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The Rapture of Being Alive

In his interview published under the title The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers voiced the popular idea that myths are an ancient (and largely discredited) means whereby human beings have searched for the meaning of life.

After a pause, the scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell replied,

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

Campbell’s remark ran counter to a strong twentieth-century assumption widespread in Western culture, which had found a strong advocate in the Nazi death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

Frankl’s best-seller Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) argued that our most pressing pursuit is a meaning that will make life worth living. He was joined in this belief by the likes of the theologian Paul Tillich who analyzed our modern condition as suffering from a profound sense of meaninglessness and existential despair.

So when Campbell challenged Moyers’ assumption regarding the priority of meaning, and proposed instead that our true and deepest yearning is for an experience of being alive, he was making a rather revolutionary claim. But we misunderstand him if we take him to say that meaning doesn’t matter. His entire scholarly career was devoted to interpreting the great myths, symbols, and rituals by which humans have made life meaningful, an interest that had grasped him already when he first visited a museum as a young boy.

Since watching The Power of Myth interview years ago and subsequently diving into Campbell’s works, I’ve come to appreciate his views on meaning and life through the lens of constructivism. My diagram will serve to illustrate what I think he meant and how it applies not just to a phenomenology of myth but to every construction of meaning.

A looping dashed orange line divides my diagram into two distinct ‘realms’: one above the line and inside its loop; another below the line and outside its loop. The loop itself contains a stained-glass design – articulated, rational, and translucent shapes are joined contiguously to form a more general pattern representing the meaning of life. Living individuals are more or less engaged in the work of constructing meaning, and their collective effort is projected outward as a shared world.

This world of meaning does not exist apart from the minds that construct it. They project it out and around themselves, and then proceed to take up residence inside it.

The larger process of culture is dedicated to preserving this projected construct of shared meaning (or world) through the practices of tradition (literally handing on), the structures of institution, and the truth claims of ideology, all under the auspices of some absolute authority which is beyond question or reproach. (For many ancient and present-day societies, this is where god dwells and presides over human affairs.)

Tradition thus opens a channel to the remote and even primordial past where, unsurprisingly, the mythological warrants of authority are anchored. A common impression, therefore, is that the meaning of life is predetermined and revealed to us from beyond. Since transcendent authority speaks from an inaccessible (sacred) past and from an inaccessible (heavenly) realm, we must rely on those preserved revelations – or at least that’s how the game is spun to insiders.

Meaning is constructed, then projected, and finally locked in place. Viola.

So Frankl and others were correct: humans do indeed search for meaning. But that’s only because we have accepted the self-protective doctrine of ideology which says that meaning is out there, independent of our minds, already decided, just awaiting our discovery and consent.

For its part, constructivism doesn’t claim that meaning is merely optional. Quite the contrary, humans need meaning to the extent that we cannot be happy, sane, or self-actualized without it.

But should we get stuck inside our own constructs of meaning, forgetting how we got there and losing any sense of reality outside our meanings, that box quickly becomes too small for our spirit and the meaning of life drains away.

In that great project of meaning-making known as mythology (and its associated world constructs) we can find an acknowledgment of this limit in the narrative mechanism of apocalypse. Whether depicted as a final catastrophe that will bring down the current world-order, or more subtly in the deity whose true nature is said to surpass our comprehension, the storyteller (or myth-maker) encodes a recognition of meaning as only the representation of what cannot be grasped by our mind.

At crucial moments, the constructed veil of meaning must be pulled aside to reveal the present mystery of reality. This realization in myth is illustrated in my diagram where the looping line crosses over itself and breaks through to a realm below and outside the loop. Here the meaning of life dissolves into a grounded experience of being alive.

I call the experience grounded to make the point that such a breakthrough is from (i.e., out of) our constructs and into the naked Now, out of our world and into the present mystery, out of meaning and into a Real Presence which is indescribably perfect – and perfectly meaningless.

Just as our projected construct of shared meaning entails a separation of mind from reality, mediated by its constructed representations, the return to a grounded experience of being alive is not a rational maneuver but instead transpires as a genuine rapture in Campbell’s sense above. We are overtaken and transported, as it were, to a place outside the ego and its constructed identity. Of course this is not ‘somewhere else’, but rather nowhere at all. It is the Now/Here.

