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The Beginning of Wisdom

In the ethical monotheism of late Judaism and early Christianity, Yahweh (originally a minor warrior deity of a small federation of habiru tribes in the region of Sinai who eventually became the creator of heaven and earth) was regarded as the supreme judge over the destiny of human beings. He demanded exclusive worship and absolute obedience from his devotees, in exchange for which he provided them with protection and a prosperous life.

The “fear of the Lord” – not living in abject terror of god but with reverent awareness of his watchful supervision – was thus an acknowledgment of the human being’s accountability as a moral agent before the One whose will is the Way of all things.

This fusion of human moral accountability and the omnipotent will of god would create numerous crises for believers over the centuries. From the Babylonian invasion and exile of 586 BCE, through the calamitous failure of Jesus’ revolution, to the twentieth-century holocaust (or Shoah) in which millions of Jews and other faithful were killed, the contradiction in believing that a benevolent deity is in control as innocent human beings suffer has driven many once-devoted theists to abandon their belief in god.

For as long as theism regarded deities as personified agencies of cosmic and natural forces, human suffering could be chalked up to fate – “That’s just the way it is.” But after the Bible’s ethical monotheism elevated the will of god above everything else, a crisis was just a matter of time.

Try as we might to uphold divine sovereignty by making human beings somehow deserving of their suffering (e.g., an individual’s unconfessed sin, inherited guilt from previous generations, or the total depravity of human nature); or on the other side, by appealing to god’s inscrutable plan, the soul-therapy of pain and loss, or adjusting the mixer board of orthodoxy so that god’s righteousness is bumped above his compassion – all of this compromise to our ethical and rational sensibilities has put belief in god’s existence out of the question for many.

Does this leave us with atheism then? It sounds like we need to drop all this nonsense and move on. Haven’t we disproved god’s existence by now, tolerated the logical and moral contradictions, or at least gone long enough without evidence to support the claim? If theism has ruined its credit in our modern minds, isn’t atheism all that’s left?

A good part of this blog is dedicated to clarifying a different conclusion. Just because many of us are no longer able – more importantly we aren’t willing – to sacrifice intellect for faith doesn’t necessarily mean that theism has to be trashed, or that it’s been fatally exposed as a farce.

It could also mean that theism has done its job.


For a time when we were young (so runs my argument) we depended on higher powers to help us feel secure, supervise our development, and exemplify the character virtues that promote cooperation and goodwill. Every family system is a kind of theism where taller powers provide for underlings in these and other ways, and they in turn try to be obedient and respectful of parental authority.

The fear of the Lord was continually in our awareness of being accountable for our words, choices, and behavior. Doing good came back in praise and reward; doing bad called down blame and punishment. If our taller powers were involved and diligent, we eventually came to understand that ‘the world’ (our household) was an interdependent system where our actions had consequences – not just for us alone but for the system as a whole.

In ancient and traditional societies this world model of a household was projected outward onto a larger – in the case of Judaism’s ethical monotheism, a cosmic – scale, where a patron deity (like Yahweh) was imagined as watching over his children, demanding their obedience, and providing for their needs. Such a model of reality gave assurance that the tribe and its individual members weren’t orphans adrift in an indifferent or hostile universe.

Their god personified a provident intention in the greater cosmos, but s/he also reminded them that human beings are part of something larger and owe their contribution to the whole. No action went unnoticed by god; later, Jesus would insist that not even our thoughts and desires are hidden from “the father who sees in secret.” Humans are one big sibling society under the will of the fatherly Yahweh, and each of us is accountable to him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


We realize now as never before that our representations of ultimate reality are metaphorical constructions that not only assist our contemplation of what is beyond name and form but also serve to link the business of daily life to a transcendent center of value and meaning. Yahweh is a mythic character, a literary figure, a theological construct who personified the provident mystery of reality as superintendent over nature and all nations.

