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Tag Archives: Paul Tillich

Narratives of Terror and the Courage to Be

fear-chainThere are a lot of highly concerned and rational people today who are being held back from stepping out, speaking up, and taking the lead into a better future for our planet. It’s not exactly that someone else is holding them back, even though that’s how many would try to rationalize their current situation. We’d like to think there is someone over there who is keeping us in our frozen state, and that if only they will leave us alone we will be happy.

This turns out to be little more than an excuse, however, because the real cause of our paralysis is internal to ourselves, not out there somewhere else.

I propose the existence of something I’ll call “the fear chain,” which gets forged especially during those critical years of our early conditioning. Parents, teachers, coaches, and other handlers conspired in teaching us that certain things (and people) are dangerous – or potentially so. When we were very young we were cautioned against talking with strangers – along with playing in the street, running with scissors, and touching hot stoves. Such things were “dangerous,” and engaging with them would likely put us at significant risk.

Whether or not they consciously realized it, these influential adults were servo-mechanisms in our socialization, whereby the animal nature of our body was trained to behave according to the rules and rhythms of cultural life. Already programmed by millions of years of evolution, our body came equipped with some basic instincts, the most persistent of which is our drive for self-preservation.

In some form or fashion, all the other instincts – for attachment, food, shelter, sex, and reproductive success – are variations of our primal commitment to staying alive.

This drive to stay alive might also be characterized as an innate fear of death, of avoiding or seeking escape from anything that threatens survival – particularly predators, venom, toxins and tainted food; along with genuinely high-risk situations of exposure, violence, or unstable and precarious environments. While not as primal, perhaps, anything that represented the possibility of injury was linked to our fear of death, since, if serious enough, an injury might very well result in our loss of life.

In this linking fashion, numerous secondary associations were forged and anchored to our compulsive need to live – and not die.

Such association-by-linking should make you think of links in a chain, and this is exactly how I am proposing that the fear chain comes into existence. A primal (and mostly unconscious) fear of death got linked out to situations, objects, and other people who presented a risk of injury to us. And just like that, the primitive energy dedicated to staying alive was channeled into attitudes and behaviors of avoidance, suspicion, and self-defense. From that point on, the possibility of injury started to drive what we did, where we went, and with whom.

This concept of a fear chain suggests that the paralysis many people feel today is a complication of how we have been socialized – not just when we were children but even now under the tutelage of the politicians, preachers, journalists, and jihadists who spin our collective perceptions of reality. In this case, those deeper fears of injury and death get linked to the more normal experiences of loss.

Almost as much as we fear losing our lives or losing our minds, we dread the loss of wealth and opportunity, of time and freedom, of the way we were, or what we thought we could accomplish and become.

Socialization is largely dedicated to the project of constructing our identity – not what we are as human beings, but who we are as members of cultures, nations, classes, and tribes. This project is carried out through a process of forming attachments to the people, places, things, and beliefs that define us and form our horizon of meaning. Identity and attachment, then, are simply two sides of the same coin, with one (identity) the product of the other (attachment).

If we return to our natural and socially conditioned fear of injury, we can see how threats to our attachments amount to a kind of assault on our person. This is how the fear chain is forged with still another link: the (threatened or real) loss of an attachment is experienced as an injury to our identity, which anchors still farther down into our instinctual fear of death.

The stronger the attachment – that is, the more central it is to who (we think) we are – the more we fear losing it.

I wonder if the fragile construct of our identity – so many attachments, so much dependency – is what makes us so afraid of failure these days; of not being ‘successful’ or ‘good enough’. If we should try but fail, we run the risk of losing some aspect of who (we think) we are, suffering injury to our personal identity and (we irrationally believe) putting ourselves in peril of death itself. When a desired outcome isn’t achieved or we can’t get something perfect the first (or fiftieth) time, who we are and our place in the world is called into question. It’s best not to try, which allows us to keep the fantasy of identity safely above and ahead of us without the risk of being proven wrong.

Those who seek to generate an anxious urgency in us will typically use a narrative of terror to motivate us in the direction they want us to go. Such rhetoric is common from fundamentalist pulpits and during political campaigns, not to mention from those extremist wack jobs who seek to panic, disrupt, and destroy the life routines of innocent citizens. They are all united in their determination to unsettle us, tapping our amygdalas with messages of panic, outrage, and paralysis – the flight, fight and freeze responses hardwired into our brain circuitry.

