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Ignoring Jesus by Making Him God

In orthodox Christianity Jesus is regarded as the Divine Son and Second Person of the Trinity; nothing less than God. Theologians – referring to those who presume to speak authoritatively about God (logos, the study of or talk about theos, god) – have ensconced him fully inside their doctrinal systems.

Over the centuries believers have witnessed to direct encounters with Jesus himself, but theologians are typically cautious when it comes to validating their authenticity. How can you recognize someone you’ve never met?

This point should not be dismissed too quickly. None of us today has a personal memory of meeting the historical Jesus, so the recognition must be based on popular depictions (like the gorgeous wavy-haired European Jesus in a Warner Sallman painting) or a conception more symptomatic of our individual and cultural biases. Maybe you saw the scars in his hands and feet. But then again, thousands in history besides Jesus have been crucified, so how can you know for sure?

The Jesus of orthodox theology is not the same Jesus who came from Nazareth, who lived and died in the first century. Archaeologists and historians are more helpful when it comes to clarifying our picture of what that Jesus may have been like.

But what about the New Testament Gospels? An internal comparison of the narratives themselves shows them to be more myth than history. I don’t mean this as an excuse to ignore what they have to say or relegate them to nothing more than Palestinian fairy tales.

These Gospel narratives were composed after the death of Jesus but before the dogma-machine of Christian orthodoxy got underway. They are not exercises in theology as much as productions in mythology, stories told as meditations on Jesus as a symbol of God. Not Jesus as God as later theologians would insist, but on Jesus as a threshold figure linking the realm of everyday life to the present mystery of reality, beyond names and forms.

Not one of the New Testament authors had known Jesus personally.

The traditional appellations of “Matthew” (a disciple of Jesus) “Mark” (an assistant of the apostle Paul) “Luke” (a disciple and biographer of Paul) and “John” (another disciple of Jesus) were added later. Their contribution was to collect and invent stories that featured Jesus as one who mediated for others an experience of spirit, but who could now only be remembered, not encountered. Even Paul, writing perhaps 15 to 20 years prior to the earliest Gospel (Mark c. 70 CE), had never met the historical Jesus.

Since they lived in closer proximity in time and place to where Jesus had been alive, the New Testament storytellers could depict him with greater realism than can a twenty-first century North American believer. Consequently those stories have seemed more like historical accounts to us than sacred fiction. Add to that our modern prejudice against fiction generally, which regards it as more fantasy than truth, and it’s no wonder that so many Christians (and others) read the Gospels as history.

This gives me an opportunity to reach back to a couple recent posts in this blog of mine, published under the general title “Idols of Orthodoxy.” There I offered a way of interpreting symbols – not mathematical or roadside symbols, but specifically symbolic objects like national flags, wedding rings, religious icons, and the human figure of Jesus.

A symbol in this sense will always have a tangible (i.e., sensory-physical) aspect – colored patterns on cloth; a band of precious metal; a portrait in stone, wood, or paint; or the body and behavior of a living person.

Who the historical Jesus was, what he said and did, and the effect he had on his contemporaries – some of whom felt arrested and transformed in his presence, others who conspired in his arrest and execution for rousing the rabble – are what the Gospel writers attempted to render in their mythological depictions of him. Again, they hadn’t actually been there, but they tried to capture his influence by placing their fictional subject within a constellation of mythological themes, heroic characters, and revealing episodes.

Thus Jesus the symbol of God became the Second Adam, a New Moses, the son of David, Suffering Servant, Lamb of God, and Word-made-flesh. By wrapping Jesus into this web of myth, they attempted to re-present him to their contemporary audiences, labeling and linking him to ideas then current in the way people characterized the transcendent mystery or Spirit of God. Under none of those titles was Jesus understood to be equal with God in any straightforward sense (which is our working definition of idolatry).

What we have in the early centuries of Christianity, then, is a progression – forward movement but not necessarily improvement – from the historical figure of Jesus, into the contemplation of Jesus as a symbol of God, and arriving finally in a theological orthodoxy that effectively ignores Jesus by making him God.

