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Christian Mythology Through A Post-theistic Lens

After leaving Christian ministry as a church pastor my journey has taken me deeper into the frontier of post-theism, and it’s been my new “calling” since then to clarify the meaning of this emergent form of spirituality. I have worked hard to distinguish post-theism from its progenitor (theism), as well as from its much younger sibling (atheism) who seeks to discredit their parent and be done with the whole family affair.

Even as a church pastor I was intrigued by the mythology of early Christianity, which was inspired no doubt by the historical disturbance of Jesus himself, to be later developed by the likes of Paul and the four Evangelists into a story of world-historical and even cosmic scope. Intuitively I sensed that the story was not really about long-ago events or faraway places, despite what my denomination and its theological tradition wanted me to believe and preach to the congregations I served.

Maybe I didn’t need to get out of church in order to find the deeper truth of Christianity, but it certainly helped.

Outside the imaginarium of stained-glass windows, vestments, liturgies, rituals, and hymns, the transforming effects of its originary experience coalesced for me in a singular revelation. It was – and for now we have to speak in the past tense since both popular and orthodox Christianity have all but lost their sightlines to the source – not about being saved from hell or rescued to heaven, pleasing god and getting our reward.

All of these negative and positive incentives hook into something without which they would have no power. It’s not that we had to wait for modern science to demythologize the underworld and outer space, or for anthropological studies to expose the historical origins of religion before we could let go and move on. Their hooks are in us, quite independent of whether and to what degree we may be children of the Enlightenment.

In my investigations into the development of religion through the millenniums of human history, it struck me that its three major paradigms – classified as animism, theism, and post-theism – are each centered in a distinct dimension of our human experience.

Animism is centered in our animality with its immersion in the fluid forces of nature, life, and instinct. Theism is centered in our personality and particularly involved with the formation and maintenance of ego identity in the social context. And post-theism – that latter-day evolution of religion “after god” – is centered in our spirituality, where we begin to cultivate the grounding mystery of our existence and live in the realization that all is One.

My objective in this blog has been to show how theism prepares for the emergence of post-theism, and where alternatively it gets hung up, spinning out more heat than light. We happen to be in the throes of that dynamic right now, as the paroxysms of pathological theism – in the forms of fundamentalism, dogmatism, terrorism, and complacency – multiply around us.

With all of this in view, it’s tempting to join the chorus of atheists who are pressing to extinguish theism in all its forms, or at least to ignore it in hopes it will just go away.

But it won’t go away: another recurring theme in this blog of mine. Theism has a role to play, and pulling it down will not only destroy what core of wisdom still remains, but also foreclose on a flourishing human future on this planet by clipping the fruit of post-theism before it has a chance to ripen. This fruit is what I call genuine community.

Theism evolved for the purpose of preparing the way for genuine community, although its own inherent tendencies toward tribalism, authoritarianism, and orthodoxy have repeatedly interfered. This is just where the struggle for post-theism will make some enemies.

Returning to my autobiographical confessions, over time and with distance I came to realize where it is that Christian post-theism emerges from Christian theism, and it is precisely where Jewish post-theism emerged from Jewish theism. One place in particular where a post-theistic breakthrough in Judaism was attempted but ended up failing was in the life and teachings of Jesus.

This failure eventuated in the rise of Christian theism (or Christianity), which made Jesus the center of its orthodoxy, though not as revealer of the liberated life but rather the linchpin of its doctrinal system.

Just prior to the point when the early ‘Jesus movement’ was co-opted and effectively buried (for a second time!) beneath layers of dogmatic tradition and ecclesiastical politics, the apostle Paul and the four Evangelists had grasped the energizing nerve of Jesus’ message. Immediately – or rather I should say spontaneously, out of what I earlier called an originary experience – they translated its transforming mystery into metaphorical and mythological meaning.

Whether they borrowed from the cultural store of symbolism available at the time or brought it up from the depths of their own mythopoetic imaginations (which is really where the shared store originates), these mythmakers of earliest Christianity employed images of divine adoption, virgin birth, heroic deeds, resurrection, ascension, and apocalypse, lacing these into the Jewish-biblical epic of creation, exodus, Pentecost, promised land, and a future messianic age.

The product of their efforts was indeed vast in scope and deeply insightful into what in my ministry days I called “the first voice of Jesus.”

As briefly as I can, I will now lift out of that early mythology the kernel of Jesus’ message, focusing his intention to move Jewish theism into a post-theistic paradigm. Although it largely failed with the rise of orthodox Christianity, there’s still a chance that we can pick up his cause and work together in realizing his vision of genuine community.


