In my continuing effort to clarify the meaning of post-theism, I’m always looking for creative ways of making it not only understandable but relevant to our times. I happen to believe that more of us than we realize are post-theistic, in both orientation and practice, and that if this movement is to be accepted as a bona fide expression of healthy spirituality, we need to carefully distinguish it from other types and anti-types of religion.
The diagram above presents several of what I regard as the most important distinctions that need to be made. Three panels or lenses represent the crucial stages and transitions in the evolution of theism to post-theism, which I will follow in sequence.
A frequent protest I encounter from nonbelievers or the religiously unaffiliated is that theism isn’t relevant to their experience. They don’t go to church or even believe in the existence of god, so my model is meaningless to them. But I don’t limit theism to its name-brand institutional varieties. Even Buddhism, which is conventionally characterized as a ‘non-religion’ since it doesn’t espouse belief in a separate deity, still orients its neophytes and practitioners on the ideal of the Amida (or “celestial”) Buddha whose grace and salvation can be summoned at death or in times of need.
This devotional focus on an external model of providence, character, and virtue is central to my definition of theism. And that’s also the reason for my claim that every family system, regardless of culture or period in history, is a theistic system with taller powers who manage, provide for, discipline, and inspire underlings on their early path to maturity. In exchange for their respect and obedience, the taller powers offer protection, provision, comfort, and blessing.
Admittedly, because families aren’t traditionally ad hoc volunteer organizations where members agree to a contract beforehand, this value-for-service exchange isn’t as formalized as it can be in institutional religion. But the societal model of higher (parental or taller) powers and devotees (children) is functionally identical.
This also explains why, again across cultures, the deities of religion are imagined and addressed as mothers and fathers, with believers self-identifying as children and siblings, brothers and sisters in faith.
I’ve placed key terms to label the three panels (or lenses) themselves, as well as the critical moves, transitions, or phases that track progress across them. Let’s begin with the panel on the left and see where the path leads.
Theism (left panel or lens) identifies a devotee as one who honors and serves a deity, the principal role of whom is to provide what devotees need – e.g., security, solace, resources, intervention, revelation, final salvation – in exchange for their submission, worship, and obedience. Every theistic social system enforces a moral code based on Thou Shalts (symbolized by a carrot in my diagram) and Thou Shalt Nots (a stick). The purpose of this binary (either-or) morality is to draw clear boundaries separating desired behavior from merely acceptable, forgivable, and forbidden behavior in its members.
The sun in my diagram symbolizes the higher power of the deity (or parent), while the figure below represents the devotee (or child). Throughout my blog I use the color codes of black, orange, and purple to stand for our animal nature (body), personal identity (ego), and higher self (soul), respectively.
In this first panel, then, the morality of theism gets focused early on the project of shaping natural impulses and reflexes into behavior that is more in line with the shared interests of the tribe. One of the first important achievements in this disciplinary process is to establish in the individual an executive center of self-conscious control (or ego) which will keep him or her in compliance with group norms.
Besides providing for what a devotee needs, the deity also serves as an exemplar of character and moral virtue. It’s important to note that this divine exemplar has shape only in the storytelling imagination of his or her devotional community. Theological concepts, sacred artifacts, iconography, and elaborate architecture help to translate the narrative character of god into the communal experience and life-situation of believers – but no one has ever had a direct encounter with a deity outside the imaginarium of belief.
In the recital and ritual performance of these sacred stories, the aspirations of devotees are focused on the virtues of god, who in this sense is an idealization or glorification of virtues for believers to imitate. To be good is to be like god.
There are obviously many more details and nuances in every system, but this model of membership morality and devotional aspiration is the basic chassis of theism. As we sweep our gaze across the varieties of theistic religion today, the deities, stories, symbols and ritual ceremonies will be different, but this central frame is consistent throughout.
