Tag Archives: real presence of mystery

The Four Ages of Life


The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”

In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.


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Quadratic Intelligence

RQBack before the mid-twentieth century, educational psychologists grabbed hold of a notion that human intelligence could be measured. The so-called “intelligence quotient” was hailed as a way of diagnosing an individual’s intellectual aptitude; not just how smart he or she was but how capable the individual was of getting smart.

Inevitably, given the fact that Western science and psychology was riding the Cartesian-Newtonian wave of rationalism and the promise of mathematical reasoning (proving so successful in science, technology, and engineering), the IQ test favored operations of analysis, computation, logical abstraction, and problem solving.

Those who scored high on the IQ test were matched with better education (who wants to waste resources on just average or below-average abilities?), more opportunities, and higher paying jobs. After all, we need smart people running The Show, not mediocre intellects and irrational idiots who will certainly botch things up and send us all hurtling into oblivion. Parents would proudly publish the exceptional IQs of their children on bumper stickers and any chance they got.

In light of more recent discoveries and advances in psychology and neuroscience, I propose that the classical “IQ” be renamed “RQ,” for rational intelligence, since the category really only measures one type of intelligence and not intelligence overall.

EQIn 1995 Daniel Goleman published a theory of “emotional intelligence,” which he claimed underlies these rational-mathematical operations with social and interpersonal competencies that orbit closer to the core of the self. Studies had been going on for some time, researching the benefits of emotion regulation in infants and young children.

These studies convincingly demonstrated the critical importance of emotional intelligence. Goleman made his case that emotional intelligence matters “even more” than IQ when it comes not only to academic success but to a general proficiency in life.

In the meantime, Goleman’s “EQ” (shorthand for emotional quotient) has slowly made its way into the conversation of education theory, resulting in some changes in how teachers teach, how students learn, where the curriculum can be improved, and why an “enriched” learning environment is essential to successful education. Despite these changes – and by no means have they been deep and systemic changes to the dominant paradigm – our schools continue to favor IQ over EQ when it comes down to rendering a diagnosis (called a grade) on individual intelligence.

Because I work in higher education, this whole topic fascinates me. I can see far-reaching implications for a broader notion of intelligence – if only education theorists, school administrators, and classroom instructors are willing to challenge long-standing assumptions. As change is often costly, a major challenge will be identifying new funding sources and resource channels. As far as changes to the public education system are concerned, because state legislatures typically under-support teacher salaries, school facilities, curriculum development, and technology updates, the changes we’re talking about are going to be hard-won.

SQIn 2000 Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall published Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence, which the authors argued adds a third dimension to the already recognized IQ and EQ. Spiritual intelligence (SQ) gives individuals the ability to transcend the emotional and logical constructs of meaning where our beliefs about reality are held, expanding awareness into higher (and deeper) dimensions of reality as well as creative possibility.

The authors carefully distinguished between spiritual intelligence and religious belief, explaining that while doctrines might be rational descriptions of an experience (i.e., a product of RQ), dogmatically holding and defending them can be evidence in fact that spiritual intelligence is not (or no longer) active.

Rational intelligence, even when balanced and enriched by emotional intelligence, can still be very much about short-term and proximate values, while spiritual intelligence opens awareness to the Big Picture and Long View where we can contemplate our existence and the consequences of our actions on a much larger scale.

Zohar and Marshall proposed that the addition of SQ to EQ and IQ made for a complete and comprehensive model of human intelligence. But something still seems to be missing. What about the autonomic nervous system, which is continuously regulating our body’s internal state and matching it to the ever-changing life situations unfolding around us? What about what we commonly call “gut responses” and our animal intuition? The drives and reflexes of instinct, though carrying on below the threshold of conscious intention or control, certainly represent a distinct type of intelligence.


Our visceral intelligence – what I’ll name VQ – is much deeper and more ancient than the three others. It manages our underlying mood, our rest and arousal, the tonal energy state of our internal organs, muscles, and skin. It is the survival and evolutionary intelligence of our animal nature.

Coming back to education, it is clear that the internal states of students and teachers – whether they are calm, present, and grounded, or agitated, anxious, or bored – will have predictable consequences on learning as it rises into conscious feelings (EQ) and articulate thoughts (RQ). Much of present-day education is focused on the transfer of rational knowledge and skills from experts (teachers) to novices (students), for the most part disregarding the quality of EQ rapport between both or the VQ internal state of each.

So let’s put it all together, in what we might call the “quadratic intelligence” of human beings (from quad, meaning four). Our greater system of intelligence, then, is four-dimensional, and each type (VQ, EQ, RQ, and SQ) engages us with reality in a unique and special way.

