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Learning to Trust Ourselves

At this same time four years ago I published a post that introduced what I called The Two Systems, referring to two sets of values and concerns that profoundly shape human culture and our individual lives. These two systems are like the Yin and Yang of Taoism, where the creative tension between them informs our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions – the very structure of our personality, interpersonal relationships, and our engagement with reality as a whole.

According to the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

What we can know and say about the Tao is only what is manifested in the dance of Yin and Yang (soft and hard, moist and dry, quiet and active, female and male are a few of the metaphors that Lao-Tzu uses in speaking of them). It’s not that one or the other is the ultimate reality of Tao, but rather their interactive unity presents us with an epiphany (an “appearing through”) of what cannot be named.

Similarly when it comes to understanding the Tao of human relationships, it’s necessary to understand and honor the creative tension between two forces, which I call the love of power and the power of love, or supremacy and communion. If this tension should snap, the love of power and the power of love will become pathological, where power devolves into domination and love deteriorates into submission.

Of course I realized even back then that representing supremacy or the love of power as anything but pathological would stir suspicion in my readers, particularly those who are or have been victims of someone else’s love of power. How can the love of power be good in any sense?

First of all, I don’t want to say that either supremacy or communion are good in and of themselves, since this would be breaking their creative tension to exclude one system in favor of the other. Power is not ‘bad’ and love is not ‘good’, but great benefit is to be found in their dynamic balance. My diagram illustrates this dynamic balance by complementary values distributed across the two systems.

At the farther poles of the arc of supremacy are virtue (Greek areté, excellence) and competition, both of which are clearly evident in athletics and capitalism. In competition we test and strengthen our abilities, improve our products and services, and become more proficient in our discipline. The desire for excellence in sport, business, art or craft is what I mean by the love of power; and a competitive drive can push us to always be improving our game.

Approaching closer to the axis of dynamic balance with communion, influence and responsibility continue this accent on power. To have influence is to use our power to effect a wanted or necessary change, and taking responsibility is about applying our knowledge, skill, and authority toward accomplishing or ensuring some end.

At the very center of balance is trust, where power is at one with love.

Shifting over to the side of communion we can follow a similar, and complementary, set of values. At the far ends are equality, which stands opposite to virtue on the side of supremacy, and the ‘working together’ of cooperation across from competition. Closer to the central axis are relationship and connection, moving the accent of interaction more to the bond and rapport between individuals than their individual contributions.

The point of all of this is really to offer a meditation on the critical importance of trust in our personal, interpersonal, and larger social life together. To the vertical axis of my earlier model I have added the dimensions of peace (being inwardly rooted in the ground of being) and truth (being outwardly oriented to the reality beyond us).

When we honor the dynamic balance of supremacy and communion in our lives we are in a position of trust. From that position we can drop below ego concerns for a deeper peace within, as we are also able to look through our constructs of meaning for the truth of what’s really real.

On the other hand, when we choose power instead of love or love instead of power – effectively snapping the creative tension of supremacy and communion – this access point is closed to us. Domination and submission alike block our path to the deeper and higher experiences of the spiritual life. When we lose the balance and fall to one side or the other of the middle way, the flow of our human spirit gets diverted to pathological extremes.

Our ability to trust each other is a function of our individual capacity to trust ourselves.

I’ve written a lot about what makes trusting ourselves problematic. A chronic nervous state of anxiety (or the inner feeling of insecurity) can get set early in life if our environment doesn’t provide what we need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy (what I name our subjective needs).

Psychologically our developing center of self-conscious identity (ego) must disassociate from the anxious body to keep from falling into it. Here the body is not to be trusted, which means that we cannot trust ourselves. This self-distrust works out into our relationships as harbored suspicion, withheld love, emotional manipulation, and a negative opinion of another’s nature and intentions.

You might agree with me that this condition is widespread in our world today.

If we are generally anxious and insecure, what can we do about it? Is this ‘just the way I am’? Do we simply need to find ways of gratifying our craving for security and accommodate the same in others? This is what we are doing currently, and it is obviously not helping. So what then?

We could put effort into working things out between us, in the hope we can reach a place where mutual trust is finally established. Using a method of dialogue or talk therapy might help us make some progress, but even here our self-distrust will get in the way.