Very quickly, my diagram illustrates an extremely compressed time line of cosmic history, starting with the so-called Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago, and progressing by stages (or eras) from matter to life, from life to mind, and in this last second of cosmic time, from sentient mind to the self-conscious center of personal identity that you name “I-myself” (Latin ego).

As the picture suggests, the story doesn’t stop there, since the formation of ego is intended to connect you with others, serving also as the executive center of self-awareness and your uniquely personal aspirations.

The formation of an individual center of personal identity creates the illusion of separateness – that you and another are separate individuals. There is truth in this illusion, of course, in that you are in fact not the same person but two different persons with your own experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires. This illusion of separateness is what post-theism seeks to help you transcend by making you aware that it is an illusion, or in other words, a mere social construction of identity.

Self-transcendence, then, does not mean ripping down the veil of illusion, but rather seeing through it to the higher truth of unity beyond your apparent separateness. That is to say, your separate identity is affirmed in order that it can be used to support your leap beyond it and into relational wholeness (or at-one-ment).

It is critically important to understand, however, that in genuine community otherness is not subtracted or dissolved away, which would leave only an undifferentiated ‘mush’ and not the dynamic mutuality you are longing for (according to post-theism).

Hand in hand with this theme of atonement is another page from the teachings of Jesus and post-theism generally, which goes by the name apotheosis (literally a process of changing into [the likeness of] god). This is not about becoming a god, but expressing out of your deeper human nature – which according to the Jewish myth was created in the image of god (Genesis 1) – those virtues whereupon genuine community depends and flourishes.

Compassion, generosity, fidelity, and forgiveness: such are among the divine virtues that theism elevates in its worship of god. Apotheosis is thus the ascent of self-actualization by which these virtues attributed to god are now internalized and activated in you, to be carried to expression in a life that is compassionate, generous, faithful, and forgiving.

This is another way, then, of pulling aside the illusion of separateness in which personal identity is suspended.

My depth analysis of early Christian mythology thus revealed two profound thematic threads reaching back to the first voice of Jesus. From inside theism and beneath the picture-language of its mythology, god is apprehended as both Other and Ideal. As Other – or more precisely, as the divine principle of otherness – god represents the irreducible interplay of one and another in genuine community. And as Ideal, god is the progressive rise of those deep potentials within each of us, surfacing to realization in the higher virtues of genuine community.

In early Christian mythology (found in the extended Gospel of Luke called the Acts of the Apostles) we are presented with the symbol of Pentecost, as the transforming moment when the Holy Spirit (or the risen Jesus) comes to dwell within the new community, which Paul had already named the Body of Christ. From now on, the life of this new community would be the communal incarnation of god on earth.

Had it taken root, the ensuing adventure would have marked a new era of spirituality, on the other side of – but paradoxically not without or against – god.

Jesus himself envisioned this in his metaphor of the kingdom of god – or more relevantly, the kindom of spirit. In truth we are all kin – neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike. All is One, and we are all in this together. Good news indeed!

 

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What’s Next For God?

My inquiry into the future of god will sound strange – and probably blasphemous – to believers who regard him as an immortal being, beyond the world and outside of time, without beginning or end. That’s how Christian orthodoxy defines god at any rate. There can be no ‘future’ for such a timeless and unchanging metaphysical absolute.

But then again, I’m not talking about the god of theologians – referring to those who talk about god and make a living putting definition around a mystery that cannot be named. Long before the theologians were mystics and storytellers, who rather than making the mystery into an object of thought, sought its direct experience (the mystics) or mediated through the veil of metaphor (the storytellers).

The contribution of theologians was to detach from the mystery and turn it into an object of thought – something separate from the mind and its immediate experience.

Direct experience gave way to metaphorical depiction, which eventually lost its transparency and finally condensed into a separate thing – god as a being possessed of certain powers and attributes. Whereas god had earlier been acknowledged as representing the creative ground and abyssal depths of being itself, his identity as a character of story was later relocated to the objective realm where he became the god of theologians.

This mystery is indeed timeless – or eternal, according to the original meaning of that word. Our experience of mystery is ineffable (i.e., indescribable, unspeakable, beyond words) since it transpires far below (and was felt long before) the active language centers of the brain. To translate the experience of mystery into language – into names, nouns, adjectives and verbs – is to move out of experience and away from the mystery.

As a product of human imagination and language, the objective god of theologians is the principal artifact of religion. It has a past, and we can legitimately ask whether it has a future.

