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Tomorrow’s Religion

Let’s begin with a definition. Religion is a more or less systematic framework of values, beliefs, commitments, and practices that serves to orient a human being in reality, connect her with others, and inspire the lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment.

I’m taking the term on its etymological cash-value – the Latin religare means “to link together” – rather than its popular definition as believing in the existence of god or cultivating a fascination with the supernatural. Such misconceptions of religion have been invented for the surreptitious purpose of setting it apart from the realities of everyday life and ultimately dismissing it altogether as irrelevant nonsense.

But if we go with my straightforward definition of religion, then two important observations follow. The first is that religion is an essential formality of our life as human beings in the way it provides structure around and gives expression to our deeper intuitions, communal affections, and higher aspirations.

Whether or not you “believe in god” or “go to church,” you have a religion – some framework of values, beliefs, commitments and practices that serves to orient you in reality, connect you with others, and inspire your lifelong pursuit of wellbeing and fulfillment. It may not be very intentional or all that effective, but you have one nonetheless.

Secondly, given that our human future hangs in the balance and depends in no small way on how mindful, compassionate, and responsible we are with respect to our planet and each other, it should be obvious that our future will be as long and prosperous as our religions are properly grounded and successful in fulfilling their mandate.

If our religions are not so grounded and successful these days, it is incumbent on us to bring them back into alignment – seeing as how they are human constructions and manifestations of our own psychospiritual condition.

The essential formality of a healthy religion can have the salutary effect of shaping consciousness and guiding our development in provident ways, but a “sick” religion will only make its adherents sicker still.

All around us these days we can see how widespread this sickness is: moral complacency and fanatical devotion, small-minded dogmatism and militant sectarianism – these are symptoms of the same underlying spiritual disease.

In this blog I give a lot of attention to the challenge of understanding where we are individually and as a species on the trajectory of evolution, and particularly to the role of religion in facilitating our progress. Regardless of the fact that many religions today are insular and regressive, my interest is in how religion itself evolves – or needs to evolve, if it is do its job and not pull the world down upon our heads.

The very busy diagram above spreads out the canvas of our big picture. Ascending along the diagonal axis are the major eras and levels in the architecture of our universe: beginning 14 billion years and 3 minutes ago with the flaring-forth of quantum energy in what we quaintly name “The Big Bang”; telescoping through the formation of matter, the emergence of life, the ignition of sentient awareness (mind), and the differentiation of self-conscious identity (ego); reaching fulfillment finally in each individual’s breakthrough awakening to the transpersonal spirit of community.

With all of that in front of us, I will devote the rest of this post to that phase transition in the upper left, where the religion of theism, which is centered on the relationship of ego and deity (superego, or the “ego above”) in the social context of group membership, transforms into the religion of post-theism.

I need to remind my reader that the post- in “post-theism” is not concerned with the debate over god’s objective existence, but is instead critically engaged with what our theological constructions of god say about us, and what hint they may provide regarding our prospect of a liberated life after, beyond, and on the other side of (post-) theism and orthodoxy.

Arranged to the left of those three major types of religion (animism, theism, and post-theism) are the “stages of faith,” as formulated by James Fowler – with a slight revision of the stage that marks, according to my scheme, the transition from theism to post-theism.

For its part, theism develops through three distinct phases. The first phase (“early”) is focused on the tribe’s founding myths (world creation, ancestral heritage, stories of heroes, saints, and saviors). A second phase (“high”) is oriented on the devotional cult, the moral code of obedience, and the ordination of earthly authorities.

Eventually it may advance into a third (“late”) phase where the individual takes up the work of constructing a personalized worldview and philosophy of life, one that is relevant to his or her experience and no longer satisfied with borrowing on the experiences (or purported experiences) of others.

Late theism can be particularly stressful and traumatic for the individual whose faith development is needing a religion suitable to his or her psychospiritual progress. In what I earlier called “sick” religion, the response of theism to the individual’s emergent aspirations is that of closing down, using shame, guilt, or the threat of excommunication to coerce him or her back into the fold.

Tragically many give in, if only because they don’t necessarily want to lose the fellowship, but also because their vision of a post-theistic spirituality is as yet unclear.

We happen to be at a point in our history, and on the trajectory of evolution itself, where an unprecedented courage is required – at least on a broad view, since a relative few have already achieved the breakthrough – for each of us to persist on our adventure into the farther reaches of human nature.

What I’m calling a “dialogical-conjunctive” faith (Fowler’s stage is named conjunctive) takes into account the wide diversity of belief systems, worldviews, and ways of life sharing the planet with us. These are brought together (“conjunctive”) for a comparative understanding and mutual exploration, in the interest of co-constructing a larger horizon of meaning (“dialogical”) that can appreciate the differences, even as it provides for their radical inclusion.

