responsible way of life.

Most likely our biggest limitation has to do with the fact that each advancing stage in development reconnects us with reality in a new way. Or we might say that each stage in development initiates a shift in reality itself, for the straightforward reason that our mode of engagement with reality must be included in what is meant by the term. Along the path of human evolution, then, our species has confronted a new reality at each turn. And across the arc of our evolution these developmental advances have carried forward former versions of ourselves, still operating at deeper and less conscious levels.

I propose that human beings have evolved through three major ‘reality shifts’ and that we are currently on the cusp of a fourth. This is similar to the well-known ‘paradigm shift’ concept made popular from the history of science (T. Kuhn), except that as a constructivist – maybe even a radical constructivist – I want to make it about more than a mere shift in the (mental) “framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of scientific [or other type of] community” (Paradigm in Dictionary.com). When our framework shifts, everything about our way of engaging with reality also shifts, which means that because reality necessarily includes our way of engaging it, reality itself shifts as well.

Mythopoetic Reality

The first reality shift, and the one that launched our species on its cultural trajectory, is what I’ll call the mythopoetic. Poiein is Greek for ‘to make’, and mythos translates as ‘a narrative plot’ or story; so a mythopoetic reality is one where our engagement with existence is facilitated by the narrative construction of stories. I don’t agree with a popular definition of myth which dismisses it as ‘primitive science’, our first bumbling attempts to explain what’s going on around us in the natural world. Rather, myths articulate and embellish upon foundational metaphors that represent our deepest impressions and intuitions of the grounding mystery, or what I also call the provident ground of being itself.

It’s important to understand that a story-shaped reality has no ‘outside’ – no nonfictional or purely factual realm independent of the mythic imagination. This reality is sustained in the activity of narrative performances where stories are acted out in the tasks of daily life, with the turn of seasons, on special occasions, and around the shared concerns of a community. Whatever may lie beyond the boundaries of a particular story-world is not a ‘mere fact’ but is characterized according to its proximity and potential value to what’s going on inside the story – such as the chaos acknowledged in many ancient myths, dragons lurking at the edges of medieval maps, or the boogeyman in a child’s closet.

As that last example suggests, early childhood is when each of us lived in a mythopoetic reality. We were continuously pretending – daydreaming, fantasizing, dressing up, role-playing, embarking on one adventure after another. In those years we had no interest in, let alone an understanding of, the factual reality that would later become the bedrock truth of our adult experience. That time in our lives – whatever we can remember of it – is probably our best entry to an understanding of what prehistoric story-telling culture was like.

Historical Reality

At some point in the evolutionary past, as well as in our own personal past, the sacred canopy of mythopoetic reality came down – or at least fell just far enough to expose another reality on the other side of our stories. I will call this the shift to historical reality, a shift reflecting the progress of human consciousness beyond the security, meaning, and hope we had earlier found in our myths. For a memory of what it was like, we need to recall that strange mixture of exhilaration and anxiety we felt in adolescence.

The exhilaration came as our perception of time expanded beyond the ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ frame of the story-world, into a causal stream seemingly without beginning or end. As the boundary of our mythopoetic reality blew open to reveal a limitless field of possibilities, the opportunity as well as temptation for all things exotic beckoned to us. On the other side of that exhilaration, however, was an anxiety over our sudden ‘nakedness’ – a niggling self-conscious sense of being stared at. Both of these powerful moods (exhilaration and anxiety) announced the emergence of a separate center of personal identity, or ego.

This separate self provided a new vantage point on a reality without limits (except for those repressive rules imposed on us by authorities), arranged and revolving around ego at its fixed center. It is in this reality and corresponding version of ourselves that an irresistible impulse to throw off constraints and ‘become as the gods’ – free, powerful, and beyond accountability – acquired the drag of guilt and shame for our offense. You should be able to hear a strong theistic theme here, which resolved the problem of separation by a process of atonement and reconciliation.

The dawn of historical consciousness is accompanied by a disenchantment with the mythopoetic reality of early life, which comes as a consequence of ego’s separation from its own grounding mystery. Whereas the mythic imagination continues to operate farther below, the executive ego – or what I also name Captain Ego – is having to take into account a factual realm altogether independent of it. This forces upon ego a need to decide the truth status of those stories, and a few alternatives become obvious.

One answer is that the myths are simple stories of an era when we believed such things. Now we know better and should dispense with them in the interest of progress. A second option, related to the first, might regard the myths as amusing tales that provide a fascinating look inside a less enlightened period.

Another possibility is that myths are descriptive reports of miraculous events and supernatural things revealed in the far-distant past and recorded for our benefit, but of events and things not presently accessible to our senses. This is the option that led to converting the literary (or mythological) god into a literal being, and invented the idea of a supernatural realm above and outside historical reality.

