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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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A Conspiracy of Meaning

As far as we know, humans are the only species that constructs a habitat of culture ranging far beyond the natural imperatives of survival, reproduction, raising our young, and maintaining social order. All other species seem right at home in their natural environments, whereas ours is obsessed with understanding our place, how we got here, where we’re going, and why (or if) it matters.

We struggle with a variety of neuroses rooted in a profound sense of alienation: of being misfits, orphans, or exiles from where we belong. In the mythology of every culture we can find stories that give account of this alienation, whether it is characterized in terms of dislocation, amnesia, or punishment for some primordial act of disobedience or rebellion.

The role of religion in human culture has long been to resolve this crisis, restore our proper condition, and situate us meaningfully in a universe regarded as provident (i.e., sufficient, supportive, and even somehow invested in our fate).

It’s been much more recent that we have come to understand the psychological factors behind our sense of alienation, of our sense of not belonging. The rise and development of ego consciousness, our forming an individual center of self-conscious personal identity, carries with it a growing sense of separateness from the rest of reality.

Earliest cultures still enjoyed a participation mystique within the greater Web of Life, but as ego individuation progressed, so too did our perception of estrangement from it.

According to a theory I’ve been promoting in this blog, the process of ego formation establishes our separate center of personal identity out of and apart from the grounding mystery (or Ground of Being) that constitutes our existence as (in descending order) sentient, organic, and physical beings.

To become self-conscious requires sentient awareness to detach from the stream of immediate experience and reflexively bend back upon itself: “Here I am, having this experience.”

This necessary detachment is what we perceive as our separation. And if we should get too involved (or obsessed) with ourselves – or what amounts to the same thing, should we break too far from the grounding mystery within – humans inevitably succumb to the neurotic ailments alluded to above.

Setting aside the important distinctions among types of religion (i.e., animistic, theistic, post-theistic) we can perhaps still appreciate the function of religion itself (from the Latin religare, to connect) as what keeps our developing individuality from snapping off and falling out of the provident Web of Life. Historically (if not so much currently) it has done this by holding individuals in community where they cooperate in a conspiracy of meaning, or better yet, a conspiracy of meaning-making.

Religion engages this conspiracy (literally “breathing together”) of meaning-making by means of a matrix of four key factors: stories, sanctuaries, symbols, and sacraments (i.e., ritual performances in community). Individuals gather in sanctuaries, whether architectural or natural settings; they listen to their sacred stories; they behold and touch symbols of mystery and faith; they take part in sacraments that join them together as a community, and join the community to a provident reality. This four-factor matrix of meaning serves to answer those primary questions mentioned in my first paragraph.

  • What is this place? ⇒ orientation

  • How did we get here? ⇒ heritage

  • Where are we going? ⇒ destiny

  • Why does it matter? ⇒ significance

By means of this communal experience individuals are connected to one another, as they are connected as a community to a world of meaning. In this way, meaning-making facilitates world-building, where ‘world’ refers to a house of language, a canopy of significance, and a shelter of security that humans construct and inhabit. Religion has been the cultural enterprise inspiring and supervising this construction project over the millenniums.

In my diagram, our world of meaning is represented as a stained glass sphere. Just as stained glass windows in a cathedral filter sunlight into a splendorous display of colors, shapes, and figures drawn from myth and legend, so each world (mine, yours, ours) conducts meaning that is unique to each of us, locally shared among us, and universally represented across the divers cultures of our species.

In addition to the matrix of meaning and its four factors, religion has historically provided further support in the institutions that protect our world of meaning, traditions that preserve it across the generations, and in authorities who interpret, confirm, and defend its orthodoxy (i.e., proper thinking, right belief). Working as a system, these secondary supports ensured that individuals gathered on regular and special occasions in the sanctuary, listened to their stories, contemplated symbols of mystery and faith, and fulfilled their part in the conspiracy of meaning.

With the encroachment of secularism, many of these institutions, traditions, and authorities have been degraded or rendered irrelevant in modern life, leading to a desertion of sanctuaries, the disappearance of sacraments, and a lost sensitivity to the metaphorical depth of sacred story.

As we observe the struggle and decline of religion in our day, along with its desperate resurgence in fundamentalism, terrorism, spiritualism, and prosperity gospels, we need to keep in mind that religion is a complex phenomenon. As those authorities, orthodoxies, institutions, and traditions either retire, transform, or fall into obscurity, we might gladly see much of it go.

But without a healthy relevant religion (in the functional sense of religare, not necessarily a confessional brand) to take its place, our worlds of meaning will continue to deteriorate.

I am arguing that we still need places to gather, stories to share, symbols to contemplate, and rituals or routines of some kind to orchestrate our contemporary conspiracy of meaning. Otherwise our worlds will collapse as meaning dissolves. We will become increasingly disoriented, alienated, and careless in our way of life. This blog is partly devoted to the task of clarifying what I believe is the next stage in our evolving spirituality as a species. Already many are living as post-theists (rather than as atheists or dogmatic theists) but lack only the vocabulary and discourse to articulate it.

