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The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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Dropping Illusions

De Mello: “You must drop it all. Not physical renunciation, you understand; that’s easy. When your illusions drop, you’re in touch with reality at last, and believe me, you will never again be lonely, never again. Loneliness is not cured by human company. Loneliness is cured by contact with reality. Contact with reality, dropping one’s illusions, making contact with the real. Whatever it is, it has no name. We can only know it by dropping what is unreal.”

Awakening is used across the wisdom traditions of the world as a metaphor for salvation – which, of course, is still another metaphor. Many metaphors in this class have to do with being set free from something that is pulling us down and holding us back, as our dreams at night hold us captive to scenarios conjured up from the subconscious imagination. While asleep, the experience we’re having isn’t real, as compared to the physical world of the bed in the room in the house that Jack built.

And then there are dream episodes where you are running from danger or falling in love, which at least one part of your brain can’t distinguish from the peripheral sensations of your bedroom. Your heart races as stress hormones are released into your bloodstream. You thrash about and may start weeping in the middle of your dream. Awakening to the real world involves getting out of the predicament in your dream (the particular scenario that has you so worked up), then getting out of the dream itself, and finally waking up from sleep to become aware again of the real world around you.

But let’s not stop there. After all, what is this so-called “real world” you have awakened to? A comfortable bed in a room designed for sleeping (and other stuff), as part of a house in a neighborhood of a city in a state of the country where you are a citizen. Your country has a language and a history that are rooted in a still-larger culture, going back many generations and centuries. You and your fellow citizens live together inside a system of law, politics, morality, commerce and other basic values that constitute a more or less coherent worldview.

Keep going. This worldview – we might say, by definition – is only a view on the world, and not the world itself. Everything, from the bed you dream in to the canopy of tribal  mythology that holds everything in place, is a cultural artifact. A worldview is constructed much as furniture is made, but out of words, values and meanings rather than wood, metal and fabric. Even the bed isn’t “just” a material thing, but an object built by design for a specific purpose. It, too, is “made up.”

And then there’s the world – the thing that your worldview is only a view of. What is the world? From the root-word wer-ald, literally “man age,” world refers to the envelop of significance that human beings pull around themselves for security, identity and purpose. Your wer-ald co-exists with you as long as you’re alive, for the length of your age.

So even the so-called real world is meaningful only in reference to human beings. It’s also an artifact, a kind of boundary term that allows your made-up world to gradually and imperceptibly merge with reality. You have a world, I have a world, and we share a good part of a cultural world – although our local tribes may espouse very different, even conflicting beliefs about what it all means.

As a metaphor, then, awakening is a process of liberation from illusion. On this definition, not only is the dream scenario an illusion – or a play of imaginary representations, constructs of the mind – but so is the dream. And so are the many layers of cultural artifacts, from the bed you wake up in, to the role-play of your life in society, to the character and history of your people, and even to the mythological god who validates and supervises the whole thing. Illusions all.

One level “up,” so to speak, might seem more real than the one(s) farther down, but it’s still only a representation – a re-presentation, a secondary presentation, a mental construct, a mere image standing in for the real thing (or so we believe). So what we have is a nested stack of representations: dream scenarios inside of dream states inside of role plays inside of tribal dreams inside of cultural dream states inside the real world that god built.

Just so we can draw a boundary around all this illusion, let’s say that everything on the far side of representation is “metaphysics” or “revelation,” and leave that to the prophets and crack-pots who claim to speak for god.

I suppose it’s up to each of us to decide how much illusion we are willing to accept as truth. You’ve got to get on with your life somehow, right? We might expect a fully awakened human being, one who is entirely free of illusions, to be a world-renouncing party-pooper. Pretty much good for nothing when it comes to what the rest of us are so worked up about.

But renouncing the conventional world for one that is supernatural, metaphysical, or monastic is merely swapping out one illusion for another. Just because you switch from a functional language about garage doors to a liturgical language about god almighty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to reality.

So what De Mello means by “dropping illusions” must be something else besides turning your back on this world for the sake of a heavenly reward elsewhere and later on. Maybe it’s not even possible for our minds to apprehend reality, since the moment they grab hold and slap a label on it, the construction of meaning is already well underway.

Maybe the best we can do is try to live in full acknowledgement of our nature as meaning-makers, storytellers, spin-masters and illusionists. Perhaps dropping illusions is not about renouncing them, as it is stepping through them with a waking awareness to the real presence of mystery.

 

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Waking Up

De Mello: “Spirituality is the most practical thing in the whole wide world. I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship, but spirituality – waking up, waking up!”

Human beings are creators, and what we create are worlds. A “world” is a construct of language, a habitation of meaning, a web we spin for the sake of establishing some measure of security, orientation and purpose across the expansive and fathomless mystery we call reality. Like cocoons, we weave our world-homes and crawl inside.

