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Human Evolution

In a post from long ago entitled Humanism in a New Key, I offered an interpretation of post-theism where the re-absorption of higher virtues formerly projected in the deities of religion opens up a new era in our evolving spirituality as a species. If the idea of an external god is understood in terms of an intentional object (i.e., as a construct of our mythopoetic imagination) rather than a metaphysical one (i.e., as a being existing outside and separate from us), this critical step can be welcomed and celebrated.

I don’t presume that all theists will embrace the notion, but for many (including myself as a former theist) it can mark the breakthrough to a liberated life.

I find it helpful to view this process in the time-frame of human evolution as it has unfolded over many millenniums. Our species itself emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago, a late product of the natural evolution of life on Earth. Upon arriving, we proceeded to evolve still further under the shaping influence of culture – a construct system of language, symbols, stories, and technologies that continues to lift us by our own bootstraps.

If the evolution of nature brought about our uniquely complex nervous system and social intelligence, this gear-shift of cultural evolution will lead either to our fulfillment as a species or to our self-destruction. Because human culture is a work in progress, which direction we go remains an open question.

When our theory lacks imagination and insight, the purpose of culture gets reduced to little more than managing nature – our own as well as the natural order around us. In this view, with all its clever innovations and sophisticated methods, culture is just a fancy, interesting, but problematic way of keeping us alive and making copies of our genes – like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’, as we say. Cultures rise and fall, come and go, but we can only fall and go once from the scene of nature to be gone for good. Religion and science fiction can muse over angels and androids and faraway realms, but our real business is survival on this third rock from the sun.

On the other hand, it could be that our fulfillment as a species depends on something original to culture, something not merely derived from or sublimated out of our nature as highly evolved animals. I call this original element community – or more specifically, genuine community – and I’ve tried to show in numerous posts how religion plays a key role in its formation. Genuine community is not merely a society of individuals who get along; something much more transformative is going on.

The larger trajectory towards fulfillment is still unfolding after these many thousands of years, and we today stand on a critical threshold where our next step will bring about a breakthrough or (almost just as likely) a breakdown.

There is a debate over whether human evolution will reach its fulfillment with genuine community (as I argue) or instead with the rise of extraordinary individuals who possess super-human powers and abilities. The ‘exceptionalists’ focus their hopes on such paranormal abilities as levitation, mind-reading, bending spoons, or turning water into wine. They talk of higher consciousness, perfected nature, and immortality, but their specimens are typically from another time and quarter, or else ‘presently unavailable’ for closer examination.

When serving as a Christian pastor, I was frequently taken by how believers’ regard for Jesus as just such an exception kept him safely at a distance and released them of any obligation to be like him. Maybe the possibility was there, but only for the spiritually gifted, not the rest of us.

By shifting our focus to the evolution of community, we don’t have the option of worshiping perfection from a distance. As I see it, our advancement as individuals and the formation of genuine community are deeply correlated. Community provides the supportive environment where identity is constructed and personal commitment to the health of the whole is empowered in the individual. The individual then adds his or her creative influence to the community, which continues to foster a still higher realization of wellbeing. Thus a provident community and personal commitment progressively co-elevate the project of human evolution.

My diagram gives an illustration of this laddering dynamic. Again, a provident community instills in the newborn and young child a deep sense that she belongs. As she matures, the youngster is encouraged to participate in the community as a contributing member. And eventually, if all goes well, the young adult will take a responsible role in creating the new reality of an even stronger, more provident community for all.

This would amount to little more than a redundant cycling of new generations taking their place in society, except for the fact that it has been evolving. And the direction of this evolution – despite occasional setbacks and derailments along the way – has been steadily toward what I call the human ideal, by which I mean the fully self-actualized human being.

Like all living things, we humans have a potential locked up in our genes, but also encoded in the memes (symbols, stories, and folk wisdom) of culture, that gradually opens and develops in the direction of our maturity and fulfillment.

Beyond our physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity as individuals, there are still higher aims that have to do with our life together in community. In a recent post I identified five ethical virtues in particular that are recognized across all cultures as representing this human ideal.

My diagram displays these five virtues at the apex of an ascending arrow, which makes the point that this ideal is always ‘above and ahead’ of us, igniting our aspirations as well as measuring our progress or lack of it.