Whatever institutions, authorities, and traditions we invent to protect, interpret, and preserve our shared world of meaning, we need to be sure that this new religion is effective in facilitating the connection between the Ground of Being (or grounding mystery) within us and the Web of Life to which we belong and owe our stewardship.

 

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Above Us Only Sky

In my continuing effort to clarify the meaning of post-theism, I’m always looking for creative ways of making it not only understandable but relevant to our times. I happen to believe that more of us than we realize are post-theistic, in both orientation and practice, and that if this movement is to be accepted as a bona fide expression of healthy spirituality, we need to carefully distinguish it from other types and anti-types of religion.

The diagram above presents several of what I regard as the most important distinctions that need to be made. Three panels or lenses represent the crucial stages and transitions in the evolution of theism to post-theism, which I will follow in sequence.

A frequent protest I encounter from nonbelievers or the religiously unaffiliated is that theism isn’t relevant to their experience. They don’t go to church or even believe in the existence of god, so my model is meaningless to them. But I don’t limit theism to its name-brand institutional varieties. Even Buddhism, which is conventionally characterized as a ‘non-religion’ since it doesn’t espouse belief in a separate deity, still orients its neophytes and practitioners on the ideal of the Amida (or “celestial”) Buddha whose grace and salvation can be summoned at death or in times of need.

This devotional focus on an external model of providence, character, and virtue is central to my definition of theism. And that’s also the reason for my claim that every family system, regardless of culture or period in history, is a theistic system with taller powers who manage, provide for, discipline, and inspire underlings on their early path to maturity. In exchange for their respect and obedience, the taller powers offer protection, provision, comfort, and blessing.

Admittedly, because families aren’t traditionally ad hoc volunteer organizations where members agree to a contract beforehand, this value-for-service exchange isn’t as formalized as it can be in institutional religion. But the societal model of higher (parental or taller) powers and devotees (children) is functionally identical.

This also explains why, again across cultures, the deities of religion are imagined and addressed as mothers and fathers, with believers self-identifying as children and siblings, brothers and sisters in faith.

I’ve placed key terms to label the three panels (or lenses) themselves, as well as the critical moves, transitions, or phases that track progress across them. Let’s begin with the panel on the left and see where the path leads.

Theism (left panel or lens) identifies a devotee as one who honors and serves a deity, the principal role of whom is to provide what devotees need – e.g., security, solace, resources, intervention, revelation, final salvation – in exchange for their submission, worship, and obedience. Every theistic social system enforces a moral code based on Thou Shalts (symbolized by a carrot in my diagram) and Thou Shalt Nots (a stick). The purpose of this binary (either-or) morality is to draw clear boundaries separating desired behavior from merely acceptable, forgivable, and forbidden behavior in its members.

The sun in my diagram symbolizes the higher power of the deity (or parent), while the figure below represents the devotee (or child). Throughout my blog I use the color codes of black, orange, and purple to stand for our animal nature (body), personal identity (ego), and higher self (soul), respectively.

In this first panel, then, the morality of theism gets focused early on the project of shaping natural impulses and reflexes into behavior that is more in line with the shared interests of the tribe. One of the first important achievements in this disciplinary process is to establish in the individual an executive center of self-conscious control (or ego) which will keep him or her in compliance with group norms.

Besides providing for what a devotee needs, the deity also serves as an exemplar of character and moral virtue. It’s important to note that this divine exemplar has shape only in the storytelling imagination of his or her devotional community. Theological concepts, sacred artifacts, iconography, and elaborate architecture help to translate the narrative character of god into the communal experience and life-situation of believers – but no one has ever had a direct encounter with a deity outside the imaginarium of belief.

In the recital and ritual performance of these sacred stories, the aspirations of devotees are focused on the virtues of god, who in this sense is an idealization or glorification of virtues for believers to imitate. To be good is to be like god.

There are obviously many more details and nuances in every system, but this model of membership morality and devotional aspiration is the basic chassis of theism. As we sweep our gaze across the varieties of theistic religion today, the deities, stories, symbols and ritual ceremonies will be different, but this central frame is consistent throughout.

In healthier forms of theism there comes a time when the devotee starts to suspect that the imaginarium of belief does not perfectly coincide with the realm of factual knowledge. Whereas the physical settings (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) and symbols of worship still provide a place where story and reality can fuse into one, a deeper extension of daily life into the factual realm increasingly exposes gaps and shortfalls in the once seamless veil of myth.

Just as a child these days will eventually come to see that Santa Claus “isn’t real,” a devotee of theism will need to update his or her juvenile concept of god merely as a function of having a longer and wider experience of life.

We shift, then, to panel two, initiated by a gradual or sudden disillusionment over what had been believed. At this point the individual might go in one of two directions: either to a position of altogether rejecting the earlier set, or to something else. The difference between these two options is reflected in the long (macron) and short (breve) vowel sound of the letter ‘a’.