Then we fall asleep.

But just as a cocoon is only intended as a temporary compartment, an incubator for a time as the swooning caterpillar undergoes metamorphosis, our worlds aren’t able to permanently contain the creative energy of the human spirit.

I saw it too many times in my career as a pastor, and later as a counselor: there is a “spiritual frustration” behind all our fussing and fighting, all the crime and unrest, all the neuroses and sink-holes of depression that are swallowing so many today. In ministry I wasted much time and energy – before I realized what was really going on – placating this restless demon and restitching the splitting seams of outgrown worlds.

The general trend in the current conversation on religion and spirituality is to define it – spirituality – as your private practice of prayer, communion with your higher power or inner guide, along with any odd assortment of ideas, symbols and rituals that make it meaningful to you. Religion, on the other hand, is “organized religion” – public, dogmatic, authoritarian and traditional.

In other words, boring and irrelevant.

The truth is, religion has become rather disconnected from life on our planet in this global age. As its boundaries bump up against rival belief systems, religion becomes increasingly reactive, defensive and violence-prone. But it’s also the case that religion is losing the currency game. Adherents go to church and sing praises to a deity they’ve never met, for the simple reason that he is only a literary character, what I call the mythological god.

As I’ve explained in previous Conversations, the mythological god is a personified representation of what some human beings regard as the supreme power behind the universe. So far, so boring. He got more interesting as the tribe fashioned this deity into its own likeness, with a rather unstable personality, a really BIG ego, and all the necessary vengeance at the ready for sinners, outsiders, and enemies.

Back in the day, a tribe (as I’m calling it) was a local human group of stratified classes, ranks of authority, strong boundaries, a deep genealogy and a tight moral code to keep it all from falling apart. Religion functioned as the center-pole around which this arrangement was oriented, and the mythological god was positioned at the top of the pole. The icon of sacred order.

All around the planet during this tribal age you could find the same general set of ordained functionaries, positioned and properly respected as guardians of truth. Priests looked after the ceremonial aspect, scribes kept the scrolls in order, and prophets or shamans served as therapeutic inlets of ecstatic experience – just enough conscience or craziness to preserve the illusion that Someone Else is in charge.

At some point, however, the evolution of human consciousness produced a more individually grounded and skeptical intelligence. People started to wonder why the god they heard and read about in the holy books wasn’t still sounding down from the clouds or filling the temples with holy smoke.

The guardians did their best to protect the tradition and its orthodox heritage by making up “adjustment stories” about the god’s heavenly transcendence, our loss of direct contact with him due to our fall into sin and depravity, and about how the god was preparing for an apocalyptic return – very soon, and maybe tomorrow. Don’t rock the boat.

So for centuries now, individuals living in the dawning light of a higher spiritual awareness have accepted these adjustment stories as sacred revelation.

It’s a little like all the minor adjustments that astrologers were making to the earth-centered universe before Copernicus. Because Earth was really traveling through space and whirling around the sun, earlier scientists had to make mathematical adjustments to the orbital paths of the other planets, in order to keep them moving in perfect circles around us. This was because god only works with perfect circles, not ellipses or squiggles.

In some of my earlier Conversations I’ve been pumping for a “post-theistic” spirituality. As theism is a conceptual model of religion based on the objective reality of a divine personality “up there” and in charge, “post”-theism is an invitation to contemplate the possibility that this god, along with the world-order he supervises, is intended as an evolutionary incubator of spirituality.

A defensive theist may well cry, “Atheism!” But the “post” in post-theism is meant as an acknowledgement of theism’s strategic place in human spiritual formation. It’s closed system –  however large this closed system may be permitted to get – provides the security, orientation and sense of purpose that human beings need.

To say that its god lives only in the myths is not to deny his existence, but instead reflects a new-found appreciation for sacred stories and their power to shape and reshape consciousness. Just because god’s existence is literary and not literal, doesn’t mean that he’s now obsolete and better left to the dark ages.

Religion is the outer structure to spirituality’s creative life, the body to its soul. Post-theism is not what comes after religion, and neither is it just a word to validate the kind of designer superstitions available under best-seller titles at the local bookstore. It’s a way of seeing spirituality in an evolutionary context, and religion as the staging area of our awakening.

Truth in religion is in the flexibility of its present arrangement, as well as in its willingness – let’s call it faith – to release the need to be right, in order that we might become more real.

There’s nothing more practical, and more urgently needed today, than waking up.

 

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Embodied Faith

Tillich: “The history of faith is a permanent fight with the corruption of faith, and the conflict with reason is one of its most conspicuous symptoms.”

