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The American Bipolar Disorder

During the insufferably long campaign circus leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election I offered a perspective on what I believed was the real choice then coming into focus. It wasn’t between Clinton’s domestic and Trump’s international priorities. Nor was it over someone who exposed security secrets of our country, or someone else who denigrates women and minorities. Our decision in November was going to be, really for the first time with such clarity in the history of American politics, whether democracy or capitalism would carry us into the future as a nation.

Everyone knows that our political system was originally set up according to the foundational principles of democracy – empowering citizens to elect their own representatives, assemble around causes that matter to them, protest bad decisions and abuses of leadership, and even to remove incompetent leaders from office as necessary. Democracy’s antitype is monarchy, where one individual rules over all.

As the values of autonomy, reason, and creative authority broke through the thawing ground of the Middle Ages, the imperial arrangement of top-down control became increasingly intolerable. The republican form of democracy instituted among the early colonies and states of America still acknowledged a need for high-level vision and leadership, but it would be ‘the people’ who put them in office, not bloodline, usurpation, or a deep purse – well, okay, that last one has always been more about maintaining an illusion of our equal access as citizens to high political office.

In actual practice, however, political influence most often goes to where the money is – and this makes a good segue to that other force shaping American society. Technically not a political ideology, capitalism is rather a way of organizing (and justifying) an economic system centered in the values of liberty and privacy, where a free (i.e., only minimally regulated) market allows for the production, distribution, and exchange of wealth by individuals and corporations. This was originally a very logical correlate to democracy, sharing its concern that wealth (rather than power) should be liberated from the hands of one or a few and made available to the many.

The framers of our US Constitution were strong proponents of capitalism, and the so-called American Dream has always been more about economic than political aspirations. People do come to America to escape political oppression and persecution in their home countries, but ultimately what they hope for is the opportunity to build their wealth and become financially independent. Early on the role of government was to be minimal, and its interference in our individual pursuit of happiness – long mistaken as the natural consequence of economic success – was carefully sanctioned. America is still for many the Land of Opportunity.

Even in my brief characterization of democracy and capitalism it should be obvious that these two ideologies, one political and the other economic, are driving in opposite directions. As I pointed out in Change Your Lens, Change Your World, their opposition originates in the fundamentally different ways they prioritize the individual and the community. Democracy puts priority on community and regards the individual as a responsible agent in its formation and health, whereas capitalism puts the individual before community, which quickly becomes a mere aggregate of self-interested actors.

In the 2016 Presidential election we had a choice between an advocate of democracy on one hand and an advocate for capitalism on the other. The winner was capitalism.

In this post I’d like to expand our frame to the bigger picture, where the genetic codes of democracy and capitalism are placed on a continuum. Along that continuum are key terms that name distinct modes of human relations. Staying in the middle of this continuum where the tension is more easily managed, but where things can quickly snap and fly apart in opposite directions, are the modes associated with democracy (cooperation) and capitalism (competition).

Of course, the modes of cooperation and competition go beyond politics and economics (think of sports and games, for instance), but I’m trying to diagnose the peculiar form of bipolar disorder that our nation struggles with, so our focus will stay here.

Democracy is basically a political philosophy affirming the primary value and critical role of individuals as co-operators. They work together in a spirit of mutuality – certainly not without some lively competition among their different views and interests – for the purpose of managing a government that upholds their freedoms and clarifies their responsibilities to the community. Together they seek equity, agreement, and alliance around the concerns impacting their shared quality of life.

While equality is the unworkable goal of everyone having an equal share of wealth, access, and influence, equity is closer to Marx’s principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” (It’s important to remember that Marx’s call to revolution was against capitalism and its abuses, not against democracy.)

Farther to the polar left on our continuum is the ideal that democratic visionaries have frequently entertained and tried to realize. Communion is a mode of human relations that comes as close as possible to negating individual differences in the solvent of oneness. When the tension snaps, we are left with a state of being where no distinctions remain, there is nothing for our minds to hold on to, and we are submerged in a mystery that cannot be named. Mystics devote themselves to diving in and letting go, but many of them are notorious misfits when it comes to relating well with others.

On the other side of center, capitalism is an economic philosophy that – particularly in the model of Adam Smith – regards individuals as competitors for a finite quantity of market share and wealth. They could be said to cooperate within the rules and regulations of that market, but their primary interest lies in improving efficiency, gaining an advantage over rivals, and achieving excellence in the product or service they offer. Competition provides opportunities for self-improvement, and the matching appetites of opponents drive their mutual pursuit of excellence, taking the lead where they can.