Having surrendered our idols of orthodoxy, we can now descend by a contemplative-mystical path into our own grounding mystery, as we ascend together by a transpersonal-ethical path into the liberated life of community.

 

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A New Christianity

In a recent blog post (“What is Post-Theism?”) I explored how Western culture since the ancient Greeks evolved through three creative phases, where an earlier function of god (behind nature, above politics, and ahead of morality) was internalized and transcended by the human being.

The revolutions of science (natural philosophy) and democracy in Greece essentially took over for god (or the gods) and elevated humans to a new level of control, freedom and responsibility in the world. As each of these “progression thresholds” was crossed, Western culture entered upon a new post-theistic age.

That isn’t too difficult to accept, as far as it goes. But then I suggested that we crossed over into post-theistic morality with the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus redefined the moral function of god away from exclusion, retribution, and final vengeance on enemies, toward a model of inclusion, generosity, and unconditional forgiveness. He called upon his disciples to accomplish in loving their enemies what god had been unwilling and unable to do.

Let’s refresh this theory in our minds before we proceed, since so much hinges on it.

The moral function of god historically has been not only to enforce proper behavior, but to serve as the advancing ideal of human evolution. As the principal attractors of human moral development, gods possess certain ethical attributes and propensities. These “powers” are raised into the focus of aspiration whenever we praise god, meditate on the perfection of god’s virtues, and worship him for being such-and-such and acting thus-and-so towards us.

Because worship and aspiration – praising god and striving to be like him – are so close as to be nearly identical, the interesting progress in all this devotional activity involves awakening these same virtues in ourselves, activating them into the forefront of our moral concerns, and eventually expressing them in the way we live in the world.

The prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah prepared the way by daring to speak not just on god’s behalf, but as god to their generations. Once god was thus internalized, as it were, compassion for the outcast and justice for the poor (the twin obsessions of prophetic literature) became active humanitarian concerns. With a new human ability to embody and express these virtues, an idealized and external representation of them (in god) was no longer necessary.

With Jesus we might say the final step was taken. Not only preferential love for insiders or compassionate love for outsiders, but unconditional love for one’s enemies was first professed by Jesus to be the way god really is. He went on to demonstrate this same love in the way he lived, and then called his friends to do the same.

It’s absolutely crucial that we try to grasp how revolutionary Jesus was in calling his followers to outdo even god (the tribal, retributive deity) in their practice of love. Even god couldn’t forgive unless and until all the conditions of repentance had been fulfilled, yet Jesus exhorted his disciples to begin with forgiveness, without expectation of repentance, and to never stop.

Tragically, later Christian orthodoxy would go back to retrieve the vengeful deity and proceed to make the cross of Jesus a satisfaction of conditions against god’s willingness (ability?) to forgive sinners. For another two thousand years (and counting), Christianity would revert to the very model of god that Jesus had helped us transcend and leave behind.

The earliest Christians could appreciate the repercussions of what Jesus had said and done. His community of followers (at least some of them) stepped bravely into a post-theistic age. They came to believe they were living in the fulfillment of time, as god had completely emptied himself (kenosis) into humanity, and humanity had at last risen to its divine potential (apotheosis) in Jesus.

Such a realization is rather esoteric (meaning deeply interior), to say the least. So in their effort to communicate its meaning to the larger culture, second-generation Christian storytellers began the work of painting him into a mythological frame. In a series of strategic moves, the Jesus of memory opened out into an elaborate story about Jesus the Christ: the messenger became the message.

According to the Christian myth, after his death on a cross Jesus was raised back to life and taken up into heaven, where he became (as the apostle Paul says) a life-giving spirit. Not long thereafter he descended as the holy spirit (an identification made explicit by Paul) upon the small community of his huddled and discouraged disciples, bringing them to life (in a second-order resurrection) as his new body on earth.

So in their religious (mythic) imagination, the Jesus they remembered and heard about – the one with this radical message and example of unconditional forgiveness – went up into god and came down into humanity. This was precisely the dynamic that had transpired while he was alive as one of them: he took them up into a new conceptual definition of god (with his teaching), and brought them down for an embodied demonstration (in his action).

As an example of post-theistic mythology, the early Christian myth effectively introduced newcomers to Jesus, as it facilitated the plunge into a more grounded and mystical spirituality for those farther along. Problems emerged, however, as the avant-garde post-theistic Christian movement became an established state-sanctioned dogmatic orthodoxy. The more radical and esoteric edge of the movement was sanded down into a popular religion, fully stocked with administrative officials, membership requirements, and a fantastic post-mortem benefits package.

Jesus would soon be rewritten in doctrine into the world savior who swept in from somewhere else, accomplished the critical transaction for our salvation, and went away again. He is expected to come again someday, at which time he will gather his favorites and throw the rest in hell for not believing when they had the chance. All the while, we hunker down in our denominational boxes and recite the company line with heads bowed.

If Jesus could see us now.

 
 

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