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Unqualified Mystery

De Mello: “The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you ‘know’ about God. The final barrier to the vision of God is your God concept. You miss God because you think you know. That’s the terrible thing about religion. The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable. There is far too much God talk; the world is sick of it.”

Here’s a piece of calculus predicting our human future: Calculus FutureTranslated into narrative the formula states that our representation of God, divided by our identification of self, multiplied by our interaction with others equals the evolutionary future of humanity. Let’s break it down.

Our representations of God come from many sources – scripture and tradition, intuition and revelation, reason and logic, imagination and fantasy. Whatever its source, we must be careful not to confuse any representation with the reality it represents.

This is, in fact, the classical and orthodox definition of idolatry, even though much of the new orthodoxy and fundamentalism in the world’s religions fall – and fall passionately – to this temptation. Any representation of God will necessarily be less than God, an understatement, a reduction to ideas, words, and images of an ineffable mystery.

And yet, it is an irresistible impulse of our minds to mentally represent the mystery in ways that make it intelligible, relevant and useful. What we call God – the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality – must be rendered meaningful by the mind, which it does by telling stories, playing with metaphors, or simply dancing out the ecstasy.

What is produced from this creative activity is not a substitute for the mystery or some final definition, but rather a symptom of the inexpressible, a sign pointing beyond itself, a suggestion of Something More.

Still, for whatever reason, we come to settle on our preferred representations. Perhaps our religious tradition requires it, we find it convenient, or maybe it just “fits” with the general picture of reality known as our world(view).

But our representations of God must always include (whether by expression or concealment, projection or compensation) our identifications of self. Since these representations come out of us, we should expect them to reflect and bear the signature of our nature and personality.

What I call the mythological god – which refers to the narrative character at the center of the sacred stories (or myths) of religion – is at once the creative expression of an evolutionary ideal (power, goodness, love), a reflex of our insecurity as a species, and a dramatic counterpart to what we admire, despise, or fear in ourselves.

Just as a providential god compensates for our dependency on a larger order, so a judgmental god confirms the shame and guilt we try to keep to ourselves, and an all-loving god externalizes and covers everything with a caring intention. Whose god is the “true god” is a question without an answer, for the simple reason that it is based on a false assumption that our representations of God (in other words, our various “gods”) match up to the reality we generically name God.

My formula suggests that our representations of God are just as much, if not more, about us than they are accurate portraits of the divine mystery.

It might sound as if I’m building an argument for atheism, when in fact it’s “post-theism” I’m boosting here – the idea that the real presence of mystery is always and necessarily beyond (and after: post) the patron deities of religion. To the degree that we get caught up in devotion to our god (lowercase = representation), the stage is set for interreligious competition through the ordination of bigotry and violence.

As my formula shows, the package of how we identify ourselves, along with the representation of God that complements or compensates for it, gets carried out into our interactions with others. It’s here that orthodoxy – our “correct” beliefs about God – translates into ethics. Our god will tend to inspire and justify a certain regard for others, a certain way of behaving towards our neighbor – whether friend, stranger, or enemy.

It seems obvious that a religion which generalizes love, encourages compassion, and challenges us to forgive and get along would be preferable to one that excludes, condemns and justifies violence as a means to redemption. The evolutionary future of humanity on this planet – if there’s any chance of it being a long and prosperous one – will depend on our ability to reach out and make benevolent connections with each other.

But didn’t god (the mythological god of the Bible) require the death of his son for the salvation of those who believe? Isn’t he poised (and morally obligated) to condemn to hell all unbelievers? The myth of redemptive violence is a strong current in Christian orthodoxy – one that reflects (and exposes) something about the myth-makers who invented it in the first place, as well as those who defend it today.

I’m not suggesting that Christianity is all this way, or that it is exceptional in this regard among the world religions. There are many Christians who reject the myth of redemptive violence, which of course calls for a critical, less literal reading of the Bible and a more conscientious stance on sacred authority.

As our planet continues to move into a global culture, the motivation and consequences of our interactions grow in importance.

Again, post-theism is not about a “one-world religion” – either as an outcome of interreligious competition (one wins and eliminates the others) or by blending religious differences into a generic stir-and-serve. It acknowledges a “spiritual intelligence” in all human beings, and even affirms the constructive place of religion in its development. Our representations of God are useful to the degree that they provide community support, devotional focus, and fresh inspiration along the way.

At a certain point, however, this process can get bogged down in the specialized vocabulary of a tradition’s god-talk. More and more is “known” about God – more accurately, about god (the orthodox representation) – as less and less of God is experienced. How God is represented eventually eclipses a direct (mystical) vision of, and communion with, the present mystery.