While it is the case that Bible stories tell of Yahweh’s great accomplishment “in the beginning,” his intervention on behalf of Hebrew slaves, his guidance and support of refugees through the wilderness, his revelation of laws by which to govern the community, his ventriloquism through the prophets, his incarnation in Jesus, the fertilization of a new community by his spirit, his orchestration of the missionary church, and the preparation currently underway for the apocalyptic final curtain – we commonly overlook the fact that all of this takes place inside the imaginarium of myth.

Because biblical (or more accurately, mythological) literalists are considering these stories from a standpoint outside this imaginarium – which names a mode of consciousness that is shaped and fully immersed in its own narrative constructions of meaning – the veracity of Yahweh’s character for them must be a function of his separate existence, apart from the stories themselves. In other words, these are not mere stories (certainly not myths!) but eye-witness reports of actual supernatural facts and miraculous events.

It was this loss of the mythic imagination which motivated the conviction that would eventually set the stage for theism’s disproof by science.

We could have gone the route of seeing through the myths as metaphorical representations of reality, and as mythopoetic (rather than scientific) constructions of meaning. In that case, theism might have taken the role of orienting human consciousness in reality, providing mystical grounding and moral guidance in the formation of identity, and then assisted the further transformation of consciousness by facilitating its liberation from ego in a transpersonal re-orientation to life within the turning unity of all things. The pernicious divisions of soul and body, self and other, human and nature would have been transcended and healed, lifting us into a conscious experience of community, wholeness, fulfillment, and wellbeing.

But things went in a different direction.


Now, on the other side of our sacred stories (seeing through them rather than seeing by them) and taking up our lives after god (post-theism), we still have an opportunity to embrace that ancient proverb: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For us, however, it’s not about living under the watchful, provident, and retributive supervision of a god. We can save the kernel of its wisdom and release the husk of theism that protected it for millenniums.

It’s not that we should live in such a way that pleases god the father and motivates his blessing in return. The personified character of god in the myths was only the ‘husk’ inside of which the precious insight was honored and kept – the insight that we are not getting away with anything.

We are accountable. Our beliefs, values, and actions affect much more than we know, for we belong to a larger living system. What we do locally amplifies in its effects to impact global conditions, which in turn nourish, limit, or undermine our local quality of life.

Not only are we not ‘getting away’ from this situation by some escape route to a perfect world (a utopian future or heavenly paradise), the integral intelligence of systemic feedback that is our planet and its cosmic environment will continue to bring back to us the consequences of our daily choices. And as we can see with the effects of industrial pollution and global warming, these consequences are now crossing a critical threshold.

What we sow in our inner life (soul) comes out as health or illness in our body. What we do to others (as Jesus pointed out, especially our enemies) comes back on our self. The degree or lack of reverence and care that we demonstrate for the household of nature reflects the dignity we affirm our deny in our own human species. All is one, and we’re all in this together.

That is wisdom.

 

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Looking At and Looking Through

When you stand before a Monet painting of water lilies, you might choose to analyze it according to its physical dimensions, the composition and pigment of the paint, the particular arrangement of highlight and shadow, and how close Monet came to a realistic depiction of actual water lilies.

At the conclusion of your analysis you would have a catalog of observable facts, to which you could also add more factual details such as the time period, historical circumstances, events from Monet’s personal life and his development as a painter. This mode of analysis employs the power of observation in order to explain what you are looking at.

But you might choose to contemplate the painting instead of analyzing it. In that case you wouldn’t be observing from an objective distance and reducing it to a catalog of facts, but rather encountering it as an artistic creation. His rendering of water lilies is not asking to be explained or compared with actual water lilies.

The intention of art is not to explain (literally to spread out on a flat surface for examination) but to reveal (to pull back a veil and allow something to be seen). Your contemplation of Monet’s painting represents a very different mode of perception from that of analysis, inviting a kind of dialogue between you and the artist.

A painting, like everything else made by the creative skill of human beings and not found in nature, is what we call an artifact. In evolutionary history, the threshold between animal nature and human culture is defined by the artifacts that our species created, as together they constructed a peculiarly human world – the network of tools, utilities, technologies, symbols, values, agreements, and beliefs that carry the meaning of life for us.

