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The Five Facets of Meaning

The brand of humanistic spirituality I ascribe to regards human beings primarily as creators, and what we create is meaning. This brings in another key concept as it relates to meaning itself, which is that meaning is created – or constructed and projected – rather than intrinsic and merely awaiting our discovery in objective reality.

In short, existence is meaningful because (or to the extent that) human beings make it so.

A high prevalence of depression, suicide, and relational conflict in our day especially suggests that we are not as successful in making meaning as perhaps we once were. It could be a function of the fact that our worldview is much more complicated now, along with the stepped-up media campaigns to bring as much bad news to our attention as possible.

On the other hand it’s possible that our modern worldview is not complicated as it is fractured – pulled apart and lacking an integrative center.

But if human beings are meaning-makers (aka storytellers, knowledge builders, and world creators), then our contemporary experience of chaos may not so much be happening to us as caused by us – or at least it might be a consequence of our abdication of creative authority. Something’s going wrong, and I’m not responsible!

Even though human beings have always been responsible for the meaning of life, it’s only been in the last 100 years or so that we’ve become self-conscious of doing it. Prior to our awareness of culture, worldview, and the meaning of life as purely human constructions, we imagined other beings as bearing the responsibility for creating worlds, establishing moralities, setting destinies, and supervising human affairs from above.

Our disillusionment in this regard coincided with the revelation that we have no one to credit or blame but ourselves.

The rise of constructivism, of the theory that meaning is constructed by human creators, has therefore brought with it a heightened sense of accountability – not to whom so much as for what. Our world(view) and life(style) promote either harmony or calamity, wholeness or conflict, wellbeing or anxiety, happiness or depression, genuine community or neurotic isolation in some degree. Whereas in previous centuries and generations these conditions seemed to simply happen to us, we are now beginning to understand that we are doing it to ourselves (and to each other).

We know now that somebody once upon a time had made it all up, by formally posing or else quietly assuming authorship as seers and privileged witnesses to exclusive revelations. Their stories of cosmic origins, tribal beginnings, cultural foundations, and future apocalypses were (and still are) great artistic construction projects of meaning designed to provide context, orientation, identity, and perspective for their contemporaries.

For the longest time subsequent generations simply accepted their narrative portraits as ‘the way it is’. But as I said, once we started to recognize the human in this all-too-human design, the veil came down and our modern angst over meaning commenced.

This also explains the fundamentalist backlash we are seeing in religion today, as true believers strive to recapture the earlier mindset of mythic-literalism and thereby reestablish security in a world of divinely warranted truths.

I’m arguing that our way through the current chaos and insecurity will decidedly not involve going back to an earlier worldview and mindset. Instead we need to go forward – through the falling veils and deeper into our disillusionment, until we come to full acceptance of our creative authority as meaning-makers. As we do, we will realize that meaning is multi-faceted – not monolithic, absolute, and universal as we once believed – and that the more facets we consciously attend to, the more meaningful our project becomes.

My diagram illustrates what we can think of as the Gem of Truth, consisting of five such facets of meaning. We can, if we so choose or naively assume, focus on one facet to the exclusion of the other four, but then our sense of meaning will be proportionately diminished. When all five facets are included, our worldview and way of life will be meaningful in the highest degree, simply because we are accepting responsibility as creators.

Let’s look at each facet in turn.

Significance

One facet of meaning has to do with the fact that language (our primary tool for making meaning) is essentially a system of signs – of ideas, phonemes, and logical operators that refer to other things. In some cases these other things are terminal facts in objective reality, such as that thing over there.

But in the foreground, between our mind and that over there, is a complicated cross-referencing web of signifiers, linking, classifying, and defining what it is. Once we arrive at the objective fact, that supposed thing-itself, we will find it flinging our mind outward to still other things – into a vast background and expanding horizon of inferences, reminders, and associations, as far out as our curiosity will take us.

Importance

Just as the root-word ‘sign’ is our clue to the facet of meaning called significance, in the way it refers or alludes (as signs do) to something or somewhere else, importance contains the idea of importing something from elsewhere. Although we commonly use these terms interchangeably, their etymologies argue for a critical distinction. Significance refers out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns, as importance brings just one or a few of those concerns into the course of our personal life.

A fair amount of our general anxiety and depression today may be due to an inability – amounting to a lack of skills, priorities, and filters – to discern what really deserves to be taken in (imported or downloaded) out of the information explosion going on around us. Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the data noise and can’t tell what’s truly important.

Necessity

A third facet of meaning has to do with its connection to the basic requirements of survival, health, and wellbeing. Meaning is necessary when it speaks to and satisfies our genuine needs as human beings, persons, partners, and citizens.

This is where much of the problem lies with respect to fundamentalism, whether in religion, some other cultural domain, or our individual lives: the outdated worldview and mindset no longer addresses our current needs or offers guidance through today’s social landscape. Characteristically it will deny or ignore our real needs as it works to coerce compliance with a belief system from another time and place.

But because every belief system is anchored in a mythology and every mythology assumes the framework of a cosmology (theory of the cosmos) behind it, importing such beliefs requires the rejection of modern science and what we now know about the universe.

Benefit

Meaning in life, and a more general meaning of life, must not only speak to our real needs; it should also support and promote what is wholesome, helpful, favorable, salutary, and useful – in a word, what is beneficial. The root bene- means ‘good’ (deed) or ‘well’ (done). A truth is more meaningful to the degree that it enriches our lives and adds to the general good.

The rise of individualism – but even more consequentially, of egoism – has eroded much of our premodern interest in the common good, in what will benefit not ourselves only, but our neighbor, future generations, and even the larger web of life on which our health and destiny depend. One problem with egoism is in how it has caused this understanding of interdependence to collapse into a near obsession with “What’s in it for me?”