Farther out to the polar right of our continuum is a mode of human relations which amplifies the differences to such a degree that relationship itself is on the verge of extinction – this time not by dissolving into communion but by bursting apart through conflict. This is where competition loses all sense of rivals cooperating on a field of rules, incentives, and goals and becomes instead a ruthless winner-take-all crusade to crush each other. In conflict, opponents refuse to acknowledge their common ground or shared values – if they can even see these anymore.

In this blog I frequently reflect on what I call ‘genuine community’, which could sound as if I favor only the value-set to the left of center – in other words, that I support democracy and have only bad things to say about capitalism. With my incessant interest in spirituality and our more mystical sensibilities, you might also think that I’m not only left of center but a far leftist when it comes to where I believe we should be. Wouldn’t that be something? All of us submerged in the warm bath of mystic union: no self-regard, nothing to upset us, and no aspirations for the future ….

In fact, my understanding of genuine community is not centered exclusively in communion but includes all four modes of human relations. Yes, even conflict will happen in genuine community as the competing interests of individuals and groups flare occasionally into aggressive confrontation. But a healthy community is capable of containing conflict, marshaling the patience, compassion, wisdom, forgiveness, and goodwill necessary for constructive dialogue to take place.

In time, and inside the ground rules of constructive dialogue, opponents discover their common ground and begin working together – first for themselves but eventually for a greater good.

According to this perspective, America is healthiest when democracy empowers its citizens to cooperate in government and community life, at the same time as capitalism provides them with a competitive field where they can sharpen their skills and realize their dreams of prosperity. As a friend of mine recently commented, an ideal situation would be where just-left-of-center Democrats and just-right-of-center Republicans engaged in dialogue, advocacy, and compromise for the wellbeing of all Americans.

Our problem – and this is the heart of our bipolar disorder as a nation in my opinion – is rooted in our apparent inability to stay closer to the center where a healthy balance could be managed. The Republican party is falling farther to the right as the Democrats fall farther left, and the farther apart they get, the less able they are to find common ground and work effectively together. Such extremism (both right and left) throws the larger system into divisions that no longer know how to ‘reach across the aisle’ – so far into opposite ideological directions have they gone.

Now, we should carefully consider the likelihood that our national disorder is really only a projection at the societal level of an imbalance within ourselves individually. Perhaps we have lost our center and that’s why the politicians we elected can’t be the leaders America so desperately needs.

 

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The Enjoyment of Wellbeing

A large number, maybe even the majority of us are managing unhappiness from day to day. We have hope that the script will flip and we’ll break through to something more satisfying, but the wheel turns again and we find ourselves in the same old cage as before. By god, we want to be happy, but there are just so many things that seem to get in the way.

There’s always tomorrow.

If we understood the cause of our unhappiness, perhaps we could snap out of it. Our tendency is to blame things and other people outside ourselves for how we feel. Our circumstances are the reason we’re stuck; that’s why we’re unhappy. Which of course means that our hope for happiness awaits a better job, a different spouse, a new set of circumstances. If the problem is outside of us, the solution must be as well … or so we tend to believe.

But it isn’t outside of us, neither the problem nor the solution. Understanding our unhappiness and why we spend all this time and energy trying to manage it is the only way through. Otherwise all we’re left with is hanging curtains in our prison cell to make it seem more like home.

The question we need to ask is how we got into this cage in the first place. Logically if we reverse our steps and unwind the script that landed us here, we should be able to make some different choices.

Let me start this process by distinguishing between what I’ll name primary concerns and ultimate concerns. Primary concerns arrived at our door even before we had the capacity to reflect on them. In fact, the deepest of these primary concerns pokes our nervous system far below conscious thought, at the very roots of self-consciousness.

Security is our sense of being supported in a reality that is safe and provident. As this spontaneous feeling depends to a great extent on the nurturing love and attention we received as newborns, our sense of security – and of reality at large – is a function of having caring and able parents.

But you know what? No parent is perfect, and every family system has endemic dysfunctions with histories trailing back into ancestral generations. Our mother couldn’t be present every time a pang, ache, or startle announced itself. Our father didn’t always respond with the motherly compassion we were expecting. As a result, insecurity gained a foothold in our nervous system – just a toe perhaps, or some greater degree of magnitude. But there it was. Maybe reality wasn’t so safe and provident after all.

