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What About Prayer?

A new blog follower of mine commented on how much of what I write about resonates with his own spiritual journey. His faith development led him outside the cathedral of Christian orthodoxy, revealing how much of it is a human construction erected in response to a transcendent mystery – to a mystery larger, other, and deeper than ourselves. He appreciates and still cultivates the benefits of meditation as central to (what I would call a post-theistic) spirituality, especially now in his “elder” years.

My new friend writes:

I am curious about an aspect of spirituality that I don’t think you have mentioned [in the blog]. You write of meditation but never about prayer. Is that something I missed; purposeful or a topic yet to be covered? I do have some interests along those lines.

It would be easy to assume that any more or less disciplined cultivation of spirituality – which, by the way, is my best definition of religion – that is practiced “after theism” and its concept of god have been left behind, would no longer have any use for prayer. If we accept the conventional (theistic) definition of prayer as “talking with god,” then this assumption can stand, since post-theism doesn’t regard god as an objectively existing being.

Of course, I would argue that even a reflective and self-critical theism is conscious of how the genealogy of every representation of god traces back to the human imagination as its birthplace.

But still, “reflective and self-critical” are only descriptive of what can be called late theism, when god-oriented religion has acquired an ability to discriminate between the present mystery of God and our human concepts of god that give the mystery name, form, character, and location.

In the light of this distinction, it is common in late theism for believers to begin doubting the literal truth of these theological constructs, and consequently also to begin questioning the validity of “talking with” a god that might be more in our minds than anywhere else.

It takes some excavation work to discover the extent in which our theological concepts of god are really abstractions from mythological precursors, of deities who live in stories that are anchored to metaphors which link together (or carry across, metaphorein) our experience of mystery and our constructions of meaning. Metaphorically, a narrative depiction of god personifies this mystery, gives it meaning, and invites us into a relationship corresponding to the special powers attributed to the deity.

Once upon a time, there was a god of harvest, a god of healing, a god of love, and so on. In the high theism of biblical Judaism these originally separate attributions and plural deities were unified in the one and only god, Yahweh, and a devotee’s supplication might employ any number of distinct prayer formulae depending on the particular need or objective.

Even here, given that the biblical god Yahweh is also a theological construct of the mythopoetic imagination, the real benefit of prayer can be appreciated as more therapeutic than conversational. While a devotee might believe that he or she is “talking with god” (regardless of the persistent silence at the other end of the line), the effect psychologically might come in the form of a calming relief, an expansion of awareness, the release of guilt, an acceptance of life as it is, or the focused resolution to act for desired change.

True believers will always have recourse to the assertion that god really is there, at the other end of the prayer line.

It’s not necessary for them to have met a deity who fits the biblical profile of Yahweh in order to have faith that he objectively exists. (This is one way that faith gets distorted into “believing it anyway,” when its original and deepest meaning has to do with releasing oneself in trusting surrender to the present mystery of reality.) But with our historical knowledge of how religion’s concept of god originated and evolved over time, there is no reasonable basis for such belief.

God doesn’t have to exist to be meaningful. Which also means that prayer doesn’t have to be conversational for it to still have an important place in the cultivation of spirituality.

So then, what is prayer? If it’s not a way of getting god’s attention, persuading his mercy and forgiveness, stoking his wrath against our enemies, motivating his miraculous intervention on our behalf (etc.), then what use is it? Post-theism has an answer.

Our psycho-spiritual development as humans follows a trajectory in the formation of a self-conscious center of personal identity, or ego (from Latin for “I”). The deities of theism are cultural counterparts of this formation, and one of their primary roles is to serve as mythopoetic ideals (i.e., more perfect and self-actualized versions of ourselves) that awaken and evoke from us such higher virtues as patience, compassion, benevolence, and forgiveness – the distinctly humane virtues.

At this seemingly “conversational” stage, our supplication of god for these higher virtues, along with our worship of god in exemplifying them to us, activates our commitment to their demonstration in our own life, with whatever consistency we can manage.

Petitioning god’s forgiveness, for instance, and then returning gratitude for our release from guilt, motivates our own forgiveness of others who have wronged us.

At first, we look to god for the strength we need to set aside vengeance and act with kindness instead. Over time and with practice, however, living a forgiven and forgiving life becomes more second nature for us: The virtuous strength we had earlier looked to god for is now active in us. Our prayer for god’s forgiveness has awakened in us the power to forgive. That is to say, the virtue of forgiveness which god had personified has now “come alive” in us.

This, by the way, is a post-theistic interpretation of the early Christian myth of Pentecost, where the spirit of Jesus was transferred into the disciple community, which subsequently became the resurrected body of Christ. I am convinced that earliest Christianity, taking its inspiration from Jesus himself, was a post-theistic revolution that later (too soon) was co-opted again by a resurgent theism.

A full account of prayer thus begins in a theistic frame, with god and his virtues depicted as beyond us. Eventually we move into a post-theistic frame, where the virtues of god are awakened and active within us, flowing through us and into our daily life and relationships.

Prayer as conversation transforms into prayer as incarnation, and we step fully into the liberated life.