Theistic religion early on took up the task of focusing human contemplation on the higher virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, which it personified in metaphorical figures of deities – humanlike but more perfect, bending their providential powers in the interest of a cohesive community. In myths that were regularly recited and performed in ritual settings of worship, the gods ‘characterized’ how devotees were expected to behave. (As projections, they could also deify our cruder and more violent tendencies as well.)

First by obedience, and gradually more and more by way of aspiration and endeavoring to be ‘like god’, the community of believers began to demonstrate the virtues in their interactions and way of life. This inward activation of what had been externally represented marks the evolutionary threshold where theism transforms into post-theism, where god relocates, as it were, from heaven into the heart, becoming the sacred center of an awakened and liberated life.

 

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The Wheel of Fortune

Our noses are pressed so far into the business of everyday life, that we rarely push our chair away from the desk far enough to take in the bigger picture. The demands on our time and attention leave us too exhausted at the end of the day to contemplate anything “bigger” than a glass of wine, online distractions, or the prospect of a decent night’s sleep.

We might diagnose our times as suffering from “commotion fatigue,” referring not just to the disturbances happening around us, but even more to the agitation and upheavals going on within. If you were to spin a raw chicken egg on the table, stop it momentarily with your finger and then pull away, the still-spinning insides will get it moving again without your assistance. It’s like that. The inner vortex of frustration, irritation, and anxiety has us spinning even when to all outward appearances we are sitting quietly alone. Eventually all this inner commotion wears us out and leaves us depleted.

Popular forms of therapy include sedation, either self-administered by the glass or in the form of prescription medication, mental distraction, entertainment, or saying “no” to some of the things crowding in on us. Less often do we consider the benefits of opening the window of perception to a reality larger than the set of concerns we are trying to manage.

If asked What’s going on? our answer will likely be limited to the stuff that’s on our personal plate. But, of course, there is much, much more going on than only that.

Getting a sense of our place in the grand scheme of things could provide us with the perspective we need to distinguish between what really deserves our attention and what matters less. If you don’t know where you are, anything might offer the clue you’re looking for; and without a sense of the whole, any clue is as good as another.

Most cultures have – or at least had at some point in the past – a grand-scheme picture of being and time which serves to situate human existence and the individual’s life journey. While this picture is not identical across the cultures and historical periods, for the most part its major components form a constant pattern – something like a transcultural mandala of our species. In this post I’ll adopt a name commonly used for it: The Wheel of Fortune.

Religious myths represent our first efforts at contemplating the Wheel of Fortune. Much later, scientific theories worked out the picture in a more impersonal and abstract language. Myth and theory are really just two ways of approaching the same mystery, one looking through the screen of personality, and the other with this screen methodologically removed. One sees intentionality behind and throughout reality, while the other is committed to regarding it all as a marvelous accident, devoid of purpose or final goal.

Religion positions intelligent volition at the start, center, and end; science lets mindless chance evolve over inconceivable intervals of time and space. The plain fact, which neither one can ignore, is that conditions have indeed provided for the flourishing of life, sentience, and self-awareness in the universe. By intention or by accident?

Is it legitimate for human beings to ask why we are here – to search out our purpose, deciphering clues to our possible fulfillment and responsibility to the whole? Or are we limited only to asking how we got here – the random causality leading up to our arrival over countless eons of time? Religious myths offer revelations into the provident intelligence behind everything. Scientific theories offer explanations that make reality intelligible, but only to us.

It’s helpful to remember that these two storytelling enterprises, religion and science, are contemplating the same reality. Whether it uses metaphorical archetypes or metalogical algorithms in its preferred narrative, one doesn’t have to be right and the other wrong. They can both be right (or wrong), but from different angles of approach.

That is to say, the Wheel of Fortune is a shared fascination of both religion and science, and both historically have been interested in understanding the big picture and our place in the universe. Each component of the Wheel can be represented mythologically or theoretically, as we’ll see.

The cosmic order issued from the preconditions of chaos, personified in myth as a monster (e.g., the serpent Tiamat or the dragon Leviathan) whose body enveloped the primordial stuff of existence. By the sword or command of a god its body was opened up to release this energy and then subsequently dissected into the sky, earth, sea, and underworld.

According to scientific theory, this primordial state was a singularity of infinite potential that exploded outward in expanding waves of energy that quickly crystallized into the elements of matter. Hydrogen and helium fused first to become the center of nascent stars, where stellar nucleosynthesis proceeded to form the heavier elements of outlying matter and solar systems.