As one kind of artifact, a machine is the product of an engineering and technical intelligence. Monet’s painting of water lilies, on the other hand, is an expression of an intuitive and aesthetic intelligence. Such distinct types of intelligence co-evolving in human beings are what make us a wonderfully visionary, prolific, and complicated species.

The question of whether a given artifact is more art or fact is an interesting one, with far-reaching implications. When you analyze Monet’s water lilies into a catalog of physical and historical details, you are treating it as a fact – something to look at, to observe, and ultimately to explain. Once explained, the object is said to be ‘known’. Each color pigment has a chromatic number value. Each shape has proximal value with respect to real objects. The painting traces along a line of causality back to Monet himself, as the man who made it at a specific time in history.

Your thorough explanation effectively reduces the painting to an object before you.

In the second mode, of contemplation, you instead encounter the artifact as more art than fact. As art, Monet’s painting cannot be decomposed into its basic and essentially separate elements. Indeed, its artistic virtue as a medium of revelation (as a veil parting) requires that you behold the painting as a whole. Only then is it possible – and we can only hope for the possibility since it is nothing you can control or make happen – for the work of art to show you what cannot be observed.

To behold is an exquisitely receptive (as distinct from merely passive) act of contemplation. With patient and mindful attention, you may eventually come to see not what Monet saw but as he saw, ushered into his experience of water lilies.

We can easily summarize these two modes of perception as the difference between looking at (observation, analysis, explanation) and looking through (encounter, contemplation, revelation). It is the difference between treating an artifact as an opaque fact or as translucent art. In the first case, Monet’s painting is a rather inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of water lilies. In the second, it represents (i.e., makes present again) something that is not a thing: Monet’s experience of the present mystery of reality manifested in water lilies.

Now, you may lack even an inkling of art appreciation. To you it’s just a picture, and not a very impressive attempt by someone who fashioned himself a painter. He could better have painted houses or fences, for at least that would have contributed something useful to society. With today’s advances in photography, we shouldn’t have to settle for illustrations that are barely recognizable and basically worthless as depictions of actual facts.

There is a similar widespread inability, especially among those living in the light (or under the shadow) of modern science, for appreciating story as art – particularly the sacred stories of culture and religion known as myths. Stories, too, are artifacts, which means that we can choose how we engage them, as art or as fact.

Despite the difference in their media, a story is very similar to a painting in that both depict images for us to hold in mind. Originally and for many millenniums, human cultures composed myths that were intended for the modes of encounter, contemplation, and revelation. It would have made no sense whatsoever for a creation myth, for example, to be analyzed into its narrative elements or taken as an explanation of observable facts.

As art, the myth was not regarded as an eye-witness report of long-ago events in the history of the cosmos. Rather it was recited in sacred settings of ritual performance (not locked inside printed books) and the storyteller would usher his or her community into an experience of an awesome yet provident universe, the cradle and household of all living things.

With the rise of science, artistic insight into the present mystery of reality was gradually eclipsed by factual observations, empirical analysis, and rational explanations. This new mode of engaging with reality certainly marked a great advance in the human journey, but our fascination with knowledge and control came at a cost.

In his landmark meditation I and Thou, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber distinguished between two modes of consciousness, one ancient and the other more modern. He named these I-Thou and I-It, where the second term in each pair identifies the nature of what the I (ego) perceives and relates to. I-Thou lines up with the artifact as art, even regarding the whole of reality as opening in dialogue with our contemplative mind.

Buber wasn’t suggesting that a personal god is on the other end of the line, but rather that the human being stands in a reciprocal relationship with reality. Our own personalities are not an alien feature of the universe but expressions of it. As we gaze upon the stars, we are contemplating our own nature.

I-It is where reality outside the ego is not only depersonalized and pushed into the distance, but personality itself is reduced – to social conditioning, biological temperament, genes and chromosomes. This is the artifact as fact, and all of reality as nothing more than a great constellation of observable and theoretical facts. It is Monet’s painting of water lilies as so much paint and poor realism, the myths of religion as either supernatural journalism (e.g., the literal Bible) or primitive superstition.