“Reason” as a term referring to a faculty of human intelligence has an interesting history of its own, both on the human-evolutionary and individual-developmental scales. Its ascent in the evolution of our species gave us new powers for critical thinking and rationality. It’s not that reason is any more reality-oriented than faith, but it moves less by wide leaps than smaller logical steps, connecting dots into patterns of meaning.

The relationship between mystery and meaning helps illustrate the essential differences in faith and reason. Faith is your primary response to mystery – to what I’ve been calling the real presence of mystery or the present mystery of reality. It’s a very here-and-now phenomenon and has to do with the quality of your experience in terms of how open, grounded, centered and trusting you are to the greater reality in which you live.

Awareness at this level is beyond words (ineffable), not just because words are fixed and the mystery is fluid, but also because this experience is processed in a deep, preverbal part of your brain.

When you were still in the womb, reality was registered in your nervous system as providential or inhospitable, depending on the sensory-intuitive information it was picking up from your uterine environment. And because all organisms are equipped with a survival drive, the general tenor of your resulting nervous state was somewhere between agitation and calm, distress and composure, anxiety … and faith.

Your brain’s primary task is to regulate the internal state of your body and continually match this state to its external environment. Such adaptation is what Darwin called “fitness.”

According to this definition, faith is a deep response to reality rooted in your very physiology. Anxiety or faith are felt at a level far below verbal processing, deeper even than conscious awareness. How you feel is the way it is – I could say “for you,” but it really doesn’t matter. This is why there is such certitude in this kind of knowing: no argument is needed to make the point.

Reason takes it start from this place of direct knowing. The nervous state of faith is preverbal, subconscious and inarticulate until the mind can begin to represent it somehow. The earliest forms of art, dance, song and poetry were likely creative expressions of the human experience of reality – as vast, sublime, frightening, and awe-inspiring. These were the first products of reason in its attempt to translate pure experience into communicable forms of representation. This was also the birth of meaning.

As it develops, reason takes these products of its own creative effort and puts them together in more complex patterns. Eventually – and it doesn’t take long at all – a complicated web of cross-referencing associations is generated, expanding up, out and around the ineffable mystery of your present experience. This meaning is tribal and personal, and its all about orienting your experience within the larger web of collective metaphors, values and concerns that make up your cultural world.

One of the important terms in your culture’s web of meaning is the mythological god. He is responsible for creating the cosmos, calling your ancestors to a special destiny, providing for your salvation, protecting you from harm, showering you with blessings, and finally taking your soul to everlasting life. At one level – at the imaginative, creative, and metaphorical level – such belief in god can promote a “blessed assurance,” a profound and confident trust that everything is going to be okay.

In a time when human culture was still in its creative-artistic phase, the mythological god was completely compatible with reason. It made sense to speak of a supernatural personality who made the world, who watches out for those he favors, and intervenes on their behalf. But when human evolution moved into a logical-rational phase, something had to be done about myth, the mythological god, and the traditional organization of life around one’s relationship and obligations to him – now formally called “religion.”

The progressives have always been in favor of putting down the stories and taking life more seriously, as enlightened and sophisticated adults. Conservatives, on the other hand, typically preach the necessity of holding on to the traditions and preserving the values of our forebears. If the myths and the mythological god don’t seem any longer to be compatible with our contemporary scientific worldview, then it only exposes how far we have fallen in our sin.

Faith now becomes inseparable from a literal Bible, an objectively real god (up there, out there), along with the orthodox doctrines, denominational creeds, and ordained authorities appointed to defend them as absolute truth. This is what Tillich means by “the corruption of faith.” What is basically a primary nervous state and existential stance in reality – open, trusting, present and receptive – gets retooled into an exercise in intellectual by-pass where we are pressured to believe and confess things that require an outdated worldview to make any sense at all.

Progressives also need to move past the point where they criticize mythology as childish and culturally retarded. There’s often a sour smell of self-congratulatory pride in their dismissive comments, and not enough genuine appreciation for the creative imagination and how metaphorical theology can still speak to our deep human need for grounding in a providential reality.

Truth is in the myths, but not when they are taken literally. At least not any more.

 

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Faith and Creative Change

Excursus: Religious faith is frequently a force of resistance to change. True believers may invoke sacred tradition, holy scripture, or the unchanging nature of god to justify our need to keep things as they are, or get back to the way they once were. Holding fast to ancient ways or locking down on absolute truths in a fundamentalist fashion are often prescribed as our only way through the present situation, which is characterized as godless, worldly and humanistic. Where does faith stand in relation to creative change?

None of my conversation partners (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich) would number among the saints of orthodox Christianity. The terms dogmatic, evangelical and fundamentalist would not describe any of them in the way they thought of ultimate reality and wrestled with what it means to be Christian in their contemporary world. For this very reason they have been dismissed as eccentrics or renounced as heretics by the true religion. This is also why I find them compelling.