To give my answer to that question, it’s necessary to see religion and its god in historical context. The construct of god hasn’t always been with us – in fact, in the longer run of our evolution as a species, the concept of deity is a late arrival. For many millenniums the human experience of, and response to, the present mystery of reality was carried in the thought-forms of animism.

This mode of reflection was – and still is, particularly when we are very young children – deeply in touch with the urgencies and rhythms of the body, and the profound ways this embodied life-force connects with, depends on, and participates in the rhythms and cycles of nature all around. Our bodies, other animals, the trees, the seasons, Sun, moon, and stars are animated (made alive and moved) by forces we cannot control or understand.

Over time human curiosity, imagination, and technical ingenuity began to thicken the layer of culture mediating our experience of nature and the mystery of life. Symbols preserved the connection but were themselves symptoms of our growing separation. Mythic narratives weaved patterns of meaning and tribal ceremonies provided for social engagement, keeping the community synchronized with the great rounds of natural time.

A crucial advancement also came with the concept of a higher purpose behind things – no doubt reflecting the way that the programs and techniques informing human culture are directed by our own strategic objectives and desired outcomes.

Everything happening was hereafter regarded as happening for a reason – not so much according to an antecedent causality (a line of reasoning that would eventually inspire the rise of science) but by fulfilling the aims of a transcendent will – the god(s) of theism.

The narrative invention and developmental career of deity is a primary feature of the type of religion known as theism. Historically this career moves through three distinct phases. An early phase charts a time when the layer of culture is still thin enough to be subordinate to the life forces of nature. A deity serves as provider of the resources a society requires, as well as of the protections that shelter it from natural catastrophes.

In theism’s high phase, the thickening of culture correlates also to the formation of ego, to that social construction of personal identity each of us knows as “I, myself.” As its counterpart and transcendent ideal, a deity authorizes a morality of obedience and personifies the higher virtues of ethical life. God is to be honored, worshiped, and obeyed. In doing so, individual egos are motivated to conform to social norms, as they strive to please the deity and gain his (or her) favor.

Late theism marks a transition where the deity is invoked less in sanctuaries than contemplated in the depths of the soul. A transactional morality of obedience – be good and god will be good to you – gives way to a more adult aspirational morality. Those divine virtues which had been elevated and glorified in worship become the internalized ideals of a more self-responsible, compassionate, and benevolent way of life.

An inherent (and building) tension in late theism has to do with the fact that its tradition, liturgy, and orthodoxy remain focused on an objective god, just as the orientation of many believers is starting to shift to a mystically inward and ethically engaged spirituality.

So far, then, we can observe an advancing focus in religion, invested early in the sentient experience of our body and the rhythms of natural life (animism); then graduating upwards, so to speak, with concerns related to ego formation, becoming somebody, finding one’s place in society and striving to be a good person.

Theism might be thought of as a ‘second womb’, providing the social support, cultural instruction, and moral incentives for the development of personal identity.

In my diagram I have placed the graphic of a burst to represent the moment when we ‘see through’ the veil of our myths and symbols. This insight may be experienced as an epiphany (an “appearing through”) or more like an apocalypse leaving us utterly disillusioned – that is to say, where the illusion of those sacred fictions and orthodox beliefs that had for so long nurtured the formation of our identity is ripped from its rings like a great curtain coming down.

In some religious traditions this is represented as the labor pains of a second birth, of being lifted out of the warm trance of social conformity and into our creative authority as agents of a higher wholeness.

Four possible paths lead from this point. Two of them, named absolutism and ātheism (with the macron long ‘a’), stay fixated on the question of literal truth. Is the featured deity of those sacred stories a literal being, a supernatural or metaphysical personality out there and separate from us – a supreme being among beings?

Absolutism (aka fundamentalism) has to say ‘yes’ unless everything is lost. Ātheism says emphatically ‘no’, since a literal god in that sense is contradicted by science, besides being logically incredible and an offense to our ethical freedom as humans.

These paths, then, don’t really lead anywhere because they both remain stuck on god.

A third path, opening into a fourth, seeks to better understand what god means rather than argue for or against his literal existence. As a literary figure (i.e., a principal character of myth) the deity serves a purpose – the ones identified above: representing a provident purpose behind things (early theism), authorizing a moral system (high theism), and exemplifying the higher virtues of a liberated life (late theism).

The commitment to understanding (i.e., seeing through) what god means rather than debating his existence is what distinguishes ătheism (with the breve ‘a’, as in “apple”) from simple ātheism. The present mystery upon which the whole enterprise of religion has been a contemplation – from the embodied experience of sentient life (animism) to the heroic adventure of self-conscious identity (theism) – now prepares to transcend merely personal concerns for a universal truth, that All is One.

