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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own¬†human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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Just a Little More Reality (Please)

Constructivism is an approach to understanding the world we live in as a product of our own creative intelligence. “World” refers to the habitat of meaning that human beings construct around themselves for security, to support identity, and to provide a sense of purpose to their lives. As a social species, humans are compelled to carry out this construction project in tribes and communities, where the larger world they share together is known as culture.

This project of world-building has progressed apace with our evolution. Since earliest times, the spontaneous and ineffable mystery of being alive has been rendered in language first as archetype, then metaphor, myth and (quite a bit later) theory. These various conceptual devices (symbols and symbol systems) enabled our hominid ancestors to articulate an expansive and increasingly complex web of references, inside of which everything had meaning.

In this blog I’ve been exploring creative change from a number of different angles. My philosophical preferences in this quest include (1) constructivism, (2) perspectivism, (3) metaphysical nonrealism, (4) evolutionary psychology, and (5) a mystical orientation that regards all of the worlds we make up (however meaningful) as nothing more than secondary qualifications on an essentially unqualified mystery – the moment-by-moment wonder of experience itself.

Metaphysical nonrealism sounds more sophisticated than it really is. Very simply, it is an unwillingness (hence the “non” in nonrealism) to assume that the early stories of primitive and ancient cultures were based on what we today would call supernatural encounters with metaphysical realities. Just because a myth speaks of gods, devils, angels and disembodied souls doesn’t compel us to take them literally. Indeed, taking them literally is just as irresponsible – and I would add, intellectually lazy – as dismissing them out of hand as hallucinations or lies.

A representation of god in a myth needs to be interpreted and understood within the story’s own web of references, and also, moving out into the larger worldview of its authoring culture, across numerous overlapping webs. Our assumption that these stories were reports and eye-witness accounts of real things (metaphysics) and actual events (miracles) is already “breaking the spell” of the story-telling art, which is about taking us inside and transforming consciousness.

Tragically, an irreversible side-effect of mythological literalism is that it leaves the contemporary reader in a depressed state of disillusionment. No one today experiences god in the ways the Bible personifies him. No one ever has. But because we don’t, our only conclusion must be that we have fallen farther into sin, ignorance, and spiritual blindness. All the more reason to take the Bible literally and not question what we’re told.

A more interesting explanation for our current disillusionment, besides it being the consequence of mythological literalism, has to do with some conflicts that are internal to our psychological development. The evolution of our species – which can be observed in a developing individual across the lifespan – has opened our perspective on reality at different “standpoints” along the way. In earlier posts I have named these standpoints “body,” “ego” and “soul.”

In the space I have left, I want to explore three distinct “powers” that correspond to these standpoints in reality. These powers might be thought of as three strands in a braid, complementing each other but also generating conflicts between and among themselves. Such conflicts, I would argue, are a key to appreciating the complexity, wonder, ecstasy and torment of being human.

Three AspectsBody is your animal nature. The particular power-strand that resides there is instinct – the urgencies, impulses, drives and reflexes that are rooted in the very deep evolutionary past. Instinct is non-personal, which is to say that it has no concern for the personality. The moon is my symbol for it, representing the dark realm of our unconscious (and autonomic) animal life. Instinct carries on far below the light of conscious awareness. It comes before thought and precedes even feeling.

If you didn’t have instinct, you would die. The countless events, urges and reactions in the biological foundations of your animal nature are regulated constantly for the primary purpose of keeping you alive. When your life is threatened – or you perceive it to be – strong and often irresistible reflexes and “gut reactions” move you to behave in a defensive, avoidant, or perhaps hostile manner.

But you are more than a body. Because humans are a social species – collecting into clans and communities where resources can be shared, where the very young and the very old can find protection, and where world-building can begin – our hominid ancestors were faced with the challenge of channeling the dark powers of animal instinct into some kind of social order. This domestication required some impulses to be redirected into acceptable behaviors, while others were gradually “pinched off” through progressive discipline.

Your childhood brought you through experiences highly unique to the interactions inside your family system. But however it went for you, one important outcome was the formation of your identity – maybe enmeshed, codependent or estranged in some ways, but an identity nonetheless. This is your ego, which during your childhood was who you were in your relationships with others. If you are now an adult, we can speak of this center of (largely emotional) identity, restraint, agency and ambition as your inner child.

The power-strand corresponding to childhood, the ego, and your inner child is what I call fantasy. It is, very simply, the productive genius that enables you to make believe and pretend, to tell stories and still get caught up in them. My symbol for fantasy is the nighttime star, not like the shape-shifting moon pulling on sea and blood, but twinkling in constellations of mythic forms from the realm of story and dream. Even after you grow up, your story-telling inner child continues to compose the narrative plot (Greek mythos) of your personal myth.

I don’t regard the ego/inner child as something that prevents you from what you are ultimately here to become or accomplish. Just as instinct is necessary for you to stay alive, fantasy is equally as necessary for you to have an identity and make meaning. You will be telling stories until you die. If you should stop telling stories before you die, you will likely fall into a suicidal depression and die anyway. The truth of your personal myth is measured by how much more awakened and genuinely human you become in telling it.

One thing a child doesn’t have a whole lot of is experience – the months and years that afford a broader exposure to the variety of troubles, challenges, opportunities and lessons that life has to teach. It’s impossible to say when it happens, and it’s probably different for everybody, but there comes a time when the time you’ve had provides you with an understanding of “how life works.” This is known as wisdom.