In healthier forms of theism there comes a time when the devotee starts to suspect that the imaginarium of belief does not perfectly coincide with the realm of factual knowledge. Whereas the physical settings (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) and symbols of worship still provide a place where story and reality can fuse into one, a deeper extension of daily life into the factual realm increasingly exposes gaps and shortfalls in the once seamless veil of myth.
Just as a child these days will eventually come to see that Santa Claus “isn’t real,” a devotee of theism will need to update his or her juvenile concept of god merely as a function of having a longer and wider experience of life.
We shift, then, to panel two, initiated by a gradual or sudden disillusionment over what had been believed. At this point the individual might go in one of two directions: either to a position of altogether rejecting the earlier set, or to something else. The difference between these two options is reflected in the long (macron) and short (breve) vowel sound of the letter ‘a’.
The macron over the ‘a’ in ātheism identifies this decision to deny and reject the existence of god as a matter of fact. An ātheist might be willing to leave the deity as a narrative character in myth, which now gets labeled as an untrue story, but a deity’s existence outside the story is categorically denied. Ātheists are the historical opponents of theists, and their disagreement is over the literal (rather than merely the literary) status of god.
Another path out of disillusionment agrees with the ātheist on the matter of god’s literal existence, but follows a more contemplative investigation into god’s literary (i.e., metaphorical and representational) significance. I designate this position by a breve over the ‘a’ (the sound in apple): an ătheist, therefore, accepts the non-existence of god, even as he or she takes the symbol of god with renewed seriousness.
It is possible, of course, for this symbol to carry a meaning quite apart from its correspondence to anything in the objective realm of facts. This is the special function of metaphors: to facilitate awareness across the threshold between fact and mystery, between what can be known and what can only be experienced.
Going back to my earlier secular example, Santa Claus is not an actual person but rather a metaphor that connects us to the mystery of compassion, generosity, and goodwill. We can agree that Santa doesn’t exist, but nevertheless – or perhaps we should say, precisely because we are able to see through the myth of Santa Claus – the deeper significance of the metaphor can be appreciated. The contemplative take-away would be that we can individually become benefactors of altruism and charity in the world as well. Indeed, ‘Santa Claus’ can live in us.
As a path through the disillusionment after theism, ătheism shifts away from the question of god’s existence in order to dig deeper into what the god-metaphor represents. Whereas the theism-ātheism debate gets hung up on whether or not the mythological deity corresponds to an actual metaphysical (or supernatural) being, the insight that it refers to nothing (or more technically, ‘no thing’) outside the myth but instead expresses something internal to the mystery of existence and becoming fully human, is crucial.
Here we come back to the deity’s role as exemplar of the higher virtues that promote genuine community – which of course is a leap beyond merely managing social order: responsibility, altruism, love, cooperation, forgiveness, wisdom. This is not an exclusive set by any means, but it does trace out the trajectory of god’s character development in mythology. Over time, the deity becomes increasingly humane, which both registers the community’s ethical progress in this direction and inspires their ongoing advance into a fuller awakening.
When theism directs the adoration of a devotee upon these higher virtues of the deity, a god-focused glorification activates a self-conscious aspiration to realize them in the devotee’s own life. Now, in place of a personified set of ethical virtues (i.e., the deity), these same ethical virtues come to infuse the personality of the devotee. The god is internalized, so to speak, and ătheism transitions into post-theism.
Many today are lingering in a state of disorientation, just on the cusp of an ătheistic descent of contemplation while the higher virtues of human fulfillment and genuine community are just out of reach. Either they can’t get past the debate over god’s existence, or they can’t let go of god without feeling guilty and sacrilegious. For others, the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell don’t motivate anymore, but they value the fellowship and don’t want to lose it. In all cases they are stuck. It certainly doesn’t help that many forms of institutional theism these days persecute their own members who are waking up with new insights, real questions, and a much bigger vision.
The good news (gospel) of post-theism is that there is life after god – not without god, for that just pitches us back into a needless debate, but on the other side of god. Many are there already, and they are expecting you. In the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine”:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one