As I have tried to make clear in other posts on this topic, such a breakthrough to the rapture of being alive is not a one-time achievement. Nor does it release us of the need to be actively engaged in the ongoing construction of meaning.

What it does make possible is a higher consciousness of our own creative authority, along with a humble admission that the best product of our efforts – the purest and most inspired expression of meaning – will be only and always an understatement.

 

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Spirituality Basics 2: The Beyond Within

In Spirituality Basics: The Human Condition I explored our situation as it comes together (or perhaps rather, falls apart) around the delusion of a separate identity known as ego. Insofar as our ego is insecure and driven by ambition to resolve or compensate for this insecurity in various ways, we end up in an even more neurotic mess. Our off-center and out-of-joint human condition is only aggravated the more (and longer) we insist on making everything about us, when who we are (as distinct from what we are) is merely a social pretense anyway.

At the end of that post I anticipated the moment when

The delusion of our separate self gradually lightens into a general illusion of separateness, and this veil finally falls away before the revelation that All is One.

Such a realization is the prized moment in spirituality, where the illusion of our separation from this, that, and the rest, as a necessary part of establishing a unique center of personal identity (ego), is transcended and we are suddenly disillusioned – or from the other side, reality is suddenly revealed (unveiled) to us as a vibrant Whole. This, and not the rescue project of getting the sin-sick soul safely to heaven after we die, is our true liberation.

In the present post we will step into the picture just prior to this breakthrough realization, where we can also see it within the larger context of our existence. As my returning reader knows already, my point will not be that ego must be prevented from its conceit of having a separate identity, but that the project must be encouraged to the point where ego is sufficiently strong (stable, balanced, and unified) to be transcended. Otherwise, to the degree that we lack these markers of ego strength, we will be unable to get over ourselves and plug in to a larger experience.

My diagram illustrates a simplified version of the Wheel of Fortune – that backgrounding model of reality appreciated in so many, especially premodern, cultures. The Wheel has long been a way of unifying space and time, origin and destiny, human and nature, inner and outer, self and other, life and death. Cultural myths were draped over its frame to provide orientation, inspiration, and guidance to human beings on their journey.

When modernity cut the moorings of tradition and “superstition,” it not only emancipated the mind from archaic beliefs, but deprived it as well of this treasury of higher wisdom which we are ever so slowly rediscovering. Time will tell if we can recover it fast enough, and then take it to heart, before we destroy ourselves as a species.

At the center of the Wheel is our individual existence, self-conscious in all its egoic glory. Much time, effort, and tribal investment has gone into the work of getting us to this point. Even before we come to self-awareness as a person – referring to the mask of identity that we put on and act out – we have already joined what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things,” where every individual is on its own trajectory from beginning to end. All together we are the universe, the turning unity of all things; and all together, but each in our own way, we are on a course to extinction.

The aspect of reality into which all things eventually dissolve is named the Abyss. It is the dark chaos of pure potentiality as theorized by science, and the primordial dragon containing the energies of creation as depicted in the myths of religion, opened up by the s/word of a god and giving birth to the cosmic order.

The great Wheel of Fortune turns, then, with each of us rising into existence – literally “standing out” on our own – and soon enough (or is it simultaneously?) passing away. It’s this passing-away part that ego struggles with, of course, since it seems to suggest that not only our houseplants but our loved ones, every last attachment, and we ourselves are impermanent. Many of us are motivated to grip down on our identity project, which compels a dissociation from the mortal body and a willful disregard (ignórance) of our better angels.

So here we are, spinning neurotically off-center – except that it seems normal since everyone’s doing it – and estranged from our essential nature. The message of spirituality at this point is that we don’t have to stay in this condition, trying desperately to hold it all together while inwardly knowing it won’t last. It is at this moment of vulnerability that the veil of illusion stands its best chance of parting in disillusionment, where the present mystery of reality shines through and we really see for the first time.