Way “back in the day” when Greek philosophy was leaving the nest of  religious mythology and investigating the nature of reality through scientific mythology – better known as “theory” – Heraclitus asserted that change is not what happens to the way things really are, but is itself most basic to reality. Using the metaphor of a stream, he observed that you never step into the same river twice. By the time you put your foot in again, the river has moved and this experience is different from your earlier encounter.

This message has been difficult to accept. In his own day, Heraclitus was scorned as a heretic by the philosophical majority who held fast to a theory of an immutable essence behind and beneath the only-apparent change. Religious orthodoxy simply identified this metaphysical reality with the transcendent god – exalted, absolute, unaffected and aloof. Out of the whirlwind of experience of life in time, a true believer can attach him- or herself to this god and find not only security in this world, but everlasting life in the next.

I personally don’t regard the mythological god as metaphysically real. That’s a mouthful, but it’s only saying that the god of sacred story lives only in the myths and not outside them in the actual reality of our experience. When Christian theology took off from these stories of the Bible and developed its own sophisticated web of theories concerning the nature and will of god, it moved the god-talk of religion out of a public context of myth and ritual and into the private head-space of orthodox doctrines. This is the point when faith became a noun.

Even the “ground” of mystical spirituality can sound as if it’s referring to a stable and unchanging reality beneath us, something outside and under all the flux of change. True enough, there are some so-called mystical schools that claim to have access to a realm of deities, angels, spirit-guides and your deceased relatives. If your lifestyle prevents you from joining one, you might consider paying a free-lance psychic medium to channel a disembodied personality for you.

But the genuinely mystical ground of being is not a personality, or even “a being.” It is the deeper support and generative source in which your existence is rooted. The usefulness of the “ground” metaphor should be obvious – if we even feel the need to talk about our experience of reality at this level. You don’t look outside of yourself to find this ground. Instead you need to look into yourself and through yourself, to that place where your individual life is connected to the present mystery of reality.

Of course, you can look outside yourself if you prefer, and there you will see countless manifestations of the one ground, expressing here as grass, there as trees, here as a bird and there as clouds – and so on, around our amazing planet and beyond. All together, these comprise what we call the Universe. All is one – and turns as one (uni-verse) – by virtue of our common ground in being-itself.

This ground is not detached and aloof from your daily experience, but is the dynamic and creative – Heraclitus would say “flowing” – power moving into you, as you, and through you. Right here, right now. It supports your existence as a river carries you in its current.

As reality changes all around you, and as your life changes from year to year, from day to day, and from moment to moment, don’t resist or look for an escape. Simply relax into being, release your grip on the world around you and reach for the deeper support of your existence. Settle into your center, soften your focus, and just breathe into this space.

You’ve been jabbing your heels into the riverbed long enough, and swimming against the current is not only exhausting, but ultimately futile. Stop fighting change with such anxiety and suspicion. Trust the process. This is where you are, so be here.

 

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One Thing

Kierkegaard: “The [one] who desires the Good for the sake of the reward does not will one thing, but is double-minded.”

Down through the history of philosophy in the West, metaphysical realists have believed in “the Good,” in a deep foundation or high ideal on which all our values are oriented. The great Plato even made it the sun-center of his thought system, explaining our appreciation of goodness in the realm of time as the intuition of an eternal or timeless Form reflected to varying degrees in the world around us. Later on, the Church father Augustine interpreted this and other forms of perfection as archetypes in the mind of God, the essential patterns on which Creation was originally fashioned and from which it eventually fell, under the spell of sin.

In the high Middle Ages, philosophers began to challenge this idea of transcendental Forms (archetypes, models, divine ideas) having a separate existence in a realm apart from their incarnations in time. Nominalism insisted that these so-called Forms are only categories in our minds, names we use to organize and make sense of reality – whatever that is. This was the bridge in Western philosophy that gave support to even more radical views later on, in the set of assumptions called postmodernism: (1) all we have is perspective, (2) meaning is constructed, and (3) there are no absolutes.

Kierkegaard was in this new current of thought, so why does he still refer to “the Good” as if it is something out there that we might desire, whether for the sake of a reward or not? Does the Good exist in some other realm, apart from this web of relativity we call our world? If there were no human beings, would there still be the Good? A little farther into the nineteenth century Nietzsche would insist on our evolutionary need to go “beyond good and evil” – beyond tribal morality, the dis/obedient ego, and the mythological god who holds it all in place – for the sake of a higher humanity (his Ubermensch or higher self). Is Kierkegaard trying to prevent what Nietzsche later celebrated?

