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Touching Reality (and Talking About God)

Religion is the more or less systematic way that humans express, develop, and apply spirituality to their daily life in the world. You may believe that you have no religion and that you are not “religious,” but I know better. Your particular way of connecting spirituality to daily life might not be very relevant or effective, but it’s your religion nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in and worship a god, or whether you believe in heaven and hope to be there some day.

Perhaps the trouble you’re having with my statement reflects a suspicion over the notion of ‘spirituality’. It sounds too much like religion or the metaphysical garbledy goop you decidedly don’t believe in. But I’m not using it that way. Instead, spirituality is what concerns your spiritual intelligence (SQ) and its distinctive longing to touch what is really real.

This still might sound a little goopy, if not confusing, so I will refer my reader to the recent post Touching Reality for some background to that idea.

What I want to do in this post is show how religion has historically incorporated the four dimensions of self in its support of the spiritual life, as well as where religion has time and again gotten distracted from this primary aim.

Let’s begin with a description of healthy religion, specifically the theistic type which is oriented on the representation of a god who cares about us, provides for us, and desires our salvation. Salvation shouldn’t be equated with a rescue from hell, as it’s been reduced in some forms of traditional and evangelical Christianity. The root of the word carries the meaning of healing, regeneration, and wholeness. According to theism, god wants this for us.

In healthy theism, god is acknowledged as a metaphorical personification (in symbol, story, and theology) of the grounding mystery, the wholly other, and of the communal spirit that moves among and unites all things.

Early in the development of spirituality, and in the process of individuation whereby we each come to a sense of our separate identity (ego), we rely on taller powers for the security we need, and later for the recognition that will establish our place in the tribe.

We need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy; and importantly the satisfaction of these subjective needs depends on the providence of someone who is “not me” – other than me, even wholly other. The protection, nourishment, warmth and loving touch they provide eases our nervous system into a calm, centered, and receptive state. We are able to relax into being and rest peacefully in the grounding mystery of our existence.

As we grow and learn more about life, our taller powers continue in their providential role, but gradually shift more of the responsibility over to us. Additionally they begin to challenge and inspire us to be more kind, honest, compassionate, and generous to others.

The modeling behavior of our taller powers serves as the exemplar for our own moral progress.

The goal from the standpoint of our taller powers is to help us to the point where we can stand on our own, live for what’s right, harness our creative potential, and contribute meaningfully to the greater good. They know that when everyone is conducting their lives in this intentional and considerate way, something transformative happens: genuine community spontaneously arises.

So far, I have been explaining what unfolds inside the ‘theistic’ system of every family unit. Taller powers care and provide for their children, who grow up to become caring and self-responsible adults – perhaps taller powers in their own families someday.

Your life has gone something like this as well.

As human society evolved, this basic theistic family model very naturally opened out to become the paradigm for our shared life together. The provident care of taller powers found its analogy – and by the world-building medium of sacred stories (or myths), its origin and divine warrant – in the providence of a parental higher power who watched over his or her “children” and inspired their moral progress.

Theism eventuates in a dawning realization that our patron deity – referring specifically to the parental god who cares and provides for us – is not actually there, in the objective sense of a personal being who occupies the same world as we do.

Now, this realization can break into consciousness with the force of an apocalypse, where what we had regarded as the certain arrangement of things suddenly falls apart around us. Such disillusionment (literally the removal of illusion) is a necessary part of growing into adulthood. Things we had believed or taken for granted when we were young are now “seen through” as make-believe, constructs of imagination, or simple naiveté.

For some theists, this apocalypse of belief moves them finally into an atheistic position on the question of god’s existence.

Some strive hard, however, to keep the curtain of illusion securely on its rings. Don’t misunderstand: disillusionment regarding the patron deity’s separate existence has already set in, but their fear of what this may mean – that there is no one in charge, nothing to anchor their moral life, and perhaps no promise of an everlasting reward when they die – motivates them to double-down with conviction. “It must be so, therefore I believe!”

But believing doesn’t make it so.

There’s no getting around the fact that a literal reading of sacred stories doesn’t magically turn them into eye-witness journal reports of supernatural realities and miraculous deeds. No one has ever entered a clearing in the woods to find a god bathing in a pond, or peaked through a blanket of clouds to see him sitting there on his throne. And for those who have ears to hear, no one has ever turned water into wine or ascended into heaven.

All of this doubling-down of belief can only manage to produce a weak form of theism known as deism: god is out there somewhere but doesn’t have much to do anymore – except when we really need him. We hope.

For others, the dawning realization opens out with the grace of an epiphany, referring to an “appearing through” of something deeper within or hidden behind a veil. The patron deity is acknowledged as not actually existing (what I name the ătheistic turn), but now takes on new metaphorical significance.

Metaphors that are not taken literally but contemplated as metaphors, as vehicles of language that carry our deepest insights across the threshold from mystery into meaning, serve as signposts and touchstones of our experience of the really real.

The present mystery of reality abides within you, confronts and eludes you, and invites you into communion with your neighbor, the earth, and all the stars.

