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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religion is losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meaning to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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Human Doing and Human Being

Morality (from the Latin mos, custom): Folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group.

Ethics (from the Greek ethos, custom): The body of moral principles or values governing or distinctive of a particular culture or group.

My description of the ethical function of religion has prompted a few of my readers to request a more careful definition of what I mean by the term “ethical,” and how (or whether) it differs from another word, “moral,” that is commonly used in this regard. Before I answer this question, I’d like to put the ethical function of religion back into context where it serves as the fulfillment-in-behavior of an experience that begins in the (sometimes shocking) awareness of the grounding mystery in which All is One (i.e., the mystical function).Four Functions of Religion_TreeIt’s helpful to consider the system of religion’s four functions on the analogy of a tree. The mystical function corresponds to the tree’s roots reaching deep into the silent ground, while the ethical function is symbolized in the fruit, which is where the mystical nourishment from down within finds productive expression and fulfillment. As I see it, this flow from mystical experience to ethical behavior is not direct, but is rather mediated through the other two functions of religion.

The articulate structure of the tree’s trunk and branches represents the doctrinal function, which is where the spontaneous realization of oneness is converted into meaning. (Don’t we still talk about the various “branches” of knowledge?) Ultimately, the behavioral product (or produce) of ethical conduct calls on the support of inquiry, judgment, reasons, and justifications – in other words, it depends on a context of meaning. We don’t just “automatically” do the right thing; ethics is about intentional behavior that involves a reasonably articulate understanding of what really (and ultimately) matters in a given situation.

In my illustration above, the leaves of the tree are opened out to the light of the sun from whence they draw the energy necessary for photosynthesis. Both the sun and the outreaching leaves symbolize the devotional function of religion – the sun as a representation of the deity, and the sunward orientation of the leaves representing the aspiration of devotees. In religion the deity isn’t only “above” the community as the object of its worship; he or she is also “ahead” of the community as its aspirational ideal, depicting the higher virtues (compassion, kindness, fidelity, forgiveness, etc.) into which human nature is evolving. As they elevate a merciful god in their worship, the community is really glorifying the virtue of mercy itself as an ideal worthy of worship …

… and worthy of ethical pursuit. This is where in theism the devotional and ethical functions connect. And whereas in theism proper this connection operates under the radar of explicit awareness, in post-theism the literary character of the deity is appreciated as a construct of the mythic imagination which has been evolving in an ego-transcending and humanitarian direction over its long career.

This distinction between behavior that is pre-reflective – “under the radar of explicit awareness” – and behavior that is guided by critical reflection is the most helpful way of distinguishing morality and ethics. As can be seen in the dictionary definitions above, both words trace back to the same basic idea (a “custom” or way of doing something), one deriving from Latin and the other from Greek.

As their meanings later merged and developed in common usage, morality and ethics became differentiated to where morality now refers to the “unquestioned” rules and value-judgments that group members live by, while ethics entails a higher level of philosophical reflection on the principles that (perhaps should) govern human behavior.

This difference corresponds exactly, I would argue, with the phases of “early” and “late” theism, where early theism enjoins right behavior “because god commands it and will punish you if you don’t” and late theism exhorts followers to “be merciful as your father in heaven is merciful” (Jesus in Luke 6:36). This is the shift from obedience to aspiration, which I have suggested is a leading indicator in the genuine progress of theism into post-theism (see “Stuck on God“).

We all know that Nietzsche was bitterly critical of what he called “morality,” urging his generation towards the ideal of his “Overman” or ethical superman who throws off the chains of unquestioned moral customs – especially if these are placed beyond question by ecclesiastic orthodoxy – in order to take up their own lives in world-affirming passion. He didn’t believe that taking away the moral prescriptions of childhood would leave grownups without ethical purpose or direction. In this respect Nietzsche sounds a lot like the apostle Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

Our continuing challenge, as I see it, is to urge adults to grow up and not stay in that comfortable groove where because I said so – the “I” here being the parent, the police, or the patron deity – is the motive force behind our actions. True enough, actual children need this supervisory incentive for pro-social behavior, as their brains and social worldview are still in the process of opening up beyond the limited range of self-interest.