It may sound as if he is saying, “Okay, we’re making it all up – except this one thing, the Good.” Like the vestige of the mythological god who still lurks behind the screen for many post-theists today, perhaps the Good is Kierkegaard’s attempt to fix in place just one thing that can serve as the immovable center of this (only) apparent chaos. At least there’s this, we can say. This is absolute and for certain, whatever else may be called into doubt.

But what if “the Good” is more internal than external, more about the intention in what we do than something we look for and find out there in the world? What if it’s about focus, passion and devotion – what you regard in all seriousness as the “one thing” that matters most. This is what Tillich means by “ultimate concern.” Its separate existence, either outside you in the world or in a metaphysical realm apart from this one, is merely secondary. Maybe “the Good” is not what we will but the way we will, a quality of intention rather than a quantifiable something out there.

Human beings make meaning, we don’t find it – unless we come across what someone else has created already. Once upon a time we composed a myth that conceived of existence itself as the creation of a god who made everything before we got here. So we’re coming across what someone else has created already, all the time, and its meaning is inherent because god put it there. But once we realize that the mythological god is a literary and psychological device in our own effort at meaning-making, a new kind of responsibility befalls us.

In the film City Slickers, the character Mitch is a man who has reached the point at midlife where meaning and purpose have drained from his world. In the spirit of adventure – and as a kind of desperate measure to get out of his boring life routine – he and his friends sign up for a cattle-drive across the western United States. In a critical scene Mitch is sitting with an old cowhand named Curly, whose way in the world is tough and crass, and he asks him the question that’s been burning in his soul: “What’s the meaning of life?” Curly pauses, looks deep in his eyes and says to Mitch, “One thing.”

For a while thereafter, Mitch is perplexed over what that “one thing” might be. Is it a woman? A successful career? Religion? When Norman, a calf that Mitch delivers under Curly’s supervision, is in danger of drowning in a fast-moving stream, Mitch jumps in at the risk of his own life and saves the animal. In that moment he discovers the “one thing” as the object of his unconditional love and personal sacrifice. After the adventure he goes back to his life with renewed intention, embracing in gratitude and devotion what had earlier felt only heavy and pointless.

This is what I think Kierkegaard means by “the Good.” It’s not out there for us to find. Instead it’s the degree of focus, passion and investment with which we live our lives. Living “on purpose” means that we are living awake, that we are not simply reacting to our upbringing or circumstances but rather intentionally creating the lives we really want.

There is a caveat. Our lives will be truly meaning-full when we live not for the sake of gaining a reward (something afterwards or on the side) but for the fulfillment that is intrinsic to the act of creation itself. As creators of value, human beings find their deepest spiritual satisfaction in translating the present mystery of reality into worlds of significance, purpose, beauty and love. Not for what we get out of it, but for the exhilaration and authentic life we experience as we get deeper into it.

It’s not about me, and it’s not about you. But it can’t happen without us, so let’s step into it with both eyes open.

 

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Lost and Found

Kierkegaard: “When the wanderer comes away from the much-traveled noisy highway into places of quiet, then it seems to him (for stillness is impressive) as if he must examine himself, as if he must speak out what lies hidden in the depths of his soul. It seems to him, according to the poets’ explanation, as if something inexpressible thrusts itself forward from his innermost being, the unspeakable, for which indeed language has no vessel of expression. Even the longing is not the unspeakable itself. It is only a hastening after it.”

It’s therapeutic to stay busy. As long as you can preoccupy your attention and thoughts with a list of tasks, you will successfully avoid falling into the silence at the center of your being. Distractions are like tie-lines that keep you hooked into the world around you, in a willing surrender of freedom for the sake of security. Eventually you become captive to your own devices, a prisoner of distraction.

But noise only masks the silence; it cannot fill it. Staying busy uses energy – uselessly. You end up exhausted, stretched, stressed – and stuck. For all the activity, you go nowhere. For all the effort, no real progress is gained. You are going out when you should be going down.

In what we might call the Western chakra system, heart, mind and will serve as the distinct “faculties” of intelligence with which we lean into life. While each of us has a preference among these – leaning first and more often with our feelings, thoughts, or actions – they are all present in us, cooperating in the construction of meaning.

This construction is ongoing throughout our lives, projecting outward and around ourselves that uniquely human habitation called my/your personal world and our collective culture. It is the system of preference, significance and motivation that keeps us chasing after, holding onto, and running from what matters.

All of it is “speakable” – that is to say, it can be identified, defined, arranged and personalized. This is where your tribal membership is maintained, where your affiliations to gender, class and party are worked out, and where your mythological god (if you have one) does his or her thing. Each piece is linked to other pieces, and the energy that loops throughout the system and keeps this whole castle in the air is your belief that it is real – the way things really are. You live for it, and perhaps you may die for it. If you’re fully entranced you might even kill for it.