For the relatively disengaged citizenry of liberal democracies, freezing is the majority option: we stop, stare, hold our breath and shake our heads, waiting for the stupor to pass before crawling back into our rut of life-as-usual.

My theory is that these narratives of terror are the sociocultural counterpart of the fear chain, one shaping the environment of our collective life and the other priming our nervous system for survival in ‘dangerous’ times. Even though a drive to survive and the fear of death may be instinctual, our chronic anxiety over losing ourselves – of losing who (we think) we are, along with the illusion of security and control that holds us together – is entirely conditioned and not natural at all.

Indeed, the intentional release of this bundle of nerves and dogmatic convictions is the Path of Liberation as taught in the wisdom traditions of higher culture.

The question remains as to how we might effectively transform our Age of Anxiety into a Kindom (sic) of Peace, where we love and honor the whole community of life on Earth. Years ago Paul Tillich coined “the courage to be” as the high calling of our human adventure. In defiance of the narratives of terror and breaking free of the fear chain, we can step out and speak up, investing our creative authority in the New Reality we want to see.

It will take more than just a few brave souls. And it will require that we move out of complacency, through protest, into a very different narrative.

 

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One Life

ego-estrangementEach of us lives inside a box where things make sense, we feel we belong, and the meaning of life is managed. We got here through a long process of socialization as our tribe shaped us into a proper member. Our identity may seem more substantial than that, but actually who I am and who you are is a social construction that has absolutely no validity outside our box. Identity and membership always go together.

Our experience inside the box has both an objective dimension, referred to as our world, and a subjective dimension, affectionately known as our self. Each of us has a self and a world, and our separate worlds periodically click together and overlap in places where our perspectives on reality are in agreement. We also disagree at times, and our disagreements can turn into conflicts – even violent conflicts as we strive to keep our different worlds intact. If my world should lose its credibility, my self is also in jeopardy since each is implied in the other.

Self is my centered experience of having an identity. Everything that is unique to who I am – my fantasies, insecurities, and ambitions; my personal myth (i.e., the story of who I am), secret aspirations, and the records I keep on those who owe me something or deserve a favor – is kept in this inner room of mirrors.

Objectively my world is not boundless, for that would imply it has no closure, and meaning requires closure. Meaning is contained and defined inside a world horizon, and anything beyond my horizon of meaning is meaningless – at least to me, and I’m the only one that really matters. (Of course you do, too, inside your world.)

Try to imagine your box, my box, and the almost countless number of other boxes that comprise the mosaic of culture: each of us trying desperately to defend our ‘truth space’ as we stay connected to (or try to avoid) the others. There’s no denying that we need each other, and that the great project of human culture somehow depends on our ability to get along, but managing the meaning of life is demanding work!

If we were fortunate enough to grow up in a supportive family where we could develop our talents and potential and were positively assisted toward the achievement of ego strength, then the transpersonal experiences of communion (an inward mystical path to the grounding mystery) and community (an outward ethical path to the turning mystery) opened us to present reality outside our box. Such experiences are not about enlarging our box or magnifying the meaning of life, but instead they engage us with a present mystery that is perfectly meaningless (or indescribably perfect). It very simply is.

It’s not about “my” security, identity, or significance at this point. Whether it comes to us as a rational observation or a mystical intuition, we are spontaneously aware that All is One; or as an ethical realization, that We’re All in This Together. I am grounded in being itself, a manifestation of the provident universe, and a participant in the higher wholeness of all things. Healthy religion has the purpose of bringing us to this position of centered strength (or personal integrity) so that we can drop inwardly or leap outwardly into the One Life.

I have to insert that qualifier “healthy” in acknowledgement of the fact that religion can also interfere with our progress to the transpersonal mystery of holy oneness. This happens when religion gets hijacked by leaders and other influencers who have failed to progress in their own psychospiritual development. Their insecurities, attachments, ambitions, and convictions have them locked inside a box that, for them, is the way – the one and only way of salvation. Yet it’s not a way at all, but a cul-de-sac, a spiritual death trap, a closed and rigid box.

When religion ordains and institutionalizes the arrested development of such individuals, eventually the orthodox portrait of deity gets twisted and corrupted into a projection of their neurotic personalities. Others under their leadership and influence contract this same sickness, and the entire company can spin into dogmatism, bigotry, violent aggression, or even suicide.

