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The Illusion of Who You Are

Post-theism doesn’t deny our need for salvation, only that we should expect it from elsewhere. Moreover, it’s not about getting rescued or delivered to a better place, free of enemies or bodies to drag us down. Such themes are common in so-called popular religion, particularly its theistic varieties, where believers are conditioned to anticipate the liberated life as a future and otherworldly glory. In the meantime they are expected to stand with the congregation, honor tradition, and stick to the script.

It’s not that post-theism opposes these as a “new evil” from which we now need to be saved, as when religion is made into the enemy by secular modernists who condemn it as backward and close-minded. If we even use the term, salvation – literally referring to a process of being set free and made whole – has to do with the liberated life right now for the one who has dropped the illusion of being somebody special and getting it right.

Post-theists are more likely to seek genuine community than merely stand with the congregation, to press for contemporary relevance over turning the wheel of tradition, and to flip the script from final answers to more profound questions.

Our task, then, is to refocus our human quest (with the secularists) on the present world, but also (with some theists) on what is beyond the world we currently have in view. My returning reader is familiar with the view of constructivism that regards ‘the world’ as our shared construction of meaning, inside of which we all manage our individual worlds of more personal meaning. The world we have in view, in other words, refers to our current perspective on reality, not to reality itself.

The really real is beyond our collective and individual worlds, but it is in our worlds (not in reality) where our predicament is located.

Rather than trying to illustrate this in the abstract, let’s make it personal. Reflect for a moment on your personal world, or more accurately, on your worldview. It’s not exactly the same as anyone else’s, is it? Your worldview overlaps and agrees with some others, but there are critical differences as well.

The unique elements in your personal world are reflective of your individual lifestory – referring to the autobiographical narrative (or personal myth) that you identify yourself by. Your lifestory is a reductive selection from the stream of experience which is your life: arranged, modified, and much of it invented in the work of constructing a coherent sense of who you are.

The personal identity carried in your lifestory is therefore less than what you are in your totality – the human being of a certain genetic makeup, temperament, background, aspirations, and life experiences. In fact, it is nothing more than the persona you project to others and reflect back to yourself for validation and judgment. From Latin, persona refers to an actor’s mask through which she animates a character on stage. The mask is just an assumed identity, but it lives in a story and interacts with other actors in the progression of scenes.

Good actors make us forget that they are acting a part. You, too, have become so good at acting through the persona of identity that you sometimes forget it’s just somebody you’re pretending to be. Or maybe you’re like the majority of us and haven’t yet caught on to the game we’re all playing together.

In my diagram I have put your persona (what you project to others), your lifestory (that highly filtered and refashioned personal myth), and your worldview (the construction of meaning you use to make sense of things) inside a bubble which is meant to represent the illusion of your personal identity. I also use a fancy font to remind you that all of this is one big somewhat magical fantasy. You should be able to analyze each ‘level’ of this fantasy and confirm how illusory it all really is.

But here’s the thing: most of us don’t understand that our identity is just an illusion. To understand that, we would have to see through the illusion instead of merely looking at it and mistaking it for reality. What might otherwise serve as a ‘positive illusion’ – referring to a belief system that positively orients us in reality, connects us meaningfully to others, and supports our evolution as free, creative, and responsible individuals – becomes instead a delusion in which we are stuck. This is the predicament that our salvation resolves.

As a delusion, the unrecognized illusion of identity devolves into a profound sense of separateness from each other and everything else. Our frame of perception collapses to the horizon of personal concerns, only to what affects us and our own interests. Because the project of identity is not self-standing but depends on the assent and approval of other actors equally deluded, ego (the part of us that is pretending to be somebody) is inevitably insecure to some extent.

Of course, we want to be secure, so we form attachments to the world around us, which we hope will make us feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I name the four ‘feeling-needs’. We all have these feeling-needs, and it’s only a secondary question whether we might be safe, loved, capable, and worthy in fact. The point is that we need to feel these in some positive degree in order to have security in who we are. The deeper our insecurity, however, the stronger our attachments need to be, since they are supposed to pacify us and make us feel good about ourselves.

And as attachments require that we give up some of our own center in order to identify with them, the delusion grows more captivating the more scattered our devotion becomes.

In the diagram we have moved from in/security to attachment, and from what’s been said about attachments it should not be difficult to see where ambition comes into the picture. An ambition has a dual (ambi) motivation, combining a desire for the object and its anticipated benefit (feeling safe, loved, capable, or worthy) with a fear that the object might not be there as expected, might not stay around, might be taken away, or in the end might not be enough. Ambitious individuals are praised and rewarded in our society, which goes to show how deep in delusion a family, tribe, or nation can get.

A system of meaning called an ideology (or on a smaller scale, an orthodoxy) enchants an entire culture into believing that this is the way to authentic life.

As we come full circle in my diagram, we need to remember that meaning is not a property of reality but merely a construct of human minds. Your world is one construct of meaning, mine is another; and together along with millions of other ambitious persons we spin a web that holds us hostage in a world of our own making. Our salvation is not a matter of throwing ourselves with full commitment into this world (the secularist mistake), but neither is it about getting delivered from this world to another one somewhere else (the theistic mistake).

Instead, salvation comes as we awaken from delusion and begin to see through the illusion of who we think we are. Only then can we get over ourselves and fully embrace our creative authority, working together for genuine community and the wellbeing of all.

 

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Unfinished Business

Unfinished BusinessI guess I write a lot about what I feel is most urgently needing our attention these days. Current events are interesting because they’re in the news and on our minds, but popular engagement with the news of the day tends to skim the surface of what’s really going on. It’s not nuclear proliferation, terrorist plots, melting ice caps, or the next election that we should be figuring out, but the deeper forces that are presently driving and shaping our reality.