To be “wise” or to have wisdom doesn’t mean that you’re smarter than everyone else, and it’s not about knowing things that are theological or metaphysical in nature. Wisdom is exquisitely practical and famously pragmatic. It involves using critical reason and making good judgments, giving attention to detail but also extracting general principles that can apply across similar situations.

Whether you would consider yourself very accomplished at wisdom, or are the type that seems to need numerous sessions in the school of hard knocks before you finally “get it,” as an adult you have been through enough of life to have a sizable collection of observations and discoveries to draw upon.

Drawing upon the lessons of life is the business of your higher self (or soul). Cultivating wisdom requires reflection, obviously, or else you would never stop long enough to pick up your lesson and carry it forward. We could add other supportive practices that enhance the cultivation of wisdom: introspection and mindfulness, self-honesty and humility, responsibility and forgiveness, being open-minded and willing to change your verdict should the evidence demand it.

My symbol for wisdom is the sun, which is actually fairly popular across the cultures as representing clear-sighted impartiality and radiant understanding. Seeing as how wisdom is extracted from the churning stream of real experience, and how it lifts to universal validity certain truths that are purported to transcend the vicissitudes of time, perhaps this is also why the higher self is commonly regarded as immortal.

Thus, you are a microcosm unto yourself. The myth-maker of your ego/inner child/fantasy spins out the stories that give your life meaning. Below is the dark force of your body/animal nature/instinct, dependable in its rhythms yet always urgent at the threshold to your tidy world. Above middle-world, resting quietly and detached on the dome high overhead, is your soul/higher self/wisdom. With the benefit of its elevated vantage-point you can survey the entire field of your present and past experience.

Of course, your inner child must struggle with and can hopefully befriend your animal nature. And your higher self needs to gently persuade your inner child to rise above self-interest for the sake of self-actualization, to let go (just a little) of security for fulfillment, to break open the small horizons of your world in order to take in (just a little) more reality.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Ultimate Concern

Tillich: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith.”

If Paul Tillich has recognition in popular culture it is probably for his term “ultimate concern,” which can refer both to the object of one’s highest commitment as well as to the subjective degree of devotion one has for it. The reformer Martin Luther made a similar claim back in the 16th century, when he defined “my god” as anything to which I am passionately and unconditionally devoted. Devotion, in the way it fuses feeling and behavior, elevates its object to a supreme position of value and inspires sacrifice on its behalf.

As a “formal definition of faith,” Tillich says that the object of ultimate concern is really secondary to the meaning it has for the believer. That sounds right: We have witnessed many wacky cults and fanatical sects that inspired their members to forsake the world and surrender their fortunes, strap bombs to their bodies and murder innocent civilians, or willingly take poison to end their lives for a better gig on some other planet or higher plane of existence. These true believers, however deluded, were filled with “ultimate concern” for the one thing that mattered most to them.

But what about truth? If something is entirely lacking the evidence to support it; if it contradicts logic and violates rationality; if it inspires a believer to commit violent acts against self and others – then when does it begin to matter whether or not the content of faith is true in a more objective and publicly verifiable sense? According to Tillich, faith is not a guarantee that the object of one’s ultimate concern is valid, worthy, or even real. The protection of religious liberty and the separation of church and state in American democracy allows an individual to put his or her faith in any and every kind of nonsense, so long as it doesn’t endanger others or encroach on their freedom not to believe, or to believe differently.

Once upon a time, when we were all metaphysical realists and simply assumed that religion’s ultimate concern was an actual entity separate and apart from us, we could entertain this question of truth in a spirit of quiet confidence – knowing that, in the end, the “real god” would be revealed. Those poor suckers who chase after comets, take dictation from ancient spirit-beings, or steer jetliners into skyscrapers will wake up before the judgment seat of the One True God – ours, of course! However meaningful their lives had been for all the passion, certainty and invested focus, they had put their faith in lies.

They probably hadn’t read their Bible, which tells us everything we need to know about the real God – the one who made the universe, sent his son to save us, and will one day catch us up into heaven or throw us down into hell. Too bad for them.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the actual existence of a nonphysical god – is itself a necessary corollary of mythological literalism, which takes the stories (or myths) of religion at face value. Whereas early cultures seem to have appreciated how the ritual recital and reenactment of a myth could transport participants out of the “broken time” of ordinary life and into the “deep time” of archetypal life, modernity encouraged a more detached reading of the stories, which then forced a critical distinction between fact (what is actual) and fiction (what is only imaginary).

What are we to do with these stories? Unless we are ready to admit their metaphorical status, the only choice we have is to either take them literally or dismiss them as “art” (or lies). Obviously, our stories must be based in fact while the myths of other religions are – well, myths. The Bible is literally true and its god actually exists. You either believe it – and believe all of it – or you don’t. The interesting thing is that we don’t really believe it; certainly not all of it. We just lack the courage it would take to give up and get past our need to believe it.

For many today faith is caught in a loop of irrelevancy. God exists because the Bible says so; the Bible is true because it’s the word of God. Giving up a literal Bible (mythological literalism) would be giving up on the real God (metaphysical realism), and there’s too much at stake to even consider it. So we settle for a god of our own making, an extraction from the countless masks of God in the Bible, selected and modified to fit our needs. Whether you need security or fulfillment, control or freedom, forgiveness or vengeance, power or love – there’s a god in the Bible waiting for work.

Whether we get it more or less right, we try to make up the difference in faith, passionately believing where we just can’t be sure. If we put enough energy into our devotion and make a big enough sacrifice on its behalf, our “ultimate concern” will be rewarded.

Suddenly faith becomes dangerous. But what is life without it?

 

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