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The Mirror of Religion

If god is not “up there” and heaven is not “after this,” then why would anyone get involved with religion?

One obvious answer might be to make money – speaking primarily on behalf of TV evangelists and other hucksters who exploit our fantasies of immortality and our craving for absolute answers. They hook us in by the thousands with a promise of prosperity in this life and everlasting security in the next.

Not surprisingly, the only ones getting richer are the hucksters themselves.

Once upon a time religion provided people with big stories, deep traditions, and vital connections to their communities, the larger environment of life, and to the present mystery of reality. Religion gave us grounding and orientation, identity and purpose, meaning and hope.

Then something happened.

Our mind began to open to reality in new ways. Where all that business of religion had focused our contemplation on the mysteries of life within and around us, we became increasingly aware of an impersonal objectivity to things. This has famously been called the “disenchantment of the world,” and it came as the consequence of a kind of centripetal integration of our individual personality, bringing with it a newfound ability to discriminate between external facts and internal feelings.

This evolution of consciousness didn’t necessarily mean that the sacred myths and sacramental cosmology of religion had to be abandoned. The change in awareness, however, did invite us to interpret the stories in a new light.

Whereas our mythopoeic imagination was the generative source of the myths, we could now appreciate their principal metaphors as translucent revelations of a deeper mystery.

Take this analogy …

A landscape painting can be “read outward” for its representational realism and factual accuracy. Something separate from the work of art is that by which it is recognized and evaluated. But a true appreciation of the painting as art requires that we also “read inward” to its creative source and inspiration in the artist’s personal experience. We are not thereby attempting to go back to its origin in the past; rather we are going deeper into something that is genuinely a mystery, of which the painting is a revelation in this present moment.

As we meditate on it, that same experiential in-sight is awakened in us.

The shift of consciousness mentioned earlier, where seemingly all of a sudden reality confronted our mind as an objective fact, is paradoxically when this inward path into the grounding mystery of being became available for the first time. Having established our separate center of personal self-awareness (ego), reality opened simultaneously beyond us in the objective order of existence, and within us as the subjective depths of our being.

Those sacred stories of religion could now be read inward as poetic and metaphorical revelations of our own grounding mystery. For so long they were spun almost by instinct like spider webs out of our creative imagination, captivating our attention and making life fascinating and meaningful. But whereas earlier their action and imagery had been projected around us, now for the first time we could follow that projection inward to its spiritual source.

To interpret god metaphorically, reading inward to its deeper significance and expressive potency, necessitated a shift in religion’s self-understanding. Instead of orienting us outward to some supernatural being “up there,” god’s metaphorical meaning urged upon us a newfound sense of our creative authority.

As a poetic construct of the human imagination, the character and virtue of god as played out in the myths (and read inward) turned the sacred narratives from windows into mirrors.

Our “window” on reality – that is to say, on the objective and factual realm – would become the special portal of science. And our “mirror” into the subjective and intuitive realm was now positioned to serve religion’s own progress as a system of stories, metaphors, meditative practices, and ethical commitments that could guide human evolution into a “post-theistic” future.

The prefix “post” in this term shouldn’t be mistaken as “anti” or “a” (as in atheist) since post-theism is not focused on – or even concerned with – the existence of god. Instead, it provides the structure and vocabulary for making meaning, building community, and actualizing our higher nature as human beings – “after” (post) we have learned to contemplate god as a mirror into ourselves and taken responsibility for our creation.

Our own individual development through the early years and into adulthood traces the same path as our cultural evolution.

There was a time when stories and their performance, otherwise known as imaginative play, were the world we lived in day and night. We regarded their characters, plots, and adventures as laced invisibly into the landscape of everyday life. Some characters became magnetic attractors in the shaping and orientation of our developing personality. In a way, they were more “real” to us than the flesh-and-blood members of our own house and neighborhood.

But then something happened.

Partly as a consequence of our socialization, and partly a natural stage in the development of our mind, the mapping of language onto an objective reality separate and apart from us began to demand more of our attention. This “real world” of impersonal facts would eventually become the realm of our adult everyday life.

Those childhood stories of the backyard playground needed to be left behind, put on the shelf … or read inward for new meaning.

