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The Trance of Who You Are

Whether you are a theist or an atheist, the amazing fact that the universe is so providently arranged as to support the ignition and evolution of life, to the point where you and I are here sharing this thought, ought to inspire wonder, gratitude, and praise. This is where religion began – at the confluence of astonishment and thanksgiving. Its role in human culture for millenniums has been to choreograph society by a system of sacred stories, symbols, and rites, with the purpose of fanning the embers of inspiration and uniting the community in worship.

Really, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, because the rapture of wonder and gratitude of which I’m speaking is not invested in any claim regarding the existence of Someone behind and in charge of it all. The sacred stories, called myths after the Greek word for a narrative plot, did early on begin to tell of agencies with elemental and personified form who conspire to put on the Big Show. This wasn’t an effort to explain the universe, as later interpreters would mistakenly assume, but to confirm what we still today – theists and atheists alike – can acknowledge as the gratuitous intention at the heart of a cosmos that is our home.

Our body is the evolutionary extension of matter into life and consciousness, not self-sufficient but outwardly oriented to the web of resources it requires to survive and prosper. This extroverted attention of the body engages with the sensory-physical reality around us, converting light waves into visual pictures, pressure waves into audible sounds, molecules into sensations of smell and taste, texture and weight (etc.) into how something feels in our hands. With an emergent intelligence capable of assembling all of this into an aesthetic unity of experience, our body serves as the perceptual vantage point in our contemplation of the universe.

When we open our frame of attention to everything around us, the view we entertain, along with our understanding of its fit-and-flow design, is known as our cosmology. And whether we interpret it mythologically or mathematically, we are not merely questing after and entering into dialogue with a universe “out there.” As we are inextricably involved in what we observe, our contemplation is itself an act of the universe.SpiralThat is to say, we are not only participants in the provident order of reality; we are manifestations of it as well. While the animal urgencies of the body naturally orient it outward to the resources it needs, a spiritual intuition conducts consciousness in an opposite direction, inward to its own grounding mystery. This aspect of ourselves is equally as primordial as our body, but its introverted orientation puts us in touch with reality prior to and beneath the threshold where it spreads out as the sensory-physical universe.

The mystical-intuitive depth of our own existence is what is meant by “soul” (Greek psyche) – not some thing living inside our body, the “real me” trapped inside this mortal coil, but the deep interior of consciousness, the ground of being itself. Whereas the myriad qualities of the universe beyond us inspire a cosmology of appropriate complexity and sophistication, the ineffable nature of this grounding mystery within us actually quiets our attempts to describe it, calling us to mystical silence instead.

In this way, the best religion will sponsor the research of its members in two directions simultaneously: outward into the most relevant and up-to-date cosmology, and inward to a mystically grounded psychology. The congruency of these two realms – outward and inward, body and soul, universe and ground – is portrayed in myth, revealed in symbols, and celebrated in sacred performance. Science and spirituality have always been the twin fascinations of religion, with its purpose taken up and fulfilled to the extent that it keeps us meaningfully engaged with the present mystery of reality.

The frustration of religion’s essential purpose – this dialogue of body and soul, self and community, society and nature – was introduced long ago with the emergence of a competing ambition, too preoccupied with its own agenda and pressing needs to care as much for the big picture.

Over time, ego’s self-involvement would come to command the focus of just about everything from religion to politics, commerce to lifestyle, philosophy to art. The archaic and long-standing function of religion in reconciling consciousness to the provident universe and its own grounding mystery underwent a profound change as its purpose got reassigned to individual salvation.

What we’re talking about here is the arrival and subsequent influence on culture of the personal ego – that opinionated, flamboyant, self-conscious, willful, ambitious, and deeply insecure center of identity called “I-myself.” Ego’s advent required a greater amount of social energy and attention, as its impulses were more likely to be misaligned with either the body’s instinct or the soul’s wisdom. A moral system of prohibitions, permissions, expectations, and responsibilities had to be created in order to keep its competing inclinations compatible with the general aims of tribal life.

It’s a mistake to assume that ego just appeared out of nowhere. If we observe ego development in children today, or do our best to remember our own adventure into personal identity, we will understand that it really is a lengthy construction project where the tribe (through the agency of parents, guardians, instructors, and other “taller powers”) shapes the personality according to specific social roles. In this way, cultural definitions of the well-behaved child, the good student, the proper husband or wife, the commendable employee, the model citizen, and the true believer are “downloaded” into the operating program of personal identity.