And what do we see? That our individuality is but an outcropping of a much profounder mystery that descends past our personality and through our nervous system; into the rolling rhythms of our life as an organism, and still deeper along the crystalline lattices of matter; finally opening out, dropping away, and coming to rest in the boundless presence of being-itself.

Any of us can take this inward path to the Beyond-Within, but each must go alone.

The wonderful thing is that once we let go of who we think we are, our descent into solitude removes, one by one, the veils of separation where aloneness has any meaning at all. We realize at last that everything belongs, we are all in this together, and that All is One. In this way, our descent into solitude is simultaneously an ascent into the experience of communion.

What we name the universe, or the turning unity of all things, is therefore the outward manifestation of this self-same grounding mystery within. Our own personality, a unique expression of desire, feeling, thought, and behavior – along with all its peculiar quirks and idiosyncrasies – is what the universe is doing right now.

But it’s not all the universe is doing, and everything doesn’t turn around us. Finding our place in the present mystery of reality is what spirituality is all about. We can now live the liberated life.

 

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Creatures and Creators

nature_cultureHuman beings are creatures of nature. Our physiology and complex nervous system are products of the evolution of life on planet Earth, and the roots of our genetic code are entwined with countless other life-forms. Some mythological accounts notwithstanding, our species evolved over many millions of years and we are utterly dependent on the web of life which is our home.

Human beings are also creators of culture. Our advanced brain and nervous system have endowed us with exceptional social, cognitive, and artistic abilities by which we have erected a profoundly complex habitat of meaning – symbols, language, architecture, technology, commerce, and worldviews. Culture wasn’t here before we arrived, but emerged gradually as this creative synergy continued to evolve. As distinct from the web of life mentioned earlier, culture is the web of meaning that we humans spin out of our minds and then take up residence within.

In the long run of our evolution, then, we were first creatures (and still are) and over time became creators. The more invested and involved we became in the production of culture, the more we tended also to lose our sense of membership in, and responsibility to, the natural realm. On the big-picture scale of things, the reality of our living body and its provident environment is the grounding mystery out of which mind has emerged to construct a home and contemplate the turning mystery of the cosmos.

As beings we are expressions of being-itself; as human beings we are privileged to look out on the wonder of existence and participate in the great community of life.

In my diagram, a diagonal arrow ascends from the bottom-left signifying our evolutionary path toward self-actualization, by which I mean the activation-into-maturity of our full capacity as a species. As Alan Watts often said, just as an apple tree “apples,” so our planet (and the universe itself) “peoples.” Each of us is a late-arriving manifestation of the universal process, the cosmos both looking out on its own Great Body and looking into its own Deep Soul through the intelligence that we are.

I have elsewhere associated these two lenses of human intelligence – one looking out and the other looking within – as science and spirituality, respectively. For millenniums they have mutually confirmed our intuition that All is One and that We’re All in This Together.

This, I would say, is the prime discovery of our species, and all of our most important endeavors are in one way or another searching out, pondering on, and celebrating what it means. Instinct keeps us rooted in the life-force, Tradition conserves our identity and way of life, Innovation presses us into new possibilities, and Wisdom invites us to higher wholeness – or, as the times demand, it also warns us against damaging the whole and thereby foreclosing on our future.

The long course of our evolution stretches from survival to well-being, from self-preservation to self-actualization, and our challenge has been to hold these very different value systems in balance.

In my diagram again, “nature” and “culture” are depicted as comprising a color gradient between them. Across my many blog posts and graphics, black represents the animal nature of our body, purple represents the higher self of our soul, and the orange in between them stands for our inner child, ego consciousness, and personal identity – depending on the context of consideration. It is in this ‘orange zone’ that we get hung up, held back, pushed down or pulled apart by the various neuroses of insecurity.

All of the great spiritual teachings share a suspicion against this nervous bundle of personal identity, as somehow the culprit responsible for our chronic suffering, strained relationships, intertribal violence, and life-degrading consumerism.

It is this cult of personal identity, centered around our altar to ego, that gets us so self-involved that we forget our essential nature as fellow creatures (siblings not masters) and world creators (artisans not shoppers). In the effort of managing our insecurity we cling to what (and to whom) we expect will make us feel better, but only really manage to entangle ourselves in these attachments and magnify our misery. For that we take medications, throw ourselves into distractions, or maybe sell our soul to some form of bigoted dogmatism.