Quadratic Intelligence

In the model above, a human brain is facing you, which means that the right and left hemispheres are opposite to yours. Popular theory identifies autonomic processes (VQ) with the brainstem, emotional feeling (EQ) with the “right brain,” and rational thinking (RQ) with the “left brain” – which isn’t altogether wrong, just too simplistic to be useful in any rigorous sense. Our brain is more a nested hierarchy of neural projections, circuits, and networks, having evolved through distinct stages of development represented in the brainstem (a “reptilian” stage), an outlying limbic system (the “old mammalian” stage), and a cerebral cortex with its distinct lobes of specialized processing.

My model suggests that EQ and RQ (which actually develop and come online in that order) are deeply reliant on VQ for the supportive internal state they need to function effectively. And, as Goleman says, since RQ is at its best when EQ is operating empathically underneath and alongside it, we are getting the sense that these first three intelligences are profoundly interdependent.

By telling stories and concocting theories (RQ) we can alter how we feel about ourselves and the world around us (EQ), effecting deep changes in our prevailing mood (VQ). On the balance, however, most of the time our passions (EQ) and reasons (RQ) are taking their cues from the energetic tone of our nervous state (VQ) and composing interpretations of reality that match it.

But where does spiritual intelligence (SQ) fit into the model? Should we simply follow the trajectory of development from VQ through EQ to RQ and assume that SQ is just a further extension of our rational intelligence? Since RQ is about organizing symbols in meaningful patterns, we might expect that SQ will capitalize on this propensity for constructing meaning and “talk about” spiritual (i.e., metaphysical) things like gods, souls, heaven and hell.

But not so.

SQ is positioned in my model between and above EQ and RQ, transcending both passion and reason to a point of higher awareness where a larger and longer horizon is beheld all at once. This is the perspective of wisdom. I agree wholeheartedly with Zohar and Marshall that spiritual intelligence is not to be identified with an individual’s religious commitment or theological fluency. Instead of getting tangled up with religiosity, SQ is what gives one the ability to see past our idols, myths, doctrines, and beliefs to the present mystery of reality (or Real Presence of Mystery).

By grounding us in being-itself – most immediately by a meditative practice of some kind that calms the body (VQ) and opens a clearing at the center of awareness – our spiritual intelligence enables us to rise above and break past the convictions that the religions frequently exploit to their advantage by compelling conversion, pushing membership, persuading donations, organizing crusades and justifying terrorist campaigns in God’s name.

We realize in an instant that All is One, that we’re in this together, that a shared and hopeful future ordains us with the responsibility of living for the good of the whole.


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Touching Mystery and Talking about God

God talk

Religion didn’t just fall out of the sky fully assembled but evolved over many thousands of years. It emerged as a way of securing the everyday world of human concerns to the deeper mystery supporting all things. The experience of this mystery – what I call the present mystery of reality, or Real Presence – is engaged spontaneously and at a level below the reach of articulate thought. For this reason it is properly named “mystical,” available only to contemplative attention and essentially ineffable (beyond words).

If you observe anything for very long, the subject-object screen separating you from the thing observed can sometimes fall away to the realization that both you and that thing are grounded in one reality. This breakthrough to oneness doesn’t negate what makes you different from that thing, but instead helps you see beneath the difference to your co-presence in being. You are being in human form, and that other thing is being in a different form, but it is being-itself presenting (or presencing) as both.

Now, this doesn’t sound very religious. It would be some time before our minds developed the philosophical acuity to think into such abstraction. In the dawning age of religion, the first efforts at representing this experience of mystery were perhaps through rhythm, song, and dance. Gradually icons, artistically crafted images in paint, wood, clay, and stone, qualified the mystery in visual terms.

Such sensory-concrete images were eventually transmuted into conceptual metaphors and put into the framework of narratives called myths (from the Greek for plot). Elemental metaphors (personifying the forces of nature), theriomorphic metaphors (represented in animal form), and finally anthropomorphic metaphors (taking on the features and personality traits of humans) provided ways of converting an ineffable mystery into something increasingly more personal and relational. The myths of religion tell of the exploits of this or that deity, how the tribe is related to, dependent upon, and/or commissioned by the will of the deity.

If you’re coming to religion and enter by way of its metaphors, stories, and beliefs, it is easy to assume that the myths are depicting a deity which actually exists, out there in the external dimensions of metaphysical space. If a religion really gets locked into a literal reading of its myths – effectively forgetting the true “genealogy of god” – this insistence on regarding God as a separate being can become an insurmountable block to spiritual awakening and freedom. It is also a principal motivator of violence against others who don’t believe in “our god.”

If Yahweh (the patron deity of Jews and Christians) made the universe, intervened on behalf of Hebrew slaves, spoke to the prophets, and miraculously lifted the dead Jesus back to life, then why doesn’t he do similar things for us today?

