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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religions are losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meant to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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On The Way

The process of becoming somebody and finding our way to genuine community, which I regard as the evolutionary directive of our species, is a hero’s journey fraught with pitfalls and dead ends. If we were driven and determined by a force entirely outside our control, we would have arrived at our apotheosis [see definition 2] long before now.

But with the introduction of self-conscious awareness our ultimate success in realizing that aim gets complicated.

Over the long course of our history, the complications attending our way to genuine community correspond to great shifts or transitions which consciousness must successfully negotiate. In this blog I have been developing a theory of religion (from the Latin religare, to tie back) as the mediating system of stories, symbols, and sacraments (ritual practices) that facilitate our construction of meaning and keeps us oriented on the journey.

My diagram identifies three relatively stable modes of consciousness and two transitional phases between them. The more stable stages represent periods when religion is confidently doing its job, while the phase transitions from one stage to the next are where things tend to go awry. In this post we will follow the path to its fulfillment, defining those stages and diagnosing the various deformations and pathologies that result when the move between them gets complicated.

Communion and community sound like they should be synonyms, but in fact their distinct meanings are critical to understanding my model. We’ll get to community eventually, but let’s define communion as the preconscious state of oneness. Historically (for our species) and developmentally (for each of us as individuals) this mode of consciousness is prior to – and importantly continues to underlie and support – the awareness of ourselves as self-conscious centers of sentiment, personality, and will.

The religion of this period is animism, and its job is to orient us inside the forces and rhythms of life. We’re not yet agents in life, managing an identity and making choices, but rather patients or ride-alongs on these mysterious currents moving through and all around us.

We can try to remember back to early childhood and what life was like before language equipped our ability to divide and isolate this moving picture into countless pieces. Or we can let awareness drop, right now in this moment, below our center of self-conscious ego and into the sentient organism of the body – not “our” body, since a conceit of ownership is just one of the ego delusions.

Even the possibility of dropping below the center of self-conscious identity presupposes an established center from which such a descent might be accomplished. This reminds us that the consideration of our topic of religion and human transformation will always take place from the particular vantage point afforded by our ego. From that vantage point the clarity of our perspective will be a function of how we got there, and what complications we suffered on the way.

Theism is the religious paradigm dedicated to the construction of personal identity, tribal membership, and a coherent moral order. Its deity warrants this moral order, serving as the final arbiter of right and wrong, of who’s in and who’s out, as well as the exemplar of what devotees regard as proper character and ethical virtue.

In a healthy and stable theism individuals are adequately centered in themselves while seeking to know and live according to god’s will. Following the commands of god ensures that members will get along, with each person playing his or her part in a role play directed from above.

Arriving at a stable center of personal identity, however, requires that our transition of separating from others and becoming somebody goes smoothly. But it doesn’t always go smoothly. Separating out of that preconscious state of communion comes at a cost of some security, and to compensate for what we’re losing we attach ourselves to others with the expectation that they make us feel safe.

The obvious problem with this compensatory strategy of attachment is that it prevents us from getting centered in ourselves. Without a stable center of our own, we can’t drop into the grounding mystery of our inner life, nor are we able to connect in healthy ways with others and devote ourselves to our mutual well-being.

I have represented this neurotic condition in my diagram with a tightening spiral, locking us inside and away from our ground, from our proper center, and from those healthy connections which are the precondition for the rise of genuine community.

I have written plenty of posts investigating the dangers of a theism organized around the insecure, grasping, and conceited ego. One place this plays out is in the representation of a god who is jealous, demanding, and vindictive; who wants all the praise and glory for himself. When religion gets hijacked this way, it becomes a serious impediment and threat to our human future.

But in order that I can put the final touches on my model and theory of religion, we will assume that things have gone reasonably well, with each of us properly grounded and centered, oriented on the greater good and inspired to bring our best to the shared work of community.

A healthy connection between two or more grounded and centered egos prepares us for the third and final stage of religion. What I’m calling genuine community is different from our original state of communion in the way it involves and depends on self-conscious persons joining together for a higher unity. For its sake, each person is invited to “go beyond” him- or herself for a transpersonal wholeness.

With our motivation sufficiently liberated from insecurity and self-concern, we can together hold a vision for the well-being of all.

