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A Provident Reality

A reader familiar with my thought stream in this blog knows how central is the concept of a “provident reality.” It also becomes obvious that I use this term in a way that’s not entirely consistent with its classical definition, where it referred to the way of god towards those who trust and believe in him (a masculine reference dominates the tradition). Over time, Providence (usually capitalized) came to be used as a substitute term for god’s benevolent provision, particularly as believers look to the future.

Rather than the notion of providence deriving from our experience of god, however, I have argued that our concept of god arises out of and reflects our (especially early) experiences of reality as provident or otherwise. As I use the term, a “provident reality” does not name a being who cares for us, but the extent in which the totality of existence supports life, community, and the evolution of consciousness. The fact that we are alive and conscious and creative and intentional means, in the very least, that our universe is all of these things – in us.

Despite all our abilities and the positive illusion of our individual autonomy, each of us is deeply dependent on the reality outside our ego for what we need. To live, to thrive, to flourish, to love, to construct meaning and awaken to our full human potential – we depend on reality to provide for us every step of the way. We need air, water, and food; we need shelter, intimacy, and connection; we need language, tools, and the skills to use them; we need guidance, exemplars, and forgiveness when we fall short.

All of us were born into some kind of family system – even if our arrival is what made it a family. We began as helpless dependents, equipped by biology only to breathe on our own, and really not much else. We needed to be fed and cleaned and cuddled and carried. Without a provident higher (taller) power to care for us, we would certainly not have survived. The relationship with our higher power(s) was formed most significantly around those needs of greatest urgency concerning our physical security and the material resources our body required. For reasons I’ll make clear shortly, I will name this providence of the first order.

Depending on how provident the higher powers were with respect to our first-order needs, a corresponding impression of reality was encoded into our nervous system. If the supply was sufficient and the care was adequate, our brain was allowed to settle into a coherent state of focused alertness and relaxed calm. The compatibility between our dependent condition and a reality that provided for our needs promoted the formation of what Erik Erikson called “basic trust” and what the religions name “faith” – faith in the provident nature of reality.

Erikson also observed plenty of cases where individuals demonstrated a compromised ability to trust reality and simply relax into being. Their deep and chronic dis-ease registered an early life where a first-order providence was lacking or perhaps inconsistent. From a neuroscientific perspective we might today diagnose their brainstates as incoherent – confused, irritable, and/or depressed. In religion, such individuals typically express a desperate demand on god’s vigilance and granting of prayers. They also tend to orient themselves to external authorities for the security and resources they require, even into adulthood.

If too much of our energy and attention gets wrapped into first-order concerns, we might never experience or benefit from providence of the second order, referring to social encouragement and creative opportunities in life. Where physical security and material resources are scarce and unreliable, it is common for family systems to fall hostage to a ravaging spiral of anxiety, resentment, and despair over matters of basic survival. Second-order providence sounds like a luxury when one’s daily existence is in question.

This is why nearly every ethical revolutionary in history has made the abolition of poverty central to their vision of a New World. Whatever its contributing factors, the fact that abject poverty destroys the human spirit and erodes the foundation of any society is beyond doubt. As these messiahs, mahatmas, prophets and reformers have insisted, our resolve as a community to provide security and resources to our weakest and most vulnerable members is ultimately what will bring salvation to the world.

When that first-order providence is in place, the social encouragement and creative opportunity that I’m calling second-order providence can work its magic. A human being not only struggles to survive, but every individual embodies the evolving spirit of our species – what the philosopher Aristotle called an “entelechy,” an inner aim, or what I also like to call our evolutionary ideal. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, when our basic needs are adequately met, the farther reaches of our human nature can be actualized.

My definition of second-order providence should make it clear that our higher nature depends for its actualization on the benevolent social support of a community. Social encouragement conveys our commitment to the individual’s emerging creative authority, and our bond of service continues in making opportunities available for the individual to learn, grow, and develop to his or her full potential. Obviously this providential responsibility begins in the family, as parental taller (higher) powers not only put food on the table but also nurture the soul-seeds in their children.

Family is the first theistic system. The dynamic relationship between providers and dependents – so critical, as I have argued, to the healthy emergence of self-responsible creative adults – ultimately plays itself out on the larger stage of culture. Deities are our “fathers” and “mothers” and we are their “children,” which makes the fellowship of believers a sibling circle of “brothers” and “sisters.” (Universalists like Jesus have used this theistic metaphor to make the point that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, friends and enemies alike, are members of one family and deserve each other’s deepest respect. But look where that got him.)Theism_Post-theismAll of this is to say that the inner aim (entelechy) of theism is the full actualization of human beings and the flourishing of a fully inclusive community. An impossible ideal, you say. And I would agree – as long as we stay on this side of god, where the concerns of first-order providence preoccupy our consciousness. On this side, there will never be enough and all we can do is await our deliverance to a better place later on.

On the other side of god, in the spirit of post-theism, we discover that it’s been in us all along to become compassionate caretakers and visionary creators of the New World. To fulfill what our god could only command.