Typically, literalists will guard their orthodoxy by laying the responsibility on us, saying that our age has become sinful, perverse, secular and faithless. Consequently god has abandoned us to our wicked ways and withdrawn into heaven, or we have lost the ability to feel, see, and hear god. It might also be that everything god has to say has been said, everything needing to be done has already been accomplished. Now all we need to do is believe.

For your own good you are admonished to heed the “experts” – teachers, pastors, clerics, bishops and theologians who are professionally committed to the tradition and its orthodox heritage. Don’t question the Bible, don’t challenge the preacher, and by all means don’t try to work it out for yourself. The end of the world is at hand and you can’t afford to rely on your own judgment. If your soul is to one day see the bright streets of paradise, you’d better listen up and stay in your seat.


I’ll let you in on a secret.

A large number – perhaps the majority – of those professional custodians of religion don’t believe what they preach, not really. Many of them came to their credentials by way of denominational training that likely included a critical study of Christianity, its historical place among the world religions, as well as the evolution of the Bible and its competing representations of God. From the pulpit they proclaim with authority what they privately doubt and discuss over coffee in their closed circle of peers.

I know. I lived in those circles for nearly two decades.

What these professionals know is that God is more than what can be said. The discrepancy between our representations (god) and the reality (God) they qualify is so impossibly vast that our images, thoughts, and talk about God are like scratchings at the surface. “Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows,” as a Polynesian saying goes. Our concept of God is our first idol.

But don’t tell the people. They can’t handle the real truth, so we spoon-feed them from the cramped little boxes of stale theology we push to the side during the rest of the week.

If God (the real presence of mystery) is more than our words and images can express, then we also need to admit that the reality of God may be other than what we believe. In short, we just might be clinging to an idol that entirely misrepresents the present mystery and is actually preventing us from a genuine experience of God’s presence.

The transcendent God is transpersonal – beyond personality, more than we think, other than the patron deities we worship, obey, and promote. It’s important to understand that we are not talking about the hidden nature of a god out there whose actual personality is inscrutable to us. God’s transcendence is another way of saying that our representations of God are merely qualifications on something that cannot be named or known objectively. You don’t leave behind the patron deity in order to look still farther out for a bigger and better god.

Acknowledging the transcendence of God means letting go of your beliefs about god in the interest of coming again (or for the first time) to the Real Presence of mystery here and now. First your grip is relaxed, then the screen falls away. You wake up to the realization that the creative source and gracious support of all things is all around you, right here with you, and rising up from deep inside you – just as you are.


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God and Ground

There is a very interesting paradox at the heart of healthy religion. Our notions of God – just looking across the landscape of world religions, and then deeper into the private religion of individuals – are practically innumerable and infinitely diverse. God is represented as a personality, a force of some kind, a supreme intelligence, or as an utterly abstract perfection.

But this isn’t the paradox I have in mind.

A paradox is something that is “contrary to” (para) “opinion” (doxa) or beyond belief, in apparent conflict with how something is commonly understood. The paradox at the heart of healthy religion has nothing to do with the countless and often contradictory ways that human beings represent God. To think of God as masculine and feminine, for instance, is not a paradox but simply a more inclusive and holistic consideration of the divine personality.

The real paradox in religion has to do with the representation of something that is inherently unimaginable, with all our talk (theology) about a mystery that is essentially ineffable (beyond words). What I’m calling healthy religion acknowledges this paradox and respects it for the corrective effect it has on our tendency to get locked too tightly around what we think God is. Unhealthy religion, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge it and even seeks to invalidate the paradox by insisting that its doctrines are final and infallible.

God and GroundLet’s look inside this paradox in order to understand and appreciate its creative tension. The illustration above depicts this “contained contradiction” at the heart of healthy religion. At the bottom is an icon representing the idea of what is essentially beyond representation – what I have taken to calling the real presence of mystery. This isn’t merely stating that reality is a mystery to our minds, but that this mystery rises up and presents itself to us in the manifold nature of things; as this, that, and the other.

The icon suggests a swirling and dynamic creativity, spinning out the complex arrangement of existence all around us, as it simultaneously turns inward to a place of singular and undifferentiated oneness. This is the generative source of being; not just another being but the power of being itself. If these terms seem inadequate, we shouldn’t be surprised. We are contemplating something that is not a thing; it cannot be made into an object of thought or boxed up inside any definition.

Because this present mystery is the generative and foundational support of everything else, a favored metaphor among mystics is the “ground of being.” Everything we can sense and know moves through cycles of birth and death, emergence and dissolution, coming-to-be and passing away. Like waves on the surface of an ocean, the multiplicity of apparently separate beings, each rolling through the period of its individual lifetime, is really the dynamic action of a fathomless sea presenting itself as this, that, and the other.