If this sounds like a description of the way things are in the Big Box of our global situation, then we have some insight both into how we got here and where the path of liberation leads. You should know, also, that there are many thousands of others who are presently waking up to the One Life all around our planet, and their percentage of the human population is steadily growing. Perhaps you and I can be instrumental in accelerating the process of awakening, by understanding its unfolding in ourselves and serving its advent in others around us. So let’s dig a little deeper into the current pathology, and then remind ourselves of the way out.

Paul Tillich was one of the most important Christian theologians of the twentieth century, and his one-word assessment of our human condition (in this stuck, sick, and fallen sense) was that we are estranged from ultimate reality, which he named being-itself or the ground of being. Estrangement is defined as the state of being removed or kept at a distance, as in the case where an individual is estranged from his or her family. Along with this separation, then, are attitudes and feelings of distrust, condemnation, shame, and hostility.

Tillich wasn’t implying that human beings are condemned by a god, but that our ‘fall’ into a separate ego has infected our general outlook on reality as something set apart and over-against us, menacing and unfriendly.

This anxious outlook on reality can take hold of a religion, as I mentioned above, but religion isn’t its only victim. Other cultural institutions, most crucially the family where the shaping of our personal identity begins, are also taken over. Whereas the gradual differentiation of a separate identity would normally lead to a stable, balanced, and unified personality under the executive management of a healthy ego, when this process isn’t conducted by a caring and supportive community, our insecurity overwhelms us and we shrink our box to stay safe and in control.

In my diagram above, estrangement is connected with two other terms which correspond to the self and world dimensions of personal identity. The fallen condition of estrangement (pathologically separate from reality) is felt internally as emptiness. Synonyms might be discontent, insatiable craving, and the belief that we are deficient or profoundly defective. Externally we are confronted by absurdity, by the nature of reality as ‘absolutely mute’ – indifferent to our needs, unresponsive, cold and uncaring. Tillich believed that the modern era could be characterized as suffering from a spiritual malady of meaninglessness (as earlier eras had struggled with guilt or death).

The condition of estrangement, then, signals our abrupt removal from unity consciousness – from both the grounding mystery within (instead, we are empty inside) and the turning mystery beyond (instead, the cosmos is absurd). This is when we are especially susceptible to religions that promise to save us from this world and reward us with life everlasting.

Where is our true liberation, then? Not in an other-worldly paradise of some kind – although even in this mythological image there is a kernel of insight, since what we seek is engagement with the present mystery of reality, which awaits us outside our box and on the other side of meaning.

 

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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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The Seduction of Identity

ParadigmsThe average person is obsessed with identity. We come through childhood with all the instructions and labels that have been put on us by our tribe, and we can spend our entire adulthood trying to justify and live up to them, reverse them and prove them wrong, or we simply allow these programs to push us along without much self-awareness. It could also be said that the average person is tormented by this obsession, since there really is no way of breaking free.

Conventional culture and religion have accommodated this ego fixation. We invest more and more in protecting the security of who we are, and the whole “meaning of life” has become for many the hopeful prospect of securing immortality in heaven when they die. Theism – the belief that (an) identity stands apart from and above reality as its maker and manager – both reflects and reinforces this preference of glorifying ego as our highest concern.

As a product of “social engineering,” the ego of personal identity is shaped and directed in ways that promote the collective identity of our tribe. This is not necessarily conducted with intention, but rather insinuates itself into the more or less automatic routines of parenting, education, politics and civil law. We are told to be “good” children, “good” Americans, “good” Christians – which means compliant with the tribal structures of family, nation, and religion. To be out of compliance (naughty, criminal, heretical) is to risk the forfeiture of our identity, and by extension the culturally supported meaning of life.

To either side of this narrow ridge of personal identity (as illustrated above) are two distinct paradigms for answering a more philosophically interesting question: not who you are as a person, but what you are as a human being. These two paradigms – which we can call “science” and “spirituality” – are not necessarily competing frameworks of research and explanation, despite the fact that they are popularly regarded as such. The real tension, however, is between the cult of identity and the paradigms on either side.

Science

According to the scientific paradigm, ego (personal identity) is not an object of study in and of itself. Because the ego cannot be dislodged from the multiple lines of social influence that define it, science treats it as a byproduct (technically an epiphenomenon) of something else rather than a separate existence in its own right. Social science has made great progress in seeing the ego as a nexus of cultural meaning and social control, interpreting personal identity as a function of its environmental (tribal) context.