The macron over the ‘a’ in ātheism identifies this decision to deny and reject the existence of god as a matter of fact. An ātheist might be willing to leave the deity as a narrative character in myth, which now gets labeled as an untrue story, but a deity’s existence outside the story is categorically denied. Ātheists are the historical opponents of theists, and their disagreement is over the literal (rather than merely the literary) status of god.

Another path out of disillusionment agrees with the ātheist on the matter of god’s literal existence, but follows a more contemplative investigation into god’s literary (i.e., metaphorical and representational) significance. I designate this position by a breve over the ‘a’ (the sound in apple): an ătheist, therefore, accepts the non-existence of god, even as he or she takes the symbol of god with renewed seriousness.

It is possible, of course, for this symbol to carry a meaning quite apart from its correspondence to anything in the objective realm of facts. This is the special function of metaphors: to facilitate awareness across the threshold between fact and mystery, between what can be known and what can only be experienced.

Going back to my earlier secular example, Santa Claus is not an actual person but rather a metaphor that connects us to the mystery of compassion, generosity, and goodwill. We can agree that Santa doesn’t exist, but nevertheless – or perhaps we should say, precisely because we are able to see through the myth of Santa Claus – the deeper significance of the metaphor can be appreciated. The contemplative take-away would be that we can individually become benefactors of altruism and charity in the world as well. Indeed, ‘Santa Claus’ can live in us.

As a path through the disillusionment after theism, ătheism shifts away from the question of god’s existence in order to dig deeper into what the god-metaphor represents. Whereas the theism-ātheism debate gets hung up on whether or not the mythological deity corresponds to an actual metaphysical (or supernatural) being, the insight that it refers to nothing (or more technically, ‘no thing’) outside the myth but instead expresses something internal to the mystery of existence and becoming fully human, is crucial.

Here we come back to the deity’s role as exemplar of the higher virtues that promote genuine community – which of course is a leap beyond merely managing social order: responsibility, altruism, love, cooperation, forgiveness, wisdom. This is not an exclusive set by any means, but it does trace out the trajectory of god’s character development in mythology. Over time, the deity becomes increasingly humane, which both registers the community’s ethical progress in this direction and inspires their ongoing advance into a fuller awakening.

When theism directs the adoration of a devotee upon these higher virtues of the deity, a god-focused glorification activates a self-conscious aspiration to realize them in the devotee’s own life. Now, in place of a personified set of ethical virtues (i.e., the deity), these same ethical virtues come to infuse the personality of the devotee. The god is internalized, so to speak, and ătheism transitions into post-theism.

Many today are lingering in a state of disorientation, just on the cusp of an ătheistic descent of contemplation while the higher virtues of human fulfillment and genuine community are just out of reach. Either they can’t get past the debate over god’s existence, or they can’t let go of god without feeling guilty and sacrilegious. For others, the carrot of heaven and the stick of hell don’t motivate anymore, but they value the fellowship and don’t want to lose it. In all cases they are stuck. It certainly doesn’t help that many forms of institutional theism these days persecute their own members who are waking up with new insights, real questions, and a much bigger vision.

The good news (gospel) of post-theism is that there is life after god – not without god, for that just pitches us back into a needless debate, but on the other side of god. Many are there already, and they are expecting you. In the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine”:

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

 

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The Shining Way

Religion tends to be different from a mere philosophy of life in its claim to offer a way through, out of, or beyond what presently holds us back or stands in the way of our highest fulfillment. In the genuine traditions of spirituality, such a solution avoids the temptation of either an other-worldly escape on the one hand, or on the other a do-it-yourself program where individuals must struggle to make it on their own. It’s not only a perspective on reality that religion provides, then, but a way of salvation – a path in life that leads to and promotes the freedom, happiness, connection and wholeness we seek as human beings.

Our tendency today is to regard the various religions as spiritual retail outlets, each putting its program on offer in competition for the consumer loyalty of shoppers – in recent decades called seekers or the unchurched. As we should expect, each name-brand religion has terms and conditions that are unique to its history and worldview. In addition to its characterization of what we need to get “through, out of, or beyond,” each religion has its own individualized set of symbols, key figures, sources of authority, and moral codes that members are expected to honor.

Muhammad and the Quran are not featured in Christianity, and neither are the teachings of Jesus or Christian atonement theories studied in Buddhist temples. The halacha and mitzvah of Moses are not among the devotional aspirations of a Native American vision quest, nor is zazen practiced in Islam. When we view the religions according to what makes them unique and different from each other, the way of salvation seems like it must be one choice among many.

In face of such confusion, perhaps secular atheism has it right: Do away with religion altogether and the world will be a better place for us all.

If you care to study religion more deeply, however, you will understand that it (in all its healthy varieties) is a sociohistorical expression of something much more profound. Here the terminological distinction between religion and spirituality is helpful, so long as we can resist setting these against each other, as when religion becomes “organized religion” and spirituality gets relegated to one’s individual quest for inner peace or mystical insight.

Religion and spirituality go together – and always have – in the same way as the vital life of a tree goes with the material structure of its roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Our own inner life is always (and only) inner to an outer mortal body. These are not two things that can be separated, but two aspects of one reality distinguished in a fuller understanding.