The paradoxical tension of the second phase (New Testament mythology) has snapped, leaving us with a deity out of this world – but coming soon! – and a Jesus long gone and all but forgotten.

As my diagram shows, the second-phase storytellers inserted what we might call transitional mechanisms into their narratives in order to get Jesus out of the historical past and into their contemplative present (in the episode of his resurrection), and then later (with the ascension) into his identification with God.

By rotating the diagram 90° to the left we thus have the phenomenology of symbol perfectly illustrated: the (once-) tangible Jesus of history, the symbol in whom both human and divine are paradoxically united, and the transcendent mystery beyond name and form – although theologians are famously reluctant to admit it.

As a few early Christian theologians (particularly the so-called Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus) were bending logic in their contemplation on Jesus as a symbol of God – “fully divine, fully human, neither separate nor confused” – the emperor Constantine was urging his new kingdom of bishops to make a decision for one side or the other.

The council decided in favor of making Jesus into God. And now he is nowhere to be found.

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2019 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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Idols of Orthodoxy

Religion is notorious for confusing its representations of God – our conventional nickname for ultimate reality – with the present mystery which, as they say in the Orient, is beyond names and forms. These representations, falling inside the general category of symbols, typically have their origin in experiences that can’t be definitively rendered in language.

So an image is found or created, which serves as a reference to the unnameable as well as a mediator for the mystery to be experienced afresh.

It would be a grave mistake, however, if we were to restrict this phenomenology of symbols to religion alone. The fact is, every sphere of human culture and personal life harbors symbols of what can’t be grasped in a purely rational and objective manner. Take for example our national flag, “Old Glory.”

As a symbol, the flag has three distinct aspects that together are the secret to its inspirational and evocative power. In the foreground – right there in front of you – is the cloth and familiar pattern of color, stars, and stripes. This is the symbol’s tangible aspect. You can see it, touch it, and hear it flapping in the breeze.

Other symbols might be more auditory than visual, as we find once again in the sphere of religion in the sacred utterance of God’s name or the holy syllable ‘om’, regarded in the East as representing being-and-becoming in a single sound.

The tangible aspect of a symbol, then, is essentially sensory-physical: it’s right there. But the American flag also stands for something, doesn’t it? We say that it represents … what, exactly?

If we answer “our nation,” then do we simply mean that Old Glory is a visual icon representing the living citizenry of the U.S.? Does it stand for the geographical landmass with its delineation of sovereign states? No, we are referring to something more – something other – than mere demographics and geography.

Is it then simply the idea of America – the concept or mental category that names a sociopolitical entity, as one nation among many? Perhaps. Other nations have their flags as well, don’t they? This one represents Malawi, that one Switzerland, and so on. Maybe the symbol is just a handy label for an abstract idea.

Actually, that’s fairly accurate when it comes to those other national flags. But isn’t there more going on with yours?

Now it could be that Old Glory is nothing more to you than a pattern of colors on cloth, period. Using it as a dusting rag or painting tarp would be perfectly acceptable. No big deal.

On the other hand, maybe for you the American flag is a sacred symbol, even if not quite religious (or it just might be). For you the flag represents a mystery commonly named “the American Spirit” – something intangible that makes the people here different and special. Not the living generations only, but also the generations past who struggled and fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and solidarity, along with the still unborn generations of America’s future.

Spirit is a perfectly appropriate term for this ‘something more’ represented by the American flag. This is the symbol’s transcendent aspect, referring to what “goes beyond” the sensory-physical object under your gaze. We find this word – this metaphor of spirit – used widely all over the world and from earliest times to speak of mystery. Literally it means “breath, air, or wind,” and it lends itself well as a name for what can’t be named, a mystery that is invisible yet evident in its effects.

Like your breath, you can’t see the American spirit (or the spirit of God), but it moves in and out of what you are, giving life depth and meaning and linking you outward to all things.

At this point it might seem as if we’re talking about two things: the tangible object of the symbol itself and its transcendent object. Even in my description above, it was difficult to keep my words from objectifying the mystery of spirit. In the metaphor of breath, air, or wind we still tend to regard it as something (i.e., some thing) external to us, a metaphysical or supernatural object perhaps, but an object nonetheless. What’s stopping us from thinking of it as a spirit?