The “wave” under consideration here is you. If you could take the opportunity and look deep, very deep within yourself, you would find not just more “me” but something else. Not something separate and apart from what you are, but not some indestructible center of identity either. It is presence – real presence, the presentation of a mystery rising up in this provident moment in you, as you, but also in everything else around you. As you are able to let go and fall into the gracious support of this mystery, all concern for “me and mine” dissolves away, and only a profound awareness of communion remains.

As I said, healthy religion encourages individuals to descend by this inward path into the presence of God and communion with all things. The “of God” represents religion’s final words before the soul plunges into the depths where language is no longer effective; but neither is it necessary. The word mystery comes from the root “to close,” which is gentle reproof of our tendency to open our mouths with incessant commentary on something that can’t even really be named. Our instinct for meaning takes time and practice to restrain in the presence of mystery.

But religion doesn’t just leave you there. There are also unhealthy forms of mysticism, which simply revel in communion with the present mystery but lack any interest in exploring its connections to everyday life in the world. In my experience, these unhealthy forms of mysticism characteristically denigrate the ego and renounce the realm of daily concerns. They try to press the wave flat, so that only the infinite ocean remains.

While the ocean is more than the waves at its surface, the waves are nothing less than the ocean itself. Your identity – the separate “who” that you are – is distinct from your essence which unwinds into the depths of being itself. Identity (ego) is a product of social conditioning, the place in your personality where consciousness has been bent back into self-consciousness by the disciplines of your tribe. For this reason it is commonly called the “conditioned self.” Ego is the ‘I’ who is “one of us,” an insider, both product and agent of the collective.

“Patron deity” in religion refers to the representation of God as a personality who stands in a reciprocal relationship with devotees, providing something in exchange for their worship, offerings, prayers and obedience. It is more than just an “idea” of God, then, and goes beyond mere belief. Reciprocity is the key. Devotees are aware that their patron deity calls them to something, puts a demand on them, or promises a reward for their fidelity, commitment, and sacrifice.

It’s important to understand that the patron deity is a literary figure, not a literal one; a figure of story, art and imagination rather than an actual separate being (out there, up there). Especially in a religion where sacred stories have been reduced to factual records, such a statement will be regarded as heresy, disbelief, ignorance or a loss of faith. There will also tend to be a corresponding lack of spiritual depth, and not much appreciation of mystery.

In healthy religion, the tribe orients and guides ego through the course of development, from the impulsive stage of childhood, through an imperial phase of adolescence, and eventually into the responsibilities of adulthood. The transition between childhood and adulthood – not a formal stage but rather a phase in development known as “growing up” (adolēscere) – is where ego frequently gets stuck. During this time an individual can come to fervently believe that “it’s all about me.”

The imperial ego is predictably self-absorbed, strives for superiority, seeks glory, and is jealous for the exclusive love and worship of others. Interestingly, every religion has to evolve through its own adolescent phase, where the patron deity is depicted and praised in exactly these terms. The earlier depictions of a more maternal and provident nature are rather dramatically rejected (or demoted to secondary attributes) in the exaltation of a supreme lord and king. If the evolution of religion can successfully transcend this self-centered phase, believers will eventually be empowered to take up a more stable, responsible, creative and benevolent attitude in life.

What I’m calling the patron deity, then, is complicated by the fact that it stands in a paradoxical relationship to the grounding mystery of reality, but at the same time represents progress (or arrest) in the spiritual awakening of its devotees. Just a quick survey of the Bible, for instance, reveals a “growth chart” in how its patron deity (Yahweh) gradually advanced from a jealous demand on the obedience of insiders, into a compassionate interest in outsiders and those who suffer, and opened fully at last into an unconditional love for the enemy (articulated as forgiveness in the teachings of Jesus).

Along the way, Yahweh’s devotional community (as a function of its individual egos) advanced accordingly – or I should say, along a slightly slower curve behind the guiding light of his ideal. At times it has gotten hung up. Concerns over natural resources, national security, who’s in charge, and the uncertainty of the future have occasionally provoked individual egos (and consequently entire tribes) to twist up inside themselves and grip down in fear. At this historic moment, in fact, we are in the midst of a regressive hiccup through our adolescent phase, as fundamentalists of various brands hunker behind ramparts and prepare for war.

If we can appreciate – which of course means that we must first acknowledge and accept – that our patron deities are representations-in-transcendence of what is going on (or turning off) in ourselves, then there is a chance that we will be able to not only survive the current regression into conviction and violence, but finally wake up to the real presence of mystery in ourselves, in each other, right here and now.