In addition to expanding out into the cultural context for an understanding of what a human being is, science is also investigating the biophysical foundations of personality. Ego can be analyzed into the conflict between the instructions of society and the animal impulses of the body, as Freud did. It might also be broken down into genetic and temperamental factors determining an individual’s mental order and orientation. Drug therapy is a treatment protocol based on this notion of identity (personality, ego, and mental health) as a secondary effect of the physical conditions underlying it.

For the fun of it, I’m going to make up a word and say that science (all science) is the empirical quest for the “componence” of things. Everything that exists has a “componential” nature, which is simply to say that it is a component (part) in a larger order and is itself made up of smaller and deeper components that might be further analyzed. Because there are no egos that exist apart from bodies, science proceeds on its commitment to explain personal identity in terms of the body – its deeper componence as well as its participation as a component in the social system.

As you would expect, devotees in the cult of identity criticize science as “impersonal” (which it can be) and on an offensive campaign to undermine religion (which it isn’t). The problem, of course, is that because popular religion has taken on the immortality project of the ego as its driving mission, the scientific challenge to the belief in a metaphysical and everlasting center of identity is rightly regarded as a threat.

Spirituality

Just like science, spirituality seeks to understand and celebrate what it is to be human. Although there are teachers and esoteric schools that capitalize on our disillusionment with popular religion, they typically take up the immortality project and merely cast it under another set of metaphysical claims. This might amount to a return to paleolithic rituals, ancient secrets, and exotic doctrines, but it remains organized around the disguised status of the believer as divine and destined for higher planes of bliss.

My use of the term spirituality is not in reference to special revelation or the supernatural. Like science, spirituality is a quest for what is really real. If it begins this quest from the position of identity, spirituality quickly leaves behind the obsessions and ambitions that captivate the ego. Instead of proceeding in a biophysical direction, however, it moves along a psychospiritual (and transpersonal) path of investigation, exploring the threshold between individual self-consciousness and the provident reality to which it belongs.

Recent efforts in psychotherapy have managed to bring the topic of spirituality and religion back into the clinical conversation. Religious values and beliefs are recognized once again as important to the mental health of some clients. The emerging therapeutic models, though, are mostly classical theories of the mid-twentieth century with an “annex” of spiritually-oriented strategies attached – just in case.

Again, spirituality (and science) asks not “who” you are, but “what” you are. What is a human being? A characteristically “spiritual” phrasing of the question might be: What is the nature of being in its manifestation as a human. This is the question of essence (from the Greek esse, being).

Being doesn’t merely name the fact of existence, but refers to the act of existing (from the Greek existere, to stand out). The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich translated it as “the power to be” or being-itself. As a human being you stand out, just as you are. Instead of digging into your componential nature as science will do, spirituality takes you as “just this” – not something else, and nothing less than the present mystery of reality.

As a human manifestation of being, your existence isn’t a final term, however, for you share this power-to-be with other manifestations, human and nonhuman. If you are a manifestation of being in human form, and that thing over there is a manifestation of being in (horse, tree, rock, cup, cloud,               ) form, then what is this power manifesting as you both? Spirituality names it “ground” or “the ground of being.”

This power is nowhere other than in its manifestations. But it is more than any single manifestation simply because it exists or “stands out” over there as well. Reality is present here in human form as you, and it is present over there in another form. I’m putting an accent on this matter of location (here and there) because existence is always situated somewhere. The ego may seek to escape here-and-now for something better elsewhere or later on, whereas the soul seeks communion with the present mystery of reality.

In contrast to ego religion and its otherworldly aspirations, spirituality engages the present situation with full attention and total freedom. It doesn’t crave to be anywhere else or hide from the accidents and conditions of mortality. Trouble, affliction, and bereavement will come, but your faith in the provident support of reality in this moment enables you to be present in the situation with generosity, compassion, and gratitude. It’s not that you do nothing, but that you bring the full force of your soul (Ghandi’s satyagraha) to the challenge at hand.

As we would expect, the cult of identity is suspicious of spirituality as well. Nothing good can come from setting aside your petty agendas, nervous attachments, and ulterior motives – can it? Life will lose its meaning if you take a deep breath and open up to the real presence of mystery – right? If the human adventure isn’t really about getting somewhere else later on, then all we’re left with is … this!

