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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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The Last Delusion

If you ask most people “Who are you?,” after their proper name you’re likely to get a short list of roles they perform in the various social niches of their life. As I use the term, ‘niche’ refers to a particular environment of social interaction where individual members carry identities assigned and scripted by a coherent narrative which they all accept as the story of what’s going on.

Every time we step into a niche, we do so at the entry point of a role – unless we are a stranger or an intruder; but even then we will be regarded as a stranger or intruder, which is a kind of role as well. Roles can be thought of as personas (from Greek theater for the ‘masks’ worn by stage actors), and every persona comes with a script that we need to learn and personalize (or make our own). Depending on the niche, a particular role will be more or less flexible in allowing such personalization, but in some cases there is no flexibility whatsoever.

The coherent narrative mentioned above is an essential aspect of a niche; you might think of this ‘story of what’s going on’ as the temporal (time) counterpart to the contextual (space) aspect of a niche. All of the smaller interactions unfolding between and among the member roles are contained and validated by the bigger story, and it would not be a misuse of the term to call this bigger story a myth. Myths are narrative compositions that serve to construct our concepts and images of what really matters to us – or, which is more likely, myths make certain things matter to us.

A myth establishes what it means to live and act inside its niche: who we are, where we’re going, why it matters, and even what we want.

In our family niche, for example, the myth tells us that what we want is security, love, and belonging; these are values we associate with what a family should be (or ideally is). Our own family is a ‘true family’ to the degree it matches this archetype as established in the myth. In a different niche – say, the workplace – other values may attach to what it means to be a member, how we should live and act in that setting according to its primary myth. Maybe not security, but risk-taking; not love, but power; not belonging as much as standing out and getting noticed.

Another term important to understand is World, which is not a synonym for the global environment, planet Earth, or the universe at large, but designates the total set of niches where our identity is constructed and negotiated. As each niche has its primary story, or myth, we can call this total set of big stories our mythology – simply the collection of myths that orient us in reality and determine our perspective on what matters.

A mythology, in other words, is to our world as each myth is to its niche. The world is therefore a narrative complex of many stories that projects a logosphere or ‘sphere of meaning’ around us, inside of which we wear the masks and perform the roles that define who we are.

The normal course of socialization aims at our full identification with the roles we play. This is why the average person you ask will tell you “I am ______” by naming the different roles they play in life. But they’ll probably not use or even think of who they are in terms of role-play. In a simple and straightforward sense they are the personae that the niches of daily life require them to be.

This is what I call the First Delusion.

Historically our wisdom traditions – referring to the ancient heritage of mystical insights, life principles, and ethical ideals – have served to liberate individuals from this trap of mistaken identity. You are not the roles you play in life but the actor who is playing the roles. Your true self is distinct from the masks, scripts, stories, and stages on which you perform. When you realize this, you will no longer be subject to the vagaries of your ‘audience’ – all those others whose approval, praise, or criticism have been your driving motivation. From now on you can live your life not as a role-performance but in the spirit of freedom and creative authority.

The message might continue, however, telling you that just as your roles are temporal (in time), temporary (for a time), and relative to the roles of other players in the niches of your world, your true self is eternal (outside time), everlasting (for all time), and separate from all the drama. There may even be some nonsense about this true self making a ‘contract’ with destiny to incarnate in the fleshy vehicle of your mortal body, perhaps cycling through numerous such incarnations until the moment you see the truth, the truth sets you free, and you can reclaim your divine nature.

This I will call the Last Delusion.

That added twist on the message – the whole thing about your true self being metaphysically transcendent, immortal, and divine – plays well to an audience that is world-weary, chronically anxious, and self-obsessed. Just like us.

Its character as a delusion is focused in the way it diverts liberation from the First Delusion (“I am the roles I play”) by conceiving our ego (the actor) as an absolute center of personal identity, separate and separable from the body, an essentially indestructible unit of pure consciousness from an altogether different realm. The healthy and necessary deconstruction of identity encouraged by our wisdom traditions gets aborted in the interest of saving the ego from extinction.

But what’s wrong with that?