The advent of our awakening to the full capacity and higher potential of our human nature is what I mean by apotheosis. This is the future of god.

How ought we to live, in view of this higher wholeness and our place in it? According to post-theism, we devote ourselves to the provident care of our resident animists (infants and young children). We exemplify the virtues of community life and inspire our resident theists (children and adolescents) to follow our example. And when their minds and hearts are ready, we encourage them to step through the veil and join us in this work, on the other side of god.

 

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Education, Refocused

Let’s assume that when students say they are in college “to get a job,” they really are answering honestly – and hopefully. But let’s also leave open the possibility that what students are really hoping for is life direction, an opportunity to discover and develop the creative potential they possess and live it out in a deeply meaningful way. They may not have the insight and vocabulary to articulate their aspiration in these terms, but the yearning is there, along with a willingness to entrust themselves to an education system committed to this same outcome.

And that’s where the process breaks down.

In fact, the education system is not very much interested in students’ self-discovery; they should be taking care of that outside of class. School is a place for gaining knowledge and skills that will one day land the successful graduate in gainful employment – in a job. And while that sounds very similar to what students themselves are saying, my experience in higher education reveals something else. Most students don’t just want a job; they want purpose.

On the left side of my diagram I have arranged five terms often used interchangeably in respect to the nature of work. As is my custom, their arrangement is hierarchical and organic, which means that the distinctions in value are to be read as growing up from the bottom.

The first value distinction in the nature of work is a job, sometimes taken as a humorous acronym for Just Over Broke. A job is a means for getting money, and quite a lot of jobs pay barely enough for us to keep the lights on, gas in the car, and food in the fridge. The principal reason you might go looking for a job is to make the money you need to afford the basic necessities of life. Students don’t go to college to get a job. They want something more.

An occupation is literally work that keeps you busy, or occupies your time. Out in the world of work there are many occupations – many forms of work whereby individuals keep themselves busy day after day. This value distinction represents a slight up-shift from the objective of staying just over broke. You give your time to an occupation in the hope that it will end up being a decent trade. While a job only pays you money in exchange for your labor, an occupation typically offers more in the form of benefits, promotions, and other incentives.

A profession requires specialized training to acquire the knowledge and skills you need. Post-secondary, technical, and trade school programs are designed to teach and qualify students for work in all sorts of professions: manufacturing, engineering, medicine, business management, social services, etc. For each, there is a special set of skills to master, certificates to achieve, and degrees to earn. As a successful graduate, you hope to find work in the profession for which your college degree prepared you. Almost half of college graduates, however, end up finding work in occupations or jobs outside their chosen degree.

In my diagram, a line to the right circles into a spiral to illustrate the current focus of higher education. Colleges recruit students, turn them into graduates, and then release them to join a trained workforce. The prosperity of every society depends on workers who possess the skills and are willing to trade their time in work for the money they need.

As he sat in a university library in London and pondered this situation, Karl Marx realized that many (or most) of these workers were not finding joy in what they were doing. A big part of this discontent, which Marx analyzed as exploitation, oppression, and the alienation of labor, was a function of capitalism and the way it separates work from the human spirit of the worker, all in the interest of increasing the wealth of those who own the technology of production.

This alienation of the human spirit from truly creative and meaningful work is a condition currently fueled by our education system.

Two more terms in my hierarchy of value distinctions can clarify what I mean by this claim. While a career is commonly just another name for a profession, occupation, or job, it refers more specifically to the arc of your lifespan and the evolution of identity. The person you are is itself a product of numerous storylines arcing and weaving together in a complex tapestry of meaning. There never has been someone just like you, and there never will be again. The unique pattern of aspirations and insecurities, of preferences, insights, and concerns that inform who you are is still evolving.

From the time you were very young until this moment, your creative engagement with life through childhood play, backyard adventures, self-discovery, artistic experimentation, formal training, and in various kinds of work has shaped you into the person you are today.

Students – particularly college students – are fully immersed in this work of constructing identity. They long to connect their current stage in life to the developing core of who they are. One day they hope to find their place in the world, where the spirit within them (referring to the innate desire and drive of human beings to connect, create, and contribute) will take wing.

Every culture and spiritual tradition acknowledges this spirit within, this deep and rising need to transcend mere self-interest for the sake of a higher and larger experience of reality. Many have interpreted it quite intuitively as an invitational call of reality to the self, as a calling from beyond ego. This is the literal meaning of our term vocation.

The career of your identity (or the story of who you are) has brought you to numerous thresholds where the calling of a higher purpose invited you to get over yourself, shift perspective to a bigger frame, and devote your energies to what really matters. Many times (perhaps most) you ignored the call, turned down the volume, got distracted, and carried on with life-as-usual.

