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The Path of Liberation

When you turn your attention outward you will notice that external reality is home to many different kinds of beings. There are other human beings like yourself, busy making meaning and managing their identities. You will also find other nonhuman animals who seem relatively free of the neurotic compulsions that afflict your species. Many of them can sense and respond to the environment and appear to possess an emotional intelligence very similar to your own.

In addition to such sentient beings are botanical and nonsentient organisms that certainly are alive but lack nervous systems and are presumably incapable of perceiving, feeling, and suffering in the same way. Finally you’ll notice a preponderance of other things which are neither living, sentient, nor self-conscious: atoms, elements, and compounds in various combinations and admixtures providing structure to everything else.

Science is currently learning more about the quantum dynamics of energy inside matter itself, calling into question long-standing assumptions regarding its stable predictability.

In the upper half of my diagram I have arranged these five realms of being, ranging from the most recent arrival (egoic) to the oldest and primordial substratum of energy itself. The origins of our universe are way out there, and with each evolutionary era another realm came into being – matter first, then life, followed by consciousness, with self-conscious identity showing up in the last second of cosmic time.

Altogether, this reality is arranged around you and includes you. It is the vast field of scientific observation and research.

You may never come to realize that there is another dimension to reality, beyond the five realms but not outside them. For many, this inner dimension is almost inaccessible, but not because it is so profoundly esoteric. Rather, their access to it is limited by a condition of ego entanglement. Quite often, their early experience in life failed to instill a sense of security, or perhaps it was upset by abuse, loss, or neglect.

To compensate for this missing security, they latched on to whatever they expected would provide some comfort and stability – mother, pacifiers, and blankets were eventually replaced by social acceptance, approval, and recognition.

Ego entanglement, then, has two distinct aspects: (1) your own insecurity and (2) the web of attachments that give you an insufficient and temporary measure of consolation – insufficient because nothing outside you can supply the existential security you lack, and temporary because, as the Buddha realized, nothing is permanent and everything changes.

A tragic number of individuals (perhaps including you) are stuck inside this ego realm, driven by insecurity and captive to attachments and convictions that will never satisfy.

In the longer historical run of religion, it’s only been fairly recent that everything got skewed and tethered to the insecure ego. Depravity, shame, guilt, and damnation came to define the human condition, and the entire cosmos was construed as backdrop to the drama of salvation whereby the sin-sick soul is redeemed and delivered to an everlasting security in paradise.

Our late-comer to the stage has bent the whole shebang to its neurotic need.

Actually there is a way of liberation. I don’t say ‘another way’ since that rescue scheme leads nowhere but more hopelessly into entanglement. The true path involves breaking free of entanglement, which also means letting go of attachment and getting over yourself.

But this isn’t easy, if only because so much is wrapped up in (or entangled with) your strategies for consolation. The counter-logic of this path of liberation invites you to plunge into your insecurity rather than seek escape from it.


Begin by noticing how much of the ego realm is made up of beliefs, and then let yourself see the extent to which every belief is made up. The world you have constructed around yourself is not how things objectively are, but rather how subjectively you need and expect them to be. This self-centered construct of meaning consists of nothing but stories you are telling yourself.

Don’t feel badly about it, for this is how each of us – and all of us together – make life meaningful. We spin its web out of ourselves, out of our imaginations, and then proceed to pretend it is real.

Don’t spend too much time trying to understand how this is happening or justify what you’ve done. Once you come to see that who you are and the world you have constructed around yourself are projections of your imagination, simply let yourself drop out of that web and into a present awareness of this moment. Released of its tether to ego (“I”), consciousness can now fully indwell your senses and nervous system.

Here is the step on the path of liberation that has proven most difficult for many, and for two reasons. First, the requirement to let go of your ego projections means surrendering what you’ve been hoping will make you feel secure. Such a ‘naked fall’ can be terrifying. Secondly, what you’re falling into is the internal state of your nervous system, and this is exactly where your insecurity, as chronic anxiety, is registered.