Unfortunately the I-It mentality has affected both science and religion today. Wholeness, dialogue, contemplation, insight, mystery, and revelation are dropping away or getting disqualified as legitimate interests. For many, science studies this world as religion prepares us for the next. For a growing number of others, science has the answers we seek for the progress we need, while religion peddles deception, sanctifies ignorance, and ordains terrorism.

And in the meantime both enterprises are in danger of losing their souls.

 

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The Web of Passions

web-of-passionsHave you ever noticed how ‘devil’ has the word ‘evil’ inside it, and how ‘god’ and ‘good’ are so similar? It can’t be a pure coincidence that a devil and a god are personifications, respectively, of evil and good. Such mythological depictions of evil and good provide a way for us to connect our cultural narratives to the experience of reality as either against us or for us, as a theater of adversity or prosperity, as malevolent or benevolent.

Perhaps deepest down we orient ourselves in life according to whether what we require to live and flourish is actually there for us when we need it. Surely what we need most basically is to stay alive, so it would make sense if all other concerns and aspirations somehow revolve around the passions dedicated to our survival.

I’ll make an even finer distinction and suggest that while our physical safety is very close to the center of what we most need, finding the energy our bodies require to live and be healthy is the pivot of everything else. When it comes down to it, we will risk injury and even death for the sake of basic nutrition.

In this post I will propose a model for understanding the passions that drive our behavior, connect or divide us from each other, and motivate our constructions of meaning. Our ‘Web of Passions’ (as I’ll call it) underlies and energizes even the Matrix of Meaning, which I’ve explored elsewhere. I will make a case that our Web of Passions is the deeper inspiration behind our myths – those grand narratives and sacred stories that orient us in reality and provide guidance through life.

Despite the obvious and sometimes overwhelming complexity of our emotional experience, I will suggest that just ten passions make up the structure of this web. My diagram above illustrates them in their various correlations and proximity to the center, where a couplet of passions, desire and disgust, anchors the whole system.

Keeping in mind our basic concern over energy, nourishment, and health, desire can be appreciated as that passion which drives us toward and takes in what we need to live, while disgust drives us away from what is rotten, toxic, and not good for us. We might think of these as the ‘open’ (desire) and ‘closed’ (disgust) positions in our animal engagement with reality.

Desire and disgust, then, serve as the visceral – or, more exactly, the gastrointestinal – seat of our passions. All the other passions will differentiate and evolve out of this binary set of open/desire and closed/disgust.

And since opening to reality is the path to life, just as closing to it is the path to death, it’s not surprising that so many sacred myths and scientific theories of human origins identify an act of ingestion or the introduction of a novel food source (e.g., the fruit of a tree at the center of Eden or the shift by our hominid ancestors toward a carnivorous diet) as the precipitating event.

What I’m suggesting here is that desire and disgust together determine that ‘first taste’ of reality which originates and underlies our cultural distinctions of good and evil. Furthermore, because go(o)d and d(evil) are principal characters of sacred story, the primordial inspiration for myth-making, along with the art and theology of religion itself, may have unfolded out of this earliest experience of reality as delicious and desirable, or conversely as nauseous and disgusting.

Thus religious community gathers around feasts and festivals (food-centered celebrations), heaven is depicted as a banquet of saints and angels, while hell is imagined in all its slimy, putrid, and gut-retching detail. Purity codes of morality have roots in archaic distinctions between clean and unclean foods; ‘wholesome’, ‘healthy’, and ‘holy’ are derivations of the same root word.

From this point I’ll move pretty quickly through the Web of Passions, since their branching differentiation from the central binary set of desire and disgust is easy to follow. When we desire something, we say that we ‘love’ it; just as when we find something disgusting, we ‘hate’ it. Desire, through love, ramifies into joy (as the fulfillment of desire) on one hand, but into grief (as separation and bereavement) on the other. On the opposite side of the Web, disgust, through hate, bifurcates into anger (as the impulse to push the nasty thing away) on one hand, and into fear (as the panic to get away) on the other.