The questionable doctrine of the immortal soul notwithstanding, this dynamic unity of two aspects (inner essence and outer expression) cannot be divided. Not only do “inner” and “outer” imply each other logically (i.e., in thought), they are inseparably united ontologically (i.e., in being) as well.

It’s not as if the inner life of a tree can exist outside and without the support of its physical system. Nor can the inner life of soul persist absent the body; it is inner only to a whole self, not as one part that can be separated from another part. In the same way, religion without spirituality is dead, but spirituality cannot exist without embodiment in religion. Religion comprises the symbols, stories, beliefs, rituals, and practices that embody the spirituality of individuals in community. Such expressions or outer forms can be highly relevant and effective in what they do, serving to channel the essence or inner life of spirituality into our shared experience.

But these forms can also fall out of alignment and lose relevance, as when the model of reality (cosmology) serving as backdrop to early Christian myths shifted by virtue of scientific discovery from a three-story fixed structure to an outwardly expanding universe. This cosmological shift gradually rendered the sacred stories – of angels descending, a savior ascending, the Holy Spirit descending, the savior descending again, and the company of true believers ascending at last to be with god forever in heaven – literally nonsense. Or at least nonsense if taken literally.

Unfortunately, when religion is sliding into irrelevance, believers, at the admonition of their leaders, can start to insist on the literal reading of sacred stories. If the savior did not literally (that is, factually) go up to heaven and will not literally come back down to earth, and very soon, what becomes of these stories, the canon of scripture, and to the entire tradition of faith? Since a “true story” must be based in fact, and facts are properties of physical reality, then these stories must be literally true or not at all. When this error in narrative interpretation finds a footing in religion, the whole enterprise starts to close in on itself and the lifeline to a deeper spirituality is lost.

If we were to open the religions again to the wellspring of spirituality we would witness a renaissance of creativity, meaning, and joy across the human family. The culturally unique elements would be appreciated as eloquent “styles” in the expression of our inner life as a species, flourishing in fertile niches of geography, history, tradition, and community.

The metaphorical narratives of mythology is where spirituality first breaks the surface into cultural expression. By looking through these narrative expressions, deeper into the unique and culture-specific elements, we can discern what I will call the “Shining Way” of salvation. Again, I’m not using this term salvation as a program of world-escape but instead as a guiding path towards our fulfillment and well-being as individuals, communities, and earthlings. As I’ve tried to unpack the finer details in many other posts of this blog, here we will only take in the big picture and broad strokes of this Shining Way.


We begin life in a state of unconscious oneness, where our individual consciousness is yet undifferentiated from the provident environments of mother’s womb and the family circle. This is the state depicted in myth as a garden paradise, where every requirement of life is spontaneously satisfied and reality is fully sufficient to our needs. Consciousness is completely anchored in the synchronicity of the body’s urgencies and the enveloping rhythms of providence. We call this our ‘first nature’ since it is what ushers us into the animal realm of instinct, survival, and the life-force.

It was out of this unconscious oneness that our individual identity gradually emerged and gained form. What we call our ‘second nature’ consists of the habits – the routines of behavior, feeling, and belief – that our tribe used to shape us into a well-behaved and obedient member of the group. This is a period of growing self-consciousness, of sometimes painful experiences of separation from the earlier state of immersion where we felt enveloped and secure.

In mythology it is that fateful transition away from oneness and into a separate center of personal identity known as ‘the fall’. Paradoxically it is at once both a loss and a gain, a fall out of unconscious oneness and an exciting entrée to a self-conscious existence.

As our second nature, ego ideally develops increasing strength, particularly through the formative years of childhood. Again ideally, we will arrive at a point where our personality is stable (based in a calm and coherent nervous state), balanced (emotionally centered), and unified (managed under an executive sense of who we are) – the key indicators of ego strength.

I have to insert that ominous qualifier ‘ideally’ because ego consciousness doesn’t always advance in the direction of our creative authority as individuals. If our mother’s womb and early family circle were not all that provident – subjecting us to dangerous toxins, stress hormones, abuse or neglect – and because we inevitably make some poor choices of our own, ego can get stuck in a closing spiral of neurotic self-obsession.

As I have explored in other posts, theism is a form of religion that features the super-ego of a patron deity who authorizes a tribe’s moral code and serves as its literary model in the character development of devotees. Theism is a necessary stage in the evolution of religion, just as ego formation is a necessary stage in human development. But just as ego needs to eventually open up to a larger transpersonal mode of consciousness (we’ll get to that in a bit), a healthy theism must also unfold into a larger post-theistic perspective.

Ego and patron deity co-evolve, that is to say, and when ego formation goes awry, theism becomes pathological. Now you have a social system that is both a projection of ego neurosis and a magnifier of it throughout the collective of like-minded believers.