It’s not news that most adults in advanced societies nowadays are caught on the Wheel of Suffering, in lives that have been flattened out and drained of creative imagination. We have to turn on a screen or sit in a theater for the experiences we can barely recall from childhood.

If and when we go to church, we are likely to hear about a god “up there” and a heaven “after this,” but there is little if any inward depth-experience of a mystery that cannot be named or fully known.

Our religions presume to be windows on reality, telling us what to believe about a being that no one has ever encountered. Their “windows” are not the true window of science, yet their competing (and archaic) accounts of objective reality are obligated on devotees under threat of excommunication and eternity in hell if they cannot believe.

The tragic irony is that the stories these religions take so literally are actually reflecting back to them insights into our own deeper nature, and truths with power that can set us free for the liberated life.

 

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The Problem With God

A friend in the Wisdom Circle I attend asked an important question recently: “How is it that the Religious Right can stand behind Donald Trump and what he’s doing to our country?”

For an answer, let’s further ask what the Religious Right is all about. Also known as the political arm of Evangelical Christianity, the Religious Right is an ultra-conservative faction which has historically – even though its “history” is in fact quite shallow – resisted secular modernity by harking back to a fictional “New Testament Church” when the Christian religion was morally, doctrinally, and spiritually pure.

Since that time, Evangelicals claim, the institutional Church has struggled to keep itself from compromising with “the world,” which is morally, doctrinally, and spiritually impure – damned, in fact.

As Western culture grew increasingly pluralistic, the only effective way of preserving its soul was to shrink the horizon of true Christian identity, defined by just a small set of dogmatic “fundamentals.” Over time, this horizon was identified increasingly with the middle class, and even more with middle-aged true believers, particularly middle-aged white men.

Ultra-conservatism, or fundamentalism of any kind, is thus a defensive reaction to changes around us that make us feel threatened and insecure. At its base is fear. Internally, however, this deeper anxiety is converted into resentment and channeled outwardly as anger, aggression, and violence.

A critical mechanism in this conversion of anxiety into aggression is the Religious Right’s construct of god.

The god of fundamentalism is authoritarian, uncompromising, offended by our sin, and vindictive in his prescription of “redemptive violence” (René Girard, Walter Wink, William Herzog II) and vicarious death as necessary for salvation. We can find him throughout the biblical writings, in both Old and New Testaments. This god has his “chosen people,” a “faithful remnant” and “righteous few” who obediently use every means to preserve their purity against the onslaughts of religious idolatry, cultural diversity, social change, scientific progress and secular globalization.

In other words, the Religious Right didn’t just make this god up. He was ready-made in the background of Judeo-Christian mythology.

It needs to be said, however, that other constructs of god can be found in the Bible as well. A minority report, comparatively speaking, conceived of god as supremely benevolent, universally compassionate, and unconditionally forgiving. This is the god sponsored by some of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) and proclaimed by Jesus to be the one heavenly father of all nations, of the just and unjust alike.

Jesus, particularly, was intent on breaking down the walls of separation, and he denounced the Religious Right of his day (known as Pharisees) as deadly vipers and whitewashed tombs.

If we should set these two gods of the Bible side-by-side, we would have to draw one of two conclusions. Either there are (at least) two biblical gods, or else the god of the Bible is bi-polar, in the way he swings wildly between grace and aggression, forgiveness and vengeance, radical inclusion and everlasting excommunication.

The truth of the matter is probably that both conclusions are correct: there are as many constructs of god in the Bible as there are authors and communities represented in its writings. And any god that humans construct will inevitably reflect their strange tendency as a species toward wide irrational mood swings and compulsive behavior.

So, was the authoritarian angry god of the Religious Right just made up one day thousands of years ago by some insecure, embittered, and self-righteous middle-aged white guy? Or was that guy taken in by an ideology that seemed to speak directly to his worst fears, promising salvation through a renunciation of the world, a “holy war” against god’s enemies, and a final rescue to a paradise beyond the confusing grayscale of this life?

That’s a chicken-and-egg puzzle we probably can’t solve.

This entire meditation so far is really a post-theistic exercise in mythological meta-analysis. It has pushed beyond the stalemate of theism and atheism, getting past the question of god’s literal (or factual) existence in the interest of exploring his literary (and metaphorical) meaning. Even a humble theist will admit that the deepest mystery of being, which we objectify and personify under the guise of one god or another, eludes our mind’s grasp and most certainly transcends the boxes of any orthodoxy.