What we can’t understand – and likely couldn’t accept even if we did understand – is that ego cannot be liberated. “I” am a prisoner of what defines me, as my identity is inextricably tied to those trappings of tribe, nation, ideology and ambition that make me who I am. In order to advance along the path of self-actualization to fulfillment and genuine well-being, this neurotic little tightwad must completely unwind, dying to its own seed-form (as Jesus taught) or dropping the illusion of its separate self (as the Buddha taught) for the sake of a larger and fuller experience of life.

Oftentimes, even when this shining truth is glimpsed, it has been immediately corrupted into a program for saving the ego rather than moving beyond it.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should aspire to a life without identity, devoid of ego, and utterly detached inside some metaphysical bubble of bliss. That, too, is a gross misunderstanding and corruption of the shining truth, one that often leads into a labyrinth of esoteric nonsense and kitsch religion, lacking all relevance to daily life. To repeat, our challenge is neither to glorify the ego nor to pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather to rise above and move beyond its self-centered vantage on reality; to step through the curtain and rejoin the universe, already 14 billion years underway.


In my diagram are also represented the four strands of our Quadratic Intelligence – visceral (VQ: needs), emotional (EQ: feelings), rational (RQ: thoughts), and spiritual (SQ: intuitions). Even though I don’t focus on them explicitly in this post, they are included to provide some cross-reference for my returning reader. Go here for a deeper dig into Quadratic Intelligence. You can also search “quadratic intelligence” for additional posts on the topic.

 

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Contents Under Pressure

Religion

The phenomenon of religion has evolved with the rise of human culture, perhaps going back millions of years to our hominid ancestors. Its function has always been to “link together” (religare) the separate concerns and activities of daily life in a coherent way by orienting it all around a single transcendent focus. “Transcendent” here doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural or metaphysical, but simply above and beyond the field of temporal attachments.

Theism is the standard and conventional form of religion, as it coordinates tribal life around a metaphor representing the provident power(s) behind the world as we know it. As a constructivist, I hasten to add that the so-called “world as we know it” is really a construction of our own minds – not the given sensory-physical realm outside us, but the layers of value, meaning, and significance that we weave around it. Like spiders we spin our web of language across the universe and call it home.

The deity of theism – an agency of intelligence, personality, and will that might be represented in any number of human or nonhuman forms – is how religion depicts the provident power(s) on which our lives depend. Instead of being revealed to us through the clouds, as someone coming to religion from outside might assume, this deity is actually a kind of creative reflex of the mythic imagination. The many stories (myths) that together form the narrative fabric of human meaning (our worldview) are not eye-witness reports of supernatural encounters, but rather poetic-literary portrayals of the present mystery that gives us life, supplies our need, and receives our last breath.

As societies grew larger and more complex, the tribal practice of reciting traditional stories and ritually participating in the life of god required institutional support. Certain individuals were elevated to positions of honor and authority by virtue of their familiarity with the deity. Or perhaps it was the other way around: individuals with social clout and community influence took on the mantle of high priest and presented themselves as ordained mediators between god and the people. As the sacrament of storytelling and ritual enactment became difficult to manage for a growing population, it was found that community agreement could be more efficiently achieved by converting this sacramental experience of god into a system of orthodox beliefs about god.

My illustration above intends to show how, with the addition of an authority structure and an “official” orthodoxy, religion gradually pushed the providential metaphor of the deity out of its literary habitat (as the principal figure of sacred story), into a supernatural space outside the world, and farther away from the relevant concerns of daily life.

And this is where we are today – arguing over whose deity is the one-and-only, trashing the earth, suppressing freedom and creativity, and thrusting our species to the embattled edge of oblivion. But don’t worry, if you’re on the right side your soul will be safely delivered to a better place far away.

So whereas once upon a time religion could do its job by connecting individuals to one another in community and anchoring the community to a reality celebrated as provident, it slowly but surely removed its members from communion with the Real Presence of mystery and became instead a tinderbox of spiritual frustration, small thinking, moral regression, and redemptive violence.

