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In the Presence of Mystery

The biblical god lives nowhere but in the sacred stories of the Bible itself, and in the mythopoetic imagination of its audience. And while this might sound like atheism, it is far from it, for the simple reason that the fictional character of god is acknowledged as a metaphor of the present mystery of reality.

It’s only when this metaphor is mistaken for an objectively existing being who matches the description, that the claim is rightly denied and atheism is born.

But this case of mistaken identity is really only a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. For the longest time, theism – the type of religion which conceives of the present mystery as a storied character with a personality much like our own – cautioned its devotees against taking god literally, particularly in Judaism where this was condemned as idolatry.

The present mystery of reality can be viewed through the lens of personality and will, but that is more about our need to feel at home in the universe.

The executive center of our personality is the “I” (or ego) from which we look out upon everything (else) that is “not me.” Arriving at this separate self is a slow process of individuation, whereby self-consciousness emerges out of the deeper substrate of sentient life (i.e., our living sensual body). This process isn’t without its complications, and each of us tends to get snagged along the way, pulling us slightly or severely off kilter and resulting in the condition described by religion as “out of joint” (Buddhist dukkha) and “off-center” (Greek hamartia: an archery term meaning to miss the mark).

The successful establishment of a separate center of self-conscious identity opens three distinct paths back to reality. First is the subjective or inward path to the grounding mystery of our own existence; I call this ‘interiority’. Second is the objective or outward path to the wholly other that both confronts and eludes us; I call this ‘alterity’ (or otherness). And third is the consilient or upward path to higher wholeness; I call this ‘unity.’

It’s important to understand that religion didn’t begin in special revelations of supernatural beings, who then settled into their cultural roles as patron deity of this or that tribe. The sacred stories were not eye-witness accounts, but rather expanded metaphors of the present mystery that grounds us from within, confronts us as other, and includes us in wholeness.

The fictional character of god was a narrative vehicle by which these distinct dimensions and their associated experiences could be represented, contemplated, and finally engaged.

Spirituality begins its career under the tutelage of mythology, where the mystery that cannot be named is given a name, disguised in personality, and depicted in the role of world creator, provident caretaker, moral authority, and revealer of truth. God is “heavenly father” or “mother earth,” the one who watches over us and provides for our needs.

But at a certain point, just as with the secular myth of Santa Claus, the fictional character needs to fall away in order that the deeper meaning can be both grasped and internalized.

What we call theology is a second-order reflection on the first-order production of mythology. It goes far beyond merely cataloging the personality profile of god and converting sacred stories into orthodox doctrines and morals. At its best, theology conducts a deeper contemplation of the metaphor of god, to the point where it breaks open to the three dimensions of reality: God as the Grounding Mystery, the Wholly Other, and as Communal Spirit.

In my diagram I have arranged the conventional theological terms “transcendence” (beyond) and “immanence” (within) in a way that can help differentiate what is unique about each of these dimensions. I am also adding the qualifiers “ontic” (as concerns the existence of things) and “noetic” (as concerns the mind and what we can know).

Let’s start with the grounding mystery. As we allow awareness to detach from the separate center of ego identity, it is able to descend along that interior path and deeper into our experience of being alive. Sinking past ego means also sinking below the reach of possessive pronouns (my, mine), reflexive thinking (about me), the subject-object distinction, and even language itself.

The grounding mystery (or ground of being) is ontically immanent in the way it completely suffuses our existence. And because it falls below the threshold of language, we also say it is noetically transcendent, or beyond the mind and what we can talk about.

If we move from our centered ego, not deeper within but out and across to the other – another person or object apart from us, we are confronted by a mystery that is ontically transcendent (as other) as well as noetically transcendent. Alterity, or otherness, goes beyond the simple fact of our separation from what is “not me.” The other confronts us with its presence, even as it recedes into its own interior depths. This is what religion means in referring to God, beyond our concepts and personifications (god with a lower-case ‘g’), as wholly (or absolutely) other.

Finally, as we engage The Other in this one, that one, and everyone, we become aware of our mutual togetherness in sacred partnership, genuine community, and the whole provident uni-verse (“turning as one”). This higher wholeness is ontically transcendent to us, at the same time as it finds embodiment and affirmative expression under those myriad names and forms (noetic immanence).

As communal spirit, the present mystery of reality fills the manifold of existence like breath (Latin spiritus) saturates the lungs, connecting this to that and holding all of us as One.