According to both narratives, the energy of chaos is paradoxically the ground of existence. While both myth and theory depict the decisive event as having occurred at the beginning of all things, the chaos, whether divided and portioned, or expanding and transformed, continues even now to fuel the creative process. In fact, the creation or ‘big bang’ of our universe wasn’t just an event in the distant past, but is presently ongoing.

Cosmic order continuously arises by the dismemberment of the dragon, by the out-pouring differentiation of chaos into the relatively stable forms of matter.

What we are calling the ground of existence, then, refers to the spontaneous uprising of energy into matter, of matter into organism, of organic life into sentience, and of awareness into egoic self-awareness. The ground is not outside of these, but deeply internal to each existing thing.

For a self-aware human being, the grounding mystery is accessed by descending within, through the centers of personal identity (ego) and a sentient nervous system, from which threshold consciousness releases to the organic rhythms of the animal body. Unconscious matter and (deeper still) quantum chaos support everything from still farther down/within, but awareness can only contemplate these ineffable depths from the drop-off of its own center.

The Wheel of Fortune’s upward swing follows the rise of cosmos (order) out of chaos, a coming-into-existence (genesis) of all things. To exist is to ‘stand out’ of this purely potential state, taking form and finding a place in the grand scheme. It is happening all the time; or we might also say, its happening is the very definition of time.

Religious myth and scientific theory are both narrative constructions by which human minds have contemplated the mystery of a provident universe. Whether we ask why we are here (an inquiry into purpose and destiny) or how we got here (exploring causality and evolution), we are seeking to understand our place in the whole.

But the Wheel continues to turn, and as it swings downward this cosmic complexity begins to come loose at the seams. In the myths we hear of the breakdown of order, a worldwide deluge, the fall into mortality and the collapse of virtue, an apocalyptic catastrophe – all archetypes, once again, of what we can perceive going on around us in countless small and larger ways.

Because it looks through the veil of personality, religion sees intention, purpose, and will operating behind things. If gods and heroes are the agents in the Wheel’s upturn, on its downturn the myths feature devils and anti-heroes who conspire in the universe’s unraveling.

Science names this demonic intention toward disorder entropy, which refers to the tendency or “law” that pulls complexity down toward more stable arrangements. Complex systems require more energy to hold together and they function relatively far from equilibrium.

Our brains, for instance, are made of material nerve cells capable of conducting electrical impulses, forming circuits and networks of interaction that give rise to consciousness. Consciousness itself is a highly complex process and inherently unstable; it is dynamic and not static. Entropy is experienced as mental fatigue, and as the brain loses energy its functions collapse to lower, slower, and more stable states.

From a vantage-point higher up in the organizational complexity such as a personal ego, this downward pull toward stability threatens existence and will eventually bring about its end. On the Wheel of Fortune this is where reality is perceived not as the supportive ground of existence but rather as the abyss of extinction – the dragon once again, but now in its aspect as world-devourer and ultimate solvent of forms. The pouring-forth of genesis has its counterbalance on the Wheel in kenosis (from Greek, to empty out).

In the language of science, chaos is not only the quantum field that gives rise to the physical universe. It is also a dark sea of probability and indeterminate fluctuations that is quite literally nothing, in that it has no objective existence of its own. The very act of measuring these fluctuations determines whether they show up as particles or waves, but their behavior is intrinsically unpredictable. A methodological detachment of our research intention from the supposed object of study, which is how science proceeds above the quantum level, is just not possible down here.

Not only do all the qualifications of the Newtonian universe dissolve into nothingness as we approach the quantum field, but even the sacrosanct division of mind and reality folds in upon itself.

Thus the Wheel of Fortunes turns – not one time only, but again and again in unceasing revolution. And not only at the highest level, either, where the whole thing turns as the mystery of our universe, but in every quarter, niche, and speck. The great uprising of matter into life, of life into sentience, and of sentience into the self-conscious ego reading these words right now, is circling back around to begin again.

 

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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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Remembering Jesus at Christmas

American Christianity

It’s funny how quickly people pick up the Christmas script this time of year, talking about how “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We scurry about from store to store, looking for just the right holiday decorations, cards, and gifts. We load up our credit cards and keep retailers in business for another year. This might be one of the two times this year that many of us go to church.

Did I say funny? I meant profoundly sad … and appalling. Just look how far off the path we have gotten from the original Jesus.

Despite the odd mix of ignorance and conviction that spins inside many of our churches Sunday after Sunday, we actually know quite a lot about the historical Jesus – about the actual individual who lived and died nearly 2000 years ago. We have to go behind the thick screen of mythology that began taking shape shortly after his death. Our New Testament, far from being an historical account of objective facts, is a complicated braid of distinct mythological traditions representing the diverse groups that grew out of the severed stump of his failed revolution.