It’s not necessary to attach a moral judgment (wrong or bad) to this maneuver, but maybe a therapeutic one will make sense. Therapy is concerned with healing, health, wholeness, and well-being – values that are central to a developing spirituality as well. In the early stages of development individuals are guided by society into the First Delusion, where we are expected to carry on with our assigned roles. Thus engaged, we are most susceptible to the instructional download of cultural assumptions, priorities, and aims which are critical to social stability and cohesion.

Living by such programs is what Nietzsche lambasted as ‘morality’: getting in line, following the rules, and effectively subordinating our creative spirit to the value-orthodoxy of the tribe. For roughly the first half of life this is how it goes for most of us. The structure and sequence of incentives offered to us – hugs, stickers, trophies, awards, certificates, promotions, and titles – fuel our motivation to play along and do our best.

At some point, however, the luster starts to fade and we find ourselves having to muster the effort to keep at it. Only now we are getting a sense that it is all, indeed, a play. Granted, a very serious theatrical production in ‘let’s pretend’, but a pretense nonetheless. And those who really get caught up in it tend to be the most pretentious among us!

Lots of research correlates this disillusionment with the transition of mid-life, when all those prizes for conforming begin to feel less interesting or important. Or at least they don’t connect as much to the authentic self we more deeply aspire to be.

Regardless of when it comes about, our developing spirituality has brought us to the threshold of genuine self-discovery and liberation. This where the wisdom teachings drive home the message:


It’s not all about you. The life you have is transient, and each moment is profoundly precious. Get over yourself and invest in what really matters – not for the reward or recognition, but because in so doing you are fulfilling your reason for being, which is to give your life as a ransom for many. They need to know this shining truth as well, so be a light on their path in the time you have left.


And this is also where we might get lured into the Last Delusion, taking to believe that we are above it all, just passing through and on our way to live forever, somewhere else.

 

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Diving Deep, Flying High

A lot has happened to get us to this point, where I have written something for you to read and think about.

Fourteen or so billion years ago a quantum singularity broke open to release a burst of infinite energy and give birth to our universe. Within seconds this highly unstable state began to collapse into the first forms of physical matter: superstrings of light, crystalline lattices, and quarkish free radicals that would soon (over the next 150 million years) cool, combine, and form into thermonuclear furnaces of the first stars.

Much, much farther into the future (only about 4 billion years ago) the conditions of organic chemistry necessary for life to emerge gave rise to the first single-celled organisms. Since that point, life has continued to evolve into microbial, plant, and animal forms, developing ever more sophisticated sensory apparatuses and nervous systems among the animals to support an awakening of consciousness.

In the primates, and particularly the hereditary line leading to our own species, this power of sentience acquired the talent of self-awareness, where the formation and management of a personal identity (ego) has now become our constant preoccupation.

So here I am and there you are.

We are just conceited enough to half-believe the rumor which says that we’ve made it to the end, that our species has finally reached self-actualization with the arrival of ego consciousness. The great universal process has been evolving all this time with the aim of achieving an intellectual comprehension of itself in us. This is what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed at any rate.

With the rise of consumerism we’ve managed to put a twist on Hegel’s idea: our special gift is not so much intellectual curiosity as an insatiable craving for what will make us happy. And nothing can make us happy (such is the open secret of our wisdom traditions) which is why we can’t seem to get over ourselves.

It’s like we’re this black hole at the finishing end of evolution, fourteen billion years after the birth of the universe from a primordial black hole. But whereas that one was a spring of creative energy, we have become a sucking drain on the resources of our planet and its fragile web of life.

As long as we continue to regard ego consciousness as the cosmic endgame we won’t be able to change course from a tragic conclusion in global intoxication and our own extinction. If we can’t shift from our present condition to something more liberated and life-affirming, the final outcome decidedly won’t be in our favor.

In other posts I have described what I call the three pernicious divisions currently compromising wellbeing and threatening our future. A psychosomatic (soul-body), interpersonal (self-other), and ecological (human-nature) division that breaks the creative polarities of our existence and sets them in opposition (soul without body, self against other, human above nature) undermines our essential wholeness.

