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Being You

Take a few moments to reflect on the difference between what your life means and how it feels to be alive.

The meaning of your life isn’t simply a given, is it? Instead, it is something you have to think about. Indeed, thinking about what your life means is itself the very process whereby its meaning is determined – or in a term that I prefer, whereby its meaning is constructed.

This business of constructing meaning isn’t a solo venture but has involved and continues to include many, many others along with you. In fact, the construction project of your life’s meaning was begun even before you arrived on the scene. In a real sense we could say that the meaning of life is as ancient as human language and culture. And when you were born, this great heritage of meaning served as the larger backdrop against and in light of which your individual project was undertaken.

Meaning is constructed as thinking selves begin to name things in external reality; defining them in terms of their causes, natures, attributes and aims; drawing connections among things; and thereby construing mental webs of significance where each thing refers to something else and ultimately to the greater whole. Name, definition, connection, and reference: such we might say is the architecture of meaning.

Necessarily, the meaning of (your) life has you at the center – this individual person managing an identity through a variety of roles that situate you in the social niches, interpersonal backstories, the collective concerns of your tribe, and increasingly of the global scene as well.

Running through all of these like a spine is the central narrative of who you are – your personal myth. We’re using ‘myth’ here not in the sense of a fallacy or superstition, but according to its etymological root as the connective plot of character, agency, and consequence that holds every story together.

Meaning, then, is fundamentally story-formed and story-dependent.

The meaning of your life is coterminous with the beginning and ending of your personal myth, the story of who you are. Depersonalizing for a moment, we can say that consciousness constructs meaning through language, specifically by telling stories. And as these stories get spinning, they gather into orbit around a center that gradually takes on the character of self-conscious identity: You – or we should more precisely say, the “I” (or ego) that you are.

Reflecting thus on the meaning of life and who you are (which I’m arguing are inseparable), it should be obvious that all of this is ‘made up’ (i.e., constructed) and not a natural property of external reality. Life has meaning because you tell stories that make it meaningful; in itself, life is perfectly meaningless. With Zen Buddhism we can ask, What’s the meaning of a flower apart from our mind? It doesn’t mean anything; it simply is.

To arrive at this awareness, however, you need to release that blooming phenomenon of every label, definition, judgment, and expectation you have put upon it. When this is done and your mind is clear, what remains is a mystery of being. Just – this.

Now turn your attention from what your life means to the grounded and spontaneous feeling of being alive. Feel the weight and warmth of your body. Attend to any sensations on your skin, to the soft hum of consciousness in the background.

With more refined attention you can become aware of the rhythm of your breath, of your life as an organism supported by a complex syndrome of urgencies that serve the needs of your organs and cells. The life in each cell is somehow distinct (though not separate) from the material structure of the cell itself, and this boundary finally recedes into a dark inscrutable mystery.

So when we talk about the feeling of being alive, it’s this deep mystery of conscious awareness, vital urgencies, and physical form – descending into darkness and ascending into the light – that we are contemplating. You are a sentient, organic, and material being; with each step deeper in, the horizon of your existence enlarges exponentially. At the deepest center (of physical matter) you are stardust and one with the Universe. Come back up to the center of your individual self and you are here, reflecting with me on the feeling of being alive.

All of that – going down, dropping away, coming back, and rising again to present attention – is what I name the grounding mystery.

It is out of this grounding mystery and spontaneous feeling of being alive that the unique human activity of telling stories, making meaning, creating worlds, and managing an identity gets launched. Here begins the adventure of a meaningful life. You are reminded that this whole affair – the narrative arc into identity, world, and meaning – is the product and effect of telling stories, a fantastic enterprise in make-believe.

You need to be reminded because it’s the easiest thing to forget. You make it up, put it on, and promptly slip into amnesia.

The danger, of course, is that you will confuse your mental constructions with reality itself. When that happens, particularly as your mental boxes become smaller, more rigid, and out-of-date, the impulse to insist on their absolute truth will grow stronger. You get dogmatic and defensive, and may even become aggressive in your effort to make others agree and accept your meaning as ‘the truth’.