Underneath all of it, however, and deep inside all that busyness is a quiet stillness where your existence is grounded. Just as our visual apprehension of reality must compensate for and fill in the tiny pinhole where the optic nerve ties into the retina, there is likewise a still-point behind and beneath your busy ego. It’s there for each of us, but only a very small percentage lives with any conscious awareness of, and disciplined attention to, this real presence of mystery.

This is where it all begins – or just before it all begins, where all is “formless and void, and darkness [is] over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1). Looking out on the world you’re creating generates the illusion that this is all there is. And as long as your energy and attention are anchored out there – and as long as you keep “forgetting” that you’re the wizard behind the curtain – it can go on for a lifetime – or several, if that’s your thing. Like the eleventy billion channels on your television that can pull you in and take you hostage, this world of yours is endlessly fascinating.

Faith lives in the here and now, in the now/here that is nowhere. Even though we are in the mystery each and every moment of our lives, we can’t speak about it. If we try to put it into words and produce a theory of what it is, we have already moved out of mystery and into meaning – out and away as far as our awareness of it is concerned.

Sadly, the frustration and exhaustion of keeping your creation together can still be preferable to the prospect of letting go and falling back into that soul-space of real presence. After all, we are very fond of our personal worlds. Compared with all that content, all that complexity, and all of those countless options, this open and formless space in the deep center of what you are can seem terrifying. Indeed, many of us work hard to stay away from it.

Conventional religion and psychotherapy are good examples of how we squander the opportunity for sinking deeper into the present mystery of reality. We may be given an insight, a key to the narrow gate, but just as quickly we are assigned a mission or treatment plan that prescribes what we should do next. Before we know it, we’re out on the path again, chasing after salvation, success and happiness – out there.

In this spiritual space, in the ground of your being, just before you pick up the masks and step into the roles that define who you are in the world, there is only this.

Relax. Breathe. Be.

 

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Faith in the Wake of Tragedy

Excursus: The senseless slaying of innocent children and faculty at a Connecticut elementary school challenges our faith in a god who cares for us.

Over the course of my conversations with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich, our working definition of faith has shifted away from nouns and deeper into verbs. Faith is something much more fundamental to life than the orthodox doctrines we may subscribe to, or our willingness to suspend critical judgment and honest skepticism in their defense. Faith is about letting go – but not letting go of intuition, common sense, and reason for the sake of believing something passed down by religious tradition.

Instead, we release ourselves to the real presence of mystery.

But how does this translate into life – especially when a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting upsets our confidence in the security and order of things? In such times, religious people struggle to connect the horror and loss somehow to god. God is (supposed to be) in control, everything (presumably) happens for a reason, and in a moral universe (like ours) people get what they deserve. If these things are true, how can we find our way through this calamity?

Here’s how it typically spins out. Those innocent children and school faculty are now with god in heaven, and Adam Lanza is in hell where he belongs. This doesn’t answer why the innocent had to suffer and be taken prematurely from life here, but at least it restores the moral balance – or better, our need for moral balance.

The explanation continues. This senseless tragedy lacks any meaning and purpose only because we have a very limited perspective on life events. In reality, everything happens for a reason. Religious people don’t take the same angle on the puzzle as science, however. Empirical science is based on the assumption that every event has a cause, or rather many lines of causality behind it. But theological orthodoxy looks ahead rather than behind, searching for a greater purpose working itself out through the (only) apparently random events of life. Just because you can’t discern the purpose from where you stand doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

One more step. This reason or purpose moving everything along is not mere fate, but the intelligent will of a personal god. Thankfully nothing happens outside of god’s control, and the reasons behind everything that happens to us are god’s reasons, god’s purpose. God wanted those first-graders with him in heaven and not with their families on earth – so that’s why it happened.

Appalling? Yes. But again, it’s only because you can’t fully know the mind of god. All of us want to hang on to this life, to keep what is ours. On this side of things loss can be insufferable. But just think what glory awaits the faithful. Just believe, and stop asking questions.

Let’s try a different approach.

People don’t get what they deserve – either in this life or in the next. The universe isn’t moral. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with doing terrible things. What happened in Newtown was horrible, an unfathomable evil.

The mass murder of innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t happen for a reason. While the various lines of causality leading up to it will be investigated and some of them made clear, there is no higher purpose that can justify the violence and blood-shed. Not everything that happens happens for a reason. Some events are simply absurd, without inherent meaning or greater purpose. A person of faith can believe this.

And what about that god who’s in control of everything – who either caused the events to unfold as they did (the hardline stance) or allowed them to happen (the softer version)? We must remember that this god is the invention of our mythological imagination. No matter how passionate and persuasive true believers may be, no one has ever encountered or been in communication with the mythological god – ever. He lives only in our myths. He didn’t cause or allow the school shooting. He doesn’t have a greater purpose that made it necessary to end the earthly lives of eighteen first-graders. He didn’t, and doesn’t, because he isn’t.