This difficulty is due to our insistence (or naivete) on interpreting the symbol in two dimensions (or aspects) only: There’s this sensory-physical thing here, and that elusive mysterious thing over there.

Unless we’re careful, we are about to fall into the ditch of dualism where the mystery condenses into an external object and its symbol becomes an idol. I’m using the term to speak of what happens when something tangible, conditioned, and finite is mistaken for (or confused with) the transcendent mystery it was intended to represent. Once again, religion is only our most obvious example of this problem.

In order to keep ourselves from falling into the ditch of dualism, it is critical that the symbol’s third aspect be recognized. Its paradoxical aspect is where the dualism of “this or that” and the idolatry of “this is that” are avoided by the creative tension of both “this and that.”

For those who still honor it as a national symbol of the American spirit, our American flag is both tangible cloth and transcendent mystery. As an active and valid symbol, the cloth is sanctified and the mystery is manifested in its unique form. At the very moment of contemplation, the symbol serves to mediate for us an experience of mystery, of ‘something more’ that we can’t directly apprehend or rationally explain.

We are grounded, connected, and included in something larger than ourselves.

This phenomenology of symbol, with its inherent dangers of dualism and idolatry, applies across the various domains of human culture – politics, religion, business, sports, personal life, and even science. When the paradoxical tension of a symbol snaps, leaving us with two things to figure out, or just one (and only one) to command our worship, the symbol dies, and along with it the human spirit of which you and I are incarnations.

Of whatever type, orthodoxy takes control as our ability (or tolerance) for living in the creative tension of paradox is lost. When all we’re left with are idols of orthodoxy, the long graceful arc of the human story will come to its premature end.

 

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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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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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Matter, Life, Spirit

Matter_Life_Spirit

One of the challenges we face as we advance deeper into a secular and global reality is how to redefine the terms ‘spirit’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘spirituality’ so they can have relevance to life today. While they carried metaphorical meaning in a mythopoetic reality, and were converted into a supernatural and metaphysical realm above or apart from the historical reality of empirical facts, in our increasingly this-worldly (secular) and interconnected (global) realities of today, their meaning is in question.

Many people with an interest in spirituality but not so much in organized religion continue with those old out-dated supernatural and metaphysical references. Spirit (along with soul) is still regarded as ‘not of this world’, separate from our embodied existence, temporarily inhabiting our bodies (or trapped inside), haunting the outer boundaries of science and ordinary life.

One common way of including spirit (etc.) in our contemporary worldview is to see it as a further stage of evolution. Similar to the way life emerged from inorganic matter, so spirit awakened and eventually came forth from life. Such an evolutionary perspective has some obvious advantages over the ancient (historical) view of spirit as something added from outside, or as a higher and more perfect state of being from which we fell once upon a time.

But the evolutionary model has its shortcomings as well, chief of which is the assumption that spirit is something with objective existence, separate from and outside its organic and material substrates. So separate and outside, in fact, that popular conceptions of spirit envision it as occupying its own metaphysical realm, above (super-) nature or behind the sensory-physical screen.

One of the earliest metaphors of spirit (breath, as the invisible life-force that keeps our bodies alive) perhaps encourages the idea of its objective (out there) status and is likely behind the widespread belief that when a body expires, its spirit leaves to go somewhere else to live.

Such commonsense metaphysics notwithstanding, our metaphor of spirit as breath actually supports an opposite idea, which is that it represents not some entity moving in and out of bodies but rather the invigorating life-force within. Whereas life is expressive and out-spreading, spirit is how the universe opens inward to the deeper registers of being. Life is the astonishing product of evolution, the ‘roll-out’ of organic and sentient species, while spirit is the equally astonishing capacity of life for involution, particularly in the species of homo sapiens, where the light of consciousness is turned upon its own inner depths.

I realize that in refusing the lure of metaphysics and choosing not to regard spirit as something outside or behind the realm of physical life, I am taking a significant departure from the common path of religion. I do this not to be contentious, and certainly not because I am sympathetic with reductionist theories that leave us with nothing but ‘atoms in the void’. It might sound at first as if my denial of spirit – and of the god-symbol used to represent it – as a separately existing reality apart from that of our physical life is a vote for atheism, but this is not the case at all.

