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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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Deliver Us From Conviction

In The Great Triathlon of Religion I attempted to put more definition around the type of religion called post-theism. If we are to really appreciate its distinctive contribution to our development as individuals and our evolution as a species, the meaning of post-theism needs to advance beyond being seen as nothing more than a resolution for getting on without god.

A post-theist is not merely a formerly outspoken atheist who just doesn’t care enough anymore to argue the obvious point of god’s nonexistence. In other words, getting on “after god” (post + theos) is a very different mode of life than getting on “without god” (a + theos).

I characterized each of the three types (or phases) of religion as motivated partly out of a need to address a pressing problem of our human condition. Animism has to deal with the inevitability of death, and finds salvation in the promise of rebirth – not individual reincarnation (which is a theory that comes later) but in the cycling rhythms of life that turn within and all around us. The religion of our early life (as a species as well as individuals) is all about participating in this provident web of life with reverence and gratitude.

Theism carries these same themes forward, but in a more self-conscious and socially oriented way, as the emerging center of identity (ego) takes the stage. By now, that impersonal life force moving through all things has taken an anthropomorphic turn, as any number of patron deities who authorize and oversee the world-order. The problem that theism must resolve is the tendency in the individual to deviate from group norms, to “selfishly” pursue his or her own gratification and transgress on the rules for “proper” behavior. If individuals won’t comply with this moral code, the very existence of a civil order is at risk. Guilt is induced with disobedience, and atonement provides the repentant ego a way back into good standing with the community.

The great themes of sin and redemption, fault and forgiveness, transgression and reconciliation are key ideas of theism, as it has to do primarily with interpersonal relationships, the threat of social breakdown, and the process of restoring harmony in the body politic. Toward this end, even the individual might be sacrificed for the common good – perhaps as a vicarious offering, to appease an offended deity, or to satisfy the penalty for sin.

Obviously the great theistic systems of Judaism and Christianity, as represented in the Bible, are very much in this groove. Less obvious – or rather buried underneath multiple layers of theistic commentary and myth-spinning known as the New Testament – is the First Voice of Jesus whose message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness marked a potential (but ultimately failed) transition to post-theism. His teachings were soon obscured behind a transactional theory of salvation, where his death on a cross for our sins became the turning-point of a conditional redemption (only for the elect or true believers).world religionsThe example of Christianity is illustrative, if mostly in the negative, of the threshold dynamics of post-theism. Our primary problem according to post-theism is not death (as in animism) or sin (as in theism), but conviction, which refers to a critical reversal where beliefs once held by the mind come to hold the mind captive, in a mind-set of absolute certainty.

In this post-theistic age, conviction becomes our greatest threat to genuine community and world peace. Individuals compelled by conviction to sacrifice themselves and persecute (or kill) others are ready to bring down the apocalypse in defense of their truth. At this point, ideology takes over in a kind of “demonic possession,” locking an otherwise creative intelligence inside a closed circuit of cross-referencing dogmatic claims and motivating violence as a demonstration of devotion.

To the degree that theism proclaims the literal (i.e., metaphysical) reality of what was originally a literary (i.e., mythological) figure, an absence of empirical evidence requires it to be increasingly self-validating. In other words, its “truth” becomes more about passion than reason, more about persuasion and intimidation than existential insight and real-life relevance. For a fundamentalist the mere suggestion that the personal god of Scripture is a narrative construct and not an objective being is tantamount to atheism and worthy of damnation in the deepest hell.

For a post-theist, however, this same observation is profoundly liberating, but not because it sets us free from superstitious belief and for a future without god (a-theos). Rather it is liberating because it helps us appreciate the need for the technical mediation of symbols, stories, and sanctuaries in the longer event of our spiritual awakening, on our way to becoming fully human. Just as the developmental process of maturity doesn’t require the self-responsible adult to engage a campaign of debunking childhood myths and disproving the objective existence of Neverland, a post-theist feels no need to debate the metaphysical reality of gods and demons, heaven and hell, immortality and the afterlife.

Post-theism affirms the vital importance and relative place of theism in the scheme of human spiritual development. The god that was earlier worshiped and obeyed must gradually be absorbed by our rising aspirations, as we step into our roles as taller powers to embody a more generous and farther reaching empathy. The real “success” of theism is when the virtue of god glorified in our sanctuaries is actively manifested by us in the streets. With the personified ideal of patience, mercy, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness (as in the early Christian equation of god and love) now internalized and made flesh in us, we can take full responsibility as caretakers of earth and one another.

With growing challenges these days at all levels of concern – personal, political, and planetary – the need for us to break the chains of conviction which separate us and bravely honor the bonds of empathy that make us one is as urgent as ever.