This is why the rescue scheme of religion as well as other more common coping strategies of distraction and addiction seek to get us out of the body or anesthetize its nervous system.

But you can let go. And what you will find as you settle into the body is that your nervous state is supported by a still deeper grounding mystery. Just as your personal identity (ego) rests in a sentient system that is many millenniums old in evolutionary time, so this conscious awareness itself rests in a primal network of organic rhythms and urgencies that reaches back many millions of years to the early emergence of animal life.

Attend to the rise and fall of your breath. Listen for the faint drumbeat of your heart. Follow the guide of your animal body as it leads you even more deeply into the present moment. This threshold between urgency and silence, fullness and emptiness, being and nothingness, ground and abyss – is a holy and ineffable place.

And here you are.

 

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The Four Ages of Life

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The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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The Will of the People

The biggest problem for Republicans these days is that their 2016 presidential candidate is not a Republican. He is by name, of course; Donald Trump’s name is on the GOP ticket. But Trump apparently has little understanding of or regard for the principles of civility and decency, cooperation and respect, dialogue and compromise, ethical leadership and responsibility, temperance and self-sacrifice on behalf of ‘we the people’ – in other words, little understanding or regard for the foundations of liberal democracy.

As the circus approaches election day, even Republicans are offended and embarrassed, poised now to renounce their candidate in the interest of our nation’s future. How did he get this far? How was it possible that a dozen or so much more qualified contenders got pushed off the stage – a few of them viciously maligned and forced (or so it must have felt) into some mud-slinging of their own? A few reputations and political prospects were not only injured but maybe even permanently wrecked in the fray.

I have a theory.

In evolution there is a force at work that Darwin named ‘natural selection’, which has to do with the ongoing necessity of living things to maintain their ‘fitness’ in the interest of survival and reproduction. A later proponent of evolutionary biology, Herbert Spencer, coined this idea into the phrase “survival of the fittest,” referring not simply to the strongest and most aggressive individuals who can bully their rivals and out-compete for females, but to any organism that can successfully adapt to its environment and find a provident niche where it can thrive. By putting this requirement on living things, nature has raised a gradient against the likelihood that genetic mutations and individual deviance will survive and reproduce, unless it can win this struggle for fitness.

In economics there is another force, which the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith saw at work in free-market capitalism, where rational self-interest and competition in business conspire toward ‘the wealth of nations’. As individuals and industries compete with each other for market share, the cost value ratio of what they offer to consumers keeps the quality of their goods or services from slipping out of favor. This is another kind of selection, and fitness here allows a commercial enterprise to survive and maybe spawn a new generation of innovations. Smith wasn’t praising selfishness in business but rather an interest in building one’s own competitive edge in delivering genuine value.

And in politics there is yet another force, which in liberal democracy has been called ‘the will of the people’ or ‘the general will’. The idea here is that the collective effect of individuals voicing and voting for what they want is a clarified expression of what is best for the body politic. In representative government the people elect officials who carry the responsibility of defending and promoting the majority interest of their constituencies. Not everyone gets what they want, but a broad base of shared value is eventually established where the security, freedom, and each individual’s pursuit of happiness can (at least in theory) be protected.

Now over many decades the Republican Party has been steadily undergoing a transformation of character, from the republic-defending, ethically centered, and unifying efforts of Abraham Lincoln, to what we have in Donald Trump. (Just put those two individuals side-by-side in your mind for a moment and you should start to feel the twisting vortex of cognitive dissonance.) Along the way, the Grand Ole Party sidled up to various special interest groups, some endeavoring to forward a few constitutional rights that are more period-specific than they want to admit (like the right to bear arms against the encroachments of a hostile government), and others seeking to bind our nation to a religious orthodoxy that historically has condemned the advances of science, the liberalization of morality, the creative authority of individuals, and the rise of inclusive community.lincoln_trumpThere is a deep underground reservoir of repressed insecurity, resentment, and bigotry in our national unconscious, which has been kept below a thin threshold of civility – at various times not so successfully. As things progressed for liberal democracy, many of these inner demons made their way into legislation while others got projected onto whatever scapegoats we could find. Unfortunately this repressed shadow attached itself to the Republican Party, altering the platform from a philosophical avant-garde for individual freedom and social responsibility, to something just short (maybe) of institutionalized racism and bully politics. This is not Lincoln’s party, and it’s not what Americans aspire to be.