A neurotic ego is deeply insecure, defensive around that insecurity, conceited (“It’s all about me”), and unable to think outside the box of belief (i.e., dogmatic). Not surprisingly, these traits find their counterpart in the portrait of god among pathological forms of theism. Ironically, while these forms of theism tend to glorify separation, aggression, and violence in their concepts of god, on the Shining Way of salvation these are seen as the source of our greatest suffering.

But let’s get back to the good news.

When ego strength has been achieved in our second nature, we are able to surrender our center of identity for a larger and fuller experience of life. In Christian mythology, this release of the personal center is represented in the scene where Jesus surrenders his will to a higher calling and commits his life on the cross into the hands of a compassionate and forgiving god.

NOTE: I’m keeping the action in the present tense because the myth is not primarily an account of the past, but rather an archetypal representation of the Shining Way. As archetype, Jesus in early Christian mythology is not merely a historical individual of long ago, but represents humanity as a whole. He is, as the apostle Paul recognized, the Second Adam or New Man, the turning point into a new age.

When we surrender our center of personal identity, consciousness can expand beyond the small horizon of “me and mine.” What we come to is not a larger sense of ourselves but, as Siddhartha observed, an awareness of ‘no-self’, an experience of consciousness dropping the illusion of separation and ego’s supposed reality. What the neurotic ego would certainly regard and strenuously resist as catastrophic oblivion is experienced instead as boundless presence.

Such insight marks the breakthrough to unity consciousness and is represented in myth as the Buddha’s earth-shaking affirmation under the Bodhi tree, and as the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

According to the Shining Way, liberation from the habits and conditions of our second nature leads us by transcendence to our higher nature. We have progressed in our adventure, then, from a primordial unconscious oneness, through the ordeals and complications of self-consciousness, and with the successful release of attachments we come at last to the conscious wholeness of body and soul, self and other, human and nature.

If we’re going to work this out, we will have to do it together. There is no other way.

 

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The Trance of Who You Are

Whether you are a theist or an atheist, the amazing fact that the universe is so providently arranged as to support the ignition and evolution of life, to the point where you and I are here sharing this thought, ought to inspire wonder, gratitude, and praise. This is where religion began – at the confluence of astonishment and thanksgiving. Its role in human culture for millenniums has been to choreograph society by a system of sacred stories, symbols, and rites, with the purpose of fanning the embers of inspiration and uniting the community in worship.

Really, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a theist or an atheist, because the rapture of wonder and gratitude of which I’m speaking is not invested in any claim regarding the existence of Someone behind and in charge of it all. The sacred stories, called myths after the Greek word for a narrative plot, did early on begin to tell of agencies with elemental and personified form who conspire to put on the Big Show. This wasn’t an effort to explain the universe, as later interpreters would mistakenly assume, but to confirm what we still today – theists and atheists alike – can acknowledge as the gratuitous intention at the heart of a cosmos that is our home.

Our body is the evolutionary extension of matter into life and consciousness, not self-sufficient but outwardly oriented to the web of resources it requires to survive and prosper. This extroverted attention of the body engages with the sensory-physical reality around us, converting light waves into visual pictures, pressure waves into audible sounds, molecules into sensations of smell and taste, texture and weight (etc.) into how something feels in our hands. With an emergent intelligence capable of assembling all of this into an aesthetic unity of experience, our body serves as the perceptual vantage point in our contemplation of the universe.

When we open our frame of attention to everything around us, the view we entertain, along with our understanding of its fit-and-flow design, is known as our cosmology. And whether we interpret it mythologically or mathematically, we are not merely questing after and entering into dialogue with a universe “out there.” As we are inextricably involved in what we observe, our contemplation is itself an act of the universe.SpiralThat is to say, we are not only participants in the provident order of reality; we are manifestations of it as well. While the animal urgencies of the body naturally orient it outward to the resources it needs, a spiritual intuition conducts consciousness in an opposite direction, inward to its own grounding mystery. This aspect of ourselves is equally as primordial as our body, but its introverted orientation puts us in touch with reality prior to and beneath the threshold where it spreads out as the sensory-physical universe.

The mystical-intuitive depth of our own existence is what is meant by “soul” (Greek psyche) – not some thing living inside our body, the “real me” trapped inside this mortal coil, but the deep interior of consciousness, the ground of being itself. Whereas the myriad qualities of the universe beyond us inspire a cosmology of appropriate complexity and sophistication, the ineffable nature of this grounding mystery within us actually quiets our attempts to describe it, calling us to mystical silence instead.

In this way, the best religion will sponsor the research of its members in two directions simultaneously: outward into the most relevant and up-to-date cosmology, and inward to a mystically grounded psychology. The congruency of these two realms – outward and inward, body and soul, universe and ground – is portrayed in myth, revealed in symbols, and celebrated in sacred performance. Science and spirituality have always been the twin fascinations of religion, with its purpose taken up and fulfilled to the extent that it keeps us meaningfully engaged with the present mystery of reality.

The frustration of religion’s essential purpose – this dialogue of body and soul, self and community, society and nature – was introduced long ago with the emergence of a competing ambition, too preoccupied with its own agenda and pressing needs to care as much for the big picture.