Importantly, while some forms of spirituality after (“post-“) theism call for the negation of ego in pursuit of higher wholeness, the post-theism I advocate for acknowledges the necessity of having a stable center to launch from – and come back to. While it’s true that genuine community is a transpersonal experience of communal wholeness, to dissolve or subtract the ego rather than surpass and go beyond ourselves would effectively foreclose on its very possibility.

From preconscious communion, through self-conscious separation, getting over ourselves and coming together in a spirit of unity: Each of us is on the way. Let’s keep going.

 

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What’s Next For God?

My inquiry into the future of god will sound strange – and probably blasphemous – to believers who regard him as an immortal being, beyond the world and outside of time, without beginning or end. That’s how Christian orthodoxy defines god at any rate. There can be no ‘future’ for such a timeless and unchanging metaphysical absolute.

But then again, I’m not talking about the god of theologians – referring to those who talk about god and make a living putting definition around a mystery that cannot be named. Long before the theologians were mystics and storytellers, who rather than making the mystery into an object of thought, sought its direct experience (the mystics) or mediated through the veil of metaphor (the storytellers).

The contribution of theologians was to detach from the mystery and turn it into an object of thought – something separate from the mind and its immediate experience.

Direct experience gave way to metaphorical depiction, which eventually lost its transparency and finally condensed into a separate thing – god as a being possessed of certain powers and attributes. Whereas god had earlier been acknowledged as representing the creative ground and abyssal depths of being itself, his identity as a character of story was later relocated to the objective realm where he became the god of theologians.

This mystery is indeed timeless – or eternal, according to the original meaning of that word. Our experience of mystery is ineffable (i.e., indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words) since it transpires far below (and was felt long before) the active language centers of the brain. To translate the experience of mystery into language – into names, nouns, adjectives and verbs – is to move out of experience and away from the mystery.

As a product of human imagination and language, the objective god of theologians is the principal artifact of religion. It has a past, and we can legitimately ask whether it has a future.

To give my answer to that question, it’s necessary to see religion and its god in historical context. The construct of god hasn’t always been with us – in fact, in the longer run of our evolution as a species, the concept of deity is a late arrival. For many millenniums the human experience of, and response to, the present mystery of reality was carried in the thought-forms of animism.

This mode of reflection was – and still is, particularly when we are very young children – deeply in touch with the urgencies and rhythms of the body, and the profound ways this embodied life-force connects with, depends on, and participates in the rhythms and cycles of nature all around. Our bodies, other animals, the trees, the seasons, Sun, moon, and stars are animated (made alive and moved) by forces we cannot control or understand.

Over time human curiosity, imagination, and technical ingenuity began to thicken the layer of culture mediating our experience of nature and the mystery of life. Symbols preserved the connection but were themselves symptoms of our growing separation. Mythic narratives weaved patterns of meaning and tribal ceremonies provided for social engagement, keeping the community synchronized with the great rounds of natural time.

A crucial advancement also came with the concept of a higher purpose behind things – no doubt reflecting the way that the programs and techniques informing human culture are directed by our own strategic objectives and desired outcomes.

Everything happening was hereafter regarded as happening for a reason – not so much according to an antecedent causality (a line of reasoning that would eventually inspire the rise of science) but by fulfilling the aims of a transcendent will – the god(s) of theism.

The narrative invention and developmental career of deity is a primary feature of the type of religion known as theism. Historically this career moves through three distinct phases. An early phase charts a time when the layer of culture is still thin enough to be subordinate to the life forces of nature. A deity serves as provider of the resources a society requires, as well as of the protections that shelter it from natural catastrophes.

In theism’s high phase, the thickening of culture correlates also to the formation of ego, to that social construction of personal identity each of us knows as “I, myself.” As its counterpart and transcendent ideal, a deity authorizes a morality of obedience and personifies the higher virtues of ethical life. God is to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed. In doing so, individual egos are motivated to conform to social norms, as they strive to please the deity and gain his (or her) favor.

Late theism marks a transition where the deity is invoked less in sanctuaries than contemplated in the depths of the soul. A transactional morality of obedience – be good and god will be good to you – gives way to a more adult aspirational morality. Those divine virtues which had been elevated and glorified in worship become the internalized ideals of a more self-responsible, compassionate, and benevolent way of life.

An inherent (and building) tension in late theism has to do with the fact that its tradition, liturgy, and orthodoxy remain focused on an objective god, just as the orientation of many believers is starting to shift to a mystically inward and ethically engaged spirituality.