Coming back to my friend’s question, today’s Religious Right is standing behind Donald Trump simply because he is so much like the authoritarian god who stands behind them. His rhetoric of discrimination, his politics of inequality, and his brazenly immoral behavior are untouchable because he is their champion and only hope for an America that is safe again, pure again, and great again.

Their absolute devotion actually blinds them to his blatant violations of basic human rights and spiritual values. An aggressive, abusive, self-righteous, and glory-seeking megalomaniac is god’s man for the job.

By removing the immigrants who have infested our country, closing down every outlet of liberal democracy, and putting all enemies under our feet, we will finally fulfill our national destiny as god’s supreme City on a Hill.

When anxiety is so deep and pervasive, shrinking our horizon of membership so as to exclude everyone who is different and disagrees with us is one way – but it’s not a way through. To quote saint Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Both for ourselves and for everyone around us.

The god standing behind the Religious Right and the president they stand behind are one and the same. They are dangerous, but their power is siphoned out of our collective imagination. We can imagine better gods, better leaders, and a nation much better than what we are today.

 
 

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Would Jesus Join a Church?

Christianity has become a protected membership, where insiders are separated from outsiders by a wall of orthodox beliefs and moral judgments. In this post I will argue that membership is always about purity, separation, and exclusion.

Purity may not be about ritual or dietary restrictions in most cases; at least this is generally true of Christian memberships. But insiders consistently regard themselves as more pure (what used to be called righteous) and in possession of the revealed (uncontaminated) truth upon which their salvation (and everyone else’s) depends.

In order to achieve and preserve purity, insiders see the need to separate themselves from the rest of the world, especially from “sinners and unbelievers.” These are necessarily excluded – perhaps welcomed as visitors, but soon enough urged to confess their sins, adopt the orthodoxy, join the church, and recite the creed.

For the most part, Christian insiders have the assurance of being saved from damnation (the fate of the rest of the world) by their belief in Jesus as one who took away their sins, bore their deserved punishment on his cross by dying in their place, and thereby satisfied the conditions against their forgiveness.

Christianity as a protected membership goes back to the early centuries when the mixture of world cultures under Roman rule was making imperial unification all but impossible. At first, Roman emperors tried to subjugate or exterminate their motley population of immigrants, which included a messianic movement that took its inspiration from a crucified rebel leader who had wandered the countryside with a message of human liberation by the spirit of God.

Jesus’ followers carried on with his refusal to obey traditions, institutions, and authorities that oppressed and exploited the human spirit. State persecution of this Jesus movement only managed to push it underground, however, where its antiestablishmentarian philosophy continued to spread.

With Constantine (272-337 CE) came a different tactic. Rather than trying to uproot and destroy the Christians, he enticed them into becoming a protected membership. His council at Nicaea in 325 was convened for the purpose of motivating church leaders to define their religion, agree on what Christians should believe, and enforce this orthodoxy across his empire.

By converting the Jesus movement into a religious institution, Constantine was able to bring it under control and on his side. Ever since then, Christianity has preferred to sidle up to thrones, parliaments, and political parties.

Back in the middle of the first century, before Constantine’s solution and just as Roman persecution of Christians was getting started, the apostle Paul had been busy planting Christian communities throughout Greece and Asia Minor. Even that early, the movement was trying to find a balance between the itinerant values of Jesus and the more settled life in towns and cities. Paul himself seems to have struggled somewhat with the tension of perfect freedom and proper order in the communities he helped to establish, presaging a dynamic that Constantine would later turn in his favor.

In the Christianity of Paul and Paul’s line (particularly the authors of Colossians and Ephesians) a provocative trinitarian confession was circulating. Paul himself testified to having undergone a religious conversion of sorts, when, on his way to arrest some Christians in Damascus, he was suddenly seized by a vision of blinding light and a voice claiming to be that of “Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5).