What we need are adult caregivers and educators who have advanced sufficiently into their own self-actualization and expanded horizons-of-life to support and encourage youngsters into maturity with “reasonable urgency.” We can still speak to them of provident reality in personal terms, as god’s benevolent care for all creatures, even as god’s loving concern for each of us. But at some point, the adolescent needs to be invited to take up his or her creative authority and become a self-responsible benefactor of the greater good, to embrace life on the other side of god (post theos).

So we progress, however slowly and by fits and starts, from morality to ethics.

 

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Religion and the Snow Cone Universe

snow cone universeThe role of religion for millenniums has been to connect (or tie together, from the Latin religare) the inner and outer realms of human experience. This sounds odd nowadays, given that religions the world over are presently fomenting (or at least justifying) violence against minorities and outsiders in the name of their gods, as they work to successfully separate the true believer from this fallen and sinful world.

But as with everything else, a thoughtful consideration of religion needs to distinguish between its essential function (by design, so to speak) and what it has become under the various conditions of history, geography, and culture. If this or that religion exploits our natural insecurity, heaps guilt on our heads, and pulls us into spiritual depression, should we just reject religion itself as a negative force on our planet? Increasingly this is the popular opinion of secular minds.

Whatever its peculiar manifestation, however, religion will always serve a necessary function in human culture – at least this is my argument. Its particular form (animistic, theistic, or post-theistic) and denomination (totemic, Southern Baptist, or Zen Buddhist) is more or less a “sign of the times,” but the phenomenon of religion itself is critical to our ongoing evolution as a species. The reason is that our quest for a meaningful connection between the inner and outer realms of experience corresponds to the nature of human consciousness itself.

Simply put, the conscious self is aware in two primary directions – outward to its surroundings and inward to its own deep interior. Take a moment to notice this for yourself. The physical apparatus of your body and brain has the task of coordinating your behavior with the changing conditions of circumstance, in a way that is both adaptive and advantageous. Success-oriented behavior (in this sense) doesn’t really require much conscious intention; life on this planet evolved for millions of years without it. But with the advent of more sophisticated nervous systems came a “surplus” of conscious awareness, which in humans (at least) opened attention to the deeper and larger mystery of existence. Homo Philosophicus.

What I’m calling the deeper mystery of existence is the inner realm whence consciousness itself arises. At some inner threshold of this descending awareness, the ego, referring to that contraction of self-possession acknowledged as “I-myself,” gets loose in the joints and begins to fall apart. As we would expect, this threat to its own self-possession generates confusion and anxiety in the ego, which may persuade it to resist further descent and recover control. But this is precisely where religion, in its role as counselor and guide to the deeper mystery, encourages the nervous psychonaut (“soul explorer”) to let go in full surrender to the provident ground of being.

Such inward exploration and expansion of consciousness into its own depths is what I mean by “spirituality.” Because this is the inner realm of our human nervous system, it seems safe to assume that the nature of experience at this deeper register of consciousness is virtually the same today as it was many thousands of years ago. Getting there might have been more of a challenge back then, given the urgencies of survival in the forest or savanna, but I can imagine a distant hominid ancestor dropping into contemplative awareness on a warm African morning.

Spirituality is inherently mystical, or at least it has a strong tendency to sink into the grounding mystery where our separate self (ego) dissolves into an ineffable presence. In this space grows an awareness that existence itself rests in, rises out of, and returns to essential communion. And yet, when we return to the surface where our relationships and daily responsibilities await, we feel compelled to talk about it. That’s the paradox: trying to put into words what no words can qualify or contain.

Talking about something beyond words requires a form of language that can represent this mystery metaphorically. Even to speak of the experience as a “descent” across a “threshold” (or series of thresholds) into a deep “ground” is using language in a highly symbolic way. The experience is not literally this but nevertheless really is! Metaphors serve the purpose of “carrying across” (meta-phorein) into verbal intelligence something that doesn’t lend itself to objective thinking; it’s not even some thing.