Finally, a fourth answer to the question ‘wherefore the myths?’ would be to explore them as metaphorical clues to our deeper spiritual life. Of the four options, this one is by far the least popular; ego has a hard time with metaphors and anything deeper than its own personality. The doctrine of personal immortality, another invention of this reality shift, dismisses all notions of a spirituality that threatens to swallow up, go beyond, or dissolve away the permanent self.

Secular Reality

The shift to a secular reality came about as the inherited system of supernaturally oriented beliefs rapidly lost relevance to the challenges and opportunities of daily life. This coincides with a shift in consciousness from the insecure and self-conscious ego to a more ’embodied’ and this-worldly (Latin saeculāris) orientation. Such an orientation, while portending the end of supernatural religion and biblical literalists (option 3 above) everywhere, is energetically embraced by many atheists and mystics alike.

‘Humanist’ is probably the best term for describing the emerging value system of this reality shift, as the larger cause for human rights, individual happiness, and personal well-being informs and qualifies more of what we do. The weight and promise of our current situation calls for a clear view of the facts and a more broad-based social responsibility. We don’t look outside the world to a supernatural heaven, an end-time deliverance, or even a metaphysical underground to which we might escape the task before us. The resources and solutions we’re looking for must be found inside – within ourselves, our communities, and in our shared world – this world.

As odd as it sounds, the shift from historical to secular reality makes possible a renewed appreciation for life’s sacredness and what I call the Real Presence of mystery. A reverence for the earth’s elemental forces and exquisite beauties, for the fragile yet tenacious life-force evident all around, a reverence which had been intrinsic to the enchantment of mythopoetic consciousness but was later eclipsed by the rise of the historical ego, returns now, but in a consciousness that better understands its creative responsibility within the whole. Such a heightened sensitivity to the value and promise of what’s inside awakens empathy, inspires compassion, motivates cooperation, and reconciles consciousness to a reality that is more interconnected.

Global Reality

A fourth reality shift, simultaneously ascending within us and descending upon us by a conspiracy of technologies (travel, the Internet, communications, business and trade) opens awareness to our place in a global system. We are really just starting to understand the dynamics of systems – about the interactive forces that hold things together (integrity), connect individuals in higher forms of complexity (synergy), and pull everything down toward more stable states (entropy). (For more on these, see The Consilient Leader.)

As we better understand the nature of systems and our own place in the ecosystem of planet Earth, reality invites our engagement at a new level. Of course, we’ve always belonged to systems, but as consciousness opens up to our responsibilities and creative authority within the systems we inhabit, a new set of values begins to guide our choices, goals, and commitments. Living in a global reality doesn’t allow us to make decisions and take action only around individual self-interest, or even that of our local tribes.

Consequences flow out in waves of rippling influence, not by the linear cause-and-effect of billiard balls. What’s more, the most serious consequences come back on us by intricate feedback loops, slow amplification, and long delays that we cannot predict or control. But when they come, everything in the system is affected. Perhaps the most obvious example of this seeming ‘suddenness’ of catastrophic consequences is the phenomenon of global warming. The buildup of so-called greenhouse gases has been on a slow rise for many decades. But now, all of a sudden, polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate and sea levels are rising, entire species are going extinct, and convoluted weather systems are bringing upon us one disaster after another.

In my diagram above I have positioned a human stick figure with one foot in secular reality, and the other in global reality – or almost there. This is to make the point that, for the most part, our species is only beginning to grasp the bigger picture, deeper truth, and longer view of our place in the universe. We may hold this intuition in our mythic imagination, but it remains buried beneath an obsession with identity (ego) and a chauvinistic secular humanism. Even now, any incentive for altering routines and convictions must appeal to a concern for ourselves and future generations, rather than a genuine reverence for life and responsibility to the whole.

Global reality is where the evolution of consciousness has reached a point of the universe becoming aware of itself – in us. Instead of this higher awareness setting us apart from the other species, its aim is to inspire us to care more responsibly for the planetary community of life.

 

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Contents Under Pressure

Religion

The phenomenon of religion has evolved with the rise of human culture, perhaps going back millions of years to our hominid ancestors. Its function has always been to “link together” (religare) the separate concerns and activities of daily life in a coherent way by orienting it all around a single transcendent focus. “Transcendent” here doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural or metaphysical, but simply above and beyond the field of temporal attachments.

Theism is the standard and conventional form of religion, as it coordinates tribal life around a metaphor representing the provident power(s) behind the world as we know it. As a constructivist, I hasten to add that the so-called “world as we know it” is really a construction of our own minds – not the given sensory-physical realm outside us, but the layers of value, meaning, and significance that we weave around it. Like spiders we spin our web of language across the universe and call it home.

The deity of theism – an agency of intelligence, personality, and will that might be represented in any number of human or nonhuman forms – is how religion depicts the provident power(s) on which our lives depend. Instead of being revealed to us through the clouds, as someone coming to religion from outside might assume, this deity is actually a kind of creative reflex of the mythic imagination. The many stories (myths) that together form the narrative fabric of human meaning (our worldview) are not eye-witness reports of supernatural encounters, but rather poetic-literary portrayals of the present mystery that gives us life, supplies our need, and receives our last breath.

