Tag Archives: philosophy

The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.

We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.


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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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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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Metaphors of God

Heschel: “God is every [human being’s] pedigree. He is either the Father of all people or of no one. The image of God is either in every individual or in no one. God’s covenant is with all people, and we must never be oblivious of the equality of the divine dignity of all people. The image of God is in the criminal as well as in the saint. How can my regard for others be contingent upon their merit, if I know that in the eyes of God I myself may be without merit!”

Like spiders spinning webs, humans construct meaning. We live always in the present mystery of reality – or in the real presence of mystery – but we live (and will die) for meaning. From the time we’re still in the womb our brain is not only regulating the homeostasis of the body, but is also gathering information from the environment in the form of basic, very visceral impressions. Perhaps the most “primordial” of all such impressions is our sense of the degree in which the supporting reality of our existence is providential.

Awareness arises in the brain beginning at the level of individual nerve cells, which have evolved the ability to carry electrical charges and spritz chemical messages to their neighbors. These chemicals (called neurotransmitters) serve to amplify or suppress the wave of energy, and as it makes its way across the tiny gaps separating the cells it becomes information and “jumps” to the level of circuits – lines and loops of brain cells “talking” to each other.

Distinct circuits of local communication proceed to link together in networks, pulling information from the various outposts of brain specialization (the various lobes and centers dedicated to processing specific kinds of information like visual, auditory, motion, and so forth). Finally – and this is all happening in fractions of a second – all this cross-talk up and down, back and forth, enables the brain to construct a representation of experience, a meaning of mystery.

I said “finally,” but there’s more. Next the brain makes associations of this momentary representation with many others it has kept on record (in memory). Complicated and historically deep mental maps of our experienced reality are then correlated into a single and fairly seamless worldview, which is the spider’s web we inhabit and maintain throughout our lives.

You should be visualizing a neural latticework arranged hierarchically from individual cells to circuits to networks to a broad-scale symphony of cross-talk among the major brain regions, all working to produce the web of meaning called a worldview. From the far edges of our constructed world picture, we could trace a winding path back down through this complicated webwork and into our moment-by-moment experience of life. This is where we hold our deepest impressions of reality, whether and to what degree we are supported in the larger mystery of being.

Of course, the brain itself doesn’t know that all of this is its own invention, a mere representation or facsimile of the ineffable energy field of reality. It probably doesn’t care. As long as it can manage to produce a worldview adaptive to our various life-environments and give us a chance for reproductive success, it’s done its job. Only with the emergence of a self-aware ego – a center of personal identity – does the philosophical question of truth present itself.

For instance, Heschel invokes the metaphor of God as father, which is itself part of a relational model (since “father” only makes sense in relation to “child”). Where is truth in this metaphor? Are we to take it literally, where God is regarded as a being who is like a father to us? The philosophical position of metaphysical realism supports such a literal reading. (This is the basic assumption that the mythological god, the narrative character who is found in the sacred stories of most cultures, exists outside our myths in just the way he is represented in our myths.)

But the evolution of human consciousness has moved us to the place now where metaphysical realism is no longer tenable. In fact, the force of religion, denominational membership and church attendance in our day have fallen off dramatically. Some well-intentioned but increasingly desperate pundits are recommending better marketing gimmicks or innovative outreach strategies, when the real problem (in my opinion) is that the postmodern mind is finding it harder to believe in a god who’s not around anymore.

The solution is neither to abandon our myths and the mythological god, nor to insist dogmatically on their literal truth; the way through is not atheism or religious fundamentalism. Post-theism provides the investigative space where we can take our metaphors seriously, but not literally. How would that look?

Heschel’s metaphor of God as father is not a reference to the mythological god of the Bible, but rather to the present mystery of reality beneath, within and all around us. It’s not that god (a separate and supernatural being) is like a father to us, or that he is literally the father of Jesus the son, as the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argued in a lecture I attended back in my seminary days. Strictly speaking, the mythological god is only related to other fictional characters who share narrative space with him (or her). To the brains of storytellers who make up the myths, the mythological god is a metaphor of something else, which I’m calling the present mystery of reality.

Reality is “father” in the way it sources our existence and provides for our needs. God as “mother” is another, even older metaphor for the way mystery contains and nurtures us. Because this real presence is the grounding support and generative life fuse in everyone, all human beings possess a “divine dignity” – even if we regularly fall short of fully expressing it in the way we live. Whereas our egos may get puffed up and strut around in self-importance, thinking “I” am better than the rest, at the level of soul our dignity as human beings is intrinsic to each and equal among all. Saints don’t have more of it, and criminals don’t have less.