The thing that makes a sense of security problematic, of course, is the fact that reality is not all that secure. Accidents do happen. Normal processes stray into abnormalities. We don’t get what we need right when we need it. Sometimes we just don’t get what we need, period.

When this misalignment between our needs and reality occurs at a level where we are most dependent on what’s outside ourselves, the insecurity can be overwhelming and debilitating.

When we feel sufficiently secure – not perfectly, but sufficiently – we are enabled to begin taking control in our life where necessary and appropriate. Gradually we find our center and begin relying less on our taller powers and other props. We learn how to control our sphincters, our movement, our fingers, our tongue, our temper, our thoughts, and our actions. This primary concern of control is essential to our sense of integrity: of how well our identity and our life hold together, persisting through time and across circumstances as a unified system.

But when we are insecure, this natural progress toward control gets complicated. The feeling that we are not safe and that reality is not provident may compel us to grab on for relief to whatever is nearby. Or we might insist on clinging to our supports longer so we can continue borrowing on the stability they provide.

In either case, our insistence on control (but not in the healthy sense) locks us up inside a web of neurotic attachments, with an unrealistic expectation and impossible demand that they deliver on our need to feel secure. That’s what the cage represents in my diagram above.

In this condition, freedom, the third of our primary concerns, is simply not possible. Besides, the very idea of freedom provokes anxiety in us since it would mean being without all these safety strings attached. The prospect of living outside the cage is terrifying when we’re convinced that reality is a dangerous and unpredictable place.

Having all we need to feel secure in our prison (though not really), we may only dream of freedom. But we will sure as hell never leave what we have for its sake. This is what I mean by “managing unhappiness.”

The short dotted arrow extending vertically from primary concerns to ultimate concerns indicates that while the process of development would normally cross this threshold, many of us choose to stay inside the bars. True enough, we probably don’t see this as a choice we’re making but simply as the way things are.

We are just making our way as best we can, except that this ‘way’ is going nowhere. Time’s circle finds us in the same state of mind as the day before, as the year before. And even if we manage to exchange one disappointing relationship for another, the same neurotic insecurity soon enough makes it just another prison.

Before we leave this tragic condition, I should make the point that all our chronic troubles as a species can be traced to this preoccupation with managing unhappiness. All of them. It’s even likely that a majority of our medical ailments and diseases are psychosomatic – not merely comorbid with our neurotic insecurity, but caused by it.

Think of all the economic, political, and religious strife over the millenniums with its cost in terms of hopes trashed, lives lost, futures foreclosed. All because we are convicts of our own convictions, hostages to ideologies we have ourselves created in the expectation that maybe this, maybe that will bring us what we presently lack.

A few have found liberation, though not from the insecurity of existence. They realize that life is not perfectly secure, and neither is their longevity or individual prosperity guaranteed. Their key realization, however, has to do with the difference between the inherent insecurity of our situation and the open option of allowing that fact to shake our nerves to shreds.

There is always the option (which is why it is qualified as ‘open’) of releasing the anxiety, recovering our center, taking control where we need to, and choosing another way. Not a different partner or profession, but something that ultimately matters.

Only when freedom is embraced and not abandoned for the false security of a cage, are we able to direct our creativity and devotion beyond the management of unhappiness. The first of our ultimate concerns is purpose, which refers not to someone else’s agenda for us – even a patron deity of religion – but to our own commitment to live intentionally. When we live ‘on purpose’ we are more aware of where we are, not just our physical location but more importantly where we are in the moving stream of our life.

Opportunity reveals itself only to the one who is paying attention, who is purposefully engaged.

Perhaps the most important engagement of a life lived on purpose is with the construction of meaning. Whereas the millions who are managing unhappiness believe that life is meaningful or meaningless as a matter of fact, those living on purpose understand that life just is what it is, and that its meaning is up for us to decide. In this respect meaning is a function of the value, identity, and significance we link to things, to other people, and to the events of life.

This entire system of linkages constitutes what we call our world. Worlds are human constructions, and each of us is responsible for our own.

Meaning isn’t only an individual affair, however, since our personal worlds are nested inside larger tribal and cultural worlds. The overlaps and intersections are places where we find agreements, differences, misunderstandings, or conflicts, as the case may be. Obviously – or I should say, what is obvious to the person who is living on purpose and taking responsibility for the meaning of his or her life – whether this greater scene is a marketplace, a wilderness, or a battlefield depends a lot on our guiding principle of truth.