Breakthrough.

 

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Resting and Longing

Tillich: “The concern of faith is identical with the desire of love: reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged. The separation of faith and love is always the consequence of the deterioration of religion.”

As I near the end of my conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich on the subject of faith, I’m impressed once again by how vibrant, experiential and deeply mystical they all regarded it. This is quite different from popular Christianity, where faith is either identified with the boxes of belief we hold onto, or our willingness to stop thinking for ourselves and simply adopt the beliefs of someone else – even if that someone else is an author of a book in the Bible.

At the deepest level, faith does not have an object. Rather it is the total release of yourself to the ground of being, or to what I have named the present mystery of reality (or real presence of mystery). This ground is only found by an interior descending path of contemplative awareness, not by looking outside yourself into the environment of your life.

And yet, a more mystically grounded spirituality will not dismiss your outer reality as just dead matter or a seductive distraction.

Your physical senses connect you to a marvelously diverse expression of that same ground, as every other form is similarly rooted in the one mystery of being. In the creative swell, this ground generates the multiplicity of things; and in its own time, each thing recedes, dissolves and returns its small loan of energy to the source.

As one of these forms, you are a manifestation to me of real presence – a creative expression of the ground as an embodied person. It’s astonishing how the ineffable (nameless) mystery of reality reaches out to me through your physical form, your quirky personality, the various roles you play, through the conceited, insecure and occasionally pompous ego acting out your life. (No worries: I have one, too!)

The force that draws us together and holds us in communion, is love. This is the ground as spirit, surrounding and moving between us. Of course, if you’re too quirky and conceited, I may not feel especially interested or attracted to you. Our insecurities might make it challenging for us to be too close, and our separate convictions might rub the wrong way, causing us to feel uncomfortable, threatened and defensive when we’re together.

But whether we like it or not, despite our differences and however fond or freaked out we are by them, the spiritual truth is that we are fellow expressions and co-participants of this universe (“turning as one”), which is simply another word for communion (“together as one”) and the creative, unifying power of love.

Perhaps this is our best working definition of religion – from the Latin religare, to link back. Healthy religion is a relevant system of spiritual practices, artistic symbols, sacred stories and social rituals that link us each internally to the ground within, relationally in shared community, and universally to the planetary and cosmic environment.

Faith is about the contemplative clarity with which we individually connect and release ourselves to the ground, while love is the communal bond that contains our seemingly separate lives and moves us into intersections where we must meet and discover each other. According to this definition, love doesn’t have to feel good and make us tingle.

If we resist its rhythm and aim, in fact, we should expect to feel pain. As pain is the signal that something is wrong and needs careful attention, its intrusion on our relationships might inspire us to inquire where we are interfering with love’s greater design. What do we need to let go of and leave behind, or perhaps stretch out for and go beyond, in order to flow more gracefully and creatively in The Way?

Faith, then, is resting in the ground – in that profound and ineffable mystery supporting you in this present moment. Love is the longing that moves through you and connects you to everything else. Resting and longing: these are the dynamics of healthy spirituality and relevant religion. Remove one of them from the balance and you have either self-absorbed insecurity (today’s counterfeit spirituality) or glorified intolerance (today’s dogmatic religion).

As things continue to deteriorate, we succumb to anxiety and depression, get caught in more destructive conflicts with each other, and undermine our planet’s ability to sustain life.

The fact that we are here at this evolutionary moment in time means that we belong together. Like it or not, we live in the same house and come from the same place. And even now we are passing away, eventually to make room for our successors – if the wake of our own trash and toxins and holy convictions still leaves a sufficient clearing for the possibility of enlightenment.

It’s not yet too late. But we have got to wake up.

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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Living Faith

Tillich: “Here more than anywhere else the dynamics of faith become manifest and conscious: the infinite tension between the absoluteness of its claim and the relativity of its life.”

My conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich has emphasized the point that faith is a verb more than a noun. Furthermore it is an act of existential and not merely of practical significance – that is to say, it involves one’s whole being in an attitude of openness to reality. It’s not so much what you do, but how you do the be-ing of your life.

The opposite of faith is not doubt but anxiety, the tendency we all have to get gripped up inside ourselves, to become hostage to our insecurities and ego defenses. While insecurity is a mark of our existence, we can easily fall in and become overwhelmed by the fact that so much is outside our control and our life is passing away. This is where the fact of our insecurity gets twisted up into the demon of anxiety.