Another serious consequence of this is that you lose touch with the mystery of being alive. What’s more, your complete investment in the absolute reality of your construction project might even compel you to deny the mystery, ignore the intuitions of your animal nature, and live without regard for your place within the great Web of Life.

As I have suggested in other posts, your tendency to forget that you are making all of this up is recognized and addressed in mythology itself. The creation of order (genesis, beginning), the hero’s journey (ego formation) and the establishment of an empire of meaning (kingdoms, ideologies, and worldviews), will one day – and perhaps not far in the future – come apart, fall to pieces, and burn to ashes (apocalypse, to remove a cover or veil).

The world as you know it must end – it needs to end soon, again and again, for you to become fully alive.

When you are free of the delusion of meaning, you can relax into the mystery of being alive. When it’s time again to join the construction project (which you must), you will be able to see through the pretense, engage the role-play without taking it too seriously, and start telling better stories.

 

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3-Dimensional Leadership

In the discussion around leadership, a good deal of attention is given to behavioral, ethical, and relational qualities that effective leaders possess and demonstrate. Great books and programs on excellence in leadership are abundantly available, and some of us are retrieving them from the shelves just now when good leaders seem harder to find. I recently coined a term – “Trumpence” – which I define as doing whatever it takes to put yourself first. Most of us would probably agree that putting yourself first is not the highest and surest mark of genuine leadership.

What makes a leader? Are leaders made? Or is leadership more about the auspicious timing between a situational vacuum and the right set of talents, vision, courage and determination in someone who senses in it a calling to make a difference? Can a society cultivate leaders from among its membership, or does it have to wait, more or less passively, for them to rise up of their own accord?

Human beings carry the genetic instructions for living creatively, courageously, and compassionately – a combination of virtues (not mere moral values but productive powers of life) that I equate with that otherwise elusive idea of the human spirit. In our nature we hold the potential to be aggressive or sympathetic, sensitive or willful, reactive or tolerant, observant or intrusive, curious or intuitive – or I should say, more or less these things, as each pair constitutes a spectrum of possibilities for expression.

In this sense we might say that an individual is a ‘born leader’, meaning that he or she seems to be a product of nature, a gift for our times from the generative depths of our species. The above-named traits are not inventions of culture but endowments of nature that nevertheless can be ‘nurtured’, shaped, or suppressed by social conditioning.

It’s helpful to distinguish between temperament and personality when it comes to leadership. Whereas temperament refers to an individual’s genetic inheritance (the various spectra of heritable traits), personality shifts our attention to the social project of ego formation. From the Latin persona, personality refers to the unique way that one’s temperament is filtered through the restraints, bypasses, and outlets of behavior deemed appropriate by society. What we see in a newborn is not personality but temperamental expressions, and from the very beginning we are shaping what gets expressed, and how much, through the mechanisms of social feedback.

Gradually what emerges from all this social conditioning is a separate center of personal identity, also known as ego. A human being has been formed into a cooperative member of the tribe, a ‘somebody’ who both fits in and stands out in appropriate degrees. As products of social engineering, leaders are fashioned and appointed to positions in society where they are needed. It stands to reason that times of strife and hardship might motivate the social selection and reinforcement of genetic traits that make for more aggressive, willful, and intrusive leaders – those who will ‘take the lead’, overcome obstacles, and defeat enemies. When they are effective and successful, we honor and celebrate them as tribal heroes.

So far, we have considered two dimensions of leadership: temperament and personality, genetic inheritance and social conditioning, natural endowment and cultural instruction. A good part of the contemporary discussion on leadership stays between these two horns of ‘nature versus nurture’. Are leaders born or are they made? Both ‘born and made’ seems the right answer, but there’s another dimension we need to consider.