So far, then, we can observe an advancing focus in religion, invested early in the sentient experience of our body and the rhythms of natural life (animism); then graduating upwards, so to speak, with concerns related to ego formation, becoming somebody, finding one’s place in society and striving to be a good person.

Theism might be thought of as a ‘second womb’, providing the social support, cultural instruction, and moral incentives for the development of personal identity.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a burst to represent the moment when we ‘see through’ the veil of our myths and symbols. This insight may be experienced as an epiphany (an “appearing through”) or more like an apocalypse leaving us utterly disillusioned – that is to say, where the illusion of those sacred fictions and orthodox beliefs that had for so long nurtured the formation of our identity is ripped from its rings like a great curtain coming down.

In some religious traditions this is represented as the labor pains of a second birth, of being lifted out of the warm trance of social conformity and into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness.

Four possible paths lead from this point. Two of them, named absolutism and ātheism (with the macron long ‘a’), stay fixated on the question of literal truth. Is the featured deity of those sacred stories a literal being, a supernatural or metaphysical personality out there and separate from us – a supreme being among beings?

Absolutism (aka fundamentalism) has to say ‘yes’ unless everything is lost. Ātheism says emphatically ‘no’, since a literal god in that sense is contradicted by science, besides being logically incredible and an offense to our ethical freedom as humans.

These paths, then, don’t really lead anywhere because they both remain stuck on god.

A third path, opening into a fourth, seeks to better understand what god means rather than argue for or against his literal existence. As a literary figure (i.e., a principal character of myth) the deity serves a purpose – the ones identified above: representing a provident purpose behind things (early theism), authorizing a moral system (high theism), and exemplifying the higher virtues of a liberated life (late theism).

The commitment to understanding (i.e., seeing through) what god means rather than debating his existence is what distinguishes ătheism (with the breve ‘a’, as in “apple”) from simple ātheism. The present mystery upon which the whole enterprise of religion has been a contemplation – from the embodied experience of sentient life (animism) to the heroic adventure of self-conscious identity (theism) – now prepares to transcend merely personal concerns for a universal truth, that All is One.

The advent of our awakening to the full capacity and higher potential of our human nature is what I mean by apotheosis. This is the future of god.

How ought we to live, in view of this higher wholeness and our place in it? According to post-theism, we devote ourselves to the provident care of our resident animists (infants and young children). We exemplify the virtues of community life and inspire our resident theists (children and adolescents) to follow our example. And when their minds and hearts are ready, we encourage them to step through the veil and join us in this work, on the other side of god.

 

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On The Brink

For some reason I can’t stop thinking and writing about that conceited little blowhard who sits at the controls of our personal lives. I mean, of course, the ego – our separate center of personal identity. I understand why I’m obsessed, since both our historical rise as a species and our eventual self-destruction are tied to it.

It so happens that our present position in history is on the brink of a phase transition, where a rather longstanding way of being and behaving in the world is coming to an end and another is starting to emerge. We can see signs of this transition all around us: religious traditions, moral conventions, and political systems are falling apart and becoming irrelevant to our new global situation.

For the longest time, these social stabilizers defined who we were and dictated how we should live. But now they sit in our cultural backyards like rusting junk cars and broken down appliances. Some among us are urging a reformation where these once sacred institutions might be rehabilitated to their original function in society.

They believe that our way forward is to return to the past when religion, morality, and politics worked – often in a theistic conspiracy under the supervision of a supreme deity – to orient humans in the world and direct them in how they should live.

But going back in time is no answer to our present crisis, and simply going ahead as we have been will lead into a future we really don’t want to see: consumerism, degradation, tribalism, division, and conflict. But that’s the nature of a phase transition. Going backward or merely continuing in our current habits of mind and behavior are not viable options. We need to move forward, but in a direction that is truly creative, progressive, healthy, and liberating.

In this post I will offer a perspective from this brink where many presently find themselves – or perhaps I should say, where there is hope for them to actually find themselves. Rather than taking only a broad cultural and historical view of our situation, I suggest that taking it personally will deliver the insights we most urgently need.

My diagram depicts the temporal arc of development whereon personal identity (your ego, my ego) comes into shape (the ‘formation’ stage), establishes itself at the center a world (the ‘management’ stage), and is eventually presented with the options of either hurtling along its current trajectory or else achieving breakthrough to a new way of being.