The cross of Jesus is at once the symbol of his message and the sign of his violent end. As symbol it speaks of his compassionate solidarity with the poor as well as his courageous resistance to the political and religious regimes of his day. What is called “the gospel of Jesus” is not the orthodox doctrines about him, but the vision of a new world-order he professed and the ethic he both taught and demonstrated in his life.

Jesus condemned the social divisions of rich and poor, of “clean” and “unclean,” of insiders and outsiders. By refusing to walk the cattle path of moral mediocrity, which in every society provides the necessary justification for prejudice, bigotry, and defensive self-concern, he provoked a strong reaction in those whose state-appointed or god-ordained role was to uphold the current way of things.

What really agitated his detractors was his message and lifestyle of radical love. For Jesus, this type of love – not the sweet sentiment that commonly goes by the name – is so deep and far-reaching that it can neither be possessed nor measured out by preference. Such a love must extend so far as to include even our enemy: this call to unconditional forgiveness was ultimately what made it necessary to put Jesus away. He challenged his friends to go beyond the god of orthodoxy whose reluctant obligation to condemn sinners had effectively set a limit on forgiveness and granted divine endorsement of a shock-and-awe retribution when an enemy will not repent.

After his death, various followers committed themselves to living according his vision and example. For decades they were persecuted, driving some into hiding and others into outlying towns or deserts where they could cultivate his way of life. Another early Christian stream came under the charismatic leadership of a Jew named Saul (later Paul), who worked diligently to marry its Hebrew heritage to the Greek (gentile) mindset.

Using symbolism already present in Greek mystery religions – many of which were dedicated to a divine figure of the grain field and vineyard who died and was transmuted into the bread and wine enjoyed by devotees in a sacred meal  – Paul weaved together strands of Hebrew and Greek mythology. The product of his invention was “the Lord Jesus, who died and was raised.” His new body is the community of believers devoted to carrying his message and spirit into the world.

Some forms of early Christianity were oriented in this way, striving to realize the spirit of Jesus in their manner of life; while others, mostly groups still at the epicenter of Roman persecution, looked to a future day when the risen Jesus who had been temporarily taken up into heaven would return on the clouds with vindication for the oppressed and vengeance for their enemies.

After Paul came the Gospels, which gave more attention to developing the mythological backstory of Jesus. Here we find the symbols of a virgin birth, miraculous signs and wonders, an empty tomb, a vertical ascent of the risen Jesus into the sky with the promise of coming again, while continuing to be present where even two or three gather in his name, to the end of time. All of this mythology and its metaphysical framework conspired in a dramatic makeover of Jesus into one divinely ordained, filled with the Holy Spirit, the very (one and only) Son of God, and (in the coming centuries) Second Person of the Divine Trinity.

Along the way also, as the emerging Christendom sidled up to the State and eventually took over the reigns of political power, the essential message of Jesus concerning radical love and unconditional forgiveness was almost entirely forgotten. In its place Christian orthodoxy installed a worldview that divided heaven from earth, soul from body, man from woman, logic from feeling, and (once again) insiders from outsiders. In its soteriology (theory of salvation) orthodoxy once again elevated justice over compassion and glorified redemptive violence as god’s final solution to sin. The upshot of it all was to get the saved soul safely to heaven where true believers would receive their reward for faith and obedience while on earth.

With the shift from a feudal economy in the Middle Ages to a market economy in the dawn of modernity, Christianity established incumbency among the middle class. As capitalism took hold and spread, the ability to accumulate wealth and reinvest it for profit, or else spend it on the luxuries of a more leisurely lifestyle, inspired some to regard their good fortune as a sign of god’s favor. God’s desire is that we have all we need in abundance, and that we should be charitable to those in need. Rather than challenging the status quo and rattling the system that oppresses the poor, as Jesus had done, the Prosperity Gospel supports programs that only temporarily relieve the poor but leave the structures of inequity intact.

And so we come to American Christianity. Probably most true believers I’ve known – and I served churches as a professional pastor for nearly 20 years – care little about religious orthodoxy, or wouldn’t care if they knew even a little about it. They are familiar with that tired old rip about believing in Jesus as your personal Lord and savior, but their intellectual grasp on what that means is feeble indeed. For the most part they recite the doctrines and verses taught to them in Sunday School, go to church once in a while, and try to be good citizens of the American empire. One day Jesus will come again, or maybe they’ll depart this life and get to see him before he makes his descent.