Further alchemy between grief (from the desire side) and anger (from the disgust side) generates envy, which, as we well know, fuses a longing for what another possesses or enjoys with resentment over the fact that we don’t. Opposite of envy is hope, produced from the odd marriage of joy and fear. The object of hope is, by definition, ‘hoped for’, which presumes its absence in some critical degree, as something we are looking forward to but is yet unrealized. Such anticipation is the joy in hope. But at the same time, we are also aware that what we hope for may not materialize or come to pass, an ambivalence that shows up in our common confusion over feeling ‘eager’ and feeling ‘anxious’ for something good to happen.

These ten passions – desire and disgust, love and hate, anger and fear, joy and grief, envy and hope – are the motivational forces in us that, as we say, make the world go ’round.

Our primal engagement with reality and uniquely human orientation in the universe; the stories we tell about ourselves and others; the sacred myths of ancient and modern cultures; the genesis and apocalypse of the world itself – while the structure of this elaborate human habitation is made up of words and their meanings, it is our passions that make it all meaningful.

As I suggested in Thoughts on the Apocalypse, the end of our world coincides with the breaking-open of awareness to the present mystery of reality, seeing through (and burning away) our illusions of meaning and stepping into our creative authority as makers of a new heaven and a new earth. Our Web of Passions doesn’t determine what kind of world that will be, though I’m confident that its inherent tensions and polarities will keep things interesting.

 

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Our Moment of Decision

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?  – Don Cupitt, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking

This quote from Don Cupitt struck me when I read it, in the way it corresponds to my own theory of religion’s development out of primitive animism, through the egocentric period of theism, and ultimately into a fully secular (this-worldly) post-theistic spirituality. Cupitt is a proponent of post-theistic Christianity who urges us to abandon the metaphysics of classical theology (deity, devil, angels, soul and the afterlife) in favor of a fully embodied here-and-now religion of outpouring love.

One way of reading Cupitt’s words is in the mode of comparative religion, where Christianity is positioned between non-theistic Buddhism on one side and hyper-theistic Islam on the other – hyper not intended as a synonym for extreme, militant, or fundamentalist, necessarily, but in the sense that Allah is ontologically separate from his creation and very much out there. Historical Buddhism can be regarded as a post-theistic development within Hinduism which abandoned a concern with gods and metaphysics for a commitment to end human suffering.

But we might also read Cupitt relative to a tension within Christianity itself, between its own hyper-theistic and post-theistic tendencies. I’ve argued elsewhere that Jesus himself should be seen as a post-theistic Jew who sought to move his contemporaries beyond the god of vengeance, retribution, and favoritism, to outdo even god in the practice of unconditional forgiveness and love of enemies. This tradition certainly represents a minority report in Christianity, whereas its orthodoxy has been more “Muslim” than “Buddhist” – much more about the Lord god, his exalted Christ, the Second Coming and Final Judgment than Jesus’ new community of love and liberty.

In my view, post-theism is the inevitable destiny of all religion. I’ve worked hard to distinguish post-theism from the more or less dogmatic atheism that is in fashion nowadays, where god’s literal and objective existence is disputed on logical, scientific, moral, and political grounds. Post-theism does not see the point in arguing the empirical status of a literary figure. Indeed, as a figure of story rather than a fact of history, god’s place in religion is rationally defensible.

The problem arises when religion forgets that its god is a metaphorical representation of the providence all around us and of the grounding mystery within us. A literary character then becomes a literal being, the dynamic action of myth evaporates into the static atmosphere of metaphysics, and the supernatural object draws attention away from the real challenges before us. Tragically the opportunity of growing into our own creative authority is forfeited in the interest of remaining passively dependent on an executive-in-charge who is (coming back around again) a metaphor of our own making.