If mythology is intended for our gradual emergence into self-conscious identity, oriented toward a personal god who watches over us and requires something of us, theology breaks this metaphor open for the purpose of engaging us directly with a reality beyond our ego. Disguised in this god of mythology is the God of theology, a trinitarian mystery that is simultaneously Ground, Other, and All.

This is the experience of reality on the other side of (after: post-) god. Then at last, theology itself must surrender to silence in the presence of mystery.

 

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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 Fortune 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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Do You Know Anyone Like That?

Mythic Quest CycleIn “The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego” I offered a model that helps us track individual identity through a gauntlet of developmental challenges that both shape the ego and continue to influence it throughout the lifespan by way of deep patterns called archetypes. These archetypes belong to larger clusters that correspond to the formative phases of birth (the perinatal cluster), early childhood (the developmental cluster), and a critical passage that is unlocked only to the degree that these earlier challenges were relatively successful, opening into an experience of the grounding mystery of being itself (esoteric cluster).

It is at this threshold, in fact, where ego (identity) is surrendered to soul (communion), that theism as a paradigm of religion gives way to post-theism. Indeed, if we can better understand how it goes (or gets blocked) for the ego, we will have in hand a key insight into the evolutionary purpose (and common pathologies) of theism as well. This is because theism and ego are coeval (of the same age and equal duration). How it goes with ego, so it goes with theism – and vice versa. In this post I will explore the healthy and dysfunctional forms of both.

Before I begin, however, perhaps that last statement – about ego and theism developing together – needs to be explained. The essential idea is that ego, as the executive center of the personality, has its counterpart in the deity who is executive-in-charge of the tribe and its world. “Tribe” is here playing a mediating role, shaping the individual’s identity as “one of us” according to the moral ideal represented in the patron deity. At this stage (in theism) the game is all about clear roles and rule-bound relationships, as the arena where the social constructs of identity, membership, and obligation are set in place.

The patron deity serves a dual function as the sovereign authority behind the tribe’s moral code, and as the focus of worship and aspiration in its members. In obeying their god, individuals are cooperating for the common good, while in glorifying the divine virtues of grace, mercy, compassion, patience, wisdom, forgiveness (etc.) – and seeking all the while to be like the deity in these ways – they are gradually growing toward that ideal. Along the way, what had been addressed as outside the self (i.e., the patron deity) is slowly internalized, as it were, until the individual is able to drop the identifier of “me and mine” altogether and simply be one with everything.

It happens, and all too frequently, that ego development gets hung up (or blocked), which, if the hang-up is fairly widespread across the tribe, can have a distortion-effect on the deity as represented in art, story, theory and doctrine. As a people regress, so does their patron deity. Just as in positive development the deity contains dormant or newborn virtues of a morally advanced community, when its official custodians (the priests and theologians) slip or get pulled into degenerate vices such as dogmatism, bigotry, vengeance and cruelty, the deity undergoes a similar makeover and soon the tribe as a whole falls into its gravity.

Ego StrengthSo what is a healthy ego and deity, and what are their contrasting pathologies? First we should recall that ego-formation comes about, initially at least, through a process of restraint-and-redirection, as the impulsive drives and animal urgencies of the body are trained into socially appropriate behavior. Of course, the underlying urgency of biology and instinct doesn’t just stop doing what nature requires, which means that ego is first gained and thereafter suspended just above the borderline separating the personality from this primordial (deeper, darker) animality.

Added to this responsibility of managing the animal impulses of the body – at least the small percentage of milder inclinations that can be controlled – is the task of establishing a center in the personality where moods can be kept in balance. As distinct from urges and impulses, moods are global and sustained internal states that work to match an organism to its environment and motivate behavior that is adaptive to the challenge at hand. Because circumstances change and new challenges are always presenting themselves, particularly in the social arena where ego is at home, the personality needs to adjust quickly.

A third factor of ego strength is its ability to hold the personality together as a whole. Various and sometimes divergent streams of affect (feeling), motivation, thought, and disposition need to be supervised, coordinated, or reconciled for the sake of maintaining a unified self. There are times when a certain stream comes close to breaching the ego’s hold, which, if successful, could result in guilt, embarrassment, or personal injury. As the executive center, ego serves the important function of self-integrity.

In summary, then, healthy ego development – and let’s remember that this will be true of the divine ego of the patron deity as well – is demonstrated in a stable, balanced, and unified identity. The personality is kept from falling through the floor into animal urgency, it is able to maintain a center of emotional composure, and it is held together under a governing director who monitors all things “me and mine” (our Captain Ego). From this stable, balanced, and unified platform, an individual is capable of leaping out into a larger reality, transcend the self entirely, and consciously join the present communion of all things – which is the mystical experience of spirituality.