As my returning reader knows by now, I am an evangelist for post-theism, which moves the conversation past the stalemate of theism and atheism in order to explore the nature of spirituality after (on the other side of: post-) our conventional representations of god. A study of religious history reveals the indisputable development of god from intuition into metaphor, from metaphor into symbol, from symbol into concept, and (fatefully) from literary figure (in the myths) into a literal being (up there, out there). Along the way god becomes progressively more humane, that is, less brutal and more gracious, less temperamental and more reasonable, less demanding and more forgiving.

This progression in god’s development makes perfect sense from a constructivist point of view, where the whole business is interpreted as one long project in cultural meaning-making. Our representation of god serves a purpose, and when this purpose is fulfilled our task becomes one of stepping fully into our own creative authority. In this sense we ‘grow into god’, not in becoming gods but by actualizing the (projected) virtues represented in god and gradually moving past our need to orient on a transcendent ideal. Obedience gives way to aspiration, and aspiration matures in self-actualization.

Spirit, then, does not ‘live inside us’, as in the classical conception of the indwelling soul, but is rather the deep creative center and inner ground of being where human opens inward to being and the universe becomes aware of itself in us. Even though my model presents it as a later-stage development, spirit is not something added to or housed inside the physical chassis of our living body, but (again) refers to the capacity of consciousness to contemplate its own grounding mystery.

In three moves, we (1) shift attention from the sensory-physical realm, (2) turn inward to the ground of being where we come to an ineffable intuition of oneness, and then (3) open again to the surrounding field with the profound appreciation that ‘All is One’.

This deeper (spiritual) vantage point, or what I also call the ‘mental location’ of soul, is the abiding place of genuine spirituality. It allows us to cultivate a mysticism of wonder (or one-der) and work it out into a relevant cosmology and way of life. Our challenge today is to set aside the old metaphysics which are no longer congruent with our current science and psychology, or compatible with the ethical challenges we face as a globally connected species.

We take our place at the source and allow its inspiration to guide us in constructing a habitat of meaning (i.e., a world) that incorporates what we presently know about the universe and our own creative responsibility within it. If we are on the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough of some kind, it will have to lead us deeper into life and closer to one another.

 

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Creative Spirit and the Invitation to Life in Its Fullness

matter_life_spiritMatter reacts. Life adapts. Spirit creates. 

With that, I have summarized the 14-billion-year cosmic process in three stages and just six words. I’m using the term ‘stage’ here less in its temporal sense than as a way of identifying distinct levels of complexity in the evolutionary architecture of our universe. True enough, energy first fused into matter, then stirred to life, and eventually awakened as spirit. But each preceding stage continued as foundation to subsequent ones, not just persisting underneath the others but taken up, incorporated, and transformed in the breakthroughs they represented.

You, for instance, are a rather remarkable synthesis of physical matter, animal life, and creative spirit. Your life is generated and sustained out of a deep economy of physical reactions going on in your body all the time. And as you move through the changing environments of your life, your body and mind are adapting so as to optimize your ‘fit’ to the way things are. The adaptation of life amounts to this constant quest for the niches where environmental stress is manageable, internal distress is minimized, and the opportunity for longevity and reproduction is greatest. Once life finds such niches, it settles in and makes itself at home.

Think about the various niches you have settled into, those safe corners and familiar grooves where “everyting irie.”

And this is our problem as human beings. Whereas the material processes that keep us alive are autonomic and unconscious; and while slipping into a best fit with our surroundings is a preconscious preference for the path of least resistance; that aspect which makes us most uniquely human – our creative spirit – must operate in full awareness and by conscious choice. For this reason, habit, convention, custom, orthodoxy, and even morality as the rules that determine our social affections and behavior, can keep us so deep in our grooves that spirit has no chance of waking up.