My own experience, along with what I observe in my friends and remember from my sixteen years in church ministry, has exposed a real “moment of decision” in spiritual development, where the healthy progression of faith would move us into a post-theistic (Cupitt’s “Buddhist”) orientation, but which is prevented by an overbearing theistic (Cupitt’s “Muslim”) orthodoxy that keeps it (in my words) “stuck on god.” The result is a combination of increasing irrelevance, deepening guilt, intellectual disorientation, and spiritual frustration – the last of which tends to come out, Freudian-style, in a spectrum of neurotic disorders and social conflicts.

Two popular ways of “managing” this inner crisis are to either suck it up and buckle down inside a meaningless religion, or else flip it off and get the hell out, bravely embracing one’s new identity as a secular atheist. From a post-theistic perspective, however, neither solution is ultimately soul-satisfying. Trying to carry on in the cramped space of a box too small for our spirit only makes us bitter and depressed, whereas trying to get along without faith in the provident mystery and in our own higher nature – what religion is most essentially about – can leave us feeling adrift in a pointless existence.

If Pope Francis as the figurehead of Catholicism can open his arms to other religions, embrace the scientific enterprise, advocate for the voiceless poor, and celebrate spiritual community wherever he finds it, then we might be encouraged to think that our “mystical and ethical” sensibilities can unite us and lead us forward. Perhaps the world’s interest in him has to do with the way his down-to-earth and inclusive manner resonates with something inside us that hasn’t felt permission to live out of our own center.

Chakra_treeWhen the mystical (our grounding in the present mystery of reality) and the ethical (our connections to one another and to life in general) fall out of focus as functions of healthy religion, the doctrinal (what we believe and accept as true) and the devotional (our worship and sacrifice on behalf of what we regard as supreme in value and power) start to take over. What is intended to be a balanced, evolving, and reality-oriented system of meaning collapses into conviction and becomes oppressive.

As our planet changes and the globe shrinks, as our economies become more intertwined and volatile, as technology is reshaping society and putting potentially catastrophic influence into the hands of more individuals, we need to come together for solutions. The old orthodoxies and their gods cannot save us. Neither terrorism nor complacency will see us through. We need wisdom now more than ever.

Yes, we are at a moment of decision.

 

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The Experience of Myth

heaven_hellA growing consensus regarding the sacred narratives of religion, called myths, is that we must take them literally or else toss them out as bad science and obsolete fictions. Those who would rather not fuss with interpreting the myths are content to simply believe them, and those who can’t with intellectual integrity believe the myths are content to leave them be. In either case the deeper insight contained in them is ignored and rendered mute.

It’s difficult for some to open their minds to the possibility that myths might not be records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, but not ignorant superstition either. But what other choice do we have? Things either happened just as the myths say they happened (or will happen) or they didn’t (and won’t). Either reality is arranged according to the metaphysical architecture testified to in the myths (with a literal heaven and hell, for instance) or it’s not – right?

Actually, the answer is no: this simplistic either-or logic is exactly wrong. In fact, as I will try to show, the mental orientation responsible for casting our alternatives in such a dualistic fashion is part of what the myths intend to expose and help us overcome. I say “intend” and not “intended,” because myths are living narratives and not mere curiosities of the past. The challenge in being human is essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago, and myths are transcultural maps that reveal the paths ahead – one that leads to heaven and another that leads to hell.

If it sounds as if I have just slipped into a metaphysical reading of myth with my reference to heaven and hell, I want to assure my reader that this is not the case. To explain, let’s begin where myth itself was born, in the state of persistent ambiguity called the human condition. The prefix ambi translates as “both,” and ambiguity refers to how our situation – the human condition as it impinges on me here and you there, wherever we happen to be – sets us at a place where the path can go in one of two directions.

On the one hand, this ambiguity might collapse into opposition and eventual conflict: the “both” are seen as fundamentally opposed, unconnected, divided, and separate. If the process of our individual ego formation was particularly difficult and we came into personal identity under conditions of neglect, abuse, deprivation, or other trauma, our path might naturally fall to a lower course where everything is cast into antagonism. We are now in the realm of lower consciousness, a realm of distrust and suspicion, of hostility and retribution. This is hell.