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A Case for Healthy Religion

My aim in this post is to offer an understanding of religion that can help us appreciate its importance while providing criteria for constructive criticism. Many today are applauding the decline of religion as a necessary precursor to our postmodern “enlightenment.” Religion is based in superstition, organized around power and privilege, corrupt at the deepest level, bigoted, narrow-minded, and prone to violence.

So they claim.

If I happen to agree with every one of those charges, why would I care to offer any kind of defense of religion? I want to be clear that I will not be defending any particular religion, but religion itself – the function it is meant to serve in society and in the evolution of humanity. The question of whether religion might continue to serve this function or if its time has passed will be left to the reader’s opinion. Here at least is how I see it.


The above diagram carries forward the main idea of a previous post (, proposing a view of the human being as an ascending axis through three centers of consciousness. Corresponding to the gut-level is our concern for security. I call this the elementary dimension, as it has to do with our basic life support and survival as living organisms. Our nervous system sets the internal state of our body according to signals from the environment that indicate providence or negligence in reality. Consequently we will carry a visceral state of calm or distress, relaxed attention or high alert, faith or anxiety.

Religion begins – or at least it once began – in this deep visceral response of faith to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is not a conscious decision or even a voluntary act, but an intuitive and spontaneous release in the autonomic nervous system to the grounding mystery of being itself. The etymology of “religion” (re + ligare) refers to something that ties back, re-connects or holds together what is or might become separated. In this case, the developing self-consciousness of an individual finds a link back into the deep support of reality.

In religion, such practices as centering prayer and meditation cultivate this descent into the present mystery of reality (also called the real presence of mystery). This is the mystical path, and no genuine religion can get started or stay healthy without it. Mystical faith should not be confused with the distinct beliefs that identify the different “faiths” or faith traditions. It is not about definitions or statements of orthodoxy. Since the experience of God and not beliefs about God is the primary concern at this level, mystics are frequently persecuted in religions that over-value theology.

As religion develops and consciousness ascends from its grounding mystery, the concern shifts from security to intimacy. As things naturally tend to go, a provident reality during infancy (and earlier in the womb) translates into secure bonds of protection, nourishment, and reciprocity with our higher powers. This moves us from (but not out of) the elementary and into the ethnic dimension of our human experience.

The science of interpersonal neurobiology is revealing just how important these intimate bonds are to our emotional development, particularly as it involves the “entrainment” of the infant’s right hemisphere to that of its mother. In this way, her emotional composure and caring presence – in short, her faith – train a matching state in her child. As time goes on, the child adores (gazes longingly at) the mother and imitates her behaviors with its own. She is serving as the child’s supreme higher power and devotional ideal.

Every religion orients its devotees on a deity of some sort, which is a representation in story, symbol and art of the community’s focus of worship and aspiration. This relationship is understood and encouraged as interpersonal, even without direct evidence of the deity as a separate personality. References in scripture and sermons to “who” god is, how god “feels,” and what god “wants” reinforce this idea of religion as a mutual exchange – of our worship, obedience, and service for God’s protection, blessing, and prosperity.

My particular interest in this devotional path has to do with the way it elevates our focus to the salient qualities or virtues of the deity. Much as a young child gazes upon its mother and emulates her in attitude and behavior, so the perfected virtues of the deity are first glorified, then obeyed (i.e., imitated), and finally internalized by the devotee.

A study of religion in this regard will reveal how consistently an advancing virtue such as forgiveness is first attributed exclusively to god, then commanded of believers, and at last awakens in them as a more or less spontaneous expression of the human spirit. This transition might be represented metaphorically, as it was in Christianity, by the internalization of the deity – in this case, the risen Jesus who indwells a believer.

If this apotheosis (becoming more like god) begins in devotion, it must eventually work its way out in new behavior, in the way believers conduct themselves in the world and toward others. This is the ethical path, which moves us out of the sanctuary and into the street. Ethics is about responsibility, following through on commitments and holding values with integrity. It’s not only about intention and effort, but looks to the consequences of action to determine its virtue. Whether or not you feel like helping your neighbor or forgiving your enemy, it is the right thing to do because it builds and repairs human community.

The ethical path, then, ties us back to others and our shared context. It is where the “fruit” of our faith and love show up as patience, kindness, and peaceful resolutions. Jesus said that the inner character of a person will be evident in the “fruits” of his outward behavior. It’s not what a person says or even believes, but what she does that really matters, especially when no one is watching or keeping score. Healthy religion promotes greater responsibility for oneself – contrary to the popular notion of “giving everything over to god” – as well as a heightened conscience into the impact of one’s actions on others and the environment.