This Christmas provides us an opportunity to look past the holiday glitz, behind the orthodoxy and beneath even the mythology of our Christian religion. We can, even now, remember Jesus. His vision for the world and our human future is just as relevant today, and his message is as urgently needed now as ever before.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2015 in Timely and Random

 

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A Once and Future Religion

What if I don’t believe in a metaphysical deity who is running The Show? What if I don’t take the Bible literally? What if I regard heaven and hell as mythological constructs rather than actual places? What if the soul for me is not a separate and immortal center of who I am? What if I see religion as a system for coordinating the multiple concerns of human existence, instead of a holy regime revealed from above and established for all time. What if I don’t believe that ‘everything happens for a reason’? What if I am not waiting for Jesus to come again, or trying to convert others to my way of life?

What if I believe that a religion is right or wrong, true or false, depending on the quality of consciousness, breadth of compassion, and persistent kindness it inspires in its adherents? What if I’m of the opinion that a religion (any religion) might follow or fall off the path of salvation; and that ‘salvation’ is about coming together, getting healthy, and becoming whole – not escaping and leaving behind the mess we’re in.

And then again, what if I choose to regard this so-called mess of a world as a perpetual twilight of peace, love, joy, and hope?

You might call me a pitiful contradiction.

It’s impossible, you say, to have peace without god, to know genuine love without believing church doctrine, to experience real joy unless it is fixed on something outside the world, or to live with any hope unless my destiny is secure in the next life.

Once upon a time – and still once in a while – religion, its god, the community of faith, and the individual believer worked all together in support of a way of life that honored the sacred thresholds of birth and death, that cultivated an intimate relationship between our pressing needs and a provident universe, that opened human hearts and minds to the present mystery of reality, and that inspired us to look deeply into that mystery with wonder, gratitude, and responsibility.

But then it happened – and happens still – that religion became oppressive and its god an idol, that believers turned into prisoners (convicts) of their beliefs (convictions), and all the sacred rhythms that once coordinated and connected the varieties of human experience collapsed into empty ritual, rigid doctrines, blind tradition, and heavy obligations. The sacred myths that, in the communal act of telling, once generated a fictional performance space for the transformation of consciousness, were screwed down into writing and taken as eye-witness reports of supernatural facts.

For the longest time religion was a vibrant force in human society, not a violent one. It was the generator of ultimate meaning, not a propaganda factory of apocalyptic fears. It brought people together rather than drive them apart. Religion was about sacred grounding and holy communion, not terrorism and holy wars. It healed our brokenness and raised us to new life. It affirmed the cosmos as friendly and Earth as our home. Religion deepened our faith, challenged our tendency toward self-interest, and encouraged our compassionate outreach into the Web of Life.

It did all of this before god (animism), occasionally during the reign of gods (theism), and now after god has passed beyond definition (post-theism), gradually waking in the lives of millions around our planet today whose religion is loving-kindness.

This is my belief.flower

 

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The Simple Message

“Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” What if the message of a one-world religion was as simple as that? Obviously the meaning of those words would need to be unpacked before believers scramble on board. There is no magic in merely repeating the words as you break bread, ring a bell, prostrate yourself, or whirl in circles. Religion has really never been about some special power in ritual performances, but rather how these rituals focus attention, unite members of the community in shared intention, and provide thereby a sacred entry into deep time where everything is celebrated as moving in a purposeful direction.

It’s been about connection, as the root religare implies (to tie back or link together). Just because some religions have degenerated into reactionary, separatist, and violence-prone idiocracies (a rule of spiritual idiots) isn’t a sound reason to reject religion itself out of hand as the same. The occasion of bad science or bad politics doesn’t give us good reason to cast science or politics on the cultural junk pile; instead we redouble our commitment to keep science aligned with empirical facts and politics oriented on the welfare of society.

With so many blatant examples of bad religion all around us, I want to call us back to its essential function, summarized in the simple message of “Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” All religions will find the secret to a renewed inspiration and relevance as they realign themselves once again to the vision of reality conveyed in this message. So let’s take a few minutes to unpack what it means.