Vocation is less about where we feel called or what we feel called to do than what we are called to become. Hero myths from around the world have the protagonist going different places and undergoing different challenges, but they share a central fascination with how the hero changes or is transformed in the process. The hero might be killed and rise to life again with new powers, discover a hidden key that unlocks the gate to freedom, overcome his fear and confront the dragon, or find within herself a virtue that had lain dormant until the critical moment – the circumstances are secondary to the peculiar virtue gained or revealed in the hero’s transformation.

It seems clear to me that what is revealed in those mythic heroes is something their storytellers saw as a human potential. Even though European rationalism made a break from ancient mythology, claiming that humans had attained the fulfillment of their nature with the Age of Reason, our current education system – as both product and mechanism of this preference for rational technique over human virtue – is glaring evidence of how truly ignorant we are.

We don’t hold before our students the high ideal of what the human being possesses in potentia, nor does the typical classroom instructor stand before them as any kind of self-conscious model of virtue or its aspiration.

A refocused education system would not only turn out graduates into a trained workforce, but it would work to inspire and support students in their pursuit of enlightenment. Students aren’t in college just to get a job, but to clarify who they are and what their own hero’s journey is all about. What I’m calling an enlightened humanity refers to the actualization of virtues that exemplify our higher nature.

Five rungs of an ascending ladder in my diagram correspond to five existential and ethical virtues (capacities, powers, qualities, or abilities) that have strong recognition across all cultures, not necessarily independent of their different religious traditions but transcending (going beyond) them in a higher post-theistic focus.

An enlightened humanity is humble (or grounded: from humus, ground), compassionate, kind, generous, and forgiving. An intentional pursuit of this ideal aims to embody and live out these virtues in ever-increasing degrees of realization. This is our vocation, or calling, as a species. Our culture and education system need to renew our commitment to them, just as each of us ought to measure our progress and purpose in life according to how well we demonstrate these virtues in action.

As far as our prospect for genuine community, the liberated life, and planetary wellbeing is concerned, refocusing education on an enlightened humanity may be our most urgent task at hand.


For more thoughts on the state of education today, check out the following posts:

 

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3-Dimensional Leadership

In the discussion around leadership, a good deal of attention is given to behavioral, ethical, and relational qualities that effective leaders possess and demonstrate. Great books and programs on excellence in leadership are abundantly available, and some of us are retrieving them from the shelves just now when good leaders seem harder to find. I recently coined a term – “Trumpence” – which I define as doing whatever it takes to put yourself first. Most of us would probably agree that putting yourself first is not the highest and surest mark of genuine leadership.

What makes a leader? Are leaders made? Or is leadership more about the auspicious timing between a situational vacuum and the right set of talents, vision, courage and determination in someone who senses in it a calling to make a difference? Can a society cultivate leaders from among its membership, or does it have to wait, more or less passively, for them to rise up of their own accord?

Human beings carry the genetic instructions for living creatively, courageously, and compassionately – a combination of virtues (not mere moral values but productive powers of life) that I equate with that otherwise elusive idea of the human spirit. In our nature we hold the potential to be aggressive or sympathetic, sensitive or willful, reactive or tolerant, observant or intrusive, curious or intuitive – or I should say, more or less these things, as each pair constitutes a spectrum of possibilities for expression.

In this sense we might say that an individual is a ‘born leader’, meaning that he or she seems to be a product of nature, a gift for our times from the generative depths of our species. The above-named traits are not inventions of culture but endowments of nature that nevertheless can be ‘nurtured’, shaped, or suppressed by social conditioning.

It’s helpful to distinguish between temperament and personality when it comes to leadership. Whereas temperament refers to an individual’s genetic inheritance (the various spectra of heritable traits), personality shifts our attention to the social project of ego formation. From the Latin persona, personality refers to the unique way that one’s temperament is filtered through the restraints, bypasses, and outlets of behavior deemed appropriate by society. What we see in a newborn is not personality but temperamental expressions, and from the very beginning we are shaping what gets expressed, and how much, through the mechanisms of social feedback.

Gradually what emerges from all this social conditioning is a separate center of personal identity, also known as ego. A human being has been formed into a cooperative member of the tribe, a ‘somebody’ who both fits in and stands out in appropriate degrees. As products of social engineering, leaders are fashioned and appointed to positions in society where they are needed. It stands to reason that times of strife and hardship might motivate the social selection and reinforcement of genetic traits that make for more aggressive, willful, and intrusive leaders – those who will ‘take the lead’, overcome obstacles, and defeat enemies. When they are effective and successful, we honor and celebrate them as tribal heroes.