I’ve argued as well for seeing theism as a necessary stage in the construction of personal identity (ego) and the social system around it. In its central statement concerning the nature of ultimate reality in terms of personality and will (i.e., the concept of deity), theism provides a stage for our individuation as self-conscious centers of personal identity.

Just as a healthy family system lends provident support and inspiring role models for children in the taller powers who manage the household, so in theism this same arrangement – at least by design – is projected at the societal level. In this household we (first and foremost the insiders) are siblings with one another and children of a god whose will is that we live peaceably together, contribute to the greater good, and grow in virtue.

I characterize theism this way and not as a belief system based in supernatural revelations and miraculous events – which is how it is typically spun by orthodoxy to insiders – for three reasons. First, my characterization is deeply consistent with the evidence we have from the history of religion itself. Secondly it saves theists from having to abandon their common sense, moral conscience, and modern worldview for the sake of holding to a literal reading of their myths.

And finally this model of theism allows for a more responsible and well-reasoned interpretation of a spirituality that thrives beyond the ego, after theism, and on the other side of god – what is named post-theism.

Where does this post-theistic spirituality lead? Not to a hard-line atheism or secular humanism. I’ve clarified these distinctions in other posts, so we’ll move directly to what is unique to post-theism.

Post-theism is transpersonal, which means that it engages with reality beyond ego consciousness. Rather than eliminating ego from the picture, however, this spirituality focuses on making personal identity sufficiently strong (i.e., stable, balanced, and unified) to support the breakthrough experience of a liberated life.

Personal identity continues to be important here as it was in theism. But whereas theism – particularly, I should qualify, in its healthy forms – made ego strength its primary concern, post-theistic spirituality invites us to an experience of reality below the center and beyond the horizon of ego consciousness.

These terms “center” and “horizon” are important to understanding post-theism because they serve to define membership – how we identify ourselves and where our obligations lie. We can clarify them further by saying that our center is what we identify as, while our horizon represents (or contains) what we identify with.

At the level of ego consciousness we identify ourselves as individual persons with unique histories, personalities, and interests: I am a person. Taking this identification means that we also identify with other egos: they are our companions, colleagues, rivals, opponents, and enemies inside the horizon of specifically egoic concerns.

As just mentioned, theism is a social system constructed for the purpose of forming personal identity and developing its potential. Even though it conceives a deity who brought the entire cosmos into being, theism’s primary investment is still in shaping the beliefs, values, and aims of our interpersonal life together in society. Its notion of salvation is centered on our need as persons to be accepted, recognized, forgiven, and reconciled to the tribe that holds our membership.

Below our center of personal identity (or ‘down and within’) are deeper centers corresponding to larger horizons of identity (‘out and beyond’). Whereas we are unique individuals at the egoic level, by dropping to the deeper center of our life as sentient beings who can sense and feel and suffer, we also identify with all sentient beings. The values and concerns that orient our existence now include much more than other egos.

Drop another level to a still-deeper center and we identify ourselves as organisms, or living beings that exist interdependently with countless others in a great web of life. Now our values and concerns open transpersonally to an even larger horizon where we recognize our influence, for good or ill, as well as our responsibility within the biosphere of our living planet.

From this center of our life as organisms we can only contemplate the material and quantum realms farther below (and within) as the ineffable ground of being itself. And altogether, from this dark abyss of energy and matter, focusing upward through the realms of life and sentience whose rhythms and animal intuitions support our unique center of personal identity, is what I name the grounding mystery.

With each center up or down, our awareness expands or collapses to its corresponding horizon. The capacity for diving deep and flying high in this manner is a transpersonal capacity, and it takes ego strength to make it possible.

 

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Truth In Christian Mythology

One of the challenges in clarifying a post-theistic spirituality has to do with the fact that its principal concern – what I name the present mystery of reality – is impossible to define. While it is always and only right here, right now, any attempt to put a name and definition around it only manages to conceal the mystery under a veil of meaning.

Our need for certainty might be temporarily satisfied, but in the meantime the curtain of mental tapestry has separated us from what’s really real.