If my reader ever wonders why I am so critical of orthodoxy (not only in religion) and the mental bypass of conviction which closes the mind to everything but its own absolute truth, this is why. As the theme of this blog is ‘exploring creative change’, my passionate interest is in that transforming process whereby human beings break through the constraints of family patterns, tribal traditions, belief systems, and identity contracts that keep us asleep.

My message is not that we need to trash them all, necessarily, or leave them behind and go it alone through life. When the creative spirit awakens in us, some of these things will be dropped off and left behind, as their authority is no longer required. But others, like that literal god who comes to life again as a literary figure and metaphor of the grounding mystery, can light up with fresh relevance and illumine the path ahead. Creative spirit awakens ‘on the other side of god’ and invites us to live in conscious awareness of our place in the unity of existence.

In an interesting way, each of those three stages in the cosmic process surpasses the one immediately preceding it by breaking (through) a law that would prevent its progress. Life has to overcome the stabilizing force of entropy which is constantly pulling matter down into more steady states of equilibrium. By self-replication, sexual reproduction, and social bonding, life pushes upwards against this law of matter and thereby secures for itself a higher stage of existence. Life’s law is that niche-seeking survival mandate mentioned earlier: stay as deep inside those grooves of pleasure and avoid any pain that signals compromise, exposure, and a loss of security.

Habituate yourself to your surroundings, to the circumstances of your life, to the role-play and ideology of your tribe: that’s what the preconscious law of life will have you do. It’s safer inside the circle, where you can live closer to what you know and be assured of the resources you need to survive. Do what you’re told, don’t rock the boat, stay in line, wait your turn, look before you leap. If you’re still alive, it must be working. Why tempt fate? What’s the point in thinking outside the box, when the box contains all you need to know?

I could add more platitudes and proverbs of the status quo, but you probably have a pretty good feel for this law of adaptation that manages to keep so many of us spiritually asleep. If the creative spirit is to awaken in us, we will have to confront, break through, and rise above the trance of security and its delusion of meaning. The very identity that has been shaped for us by our taller powers and tribal handlers is now our greatest impediment, our most formidable obstacle to genuine liberty.

Just say to yourself, “I want to be free to live my own life, to follow my bliss, and realize the fullness of what I am” – merely let those words out of your mouth, and just as quickly will come rebuke and admonition for entertaining such a selfish fantasy. So insidious is this reproof against genuine self-actualization, that the script spins automatically inside your own head. What you don’t understand is that this script, together with its sponsoring tribal ideology, is itself a fantasy, and a selfish one of the highest order.

After all, this is the center of identity known as ego, which is really a mechanism of social adaptation by which the tribal mind replicates itself in the individual. You were disciplined, shaped, and instructed to hold certain things as self-evidently true. That’s just the way it is, you were told. Because I said so. It’s in the Bible. Your brainwashing was nearly complete before your rational and critical-thinking prefrontal cortex could come online to help you see through much of this so-called wisdom. If you grew up in a strict religious household, then the everlasting consequence of god’s judgment further secured your duty as carrier of your tribe’s memetic code (i.e., the cultural analogue of our genetic code, but constructed out of memes rather than genes).

Needless to say, the creative spirit doesn’t break (through) the rule of life in society as an act of belligerence, but as liberative and transpersonal, meaning that it breaks beyond the ego stage of consciousness and sets us free for a larger vision of where we really are, and where this great cosmic process is inviting us to go.

 

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The Three Stages of Religion

In Religion and the Snow Cone Universe I explored the essential function of religion as a way of connecting (religare, tie together) the inner and outer realms of human experience. Our mystical communion with the grounding mystery is metaphorically represented and depicted across a collection of sacred stories known as mythology. These myths (mythos, narrative plot) are recited by the community in ritual performances and worked out in daily life according to the local customs and precepts of morality.

A critically important qualification in all of this is that the mythology of religion must align with our current understanding of the cosmos. When it does, our spirituality (inner realm, grounding mystery) can flow out and connect meaningfully with our science (outer realm, cosmic order), generating an awareness that everything “turns as one” (universe). When this alignment is missing, our myths become incredible and increasingly irrelevant. Rather than being able to inhabit our stories, enacting them and living them out, we are left with the choice of taking them literally as eye-witness accounts of supernatural and miraculous events of the past or tossing them aside as so much childish superstition.