My theory is that this mysterious force called ‘the will of the people’ orchestrated the steady elimination of worthy GOP candidates and left us with this one very crass and blatantly bigoted contender for the presidency, for the purpose (not conscious, mind you) of pushing the Republican Party into extinction. If there is to be a resurrection at some point, Republicans will need to get their house in order.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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The Great American Divide

dem_repIn the 2016 Presidential debates two candidates stand before us: one a super-rich white businessman, and the other a female politician (also wealthy and white). So while the differences between them could be much more significant (a middle-class Latina against an Asian-American Buddhist, for instance), in the process of the debate I am struck by how the deepest difference between our candidates coincides with a profound fault-line through the center of our nation. It’s not male versus female, white versus black, or even rich versus poor.

Back in my seminary days I had the assignment of researching the agreements, compatibility, and contradictions between American ideology and the gospel of Jesus. Needless to say, while I could find numerous points of agreement (even complicity) between American ideology and Christian orthodoxy, favorable touchpoints with Jesus’ message and way of life were very hard to find. He was not a big fan of empire or orthodoxy, nor of the egoism that drove both of them against his communitarian vision. His ‘campaign’ was on behalf of human liberation, and of a life awakened in love for others.

Orthodoxy and empire cannot allow for the creative authority of individuals. Jesus was killed because his gospel ran counter to the religio-political domination system of his day.

But as I looked deeper into the American psyche it became evident to me that our national history has been a tale of two visions, which are not only incompatible but run in opposite directions. On one side are the principles of democracy as set forth in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and embodied in The Constitution of the United States (1789), committed to the sacred and self-evident truths of dignity, liberty, equality, and community.

The Constitution’s “We the people” very clearly takes the perspective of all citizens, together as one voice. (Granted, neither blacks nor women were explicitly included in this democratic collective at the time, but the Constitution would later be invoked on their behalf as well, demonstrating its essentially inclusive spirit.)

On the other side of the American Divide are the perhaps equally sacred ambitions for privacy, property, and financial profit, as laid out in the Bill of Rights (1794, Constitutional Amendments 1-10). True enough, these Rights were articulated with the principles of democracy in the background, but they really aren’t about democratic aspirations at all. Their cause is with free-market capitalism,

an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth. (Dictionary.com)

If America is a Land of Dreams, these are dreams about breaking out of poverty, making a living, and getting rich. The individual has a right to property and wealth, which must be protected by all means against unnecessary taxation or confiscation by the government. (Hence also “the right to bear arms.”)

It could be argued that democracy and capitalism name two fundamentally different enterprises of a society (its government and economy) and have really nothing to do with each other. And yet, as seedbeds for a general philosophy of life these two value systems advance contrary ideologies. One (democracy) looks at the individual through the lens of community life, while the other (capitalism) looks at society through the lens of individual self-promotion.

Side by side, democracy and capitalism seem like they should get along. After all, haven’t they coexisted since the beginning of our American Experiment? Yes, but their apparent compatibility has been about as natural as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sharing the stage.

The candidates speak very different languages, for the clear and simple reason that Clinton speaks the language of democracy while Trump speaks the language of capitalism. One is centered in the responsibilities of liberty, equality, and community; the other stands passionately on the rights for privacy, property, and profit. One is a proponent of all of us, together. Her opponent speaks mainly for those at the top, as well as for the large number who dream of getting there one day.

In this election, perhaps we are finally having to come to terms with the Great Divide in our character as a nation.