So far, we have considered two dimensions of leadership: temperament and personality, genetic inheritance and social conditioning, natural endowment and cultural instruction. A good part of the contemporary discussion on leadership stays between these two horns of ‘nature versus nurture’. Are leaders born or are they made? Both ‘born and made’ seems the right answer, but there’s another dimension we need to consider.

In many posts I have argued that the formation of a separate sense of identity can either be our neurotic end or the critical passage to our fulfillment as a species. As long as ego remains inside the cage of tribal expectations and orthodox convictions, an individual cannot attain to that level of personal maturity named ego strength. This is where a stable and balanced personality, unified under the confident self-possession of a fully-formed ego, is finally capable of taking creative authority in his or her own life.

Two-dimensional leaders are functionaries of the social order, performing in roles that the tribe deems necessary. They aspire to be heroes, or at least recognized by others for their praiseworthy performance. Awards, promotions, honors, and degrees are just the social conditioning they need to persist in their efforts. Many aspire to be role models for up-and-coming leaders, demonstrating excellence in their field.

With the rise to creative authority, an individual begins to live out of a higher center. Not only natural endowment and cultural instruction, but self-determination increasingly becomes a driving force in how he or she lives. Before we explore what is unique to this third dimension of leadership, I need to qualify the idea of character.

I am using the term in its narrative sense, as when we speak of a character in story. In my post Personal Myth and the Anatomy of Character I identified four traits of a strong narrative character. Grounding refers to the degree in which a character seems to belong in the narrative setting rather than hovering above or merely drifting through it. Memory is how consistent a character is through the scene sequence of a story. Integrity is a spatial equivalent to memory, referring to the way a strong character holds its identity across different situations in the narrative. And a fourth trait of character in fiction, volition, identifies the extent to which action proceeds from its own center of will instead of just happening in reaction to circumstance.

Narrative characters who possess grounding, memory, integrity and volition are not only strong elements of great stories, they are what we find most interesting. What I call creative authority is essentially the ‘rights of authorship’ that an individual must eventually assume in composing his or her personal myth: a story of identity, meaning, and purpose.

The developmental achievement of ego strength is the leading indicator of an individual’s readiness to assume this authority. This is the point where 3-dimensional leadership begins, as the individual makes choices, takes action, and accepts responsibility for the life he or she wants to live.

We should keep in mind that just because a person may be acting in an apparently self-determined manner, a conceited, brazen, and undiplomatic character style almost always belies insecurities deeper down. Trumpence, in other words, is really an attitude of entitlement embrangled in an insatiable craving for self-importance. The counterfeit leader compensates his (or her) neurotic ego through self-inflation rather than transcending self in service to the maximal benefit of all concerned.

Our times call for leaders who are 3-dimensional: human beings who are socially attuned, whose intuition of wholeness and creative courage can inspire the highest in all of us.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2017 in The Creative Life

 

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The Examined Life

It was Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He is a key figure in the history of Western consciousness and its growing fascination with the self. At that time, Socrates and others were searching out the individual’s place in the comic and moral orders; only later did the obsession collapse into the neurotic variety that sits at the center of our present consumer culture. Our neuroses notwithstanding, the Socratic axiom is still good advice.

In fact it may be what keeps our strange species from wiping itself out.

In that spirit, I will step through a theoretical model of what makes us human, hopeful that a more accurate and honest self-understanding might not only prolong our stay on this planet but contribute significantly to a future of peace and well-being.

The best place to begin is with what I call our essential nature as human beings. ‘Essence’ here doesn’t refer to some absolute and unchanging reality underneath or behind what is evident to our senses. From the Greek for ‘being’ (esse), it simply speaks to what something is, not as isolated and standing apart from everything else, but just as it is, centered in itself.Model_Step 1With that in mind, I propose that our essential nature as human beings is best captured in the term ‘spiritual animal’. Other similar-sounding titles have been used in the past, such as ‘rational animal’ or ‘political animal’ (both from Aristotle), and ‘symbolic animal’ (Cassirer). But each of these is based in some capacity of higher intelligence that may be ‘higher’ in humans though not entirely unique to us. Besides, whether we are rational, political, or symbol-using animals, the qualifier in each case says more about what sorts of special things human beings do (or can do), not what we are.