Is there an absolute and final meaning of life? Many who are managing unhappiness inside their prisons believe so. Indeed they must so believe because life is only bearable if there is a meaning beyond question – an infallible, absolute, fixed and transcendent meaning that makes our searching, fighting, dying, and killing for its sake worthwhile.

Or maybe meaning is never final. Maybe our world construction project will never be finished. Maybe it’s not just about how reality-oriented (i.e., factual and evidence-based) our world is, but also how effectively it facilitates our fulfillment as individuals. By this I don’t mean just another synonym for feeling happy. To be ‘filled full’ is about reaching our capacity, realizing our full potential, filling out into a fully self-actualized human being.

Because meaning and world are anchored to us as persons, fulfillment is necessarily apocalyptic: we see that our world is not the last word, that there is life (authentic life) on the other side of meaning, and that this larger experience is profoundly transpersonal – bigger than us, beyond us, including us but not revolving around us as we once believed.

Our quality of life at this level can be described as enjoying wellbeing, where being well and being whole inspire a deep joy in being alive. This doesn’t mean that things always go our way or that we always get what we want. Existence is still inherently insecure and nobody’s perfect. But we have released our demand that it be otherwise.

Happiness will come and go. Our circumstances and life conditions will inevitably change. Only now we can let it be. In time, more of us will leave our prisons where we manage unhappiness from day to day, to take responsibility for our lives, stepping mindfully and with gratitude into each moment we are given.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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Fuel, Food, and Faith: A Meditation on Our Human Future

fuel_food_faithAs our presidential candidates lay out their visions and identify what they believe are the major issues on our national and global horizons, I thought I would publish a short list of my own. Obviously there are many, many things we could be doing differently – and many different things we probably should be doing – as we look to the future and contemplate the big picture of where we are headed. My list holds just three, but I think that together they constitute an axis for a revolution of creative change.

Fuel

The vast majority of us who enjoy the convenience of flipping switches or turning keys and having power delivered instantly where we need it, don’t typically worry about the source, supply, purity, and sustainability of the energy we use – that is, until something interrupts on our demand. It’s one of those things that make it possible for just about everything else to operate, and it’s these many things (devices, tools, machines, vehicles) that get our attention when they stop working. But where the power comes from (source), how much of it is available (supply), to what degree its production and use generates pollutants (purity), and how long its supply can be expected to last (sustainability) – such questions only rarely cross our mind.

Most of the machines we have come to depend on around the globe are powered by fossil fuels, combustible material derived from the remains of former living things. Fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) are typically deep underground, which means that they are subject to property and access rights, and require expensive equipment to reach them. And who owns the land? Not the homeless poor or working classes. Governments and wealthy corporations – those who make the laws and lobby for special exceptions – coexist as a system and conspire together in shaping the economy in service to their interests.

Inevitably, the governing and wealthy classes prefer things to stay the same (hence they are conservative as a rule), since the way things are supports their privilege and control. Despite the fact that fossil fuels are a limited fuel source and highly toxic to the atmosphere and environment, production continues unabated. In fact, new stores are being drilled and mined to meet the growing worldwide demand. What are we supposed to do, stop driving our cars, lighting our homes, or pull the plug on manufacturing? The current energy grid is designed to power our many machines, and more machines are being manufactured every day, and these depend on the grid to work.

Alternative fuels – e.g., solar, wind, wave, and hydrogen – represent a virtually infinite source, widely available, perfectly clean, and sustainable far into the future. Already today, the technology exists for harnessing energy from the sun and powering our homes, neighborhoods, even entire cities. There is no more plentiful energy supply, available from nearly every location on Earth. Thankfully this technology is making it to the market, however slowly, partly through the efforts of fossil-fuel corporations that are expanding their production portfolios, and partly despite the best effort of others to stop it. A reduction in consumer use (driving less, using public transportation, biking and walking when we can), along with a commitment to purchase cleaner technologies and invest in the companies developing them, is critical to our big-picture and long-term future.

Food

Earth is an incredibly fertile and fruitful planet, and life has been able to adapt and evolve in its oceans, forests, deserts, tundra, prairies, mountains, marshes, lakes and streams. Even at our present population size of 7 billion, the earth’s bounty is more than sufficient to feed all of us. The problem, once again, is not really in the short supply of what we need, but in the political and commercial systems that prevent nutritious food (and clean water) from getting to those who need it.