Web_GroundPlug in

A human being has both an inner life and an outer life. Our inner life, called our soul, trails deep inside to the very root of consciousness. In that deep place within each of us, finally inaccessible even to our own searching mind, consciousness rises out of and recedes again into a mystery that all religions acknowledge as an elusive presence. Before they put words to it and dress it up in symbols, stories, and doctrines, this presence is intuitively known as the very Ground of Being, the creative source in which our existence finds its genesis and provident support.

Reach Out

A human being also has an outer life, called our body, which extends far outside the boundary of our skin – although for the sake of convenience we commonly regard it as a physical object. In truth, however, our body is of the same substance (homooúsios) as the earth and contains the saline of its oceans, metabolizes the light of the sun and has stardust in its cells. It is not a separate thing at all; in fact, our body belongs to a vibrant Web of Life as large as the universe itself. The very nature of our body shares in the interdependence of cosmic reality.


The inner life of our soul and the outer life of our body make human beings a fascinating duality. Outwardly we are connected to the Web of Life and dependent upon its sacred balance of energies, while inwardly we are rooted in the Ground of Being and cradled in a present mystery. These two aspects of our existence, outer and inner, are what religion has long helped us hold together. By coordinating our deeper communion with Being and our wider fellowship with Life, religion (as religare) keeps us whole.

Open Up

But there is yet another aspect of human beings, besides the inner and outer, that introduces a wonderful complication to this enterprise of unifying our experience of reality. What we call ego is our identity as members of this or that human tribe (family, community, culture). Because every social group of humans is unique according to its history, traditions, customs, concerns, values, beliefs, and aspirations, every individual ego – which, of course, carries its own unique set of inclinations, moods, and motivations – is unique as unique can possibly be.

Egos must be shaped to the aims of the group so they can take the responsibility of promoting its peculiar construction of meaning known as ideology. One problem with ideology is that it tends to codify our human insecurities into compensatory convictions of absolute truth. If our tribal existence is particularly imperiled by vanishing resources and competition with a neighboring group, for instance, an idea something like manifest destiny will soon rise in our minds, providing all the justification we need to secure what is ours by right.

It’s at this stage in the game where religion constructed the notion of a patron deity, whose role is to authorize the moral order, incentivize internal reform, justify external campaigns of war, and characterize the virtues to be cultivated in the lives of devotees. These protected memberships served, and still serve, as social incubators of identity. Members are believers, believers are aspirants, and what they aspire to is represented in their deity. Submission, devotion, and obedience train their collective energies on a common ideal which they confess together as the one and only way.

As I said, inevitably (and by design) the constructed identity of an individual ego will carry the social investment of its culture. Family patterns of abuse, neglect, or discrimination – but of healthy nurturing as well – work themselves into the operating system of our personality. I would dare say that all of us, simply because we had to find our way through this broken maze of childhood, enter our own maturity with some deep-set insecurities about ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the prospect of happiness. As a consequence, we play it safe and keep ourselves closed to the greater reality.

An insecure identity, contracted in self-defense and working itself into nervous exhaustion, is that much removed from its own inner life and Ground of Being. Indeed the mere suggestion that “I” (ego) might surrender completely and lose myself in union with the soul’s grounding mystery is contemplated with horror. But outwardly, too, the self-involved ego is ignorant of and careless about the body and its vibrant Web of Life. Reaching out too far and opening its horizon of understanding to the fragile balance of life would take focus away from its precious contract of “me and mine.”

And that’s where the real contribution of “true religion” lies: in challenging us to open up and to drop the illusion of identity. Only then can we plug in to the Ground of our being and reach out to the Web of Life. Only then will we be whole.

This is the simple message.

 

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By God, What Do You Mean?

Real progress in religion is hampered by the fact that its primary concern is such an enigma. What people name “God” – or better, what they mean when they use this term – is nearly impossible to pin down. This is partly due to the inherent difficulty in defining something that admittedly has no boundaries or limits. But perhaps an even stronger factor has to do with the indefinite nature of experience itself, like a moving stream in continuous change.

When these two factors (a supposedly boundless object and the dynamic subjectivity of experience) are forgotten, religion becomes a seedbed of dangerous conviction and spiritual oppression. Once orthodoxy is convinced that it has the last word on God, there is no end to what it might muster, justify, or condone in promoting and defending its truth. Well, there actually is an end, once there’s nothing left to burn.

As an outspoken critic of religious orthodoxy and its god – and now I’ve shifted to the lower case, for reasons to be explained shortly – I try to maintain a sharp distinction between our names for God and that which we are presuming to name. Our unique capacity as a species for meaning-making makes us susceptible to falling under our own spell, where we start to believe that reality is as we imagine it to be. (Of course, crucial to this trance-state is forgetting that we have imagined it!)