If we could acknowledge that this is what we’re doing, these veils would stand a better chance of parting before the mystery and facilitating a fresh encounter of our mind with reality. But while constructivism makes such an acknowledgment central to its method, orthodoxy, in every cultural domain and not only religion, cannot admit this either to its constituencies of believers or even to itself.

Our mind has a tendency to fall in love with its constructions, to get lost in its own designs. Meaning is something we can control, since it is, after all, our peculiar invention. Mystery – not even “on the other hand” since this puts it on the same axis as meaning – requires an open mind, not one boxed inside its own conclusions.

Our best constructs don’t amount to final answers but better – deeper, larger, and farther reaching – questions.

With the rise of science, the truth of our constructions of meaning (called theories) has become more strongly associated with how accurate they are as descriptions, explanations, and predictions of what’s going on around us – that is, in the factual realm external to our mind. (Even the scientific understanding of our body posits it as something physical, objective, and separate from the observing, analytical mind.)

In the meantime and as a consequence of this growing fascination with objectification, measurement, and control, we have gradually lost our taste and talent for a very different kind of narrative construction. One that doesn’t look out on a supposedly objective reality but rather contemplates the grounding mystery of existence itself.

Myths have been around far longer than theories, and one of the early mistakes of science was to assume that these ancient stories were just ignorant efforts at explaining a reality outside the mind.

Deities and demons, fantastical realms, heroic quests, and miraculous events – the familiar stuff of myths: such were not validated under scientific scrutiny and had to be rejected on our advance to enlightenment. Religion itself fell into amnesia, relinquishing its role as storyteller and settling into the defense of a supernatural realm above the natural realm, or (trying to seem more scientific) a metaphysical realm behind the physics of science.

Otherwise, religion agreed to keep its focus on morality and the life to come.

The theism-atheism debate is relevant here and only here, where the factual (i.e., supernatural, metaphysical) existence of god makes any sense. Theists insist that their stories are literally true and the mythological god is real, while atheists claim they are not, for obvious reasons. Theists profess the necessity of believing in god’s existence as a matter of faith, whereas atheists rightly point out that believing anything without the evidence or logic to support it is intellectually irresponsible.

They are both at a stalemate. We need to move on …

Post-theism provides a way out of this predicament by challenging us to put aside both metaphysics and physics as we reconsider these timeless myths. Their truth is not a matter of factual explanation but mystical revelation – or if you prefer, artistic revelation, precisely in the way a true work of art presents us with an artifact to contemplate and then draws back this veil on a present mystery. This mystery is the here-and-now experience that inspired the artist to begin with.

As revelation, however, it is not a look at someone else’s past experience of the here-and-now but offers a spontaneous insight for the beholder into the deep mystery of This Moment.

To show what I mean, let’s take the central myth of Christianity which has been summarized by orthodoxy in the doctrines of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But whereas Christian orthodoxy has attached these exclusively to the historical figure of Jesus, that is to say, to a person in the past, we will regard him instead as an archetypal figure, as an instance of what Joseph Campbell named The Hero.As Campbell demonstrated, this Hero has ‘a thousand faces’ reflecting the divers cultures and epochs where his (and her) stories are told – stories that can be interpreted and understood archetypally as about ourselves.

The Hero, then, is our ego, or the self-conscious center of personal identity that each of us is compelled to become. My diagram illustrates this journey of identity with an arching arrow representing the linear path of our individual lifespan. Personal identity is not something we’re born with, and its character cannot simply be reduced to our genes and animal temperament.

Quite otherwise, identity must be constructed, and its construction is a profoundly social project involving our parents and other taller powers, along with siblings and peers who make up our cohort through time.

Just as the Hero’s destiny is to serve as an agent of cultural aspirations (a struggle against fate), progress (a counter to the stabilizing force of tradition), and creativity (as an instigator of new possibilities), so does his or her path chart the trend-line and opportunities associated with our higher evolution as a species.

Briefly in what follows I will translate the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as representing three primary stages in the Hero’s Journey each of us is on.