 
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Posted by on September 27, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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The Galilean Rocket Man

Rocket ManAfter his natural life and rather sudden death, Jesus the Galilean started on a mythological career which carried him all the way to the top-floor corner office of the universe, as none other than God Incarnate. A surprising majority of those who confess to be Christian have little knowledge of how a backwater itinerant teacher eventually became the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The obvious reason for this ignorance is rooted in their belief that Jesus was God Incarnate from the very beginning, just as Christian orthodoxy says. In other words, the story starts there.

But the advancement in our knowledge since the fourth century, when Jesus was officially promoted to his fully-divine status, makes such a confession today a matter of willful ignorance. Discoveries from the study of history, cosmology, sociology, mythology, psychology, and the development of Christian doctrine itself have to be deliberately ignored for the sake of ‘keeping the faith’. In this case, faith becomes a matter of believing it anyway, as if intentionally sweeping aside all evidence, rationality, and common sense against the claims of Christian orthodoxy is somehow a demonstration of spiritual virtue. All it really demonstrates, however, is that individuals prefer the security in what they believe to the risk of being wrong.

Having served in professional ministry as a church pastor for fifteen years I am well acquainted with this phenomenon, technically known as fideism – the exclusive reliance on faith as a substitute for rational thought and reality-testing. Many believers don’t realize how they are being gamed by a system that constructed its most prized doctrines in the head, but cautions parishioners against using theirs.

This rise of the Galilean Rocket Man progressed by stages, like a rocket breaking through the stratosphere as it disengages and drops off the weight of parts no longer needed. By the end of his mythological career Jesus had become the most significant item in existence – nothing less than God himself, the supreme Lord of the universe. At the stage just before this one he had achieved the status of World Savior, whose crucifixion and resurrection saved the world from sin, the devil, and death itself – or we should say, he saved those who can believe this.

Earlier still, before the focused effort of orthodoxy got underway, Jesus walked the storyland of the gospels as a Miracle Worker healing the sick and bending laws of nature. Actually he was one of many highly honored and well-remembered holy men in and before his time. It was common practice to represent such figures in narrative scenarios, short stories, and hero legends giving miraculous performances in exhibition of their unusual powers. To suspend or transform conventional reality, even if only in storyland, served to keep the holy man alive in the memory of his disciples and descendants.

It would be a tragedy for Christians to remember the one who worked miracles, saved the world, and took his place as god, but not give serious reflection to what he had to say or how he lived. Granted, it is not easy to sift the authentic message of the historical Jesus from the embellishments of hero worship, myth-making, and emerging orthodoxy in the Bible. But the tragedy turns into a double catastrophe when those who profess to be Christian follow the Rocket Man into heaven and completely eclipse the vision he had for life on earth. As long as they have assurance of joining him when they die or witnessing his return in the meantime, what he said and how he lived before his mythological ride into abstraction has little relevance to them.

Am I saying that Jesus isn’t (or wasn’t) God Incarnate, savior of the world, or a wonder-working miracle man? Yes, at least not in any literal or factual sense. If he is or did all those things he is worshiped for, then he is and did them inside the mythopoetic construction of an early Christian worldview – a vertically oriented three-story cosmos, a fallen human condition in need of rescue from above, and the popular portrayal of important historical figures as possessing supernatural powers. Look around. Our view of reality today (i.e., our contemporary scientific worldview) is very different.

Interestingly enough, we do still flock by thousands to watch celebrity faith healers and charismatic self-proclaimed prophets perform miracles – right before our credulous eyes. Something inside us knows that it’s a put-on, but we fail to pause and ask why these faith healers don’t have an office inside local hospitals where so many more of the suffering and ill could benefit from their extraordinary gifts.