Relevance

The final facet in our Gem of Truth that commonly gets confused with significance and importance asks to what extent something is relevant. There is a critical distinction here as well, which must not get lost in translation. Relevance is more situational than these other facets of meaning. If something is significant in the way it refers us out into a larger field of knowledge and concerns; and if its importance is in the way it affects or impacts us more personally; then we can say that something is relevant insofar as it “bears upon or connects to the matter in hand” (taken from the dictionary).

Many things once significant and important are no longer relevant – or at least not to our present situation. The question “So what?” is typically seeking the meaningful application of truth in the context of our time, this place, to the challenge I’m facing now. Education fails most miserably when it leaves this question of relevance unanswered – or, worse still, when it dismisses the question itself as irrelevant!


As we step self-consciously into our creative authority as meaning-makers, we need to know what makes life truly meaningful. No longer can we ride passively inside the worldview of someone else, or from another age. Neither can we afford waiting around for everything to fall back into place – because it won’t.

Hunkering down defensively behind the bulwarks of denial or conviction will only intensify our anxiety and deepen our depression.

It’s time to start the conversation and lift a new world into being.

 

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The Four Ages of Life

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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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A Spirituality of Religion

Spirituality of Essence_Religion of IdentityThe separation of spirituality from religion is a best-selling topic these days, particularly as religion continues to impress us with its tendencies toward conviction, bigotry, and violence – and complacency. More and more people are either dropping out or quietly declaring themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

In previous posts I have tried to make a case against such a clean separation of spirituality and religion. I’m not suggesting that a religion devoid of an active and deep spirituality is an impossibility; we see enough of that all around us. Certainly religion can lose its inspiration, its creativity, its compassion and ethical vision. At that point it becomes a perfunctory framework of rituals and stilted phrases. In my view, it is no longer really a religion. We may put that label on it, but we do so by mistake.

From the Latin religare, religion is a system by which the various domains and concerns of daily life are coordinated and anchored to the grounding mystery of being. Spirituality refers to the inner experience of this grounding mystery, as well as to an awakened intention in the way it is lived out. Spirituality, then, is the living intention of a dynamic religion, while religion is the relevant extension of a vibrant spirituality. A religion can lose its spirituality and die, but spirituality requires the structural support of religion if it is to engage the concerns of daily life.

My spin on religion challenges us to break out of the conventional definition, where we commonly speak of ‘the world religions’ as historical institutions organized on the cultural level. If the word merely refers to a system that coordinates and anchors our human concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, then you have a religion, and so do I. Whether or not we affiliate ourselves with one of the institutional religions is of secondary importance to the question of how we individually (as well as communally) connect our lives to the grounding mystery and carry it consciously into all that we do.

This gives me a chance to illumine the relationship between two big ideas in my Tracts blog: the grounding mystery and creative authority. Very quickly (as if that will help), the grounding mystery is a metaphorical reference to the present mystery of reality, to the Real Presence manifesting to (and as) our awareness in this moment. Our deepest engagement with it is far below the reach of words, and this, along with the fact that it surpasses any definition our minds might attempt to throw around it, makes it universally recognized across the mystical traditions as ineffable, beyond name and form.

Our only direct access to the grounding mystery is by an inward path of quiet contemplation. Outwardly we can observe its countless manifestations, its many masks; inwardly we know it as mystery, disguised as our self. This may sound very “Eastern,” but Western mysticism carries the identical realization. Simply stated, you are a human being, a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment.

In my diagram above, I have placed identity (ego: my self: “I”) inside a list of terms that together represent a spectrum of existence ranging from the interior depths of being to the extended outreach of our individual lives in the world. Below – or rather, underneath and supporting – identity is consciousness, life, matter, and energy in descending order. Identity has its ground in consciousness, consciousness has its ground in life, life has its ground in matter, and matter has its ground in energy. The deeper we go, the more ineffable the ground becomes. We can say a lot about identity, less about consciousness, still less about life or matter, and really nothing about energy that makes any sense (even the scientists talk about its ‘spookiness’, indeterminacy, and quantum unpredictability).

Despite the fact that we can’t say much about the present mystery of reality that underlies and supports identity, this is precisely where spirituality lives. We have an intuitive sense that this deeper support is ‘more real’, and when we allow our center of attention to sink to these deeper registers, we feel more present and authentic within ourselves. Still, such an inward descent requires that we let go of all those attachments and hangups that keep ego intact – and this is what makes a vibrant spirituality such a threat to religions that have lost their soul. Its communion with a mystery that cannot be named, represented, or even precisely located must be heretical because it is incomprehensible.

Moving up my list from identity, we don’t release ego but rather assume it in all that follows. This is where religion comes into play. Our connections outward into daily life and relationships are necessarily personal, which is to say they involve who we are in the world (as distinct from what we are). Ultimately our individual development into maturity means that we start choosing (or willing, volition) the life we want, enacting our intentions (agency), taking responsibility in what happens, and fully investing ourselves in the process (care). This outward flow from identity to care is what I mean by ‘creative authority’.

Because it is all about shaping and coordinating the adventure of identity, from the awakening of self-consciousness in infancy, through the complicated role-plays of adulthood, and into the retirement of old age, religion should support our progress to creative authority (also known as self-actualization). Too often, however, its influence attempts to move us in the opposite direction where we are pushed back into a more dependent, submissive, and obedient state. This is when our religion, now outgrown and losing relevance, begins to strangle our spirituality. While the force of our spiritual growth is oriented on the higher ideal of human fulfillment, the dead weight of our religion pulls us into frustration and futility.

That’s when it is time to break through yesterday’s religion and create a new system, one that can coordinate and anchor our daily concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, and in a way that expresses our true spirit. One way or another, it will lead beyond ego and to the other side of god.

 

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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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