 

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Mystics and Prophets

Robinson: “So let us begin by looking again at the two perspectives on truth represented on the one hand by the Hebraic and on the other by the Vedantic [Hindu], contrasted as the prophetic and the mystical.”

We live and die in the round of time. Circles define life, in the rhythms that turn, pulse and spiral in our cells, in our bodies, in the earth’s seasons, in the coming-to-be and passing-away of generations, in the “Big Turn” of the universe itself.

For most of history, human beings have struggled to reconcile ourselves to the many wheels of time that move inside and around us. The so-called “nature religions” represent the early effort at putting our special concerns as a species into accord with the larger fate that holds us captive. The individual life-cycle (infancy, youth, maturity) had to be carefully nested inside the turns of a tribal career (student, householder, elder), which needed to fall into sync with the planetary rhythms of harvest and the hunt. Out and beyond all this foreground revolution were the predictable (auspicious and ominous) travel-paths of the planets and stars.

Somehow, from the tiny oscillations of nerve impulses in our brains to the circuits of stars through the sky, life is borne along inside a complex web of time intervals – nanoseconds to days to months to years to decades to generations to light-years of cosmic time. Health and prosperity were believed to be a function of how obediently and reverently we did our part. Ritual ceremony coordinated tribal life with these smaller and larger cycles. Human destiny was worked out inside the closed circles of time.

And then a revolution happened.

Almost simultaneously in India and in Israel, escape from the circle was accomplished. The Hindu and Hebraic revolutions don’t appear to have influenced each other, so it almost seems as if these two breakthroughs were separate uprisings of a common quest for liberation. Their different paths out of the closed circle became the energizing principles in two ways of engaging reality and constructing meaning.Circles_ArrowsIf you look just underneath the surface of sea waves, the rolling action is really a progression of kinetic energy moving along as each circular current spins open and passes momentum into a new circle. As it spins open to release its energy forward as the next wave, an inner spiral is pulling around the circle’s center, where it will be released to the deeper support of the ocean itself.

Try to imagine each circle as an individual “package” of energy, called consciousness. As it becomes more conscious of itself as an individual, this enclosure of self-identity reaches a point where its mortality – the fact of its very temporal existence – becomes nearly unbearable. Under the stress of this realization, the circle stands a real chance of breaking down.

But then, unexpectedly (from the circle’s vantage-point) the enclosure of its self-concern opens out to an expansive awareness. Along one axis it becomes aware of the momentum that is surging through its own limited form. What feels like a giving-up is really a giving-over to this higher purpose, to a will and direction greater than its own.

Along another axis, the inward clutch around its own center dissolves into a quiet sense of being. In letting go, a deeper essence to its own life as a wave-of-the-ocean is manifested to awareness. The “release” in each case amounts to a liberation of energy as the circle opens up to a larger reality – a higher purpose (up ahead) and a deeper essence (underneath).

This is one way of understanding the Hindu and Hebraic revolutions, and how they were related liberation movements on the advancing threshold of human spiritual evolution. The critical achievement on each front was the breakthrough of a new awareness, which would become the organizing principle in the construction of a new world(view).

Transcendental monism, where all is one beyond the apparent separateness, offers up a model of reality that sees each individual circle as a time-bound expression of a timeless mystery. To each circle it can be said, “Thou art That”; not that you are god, because even the gods are circles in their own way. They are, you are, and everything you see is a surface manifestation of the unfathomable depth of being-itself. You and they and everything around you is essentially one.

Ethical monotheism is how the revolution played out in Israel. As the circle opened up to the forward momentum of which it was but a temporary vehicle, a powerfully new interest in the future emerged. Now in addition to the conventional ties to tradition, the way of the elders, and the archetypes of the past, the question of direction and purpose provided leverage for challenging the status quo. “Thus says the Lord” became a kind of pretext for resistance and upheaval, for the sake of a new reality.

Two spiritual types were born out of the labor pains of this revolution, one springing up in India and the other in Israel. The mystic is one who feels drawn into the depths, breaking through the enclosure of self and personality, to the unqualified mystery of being-itself. A danger along the way has been a tendency to hold on too long to “me,” and thus to twist the whole contemplative path of communion into some kind of exceptional talent, a rigorous discipline and esoteric knowledge reserved for an elite few.

Playing out the other axis, the prophet is one who feels drawn to the future, inspired and compelled by a vision not only of what might be, but of what will be. The danger here is that the prophet will be reduced to a fortune-teller, a mere predictor of future events. Because we cannot control the future, there will always be business and celebrity for those who claim to know what is going to happen. The endless postponements and recalculations may help to expose the “false prophets,” but utopias and end-times are an inexhaustible market, and more will always be ready to step into the vacancy.

Mystics and prophets are really our “two eyes,” one looking into the essential reality beneath, and the other to the emergent reality beyond the fears, fixations and concerns of our ego and tribe. There is, then, in each of us a “mystical intention” and a “prophetic intention” – still susceptible to the corruptions mentioned above, but present at least as potential tracts of revolution.

The spiritual life today must continually seek deeper ground as it reaches for higher purpose. As fellow inhabitants of this planet, we are one in ways we still need to understand; and we are moving into a shared future that needs us working together for the good of all.

 

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