My theory is that most of the small-mindedness, internal tensions and sectarian conflicts of religion are really a symptom of an underlying spiritual anxiety. For one reason or another, many have lost faith in a provident reality. Or perhaps we have climbed so high into our worldviews and gotten tangled up in our webs of meaning, that now we dangle over an apparent abyss, afraid to let go.

But we can let go. There’s more to life than just what it means.


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No Wonder

Heschel: “The grandeur and mystery of the world that surrounds us is not something which is perceptible only to the elect. All [of us] are endowed with a sense of wonder, with a sense of mystery. But our system of education fails to develop it and the anti-intellectual climate of our civilization does much to suppress it. Humankind will not perish for lack of information; it may collapse for want of appreciation.”

The rejection of metaphysical realism is only the negative corollary of a positive and passionate commitment to the reality of our experience. Such a commitment is not easy to maintain, for the simple reason that the reality of our experience is not static but dynamic, not fixed but fluid, not even all that “humane” but frequently random, ruthless and absurd. It’s not difficult to understand why human beings would construct worldviews where such straightforwardly evident features of reality are contained, transcended and resolved.

Our “worlds” are like psychological shelters that make us feel secure. They detect – or rather project – patterns on the fluid and random mystery of existence, like the constellations we “see” in the stars. Is the Big Dipper really there? Well, yes, there it is! But where, exactly? Meaning (pattern) is in the eye of the beholder.

Heschel’s point is that our world-shelter is also a screen that obscures the grandeur of being, pinching its boundless magnitude inside our frames of meaning. Like the cartographic grid of longitude and latitude, our projections interfere with our ability to perceive the elusive mystery that is all around and within us. As we add to our catalog of knowledge, expanding the grid and refining the details, we are accumulating information at an accelerating rate. Maybe this makes us smarter than previous generations; but are we any wiser?

Wisdom is “understanding,” not mere knowledge. It has more to do with an appreciation of mystery than the discovery of meaning. The wonder Heschel speaks of is, as he calls it elsewhere, “radical amazement” in the presence of what is. It’s not just the apparent boundless magnitude of the universe that can cause you to catch your breath; it’s also the precious impermanence of this passing moment.

Do we need a mythological God to impose a “beginning” and “boundary” on this mystery? Do we need an immortal soul to hold down some permanence and anchor our identity through the fluctuations of change?

Oddly enough, for all our avid and enthusiastic information gathering, Heschel regards the climate of our civilization as “anti-intellectual.” For him, our intellectual capacity as human beings entails much more than an ability to pull information out of the mystery and connect the dots in ever more sophisticated patterns. Thinking begins in wonder, with the mind opening to an unfathomable mystery. In the presence of what eludes our mental grids and transcends our mental grasp, all we can do is stand in amazement.

The business of world-construction, of projecting our patterns, imposing our frames, and making meaning of it all gets going soon enough. But before it gets going – just prior to the moment we reach out to grasp and reduce the mystery to something that makes sense to us, there is wonder, the sheer appreciation of just how marvelous reality really is.

The revolution begins in wonder.


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Overcoming Morality

Nietzsche: “The overcoming of morality, in a certain sense even the self-overcoming of morality: let this be the name for that protracted secret labor which has been reserved for the subtlest, most honest and also most malicious consciences as living touchstones of the soul.”

The terms “morality” and “moral” are rooted in the notion of “mores” (pronounced mor-ays), referring to the customs of behavior and interaction that coordinate our life together in society. According to its basic definition, to say that someone is  “moral” simply means that his or her conduct validates or violates what society regards as proper, right and good. Moral behavior, in other words, can be either “good” or “bad” depending on how it lines up with accepted standards.

In popular discourse, however, we frequently use the term “moral” to classify exclusively good behavior and “morality” as the values that define “the good life.” It’s in light of this second, more popular definition that Nietzsche’s call to overcome morality has been interpreted as an attack on everything decent, noble, and good. Is he advocating for a society where theft and murder are permitted, even condoned? This would amount to a bad reading of Nietzsche. What does he really mean?