In the meantime this dysfunctional religion invented its own myth – now no longer in the traditional sense of a sacred story grounding us in a provident reality, but rather a narrative deception about our human fall from grace and into the hopeless condition of sin. The consequent “gap” between earth and heaven, nature and supernature, human and divine is characterized by rampant depravity and ignorance, veritably crying out for the authority and orthodoxy that religion itself provides.

The earth, our bodies (particularly woman’s) and our life in time were reconstructed in this myth as fallen, corrupt, and condemned – unless saved (purified, separated, and redeemed) according to the prescription laid out in holy doctrine. If the times happen to be especially stressed and insecure (as they appear to be now), the program of salvation becomes an emergency exit from a world believed to be in the process of irreversible collapse. Over a matter of just 3,000 years or so, religion invented a myth of estrangement where humans are fated to perdition without the saving intervention of “the one true faith.”

As a counter-voice of sanity, a growing number have been calling for the dismantling of theism, insisting that belief in god at this advanced stage in our history is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible. And not just irresponsible, but intellectually and morally backwards. While “atheist” used to be a label for one who refutes the existence of (a) god, it evolved over time into an outspoken defiance of god out of allegiance to human values. Today atheists join hands in solidarity against the abuses of religion, leaving its god to exist or not exist as a matter of indifference.

In my defense of post-theism, I have frequently heard from conventional theists and atheists alike that my position is just a convoluted form of atheism. I’m really a closet atheist but just afraid to admit it to myself. To suggest that the mythological gods of religion are literary figures (in story) and not literal beings (in reality) is effectively denying the existence of god, is it not?

Actually, the “after god” of post-theism is very different from the “no god” of atheism. While atheism commits itself to arguing against the literal existence of god (or living as if it doesn’t matter), post-theism regards the literary existence and mythological career of the deity as highly relevant to an understanding of our evolution as a species.The literary deity inspires us, calls to us, and places demands on us in order to actualize what is presently dormant, unacknowledged, or repressed in us.

Yahweh, the biblical god of Jews and Christians, does not have to be real to be important. To say that Yahweh never spoke the universe into being, parted water, or raised Jesus from the dead in any kind of (as we might say) scientific-objective sense might sound as if I’m refuting his existence and seeking to undermine the religions founded on these doctrines – but I’m not. The literal existence of Yahweh is literally beside the point and outside the plot (mythos) where his truth as metaphor is found.

As a constructivist I regard every picture of reality, even the scientific one, as a construct of our minds. Religious myths and scientific theories are merely two kinds of storytelling, the one (science) weaving narratives that explain the physical universe confronting our senses, as the other (religion) does its composing out of a more internal intuition of the present mystery that sustains us. Science joined the conversation around the campfire quite late, when religion had already been about the business of myth-making for many thousands of years. Its more detached and mathematical approach to things did in fact compete with religion’s sacred fictions of fabulous characters and miraculous deeds, convincing a growing number to abandon these tales as so much primitive superstition.

In the illustration above, the entire institution of religion rests on a foundation of spiritual experience – what I call the experience of mystery or the present mystery of reality. We are in this stream (a better metaphor than foundation, which suggests something fixed and unchanging) all the time, but we can only be aware of it now, in this very moment, for in the next moment this mystery will present itself to us afresh. Out of this experience of Real Presence, along with an exquisite awareness that it sustains us providentially in this moment, arise the metaphors of the mythic imagination.

The deity is born, and just as suddenly we find ourselves engaged in a dialogue with the primordial support and deeper intention of our existence. Post-theism is the contemplation of what’s next (“post”), as we continue to grow Godward.

 
 

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Open-Box Theology

Theology is reasoning (from logos) about god, or simply the study of god. Even simpler, theology is our theories about god, how we talk about god, the words we use to make sense of god. Theology is god-talk.

If there is a clear distinction between religion and spirituality, it comes down to this business of talking about god. While religion involves doctrines and prayers, confessions and apologetics, scriptures and commentaries, commandments and formal teachings, spirituality is the quiet contemplation of living in the presence of mystery.