Over time, ego’s self-involvement would come to command the focus of just about everything from religion to politics, commerce to lifestyle, philosophy to art. The archaic and long-standing function of religion in reconciling consciousness to the provident universe and its own grounding mystery underwent a profound change as its purpose got reassigned to individual salvation.

What we’re talking about here is the arrival and subsequent influence on culture of the personal ego – that opinionated, flamboyant, self-conscious, willful, ambitious, and deeply insecure center of identity called “I-myself.” Ego’s advent required a greater amount of social energy and attention, as its impulses were more likely to be misaligned with either the body’s instinct or the soul’s wisdom. A moral system of prohibitions, permissions, expectations, and responsibilities had to be created in order to keep its competing inclinations compatible with the general aims of tribal life.

It’s a mistake to assume that ego just appeared out of nowhere. If we observe ego development in children today, or do our best to remember our own adventure into personal identity, we will understand that it really is a lengthy construction project where the tribe (through the agency of parents, guardians, instructors, and other “taller powers”) shapes the personality according to specific social roles. In this way, cultural definitions of the well-behaved child, the good student, the proper husband or wife, the commendable employee, the model citizen, and the true believer are “downloaded” into the operating program of personal identity.

At first, the roles and associated rules need to be imposed on the young child and reinforced through consistent discipline. With maturity, however, the individual will self-consciously enter into numerous identity contracts with the tribe where rewards are not so immediate as gold stars or pats on the head, but may be sublimated, delayed, or even deferred to the next life. Eventually religion took on a role of its own as moral supervisor, mediator of atonement whereby sinners could be rehabilitated to good standing in the community, and keeper of the keys to whichever final destiny the ego deserved.

All of this effectively pulled consciousness out of dialogue with the provident universe and its own grounding mystery, into a spiraling trance where the individual is bound to tribal orthodoxy, trading freedom now for security later, but also forfeiting the living communion of body and soul for ego’s final escape to divinity.

Spiritual teachers like Siddhartha (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) understood that deliverance from this trace of who you are is the true salvation.

 

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Second Birth

The higher religions share many things in common, even as devotees strive so desperately to promote what makes theirs distinct and superior to the others. These common elements are emphasized and celebrated in the more mystically oriented currents, while the orthodox mainstreams either downplay them or interpret them tightly around their core doctrines.

Mystics of all religions tend to resonate with the myths, symbols, and ideals of spiritual life regardless of cultural origin or theistic attachments. They seem to have an ability for seeing through the historical conditions and local inflections that make one religion so different from the others. And while this depth-vision of theirs commits them to a stance that is commonly condemned as heretical (which it is), blasphemous and atheistic (which it isn’t), mystics aren’t really so interested in challenging doctrines as they are in seeding human transformation.

An example of something you’ll find across the higher religions is the metaphor of a “second birth,” which is said to conduct the believer into a new mode of being characterized by expanded awareness, a transpersonal orientation, and a profound intuition regarding the unity of existence. Whatever it may be called – metanoia (new mind), satori (true sight), buddhi (awakening), or the more common enlightenment – this idea of breaking through to a more grounded experience of reality (the way things really are) is the central insight.First_Second Birth

In the present post I offer an interpretation of this “second birth” experience, using the terms that have become important in my ongoing explorations into human transformation: body, ego, and soul. Critical to my use of these terms is an effort to redefine them as names for distinct “mental locations” of consciousness rather than separate parts of a human being.

Body and soul, for instance, are not from two different realms and yoked for the length of an earthly lifespan, only to uncouple and go back to their separate realms. Instead, and more in line with a postmodern reading, “body” and “soul” name distinct mental locations from which consciousness engages the surrounding sensory-physical environment (as body) and its own grounding mystery within (as soul).

Ego introduces a third term, which I take as literally introduced (inserted) into the primary duality of body and soul. Indeed the popular separation of body and soul as opposing forces is actually an ego delusion. By inserting itself between the mental locations of body (outward oriented) and soul (inward oriented), ego pushes them apart (as parts) and then gets caught in its own illusion.

Interestingly enough, this illusion – and to the extent that an individual is utterly entranced by it, this delusion – is a necessary step in human development. Society (aka “the tribe”) must work to shape an animal nature into an obedient member of the group, with all its roles and rules for getting along. Some of those impulses just need a little domestication, while others require stronger sanctions. But the individual submits for the most part, since security and belonging are the coveted benefits of membership.

My diagram above illustrates this insertion of the ego in that cultural workspace of the tribe, where nature is socially conditioned and personal identity is constructed. A physical (or “first”) birth delivered the individual out of a maternal womb and into a tribal womb, in which a sense of self (ego identity) will form. The demanded constraint on animal impulses and a socially required modicum of self-control are what eventually establish an ego identity above the body (often represented as a rider atop its horse).

We can distinguish at least two levels or phases in this process of identity construction, the first taking place inside a family system into which the individual is born or adopted, and the second involving cultural influences farther out. A family is more than just a group of people who live together and share a household. It is a present manifestation of deep generational codes, prevailing moods, and social reflexes that move individuals to behave in ways they don’t fully understand or feel capable of altering.