With all of that said, and after every theological explanation has been exhausted and thrown aside, there is a real presence that awaits to be found in the midst of all the grief and anguish. The comfort will not come when the question of why god caused/allowed this to happen has been answered, but when we start asking a far better and more relevant question: Where is God in all of this? (I’ve capitalized the word to signal my use of it as a reference to the real presence of mystery at the heart of our human experience.)

God is in the pain. God is in the absence. God is in the doubts. God is broken and given to the bereaved families as consolation, solidarity, compassion and support. God is in the community that gathers around the loss, remembers the victims, and renews its faith – one day at a time.

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2012 in Timely and Random

 

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The Birth of God

Schleiermacher: “Suppose there is someone who rejects the idea of a personal God. This rejection of the idea of a personal Deity does not decide against the presence of the Deity in his [or her] feeling.”

Because personality is the filter through which we humans experience reality, our long-standing assumption has been that it represents the crowning achievement of evolution. As energy condensed into rock and rocks made way for the first living organisms, so is the vibrant and self-conscious personality a miraculous leap of advancement beyond mere biology. As we move up the hierarchy of life, tree shrews are more complex and interesting than earthworms, dogs are more like us than tree shrews, but a human person – a personality – is essentially incomparable to anything else in our known universe.

I remember as a little boy how I personified things in my world. My toys had personalities, as did just about everything I encountered outside at play. Even now at midlife I find myself getting angry at inanimate objects, like a cupboard door that swings out as I bend over to empty the dishwasher. When I straighten up and hit my head on that damned door I have an urge to hit it back, to punish it for hurting me. It’s important – somehow and somewhere deep inside the more primitive part of my personality – that I teach the door a lesson. There are no accidents in the animated world of childhood simply because intention flows out of the center of each existing thing and connects it to everything thing else.

This is one theory of how religion began: our early ancestors looked out on reality and saw numerous intentional forces impinging on their survival as they settled in or migrated across the globe. Gradually these intentional forces were imbued with personality, depicted in local art and mythology, and duly worshiped for their influence in human affairs. Like the scripts I conjured up for the various genies and higher agencies of my childhood play-world, these divine (and demonic) personalities were not invented and installed by anything resembling an objective and critical self-awareness. We were primed for it and it just flowed spontaneously out of our creative imagination.

The psychological value of this theory is two-fold. First it acknowledges our human need to be in relationship with the greater environment that both supports and threatens our existence. Whether it be our mother’s womb, our family of origin, our native tribe, the patch of Earth we inhabit or the universe entire, we have a yearning inside us – Schleiermacher would locate this yearning in our intuitive intelligence, or heart – to belong. What better way of fulfilling this need of ours than to reach out to this otherness in trusting release, earnest petition, humble reverence, and devoted worship?

Secondly, and really building on this first value, the theory establishes the mythological god on more respectable ground. Rather than beginning its critical examination with the assumption of the divine personality as an actual being whose existence must be proved or disproved, it takes its start from the side of human experience. (This was the turn to phenomenology, or to the study of how consciousness apprehends, perceives and represents reality that was revolutionizing philosophy in Schleiermacher’s day.) The question is not whether or not the personal god exists, but what it means – or perhaps what it might have once meant – to be in relationship with a universe that notices you and interacts intelligently with you.

Because he started with experience and not with the objective existence of a mythological god, Schleiermacher didn’t have to defend or discredit the belief in one. Concern over the biblical legitimacy or theological orthodoxy of your representation of god is really secondary to your awareness of and encounter with “the Presence of the Deity.” In my vocabulary this is the real presence of mystery or present mystery of reality that supports, surrounds, permeates and dissolves your existence in this very moment.

Our mental representations, or models, of god are not as clear-cut and immutable as we may think. Just as your concept of god has developed and changed countless times throughout your life – do you regard “the Deity” the same today as you did when you were a child? Let’s hope not – so too even a cursory reading of the Bible observes a mythological god who develops over time. God creates and then later regrets his creation, deciding to drown but a boatload of all living things; he wants to incinerate a wicked city but then is persuaded by Abraham to change his plans; he orders ruthless violence against the enemy, but then commands us to love and do good to them. This is an obvious problem for someone who takes the Bible literally and then reads in James 1:17 that god doesn’t change.

Human beings are in a complex relationship with the universe. Out of our developing needs and expanding consciousness, the one on the “other side” of this relationship changes and evolves accordingly. It isn’t necessary – or profitable for the welfare and destiny of our species – to debate and wrangle over whose god is the true god. The “truth” of your god cannot be determined through some sort of rational calculus, comparative study, or biblical exegesis. The real question is how your concept of god – whether personal, non-personal, or transpersonal – corresponds with and meaningfully represents your experience.