In many posts I have argued that the formation of a separate sense of identity can either be our neurotic end or the critical passage to our fulfillment as a species. As long as ego remains inside the cage of tribal expectations and orthodox convictions, an individual cannot attain to that level of personal maturity named ego strength. This is where a stable and balanced personality, unified under the confident self-possession of a fully-formed ego, is finally capable of taking creative authority in his or her own life.

Two-dimensional leaders are functionaries of the social order, performing in roles that the tribe deems necessary. They aspire to be heroes, or at least recognized by others for their praiseworthy performance. Awards, promotions, honors, and degrees are just the social conditioning they need to persist in their efforts. Many aspire to be role models for up-and-coming leaders, demonstrating excellence in their field.

With the rise to creative authority, an individual begins to live out of a higher center. Not only natural endowment and cultural instruction, but self-determination increasingly becomes a driving force in how he or she lives. Before we explore what is unique to this third dimension of leadership, I need to qualify the idea of character.

I am using the term in its narrative sense, as when we speak of a character in story. In my post Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character I identified four traits of a strong narrative character. Grounding refers to the degree in which a character seems to belong in the narrative setting rather than hovering above or merely drifting through it. Memory is how consistent a character is through the scene sequence of a story. Integrity is a spatial equivalent to memory, referring to the way a strong character holds its identity across different situations in the narrative. And a fourth trait of character in fiction, volition, identifies the extent to which action proceeds from its own center of will instead of just happening in reaction to circumstance.

Narrative characters who possess grounding, memory, integrity and volition are not only strong elements of great stories, they are what we find most interesting. What I call creative authority is essentially the ‘rights of authorship’ that an individual must eventually assume in composing his or her personal myth: a story of identity, meaning, and purpose.

The developmental achievement of ego strength is the leading indicator of an individual’s readiness to assume this authority. This is the point where 3-dimensional leadership begins, as the individual makes choices, takes action, and accepts responsibility for the life he or she wants to live.

We should keep in mind that just because a person may be acting in an apparently self-determined manner, a conceited, brazen, and undiplomatic character style almost always belies insecurities deeper down. Trumpence, in other words, is really an attitude of entitlement embrangled in an insatiable craving for self-importance. The counterfeit leader compensates his (or her) neurotic ego through self-inflation rather than transcending self in service to the maximal benefit of all concerned.

Our times call for leaders who are 3-dimensional: human beings who are socially attuned, whose intuition of wholeness and creative courage can inspire the highest in all of us.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Life in Perfect Freedom

Recently in my blog bibletracts (bibletracts.wordpress.com) I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.

Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.

But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?

The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.

Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?

That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (http://wp.me/p2tkek-f3), I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.

Architecture of Meaning

Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.

As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.

But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.

Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.

As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?

A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).

The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.

Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).

The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.

In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (metaphorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.

Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to  orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.

Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.

In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.

But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.

This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.

 

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Humanism in a New Key

My recent reflections on the cultural shifts in the West over the past 2500 years or so has started to uncover the real essence of the post-theistic movement overall. Whether it was the breakthroughs in natural philosophy (science) and politics (democracy) back in fifth-century BCE Greece, or the breakthrough in morality represented in Jesus’ radical message of love for the enemy, the general effect of these transformations has been a growing understanding of our place in the cosmos and our responsibility in the evolutionary destiny of our species.

Each one of these transitions moved us into a different and new way of being in relationship with our home planet, to the social order, or to other humans – particularly those who don’t share our beliefs or care to have us around. I have argued that our advancement through these various progression thresholds – defined as evolutionary surge-points where development is suddenly accelerated and shifted to a new level – also moved us into a post-theistic worldview relative to the threshold in question.

So science has moved us increasingly into a view of reality that doesn’t require a reference to god as the hidden agency behind nature. Similarly, democracy has liberated us from political systems of authority and subjugation that were regarded for many thousands of years as established and ordained by a god above the throne.

And then, with the radical ethic of Jesus as expressed in the imperative of love for the enemy (summarized as unconditional forgiveness), the long-standing idea of god as the supreme prosecutor of moral evil and executioner of our enemies had to be released and transcended – if we were to move forward into Jesus’ vision of a worldwide community of full inclusion.