More and more, religion is serving as therapy for this existential anxiety afflicting so many. In its beginnings it was a dynamic system of myth, ritual and morality, coordinating our human experience with the larger rhythm of the seasons, the harvest, the hunt and the changing stations of life in society. Over time, however, the focus of human concerns became increasingly personal – less about balancing heaven and earth, and more about individual salvation in the next life.

To the extent that religion has always been about the knowledge of ultimate reality, for most of its history this special knowledge has been sought for the purpose of living with a bigger context in mind. Your values, choices and actions need to be appreciated in light of your place in the cosmos, among the generations, as a member of your community, and at this particular intersection of fate and opportunity. This is what was originally called “wisdom,” and it was knowledge that really mattered because it concerned more than you and your ego ambitions.

Once ego took the dominant and commanding position – as illustrated in the ascent of the mythological god who demanded worship, glory and honor – knowledge ceased to be true wisdom and became instead doctrinal orthodoxy. You need to get it right not in order to fit your life to the greater whole, but to gain passage through the last gate and receive your reward for being right.

In that case, the absoluteness of the claims of faith can become like tamping gun powder into a tight hole: the fervor in your need to be right – given what’s at stake should you be wrong – might produce a flash of clarity, but the overall effect is much more heat than light. The dogmatic orthodoxy that characterizes so much of religion today is mostly useless as far as providing orientation and guidance in life is concerned.

In reality, life is much more grey than the black-and-white absolutes will allow. This is what Tillich means by the “relativity” of the life of faith. It may be helpful to sift and flatten the complexity down to a simplistic dualism of right and wrong, good and evil, us versus them. But because actual existence is not that simple, you have to screen out a lot of reality and misconstrue the rest to fit your boxes.

There is an obvious tension between the claims and life of faith that requires humility and courage to acknowledge. Such a claim as “God exists,” for instance, was beyond question back in the day when worldviews were based in mythological narratives. There was no need to check the story against reality, for the simple reason that the premodern mind couldn’t conceive of anything as real outside of the myths.  There simply was no “outside.”

But with the awakening of a more rational-technical intelligence, there suddenly appeared a vast realm of physical existence that was without meaning – the sheer fact of matter. This is where Greek science was born, on the “other side” of our stories. For the first time, those listening to the myths recited in the theater or around the campfire would have to ask the question, “Did that really happen?”

Today, the absolute claims of religion are typically derived from scriptural proof-texts that are required to be taken quite literally. The circular arguments notwithstanding, a certain passion – and a passion for certainty – is needed for adults to energetically defend fiction as reality. Never mind that no one has ever seen god outside the myths he inhabits, or that there is no heavenly abode above the sky or tormenting hell under our feet. For obvious reasons this makes our belief in an afterlife (up in heaven or down in hell) considerably more effortful, and a lot less sexy.

A postmodern spirituality will be able to appreciate the sacred narratives of mythology, but the god who lives there must be allowed to live only there. While stories will continue to inform our grasp on reality, they should never become so literal – and the claims derived from them so absolute – that we are ready to commit every violence in their defense.

In the end – but even more importantly, along the way to the end – the relativity of life in the world invites us to pursue our quest for meaning like hikers on a mountain ascent. It’s not a race to see who can get to the top first, or whose backpack contains all the “right” things. It’s not how you finish, or even whether you make it all the way to the peak.

It all comes down to how real you can manage to be, how present to life, and how well you pay attention to the Greater Mystery as you move along.

 

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The Truth of Symbols

Tillich: “Symbols cannot be produced intentionally. They grow and they die. Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group where they originally found expression.”

Christmas Day provides an opportunity to reflect on one of the important symbols from Christian mythology – the virgin birth of Jesus. Tillich observes that symbols, like this one, are not inventions of the conscious (intentional) mind, but rather emerge out of a part of the human psyche that the psychologist Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. The career of a particular symbol, then, cannot be scheduled, managed or predicted. It rises and falls, grows and dies according to its degree of relevance and effectiveness. What can be said of the virgin birth?

Let’s first acknowledge and set aside three opinions in our contemporary culture regarding the validity of this symbol. On one side are the “moderns” who have been sufficiently educated in the worldview of scientific materialism to reject the virgin birth as a biophysical impossibility. The study of genetics has shown that an individual’s sex and other fundamental traits require the cooperation of a mother’s egg and a father’s sperm. Unless the holy spirit contributed a male gamete, Jesus couldn’t have been a male human being.