The privileged classes (and the government their money buys) exploit and exhaust Earth’s food resources, supercharging the soil with fertilizers as they sterilize it with pesticides and herbicides. As a consequence of such practices, the mass yield at harvest increases dramatically while its nutritional value plummets. As huge amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) are released into the atmosphere from livestock, these chemical toxins leech into the groundwater and lace our fruits, grains, and vegetables, slowly sickening us with cancers and other so-called auto-immune diseases.

The poor quality of highly processed and modified foods means that we have to eat more as we continue to fall below our nutritional needs. Eating more, of course, involves taking in more calories, and excessive calorie intake leads to weight gain, metabolic fatigue and dysfunction, and ultimately to diabetes and other disease processes. A growing interest in organic farming and whole foods is a promising trend, but a simultaneous return (think of it as a homecoming) to the natural intelligence of our body and its deep preference for nutritious and energy-rich foods will be necessary as well.

Faith

Other members in my weekly Wisdom Circle gathering are reasonably suspicious of the term ‘faith’, and they guard against what they anticipate will be my attempts to pull them back into the religions they left behind. It’s critically important to distinguish the doctrinal orthodoxy or belief system of a religion from the question of whether and to what degree an individual is able to relax into being and trust in the provident nature of reality.

I’m not speaking of Providence in the old-style Puritan sense, referring to the watchful protection and abundant provision of a god above or ahead of us. Instead, the provident nature of reality is based on the straightforward and obvious perception that our life, consciousness, creativity, and aspirations are not separate from the universe but manifestations of it. You and I are living expressions of a provident reality, as evidenced in the fact that its 14-billion-year process has brought about the conditions (on this planet, at least) for us to evolve and flourish, as part of a great community of life.

The faith I’m speaking of is not the property of any religion and has nothing to do with belief in god. As an inner release to the grounding mystery of being, faith opens us to existence and is our surrender to the deeper and larger process moving through us. Other words, such as oneness, communion, presence, grace, and peace, serve equally well – or poorly, insofar as the mystery they name is ineffable. When faith is active, we enjoy an inner peace and can reach out without a need to grasp, control, or manipulate others and the world around us. We can instead be present, attentive, mindful, caring, and generous.

When faith is inactive or missing, however, a profound dis-ease troubles us. We feel unsupported by reality, which in turn compels us to attach ourselves to anyone and anything (including ideologies) that promises some reassurance, relief, or escape. Of course, nothing outside us can compensate for inner insecurity. When we were infants, the intimate connection between safety and nourishment that we experienced in the nursing embrace perhaps encouraged a strong correlation in our minds between faith and food. This cross-wiring of our nervous system explains why we often seek comfort more than real nourishment in what we eat, and why the marketing of ‘comfort food’ is so wildly successful in our Age of Anxiety.


My axis of terms – Fuel, Food, and Faith – is arranged in that order to confirm what should be obvious to us all. If we can’t move to cleaner energy sources and break free of our dependency on fossil fuels, our planet’s warming climate will turn soil to sand, shrinking the area of tillable land worldwide. If we can’t farm food that is wholesome and nutritious, we will need to eat more and more of it, compromising the global supply and bringing upon ourselves a growing number of health complications. But if we can’t transform the politics that drive the decisions and divide us along lines of wealth, race, gender, and creed, the brighter future we hope for may be out of reach.

Our politics will change as people change, as we learn how to cultivate inner peace. The future of humanity starts now, with you and me.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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Humanism in a New Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sun-hi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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What is Post-theism?

The representation of god in myth and belief has served three key functions over the long course of history: as (1) the hidden agency behind the forces and events of nature, (2) the transcendent legitimation of political authority, and as (3) the advancing ideal of our moral development as a species. In some cases, these three functions have been taken up into different deities, while in monotheism they were incorporated into a single supreme god.

Since roughly the fifth century BCE, the West has been progressing through a series of cultural transformations, where each of these “functions of god” was taken over, absorbed, and transcended by the mythological god’s human creators. What was once projected outward – behind nature, above the throne, or ahead of our moral striving – was gradually and steadily internalized by the human spirit. With each step, our evolution has progressed into a new “post-theistic” era, relative to the function of god that has been rendered obsolete.