Worse, this worship of the representation can – and increasingly will – result in spiritual frustration. The progression of our continuing evolution as a species is capped off and boxed up in an ideology incapable of lifting us to the next level. A living spirituality gets strangled in the net of commentary.

Can we set our idols aside?

 

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Life Without Hooks

De Mello: “Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of ‘I’; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.”

In both East and West you can find a high value placed on detachment. In the East this detachment is more contemplative and mystical in orientation, while in the West it has been more speculative and experimental. Despite these different cultural “accents,” however, each type is well represented in both East and West.

Of whatever type, detachment represents a decision at some deep level not to get emotionally “hooked” in reality – as it seems or how it feels. Mystics and scientists are fellow researchers in this way, choosing not to allow their feelings to filter or prejudge what’s really going on. From one angle this can sound as if a vital part of human experience is being subtracted and dismissed. Who really lives this way?

Nobody. It’s important to understand that this detachment is more a discipline than a lifestyle. The point must also be made that we’re not talking here about people with severe affective disorders, who lack an emotional engagement with the world due to a brain dysfunction or because separating themselves emotionally from their experience was the only way they could cope with early trauma or abuse.

We are talking about “the rest of us” – the billions on this planet presently who get triggered and hooked every day. You make me mad. I miss my dog. God loves me. These are all emotional judgments I use to arrange reality into a world around me. I have a world, and you have a world.  What’s on the other side of our worlds, beyond them as the unnamed mystery of reality, hardly interests us. It rarely even occurs to us.

Emotional feeling might attach us to reality, but the place where we get hooked is no longer reality just as it is. It feels a certain way (“to me”) or has a certain meaning (“for me”) because I am here. My interest in it makes reality instantly personal and uniquely mine.

Most people would probably concur, as this relates to how IT feels – IT being what I am hooked into at the moment. But meaning … well, that’s “out there,” separate from us, just waiting to be discovered. Right?

Not so fast.

Wherever I’m hooked to reality, a kind of duality emerges. On the “me” side of the experience is how it feels (sad, delightful, scary, annoying, etc.). This part of my experience is personal, subjective and “biological” – in that these are all measurable reactions in my body. The particular emotional state of arousal is really a syndrome of numerous biological events in my cells, glands and organs. When I’m in a state of fear or desire, reality has the character of being scary or seductive, but it’s all happening inside of me.

On the other side of my hook is an expansive association of meanings – how IT connects to other hooks of my past and present. Once upon a time I set that hook over there (or my ancestors did) and then forgot I did it. Now it’s just a part of the way things are. This hook gets connected to all those other hooks, and together they comprise the illusion of a seamless fabric of meaning called my world.

The awareness that human beings “construct” meaning rather than simply “discover” it out there in reality is a very recent realization. If it is discovered, then it’s as a mental or material artifact of human creativity. We come upon hooks left on reality all the time. The worldview of a given community or culture is actually a more complex hooking-together of many personal worlds, through many generations of time. That it goes on into apparent infinity gives the impression of timeless permanence.

The Buddha said that if we can’t learn to manage our cravings we will continue to latch on to reality, and then suffer when it pulls away from our hooks. It’s always pulling away, if only because our hooks of feeling and meaning are organized around “me” and reality isn’t. Whereas the orthodoxy of his day insisted that we are caught on the wheel of suffering for as many turns as it takes to get our act together, Siddhartha taught that it’s our craving for all things “me” that keeps us stuck there. Extinguish the flame of craving (the “blow-out” of nirvana), and liberation just happens.

Jesus, too, had much to say about hooks and our need to forgive or “let go” of the places in our relationships, particularly with “my enemies,” where the pain of injury and misunderstanding keeps us gripping down in self-defense. While orthodoxy claimed that the one sinned against (god/me) is free to forgive in response to a satisfying repentance of the sinner/enemy, Jesus flipped the whole thing around. When asked how many times we should forgive “the one who sins against me,” he advised his disciples to stop counting and waiting around for repentance. Forgive first.

In some ways, Siddhartha and Jesus were “postmodern” in the way they deconstructed the metaphysical assumptions behind their respective cultural mythologies. The Buddha (“awakened one”) overturned the idea of a permanent soul and its endless cycles of rebirth, while The Christ (“anointed one”) pulled down the doctrine of a vengeful god and his insatiable demand for propitiation. They are both honored and worshiped as world redeemers because they showed how letting go of “me” allows for a larger experience of peace, freedom and joy.