Remember that Nietzsche rejects metaphysical realism – the philosophy behind our beliefs in God and the soul as real things, “above” me and “inside” me. Religion has used these notions – these absolutes – to control the lives of believers with the promise of heaven or the threat of hell, persuading them to surrender their intelligence, creativity and freedom to a higher authority. Morality as the  customs that shape and motivate human behavior in society substitutes for and renders unnecessary our capacity as individuals to face the challenges of our life together. If a rule prescribes how you should regard and act toward another person, it serves as a groove in the social landscape that pulls your behavior into alignment with what is considered right and proper.

We don’t like to admit this, but there are instances in our society where being kind to strangers or reaching out to “sinners” would be judged as contradicting the accepted customs – the morality – of the tribe. Even if there are deeper animal sympathies that naturally generate distress in us and motivate outreach when confronted with the suffering of another, these rules in many cases work to resolve the internal tension and justify our inaction. Precisely because morality controls our minds, prescribes our attitudes, and constrains our behavior it must be overcome.

Rare individuals have courageously – even maliciously, in the way they aggressively challenge and pull down the control system – accepted the guilt of breaking rules for the sake of living more spontaneously, more creatively and more responsibly in the world. They are what Nietzsche calls “the living touchstones of the soul.” Their conscientious guilt, rather than the guilty consciences of the rest of us living obediently inside the cattle tracks of morality, is the price of human redemption.

Think of them. Thank them. Join them.


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Insecurity and Freedom

Heschel: “Freedom is the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego. It comes about in moments of transcending the self as an act of spiritual ecstasy, of stepping out of the confining framework of routine reflexive concern. Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.”

The human being is body and soul. The part of us that puts these primary aspects of our existence in opposition to each other and then claims ownership – “I have a body; I have a soul” – is the ego. In my opinion, a major preoccupation of popular religion is with this conceited center of identity. I (ego) deserve to be happy. I (ego) want to live forever. I (ego) need to be right and be rewarded for being good. When religion gets (re)organized around the ego it becomes nervous, defensive, bigoted and sectarian.

Etymologically the term “religion” refers to what ties together and cultivates the relationship of body and soul. In the very word is a presumption: that body and soul are essentially separate and need to be (re)connected. It is in exposing the error of this foundational conviction that our revolution begins.

Ego is not the key player, but merely a social conceit. This center of identity is a product and reflex of tribal membership. It isn’t “added to” our primary nature of body-and-soul, but is an ongoing social construction project. We come to self-consciousness in the context of societal relationships, taking into ourselves the language, preferences, attitudes and beliefs of our tribe. Our social development as egos has the primary objective of making us into agents of our group, extensions of our tribe. I (ego) am also a symptom of my tribe’s chronic dysfunctions and internal contradictions. I (ego) want love and power. I (ego) want to fit in and stand out. I (ego) want security and significance.

So far, all three of my conversation partners – Friedrich Nietzsche, Alan Watts, and Abraham Heschel – acknowledge freedom as a critical feature or attribute of a human being. For Nietzsche, freedom puts us “beyond good and evil,” in a position where we must choose our way through life. As values, “good” and “evil” are really value-assignments, moral judgments that we compose into the myths and worlds we inhabit. We pull these around ourselves for security and meaning, but it’s all made up and tied inescapably to perspective. Nietzsche is perhaps most well-known for his declaration that “God is dead,” meaning that the mythological God is dead, which has come about because our myths have lost their power to entrance us. For Nietzsche, our disillusionment is our liberation.

Watts digs a little deeper, into the psychological origins of ego and its world project. We are living bodies; the claim of having a body is merely a persistent conceit of the ego. As organisms we have evolved with powerful drives and instincts, perhaps deepest among them being the drive to survive, to keep living, which also entails not dying and avoiding death at all costs. The self-consciousness that steadily emerges through the social construction of ego only amplifies our anxiety around the fact of mortality. To dampen our anxiety or distract us sufficiently from it, we escape into the refuge of metaphysical “counter-facts.” A transcendent and all-knowing God lifts us above the limitations of perspective. An immortal soul (really the undying ego) calms our fear of death. A universal order of moral government and higher purpose resolves our sneaking suspicions that maybe life is just a shot in the dark.