Later Paul would describe the experience as the moment he died to what he had been, to become a bearer of the living spirit of Jesus. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Paul extended this transforming experience of “Christ in me” into a new concept of the Jesus community as the “body of Christ.” Christ wasn’t the last name of Jesus but a Hebrew term (mashiach) meaning “anointed one,” similar in many ways to the Eastern idea of buddha or “awakened one.” We can think of this as a spiritual principle that impels the transcendence of ego into unity consciousness and the liberated life. Jesus the Christ and Gautama the Buddha are honored as individuals in whom a new, higher humanity was revealed and released in the world.

In Paul’s understanding, Jesus became the Christ in being filled and lifted up (resurrected) by the spirit of God (see Romans 1:4). This same spirit is what came to life in Paul himself, as well as in everyone who undergoes the death-and-resurrection (ego transcending) experience. All together, they now live in the world as the corporate body of Christ, sharing its joy and bringing liberation to those still held captive by fear – just as Jesus the Christ had done.

Disciples of Paul completed the trinitarian confession by taking his “Christ in me” and “body of Christ” metaphors and adding a cosmic dimension:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)

Rather than taking this as a confirmation of the (much later) orthodox doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and the divine Trinity, we need to appreciate the vision in its full scope. Christ (the transforming principle of higher wholeness) is not only at work in the individual Christian and present in the Christian community, but fills the entire frame of the cosmos itself.

That is to say, nothing is excluded.

If we look for the roots of this universalist vision, we will find them in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. Without the filter of subsequent tradition, theological commentary, and church dogma, Jesus’ life and message can be understood as centered in one thing, to which he gave the metaphorical name kingdom – reign, or even better, reality – of God. For him this reality has no inside or outside, but is a mystery that includes everyone.

For that reason we can summarize the life and teachings of Jesus as focused on radical inclusion.

This helps explain why Jesus was so critical of human traditions, human institutions, and orthodoxies that enshrine human convictions about mysteries we really don’t understand or haven’t experienced. His message of unconditional forgiveness – letting go of vengeance, surrendering the need to get even, and responding to the enemy with lovingkindness – removes the walls separating insiders from outsiders, the righteous from the rest.

What does the vision of radical inclusion have to say to protected memberships, like what Christianity has largely become today? A good question to ask ourselves is, “Would Jesus join a church?”

 

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Math and the Meaning of Life

Have you ever met someone who believes they are god’s gift to the world and deserve special attention? How about someone who believes they are worst of the worst and also deserve special attention? Both individuals have essentially the same thing going on: they can’t stop thinking about themselves or get the attention they feel they deserve.

They are both entitled neurotic egos.

At various times in our lives we have all been there. Almost by definition, ego (Latin “I”) is the center of attention around which turn our circumstances, daily life, the universe, and everything that matters – to us. Ever since we were born our tribe has been busy telling us who we are, where we belong, how we should behave and what we should believe.

Some of us had taller powers who told us we were perfect little angels and deserved the very best in life. Others were told that we could never be good enough on our own and would always need someone else’s help to measure up to anything.

The adventure of ego (or self-) consciousness on Earth has had mixed results. Certainly the rise of self-conscious actors who could serve as bearers of social identity and cultural meaning marked a significant evolutionary breakthrough.

But with it came this susceptibility to self-obsession, believing we are either better or worse than everyone else and consequently deserving of special attention.

When you stop and think about it, most of humanity’s greatest social disasters through history can be attributed to the root cause of our neurotic and entitled egos.

That orange spiral to the left – which in this blog never indicates anything good – stands for this condition of spinning in ever-tighter revolutions around an insecure identity.

Whether we’re stuck in a superiority complex or an inferiority complex, it’s “all about me.”

In my diagram I have placed math operators next to each of these conditions. The multiplication sign is a magnifier that makes the ego into something exceptional and larger than life, while the division sign is a minimizer in the way it breaks the ego down into something exceptionally unexceptional – helpless, hopeless and waiting for Godot. For the neurotic ego, the meaning of life is a function of either magnifying oneself (“more of me”: superiority complex) or dividing oneself (“less of me”: inferiority complex).

This plays out in religion as the difference between those who see themselves as deserving of honor and glory, on one side, and on the other those who regard themselves as damned helpless rejects who need to be saved. In orthodox Christianity the message is that it really is all about you. High-achievers and lowlifes alike can be assured of living forever in heaven as long as they believe in (what the church teaches about) Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior.