All of that is looking at religion as positioned at the center of a vertical axis, with spirituality below (or within) and science above (or around). This central position helps us appreciate the intended function of religion (to connect these two realms) as well as understand how and where it begins to fail. In this post I will turn this axis 90º to the horizontal and picture it as a moving time-line from left (the past) to right (the future). The question now is, “How has religion evolved through the millenniums, and is this evolution more or less haphazard or does it proceed according to a deeper design?”

Snow Cone 2I will build a case that religion evolves as human beings develop, which means that the larger cultural shifts we observe across the centuries are deeply correlated to changes unfolding (or arrested) at the individual level of human consciousness. The above illustration is pulled forward from my most recent post (Religion and The Snow Cone Universe), but in place of the word “religion” I have inserted a graphic representing what I will explain as three stages in the evolution and organization of consciousness. “Stage” here will be used in two senses of the word: as a developmental period of time and as a kind of platform (think theater stage) that provides consciousness with a specific vantage point on reality.

Thankfully we don’t need to do a lot of research or dig into cultural archaeology to start making sense of these stages I have in mind, for they are represented in the very structure of your consciousness as a human being. Just as your individual development is unfolding according to a sequence of distinct stages, so religion has been evolving along that same advancing line. So, I’ll ask you to sit back and take a look at yourself.

Stage One: BODY

Let’s just get the hard fact out of the way: You’re an animal. You breathe, burp, and bleed just like other animals. You were born, grew up, and one day you will die – just like other animals. Inside and under your skin is a complicated system of tissues, glands, organs and nerves, pulsing together as an interconnected web of urgencies. The urge to breathe, for instance, is a compulsion that evolved around the need of your cells for oxygen (and to blow off carbon dioxide); breathing is an urgency. Many other urgencies are presently taking care of what this animal nature of yours requires to live.

Like other animals, you possess an instinctive intelligence that has been evolving for millions of years and across numerous species. Through a network of impulses, reflexes, drives, and adaptive routines instinct serves to uphold a dialogue between the internal urgencies keeping you alive and the larger rhythms of your external environment. The cycles of Sun, moon, and seasons are intricately timed with your needs for activity and rest, arousal and reproduction, nourishment and shelter. You don’t have to think about this provident coincidence since the urgency that anchors it in your throbbing viscera is unconscious and graciously impersonal.

From the stage of your body, reality is physical, vibrant, sensual – and alive. Since everything in you and around you is caught up in a pulsing tango (and tangle) of urgency and rhythm, from this vantage point nothing is inert or uninvolved. Colors, sounds, odors, flavors, temperature, current, texture, pressure and weight: a kind of glory cascades across the dazzling variety of forms, effervescing to the surface and dancing on your senses. It’s not you over here and that over there, but you and that together, partners in the same cosmic dance.

At this stage religion is animistic, connecting and closing the circuit between the inner mystery and outer cosmos by a mythology of hidden agencies. Anima is Latin for vital force or life-force, a related term to spirit, meaning breath. It’s not that something else is on the other side of what we perceive with our senses, but rather that what we perceive with our senses participates in and manifests forces that hold everything together. Again, these are not supernatural personalities (deities) pushing things around (that idea comes later) but creative energies expressing outward from the interior of things.

Stage Two: EGO

In addition to being an animal and having an animal nature, you – and this especially refers to the you you think you are – are an identity project of your tribe. Ego is also from the Latin, translating as I, the subjective center of a separate self. You needed this separate center so your tribe could shape an identity around it and assign your place in the larger role-play of society. For this to happen with reasonable success, your animal nature (body) needed to be trained (i.e., socialized) to behave properly – not to bite, pass gas, or mate in public. In addition to such constraints on unacceptable behavior you were conditioned by your tribe to be polite, cooperate with others, and pick up your toys.