Amen.

 

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Human Evolution

In a post from long ago entitled Humanism in a New Key, I offered an interpretation of post-theism where the re-absorption of higher virtues formerly projected in the deities of religion opens up a new era in our evolving spirituality as a species. If the idea of an external god is understood in terms of an intentional object (i.e., as a construct of our mythopoetic imagination) rather than a metaphysical one (i.e., as a being existing outside and separate from us), this critical step can be welcomed and celebrated.

I don’t presume that all theists will embrace the notion, but for many (including myself as a former theist) it can mark the breakthrough to a liberated life.

I find it helpful to view this process in the time-frame of human evolution as it has unfolded over many millenniums. Our species itself emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago, a late product of the natural evolution of life on Earth. Upon arriving, we proceeded to evolve still further under the shaping influence of culture – a construct system of language, symbols, stories, and technologies that continues to lift us by our own bootstraps.

If the evolution of nature brought about our uniquely complex nervous system and social intelligence, this gear-shift of cultural evolution will lead either to our fulfillment as a species or to our self-destruction. Because human culture is a work in progress, which direction we go remains an open question.

When our theory lacks imagination and insight, the purpose of culture gets reduced to little more than managing nature – our own as well as the natural order around us. In this view, with all its clever innovations and sophisticated methods, culture is just a fancy, interesting, but problematic way of keeping us alive and making copies of our genes – like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’, as we say. Cultures rise and fall, come and go, but we can only fall and go once from the scene of nature to be gone for good. Religion and science fiction can muse over angels and androids and faraway realms, but our real business is survival on this third rock from the sun.

On the other hand, it could be that our fulfillment as a species depends on something original to culture, something not merely derived from or sublimated out of our nature as highly evolved animals. I call this original element community – or more specifically, genuine community – and I’ve tried to show in numerous posts how religion plays a key role in its formation. Genuine community is not merely a society of individuals who get along; something much more transformative is going on.

The larger trajectory towards fulfillment is still unfolding after these many thousands of years, and we today stand on a critical threshold where our next step will bring about a breakthrough or (almost just as likely) a breakdown.

There is a debate over whether human evolution will reach its fulfillment with genuine community (as I argue) or instead with the rise of extraordinary individuals who possess super-human powers and abilities. The ‘exceptionalists’ focus their hopes on such paranormal abilities as levitation, mind-reading, bending spoons, or turning water into wine. They talk of higher consciousness, perfected nature, and immortality, but their specimens are typically from another time and quarter, or else ‘presently unavailable’ for closer examination.

When serving as a Christian pastor, I was frequently taken by how believers’ regard for Jesus as just such an exception kept him safely at a distance and released them of any obligation to be like him. Maybe the possibility was there, but only for the spiritually gifted, not the rest of us.

By shifting our focus to the evolution of community, we don’t have the option of worshiping perfection from a distance. As I see it, our advancement as individuals and the formation of genuine community are deeply correlated. Community provides the supportive environment where identity is constructed and personal commitment to the health of the whole is empowered in the individual. The individual then adds his or her creative influence to the community, which continues to foster a still higher realization of wellbeing. Thus a provident community and personal commitment progressively co-elevate the project of human evolution.

My diagram gives an illustration of this laddering dynamic. Again, a provident community instills in the newborn and young child a deep sense that she belongs. As she matures, the youngster is encouraged to participate in the community as a contributing member. And eventually, if all goes well, the young adult will take a responsible role in creating the new reality of an even stronger, more provident community for all.

This would amount to little more than a redundant cycling of new generations taking their place in society, except for the fact that it has been evolving. And the direction of this evolution – despite occasional setbacks and derailments along the way – has been steadily toward what I call the human ideal, by which I mean the fully self-actualized human being.

Like all living things, we humans have a potential locked up in our genes, but also encoded in the memes (symbols, stories, and folk wisdom) of culture, that gradually opens and develops in the direction of our maturity and fulfillment.

Beyond our physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity as individuals, there are still higher aims that have to do with our life together in community. In a recent post I identified five ethical virtues in particular that are recognized across all cultures as representing this human ideal.

My diagram displays these five virtues at the apex of an ascending arrow, which makes the point that this ideal is always ‘above and ahead’ of us, igniting our aspirations as well as measuring our progress or lack of it.

Theistic religion early on took up the task of focusing human contemplation on the higher virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, which it personified in metaphorical figures of deities – humanlike but more perfect, bending their providential powers in the interest of a cohesive community. In myths that were regularly recited and performed in ritual settings of worship, the gods ‘characterized’ how devotees were expected to behave. (As projections, they could also deify our cruder and more violent tendencies as well.)

First by obedience, and gradually more and more by way of aspiration and endeavoring to be ‘like god’, the community of believers began to demonstrate the virtues in their interactions and way of life. This inward activation of what had been externally represented marks the evolutionary threshold where theism transforms into post-theism, where god relocates, as it were, from heaven into the heart, becoming the sacred center of an awakened and liberated life.

 

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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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