What I call the grounding mystery of reality is all that has transpired to bring forth our existence as human beings. This refers not only to the causal sequence of events leading up to us, but each distinct manifestation of the universe making up our present nature as physical, organic, sentient, and self-conscious individuals.

From our position of ego consciousness we look ‘down’ into the ground of what we essentially are.

As mentioned earlier, it is our socially constructed center of separate identity (ego) that arcs in its journey out, away, and eventually back to the grounding mystery. Because personal identity is socially constructed and independent of genetic inheritance, the start of its journey is represented in the myths as something of a vertical drop from another realm. The Hero may simply show up, but frequently in myths its advent comes about by way of a virgin birth.

Staying with this natal imagery, our best description would be to say that ego is spontaneously conceived (or ‘wakes up’) in the womb of the body.

The longer process of ego formation involves the attachments, agreements, and assignments that conspire to identify us as somebody special and separate from the rest. Our tribe provides us (or so we can hope) with models of maturity, responsibility, and virtue, in the taller powers of adults who watch over us; but also in the construct of a personal deity who exemplifies the perfection of virtue.

In my diagram I have colored the construct of god with a gradient ranging from purple (representing the grounding mystery) to orange (representing ego consciousness), in order to make the point that god is not merely another being, but the personified ground of being as well as the exalted ideal of our own waking nature.

But at the very apex of ego’s formation, just as we come to ourselves as special and separate from the rest, another realization dawns: that we are separate and alone. In the heroic achievement of our unique individuality we also must somehow accept (or otherwise resign to) the full burden of our existence as solitary and mortal beings.

In the Christian myth this is represented by Jesus on the cross when he cries out, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?!” (Mark 15:34)

As a narrative mechanism, the cross thrusts our Hero away from the earth but not quite into heaven either, where he hangs in a grey void of isolation, exposure, and abandonment. This is the crucial (‘cross-shaped’ or ‘cross-over’) point that can lead either to utter despair, a desperate craving for security and assurance, or to the breakthrough of genuine awakening.

Which way it goes will depend on our ability to sustain this shock of loneliness and look not away but through it to a transpersonal view of life.

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus’ followers recognized his cross as central to his vision of the liberated life. It was a visual depiction of his core message (gospel) concerning the necessity of dying to one’s separate and special self, whether that specialness is based in a felt sense of pride and superiority, or in shame and inferiority. Both, in fact, can equally fixate ego on itself and keep us from authentic life.

Only by getting over ourselves can we enter into conscious communion with others and with the greater reality beyond us.

Entering into the authentic life of a transpersonal existence brings us to the third stage of our Hero’s journey: resurrection. This isn’t a recovery of our former life but an elevation of consciousness to the liberated life, to what I also call our creative authority as individuals in community. In the Christian myth this higher state of the liberated life is represented in the symbol of an empty tomb, which plays opposite to the virgin womb as the locus of our Hero’s ‘second birth’, set free from the constraints of insecurity, ambition … and belief.

From a post-theistic perspective, one gift of the liberated life is a grace to live in full acceptance of our own mortality, of the passing nature of things, and of the deep abyss in the face of which our most cherished veils of meaning dissolve away.

 

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Human Evolution

In a post from long ago entitled Humanism in a New Key, I offered an interpretation of post-theism where the re-absorption of higher virtues formerly projected in the deities of religion opens up a new era in our evolving spirituality as a species. If the idea of an external god is understood in terms of an intentional object (i.e., as a construct of our mythopoetic imagination) rather than a metaphysical one (i.e., as a being existing outside and separate from us), this critical step can be welcomed and celebrated.

I don’t presume that all theists will embrace the notion, but for many (including myself as a former theist) it can mark the breakthrough to a liberated life.

I find it helpful to view this process in the time-frame of human evolution as it has unfolded over many millenniums. Our species itself emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago, a late product of the natural evolution of life on Earth. Upon arriving, we proceeded to evolve still further under the shaping influence of culture – a construct system of language, symbols, stories, and technologies that continues to lift us by our own bootstraps.