When we fall into lower consciousness, as the mythic Adam fell out of his garden paradise, our ego becomes possessed by the passions of insecurity and aggression, intent above all else on getting our share and guarding what is ours. In hell, everyone lives in a state of desperate isolation, tormented by insatiable craving and captive to our own self-destructive compulsions. Our relationships are in chronic conflict, as we are incapable of opening ourselves to one another in empathy and love.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of our human condition might resolve into paradox and communion. In this case, the “both” are seen as fundamentally related, connected, united, and whole. Just as the path into hell might feel more natural to us if our ego identity was forged in adversity, the rise to a higher course is likely easier when our sense of self had been nurtured into formation by more provident higher (i.e., taller) powers. We are now in the realm of higher consciousness, a realm of trust and compassion, of generosity and freedom. This is heaven.

When we rise into higher consciousness, as the mythic Christ (whom the apostle Paul named the Second Adam) rose from the garden tomb, our ego completely transcends the deadly entanglements of insecurity and conviction. We are truly free to give of ourselves, to share what we have with others without concern for returned favors. In heaven, everyone lives in a state of inclusive community, offering our contribution to the greater good and truly caring for one another. There is enough for everybody, and goodwill abounds.

The timeless myths can help open our awareness to the critical turning-point of this present moment, to the choice we have in every new situation. We are familiar with the popular misreading of myth, where believers look forward to heaven in the next life, when their enemies and unbelievers are condemned to suffer forever in hell. Supposedly this is scheduled to happen after we die. But who is it, really, that dies?

In all the major wisdom traditions it is ego that must be transcended – released, surrendered, and overcome; specifically the “I” who believes everything turns around “me” and owes me what is “mine.” As Jesus says in the Fourth Gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. – John 12:24

We make choices every day that either cast us down into the hell of lower consciousness, into opposition and endless conflict; or raise us up into the heaven of higher consciousness, into paradox and sacred communion with all things. To live in heaven, we must “die” to selfish ambition, drop our holy convictions, and even give up our desperate longing to be saved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.    – Luke 17:33

The sacred narratives of religion are neither literal records of miraculous events and metaphysical realities, nor bad science and obsolete fictions of a superstitious past. They speak a timeless message, but only when we are ready to hear it.

I guess this is as good a time as any to listen.

 

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Myth and the Magic Eye

Sigmund Freud regarded dreams as the “royal road” to the unconscious. His breakaway student, Carl Jung, used this same approach in his interpretation of the great cultural dreams known as myths. Whether the images and strange storylines come up for the individual at night or arise from a “collective unconscious” of human nature, these two analysts were convinced they provide insight into the deeper conflicts and waking potential of our species.

For millenniums the dreams of culture have been spun like webs out of our mythic imagination and then inhabited as the narrative structure of a peculiarly human world. As I have argued in recent blog posts, the inspiration for this construction of meaning originates in our spontaneous experience of the present mystery of reality, as the provident uplift of being itself. The world picture we construct needs to be sufficiently compatible with the actual facts of objective reality to be relevant to our given situation. Thus spirituality as contemplative engagement with the ground within us, and science as the investigative engagement with the universe around us, are where the human web of meaning is anchored to reality.

In former ages, religion is what cultivated the connection (religare, to tie back or connect) between spirituality and science. It authorized the myths and symbols representing this link between inner and outer, as well as choreographed rituals and ceremonies uniting the tribe around a common focus. Religion’s primary role was to supervise a liturgy (literally the work of the people) that maintained meaning and kept the world (Peter Berger’s “sacred canopy”) intact.

But while the deep experience of the grounding mystery is likely the same today as it was thousands of years ago by virtue of a relatively identical nervous system across our species, our understanding of the universe has advanced dramatically. We don’t any longer hold the world picture of a three-story cosmos, with a celestial realm above the clouds for god and the saints, a nether realm underground for the dead and damned, and an earthly realm in between where the living work out their mortal destinies. Our current cosmology contemplates a universe that is perhaps 14 billion years old, where time is relative and space warps and stretches under gravitational force. There is no “up” or “down” to our universe, no heaven above our heads or hell below our feet.