As a spiritual animal our consciousness is dually oriented: inwardly to the inner recesses of contemplative life and outwardly to the sensory-physical environment. Spiritual names the inward-oriented, introverted power of consciousness which has prompted the intuition of our essential oneness with reality (within us). This intuition is profound and ineffable, and it lies at the mystical origin of all (dare I say it?) true religions. Animal not only identifies our membership in a ‘kingdom’ of life, but as an adjective it names the outward-oriented, extroverted power of consciousness which supports the perception of our essential relationship to all things (around us).

If I use the classical terms ‘soul’ and ‘body’ in connection with this dual orientation of human consciousness, I need to be especially careful not to separate them into opposing ‘parts’ of our nature, where the next step traditionally was to identify with one (soul) against the other (body). So let me stress the point that our essential nature as spiritual animals is a duality in the orientation of consciousness, not a dualism of a mortal body and an immortal soul only temporarily bound together for this earthly life. Our essential nature, in other words, possesses an indivisible integrity: we are body-and-soul, not bodies with souls or souls with bodies.Model_Step 2To this essential nature something else is added, and this I call the conditioned self, or ego. Ego is distinct from the spiritual soul and the animal body – remembering that these are orientations of consciousness and not separate parts – by its character as personal. From the Greek, our adjective ‘personal’ refers to a mode of consciousness that is socially constructed, shaped in the role-play of human relationships, and providing the individual with a mask of identity (actually numerous masks) through which we speak (persona) and interact with others.

A personality is really a rather loose association of distinct drives, attitudes, and dispositions, with each motivational strand capable of breaking the surface and running the show for a time. The psychologist Roberto Assagioli called these distinct strands ‘subpersonalities’ and regarded the ego as an executive manager of sort, with the (socialized) responsibility of keeping each in its place and a general order overall. Through the process of ego formation, this executive center of personal identity gradually assumes control and conducts the personality according to the moral constraints and expectations of society. When the personality has achieved stability, balance, and unity under ego’s effective management, the developed virtue is known as ego strength.

This adventure in ego formation is illustrated at the cultural level in the ascendancy of theism. As the patron deity represents those virtues of character expected of a devotee, god also stands behind and legitimates the disciplinary system that enforces morality. An individual’s subpersonalities, then, have their social equivalent in the many tribal members, each of whom might at any moment attempt to break out and take over. For its part, the patron deity plays the role of ego for the group, asserting the dominant will and keeping order. In a way, Freud’s concept of the superego, not just as the voice of tribal morality over (super) the individual but as a divine ego projected above (super) the group, fits into this picture well.

From the perspective granted by our separate ego, body and soul can easily (and mistakenly) be seen as “mine.” We can’t forget, however, that this separate center of personal identity does not actually exist; it is merely a social construct, a representation of ‘who I am’ in this or that tribal context. The longer purpose of ego formation is not simply to establish a personal identity, but rather to empower sufficient ego strength in the individual so that he or she is capable of ‘going beyond’ the self in such higher experiences as love, inspiration, communion, and wholeness.Model_Step 3Ego transcendence ultimately makes it possible for individual consciousness to find reconciliation with our essential nature. As long as our effort and attention are preoccupied with amounting to something, defending ourselves, and holding our own, this invitation to the unified life cannot be fully accepted. In fact, without sufficient ego strength – a deficit which can come about as a consequence of childhood abuse and the lack of positive social support – the prospect of self transcendence can strike deep anxiety in the already insecure ego. (This is the anxiety exploited by sick religion and channeled into bigotry, conviction, and violence in god’s name.)

With sufficient ego strength, however, we are able to go beyond ourselves in a healthy and holistic way, dropping deeper into the grounding mystery within and opening to the provident universe all around. This realization of oneness – that I am both a manifestation of and a participant in the present mystery of reality – promises to transform our way of life in profound ways. We can note, for instance, how Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, and countless other revolutionaries in consciousness challenged the moral conventions of their time and opened the minds of their contemporaries to the sacred mystery at the heart of reality.

The examined life is indeed worth living.

 

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Ethical Calculus (and the Next Election)

MembershipI’ve made the argument – whether successfully is for my reader to decide – that the question “Who am I?” is rather superficial when compared with the question “What am I?” Of course, my ‘who’ is much more interesting since it involves my unique personality: my individual preferences, idiosyncrasies, quirks and convictions – all those things that set me apart from everything else around me. This question of identity (who) is asking about what makes me special, and is arguably the question that advertisers have learned how to expertly convert into sales.

There are even spiritual teachings that turn this notion of personal identity (ego) into a principle of absolute reality, asserting the existence of a Supreme Self whose consciousness underlies and includes all things. I don’t fault them for projecting all of existence in our image. In fact, I regard it as inevitable and appropriate to a certain stage in our spiritual development. The provident nature of our universe, in the way it has generated and supports the adventure of life and consciousness, inspired our ancestors long ago to regard it as evidence of a superior intelligence looking out for us – and perhaps wanting something from us.