Religion’s preferred vehicle for such metaphorical representation is myth, referring to a narrative plot (Greek mythos) that serves as the backbone of story. The picture language anchored to this action-line only seems ancillary to the cause-and-effect sequence of the story itself, when its true purpose is to pull awareness into contemplation of a timeless mystery behind it all. This is essentially no different from contemplating any other form of well-composed art: You begin by looking at it, but soon enough you are pulled through it and into the creative consciousness that brought it forth.

For a myth to make sense, at least at the surface level, the architecture of reality it assumes must be compatible with the cosmology of the times. Ancient cosmology envisioned the outer realm as arranged vertically, with distinct levels (typically three) connected by an axis passing through the center of a stationary earth. The action of gods, heroes, and saviors – again, acknowledged as metaphorical representations – naturally conformed to this “up and down” structure of reality.

Deities had to come down from heaven and go back up again. Heroes and saviors might descend to the underworld (in death or by some secret passage) and come back up (by resurrection or escape) with boons for their community. By the Christian era, the departed saved and the departed damned were imagined as “up” in heaven or “down” in hell, as the case may be.

By virtue of the vibrant connection between the inner realm of spirituality and the outer realm of cosmology, ancient religion was an active sponsor of our awareness of living in a “universe” – the turning-as-one of all things. Whereas the term cosmos simply refers to the “order” we can perceive around us, a true sense of the universe to which we belong reflects a mental integration of this order with the grounding mystery in which all things exist. In this way, an active appreciation of the universe is a product of spirituality (mystical union) and cosmology (surrounding order).

The outer realm is our context of life, the expanding environment in which we human beings need to locate ourselves. If we can detach the discipline of science from the peculiar tradition of Western science as we know it today, then even the three-story model that stood as background architecture to the ancient myths may be appreciated as “scientific,” as a theoretical explanation drawn from straightforward observations of the outer realm. Today, a myth of visitors from outer space is more compatible with our current cosmology, and hence more believable to the modern mind, than the up-and-down traffic that would have made sense back then.

And this is where things started slipping with religion, not too many centuries ago. As science pursued an updated cosmology based on newly invented observational instruments (e.g., the Greek astrolabe and European telescope) and mathematical calculations, the older myths couldn’t keep up. More accurately, as we can see in our own day, the belief systems that had gotten attached to those older myths didn’t want to keep up. Science was pulling the hearts and minds of people into a secular and godless age, undermining faith and threatening the eternal security of “doubting believers.”

What had for millenniums coordinated a meaningful dialogue between the inner and outer realms of human experience thus dug in its heels and held fast to an obsolete science, trading intellectual relevance for emotional conviction. And the stories? What became of the myths? Lacking a respectable cosmology to back them up, the only way to take myths seriously was to read them literally – as eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events. This required a bold division between other people’s myths and our salvation history, which New Testament authors were busy making already in the late first century CE (cf. 2 Peter 1:16).

Doubly tragic for religion was its aggressive campaign against spirituality, increasingly identified with “mysticism” and censored as godless self-absorption. Any teaching that encouraged an individual to surrender completely to union with the divine, understood as the non-objective presence and grounding mystery of being, was condemned out of hand as heresy, blasphemy, and atheism. Despite the fact that the major theistic traditions all contain subcurrents of spirituality which are clearly mystical in orientation, the mainstream ideologies (in pulpit and press) regard such practices with a high degree of suspicion.

However much the religions have failed in fulfilling their purpose (as religion), the need persists for human beings to meaningfully connect the inner and outer realms of experience. To whatever extent we can create new metaphors to carry our spiritual intuitions of the grounding mystery into a cosmology big enough to frame the stars, deep enough to appreciate our place in the evolution of life, and wise enough to use our considerable influence for the good of our planet and future generations – to that extent we will be healed, made whole, and rediscover the holiness of being alive.

 

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