Yet we continue to hook in and hold on, if only because it’s the primary impulse of our ego to do so. The significance of my world is an extension of my identity (ego), and my identity is a function of where I hook in for security. What would it be like to live without hooks, or with fewer hooks than we presently do?

No doubt, everything would change.

 

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Holding On and Letting Go

Anderson: “People of power and position are not the only ones who resist threats to a belief system; so do ordinary people who have internalized that belief system and take it to be absolute reality. The collapse of a belief system can be like the end of the world. Even those who are most oppressed by a belief system often fear the loss of it. People can literally cease to know who they are.”

One of the working threads in my current conversation regards (a) world as a human construction of meaning. There are as many “worlds” as there are mentally functioning human beings on this planet, and each individual migrates through numerous world-constructs in an average lifetime.

A world is not reality, but only a representation of reality. It is “made up” of our recurrent thoughts, persistent opinions, personal and family stories, as well as the overarching myths of our culture that can bridge many generations. Inside these enclosures we feel relatively secure, conserve an identity (or several identities), search for significance, and work out our purpose.

Another, but less inclusive term for what we are calling a world is belief system, which tends to take the discussion in a more cognitive direction. Beliefs are judgments and conclusions that nevertheless still require an emotional “boost” to cross any gaps in logic, insufficient evidence, or lack of direct experience. From the root-word meaning “to hold dear,” belief is less about knowledge than commitment.

We are emotionally attached to our judgments about reality. It gets even more complicated when we realize that many of our beliefs are nothing more than emotional commitments to other beliefs. We need them to be right, or else all hell might break loose. At least our worlds might fall apart, which is probably worse.

Anderson makes the point that “ordinary people,” as distinct from those in positions of power and privilege, are just as defensive of the worlds that make their lives meaningful. We could also add those of lesser fortune, who labor and strain under the weight of oppression. If you see yourself as a victim of evil-doing, at least you have an identity equipped with its relevant concerns, coping strategies, aspirations for freedom and “the good life,” along with your own retinue of fellow victims, enemy-oppressors, and occasional benefactors.

The fact is, we need our worlds just as much as our worlds need us to create them. Problems arise when we forget that we’re making it all up and start insisting on our world’s absolute truth. The postmodern discovery is that every world is a project (coming out of us), a construct (built and arranged around us), and a representation (of reality). While our amnesia regarding its origin and status as so much pretense may be adaptive to some degree, our insistence on the absolute truth of our belief systems is where all wars, most divorces, and many mental illnesses likely begin.

After the birth of what I am calling the “postmodern discovery,” many believed that the time had come for humanity to advance beyond the need for belief systems altogether. But that turned out to be just another emotional judgment (belief) of an emerging worldview – another phase in the evolution of worlds, despite the elevated self-consciousness of its perspective.

It seems to me that the real challenge is to occupy our worlds in humble awareness of their nature as fabricated, provisional and necessarily short-sighted views on reality. Psychologically we can’t live without them. But in the interest of our health and longevity as a species, and of the health of our planet, we need some combination of courage and compassion to reach through the emotionally charged boundaries that separate us from each other.

When our worlds do collapse – either completely as in the phase-transitions to a “new mind,” or only partially as we slowly outgrow earlier convictions – the experience can be nothing short of apocalyptic. What had provided security and a place to stand feels as if it is falling away from under our feet. What had provided us with orientation and a sense of direction suddenly comes to pieces above our heads.

Because who we are is so deeply implicated in how we see reality, the breakdown of our world amounts to a loss of identity.

Just as post-theism entails transcending or going beyond the objective existence of the mythological god, so too does this evolutionary moment require that we loosen up and let go of our egos as fixed identities. Such self-transcendence needs to happen if we have any hope of staying in touch with what’s really going on, with the really real, with reality.

Letting go is scary, and it’s not without risk that we release what has given us security for what might lead to fulfillment.

This is where the old guard is typically called in. Tribal authorities, holy tradition, sacred scriptures and the mythological god are all being summoned in  defense of our out-grown worlds. We don’t want to lose what we have, even though it has already lost much of its relevance to our daily lives. So we close our eyes and hunker down, and call it faith.

If we take the step from this fixed position, we want our foot to land on another fixed position – somewhere we can lean into and put our weight, something that’s stable and certain. But both stability and predictability are features of belief systems, not actual experience; of worlds, not reality.

The present mystery of reality is dynamic, and actual experience is much more fluid than our rigid belief systems can comfortably admit. And yet it’s a mark of both maturity and faith when we can climb to the edge of our worlds and leap from what we think we know, into what is beyond belief.

 

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Living Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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