Inside popular Christian theism this profound allegiance to the ego and its insatiable craving for attention and immortality is passionately proclaimed as the end-game of belief. You believe so that you will go to heaven, whether because you’ve done good and deserve a hand, or because you’re no good and deserve a hand up.

Jesus himself seems to have had a very different message, for the good and bad like: Get over yourself and start caring for others. You are not entitled to anything and you don’t deserve anything, because you lack nothing. Not a pat on the back or a boot on your neck. It’s not all about you. There’s work to be done, so come along!

Indeed there is hardly a more tragic gap to be found in all of religion than what separates orthodox Christianity and the spirituality of Jesus. If there’s hope for the Christian religion – and time is running out – it will come by way of a renaissance of his original message and way of life.

What makes this unlikely is that the Christian religion has a strong historical momentum of self-centered belief and behavior, and is currently under the management of leaders who can’t get over themselves either.

But if they could, what would be different? What else can be done with this evolutionary breakthrough in self-conscious personal identity (ego) besides showering it with glory or casting it down in shame?

The answer to that question is where our renaissance will begin.

To the right of ego in my diagram are two more math operators, a plus sign and a minus sign. Now, whereas the other operators were “done to” the ego (making it bigger by magnification or smaller by division), these next two are “done with” the ego. The plus sign indicates a move of leaping beyond the ego in connection with, or as Jesus might have said, for the sake of others.

This is one way of getting over yourself: psychospiritually getting outside and above ego concerns in order to join the higher wholeness of genuine community.

Obviously – or at least it should be obvious – an insecure ego that is spiraling into its own neurotic sense of entitlement will not be capable of self-transcendence or genuine community. There’s too much of “me and mine” getting in the way. When the neurotic ego connects with others it’s typically with the aim of getting the upper hand (×), or else kissing the feet of one we hope will save us (÷).

The neurotic ego will also refuse to follow the inward path of subtraction – not reducing ego until little is left (which is division), but dropping past ego consciousness altogether. Such an inward descent entails rappelling the interior precipice of oneself, below personal identity and its whirling tetherball of obsessions, through the nervous system, and deep into the living body’s cradle of biorhythms.

All of that descending terrain is what I call the grounding mystery. In this deep inner place there is no separation where thoughts and words might get a toehold. The experience is timeless and ineffable; there we can simply relax into being and be at peace.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the ascending path of transpersonal spirit (plus sign) and the descending path of existential soul (minus sign) have been consistently condemned in religions where the entitled neurotic ego is calling the shots. These same religions know nothing of the grounding mystery within or what genuine community has to offer.

In fact, they are presently the diabolical adversary to the spiritual renaissance our planet needs. When all that matters is what you deserve … well, then nothing else really matters, does it?

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy, Part 2

You probably saw this coming. In Idols of Orthodoxy I took my reader into the phenomenology of symbols; not an interpretation of this or that symbol – although we used as our example the American flag – but of how symbols themselves are experienced. With that groundwork in place, now we can address a symbol which is central to the Christian religion: Jesus as a symbol of God.

Right away some will protest that Jesus is not merely a ‘symbol’ of God, but God himself. As I want to show, however, this particular point of orthodox doctrine is really a form of idolatry, which is one of the ‘ditches’ we fall into when the tension inherent to a symbol snaps, the other ditch being dualism.

For much of its history, Christian orthodoxy has jumped back and forth between dualism – Jesus and God are two separate objects, one human and the other divine – and idolatry, where Jesus is God, pure and simple.

The attraction of both dualism and idolatry is in their simplicity: thinking in terms of two objects or only one doesn’t require much intellectual effort. Indeed it might be our avoidance of cognitive exercise and the resultant atrophy of thinking that predisposes many of us to take symbols merely at their face value.

What other way can we see them?

Recalling my earlier example of the American flag, Old Glory, we distinguished among a symbol’s three aspects. Its tangible aspect is sensory-physical: the material cloth with its pattern of colors. This is the aspect we perceive with our physical senses. As it relates to Jesus as a symbol of God, we are speaking of the flesh-and-blood individual who lived 2,000 years ago.

His contemporaries saw and heard him as one like themselves in many ways, although some of what he said and did was not only uncommon but downright scandalous and provocative.