Heschel carries this idea a step farther. While our social formation as egos can bury our creative energies in the safe-house of tribal membership, it also serves to liberate us from the compulsions and urgencies of animal life. This freedom is insecure and there is always the temptation to fall back under the control of some other authority – if not our animal impulses, then perhaps cultural fashions or religious orthodoxies. True freedom, for Heschel, implies responsibility. The ego is not set free from the compulsions of animal instinct simply to be made captive to the slightly higher compulsions of our social neuroses. Freedom is not a goal, but the precondition to a higher task.

“Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Sacrifice = sacri (holy) + facere (to make). It’s not primarily about losing something, but is rather about sanctifying the ordinary with extraordinary attention and care. Maybe this is what “commitment” really means …


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Why We Do It

Watts: “It has been possible to make the insecurity of human life supportable by belief in unchanging things beyond the reach of calamity – in God, in [the] immortal soul, and in the government of the universe by eternal laws of right. Today such convictions are rare, even in religious circles.”

If we lived forever – without aging, entirely immune to the slow drag of mortality, never facing our own death or having to survive the loss of those we love – would a doctrine of the soul’s immortality have been formulated into such a widely and passionately held conviction as it has? We don’t need to “believe” in things that are immediately evident (gravity, for instance) or irrelevant to our needs and concerns as humans. You sense them and know them, or else you don’t care.

By running the doctrine of immortality in reverse, we come to what is likely its real inspiration: not that we do live forever, but that we don’t. Our purchase on this frail strand of life is precarious, indeed. Any number of environmental events might do us in any moment; and many more biological dysfunctions or diseases inside might pull the life-rug out from under us, in a heart-beat or over many painful years. Excluding suicide, the exact where and when of it just can’t be predicted; insurance companies make a profit due to this unpredictability. But they get rich because of something else. Our insecurity. We don’t want to die. The drive to stay alive is perhaps our deepest genetic code as living organisms.

So what do we do? As Watts suggests, we believe in God; we believe in our own undying souls; and we believe that everything is working out according to a higher moral purpose. Belief in such things calms our anxiety over the fact that nothing really is secure. I am aware that Watts doesn’t say outright that we invent these things, but that our insecurity compels a belief in them. A transcendent God, an immortal soul, a moral universe – maybe these are metaphysical facts regardless of whether or not we believe. Or maybe they aren’t; maybe we make them up as a prophylactic against the fear of death. My dog will die one day, too, but there’s no evidence that he ponders his fate or worries himself sick over it. I have something he doesn’t: not an immortal soul but a mental capacity to think about things that aren’t there and worry about things that might happen.

The Buddhism that so fascinated Watts actually holds the soul’s nonexistence as a doctrine (the doctrine of anatta), and it doesn’t support belief in a God (up there, out there) either. There is an order (dhamma), but it’s inherent to the nature of things, not divinely imposed or managed from without. While some forms of Buddhism do contemplate the existence and beatitude of fully realized Bodhisatvas on their own tranquil island-worlds, the Zen Buddhism of Watts dismisses metaphysics completely. Learn to embrace-and-release the life that flows through you. Don’t cling to anything in hopes that it will give you permanence or happiness; everything is impermanent, so attachment is just a set-up for more suffering later on.

What if there really isn’t a God? What if I won’t live forever? What if the universe doesn’t turn in favor of the righteous and well-intentioned? If I can release my belief from these things, and then come to terms with the insecurity that may be driving my need to believe in them, how would my life be different? Would I live it differently from the way I do now?

Last question for now: Is atheism in the straightforward sense the only responsible and respectable stance for a person living in a post-mythological age?


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The Usefulness of Untruth

Nietzsche: “To recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value-sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that act alone, beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche’s suspicion that all we have is the finite life we are living now and the perspective it provides on the mystery of existence, is both unsettling and liberating. Unsettling because it takes away our certainties, and with them the security that comes with the sense that we’ve got things figured out. But liberating, too, for it helps us let go of our mental lock-boxes of belief and let reality be – whatever it is or is doing in this moment. As we step out of the living stream in order to catch a portion of it in our belief-bucket, what do we have? No longer the living stream. Not the mystery of being, but instead only meaning.

Meaning is about perspective – what it (all) means from our vantage point, as it concerns our individual needs and desires. Meaning is constructed out of smaller packages called beliefs, which are assembled together like scaffolding against the mystery. Beliefs are nothing more than judgments, the particular ways we carve up reality or, to change the metaphor, scoop up the river of life into buckets we can carry away. And what are judgments, besides the blades or buckets we use to make reality meaningful? They are untruths, according to Nietzsche.