The color spectrum contained in the arc corresponds to three aspects of a human being, in possessing an animal body (black), a personal ego (orange), and a spiritual soul (purple). As I have stressed in other posts on the topic, these aspects are not ‘parts’ that can be separated from each other, but rather distinct mental locations of consciousness that allow us to engage, respectively, with the sensory-physical, socio-moral, and intuitive-transpersonal dimensions of reality.

In the beginning of human history, and of our own individual lives, the animal body was our dominant mode of engaging with reality, in its urgencies, drives, reflexes, and sensations. There as yet was no ego, no personal identity, no ‘who’ that we were or believed ourselves to be. It was from and out of this animal nature that our tribe worked to construct an identity for us: the good boy or nice girl, an obedient child and contributing member of the family circle.

This formation of ego required in some cases that our animal impulses be suppressed (pushed down), restrained (held in check), or redirected in more socially acceptable ways.

Inevitably our tribe’s efforts to domesticate the ‘wild animal’ of our body into a well behaved citizen of society, especially when those measures are repressive, punitive, authoritarian, or shaming, produce in us feelings of insecurity – a deep sense registered in our nervous system that reality, as manifested in our immediate environment, is neither safe nor provident.

As a strategy for consolation, we attach ourselves to whatever and whomever we hope will make us feel secure. These may bring some temporary relief but end up only pulling us deeper into a condition of entanglement. I have illustrated this condition in my diagram with tangled knots of string representing emotional energy that gets bound up in neurotic attachment.

As we grow up and enter the adult world of society, our personal identity is managed outwardly in the numerous role plays of interpersonal engagement, as well as inwardly in the internal scripts (or self-talk) that are voice-over to those knots of ego entanglement. When we are under stress and feel inadequate or unsupported, our insecure Inner Child can drive our reactions, interfering with and undermining our adult objectives, ambitions, and relationships.

Even without the complications of ego entanglement, personal identity comes into trouble of its own later on, typically around the time known as midlife. With major changes to our life roles – career shifts, divorce, an empty nest, the loss of loved ones, along with a gradual fatigue which starts to drag on the daily project of pretending to be somebody – the meaning of life as oriented on our ego begins to lose its luster.

For the first time we might ‘see through’ all this pretense and make-believe, suffering a kind of disillusionment that is foreground to a potentially liberating revelation.

Such a crisis of meaning might well motivate in us a kind of ‘fundamentalist’ backlash, where we grip down with even greater conviction on what we desperately need to be true. We dismiss or condemn outright as a near catastrophic loss of faith our earlier insight that meaning is merely constructed and not objectively real. Our passionate and vociferous confessions of belief serve therapeutically as overcompensation for doubt, in hopes that we can go back to how it was before the veil came down.

As we wind this up, I should point out that this same sequence of ego formation, identity management, followed by a crisis of identity and meaning, describes the course of religion’s evolution over the millenniums.

Early animism took its inspiration from the body, from the rhythms and mystery of life within and all around us. Theism features the superegos of deities who (like our own ego) demand attention, praise, and glory in exchange for managing the order and meaning of the world. They also exemplify the virtues to which we aspire.

At a critical phase transition – one we are in right now – we come to realize that our god is not out there somewhere, that there is no hell below us and above us is only sky. At this point we might succumb completely to disillusionment and decide for atheism. On the other hand we might double-down on belief and join the crusades of fundamentalism, rejecting science for the Bible, intellectual honesty for blind faith, wonder for conviction.

Or something else …

We might step through the veil and into a new way of being – an awakened and liberated way, free of ego entanglement and its small, exclusive, and defended world. On the cultural level this is the opening act of post-theism, of engaging with life on the other side of (or after: post) god.

According to the wisdom traditions this door opens on two distinct paths: a mystical path that descends (or ‘drops’ away) from ego consciousness and into the deep grounding mystery of being-itself; and an ethical path that transcends (or ‘leaps’ beyond) ego consciousness into a higher understanding of our place within and responsibility to the turning unity of all beings. Instead of dropping away from ego, this post-theistic ethical path contemplates our inclusion in a greater wholeness – beyond ego (i.e., transpersonal) but including it as well.

At this crucial time in history, more and more of us are standing on the brink. What happens next is up to you.

 

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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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