 

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The Great Triathlon of Religion

Triathlon

In a triathlon competitors race for the finish through three different physical challenges: swimming, cycling, and running. Each challenge requires its own skill-set, and as any triathlete will attest, the transition from one leg of the race to the next can be the most perilous part. The three phases of the race are not ranked in order of sophistication or difficulty; running, for instance, is not somehow “better” than swimming – although an individual athlete may prefer, or feel more capable at, one challenge more than the others.

The idea came to me recently that religion might be understood on the analogy of a triathlon. For all the many forms it takes religion falls into three main types or paradigms: animism, theism, and post-theism. There are numerous forms of theism, for instance, but theism itself is a type of religion which all its various forms embody. And just as one leg of a triathlon is not regarded as inherently better than the others, neither is one type of religion better than the other types.

It may be tempting to elevate the importance of the final leg because it’s where the race is won or lost, but we know that an athlete crosses the finish line in record time only because he or she made it successfully through the earlier challenges. All the glory may be focused at the finish line, but a triathlon is not only a foot race. Similarly, the type of religion that I call post-theism is where our spiritual formation is fully realized, but our progress through animism and theism are essential to that fulfillment.

Hangups and setbacks along the way can complicate the process considerably, and in spiritual development (just as in a triathlon race) those hangups especially will introduce additional challenges that might even prevent further progress. For now, though, let’s put the three legs of religion’s triathlon on the board for a sense of the distinct challenges, of the phase transitions from one challenge to the next, and of the broad continuity overall.Animism

Animism begins in the water, which is an apt metaphor for the nature of reality as experienced in and by the body. Animal urgencies and survival needs link us into the vibrant Web of Life, which pulsates inside and all around us. Dynamic currents in the water providently support us, even as they threaten to pull us under. Nature is paradoxically gracious and violent, generously abundant yet ruthlessly selective.

In early human clans, a totem ancestor was honored as both food source and provider, as the one on whom their survival depended as well as a crossover figure through whom their human origins were traced. The totem ancestor embodied the more generally appreciated fact that all things in the Web of Life are related and interdependent.

If part of what religion does is facilitate a solution to an outstanding dilemma as regards our human condition, then “the problem” which animism seeks to resolve is the fact of death. As a body-centered paradigm, animism finds this solution in the life-cycles of nature. As new life springs forth from the ground, as fresh shoots emerge from dead stumps, and as newborns begin another turn in the great rhythm of life, we can find renewal by participating in these sacred events.

At this early stage, there is not yet the idea of individual immortality where some indestructible center of identity migrates from one life form to another. The wonder and celebration is of the way in which the hidden currents of life animate, connect, and advance through the generations.

Theism

With theism religion advances into a much more complicated social experience. The small family clans that had frequently relocated in sync with the changing seasons or migrating animals of the hunt gradually joined with other clans to form more settled villages. Agriculture and farming allowed for much larger populations. Social roles and specialized responsibilities multiplied. And the new challenge presented itself.

Theism is a type of religion that evolved and came to depend on various technologies of mediation (depicted in the bicycle). Symbols represented the sacred, stories (or myths) provided narrative background for interpreting these symbols, and sanctuaries were designed for the ritual performance of stories in a communal context. As much as possible, the liturgical cycle for these ritual ceremonies coincided with the earth seasons and great agricultural festivals.

Another essential feature of theism is its personification of the provident mystery in terms of a patron deity (or deities). The deity is represented symbolically (in icons and idols), his or her character is developed in mythology, and the deity’s presence is invoked in the sanctuary for proper worship by devotees.

An important role of the patron deity, besides providing for the community in exchange for worship and sacrifice, is to authorize a moral code and motivate obedience. Most of these rules concern social behavior and how members should get along. “The problem” for theism has to do with rule violations and the resulting guilt. Its solution involves a process of atonement whereby proper relationship is restored.

Post-theismReferring to theism as “ego-centered” does not imply that it is selfish – not necessarily; only that its primary concern is with the social construction and maintenance of personal identity (the “I” who performs my given roles. A persona was the mask an actor wore in a Greek theatrical production, making it possible to “speak through” the identity of a stage character).

As the religious orientation of what I call a protected membership, theism encounters destabilizing threats on two fronts. Socially, as its local population becomes increasingly diverse and pluralistic, the agreement of lifestyle and belief across its constituency weakens. And at the level of individual psychospiritual development, an awakening of mystical intuition strains to transcend the boundaries of personal identity.

“The problem” presented here, then, is centered in the conflict between conviction (passionate, uncompromising beliefs) and empathy, which is how this transpersonal reorientation is experienced. By definition, empathy is an ability to understand the situation of another from inside, as it feels to them. This insider perception is made possible by a shift in consciousness from ego to soul, or from identity to communion.

Post-theism intentionally steps through the rules and roles by which identity is managed in order to engage reality in its oneness, its wholeness, its holiness. It takes up its cause “after god” (post + theos) without the need to dispute god’s existence, lampoon his devotees, or disparage their beliefs. The positive contribution of theism to the longer course of human development can be honestly affirmed, even as the post-theist celebrates a more inclusive, less anthropocentric (human-centered) vision.

In light of my analogy of a triathlon we can perhaps better appreciate how religion has served the function of connecting us to reality during each major stage of our evolution as a species, and how it has served the longer purpose of our fulfillment through the ages, across cultures, and in those who can trust its deeper wisdom.Religion as Triathlon

 

 

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