Jesus’ career as a symbol of God probably didn’t begin until later in life, most likely breaking into the awareness of his disciples only during his final days and following his death.* Before then, everyone was just trying to make sense of this self-styled wisdom teacher, social activist, and rabble-rouser who seemed intent on disrupting the status quo. His message was appealing, in the way he talked of a foundational dignity in every human being regardless of race, religion, sex, or moral character.

He often focused his audience’s anticipation on a transcendent mystery and power which he spoke of as hidden in the ordinary, disguised in the common, and present even in what we are quick to condemn and discard as worthless. His favorite medium for teaching was a particular type of story known as parable, which as the word implies (para, side by side + bole, to throw) proffered metaphors, similes, and analogies for seeing into the depths of everyday life.

Apparently he lived his own life in such congruity with the present mystery he spoke of, that others began to regard Jesus himself as this mystery personified.

So just as the American flag has a tangible aspect, so did Jesus. And just as it represents a mystery that we can’t pin down or rationally explain (i.e., the American spirit), over time Jesus began to represent for his disciples a mystery named the spirit of God.

As a reminder, the metaphor of spirit (literally breath, air, or wind) in both cases refers to a mystery that cannot be seen except for its effects. Wind isn’t exactly some thing, but is rather an energy or force that moves things and moves through things. It’s important not to lose this primal acknowledgment of mystery as the power infusing everything in the foreground with being, vitality, and significance. In the phenomenology of symbol this is its transcendent aspect.

Just as Jesus’ metaphors and parables were misunderstood by many of his day as pointing to a separate and supernatural object, so did later Christian orthodoxy lose the sense of Jesus as a symbol of God opening to a present mystery that cannot be objectified but only unveiled (or revealed). It’s not that we have a tangible object in Jesus himself and another transcendent object in God – two things, in other words, which are somehow related – but a transcendent mystery revealed in, through, and as his symbolic form.

The only way we can preserve this tension (of in, through, and as) inherent in the symbol is by grasping its paradoxical aspect: not this-or-that (dualism) or this-is-that (idolatry) but both this-and-that. A symbol is both tangible (seen, heard, touched) and transcendent in the way it manifests a mystery which is invisible, ineffable, and beyond our grasp. It’s as if one aspect is turned toward us and the other away from us, as it holds the tension of both.

Yes, we could construct an abstraction named “the American spirit” or “the spirit of God,” but almost immediately thereafter this tension will snap and its symbol fall to one side or the other of a dividing line.

Either Jesus was just another one of us (this side of the line) or he must have been God (the other side). When the paradoxical aspect of a symbol is lost (i.e., the tension snaps) we are left with only two choices. Neither one is all that sophisticated, and both are symptoms of a moribund imagination. Only as we are able to recover our competency for symbol will the metaphors and myths that have long revealed the deeper truths and higher potentials of our human experience begin to make sense again.


*This breakthrough in awareness of Jesus as a symbol of God was the insight metaphorically represented in the Resurrection. The truth of what he said, how he lived, and what he was did not end on his cross but continues in those with the same courage to be authentically and compassionately human.

 

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A Closer Look at Growing Up

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Michelangelo’s scene in the Sistine Chapel of the temptation and expulsion of the First Couple from Eden follows the mythic narrative of Genesis 3 fairly closely – except perhaps for their depiction as meaty white Europeans. But we can forgive the artist for creating in his own likeness, as we all tend to do that.

Myths of creation and of how we humans found ourselves in, or brought about, our present predicament are widespread among the world cultures. Typically things start off in a paradisaical state and then some act of ignorance, stupidity, or disobedience breaks the spell and we find ourselves on the outs. The orthodox Christian interpretation has long taken this as historical, which soon enough ran up against the findings of anthropology and evolutionary science.

The Church authorities made the mistake of insisting on the literal-historical meaning of this and other biblical myths, making it today impossible for an orthodox Christian to also be a well-informed and reality-oriented world citizen. If the Bible isn’t telling the literal truth, they worry, then nothing in it can be trusted. If the story of our expulsion from the garden didn’t really happen, then why do we need to be saved? Finally, if the Bible is the “word of God” but turns out to be more myth than history, then what the hell … and heaven, for that matter?!