Early on, the gods of nature dissolved into physical laws, material forces, and mathematical formulations. Personified hidden agencies were no longer needed to explain weather events, the movement of planets, or the revolution of seasons. The rise of natural science pushed the Western experience into a post-theistic age, with respect to the mysteries of the cosmos.

It took longer for the political and moral frames to advance, however.Post Theism

Kings, tyrants and despots continued to claim ordination by the gods, which partly explains why temple religion has received royal and state support for centuries – even to this day. Nevertheless, the rise of democracy began to take the power to rule away from the god and his monarch. A republican or constitutional form of government might still anchor its legitimacy in a vision of human nature as possessing certain inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, but responsibility for the political order is now firmly on our own shoulders.

The rise of science and democracy, then, marked two major transitions to post-theism in the West. Today we are on the progression threshold of a third shift, now focused on morality and what it means to be “good.”

No doubt, the democratic revolution – first in Athens, then later in Philadelphia – compelled this ethical shift, since the king’s order or a denominational moral code has less warrant when the divine authority once believed to stand behind it is no longer taken literally.

But one key moment in this transformation came with the teachings of Jesus.

The prophets of Israel – particularly Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah – had already dared to internalize the voice of god and speak not just for him, but as him:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5)

No longer the priests, who were religious insiders of temple/throne religion, but outsiders (some ex-priests) took on the challenge of redefining traditional standards of moral obedience, righteousness, justice and compassion. By standing in god’s place and exhorting the people to stretch out for higher truth and a wider (more inclusive) love, the prophets prepared the way for Jesus.

Like no one before him or since, Jesus somehow had the audacity to not only redefine god’s will but his very identity. The deity who had been identified with holiness, separateness, vengeance and retribution was made-over into a “prodigal god” – wastefully kind, benevolent, compassionate, and forgiving. This last virtue particularly, forgiveness, was radically deconstructed by Jesus.

In his life and teaching, forgiveness – also known as loving your enemy – became a gracious and unconditional initiative, and not just a considerate response to repentance. As a proactive virtue of love, forgiveness could become a redemptive force inside the individual, between enemies, and across the world. To get there, the old god of morality who still operated according to the logic of retribution (“you get what you deserve”) needed to be absorbed and then transcended. Jesus was so bold as to invite his disciples to outdo god by forgiving without even the expectation of repentance.

In the ensuing decades after Jesus, some of his fans and followers grasped the radical nature of what he had done. By constructing a myth about his resurrection, his ascension into identification with god, and then descending as spirit one last time to become incarnate in the community carrying on in his name, the early Christians fulfilled his vision and ushered in the last great post-theistic age.

With the prophets and later Jesus, the Western trajectory of human evolution (by co-opting the near-eastern influence of Jewish history) had internalized and gone beyond the moral ideal of god. Now such advanced virtues as universal compassion and unconditional forgiveness were not just represented and glorified in Christian worship as  “the god of Jesus Christ,” but they were expected to be embodied and lived out on the ground of daily life as well.
                                                                                                

This quick review of post-theism as it progressed through the cultures of Greece and Israel should clarify where it is different from the quasi-philosophical position of atheism. While atheism is energized by its opposing stance relative to theism (“no” to its “yes”), post-theism involves not a refutation of god but rather his assimilation by the human being.

Imagined, composed, projected, glorified, obeyed, emulated, internalized and finally transcended – thus god is not so much displaced by natural science, liberal democracy and a radical ethic, as taken over and his “functions” assumed by his original creators.

For this reason, post-theism does not bother with lampooning religion or engaging in sacrilegious irreverence. It has no interest in exposing belief in god as weak-minded and childish – although it has an obligation (we might say, in the “spirit of Jesus”) to address and resolve the tendencies in religion toward dogmatism, bigotry, repression and violence.

Essentially, post-theism understands god differently than atheism. Our human representations of god are products of our own curiosity, speculation, creative imagination and spiritual insight. Even though we once needed to regard them as objectively real, we can now appreciate this need as a critical phase in the longer advancement of humanity into a way of life increasingly more grounded and responsible, more caring and inclusive, more daring and authentic.

One other important difference: in its evolutionary view of religion, post-theism affirms belief in god as developmentally appropriate. Until an individual is ready to “take god back,” an external deity provides the necessary security and support, confidence and inspiration, to both relax in faith and reach out into a higher purpose.

The historical progress of the larger culture must be repeated and fulfilled in each living generation.

 
 

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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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