Because so much of Christian identity is invested in an outdated cosmology and in a mythology taken literally, the religion will continue to decline, breaking into numerous sects, cults, and extremist factions on its way to extinction. And along the way, more damage will be done. The way out of this tragic predicament is to take one more step down to earth with the Galilean Rocket Man – out of mythology and the abstractions of orthodoxy, and back to the vision and way of life of a Wisdom Teacher.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say ‘the’ Wisdom Teacher. That’s because as a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not, as we say, one of a kind. I realize that may sound disrespectful, irreverent, and even blasphemous to many Christians. But in the great stream of wisdom teachings which has been coursing through the world cultures for thousands of years, the personal identity of a teacher is much less important than the clarity, depth, and real-world relevance of the wisdom he or she has to share. As a Wisdom Teacher Jesus was one of many. But as is true of all the others, his unique personality, family background, life experience, and historical situation conspired to bring this wisdom to bear on the concerns of his time in a highly individualized way.

Wisdom is about the challenge and opportunity of being human, profoundly (i.e., thoroughly) mortal yet grounded always in an eternal now. How can we live out this life with integrity, authenticity, mindfulness, and compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for the whole community of life? How can we step beyond fear, suspend judgment, and be more genuinely present in the moment, wherever and with whomever we find ourselves? Jesus had some very timely things to say, but the wisdom he shared is timeless.

Before he became the Rocket Man of Christianity, Jesus the Galilean was a human being. That was his true glory.


In my diagram above I have distinguished two terms often used interchangeably: significance (vertical axis) and relevance (horizontal axis). As the root-word suggests, significance (from sign) is value we can point to. We talk of ‘high’ significance to acknowledge such value as up and above common or ordinary values. When Jesus got promoted to the status of God Incarnate, his significance was made absolute. But in the same stroke he also became utterly irrelevant, for relevance has to do with timely, real-world value. If Jesus was/is God Incarnate, what practical difference does that make in daily life? On the other hand, as a Wisdom Teacher Jesus is very relevant but not highly significant – that is to say, his value is not ‘up there’ or outside our situation in life, but in the very heart of it.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2016 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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The End of Religion

Ego StagesIn my efforts to define what I mean by ‘post-theism’ (as distinct from other uses of the term you might find out there), it’s been critically important not to confuse it with straight-up atheism on one side, or on the other with clever spins on the ‘post-‘ idea that contemporary Christian theism is attaching to the ’emerging church’ movement (for example). My construction is intended to name a stage of religion that comes decisively after theism, as a transformation beyond it that holds the promise of facilitating human spiritual evolution to the next level, without getting hung up in debates over the existence of god.

This type of post-theism acknowledges god as a construct of the mythopoetic imagination, not as a literal being but rather the principal figure in sacred stories – more properly, then, as a literary being. Our representations of god serve the purpose of orienting us in an intelligible universe (regarded as the creation of god), inspiring us to worthy aims (identified with the will of god), and guiding our ethical development as persons into virtues of community life (glorified in the character of god). The ultimate aim, ethically speaking, is for the devotee to so consciously internalize and intentionally express the virtues of god’s character that the need for an objective ideal is permanently transcended. Human evolution continues from that point, on the other side (after: post) of god.

It helps considerably if we don’t treat theism as one thing, as a singular religious phenomenon which must either be accepted or rejected en bloc. Its development out of primitive animism arches over many millenniums, and its career has been one of steady progress (with frequent setbacks) into a spirituality and way of life more mystically grounded, ethically responsible, and globally connected than before. These very developments now threaten the more tribal forms of theism which are losing relevance faster than ever despite their appeal to insecure and extremist types. In this post I offer a lens for understanding theism in its development, tracking its ‘leading indicator’ in ego’s rise to maturity – and beyond.

The major phases of theism correlate to the career of personal identity (ego) in the human beings responsible for it as a worldview and way of life. (We still need to be reminded of the fact that religions are human inventions created for the purpose of linking concerns of daily life back to the present mystery of reality, represented and personified in the construct of deity.) We can conveniently analyze ego’s career into an early, middle, and late phase, where personal maturity in a stable, balanced, and unified self (the markers of ego strength) is the aim. My theory simply regards these distinct phases as stages, in the sense of platforms that provide the developing ego identity with shifting orientations in and perspectives on reality.