In the very next moment following our experience of the grounding mystery, our mind is busy trying to make sense of it. By stitching together metaphors, analogies, concepts and associations, it constructs meaning around an essentially ineffable (word-defying) reality. The vaster web of meanings that we spin across our lives and thereby make them “mine” is called a world. I have one, you have one, and in many places our two worlds touch and overlap. But they are different as well – and importantly different, as each world revolves around our individual identities (i.e., our separate egos).

All the while that our nervous system is calibrating to the provident nature of reality, during the early years as we aspire to the personality models of our parents, and farther out into the life roles and responsibilities of adulthood, we are mentally engaged in constructing our (hopefully) meaningful world. What we think and believe is not entirely self-determined, however, as we carry the collective worldview of our tribe and culture as well.

In religion, the doctrinal path is what connects and re-connects our construct of meaning into a lively dialogue with others. Our definition of God, for instance, is nothing like a literal depiction since God is a mystery that cannot be defined. Its purpose is to serve as a common sign in our shared dialogue concerning ultimate reality, a kind of placeholder in language for something we cannot directly point to. As long as our definitions are compatible, we proceed on the belief that we are talking about the same thing (which is really no thing).

But there comes a time – for me it came during my early twenties and then again in my mid-forties – when the meaning of life and our definitions of God feel inadequate and contrived. I suspect that these are phases when the “habit” (as in the costume of a monk or nun) of our world doesn’t fit like it once did. It loses relevance or currency; the seams split and the hem starts to fray. Life can begin to feel boring or flat (as in two-dimensional) and the agreements that earlier made for overnight conversations now put us to sleep. What’s the problem? Paradoxically, too much meaning.

Religion starts to fail when its language about God (theology) in no longer translucent, that is to say, when the words, doctrines, and theories are taken literally instead of as names and allusions to a present mystery beyond meaning. Twenty-somethings and mid-lifers are especially sensitive to the light going out in religion. While everyone else is squinting their eyes or squeezing down on the fading glow, these individuals are wanting to update the glossary and get back to experience.

If there’s hope for religion, if there’s a chance for religion to be healthy again, then it will need to respect these iconoclasts (image-breakers) and return to the place where it all started. At least this much can be said: healthy religion is mystically grounded, devotionally focused, ethically engaged, and doctrinally relevant.

So what’s your preferred path? What voice do you bring to the conversation? More importantly, what are you waiting for?


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Life in Perfect Freedom

Recently in my blog bibletracts ( I’ve been exploring the meaning of resurrection. The timing is right for two reasons. First, the liturgical year of the Church is now approaching the season of Easter, the Christian holy day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, because resurrection is fundamentally misunderstood when its meaning is fixed to something that supposedly happened to someone nearly 2,000 years ago. Treating it as a fact of history only apparently takes it seriously, when in reality a literal reading cuts the energizing nerve of resurrection altogether.

Biblical literalism is a one-dimensional reading that takes the Bible at face value. The attraction is that it effectively eliminates the potentially corrupting intervention of interpretation. There is nothing to interpret – it’s all right there on the surface, in what it says. A decided advantage to other approaches is literalism’s permission (and forgiveness) not to think critically.

But a literal reading of the Bible is then faced with the need to choose between contradictory texts: Who killed the giant Goliath, for instance, David (1 Samuel 17:51) or Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19)? As well as inconsistent “reports”: Did all of Jesus’ disciples abandon him at his arrest (Gospel of Mark), or did a few stay with him to the very end (Gospel of John)?

The energy it takes to cleverly maneuver such obstacles in order to justify a literal reading gets tied up at the surface, so to speak, when the reader might break through to deeper meaning. “Deeper meaning” doesn’t get us closer to facts (which is a modern delusion) but closer to the experience – the encounter, insight, crisis, or realization – that inspired the production of meaning in the first place.

Why should we want to treat the resurrection as anything other or beyond the historical miracle of Jesus coming back to life? The absolute and exclusive nature of this historical claim is typically used to set Christianity apart from other religions and to sanction its own errant denominations. If we loosen our grip on the resurrection as an historical fact, won’t we also lose our standing as the one true religion?

That’s assuming validity to the claim that Christianity is the one true religion, or that it’s even meaningful to speak of a “true religion” in the first place. As I’ve worked that one over in a previous post (, I want to move more specifically into an exploration of the originary experience of resurrection and its expanded architecture of meaning.

Architecture of Meaning

Let’s start with the resurrection taken as a miracle, which refers to a supernatural intervention suspending or breaking into the nexus of historical cause and effect. As miracle, the resurrection was a unique event that happened many centuries ago, whereby God intervened on the natural course of events and raised the dead Jesus back to life.