In this post I will offer an understanding of religion’s primary concern, specifically exploring how experience, meaning, and truth come together (or fall apart) in this often baffling enterprise. An operating assumption throughout is that our names and representations of God – in other words, our various gods – can never fully or finally capture the reality under consideration. If we can agree on this (and not forget it), then perhaps some constructive dialogue is possible.

Even if our depictions of God are different, and significantly so, at least we can learn to appreciate our different depictions as depth-soundings into the marvelous complexity of human experience. Why do we have to put our depictions (as art, story, or doctrine) up against each other for competition and superior standing? Why not celebrate this diversity, claiming it as proof that God is more (and other) than any of us can imagine?

I think I know why.God Spectrum

God as Divine Absolute

It’s interesting how, at the higher levels of theological reflection, God is depicted in such abstract terms and extrapolated to such infinite degrees, that most (if not all) of our differences are logically eliminated. It no longer matters whether we’re talking about the ultimate reality according to Jews, Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists. Once you bracket out the traditional names for the Absolute (referring to what is utterly independent and unconditioned), the reality under consideration is identical.

The reason for this remarkable similarity has to do with the inevitable effect of pushing definitions into infinity (e.g., the Divine Absolute as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent), which is to erase them or stretch them so far that they no long define anything. By definition, so to speak, the Absolute is beyond definition. Whatever qualities are attributed to it are necessarily amplified to an infinite degree – exploded into everything and beyond.

As the Divine Absolute, God is everywhere. If God isn’t in this tree or that cloud, or even in my enemy; if God is only in heaven or on earth, but not in hell – then there is a location where God isn’t, which logically means that God is not everywhere after all. If we are going to reflect on the logical perfection of the Divine Absolute, then anything that is in the nature of God will be without limits, that is to say, infinite. That’s why, at this level of reflection, the differences among our traditional gods dissolve away, leaving only The Unlimited which includes everything but is not dependent on anything for its existence.

This capacity for higher-order thinking is a fairly late development in our individual maturation, coming only after we have gained the cognitive functions and language skills to support what Piaget named formal operations, the ability for symbolic and abstract thought. I like to think of this as the “logical refinery” where concepts drawn from experience are stripped of their situational “dross” and changed into pure ideas, or ideals. God, at this level of abstraction, is not a being belonging to this or that tradition, but absolute and limitless Being, that which transcends yet includes existence itself.

Now obviously that’s not where most people are interested in spending their time and intellectual energy. Besides, a logical abstraction like the Divine Absolute is not something that does much to stir devotion or confirm the validity of your creed. Even worse, if it doesn’t produce religious apathy (who can love an abstraction?), there is a danger that serious theological reflection will lead to heresy. (The omnipresent God is in hell? Unacceptable!)

God as Patron Deity

That’s perhaps why more of us stay in the groove of our religious tradition – belonging to a faith community, going to worship and bringing up our children in the “right way,” studying the scriptures and denominational confessions, believing and behaving as we ought, doing our best to please, flatter, and placate our Patron Deity. The down-shift from a Divine Absolute to a Patron Deity is a step into full engagement with a personified representation of God who has had a long history with “our people” – the insiders, the elect, the chosen ones, the saved.

Patron Deity is a more or less technical term taken from the kind of relationship said to exist between the deity and devotee. This relationship is transactional and supported by the mutual exchange of submission for protection, obedience for reward, worship for blessing. Where exactly is the Patron Deity encountered? The answer is difficult for many believers to accept: In the myths, or sacred stories, in which the deity’s character is first introduced and subsequently developed. In other words, the Patron Deity is a narrative construct – the central construct – of a tradition’s mythopoetic (myth-making or storytelling) imagination.

Our modern Western loss of this mythopoetic imagination, which was the tragic cost that attended our “gain” in a reductive, objectifying, hard-facts-oriented worldview, required that we “interpret” (rather than recite, embody, and perform) our sacred stories as factual eye-witness reports of supernatural realities and miraculous events of long ago. Yahweh, the resident Patron Deity of the Bible, now must be regarded as existing outside the stories (since story has lost its power), somewhere “out there” or “up there” – in any case, no longer exactly here.