As societies grew larger and more complex, the tribal practice of reciting traditional stories and ritually participating in the life of god required institutional support. Certain individuals were elevated to positions of honor and authority by virtue of their familiarity with the deity. Or perhaps it was the other way around: individuals with social clout and community influence took on the mantle of high priest and presented themselves as ordained mediators between god and the people. As the sacrament of storytelling and ritual enactment became difficult to manage for a growing population, it was found that community agreement could be more efficiently achieved by converting this sacramental experience of god into a system of orthodox beliefs about god.

My illustration above intends to show how, with the addition of an authority structure and an “official” orthodoxy, religion gradually pushed the providential metaphor of the deity out of its literary habitat (as the principal figure of sacred story), into a supernatural space outside the world, and farther away from the relevant concerns of daily life.

And this is where we are today – arguing over whose deity is the one-and-only, trashing the earth, suppressing freedom and creativity, and thrusting our species to the embattled edge of oblivion. But don’t worry, if you’re on the right side your soul will be safely delivered to a better place far away.

So whereas once upon a time religion could do its job by connecting individuals to one another in community and anchoring the community to a reality celebrated as provident, it slowly but surely removed its members from communion with the Real Presence of mystery and became instead a tinderbox of spiritual frustration, small thinking, moral regression, and redemptive violence.

In the meantime this dysfunctional religion invented its own myth – now no longer in the traditional sense of a sacred story grounding us in a provident reality, but rather a narrative deception about our human fall from grace and into the hopeless condition of sin. The consequent “gap” between earth and heaven, nature and supernature, human and divine is characterized by rampant depravity and ignorance, veritably crying out for the authority and orthodoxy that religion itself provides.

The earth, our bodies (particularly woman’s) and our life in time were reconstructed in this myth as fallen, corrupt, and condemned – unless saved (purified, separated, and redeemed) according to the prescription laid out in holy doctrine. If the times happen to be especially stressed and insecure (as they appear to be now), the program of salvation becomes an emergency exit from a world believed to be in the process of irreversible collapse. Over a matter of just 3,000 years or so, religion invented a myth of estrangement where humans are fated to perdition without the saving intervention of “the one true faith.”

As a counter-voice of sanity, a growing number have been calling for the dismantling of theism, insisting that belief in god at this advanced stage in our history is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible. And not just irresponsible, but intellectually and morally backwards. While “atheist” used to be a label for one who refutes the existence of (a) god, it evolved over time into an outspoken defiance of god out of allegiance to human values. Today atheists join hands in solidarity against the abuses of religion, leaving its god to exist or not exist as a matter of indifference.

In my defense of post-theism, I have frequently heard from conventional theists and atheists alike that my position is just a convoluted form of atheism. I’m really a closet atheist but just afraid to admit it to myself. To suggest that the mythological gods of religion are literary figures (in story) and not literal beings (in reality) is effectively denying the existence of god, is it not?

Actually, the “after god” of post-theism is very different from the “no god” of atheism. While atheism commits itself to arguing against the literal existence of god (or living as if it doesn’t matter), post-theism regards the literary existence and mythological career of the deity as highly relevant to an understanding of our evolution as a species.The literary deity inspires us, calls to us, and places demands on us in order to actualize what is presently dormant, unacknowledged, or repressed in us.

Yahweh, the biblical god of Jews and Christians, does not have to be real to be important. To say that Yahweh never spoke the universe into being, parted water, or raised Jesus from the dead in any kind of (as we might say) scientific-objective sense might sound as if I’m refuting his existence and seeking to undermine the religions founded on these doctrines – but I’m not. The literal existence of Yahweh is literally beside the point and outside the plot (mythos) where his truth as metaphor is found.

As a constructivist I regard every picture of reality, even the scientific one, as a construct of our minds. Religious myths and scientific theories are merely two kinds of storytelling, the one (science) weaving narratives that explain the physical universe confronting our senses, as the other (religion) does its composing out of a more internal intuition of the present mystery that sustains us. Science joined the conversation around the campfire quite late, when religion had already been about the business of myth-making for many thousands of years. Its more detached and mathematical approach to things did in fact compete with religion’s sacred fictions of fabulous characters and miraculous deeds, convincing a growing number to abandon these tales as so much primitive superstition.

In the illustration above, the entire institution of religion rests on a foundation of spiritual experience – what I call the experience of mystery or the present mystery of reality. We are in this stream (a better metaphor than foundation, which suggests something fixed and unchanging) all the time, but we can only be aware of it now, in this very moment, for in the next moment this mystery will present itself to us afresh. Out of this experience of Real Presence, along with an exquisite awareness that it sustains us providentially in this moment, arise the metaphors of the mythic imagination.

The deity is born, and just as suddenly we find ourselves engaged in a dialogue with the primordial support and deeper intention of our existence. Post-theism is the contemplation of what’s next (“post”), as we continue to grow Godward.

 
 

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