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On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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Standpoints in Reality

My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.

Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.

In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.

A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.

Standpoints

I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.

As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.

If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.

Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.

The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.

Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.

But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.

My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.

Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.

Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.

Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.

Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Open-Box Theology

Theology is reasoning (from logos) about god, or simply the study of god. Even simpler, theology is our theories about god, how we talk about god, the words we use to make sense of god. Theology is god-talk.

If there is a clear distinction between religion and spirituality, it comes down to this business of talking about god. While religion involves doctrines and prayers, confessions and apologetics, scriptures and commentaries, commandments and formal teachings, spirituality is the quiet contemplation of living in the presence of mystery.

To say “of mystery” is only a concession to the requirement of our minds to give “it” a name. The primary business of the mind is to make meaning, and it does this by dipping its bucket in the living stream, whereupon the dynamic and moving mystery that is the stream gets captured, extracted, isolated and contained.

The stream in a bucket: you just have to hear that a second time to realize how ridiculous it sounds.

But if we’re going to reflect on our experience of mystery, make sense of it, and communicate it to others, we have to understand that we’re dealing with buckets and not the stream itself. Buckets are used in meaning-making. The stream is prior to meaning. It is there – but “where,” exactly, can a stream be said to be? – after we walk away with wild mystery still sloshing out and onto our shoes.

It’s not easy to admit, but mystery is outside of meaning. In a word, it is meaningless.

By naming it “god,” we instantly catch the mystery into a system of human utilities. God becomes useful for explaining how things came to be, useful for orienting tribal values and concerns, useful for motivating “proper” behavior. At some point (though interestingly not very early in the history of religion) god became useful for saving the soul from the ravages of time and the consequences of sin.

Religion, then, might be seen as this system of utilities whereby our experience of mystery is made relevant and useful to our needs (both genuine and neurotic). Metaphors germinate into myths, myths inspire rituals, rituals expand into moralities, and moralities give cohesion to tribal life and shape our identities. In this way we channel the mystery into meaning and make our worlds.

The metaphor of a bucket is a helpful one, I think, when trying to understand the relationship between spirituality and the variety of ways it is “put to use” as religion. The fact is, not everyone’s religion is that close to the stream anymore. We’ve taken our portions far inland, deep into our tribal life – or rather, our ancestors and forbears did a long time ago. What we have are not so much buckets of water as boxes of belief that have been passed down through the generations.

Our theological property is carried and “handed on” from one generation to the next; this is the dictionary definition of the word tradition. We have our “god boxes”  that contain theological portraits drawn from the metaphors, myths and commentaries of our tribe. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Pagans – all of us inherit the boxes that represent our patron deity. Or if that name is too limiting, then the focal principle or personality around which our world of meaning is arranged.

In Tractsofrevolution I have been advocating for the need to move beyond (post) our gods and return to the stream for refreshment and perspective. This isn’t a “fundamentalist” return to the way it used to be – which is really the way we never were – but a circling back to the origins of religion in the experience of mystery. My argument is not for breaking the idols and doing away with god, but for keeping an “open-box theology” as we work to construct a world where we can live peaceably together.

An open box is still a box. Not to be confused with atheism, post-theism acknowledges our human need to make sense of the mystery. Furthermore, there is a critical correlation among ego, tribe and the mythological god that is necessary for the healthy development of identity – or so I have argued. A tribal representation of god serves the important developmental role of giving security and validation to the tribe’s present existence, as it inspires and attracts (in the way of an evolutionary ideal) the latent potential of a still higher humanity.

An open-box theology can understand this – or at least it is open to dialogue about the implications of saying that our gods are really just part of a larger experience and a longer adventure.

Closed boxes, on the other hand, are like IEDs along the evolutionary road of humanity. They no longer connect the true believer back to the living stream of this present mystery. What energy they do seem to have is not animated from inside, but rather charged from without by the fervent devotion of “the faithful.” What they lose in relevance – as they must with the passing of time and the progress of humanity – they gain in conviction.

Religion shouldn’t be about “convicting” people (making them convicts of belief) but liberating them, opening them up and moving them forward. Open-box theology allows that to happen by keeping us engaged with the here-and-now, which is where we will rediscover the real presence of mystery, the living stream of an authentic spirituality.

Post-theism, like postmodernism, is not merely asking about what comes “after” god or modernity. The “post” prefix here is seeking after what is beyond these crucial stages in our life on this planet. We can’t just throw our gods to the side or abandon the values of critical reason, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. We need to consider what they have prepared us for. How can we leap from this stage into the next creative phase of our evolution?

Whatever the next phase is, we know it will require a new and more enlightened sense of community – with each other, with the earth, with our separate pasts and our future selves.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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The Time We Have Left

The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.

But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.

Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).

This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.

Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.

We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.

All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.

The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.

And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?

This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.

One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.

Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.

Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.

We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.

So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.

There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.

 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.

 

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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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