As a constructivist it should be clear by now that I see personal self-conscious identity (ego) as something that is not essential to our nature as human beings, which is to say that it is not in our given nature as products of evolution. Instead, it is socially constructed in the cultural workspace of our tribes. The taller powers (our parents, other adults and older peers) shape us into who we are, as a central node in the complex role-play of tribal life. We then perform our various roles according to the rules, values, and expectations (i.e., the morality) of the social groups in which we have an identity.

In the diagram above, this construction of ego identity (color-coded orange) is tracked in its slow progress through the essential aspects of our nature, body (coded black) and soul (purple). Depending on where we take our perspective in ego’s development, the relationship of these two aspects to each other is differently construed – in terms of ‘opposition’, ‘reconciliation’, or ‘communion’. These terms are thus offered as key concepts in our understanding of ego’s development, as well as that of theistic religion.

In the opposition phase, our separate center of personal identity (ego) is not very well defined. The very imposition of ego, however, causes a split in consciousness where an inner subjective realm is gradually divided from an outer objective realm, or ‘soul’ from ‘body’. Whereas soul and body in our essential nature are simply the introverted (intuitive-spiritual) and extroverted (sensory-physical) aspects of an evolved consciousness, our executive center of personal identity throws them into opposition. Now ‘I’ (ego) have a soul and a body, and the challenge becomes one of constructing a meaningful relationship between them.

This is where we find all those wonderfully complicated and emotionally charged stories (myths) about the separation of matter from spirit, of body and soul, giving account of how we happened into this conflicted state in which we presently find ourselves. It might get worked out into a fabulous mythology that puts god in opposition to the world as a bodiless and transcendent entity existing apart from our fallen carnal nature. Elaborate rituals must be invented, and then spun back to the people as revelations, that can provide a necessary atonement for resolving the negative conditions of our ignorance, guilt, and selfishness.

As personal identity continues to develop, these opposing forces of body and soul are gradually reconciled – brought together in a healthier marriage rather than striving in conflict. While traditionally interpreted in light of the older orthodoxy of opposition, Paul’s reflections on the person of Christ as one in whom ‘god was reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Corinthians 5:19) – that is to say, as one in whom body and soul were fully united in his essential nature – might be seen as evidence of this shift in perspective where ego (the Christ ideal) has progressed beyond a body-soul opposition and more into its own stable center of identity. At any rate, there is no doubt that Paul helped to move theism past the opposition of Two (god and humanity) and toward a synthesis into One (a deified humanity or incarnate deity).

As an aside I should note that Christian orthodoxy for the most part has ignored, and perhaps even willfully rejected, a theism of reconciliation for a reinstatement of the older theism based in opposition. Jesus came to be regarded not as the ‘New Man’, in line with Paul’s meditations, but as the key player in a transaction of salvation whereby our guilt was paid off and god’s wrath against sin was appeased. Even though humanity’s criminal record was expunged, god and the world remain essentially separate from each other.

This derailment of Christian orthodoxy from the intended path of theism’s evolution has, I am arguing, prevented the religion from progressing into its post-theistic phase. Despite the efforts of Jesus, and Paul after him, to move theism past the oppositions of god-versus-world, soul-versus-body, self-versus-other, us-versus-them, into a new paradigm where such divisions are transcended and made whole, Christian churches today remain locked in a pathological dualism. But we still need to consider what a full embrace of its post-theistic destiny would look like.

In my diagram, the distinct and separate ego has reached the point in its development where ‘me and mine’ no longer limit a fuller vision of reality. While a sense of oneself as a person continues to be in the picture, the sharp division of body (black) and soul (purple) gives way to a blended continuum of animal and spiritual life. We are ‘spiritual animals’ after all, and now our awareness and agency as persons can move us into a new but still self-conscious mode of being. My name for this mode of being is communion, literally ‘together as one’. There is no god on one side and the world on another. No souls separate from bodies awaiting deliverance to a postmortem paradise. No ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other.