Against this profile of healthy identity we can more easily describe the different types of pathology that afflict both ego and the patron deity.

You should probably know that I am deeply skeptical over the modern confidence in naming and classifying so-called mental disorders. Biological psychiatry and diagnostic psychotherapy have invented a complicated web of clinical disorders without a clear definition of mental order. Critics of this enterprise – and it is a wonderful conspiracy of inventors, drug manufacturers, and insurance companies, served by a cadre of well-compensated physicians and therapists – are highly doubtful that health and suffering can be so cleanly divided into “normal” and “abnormal.”

With that said, my description of pathology in the ego and theism’s deity is not intended to deny the legitimate cases where something is really, and deeply, wrong with the brain (in ego’s case). While I have chosen the names of a few outstanding and “popular” pathologies for my purpose, I readily concede that there are times when biology has “gone wrong” and a patient needs medical (drug and/or surgical) intervention. But such cases are much rarer than is commonly believed, which is part of the delusion that the conspiracy is intent on perpetuating.Ego PathologySo here we go. When the boundary separating ego from the lower animal urgencies is not very strong, the personality is not able to control the border and keep spontaneous impulses in check. Consequently the identity system will unpredictably collapse and be overtaken by sudden urges or reactions, making the person behave in socially inappropriate ways that end up damaging relationships. Do you know anyone like this?

What I’m calling borderline personality, then, is not so much a clinical disorder as an extreme variance in identity formation where ego strength is insufficient to keep the personality above the surface of animal urgencies. Individuals who lack a stable ego often suffer from loneliness from having offended their former friends, and a chronic restlessness in never knowing when the floor might fall out from beneath them.

What happens when the missing part of ego strength is the center that would otherwise hold a person’s moods in balance? Wide and erratic swings, and not only of the familiar “manic” to “depressive” poles. Wild fluctuations in mood inevitably land the individual in situations where the body’s internal state is completely incompatible with his or her present circumstances. Because moods are more global and enduring than the momentary feeling responses that naturally occur in the course of normal experience, a bipolar person can be so totally possessed by a mood that he or she is insensitive to the surrounding cues.

The bipolar personality is also socially disruptive, but in a different way from the borderline personality. While the borderline issue puts everyone on the edge of not knowing when the next outburst or collapse is going to happen, bipolarity trains those around the individual to withhold confidences and responsibilities from him or her out of concern that they won’t be followed through to completion. Do you know anyone like that?

Finally, when ego strength is unable to hold the personality together as a unified system, the numerous undercurrents of identity, attitude, motivation and behavior that might normally be allowed expression by Captain Ego in appropriate social environments and situations, can simply and unexpectedly “show up.” Roberto Assagioli, the Italian founder of psychosynthesis – stressing the necessary work of constructing a healthy self, as opposed to Freud’s strategy of taking apart the sick self with psychoanalysis – referred to these relatively self-contained minor identities within the dominant personality as “subpersonalities.” They are normal components in the normally complex personality system.

But when the ego is too weak to maintain a unified self, the personality “dissociates,” giving way to any one or a number of these subpersonalities. Observers of this phenomenon are often perplexed at how so-and-so is suddenly “an entirely different person” than he or she was just moments before. This isn’t about impulses breaking through the floor, but rather coherent substreams of alter-identity that take over in a social situation.

(At one point, this was named “multiple personality disorder” by psychiatry, but it later got relabeled as “dissociative identity disorder.” I’m suggesting that it is far more normal (or better, common) than the clinical designation will admit.)

Now that we have a model of ego strength before us, along with an understanding of the major pathologies that compromise it, I will return to my original suggestion. Just as there is a developmental partnership between the healthy ego and its patron deity, where the external causality and higher virtues represented in the deity are gradually internalized by the caring and self-responsible ego, so we should expect to find instances where ego pathology (borderline, bipolar, dissociative) is reflected in depictions of God – for example as temperamental, capricious, and internally divided (think of the subpersonalities of Yahweh in the Bible as threatening and wrathful, or as compassionate and forgiving).

Do you know a religion like that?

 

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The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego

As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.

Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.

And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.

Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.

Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.

Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.

I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.

PerinatalThe transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.

A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.

(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)

Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.

The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.

When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.

DevelopmentalFollowing our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.

“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.

Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.

There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.

Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.

This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.

EsotericThis final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.

Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.

A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)

After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”

 

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