 

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Stuck On God

Low_High TheismThe rise of theism and the reign of god correlates exactly with the emergence of our separate center of identity as human beings, with what is known as ego consciousness. In other words, the provident forces active in the universe were personified as humanlike (as personalities) at the same time as humans were coming to self-consciousness as standing out somehow from the spontaneous instincts of our animal nature.

The opportunity – and to some extent the survival necessity – of living together in larger and more sophisticated social groups required constraints around our natural impulses and inclinations. Certain drives, reactions, and behaviors had to be domesticated, tempered and refined for life in society, while others were ruled out as unacceptable for members. It was in fact this shift of concern from survival to membership that prompted the creation of an authority structure which could impose and reinforce this tribal morality, presided over by the patron deity.

Whereas animism – the form of religion preceding theism – had been more about maintaining (succoring, celebrating, and reciprocating) a relationship with the provident forces active in the universe (i.e., the power in the storm, the fruiting tree, the spirit of the bear and other totem animals, etc.), theism made these secondary to the moral function, as conditional blessings and rewards for obedience to god’s will. The exact correspondence between the “will of god” and the system of morality was interpreted to mean that the rules of society had originated with god, and not the other way around.

I’m deeply interested in this correlation between theism and humanism (which of course includes egoism), of how the conception of a supernatural ego (the patron deity) served to authorize and justify a moral system in which human beings could further evolve. The challenges and opportunities of society, in the way it pulled us out of communion with nature and into the role-plays of identity and membership, was (and still is) a necessary stage on our way to becoming fully actualized.

My diagram above illustrates the career of the patron deity, ascending with our growing need for moral orientation in society, reaching its peak in what might be called “high theism,” and then descending – or as I will argue, dissolving – into a new mode of spirituality where god is no longer regarded as separate, “up there” and over all. The terms underneath the arcing career of the patron deity (obedience, worship, and aspiration) represent the primary investments of theism in its function of upholding the “sacred canopy” of morality (Peter Berger).

I’ve also divided the arc of theism and its patron deity into “early” and “late” phases, both still focused in the activity of worship where the deity is exalted and glorified in the congregation of devotees, but sharply distinguished by a shift of accent from obedience (early theism) to aspiration (late theism). In early theism the preoccupation is on the task of shaping behavior to the values and aims of society, or more specifically to those of membership.

God’s will and command are represented as putting constraints on our natural impulses, inducing guilt or inspiring altruism as the case may be. Because the patron deity speaks against something in us that must be overcome, or alternately calls out of us behavior that is still to some degree unnatural, god is positioned in early theism as strictly outside and apart from us. We still need to be told how to behave, and this moral instruction implies a source of authority outside ourselves.

In late theism we can hear the message shifting from “Do this, or else” to “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect” – to take an example from the teachings of Jesus, whose spirituality marked a key transition beyond the conventional theism of his day. Here we move from objective commands to the more subjectively oriented virtues of moral life. Along the way, god is becoming increasingly more patient, compassionate, gracious, and forgiving than he was in his early life. Correspondingly the focus in theism shifts from obedience (i.e., following rules and doing what we’re told) to aspiration, where the challenge is to become more like god.

The culmination of late theism would accomplish the complete assimilation of god into a fully awakened and self-actualized humanity. While from a naive perspective this might look just like secular atheism, the difference between them in the quality and depth of spiritual life is profound. Whereas atheism seeks to dismiss or argue god out of existence, post-theism affirms the patron deity’s role even as it releases and transcends the need for his separate existence. Secular atheism throws god out, and with him all moral authority; post-theism takes god in and intentionally promotes the spread of inclusive community, unconditional forgiveness, and reverence for life.

Theism of one form or another is necessary (but not sufficient!) to a fully developed human being. (I should remind my reader here that every family system is a form of theism, with its higher (or taller) powers supervising the emerging identities of a new generation.) Problems arise when the proper arc of theism and its patron deity is prevented from advancing; functionally (or I should say dysfunctionally) it gets stuck in its early phase. Obedience is a persistent preoccupation, which is correlated with a deep mistrust of oneself and others. God is worshiped as the rule-giver, moral supervisor, end-time judge and executioner.

As theism fixates itself on our need for correction – to be straightened out, made clean, redeemed from sin, and ultimately rescued from final destruction – it effectively holds the human spirit captive and unable to progress. (This is the dogmatic, authoritarian, and militant religion that atheists rightly reject.) Tangled in its dragnet of obligations, believers are given no liberty to think outside the box or reach beyond the circle to a larger mystery. The higher virtues of human nature are closed off from us, relegated to second position in the character of god and heavily qualified by his supreme demand for repentance, righteousness, and retribution. Ego remains in control.

But we must advance. Forces of an arrested and corrupt theism around our planet today must not dissuade the waking (and growing!) minority from growing fully into god.

We have a job to do.

 
 

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