It was as these discoveries were being made that religion made the fateful mistake of insisting on the literal truth of its myths. Rather than acknowledge sacred story as produced out of the mythic imagination, a “corrective” explanation was provided, claiming that the stories were eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events that really happened long ago. Perhaps part of what motivated this unfortunate bit of illusionment was the heavy investment religion had already made in the institution of symbols, rituals, sanctuaries, and inherited beliefs. Of course, the more time that passed, the more intellectually incredible the stories became, requiring still more corrective explanations to keep them in play.

As a consequence of this shift from a deep reading of myth to one that takes it literally, the literary gods – compelling forces in the narrative storyline – became literal deities instead and essentially lost their significance. The fact that no contemporary person encountered a literal deity didn’t deter belief. Eventually, in fact, a willingness to believe in the invisible existence of god became a religious mandate on all “true believers.” Believing it anyway testifies to the sincerity (and apparently the veracity) of belief, effectively putting it beyond argument or even evidence to the contrary.

Magic Eye

Let me see if I can illustrate this shift I’m speaking of, from a deep reading to a literal reading of myth. Above is a “Magic Eye” design, where a three-dimensional figure is embedded in the two-dimensional pattern. A literal reading of myth is like trying to figure out what this design means by scanning its surface. There is some obvious redundancy in the pattern, with very slight discrepancies in detail – but these discrepancies are substantial to the real meaning of the design. There seem to be some humanoid figures, or is it bovine? Is that a flash of lightning or a fish of some sort? And then there’s all that fuzzy confusion in the middle.

A literal reading of myth stays on the surface, just as we’re doing when we scan the two-dimensional pattern of the Magic Eye design. Pattern itself is intriguing to our brains, and they will invent it where one isn’t obvious (think of the star constellations representing mythical creatures, a different set depending on the culture and its native mythology). Unless you are suspecting something more than just what’s on the surface, you will eventually make up a meaning. If tool-use separates us along with other primate and non-primate species from the rest, and tool-making separates the primates from other mammals, then meaning-making is what sets homo sapiens apart from our evolutionary cousins.

But what if the design holds another dimension, inside its two-dimensional arrangement? What if a religious myth is something more than what scans from left to right or reads from “The Beginning” to “The End”? As I said, unless you are open-minded to the possibility, all the sharp detail and drama at the surface will prevent you from going deeper. But if you could, what would you find? If you could stop taking the myth literally and start cultivating an appreciation for it as an artistic product of the mythic imagination (individual or collective), what might it bring to awareness?

Take another look at the Magic Eye design, but this time don’t screw your focus down so hard on the two-dimensional pattern. Instead, let it relax. Let your eyes blur a little as your gaze rests lightly at mid-field of all that visual complexity. Gradually you will feel something pulling on your eye muscles, trying to stretch your attention deeper down into the pattern, toward a three-dimensional image crossing in and out of focus. Be patient. If you’re taking it literally and have been doing so for some time, it will take a while for your eyes to give up their fixated hold.

The exact same can be said of a mind that has been conditioned by culture to read its myths literally. As long as religion reads, teaches, and defends its sacred stories as literally true eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events, more and more people will opt out. Human beings need relevance, and a myth that’s been reduced to its surface – one that is thousands of years out of date – is perfectly irrelevant.

Despite religion’s coercive effort in arguing otherwise, believing in the factual accuracy of sacred stories is not a demonstration of faith but only of the willingness to cast aside common sense, suspend responsible thinking, and ignore evidence or the lack of it. When the early Christian theologian Tertullian (160-225 CE) defined faith as “believing because it is absurd,” he was admitting that biblical mythology had begun to lose relevance even back then.

So relax and open up. This story may be time-bound by its historical and scientific references, but it came from a deep place outside of time that mystics call the Eternal Now. This place is within you as well. If you look without an expectation of what should be there, of what orthodoxy says must be there, the truth might be revealed.

A deep reading of religious myth allows the transient details at the surface to fall aside, revealing a mirror into its creative source. The myth is an invitation to self-awareness, far below what you assumed it was all about.

 

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