As my model suggests, our mutual engagement in trust is made possible as each of us is able to verify and correct our constructs of meaning (i.e., our beliefs) so as to be more reality-oriented. Our strongest beliefs, called convictions because they hold our mind captive (like a convict) and prevent us from thinking outside their box, prevent us from seeing anything as it really is.

Or else they cause us to see things that aren’t really there or aren’t true because we can’t feel secure without them. Either way, our convictions blind us to the really real in each other.

But we have to go deeper still and make this very personal, for our convictions are compelled by anxiety, and this profound and chronic insecurity is what keeps us from trusting the grounding mystery of our own body. If we can’t be fully present in our body and relax into being, our security-seeking strategies (attachments and their protective convictions) will only amplify our suffering, as the Buddha discovered.

The self-described “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts posed a simple question: “If you can’t trust yourself, can you really trust this mistrust of yourself?” Contrary to much popular religion these days, our salvation (literally our healing and wholeness) will not be found in escape from the body, but only as we are willing to let go, free-fall, and become fully incarnate in its warm presence.

When we can trust ourselves again, we will be able to trust each other, and the world will be redeemed.

 

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Peaceful Soul, Creative Spirit

A friend and blog follower of mine posed an important question after reading my recent post “Where is God?”

Here are his words:

The traditional God was a human-created myth that is no longer needed, and any debate over God’s reality needlessly wastes time and energy, and leads to conflict. Better to just leave it behind. I’m down with that, as far as it goes.

My hang-up is over the need to ponder “spirituality.” Can we not give up that as well, and just get our “awe fix” by trying to comprehend the wonder of a leaf or of Earth’s orbit around the sun?

Even though leaving behind the debate over god’s reality is important to post-theism, leaving god behind is not, since the meaning of god (as a metaphorical construct) is what needs to be properly understood and incorporated rather than simply discarded on our way forward.

It’s the baby-and-bath-water thing again. The dirty bathwater is all the toxic convictions generated in defending and denying god’s literal existence, which has come to obscure the baby still in there somewhere. That’s why changing our question from existence to significance – from “Does god exist?” to “What does ‘god’ mean?” – helps us appreciate where post-theism transcends the debate and opens a path through theism.

But isn’t post-theism just a matter of breaking free of theism, being done with the debate over god’s existence and perhaps done with religion altogether? Why then do I insist on holding on to spirituality? For my friend, I suspect it sounds too much like religion all over again. If we say we’re done with that, let’s just leave it behind and get our “awe fix” – love the term! – by contemplating nature and things that definitely do exist.

An “awe fix” sounds like something we have a persistent need for, so what is that need all about? I happen to know that my friend is deeply fascinated with cosmology and the evolution of our universe. He certainly wouldn’t be alone in having an occasional seizure of existential astonishment over the provident marvels of Earth and her starry heavens.

No doubt, it is that same radical amazement that must have inspired the earliest stories, songs, and dances of our species that got bundled up as mythology so many millenniums ago.

To name this susceptibility to wonder, this sensitivity to being caught up in rapturous awe over the present mystery of reality, spirituality, is for me an acknowledgment that such experiences resonate in the human nervous system. They are not merely speculative wonderment over what we don’t yet know, or wide-eyed stupefaction in a brain too small to take it all in. In other posts I have named it our spiritual intelligence (SQ), and in recent decades ample evidence has validated its crucial contribution to our overall wellbeing.

What follows will be an attempt to answer my friend’s question regarding the relevance of spirituality and why we can’t just pitch it out with the bathwater.

In my view, spirituality and spiritual intelligence are unique to our species. I say this because it represents our further development beyond the formation of a separate center of personal identity, or ego. As far as we know, ours is the only species in which consciousness has evolved to the point of bending back upon itself in the fully self-conscious actor.

It’s not difficult to anticipate the survival advantages of such an evolutionary achievement, as the individual is now malleable by the group as never before. This significant breakthrough made possible both the construction of social identity and the transmission of culture – advances found only in humans and crucial to our progress.

But with this evolutionary value-added came a significant vulnerability. The center upon and around which the social engineering of personal identity takes shape stands in a unique design space, strategically separate from the individual’s animal nature (body) and separate as well from other egos, all at different stages of construction.

Each self-conscious actor (ego) is instructed by the tribe and provided roles to play, which is where our word “person” derives from – the Latin persōna referring to a stage actor’s mask through which (per) she would speak (sōna) her part.