What we call “family patterns,” then, are the deep emotional conditioning that bind members in relationships of attachment and antagonism, perpetuating various co-dependencies and dysfunctions that make every family so wonderfully complicated. This correlates directly to the fact that ego identity is emotionally based, and it also explains why family patterns are impossible to fully understand.

Even if these primary relationships are abusive, the emotional bonding they provide can hold the individual captive – just as the entire family system is captive to its patterns – and unwilling to leave. What else is there? Where might a young child go for a better life? Outside the family is an even more dreadful danger: the loss of identity. We need to remember that the family is a second womb, and that escape of a “preterm” ego would result in a kind of social extinction, which is why it hangs on.

With time the individual engages the larger culture of his or her tribe. Long-standing traditions and conventions of a society are invariably rooted in a mythology of patron deities, cultural heroes, and legendary figures who secured the present world-order. These stories, together with their anchoring images and ritual observances, are summed up in my notion of “symbol systems” (see the diagram).

A tribe’s symbol system functions as a lens on reality, but also as a filter to keep out (or keep hidden) any threat to security, identity, and meaning. The intellectual horizon of meaning itself is maintained in the cultural worldview – projected, authorized, managed, and repaired by all those with a vested interest in its maintenance, which is everyone on the inside.

But the same spell of delusion is in force at this level as what we find entrancing the family deeper down, only in this case it is more intellectual than emotional. It grips down on the mind as powerful convictions concerning ultimate things: good and evil, life and death, sin and salvation. The intellectual certainty carried in orthodoxy has an anchor-line descending into the dark foundations of emotional security, which is where orthodoxy’s real authority lies.

Even when a doctrine no longer makes sense intellectually, due perhaps to a shift in worldview and a loss of specific relevance, a conviction will remain strong – indeed, becoming even stronger than ever precisely because of its opacity and sacred mystique. Since it’s so difficult to understand, it must have been revealed by god, so who are we to question it or set it aside?

By now you should be able to feel the full enclosure of this tribal womb where ego is conceived and develops. Hemmed in emotionally by family patterns (which of course the individual internalizes and will perpetuate in his or her own future family), as well as hemmed in intellectually by the symbol systems of culture, ego identity now has a fully constructed web to inhabit. With ego formation complete, the stage is finally set for a “second birth.”

But not so fast. Those deep emotional fixations and god-given intellectual convictions will not let go so easily. Let’s not forget what will need to be surrendered should the spell be broken. What could life possibly be like without security and certainty – and without the identity that these together define? This would amount to an “ego death” for sure! For many, the security of knowing the hell they are in today, along with the predictive certainty that it will be waiting for them tomorrow, becomes an inescapable contract of identity.

The tribe is also working hard to keep its construction project under control. Friendly warnings and more stern reprimands are issued to the one who asks the wrong questions, challenges the orthodox answers, or dares to look behind the curtain at what’s on the other side. The threat of condemnation and excommunication are all too frequently enough to send the ego back to its seat.

But it is here, in the throes of emptiness and disorientation, that a few (compared to the multitude that obediently fall back in place) find the grace and courage to step through the veil. Attachments and fixations are surrendered. Convictions break open and release the mind. It is finally understood that the so-called security of hell is really no security at all, and that the so-called certainty of heaven is really a distraction from something infinitely more precious and real.

New mind, true sight, awakening, enlightenment: the once-dreaded breakdown turns out to be a breakthrough to a higher mode of being. The human spirit is liberated from its cage of identity, the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, ego gives way to soul. Metaphors such as these endeavor to translate the experience of a “second birth” into the static nouns and verbs of language; but the experience itself is ineffable, beyond words.

Only after dying to ego and being resurrected as soul can the individual look back to see that those same symbol systems, which seemed so categorical from inside the tribal womb, are now transparent to a universal mystery. Gods and demons, saviors and villains, heaven and hell, sin and salvation, insiders and outsiders – each of these familiar components is part of a single drama that we carry within ourselves.

Or perhaps we should say, it carries us.

This was its design all along. Produced by the mythopoetic imagination and coming out a spiritual intelligence deeper and more ancient than the little ego can fathom, this entrancing web of illusion turns out to be the necessary architecture for our creative evolution. It is a bridge spanning the separation of body and soul – which, I should remind you, doesn’t really exist.

 

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On the Other Side of Meaning

I know someone whose religion is a collection of curiosities from across the landscape of world traditions. A little of this and a little of that, thrown together in no systematic or reasonable way, but still very personal and meaningful as far as it goes.

If you were to ask this individual what it all really means, he could give you a general description of the various sources – the cultural quarries and time periods represented – but what it all means, that is to say, what all of it together means, might not be obvious even to him.

More and more people are opting for this “private collection” kind of religion these days. They have given up membership in one of the “classical” world religions and probably don’t attend worship anywhere on a regular basis. Next to the Bible on the coffee table you might also find the Tao Te Ching, a book of Toltec teachings, and today’s horoscope.