To say “of mystery” is only a concession to the requirement of our minds to give “it” a name. The primary business of the mind is to make meaning, and it does this by dipping its bucket in the living stream, whereupon the dynamic and moving mystery that is the stream gets captured, extracted, isolated and contained.

The stream in a bucket: you just have to hear that a second time to realize how ridiculous it sounds.

But if we’re going to reflect on our experience of mystery, make sense of it, and communicate it to others, we have to understand that we’re dealing with buckets and not the stream itself. Buckets are used in meaning-making. The stream is prior to meaning. It is there – but “where,” exactly, can a stream be said to be? – after we walk away with wild mystery still sloshing out and onto our shoes.

It’s not easy to admit, but mystery is outside of meaning. In a word, it is meaningless.

By naming it “god,” we instantly catch the mystery into a system of human utilities. God becomes useful for explaining how things came to be, useful for orienting tribal values and concerns, useful for motivating “proper” behavior. At some point (though interestingly not very early in the history of religion) god became useful for saving the soul from the ravages of time and the consequences of sin.

Religion, then, might be seen as this system of utilities whereby our experience of mystery is made relevant and useful to our needs (both genuine and neurotic). Metaphors germinate into myths, myths inspire rituals, rituals expand into moralities, and moralities give cohesion to tribal life and shape our identities. In this way we channel the mystery into meaning and make our worlds.

The metaphor of a bucket is a helpful one, I think, when trying to understand the relationship between spirituality and the variety of ways it is “put to use” as religion. The fact is, not everyone’s religion is that close to the stream anymore. We’ve taken our portions far inland, deep into our tribal life – or rather, our ancestors and forbears did a long time ago. What we have are not so much buckets of water as boxes of belief that have been passed down through the generations.

Our theological property is carried and “handed on” from one generation to the next; this is the dictionary definition of the word tradition. We have our “god boxes”  that contain theological portraits drawn from the metaphors, myths and commentaries of our tribe. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Pagans – all of us inherit the boxes that represent our patron deity. Or if that name is too limiting, then the focal principle or personality around which our world of meaning is arranged.

In Tractsofrevolution I have been advocating for the need to move beyond (post) our gods and return to the stream for refreshment and perspective. This isn’t a “fundamentalist” return to the way it used to be – which is really the way we never were – but a circling back to the origins of religion in the experience of mystery. My argument is not for breaking the idols and doing away with god, but for keeping an “open-box theology” as we work to construct a world where we can live peaceably together.

An open box is still a box. Not to be confused with atheism, post-theism acknowledges our human need to make sense of the mystery. Furthermore, there is a critical correlation among ego, tribe and the mythological god that is necessary for the healthy development of identity – or so I have argued. A tribal representation of god serves the important developmental role of giving security and validation to the tribe’s present existence, as it inspires and attracts (in the way of an evolutionary ideal) the latent potential of a still higher humanity.

An open-box theology can understand this – or at least it is open to dialogue about the implications of saying that our gods are really just part of a larger experience and a longer adventure.

Closed boxes, on the other hand, are like IEDs along the evolutionary road of humanity. They no longer connect the true believer back to the living stream of this present mystery. What energy they do seem to have is not animated from inside, but rather charged from without by the fervent devotion of “the faithful.” What they lose in relevance – as they must with the passing of time and the progress of humanity – they gain in conviction.

Religion shouldn’t be about “convicting” people (making them convicts of belief) but liberating them, opening them up and moving them forward. Open-box theology allows that to happen by keeping us engaged with the here-and-now, which is where we will rediscover the real presence of mystery, the living stream of an authentic spirituality.

Post-theism, like postmodernism, is not merely asking about what comes “after” god or modernity. The “post” prefix here is seeking after what is beyond these crucial stages in our life on this planet. We can’t just throw our gods to the side or abandon the values of critical reason, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. We need to consider what they have prepared us for. How can we leap from this stage into the next creative phase of our evolution?

Whatever the next phase is, we know it will require a new and more enlightened sense of community – with each other, with the earth, with our separate pasts and our future selves.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Timely and Random

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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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.

In 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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