There is textual evidence to suggest that Jesus went so far as to reconceive the retributive god (Yahweh) into an all-loving and merciful father (Abba) who has forgiven everything and excludes no one. Already 600 years or so earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had imagined a future day when god would forgive and “remember sins no more,” so at least the ideal of unconditional forgiveness was in the collective consciousness to some extent by the time of Jesus.

But the conditions of history would favor a more “tribal” deity than a universal one, so this ideal virtue of love for the enemy got pushed to the margins of theological orthodoxy – until someone like Jesus had the insight and courage to declare that god was different – radically different – from what people believed. Instead of merely talking about god, Jesus demonstrated god (as benevolence, compassion and forgiveness) in the way he lived. Rather than wait for a future day, he announced that “now is the time.” The challenge now was to embody god in relationships – not just with insiders and outsiders, but with our enemies.

The Christian mythology that soon developed represented this self-emptying of god (Gk. kenosis) and fulfillment of humanity (Gk. apotheosis) in the picture-language of incarnation, epiphany, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. These were metaphors and symbols of a transformation internal (esoteric) to human nature, working out its implications in a narrative fashion rather than a doctrinal one. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the mythological structure of early Christian thought was fractured, divided, packaged, and rearranged into a belief system of metaphysical truths.

Jesus, the prophet of unconditional forgiveness, was very quickly turned into the “only savior” who satisfied the conditions against god’s forgiveness of sin. Paying the penalty required by law and turning god (propitiating, placating, appeasing, persuading) to look favorably upon sinful humanity – but only if the individual repents and believes – became the orthodox re-vision of salvation history.

Jesus’ message of love’s embodiment in human beings and their behavior towards one another; his vision of a community that transcends tribal morality; his urgent appeal to let go of vengeance and seek reconciliation instead – all of this got “exceptionalized” (Who else but very god could live this way?) and effectively removed from the official (re-)definition of what it means to be Christian. Belief, obedience, and church membership took over.

sun-hi

So, while the West has made much more progress into post-theism in the cultural fields of science and politics, the derailment of Christian orthodoxy by the second century CE prevented us from fully embracing a post-theistic morality. As a consequence it could be argued that the moral setback of Western culture has compromised the integrity and hampered advancement on these other fronts as well. Absent a sympathetic communion with nature and a compassionate connection to others, “progress” in these areas can quickly devolve into exploitation and abuse.

But advancement into what, exactly? Where is this trajectory of post-theism leading us?

By projecting personality and intention behind the events of nature, earlier cultures envisioned the universe not as random and absurd, but as rational, ordered, and purposeful. For the sake of security and sanity, it was necessary to believe that nature is provident, predictable, or at least open to our investigation (prayerful or theoretical, contemplative or experimental). Putting intelligence behind nature thus put us into a conversation with nature. Early theism made science possible.

Similarly, by projecting authority above the throne of government, earlier cultures were able to orient the political order on a more transcendent reference-point. Authority was not simply a function of circumstance, ambition, or superior violence, but depended on the higher will and working plan of god.

Not long ago, monarchs were regarded as god’s representatives on earth (the Bible refers to them as “sons of god”). As the function of god behind nature entered its period of disenchantment, the divine right of kings over the political sphere came under scrutiny. The door was opened for a reconsideration of government as anchored in the dignity of human beings rather than dangled from a supernatural hook in the sky.

Finally, then, it becomes apparent that what’s after theism (post-theism) is humanism, but not the self-inflated, indulgent and morally reckless version that often gets boosted by libertarians and bashed by conservatives. This is a New Humanism: scientifically innovative, politically democratic, and morally invested in communities of full inclusion and unconditional love. We haven’t thrown off the gods, but rather we meditated on them, identified with them, absorbed them (back) into ourselves, and moved beyond them – by their help.

Now we live in the presence of mystery. Human being offers us a fresh opportunity for being human, fully and finally human.

 
 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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