We need a psychological model that reveals the truth about ourselves without reducing us to mindless matter, on one side, or elevating us to metaphysical dimensions, on the other. Importantly it should provide an honest accounting of both the promises and liabilities that attach to our human nature, in a way that makes sense in a secular and global age. The elements of my model are not new in themselves, but I offer definitions and relationships among the elements that are novel – and, I hope, relevant to the current challenges we face.

My diagram above draws an arc of development from a body-centered (early) phase, through an ego-centered (middle) phase, and reaching fulfillment in a soul-centered (late) phase. I’ve joined body and soul in something of a tensive image, stretching between the animal and spiritual aspects of our essential nature. A simple statement of this essential nature is that we are ‘spiritual animals’, animals with a capacity for imagination, creativity, contemplation, transcendence, and communion.

We are not ‘souls in bodies’ or ‘bodies with souls’, but rather a marvelous duality of consciousness that is at once centered in life (body) and grounded in being (soul).

Before we hitch a ride with ego along that rising and falling arc, let’s spend a little more time getting to know the body where its hero journey begins. In other posts I have characterized body as naturally extroverted, that is, as flexing consciousness outward to the surrounding environment and continuously regulating its own internal state (as an organism) according to those external cues and conditions. The body’s own internal urgencies operate for the most part below our conscious awareness and almost entirely outside our conscious control. We might regard the body itself as a highly evolved energy exchange between external resources and these internal urgencies, between the provident conditions of the environment and its own metabolic demands as a living organism.

Ego formation (the rising arc of personal development) entails some decisive negotiations with the body’s animal nature, a process that is motivated and supervised by our tribe. The expected outcome of this process is a centered identity that sees itself as belonging to ‘us’, obediently performing roles that contribute to the welfare of the group. What we call morality is the set of rules, values, incentives, and deterrents that constrain us to behave like a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’ and eventually as a compliant member of the tribe.

Psychologically ego formation is also where reality starts to divide in two, with an objective (‘thrown-over’) world on one side, and a subjective (‘thrown-under’) self on the other side of this line. World here is not a synonym for reality, as we sometimes speak of ‘the real world’ as a factual and nonfictional realm beyond us. As I use the term, world refers to the construct of symbols, language, meaning, and morality that ego, with the help of its tribe, builds around itself. Much of it is (in fact) fictional, in the sense of being a narrative construction of metaphors and stories that form a cross-referencing web of meaning where an individual feels secure.

Self is also a narrative construct made from strands of memory, preferences, beliefs, and ambitions that connect into a relatively continuous braid of character which ego identifies as ‘me’. As a construct, self is no more real than the world in which ego finds refuge and significance. Personal identity, therefore, represents a separate project from the deeper evolutionary one of becoming a mature and fully actualized human being. Indeed, the project of identity-formation can seriously impede and even completely undermine human progress in this larger sense.

Instead of an ego that is stable, balanced, and unified – together comprising a virtue known as ‘ego strength’ – development gets arrested in one or more spectrum disorders (borderline personality, bipolar mood, or dissociative identity).

Getting stuck here – arrested, hooked, fixated – is what lies behind so much suffering that individuals chronically endure and proceed to inflict on each other. Rather than operating from a position of creative authority where the adaptive compatibility between self and world affords the freedom and responsibility to be oneself, neurotic insecurity closes the mind inside rigid convictions and condemns the individual to a prison of shame and conceit, impotence and aggression, profound doubt and fundamentalist certainty, all or nothing.

Increasingly desperate bids for security turn into deadly campaigns for supremacy; or else, which in the long run amounts to the same thing, a final relief from torment through suicide.

A critical deficiency in ego strength prevents an individual from being able to ‘go beyond’, or transcend, the self-and-world construct for the sake of a larger and more authentic experience. Creative inspiration, mystical contemplation, empathic communion, genuinely open dialogue – such experiences are unavailable to the personality which is trapped inside itself.

These experiences, sought and celebrated in healthy cultures, are only possible as ego succeeds in letting go, dropping out, and moving beyond the conventional structures of meaning, deeper into the present mystery of reality.

And thus we have arrived at our consideration of soul, as that introspective turn of consciousness to its own grounding mystery. Even here, however, ego might attempt to take control and claim the inner life of soul as merely another name for subjectivity, for the permanent core of personal identity. I’ve suggested in other posts that this error of mistaken identity is behind the widespread religious doctrine of personal immortality. It’s essential to note, however, that the grounding mystery within is neither the ego, its personality, nor the self of ‘who I am.’

Despite the obvious popularity of the idea across cultures, the invention of personal immortality marks a serious corruption in our proper understanding of the soul.

When ego is transcended – not negated, rejected, renounced, or subjugated, but released and surpassed in a more inclusive, holistic, and unitive experience – consciousness sinks into its own grounding mystery and proceeds thence (or perhaps simultaneously) outwards along the expanding horizons of sensory awareness to the breakthrough insight that All is One. From deep within, far below the surface concerns of our historical situation, we find the grace to relax into being, open ourselves to reality, and ponder our place in the turning rhythms of a universal order (or universe).

This is the birthplace of philosophy, according to its original intention as the ‘love of wisdom’. Only as we achieve liberation from the centripetal (shrinking and tightening) constraints of personal identity can we appreciate the astonishing truth that, in us, the universe is contemplating itself. If we can be faithful in this practice, those chronic and intractable problems that are currently threatening to undo us will simply unwind and fall away.

 

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Curriculum Spiritus

Curriculum SpiritusIn a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.

But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.

I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.

What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.

Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).

Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.

So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.

Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.

By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.

We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.

Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.

The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.

What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.

What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?

The world would be a very different place, would it not?

 

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