There is a way to understand this Bible story without having to reject science, logic, and common sense. But it requires that we loosen up on our insistence that truth can only be literal. It can also be metaphorical, referring to the way a word, scene, or entire story reveals a mystery that can only be experienced, not explained. When you read or hear such a story not as an explanation of prehistorical facts but rather as a veil drawn aside on your own human experience, that is truth in another sense.

So how does the Genesis story show us what’s really going on, about what’s true of our human experience? Let’s take a closer look.

Serpents make appearances in many world myths and their metaphorical meaning will be different depending on the cultural and historical context. They might represent the principle of time, in the way they slither in lines and shed their skin to be reborn. There’s probably an acquired reflex deep in our hominid genes that jumps at snakes but reveres their lethal power.

To observe a slithering serpent as a “traveling esophagus” (Joseph Campbell) is to identify it with the most elementary of survival drives. We know from science that our body is not a spontaneous and unique expression of biology, but instead has genetic roots deep in life’s adventure on Earth. Over many millions of years this organism and its nervous system evolved by seeking out niches of nourishment, safety, mastery, and procreation. These are the survival drives of our animal nature, represented by a serpent in the Genesis myth.

It takes at least a second reading for Christians, especially, to realize that the garden serpent is not an evil principle but rather belongs to Yahweh’s created order which he declared “very good.” In other words, this isn’t the devil (or Satan) as later orthodoxy would insist. (When the myth was first invented, there was as yet no such absolute principle of personified evil working in opposition to an absolute good.) The serpent merely tempts Eve to seize an opportunity that might work to her advantage – that she will be “like god, knowing good and evil.”

At this stage of the story, Adam and Eve are still innocent and naive. They only know what they’ve been told by their higher power. Their world was created by someone else, is managed by someone else, and the way they should behave is dictated by someone else. Sound familiar? In other words, Adam and Eve are children – not literally children in the story, but serving as archetypes of “the child.”

When we are young children, our own animal nature and its survival drives compels behavior that inevitably runs up against the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of morality, that is to say, of the rule system that lays down the code of what sorts of behavior are commanded or prohibited. Because our animal nature has been at it for millions of years already, it takes time and repeated disciplinary actions for our tribe to bring these impulses in line.

In those early years when our animal nature is ‘tempting’ us to cheat, lie, and manipulate others for what we need, our sense of right and wrong is contained by what we might call a morality of obedience. It’s not necessary that we understand why some action is right or wrong, only that we obey the rule that tells us how to behave. Our taller powers said it, they call the shots, and we must do as they say. When we obey there might be a reward, but more certain still is the penalty (both physical and emotional) that follows our disobedience. The psychological consequence of disobedience is called a guilty conscience.

Part of growing into a mature adult involves breaking free of this morality of obedience where our behavior is motivated by external incentives. While it’s a social necessity that the animal natures of children are brought into compliance with the rule system of the tribe, adults are expected to take responsibility for their own lives and behavior. In one sense, it’s nice to have everything laid out for us, with all the “shalts” and “nots,” lollipops and paddles at the ready.

But our adult experience is not so simplistic or clear-cut. We need to accept the full burden of our existence along with its unresolved, and in many cases unresolvable, ambiguity. To merely “trust and obey,” as the orthodox hymn goes, would be to refuse the responsibility of being an adult. It becomes imperative, then, that we shift from a morality of obedience to an ethic of responsibility.

There will be times when our own higher adult self sees the inherent egoism of obedience – doing something for a reward, refraining to avoid punishment, thinking all the while “what’s in it for me?” In the adult world more variables have to be considered, differing perspectives allowed, and in some cases doing the right thing puts us in conflict with the morality of our tribe. We need to be willing to bear some conscientious guilt by departing from the norm or disobeying a rule when these are enforcing oppression, exploitation, and privilege.

So what does the Genesis myth tell us? That we all need to grow up. That we need to listen to our animal nature as we obey those in charge. But that eventually we will have to step from under the authority of those telling us how to live and figure it out on our own. Taking for ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil,” making our own decisions and accepting the consequences, constructing a world that is safe, stable, and provident for those young Adams and Eves now depending on us – this is our destiny as responsible adults, making our way just “East of Eden.”

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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