At first, the roles and associated rules need to be imposed on the young child and reinforced through consistent discipline. With maturity, however, the individual will self-consciously enter into numerous identity contracts with the tribe where rewards are not so immediate as gold stars or pats on the head, but may be sublimated, delayed, or even deferred to the next life. Eventually religion took on a role of its own as moral supervisor, mediator of atonement whereby sinners could be rehabilitated to good standing in the community, and keeper of the keys to whichever final destiny the ego deserved.

All of this effectively pulled consciousness out of dialogue with the provident universe and its own grounding mystery, into a spiraling trance where the individual is bound to tribal orthodoxy, trading freedom now for security later, but also forfeiting the living communion of body and soul for ego’s final escape to divinity.

Spiritual teachers like Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) understood that deliverance from this trace of who you are is the true salvation.

 

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On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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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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Waking Up

De Mello: “Spirituality is the most practical thing in the whole wide world. I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship, but spirituality – waking up, waking up!”

Human beings are creators, and what we create are worlds. A “world” is a construct of language, a habitation of meaning, a web we spin for the sake of establishing some measure of security, orientation and purpose across the expansive and fathomless mystery we call reality. Like cocoons, we weave our world-homes and crawl inside.

Then we fall asleep.

But just as a cocoon is only intended as a temporary compartment, an incubator for a time as the swooning caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis, our worlds aren’t able to permanently contain the creative energy of the human spirit.

I saw it too many times in my career as a pastor, and later as a counselor: there is a “spiritual frustration” behind all our fussing and fighting, all the crime and unrest, all the neuroses and sink-holes of depression that are swallowing so many today. In ministry I wasted much time and energy – before I realized what was really going on – placating this restless demon and restitching the splitting seams of outgrown worlds.

The general trend in the current conversation on religion and spirituality is to define it – spirituality – as your private practice of prayer, communion with your higher power or inner guide, along with any odd assortment of ideas, symbols and rituals that make it meaningful to you. Religion, on the other hand, is “organized religion” – public, dogmatic, authoritarian and traditional.

In other words, boring and irrelevant.

The truth is, religion has become rather disconnected from life on our planet in this global age. As its boundaries bump up against rival belief systems, religion becomes increasingly reactive, defensive and violence-prone. But it’s also the case that religion is losing the currency game. Adherents go to church and sing praises to a deity they’ve never met, for the simple reason that he is only a literary character, what I call the mythological god.

As I’ve explained in previous Conversations, the mythological god is a personified representation of what some human beings regard as the supreme power behind the universe. So far, so boring. He got more interesting as the tribe fashioned this deity into its own likeness, with a rather unstable personality, a really BIG ego, and all the necessary vengeance at the ready for sinners, outsiders, and enemies.

Back in the day, a tribe (as I’m calling it) was a local human group of stratified classes, ranks of authority, strong boundaries, a deep genealogy and a tight moral code to keep it all from falling apart. Religion functioned as the center-pole around which this arrangement was oriented, and the mythological god was positioned at the top of the pole. The icon of sacred order.

All around the planet during this tribal age you could find the same general set of ordained functionaries, positioned and properly respected as guardians of truth. Priests looked after the ceremonial aspect, scribes kept the scrolls in order, and prophets or shamans served as therapeutic inlets of ecstatic experience – just enough conscience or craziness to preserve the illusion that Someone Else is in charge.

At some point, however, the evolution of human consciousness produced a more individually grounded and skeptical intelligence. People started to wonder why the god they heard and read about in the holy books wasn’t still sounding down from the clouds or filling the temples with holy smoke.

The guardians did their best to protect the tradition and its orthodox heritage by making up “adjustment stories” about the god’s heavenly transcendence, our loss of direct contact with him due to our fall into sin and depravity, and about how the god was preparing for an apocalyptic return – very soon, and maybe tomorrow. Don’t rock the boat.

So for centuries now, individuals living in the dawning light of a higher spiritual awareness have accepted these adjustment stories as sacred revelation.

It’s a little like all the minor adjustments that astrologers were making to the earth-centered universe before Copernicus. Because Earth was really traveling through space and whirling around the sun, earlier scientists had to make mathematical adjustments to the orbital paths of the other planets, in order to keep them moving in perfect circles around us. This was because god only works with perfect circles, not ellipses or squiggles.

In some of my earlier Conversations I’ve been pumping for a “post-theistic” spirituality. As theism is a conceptual model of religion based on the objective reality of a divine personality “up there” and in charge, “post”-theism is an invitation to contemplate the possibility that this god, along with the world-order he supervises, is intended as an evolutionary incubator of spirituality.