If the evolution of nature brought about our uniquely complex nervous system and social intelligence, this gear-shift of cultural evolution will lead either to our fulfillment as a species or to our self-destruction. Because human culture is a work in progress, which direction we go remains an open question.

When our theory lacks imagination and insight, the purpose of culture gets reduced to little more than managing nature – our own as well as the natural order around us. In this view, with all its clever innovations and sophisticated methods, culture is just a fancy, interesting, but problematic way of keeping us alive and making copies of our genes – like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’, as we say. Cultures rise and fall, come and go, but we can only fall and go once from the scene of nature to be gone for good. Religion and science fiction can muse over angels and androids and faraway realms, but our real business is survival on this third rock from the sun.

On the other hand, it could be that our fulfillment as a species depends on something original to culture, something not merely derived from or sublimated out of our nature as highly evolved animals. I call this original element community – or more specifically, genuine community – and I’ve tried to show in numerous posts how religion plays a key role in its formation. Genuine community is not merely a society of individuals who get along; something much more transformative is going on.

The larger trajectory towards fulfillment is still unfolding after these many thousands of years, and we today stand on a critical threshold where our next step will bring about a breakthrough or (almost just as likely) a breakdown.

There is a debate over whether human evolution will reach its fulfillment with genuine community (as I argue) or instead with the rise of extraordinary individuals who possess super-human powers and abilities. The ‘exceptionalists’ focus their hopes on such paranormal abilities as levitation, mind-reading, bending spoons, or turning water into wine. They talk of higher consciousness, perfected nature, and immortality, but their specimens are typically from another time and quarter, or else ‘presently unavailable’ for closer examination.

When serving as a Christian pastor, I was frequently taken by how believers’ regard for Jesus as just such an exception kept him safely at a distance and released them of any obligation to be like him. Maybe the possibility was there, but only for the spiritually gifted, not the rest of us.

By shifting our focus to the evolution of community, we don’t have the option of worshiping perfection from a distance. As I see it, our advancement as individuals and the formation of genuine community are deeply correlated. Community provides the supportive environment where identity is constructed and personal commitment to the health of the whole is empowered in the individual. The individual then adds his or her creative influence to the community, which continues to foster a still higher realization of wellbeing. Thus a provident community and personal commitment progressively co-elevate the project of human evolution.

My diagram gives an illustration of this laddering dynamic. Again, a provident community instills in the newborn and young child a deep sense that she belongs. As she matures, the youngster is encouraged to participate in the community as a contributing member. And eventually, if all goes well, the young adult will take a responsible role in creating the new reality of an even stronger, more provident community for all.

This would amount to little more than a redundant cycling of new generations taking their place in society, except for the fact that it has been evolving. And the direction of this evolution – despite occasional setbacks and derailments along the way – has been steadily toward what I call the human ideal, by which I mean the fully self-actualized human being.

Like all living things, we humans have a potential locked up in our genes, but also encoded in the memes (symbols, stories, and folk wisdom) of culture, that gradually opens and develops in the direction of our maturity and fulfillment.

Beyond our physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity as individuals, there are still higher aims that have to do with our life together in community. In a recent post I identified five ethical virtues in particular that are recognized across all cultures as representing this human ideal.

My diagram displays these five virtues at the apex of an ascending arrow, which makes the point that this ideal is always ‘above and ahead’ of us, igniting our aspirations as well as measuring our progress or lack of it.

Theistic religion early on took up the task of focusing human contemplation on the higher virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, which it personified in metaphorical figures of deities – humanlike but more perfect, bending their providential powers in the interest of a cohesive community. In myths that were regularly recited and performed in ritual settings of worship, the gods ‘characterized’ how devotees were expected to behave. (As projections, they could also deify our cruder and more violent tendencies as well.)

First by obedience, and gradually more and more by way of aspiration and endeavoring to be ‘like god’, the community of believers began to demonstrate the virtues in their interactions and way of life. This inward activation of what had been externally represented marks the evolutionary threshold where theism transforms into post-theism, where god relocates, as it were, from heaven into the heart, becoming the sacred center of an awakened and liberated life.

 

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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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