It is helpful to know that Nietzsche’s training was as a philologist, one who studies words, language, and the meaning that a language system makes possible. For him, reality IS; it is Truth-itself. In the language system of ancient Greek, truth refers to what is “unhidden” – what stands behind or beneath all the judgments, beliefs, and meanings we layer over the transcendent and fluid mystery of being. By definition, then, this mechanism of language hides reality by casting a veil of words, judgments, beliefs and meanings over it. Untruth.

The fate of being caught in our own limited web was transcended for the longest time by the inclusion in our language system of the mythological God, whose view on reality was absolute and universal. By special revelation, this God gave us information of reality behind the veil. Like a space probe far and above our cloud-covered gravity station, God helped resolve the insecurity of our limitations.

Interestingly enough, Nietzsche – the reputed nihilist – doesn’t reject the usefulness of untruth. Perspective requires it. By letting go of the mythological God, we are left with our perspectives, our veils of meaning, our untruths. “The question,” says Nietzsche, “is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving.” Do our beliefs inspire us to act responsibly? Are our judgments thoughtful and held lightly enough to stay relevant to the changing times and emergent challenges of life today? Can we be brave (and humble) enough to tip out our meager portion of stale water and cast our bucket into the living stream once again?


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A Matter of Perspective

Nietzsche: “Perspective [is] the basic condition of all life.”

To see anything involves observing from a specific vantage point. The philosophical worldview called postmodernism got a big push in motion by Nietzsche’s challenge to the long-standing (mythological) idea that humans – especially those who believe in God – have a view on reality that is absolute and universal. We have stories that tell of the genesis and apocalypse of all things. And because those stories were dictated by divine revelation and not just “made up,” they give us a privileged observation-point that is really outside of time and absolutely true.

Priests, prophets, and theologians were our sacred knowledge brokers for the longest time, and we trusted them because they were closer to God’s Eye than the rest of us. In the nineteenth century, that delusion fell apart. Or, as Nietzsche would say, we at last awoke from the trance called metaphysical realism, which holds that God and the soul are nonphysical but nonetheless real things.

If other people in other lands have stories similar to our own, then either (1) theirs are borrowed and likely corrupt copies of our original stories; or (2) other divine beings and realities exist that our catalog doesn’t account for; or (3) there really are different names and costumes for the same metaphysical realities; or (4) all of our stories – theirs and ours – are perhaps not arching out and sticking to real things after all. Maybe our stories are more projections than descriptions.

It doesn’t sound outrageous to speak of stories as narratives we make up. Opinions are more obviously made up; but even theories – the best scientific theories included – are accounts that humans fashion to make sense of reality. And every kind of story (opinions, myths, and theories) is composed – put together, made up – by someone occupying a very specific location in relative space and time.

Perhaps thousands of years ago an especially gifted artistic type formulated her perspective into an opinion that her friends found particularly amusing. Around the fire that night, and for many nights thereafter, she was pressed into reciting and elaborating it for the enjoyment of the other tribe members. She added a dramatic setting, a cast of characters, with a rising action, riveting conflict and a cathartic denouement. The group loved it. Soon they were taking parts and acting out the plot, with costumes and props and the whole nine yards.

Years passed, then decades and centuries. As it happened, the tribe migrated, intermarried, and otherwise got caught up in the multiplying concerns of “modern” life. The myth was still recalled every once in a while, as friends relaxed over their beers, but by now it had become completely detached from its earlier anchor in ritual and was free-floating. It sounded more like an explanation than a story in the poetic-artistic sense; its appeal was more cognitive than emotional. It had become a theory.

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? If perspective is, as Nietzsche asserts, the basic condition of all life, then all we have is “the view from here” – wherever I am, wherever you are. We don’t have the full picture. We can’t see through the eyes of God. And I am ready to agree with Nietzsche that we can’t through God’s eyes because “God” is a projection of our own opinions-myths-theories. Does that mean there is no “divine mystery,” no “ultimate reality,” no “ground of  being” or “creative source” of all things? No, I don’t think it does. Reality, the Real, is.  But what it is requires that I formulate an opinion, tell a story, or state a theory – all of which is, has been, and forever will be generated from a given vantage point, a very limited outlook, and along an extremely short angle on the mystery. However incomplete, it’s all we have.

So tell me how it seems from where you are …


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