They prefer this to the nervous and narrow-minded dogmatism that can be found in a growing number of “nondenominational” Bible churches across the country. In claiming to be nondenominational, these independent churches are separating themselves from the Christian brands that got their start as branch-offs of reform and reaction, many of them going back 400-500 years when late-medieval Christianity was petering out and becoming culturally irrelevant.

But now these Reformation traditions (Calvinist, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist) are themselves showing signs of recession. What may have once been anchored in a supernaturally supported worldview is starting to require more “devotion” and intellectual sacrifice to keep it going. The Bible Church movement is an attempt to dissociate from something seen as sliding away and losing currency, kind of like cutting the line to a sinking ship that is threatening to pull you down.

One answer to what we can call the “recession of meaning,” then, is to cut ties with tradition and denominational forms of identity. But then you are faced with the challenge of credibility: who says you have it right? Where does your authority lie? In its effort to create the impression of substance and weight, Christian Fundamentalism – the ideological reaction of the early twentieth century that would provide the cultural soil for the later Bible Church movement – invented what it called the “New Testament Church.”

The inerrancy of doctrine, the validating gifts of the Spirit (especially healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues), the authority of men and proper submission of women, the only acceptable liturgy and performance of worship – these by no means universal features of early Christianity were isolated and elevated by fundamentalists as the incontestable “marks of the true Church.”

Our present-day Evangelical Right is the political arm of this same counter-cultural invention. It presents itself as conservative, as promoting a campaign to recover and preserve the original intellectual and moral foundations of Christianity, our true heritage as a nation. But it’s not really conservative at all; instead, it’s self-inventing.

This particular brand of contemporary Christianity is driving many people out of the church today. As it rapidly loses rational integrity and emotional resonance, individuals who still desire a worldview that makes sense and connects to everyday life are silently slipping out the back door. They seek a spirituality that is culturally engaged and intellectually satisfying, one with contemplative depth and aspirational focus. And since they’re not finding it in the competitive marketplace of existing religions, they are putting one together for themselves.Religious symbols

A little of this, a little of that: a collection of historically diverse ideas, rituals, odd parables and other curiosities. Perhaps the most attractive thing about these homemade religions is that they are personally assembled, intentionally practiced, and carefully evaluated for how well they “fit” the individual’s unique interests and situation in life. In a word, these religions are experimental.

Perhaps it’s because the pressure of “getting it right” has been removed, as the other-worldly orientation of classical (and fundamentalist) religion loses favor to one that is more grounded in the here and now. If it is happening, I see it as an indication not of moral decline but of spiritual progress.

More of us are seeking what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel called “abundant life” – not necessarily a life of abundance, but life in greater depth and fullness. Just in case our earthly lifespan is the only gig we get, we want above all to be real, authentic, sincere and caring in the way we choose to live out this precious nick of time.

But I wonder what might be lost in this new age of grab-and-go religion. Without an understanding of the taproots that may once have anchored and energized with spiritual significance our collection of exotic curiosities, are we perhaps left with something of impressive scope but little substance? Are we just digging lots of shallow wells, when the living water we’re after requires a more committed, focused and sustained effort?

A particular religious symbol, myth or teaching has a history that falls off and drops away like dirt from an uprooted plant when we simply lift it out of the soil of its native culture. To the degree it has a mystical resonance with its primordial experience – not back (then) into the past, but down (now) into the present mystery of reality – any genuine expression of spiritual awakening and transformation must be timeless, that is, transcending the local conditions of historical context. It is always possible for a transplanted symbol to stir the soul and come to life.

The recession of meaning today does not need us to invent something that never was, nor should we resort to scavenging for relics and borrowed wisdom from somewhere else. Irrelevancy is a signal – one commonly rationalized or medicated as a problem or pathology to be fixed – that announces the end of the world as we know it. It’s the apocalypse.

Disillusionment is painful. Having our illusions of meaning stripped away and watching them slough off like flakes of old paint is unnerving, if only because you can never be sure how much of your comforting illusion will be left. What’s left after all is unsaid and undone is by definition meaningless, and if we are particularly attached to the meaning that is slipping away it can be very distressing indeed.

That is another attraction of fundamentalism: As overcompensation for legitimate doubt it anesthetizes the pain of disillusionment with an excuse to stop thinking and asking questions. Maybe it’s also why the build-your-own religion solution is becoming so popular as well. As everything crumbles in around you, because yours is so personalized it just might survive the general apocalypse.

But the good news is that there’s life after meaning, just as there’s life under meaning and life before meaning. The key is to ask better questions and stop settling for answers.

There was a time – and you can’t really remember it because memory itself is narrative in structure and meaning-dependent – when you lived simply and nakedly in the present moment. That was before your tribe began pulling the veil (and not a little wool) over your eyes.

You can go there now, without going anywhere at all. The present mystery of reality – and your only worthwhile invitation to authentic being and abundant life – is right here, on the other side of meaning.

 

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