All of this social shaping of identity (ego) is what we generally call morality. The individual is expected to follow the rules and respect authority, and not only because those in charge have their hands on the carrots and sticks. It just makes for an easier life together in community. Your tribe dutifully (but not always very competently) instructed you with the preferences, values, and beliefs that demonstrated obedience. Because all of this happened in the first decade or so of your life, the part of your personality where these moral sentiments and reflexes still reside is known as your inner child. Most of what goes on in there is deeply conditioned but nonrational – prompted and carried along on scripts of flattery and shame, praise and blame, guilt and appeasement.

Another strong virtue of early childhood was your gift for fantasy. Daydream, dress-up, role play and pretending to be someone (else) occupied much of your time. Fairy tales and closet monsters were sources of endless fascination or bedtime anxiety. Fantasy is your creative intelligence for making things up and acting as if what you can’t see is more real than what you can. Your tribe exploited this native ability of yours and got you invested in the collective fantasy of meaning-making, producing a kind of semantic shelter in the world you shared. As long as this world-construct was confirmed and reinforced in the habits of everyday life, the illusion of its reality could be maintained.

Religion at this stage is theistic (from theos, god) referring to the belief in higher powers that model human character and supervise the world from the margins. When you were a child these higher powers were literally your “taller powers” – i.e., the adults who were in charge of things and provided for your needs. Theism postulates (but doesn’t prove) an intention behind and above the world, representing an important advancement on the spontaneous and impersonal life-force of animism. The gain was that theism introduced the notion of there being a plan and purpose in the nature of things that we can interrogate, petition, and perhaps even influence for our benefit.

Stage Three: SOUL

Currently, and for the past several millenniums, human beings have been comfortably established in second-stage culture and religion. The reason is simply that ego has been the dominant mental location of human consciousness for that long. Theism, as the religious system coordinating deity, tribe, and ego, has provided orientation and meaning to our species for a long time. Until fairly recently, that is, when our cosmology (scientific model of the universe) began to render the old myths unbelievable.

When one stage is passing and before the next stage is fully entered, the phase we find ourselves in can be very disorienting. Once-true believers lose faith, members leave their churches, denominations don’t seem to work anymore, and the “spiritual but not religious” look for inspiration from other sources. We can also see the endangered religions growing more desperate and violent, putting up their defenses and terrorizing nonbelievers. It is tempting to conclude that such is the nature of religion itself, and that we will be much better off without it.

To understand the third stage of religion, however, we need to look beyond the anxiety, hostility, and depression of the disoriented ego. Your inner child is not capable of creating the life you really want. It’s not only stuck in the problem, it’s where the problem is centered. What you really need is to ascend to the mental location of your higher self – rational and responsible as an adult ought to be, but also emotionally balanced and intellectually engaged. You don’t need to leave your passion and creativity back in childhood (or repressed in your personality).

What is soul? Let’s first say what it isn’t, exposing some popular efforts to hang on to ego. It isn’t a ghostly replica of the body’s physical form, and it’s not another word for the immortal ego. Soul isn’t what continues on after you die, as a disembodied personality moving residence to the next earthly incarnation, new celestial home, or some metaphysical higher plane. All of these explanations are trying to figure out what happens to you when you die, when you – again, at the mental location of ego – are nothing more than a temporal construct of social roles, attitudes, and beliefs. Your third-stage challenge is to open yourself to a post-ego way of being, where “me and mine” are no longer anchors of ultimate concern.

The “post” in post-ego – as well as in post-theism, the religion of our third stage – doesn’t require that you renounce your ego, throw it down, or try to stomp it out of existence. It simply means after, referring to a way of life oriented on the essential realization that All is One, which logically comes after the illusion of your separateness (ego) has been transcended. In the light of this realization you instantly understand that you, as an individual, are a participant in the larger communion of beings. Morality is no longer about obedience to another’s command, but is rather about making choices and taking action with a much (much) larger context in mind.

Notice how this insight marks an advance beyond the animism of Stage One, where the emphasis was more on the peculiar manifestation of the life-force in a tree, a thunderstorm, or in the body itself. This is the difference between instinct (unconscious, compulsive, urgent) and wisdom (fully conscious, contemplative, intentional). A higher capacity for holding the awareness that All is One had to wait on the ability to open your mind without losing it, to detach your focus without getting distracted, and to jump from your highest thought into the mystery encompassing all things.

 

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