If your god connects you to life and inspires the development of your higher capacities for personal responsibility, unconditional forgiveness, healthy dialogue and cooperation, and a wider outreach to the human and nonhuman inhabitants of our common planetary home, then it’s as true as anything.

Check yourself. I’ll do the same.

 

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Faith and Existence

Tillich: “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern.”

In our head-heavy, wordy and overly rationalistic traditions of the West, faith has been misrepresented as one’s assent to doctrines. Your faith is more genuine and praiseworthy if the doctrine lacks evidence to support it or contradicts logic. Both knowledge and faith have to do with the content of what you believe, but faith comes in to play where the pieces don’t seem to add up, the argument is thin on proof, or where you need to rely on the credibility of other witnesses.

We’ve already established that faith is really not about what you believe, but rather about the act of believing – or better, of releasing your need to be in control and certain of the outcome. Faith is present awareness. Whatever you may believe about what happened a long time ago, or what might happen in the future, or what’s going on right now but in another realm – of gods, angels, demons, ancestors and other spirit-beings – is not a function of faith but of your willingness to believe.

When faith is construed as primarily cognitive and propositional, doubt is a big problem. Because “the faith” has been assembled over many generations of thinking, writing, reading, interpreting and expounding on words, just one head-scratching “I’m not sure about this one” can cause the whole thing to fall apart. That’s why dogmatic fundamentalism is so rampant among religions of the word. If you feel even a hint of doubt, better start praying for an increase in faith so you don’t jeopardize your everlasting security and miss out on your reward for being right.

But we need to doubt things that don’t make sense. We need to be skeptical over claims that lack supporting evidence or logical coherence. Historically skepticism is not about withholding commitment until absolute certainty is attained, but rather conducting your own research and testing the statements of others against your own experience. Again, just because you don’t have the personal time, rational tools or motivational drive to scrutinize every religious doctrine doesn’t mean that you have a strong faith. It may turn out that your so-called faith in the validity of those doctrines results in your demise and not your salvation.

What Tillich is calling existential doubt, therefore, is not the same as scientific or methodological doubt. The latter is a servant of better (more accurate) knowledge, as when a researcher tests a theory experimentally, or a philosopher examines an argument for the reliability of its premises and how logically sound it is. Pre-Copernican astronomy simply assumed that Earth was stationary and orbited by the Sun, but when scientists began following the indications of their investigative instruments and mathematical formulations a very different universe was revealed to them. By only accepting what can be measured, demonstrated or derived from already-established claims, science has revolutionized our lives.

Schleiermacher insisted that faith is more about “feeling and intuition” than the claims of knowledge, and his shift from the mind to the heart marked a turning-point for Protestant theology. It’s important to remember that the heart does not merely refer to our sentimental intelligence, but is the place where we are first moved by experience, producing our mood and establishing the attitude from which we take our perspective on reality. Whatever we think (mind) or do (will) is a function of how we feel in the moment. Preceding our thoughts about it and our behavior in response to it, reality – or what’s really going on – is first registered in an intuitive feeling.

This is where we can make sense of Tillich’s use of the term “existential” when speaking of faith and doubt. Existential is what concerns your most basic stance in reality, how existence feels to you. When reality feels providential and supportive, you find yourself opening up to it and relaxing into it. Conversely, a reality that feels dangerous or indifferent provokes feelings of anxiety – of existential doubt.

In fact, reality is both providential and hazardous. Your life is “given” to you in each moment, even as it passes away. Like the sea-swell beneath a cresting wave, your personal existence is lifted up into self-expression only to be pulled down and dissolved into the larger mystery of being. This dual nature of reality and our experience of it is represented theologically in the two faces of god (creator/destroyer; grace and wrath). Because the mythological god is a psychological counterpart to the personal ego, however, such theological distinctions are already too far removed from the deep center of experience. By that time, we find ourselves wanting to play up to the nice god and avoid his dark side, or else split it off into a Satan we can fight against. Almost without realizing it, our ego has taken over.

Reality rises and falls, just like a great ocean, and your life comes into being and passes away. Not just on the scale of your biological birth and death, but in each and every moment of your existence. All of your achievements and possessions, the identity you struggle for and the worlds you inhabit, the meaning it all has and the little bit of security it may provide you – even now it is dissolving away. As it slips your grip and starts to slide away, you begin to doubt whether anything really matters.

So you let go, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion. What has happened, what might happen, what is going on somewhere else – you just can’t say. It really is meaningless, if only because words can’t hook into it and hold it down. And yet it’s the only thing that’s real.

Welcome to the ground of your being.

 

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