As long as we don’t look any more closely at it, the resurrection-as-miracle is free to sit there in a mental vacuum without much context or background. Again, this is precisely where it is most useful to our efforts in staking an exclusive claim on truth.

But where do we learn about the resurrection? We didn’t witness the historical event ourselves, nor did we get the news from a living first-hand witness. Instead, we find it in a story.

Orthodoxy tries to protect its claim at this point by insisting that the so-called stories are really eye-witness accounts of historical facts. Or if they are not exactly eye-witness accounts (no one claims to have seen Jesus coming out of the tomb), then the authority of the Bible as “God’s word” makes them just as good or better. That leaves us with the resurrection as an absolute (stand-alone) fact, and the story of the resurrection a literal account. Done and done.

As far as the story is concerned, we are faced with the challenge of determining which “account” is the most literal. The Gospels don’t match up in full agreement on such details as who discovers the empty tomb, how the news gets out, and whether anyone sees Jesus (presumably risen) afterwards. Maybe these details don’t really matter. But then again, if it’s supposed to be God’s word to your ears and the proof is in the miracle, then errors in detail make the whole thing a little less reliable, don’t they?

A closer look at the story of the resurrection reveals an emptiness or openness at the key location where the decisive proof is supposed to be found. The abandoned and now-vacant tomb is not exactly proof of a resurrection. “He is not here” is all that can be said at this critical moment in the plot. In the narrative section just before this point we see Jesus hanging dead on his cross, and in the subsequent section we see Jesus alive again – though interestingly not in the earliest Gospel (Mark).

The orientation and balance of the Gospel narratives around this turning-point of the tomb suggests that the resurrection story is more than just a factual report. At this point (in this discussion but also in the Gospel story) we begin to get the sense of the narrative as not merely describing the mechanics of a miraculous event long ago, but as speaking to us from somewhere deeper within. We are being invited into the myth.

Although its career began in the simple idea of a narrative “plot,” myth is a term used in literary theory to identify a certain kind of story. A myth is not necessarily a story about the gods, but one that serves to orient our human concerns and aspirations inside an ultimately meaningful universe. It was only after we reached the presumption that our myths were factual reports that myth in general got downgraded to misleading fiction, deliberate deception, and erroneous beliefs (as in “The 10 myths of weight loss”).

The true meaning of a myth has really nothing to do with the objective accuracy of what it says, but rather with its power to touch, awaken, and direct human consciousness to the deeper mysteries of life and death.

In the Gospel myths the storyline has been elaborated in slightly different ways around this threshold symbol of a tomb. The action plot of the story moves through (or over) this threshold to the “other side” where the jubilant announcement is heard: “He is risen!” As threshold, the symbol occupies not only this horizontal axis of the temporal plot, but a vertical one as well, inviting our descent from overt meaning into a deeper register of awareness. Now the tomb begins to resonate in relative isolation from the narrative background and action sequence, serving to carry or “bear across” (metaphorein) our contemplative focus from surface meanings into the depths of mystery.

Meaning is our mind’s effort to qualify the mystery of being alive and living toward death. If all that elaboration at the surface is to  orient our existence inside an ultimately meaningful universe – and be meaningfully relevant – then some acknowledgment must be made of this one inescapable fact. And yet, perhaps by putting our focus on the end of our life’s sentence we are missing the real insight here.

Each moment comes and goes. The present arises, passes away, and rises again. From quarks to quasars and throughout the fragile web of life stretched in between, existence moves according to a rhythm of emergence and dissolution, rolling into waves and unwinding again, holding on and letting go. We see this all around us, but when it comes to contemplating our own final release we tense up and grip down in fear.

In actuality we are progressing through an indeterminate sequence of losses – that is to say, if our ambition is to hang on and make it through.

But what if we could let go? What would happen if we could find the courage to surrender ourselves to the provident grace of this moment, into the spacious emptiness of this present mystery? Beliefs, which are really conclusions from the past, would give way to faith, the ever-present act of resting fully in the Now. No longer would we (barely) live as hostages to our convictions, taking life in the name of truth. Instead, our peace would be timeless, our love boundless, and our joy would have no end.

This is how Jesus was said to live. When he died, those who understood him best knew that it wasn’t over. To the degree he had offered his life out of the spontaneous generosity of each moment, no tomb could hold him for good.


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Human Purpose

In my last post I identified what can be thought of as the channel of creative life, summarized in the “upward-and-outward” flow from internal security, into skillful control, opening up in freedom, and fulfilling its purpose in accomplishment. These four are the positive illusions human beings must have in sufficient degree in order to keep from insanity (where we lose our minds) and inanity (where life loses significance). But there must be a complementarity and balance among them, or else this channel of creativity will get hooked or crimped along the way.