I will come back to this in a moment, but let me quickly distinguish what I take to be the far more important (if less interesting) question: What am I? This is not asking about what sets me apart and makes me special. Actually – and this is likely why we find it less interesting or even threatening – the question of ‘what’ I am (rather than ‘who’ I am) forces our inquiry below the superficial conditions and cultural arrangements that prop ego in place. It is asking about my essence (from the Greek esse, being).

In essence, I am a human being.

Of course, we can push even deeper than that: a human being is a complex manifestation of energy, matter, life, consciousness, identity, volition, agency, responsibility, and care – an evolutionary progression that can be traced in reverse to the grounding mystery of being itself. You’ll notice that ‘identity’ (who: ego: “I”) is just an aspect of what a human being is essentially, and far from the deepest. It certainly should be included in a fuller understanding, but the way it has come to dominate or dismiss other aspects of our human nature may help explain the present mess in which we find ourselves.

As we move forward, let’s be mindful of keeping these two principles – one (identity) pushing our considerations into tighter and more exclusive terms, and the other (essence) pulling us into deeper and more inclusive realms of being. Identity makes you special and sets you apart. Essence plunges beneath this pedestal of ego consciousness and grounds your existence in the present mystery of reality. Some mystical traditions teach the necessity of blowing out (nirvana) personal identity in pursuit of an unqualified oneness where no distinctions remain.

I don’t agree. Sure enough, if we conceive these two principles (identity and essence) as mutually exclusive, then one side probably needs to win. In that case, more reality (essence) is better than less (identity), so the prescription of eliminating ego is the way to go. But what if they’re not mutually exclusive? What if the upward push into tighter identities is in creative opposition with the downward pull of deeper essence? What if a stable, balanced, and unified personality (a virtue known as “ego strength”) is not something to be extinguished, but rather transcended in an enlarged vision of our place in the universe? Let’s see how that would play out.

We might characterize essence as what we are working with, and identity as what we are shaping into. This shaping of what we are essentially into who we are as identities does not take place in a vacuum, but always within some kind of context. For humans, the more influential contexts are social – our family, our tribe, our culture. If identity is a function of identifying with something, then the earliest and therefore deepest agreements that shape our personalities concern our position in the social order and taking our place as ‘one of us’.

That’s why we continue to carry the dynamics of early childhood into our adult lives, playing out (usually without thinking and often against our better judgment) the neurotic styles that helped us get our way (at least a good part of the time) amid the contest of affection, resources, and alliances that was our family of origin. If the contest was especially vigorous (and maybe at times violent), our membership in that circle forged an identity that had to scrap for our share, outsmart our rivals, or else wait patiently for the leftovers.

My diagram shows how identity conceivably expands outward to larger spheres where resources are more plentiful, but where the dynamic of relationships – how to respect, get along, and cooperate with others – is that much more complicated. I say ‘conceivably’ because, while it seems natural that things would progress in this direction, conflict and hardships closer to the tight center of identity produce insecurities that can make such an outward expansion all but impossible. The consequence is an ego which is guarded, suspicious, stingy … and dangerously small.

A ‘small’ identity is dangerous because it is incapable of taking into consideration any values or interests outside the circle of its closest attachments. Its primary (and typically exclusive) membership is with those who share a common skin color, language, ideology, or way of life. Anything else – that is, everything outside the circle of membership – is automatically suspect and not to be trusted. The value of raw materials and consumer waste, of immigrants and refugees, of the infirm and unborn, is determined according to an ethical calculus with “me and mine” at the center. What works for me (and mine) is ipso facto good. Whatever interferes with this is evil – not just bad but diabolical.

Such an ethical calculus will necessarily reflect and promote concerns inside the circle. It matters, then, how large our circle of membership is … it matters a lot. If I identify myself only with a particular nationality, ethnic group, social class, religious denomination, or political party, that circle may include a large number of people but it excludes many, many more. It will absolutely exclude other forms of life that don’t fit those categories whatsoever. As far as I am concerned, these are nothing more than resources, ‘wildlife’, savages, or pests that should be dealt with according to whether they benefit or hinder my personal interests.

And this is where a spirituality of essence needs to be heard again – before it’s too late. By pulling our center of awareness to deeper levels where the superficial distinctions at the surface are left behind, we can rediscover (for it is, in fact, a truth that primitive cultures honored long ago) the essential unity of being. Resting in the grounding mystery, we will be inspired to live in conscious communion with all things.

 

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