We are all one together. Nothing, really, is separate from the rest. The realization of this oneness, however, depends on our ability to appreciate ourselves (and all things) as manifestations of the same mystery. Such a profound appreciation – Jesus and other luminaries called it love – will fundamentally change how we live.

 

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Journey Back to Reality

BreakthroughJust as soon as I make a case for the necessity of religion, it’s time to insist on our need to transcend it. If my atheist friends squirm at my insistence that we all have a religion – a system of beliefs, attitudes, values and practices that links the separate ego back to reality – my friends who are believers will shake their heads at my suggestion that we need to leave it behind. Why take the time to defend religion (not one or another religion, but religion itself) when the point is to go beyond it?

A popular notion of religion conceives it as a means to an end, as a way through this world to another one. We trust that our religion will answer those really big questions and ultimately save our soul when the body gives out and our life on earth is over. Even a slight acquaintance with the history of religion should disabuse us of that fantasy, as the ‘soul rescue’ model came on the scene only very recently and is based on a dualism of body and soul which is probably less than 3,000 years old.

For the greater part of its history religion has focused human concern on the challenges and opportunities of life on earth. Essentially it is about assisting human beings in the evolutionary work of “cultivating faith, nurturing love, and constructing meaning,” of reconnecting to reality and becoming real. Why we might need to become real is more obvious when we understand the extent in which ego formation (the development of a separate center of self-conscious identity) removes us from the spontaneous stream of life experience and from the present mystery of reality.

The rise of personhood and individuality is a slow arc across human cultural history, and religion functions to keep it from detaching pathologically from the mystical (contemplative), ethical (communal), and universal (cosmological) dimensions of our existence. Few critics of religion today recognize just how important it was during the formative stages of human evolution, not to mention how important it continues to be as our destiny unfolds. Just because certain aspects of religion, and even entire religions, may change or disappear as we progress doesn’t mean that religion itself is expendable.

The question is not whether but how ego consciousness today is linked back to the grounding mystery within, to the living community of persons, and to the larger context of life on earth. Does our religion ‘work’ to this extent, or not?

My diagram summarizes the ‘journey back to reality’ that healthy religion is intended to facilitate. The place to begin is at the bottom-right, where looped purple and black chain-links remind us of the essential nature of human beings as spiritual animals. We are not souls in bodies or bodies with souls, but sentient animals with a rich inner life. Our body is oriented by the senses in an extroverted fashion to the physical environment, while our soul opens consciousness to its own inner depths. In the dialogue of inner and outer, mediated by metaphor and story (myth), we perceive the oneness of all things and our place in the order of existence.

Shifting over to the bottom-left and slowly swinging upward in the diagram introduces another piece of the puzzle, in that developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) mentioned earlier. If ‘spiritual animal’ is what we are as human beings, ego identity is a quest for who we are – where we belong, to whom, as a member of which tribe, in what occupation, and so on. Early on, the tribe is most active in shaping our animal nature into a well-behaved dependent – a ‘good’ boy or girl who observes the rules of the game. Certain base impulses have to be restrained, or else channeled in ways that conform to the morality of tribal life.

Our fundamental relationship to the body is established at this stage, as either something we can honor and enjoy, or instead feel unsure and ashamed about.

The first separation in ego formation, then, is a separation of self-consciousness from the sensations, drives, and urgencies of the body. Ideally there is a general sense of security, where the emerging ego feels supported and valued as a member. But even in the well-adjusted individual some anxiety persists around the question (inarticulate at this point) of whether it’s really safe to trust, making security a chronic concern for the ego. We see this, for instance, in the infant that clings to its mother for safety and nourishment, unwilling to let go for fear of not having what it needs to survive. Attachment, then, is how ego compensates for insecurity, by latching onto whatever promises the unconditional support it has lost in the process of separation.