Human beings are animals – however justifiably we may see ourselves as “special” and “unique” among the animals. As such we possess an animal nature equipped with urges, drives, impulses and reflexes that have evolved for our survival and prosperity. The specialness of our species has to do with the fact that our development is socially dependent. Our brain continues to form itself throughout life, according to the challenges and opportunities of social interaction.

With the invention of language and tools, we have been able to adapt to our situation on this planet. But more than just accommodating ourselves to the circumstances, our big brain has enabled us to imagine possibilities, invent our own “socialsphere” of culture, innovating and improvising on reality in astonishing ways. All of this creative output is more than just a further extension of unconscious instinct. It is the expression and product of a certain disciplined, methodical, and technical kind of performance called “skill,” and skills must be learned.

In a skillful performance – of any kind, and it doesn’t have to be “artistic” in the narrow sense – you need to be centered and grounded within yourself. This is what I mean by security. If you don’t have the sense that you are deeply established in a reality that is supportive and provident, the consequent anxiety will interfere with your performance – if it doesn’t entirely block and frustrate your creative flow.

Once established and confident within yourself, the next step is to take up the tool or instrument that will serve as the means by which you will accomplish your outcome. This instrument doesn’t have to be physical or mechanical in nature; your own body (think of dancing) or a theoretical model that provides a way of “wrapping your mind” around something are also examples of instruments. Your skillfulness with such tools involves taking effective control in the movements (physical or mental) required for their intended function.

In the “learning phase” of skill acquisition, your attention is devoted almost exclusively to the mastery of these functional maneuvers. You must get familiar with how the instrument is designed to work. With practice, your movements will become increasingly precise and efficient, reducing the number of mistakes or “user errors.” Over time, your dedicated practice in taking control will get habituated, requiring less conscious attention as the technique becomes trained into memory.

This liberation of attention, made possible by refined and memorized control, is what we call freedom. As it is habituated and memorized, control sinks deeper below the threshold of conscious awareness, freeing your directed attention (focus) for other things. If your skill is perpetually under-practiced or gets “rusty” through lack of use, you are not likely to enjoy this higher freedom that mastery affords. Distraction, laziness, inconsistency and poor technique can keep you stuck in the learning phase. Because it takes concentrated focus and effort to master a skill, never quite getting there can become a slow drain into fatigue, discouragement, and depression.

Once mastered, however, a skill can open up an astonishing range of creative possibilities. Now you are free to express yourself by means of your instrument, leverage the change you desire, and accomplish your goal. Freedom itself is the liberation and expansion of consciousness, up and out from a dedicated attention to control, while purpose amounts to a reinvestment of this energy.

Purpose can be analyzed into its own “yin” and “yang,” as when you do something on purpose (let’s call that yin) and set out to accomplish a purpose or goal (that’s yang). Intention has to do with presence, mental focus, conscious investment and internal engagement with the here-and-now. If I ask you, “Did you do that on purpose?” what I’m wanting to know is whether you intended to do it – not by mistake, out of necessity, or because someone else told you to, but whether you did it freely, willfully, and with full presence of mind. That’s the yin of purpose.

Tao Symbol

The yang of purpose is its objective. Other terms that help fill out the definition are aim, goal, outcome and achievement. In order to accomplish something you need to have some kind of mental ideal or internal representation of what you want to bring about. The projection of that ideal into the future ahead then exerts a reciprocal force upon you by way of attraction, inspiration, or even a sense of “mission.” An objective is yang because of its built-out and externally positioned quality. It cannot be separated entirely from its yin counterpart of intention without becoming disassociated and rigid.

Creativity ultimately flows into purpose. When you are inwardly grounded and secure, masterfully in control of your instrument, and consequently free to explore the possibilities, you can engage the present moment with intention and envision your creative outcome.

A human being, like every other living organism, grows, develops and evolves according to a genetic template. This is not to suggest that life is genetically determined. In fact, science is discovering the surprising extent in which genes are responsive to the environment and experience, turning “on” and “off” in reaction to signals from outside. This is known as epigenetics. Throughout this constant interaction of genetic codes and environmental signals, an organism develops along a species-specific pathway to maturity and fulfillment.

Human beings are creators: this is perhaps the best way to characterize what “maturity and fulfillment” mean for our species. We are not simply driven by our instincts, but neither can we reach our full potential under the constraints of morality alone. I don’t mean to suggest that we should throw off all moral concern and live for our own selfish advancement. Rather we need to grow through our morality and into the higher creative life, living with embodied intention and reaching out with soulful purpose.

Each moment provides a new opportunity to embrace the present and live into what’s next.


Posted by on October 13, 2013 in The Creative Life


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