Well, then, no big deal. Jesus wasn’t fully human – what’s the problem? According to popular Christianity today, his humanity was just a convenience anyway – a “put on” for the sake of accomplishing what needed to be done for the salvation of the world. His true nature was divine, as an incarnate god, or an avatar as in Hinduism where a deity manifests him- or herself on earth and sheds the costume once the work is done.

Orthodox Christianity, however – as distinct from popular Christianity – has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was fully human, even as he was fully god. How this adds up has never been clarified to the satisfaction of logic or reason, but that’s beside the point. In order to accomplish his work, Jesus had to be both human and divine, and fully both. That doesn’t answer the problem of his genetic inheritance as a human being, however, but that’s where “faith” comes in. You must simply believe and accept it as true.

On the other side of the contemporary divide, then, are those who take the virgin birth literally, not as symbol but as fact. It happened just as the Bible says it happened. The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the first half of the twentieth century was leveraged on this key doctrine, along with several other non-negotiables of true doctrine. Your salvation depends not just on what Jesus accomplished on your behalf but on your agreement with these particular dogmatic statements.

A third position in the debate represents an attempted compromise between the scientific skeptic and biblical literalist. Here’s where verses in scripture are reinterpreted and justified in light of what we know happened or what might have happened historically.

What Genesis calls a “day” of creation should really be translated to mean only a period of time, not a 24-hour period. The parting of the Red Sea was likely caused by seismic activity or powerful cross-currents of wind that have been noted in that part of the world. Jonah could have survived in the belly of the whale due to a generous pocket of air which is occasionally swallowed by sea mammals when they break the surface to breathe. And the Greek word for “virgin” is really a mistranslation of the Hebrew, almah, referring to a young woman of child-bearing age.

But justifying the Bible stories by science or stretching science to accommodate the Bible stories really only corrupts both. So here’s a fourth position on the virgin-birth symbol, one that I’m recommending.

Religious mythology and scientific theory are not two ways of coming at the same questions we humans have about the universe. But neither is mythology about things we can’t explain scientifically. Furthermore – it should be said – a myth and its internal reference system of symbols can be falsified according to scientific standards but still be true in a different sense.

For example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is fiction, even very good fiction, but it is not something that happened to an actual man named Ebenezer Scrooge in nineteenth-century England. From the historical perspective, it is not a true story. But Dickens himself did observe the plight of poor families in his native land and was personally moved to sympathy for their hopeless condition. Thus we might scavenge some historical value out of this admittedly fictional tale, interpreting it in light of Dickens’ social context and his own moral conscience.

But here’s the real point: it doesn’t matter whether or not Scrooge was an actual accountant, or that Dickens had a sociopolitical motive for writing his story. The ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, and those visitations by the three spirits of Christmas who reveal to Ebenezer how his choices and attitude in life ripple outward to affect others and determine the future – all of that happened. Or rather it happens, in the story, every time we read it or listen to it read.

Truth, in this deeper sense, has nothing to do with historical facts or scientific evidence or even common sense. Truth refers to the power of a story in pulling back the veils of assumption, ignorance, prejudice or indifference that obscure our perception of reality. It is not solely for the purpose of entertaining an audience or making kids sleepy in bed. Myths are true to the extent that they wake us up – break the trance – and force us to reconsider our current beliefs and where we are going in life.

So was Mary a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus? Yes – in the myth. Did shepherds hear a heavenly host announcing the birth of the savior? Yes – in the myth (as told in Luke). Did a star guide the quest of oriental kings to Jesus? Yes – in the myth (as told in Matthew). Such literary devices were ways that these ancient authors connected heaven and earth, god and humanity, east and west, one social class and another.

The other Gospels (Mark and John) don’t have a virgin birth, shepherds or wise men in their storylines. They employed different devices, different symbols. If they succeed in opening our eyes and help us see reality differently, then they are also true.

It’s difficult to say whether the symbol of the virgin birth is alive or dead in our time. If we can regain the appreciation for stories we had as children and allow the myth to pull us in and work us over, it may stand a chance. Maybe it can still provoke in us the same response it produced in its original community.

Otherwise it’s up to the skeptics and fundamentalists to pull apart its last fiber and let it die.

