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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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A Provident Reality

A reader familiar with my thought stream in this blog knows how central is the concept of a “provident reality.” It also becomes obvious that I use this term in a way that’s not entirely consistent with its classical definition, where it referred to the way of god towards those who trust and believe in him (a masculine reference dominates the tradition). Over time, Providence (usually capitalized) came to be used as a substitute term for god’s benevolent provision, particularly as believers look to the future.

Rather than the notion of providence deriving from our experience of god, however, I have argued that our concept of god arises out of and reflects our (especially early) experiences of reality as provident or otherwise. As I use the term, a “provident reality” does not name a being who cares for us, but the extent in which the totality of existence supports life, community, and the evolution of consciousness. The fact that we are alive and conscious and creative and intentional means, in the very least, that our universe is all of these things – in us.

Despite all our abilities and the positive illusion of our individual autonomy, each of us is deeply dependent on the reality outside our ego for what we need. To live, to thrive, to flourish, to love, to construct meaning and awaken to our full human potential – we depend on reality to provide for us every step of the way. We need air, water, and food; we need shelter, intimacy, and connection; we need language, tools, and the skills to use them; we need guidance, exemplars, and forgiveness when we fall short.

All of us were born into some kind of family system – even if our arrival is what made it a family. We began as helpless dependents, equipped by biology only to breathe on our own, and really not much else. We needed to be fed and cleaned and cuddled and carried. Without a provident higher (taller) power to care for us, we would certainly not have survived. The relationship with our higher power(s) was formed most significantly around those needs of greatest urgency concerning our physical security and the material resources our body required. For reasons I’ll make clear shortly, I will name this providence of the first order.

Depending on how provident the higher powers were with respect to our first-order needs, a corresponding impression of reality was encoded into our nervous system. If the supply was sufficient and the care was adequate, our brain was allowed to settle into a coherent state of focused alertness and relaxed calm. The compatibility between our dependent condition and a reality that provided for our needs promoted the formation of what Erik Erikson called “basic trust” and what the religions name “faith” – faith in the provident nature of reality.

Erikson also observed plenty of cases where individuals demonstrated a compromised ability to trust reality and simply relax into being. Their deep and chronic dis-ease registered an early life where a first-order providence was lacking or perhaps inconsistent. From a neuroscientific perspective we might today diagnose their brainstates as incoherent – confused, irritable, and/or depressed. In religion, such individuals typically express a desperate demand on god’s vigilance and granting of prayers. They also tend to orient themselves to external authorities for the security and resources they require, even into adulthood.

If too much of our energy and attention gets wrapped into first-order concerns, we might never experience or benefit from providence of the second order, referring to social encouragement and creative opportunities in life. Where physical security and material resources are scarce and unreliable, it is common for family systems to fall hostage to a ravaging spiral of anxiety, resentment, and despair over matters of basic survival. Second-order providence sounds like a luxury when one’s daily existence is in question.

This is why nearly every ethical revolutionary in history has made the abolition of poverty central to their vision of a New World. Whatever its contributing factors, the fact that abject poverty destroys the human spirit and erodes the foundation of any society is beyond doubt. As these messiahs, mahatmas, prophets and reformers have insisted, our resolve as a community to provide security and resources to our weakest and most vulnerable members is ultimately what will bring salvation to the world.

When that first-order providence is in place, the social encouragement and creative opportunity that I’m calling second-order providence can work its magic. A human being not only struggles to survive, but every individual embodies the evolving spirit of our species – what the philosopher Aristotle called an “entelechy,” an inner aim, or what I also like to call our evolutionary ideal. As Abraham Maslow pointed out, when our basic needs are adequately met, the farther reaches of our human nature can be actualized.

My definition of second-order providence should make it clear that our higher nature depends for its actualization on the benevolent social support of a community. Social encouragement conveys our commitment to the individual’s emerging creative authority, and our bond of service continues in making opportunities available for the individual to learn, grow, and develop to his or her full potential. Obviously this providential responsibility begins in the family, as parental taller (higher) powers not only put food on the table but also nurture the soul-seeds in their children.

Family is the first theistic system. The dynamic relationship between providers and dependents – so critical, as I have argued, to the healthy emergence of self-responsible creative adults – ultimately plays itself out on the larger stage of culture. Deities are our “fathers” and “mothers” and we are their “children,” which makes the fellowship of believers a sibling circle of “brothers” and “sisters.” (Universalists like Jesus have used this theistic metaphor to make the point that all of us, believers and nonbelievers, friends and enemies alike, are members of one family and deserve each other’s deepest respect. But look where that got him.)Theism_Post-theismAll of this is to say that the inner aim (entelechy) of theism is the full actualization of human beings and the flourishing of a fully inclusive community. An impossible ideal, you say. And I would agree – as long as we stay on this side of god, where the concerns of first-order providence preoccupy our consciousness. On this side, there will never be enough and all we can do is await our deliverance to a better place later on.

On the other side of god, in the spirit of post-theism, we discover that it’s been in us all along to become compassionate caretakers and visionary creators of the New World. To fulfill what our god could only command.

 

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