In the opinion of many, it is a blatant statement of atheism to even suggest that no one (anywhere, ever) has encountered the Yahweh depicted in our Bible. But in making the statement I am not denying the existence of God, only insisting that the personified representation of righteousness, potency, judgment and mercy – this particular Patron Deity, Yahweh – lives only in the Bible. If it sounds like I’m saying that God is nothing but a fictional figure stuck in the pages of a book, this only exposes how far the modern mind has fallen out of mythopoetic consciousness.

Most of us need to go back to early childhood to recapture a dim memory of when stories weren’t just leisure-time entertainment but our full-time occupation. The world we lived in wasn’t made of objective facts. Instead it was suffused with invisible creatures, heroic challenges, time travel, and numerous branching storylines that we might spontaneously follow into our next adventure. Our world was a narrative construct spun out of stories. The characters we encountered, while not literally existing, were real to us – more real than any dead-heavy fact could ever be.

Yahweh started his career in the imaginarium of the ancient Near East, among a few tribes of habiru that had settled in the Sinai peninsula. The sacred stories they told brought Yahweh to life, and Yahweh in turn brought their world into existence.

God as Holy Presence

So far, then, we have distinguished two very different meanings of God: the theological abstraction of the Divine Absolute, and the mythopoetic character of the Patron Deity. One more step closer to the ground brings us into special settings where God is encountered as a Holy Presence. The sacred precincts of institutional religion (temples, churches, mosques, and cathedrals) are artificial constructions where worshipers gather to call on the Patron Deity and join themselves once again to the timeless realm of sacred story. Typically some kind of ritual performance mediates this crossover from the broken time of ordinary life into the deep time of sacramental experience.

Before temple buildings and architectural sanctuaries, people were likely to have such experiences in natural zones like groves, meadows, grottos, seashores, riversides and mountaintops – places where “something more” seemed to come through, activating their sense of wonder, amazement, awe, or even trepidation. This something more should not be confused with something else. The particular name for God at this level – Holy Presence – is often and too quickly reduced to a being (the Patron Deity?) who adds the something more by coming in from elsewhere. As a spiritual intuition, however, this Presence is not added but “unveiled” (or revealed) as always and already there.

In my diagram above I leave open the question (with curving arrows) of whether the experience of Holy Presence precedes and inspires the mythopoetic imagination, giving rise to the Patron Deity as a personification of the something more; or if established stories of God are engaged in ritual performances that successfully conduct the worshiper into the sacred time and Holy Presence of the Patron Deity. In all likelihood, the answer is “both.”

This dynamic reciprocal support between the Patron Deity and Holy Presence is where conventional religion settles into orbit. Ordinary members are neither interested in, nor do they have the patience (and time) for abstract theological reflection. It’s sufficient to give agreement to doctrines of God’s infinite nature and power and love (etc.) without bothering to chase such statements to their logical (and heretical) conclusions.

Indeed your average believer will likely harbor some suspicion towards the “scholars and academicians” who stretch the concept of God beyond what our minds can comprehend. Their preference is for a theology that maintains allegiance to the Patron Deity of their tradition and demonstrates the prestige of their orthodoxy over others. More important than an intellectual exploration into God is the security of knowing that God is here when they need him, and will reward them for their faith and obedience in the life to come.

God as Grounding Mystery

Another direction that conventional believers won’t typically go is downward – which is actually a decisive step inward, to the Grounding Mystery of being-itself. This is where mystical spirituality lives, and its signature experience is essentially the same across (really underneath) all the world religions. It’s similar to theology in the way it pushes language to its limits, but instead of pushing out, mysticism pulls language in to its metaphorical foundations. Rather than an infinite being, God is being-itself, the power-to-be in everything that exists.

God as Grounding Mystery is the source and support of all things (as suggested in the metaphor of ground). You will not find this Ground by looking outside yourself, however. As the generative wellspring of existence, the only path into the Grounding Mystery is within: inward and away from outward attachments, beneath and past the center of your personal identity (ego), down into the place which is no place, where your being rests in and is released to the provident mystery of reality. If language is useful in labeling, classifying, qualifying, and explaining the outer realm, it is gradually surrendered to a silent wonder and profound tranquility, as there is nothing (no thing) for it to grab onto.

                                                                               

While my explanation of the distinct levels of meaning for God began in the abstractions of theology and stepped down from there, essential to my theory is the claim that it all really begins in the ineffable (wordless, indescribable) experience of the Grounding Mystery. This is, after all, where our existence is rooted and anchored, where each of us takes in our life and lets it go again, where I am and you are: the only place we can ever be.

This is the only place we can ever really be.

 

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