 

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Faith and Existence

Tillich: “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern.”

In our head-heavy, wordy and overly rationalistic traditions of the West, faith has been misrepresented as one’s assent to doctrines. Your faith is more genuine and praiseworthy if the doctrine lacks evidence to support it or contradicts logic. Both knowledge and faith have to do with the content of what you believe, but faith comes in to play where the pieces don’t seem to add up, the argument is thin on proof, or where you need to rely on the credibility of other witnesses.

We’ve already established that faith is really not about what you believe, but rather about the act of believing – or better, of releasing your need to be in control and certain of the outcome. Faith is present awareness. Whatever you may believe about what happened a long time ago, or what might happen in the future, or what’s going on right now but in another realm – of gods, angels, demons, ancestors and other spirit-beings – is not a function of faith but of your willingness to believe.

When faith is construed as primarily cognitive and propositional, doubt is a big problem. Because “the faith” has been assembled over many generations of thinking, writing, reading, interpreting and expounding on words, just one head-scratching “I’m not sure about this one” can cause the whole thing to fall apart. That’s why dogmatic fundamentalism is so rampant among religions of the word. If you feel even a hint of doubt, better start praying for an increase in faith so you don’t jeopardize your everlasting security and miss out on your reward for being right.

But we need to doubt things that don’t make sense. We need to be skeptical over claims that lack supporting evidence or logical coherence. Historically skepticism is not about withholding commitment until absolute certainty is attained, but rather conducting your own research and testing the statements of others against your own experience. Again, just because you don’t have the personal time, rational tools or motivational drive to scrutinize every religious doctrine doesn’t mean that you have a strong faith. It may turn out that your so-called faith in the validity of those doctrines results in your demise and not your salvation.

What Tillich is calling existential doubt, therefore, is not the same as scientific or methodological doubt. The latter is a servant of better (more accurate) knowledge, as when a researcher tests a theory experimentally, or a philosopher examines an argument for the reliability of its premises and how logically sound it is. Pre-Copernican astronomy simply assumed that Earth was stationary and orbited by the Sun, but when scientists began following the indications of their investigative instruments and mathematical formulations a very different universe was revealed to them. By only accepting what can be measured, demonstrated or derived from already-established claims, science has revolutionized our lives.

Schleiermacher insisted that faith is more about “feeling and intuition” than the claims of knowledge, and his shift from the mind to the heart marked a turning-point for Protestant theology. It’s important to remember that the heart does not merely refer to our sentimental intelligence, but is the place where we are first moved by experience, producing our mood and establishing the attitude from which we take our perspective on reality. Whatever we think (mind) or do (will) is a function of how we feel in the moment. Preceding our thoughts about it and our behavior in response to it, reality – or what’s really going on – is first registered in an intuitive feeling.

This is where we can make sense of Tillich’s use of the term “existential” when speaking of faith and doubt. Existential is what concerns your most basic stance in reality, how existence feels to you. When reality feels providential and supportive, you find yourself opening up to it and relaxing into it. Conversely, a reality that feels dangerous or indifferent provokes feelings of anxiety – of existential doubt.

In fact, reality is both providential and hazardous. Your life is “given” to you in each moment, even as it passes away. Like the sea-swell beneath a cresting wave, your personal existence is lifted up into self-expression only to be pulled down and dissolved into the larger mystery of being. This dual nature of reality and our experience of it is represented theologically in the two faces of god (creator/destroyer; grace and wrath). Because the mythological god is a psychological counterpart to the personal ego, however, such theological distinctions are already too far removed from the deep center of experience. By that time, we find ourselves wanting to play up to the nice god and avoid his dark side, or else split it off into a Satan we can fight against. Almost without realizing it, our ego has taken over.

Reality rises and falls, just like a great ocean, and your life comes into being and passes away. Not just on the scale of your biological birth and death, but in each and every moment of your existence. All of your achievements and possessions, the identity you struggle for and the worlds you inhabit, the meaning it all has and the little bit of security it may provide you – even now it is dissolving away. As it slips your grip and starts to slide away, you begin to doubt whether anything really matters.

So you let go, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. What has happened, what might happen, what is going on somewhere else – you just can’t say. It really is meaningless, if only because words can’t hook into it and hold it down. And yet it’s the only thing that’s real.

Welcome to the ground of your being.

 

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Ultimate Concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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