Every ego thus carries an inherent self-contradiction: the separation necessary for establishing its own center of identity amplifies a deep insecurity, which ego then seeks to overcome by attaching to an external anchor – be it mother, family, nation, wealth, status, deity, heavenly reward, or whatever. The deeper the insecurity, the stronger and more desperate the attachment: a condition that interferes with and can completely undermine the process of healthy ego formation. This self-contradiction is usually resolved (perhaps only justified or explained away) by the construction of meaning that our tribe erects around us. As an obedient and honor-seeking member of the group, we should be willing – better yet, eager – to sacrifice everything in service to its idols and ideals.

Insofar as religion can become a closed orthodoxy and a hierarchy of top-down control, it was inevitable that this natural course of human evolution (i.e., the rise of ego consciousness) would generate a crisis – and a worldwide one. Wherever the rising force of personal identity and individual freedom confronts a regime of moral repression and thought control, something needs to give.

It’s important to understand, however, that because ego is inherently insecure to some extent, the framework of meaning it comes to inhabit and defend as its personal world is not wide open to reality, but just as small and simplified as it needs to be. In my diagram, a ladder of ego development leads up into a more or less coherent worldview (symbolized by a sphere) held inside a set of beliefs concerning ‘the way it is’ (symbolized by a box around the sphere). Even a healthy personality, exhibiting the telltale signs of ego strength (stable, balanced, and unified), is separated from reality by its world construct.

We don’t need to demonize the ego and make it the cause of all our trouble, as some world religions have done. The goal of ‘salvation’ (referring to the process of being set free and made whole) is not to cancel or reverse what ego formation has accomplished, but rather to transcend personal identity and reconcile consciousness to reality once again. I say ‘once again’, but in fact the connection this time is conscious and intentional, whereas its pre-egoic state was unconscious and spontaneous.

By definition, nothing is separate from reality, which means that ego’s separate identity is actually (in the words of Albert Einstein) “an optical delusion of consciousness.” This is what needs to be transcended.

Having made our way to the top of my diagram, we can now follow the path of our journey back to reality. To really see things as they are, the veil of meaning that separates us from reality (or to use a related analogy, the mental labels we affix to things and other people) must be pulled aside. What is revealed, then, is perfectly meaningless: reality in all its glory, the pure radiance of being. Truth is always beyond meaning, and our meanings are true only insofar as they accurately represent the way things really are. And yet, even the most accurate representation is still just a representation; the present mystery of reality transcends all media of thought, language, art, and theory. It is ineffable.

When we are liberated from the constraints of belief, prejudice, and unrealistic expectations, other persons can be respected as free individuals rather than as emotional attachments that protect or ‘complete’ us. Such open and sacred regard for others, expressed as empathic care for their health and well-being, is what we call love. Genuine love and community is a dynamic of freedom, trust, kindness, and honesty between individuals. It isn’t ‘blind’ at all, but profoundly clear-sighted. Attachment is what makes us blind to others, regarding them only as we need them to be – how reassured, desirable, important, or threatened they make us feel.

If truth is the way things really are behind the meanings we impose on them, and if love refers to a genuine human connection that is free from neurotic attachment, then power, as the opposite of insecurity, has to do with our conscious connection to the grounding mystery within. Paul Tillich expanded the notion of being (taken as a verb rather than a noun) as ‘the power to be’, interpreting existence (from existere) as the place where reality manifests (or ‘stands out’) in this or that thing.

Much of mystical spirituality might be characterized as an inward descent of consciousness, dropping past the identifications of ego, into the deeper registers of inner life until the wellspring of being-itself is reached.

Our quest for identity sets the stage, as it were, for our journey back to reality. As the quest is our preoccupation during the first half of life, the journey will (or perhaps I can dare say, should) serve as the orienting metaphor for a spirituality of the second half. Yes indeed, we will occasionally get hooked into the drama of ‘me and mine’ – much more frequently than we would care to admit – losing our way time and again. But soul seeks truth, not meaning. It celebrates love, not possession. And it rests quietly in being, in the secret source of power.

 

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