A defensive theist may well cry, “Atheism!” But the “post” in post-theism is meant as an acknowledgement of theism’s strategic place in human spiritual formation. It’s closed system –  however large this closed system may be permitted to get – provides the security, orientation and sense of purpose that human beings need.

To say that its god lives only in the myths is not to deny his existence, but instead reflects a new-found appreciation for sacred stories and their power to shape and reshape consciousness. Just because god’s existence is literary and not literal, doesn’t mean that he’s now obsolete and better left to the dark ages.

Religion is the outer structure to spirituality’s creative life, the body to its soul. Post-theism is not what comes after religion, and neither is it just a word to validate the kind of designer superstitions available under best-seller titles at the local bookstore. It’s a way of seeing spirituality in an evolutionary context, and religion as the staging area of our awakening.

Truth in religion is in the flexibility of its present arrangement, as well as in its willingness – let’s call it faith – to release the need to be right, in order that we might become more real.

There’s nothing more practical, and more urgently needed today, than waking up.

 

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Resting and Longing

Tillich: “The concern of faith is identical with the desire of love: reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged. The separation of faith and love is always the consequence of the deterioration of religion.”

As I near the end of my conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich on the subject of faith, I’m impressed once again by how vibrant, experiential and deeply mystical they all regarded it. This is quite different from popular Christianity, where faith is either identified with the boxes of belief we hold onto, or our willingness to stop thinking for ourselves and simply adopt the beliefs of someone else – even if that someone else is an author of a book in the Bible.

At the deepest level, faith does not have an object. Rather it is the total release of yourself to the ground of being, or to what I have named the present mystery of reality (or real presence of mystery). This ground is only found by an interior descending path of contemplative awareness, not by looking outside yourself into the environment of your life.

And yet, a more mystically grounded spirituality will not dismiss your outer reality as just dead matter or a seductive distraction.

Your physical senses connect you to a marvelously diverse expression of that same ground, as every other form is similarly rooted in the one mystery of being. In the creative swell, this ground generates the multiplicity of things; and in its own time, each thing recedes, dissolves and returns its small loan of energy to the source.

As one of these forms, you are a manifestation to me of real presence – a creative expression of the ground as an embodied person. It’s astonishing how the ineffable (nameless) mystery of reality reaches out to me through your physical form, your quirky personality, the various roles you play, through the conceited, insecure and occasionally pompous ego acting out your life. (No worries: I have one, too!)

The force that draws us together and holds us in communion, is love. This is the ground as spirit, surrounding and moving between us. Of course, if you’re too quirky and conceited, I may not feel especially interested or attracted to you. Our insecurities might make it challenging for us to be too close, and our separate convictions might rub the wrong way, causing us to feel uncomfortable, threatened and defensive when we’re together.

But whether we like it or not, despite our differences and however fond or freaked out we are by them, the spiritual truth is that we are fellow expressions and co-participants of this universe (“turning as one”), which is simply another word for communion (“together as one”) and the creative, unifying power of love.

Perhaps this is our best working definition of religion – from the Latin religare, to link back. Healthy religion is a relevant system of spiritual practices, artistic symbols, sacred stories and social rituals that link us each internally to the ground within, relationally in shared community, and universally to the planetary and cosmic environment.

Faith is about the contemplative clarity with which we individually connect and release ourselves to the ground, while love is the communal bond that contains our seemingly separate lives and moves us into intersections where we must meet and discover each other. According to this definition, love doesn’t have to feel good and make us tingle.

If we resist its rhythm and aim, in fact, we should expect to feel pain. As pain is the signal that something is wrong and needs careful attention, its intrusion on our relationships might inspire us to inquire where we are interfering with love’s greater design. What do we need to let go of and leave behind, or perhaps stretch out for and go beyond, in order to flow more gracefully and creatively in The Way?

Faith, then, is resting in the ground – in that profound and ineffable mystery supporting you in this present moment. Love is the longing that moves through you and connects you to everything else. Resting and longing: these are the dynamics of healthy spirituality and relevant religion. Remove one of them from the balance and you have either self-absorbed insecurity (today’s counterfeit spirituality) or glorified intolerance (today’s dogmatic religion).

As things continue to deteriorate, we succumb to anxiety and depression, get caught in more destructive conflicts with each other, and undermine our planet’s ability to sustain life.

The fact that we are here at this evolutionary moment in time means that we belong together. Like it or not, we live in the same house and come from the same place. And even now we are passing away, eventually to make room for our successors – if the wake of our own trash and toxins and holy convictions still leaves a sufficient clearing for the possibility of enlightenment.

It’s not yet too late. But we have got to wake up.

 

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