When the family and tribe are healthy systems, this vulnerability is answered with responsible attention and nurturing care. But over the millenniums, as the human social experience has become more complicated and unsettled, these systems have fulfilled their task less well. The consequence is that the individual personality has grown increasingly neurotic over time – more insecure, anxious, and out of balance.To compensate, the neurotic ego grabs on emotionally to whatever (or whomever) might stabilize and pacify its insecurity. This is what I name neurotic attachment. In addition to clutching these emotional pacifiers, the individual will also engage in various strategies of manipulation in order to get his or her way. Such cycling back and forth between attachment and manipulation can keep the neurotic ego busy for a lifetime – or several lifetimes, if you believe in that.

Actually, this is exactly where authoritarian, repressive, dogmatic, and exclusive forms of religion can take hold. The insecure and insatiably neurotic ego desperately needs salvation – an escape to immortal glory – and such sick forms of religion promise to provide it. And if what I’ve said so far makes sense, then this is also where we can best understand what an active spirituality has to offer.In this diagram I have pushed the neurotic cycles of attachment and manipulation apart, just so we can keep them in the picture. The tricyclic structure in the middle is intended to illustrate a healthy spirituality – remembering that we are talking about a distinct thread or frequency of human intelligence (SQ) and the new dimensions of awareness and experience it opens up for us.

Now we can see that where the neurotic ego struggles most is in the dynamic balance of love and power which characterizes every relationship. This balance can be further analyzed into the ability of partners to share what they have with each other, to give to the relationship what it needs to be healthy and strong, and most fundamentally to trust themselves, each other, and the relational process itself.

The ability to trust is directly a function of how centered, grounded, inwardly secure and fully present an individual is. These qualities together serve as my best definition of inner peace, which is the essential state of a peaceful soul. Here, then, is the first part of my response to the question of why we can’t simply dismiss spirituality in our criticism of theism and its god.

Our spiritual intelligence is what opens consciousness to the grounding mystery within, to that mystical place below personal identity, relationships, and worldly concerns, where we can effortlessly relax into being.

This deep center of quiet calm is what supports the ability to trust oneself and another, and to share what we have with others. The interactions of trust, share, and give in turn name the distinct ways that spirituality expresses itself outwardly.

In many languages the metaphor of spirit (breath, wind) carries the idea of movement, freedom, and creative transformation. While the peaceful soul is spirituality’s deep inner wellspring, the creative spirit is its outreaching influence in life and the world around us.

Indeed, as a construction of meaning, the world around us is its crowning achievement, called into existence “in the beginning” (Genesis 1) of each new day.

 

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The Four Ages of Life

four-ages_r

The big money in mental health research goes toward the problems and disorders that interfere with normal functioning, personal happiness, and human fulfillment. Volumes of theories, diagnostic manuals, and expensive interventions are devoted to correcting what’s wrong with us, or, if the cause is unknown, at least relieving the symptoms of our suffering.

Critics have noted that the conventional notion of a mental “disorder” is problematic in that it presupposes something (mental “order”) of which we have no clear understanding. This leaves the market open for a proliferation of so-called disorders – as many as need to be invented – and their matching medications.

The science behind the trend of reducing mental health (and health generally) to molecular biology and the pharmaceutical interventions that can fix us tends to dismiss spirituality as not only less than helpful on the matter, but as so distracted into its own crystal ball of unfounded metaphysical claims and spooky practices as to be utterly irrelevant. In the minds of many, science accomplished our liberation from spirituality, as it trained our attention on things that actually exist. As they define it, spirituality is a holdover from our benighted and superstitious past. In the verse of Alexander Pope: “God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”


In numerous posts I have worked at correcting this widespread but erroneous characterization of spirituality. For sure, there’s a lot of metaphysical malarkey out there, and good people have fallen for it again and again. Angelic visitations, divine revelations, psychic readings, and miraculous powers are found in sacred myths, folk tales, and personal testimonies around the world, but such things shouldn’t be confused with spirituality. They are adornments of religion, not its true essence.

As a symbol system and way of life, religion might be organized around such mythical characters and events, but its primary function is in providing social structure for the expression of a deeply interior experience.

Now, it might sound as if I’m thinking of this deeply interior experience as something esoteric, in the sense of secrets kept hidden from the uninitiated and simple-minded by those who really know the truth. Typically this secret knowledge involves the translation of popular myths and symbols into a vocabulary of metaphysical abstractions protected by an occult tradition of rituals, creeds, and hierarchies of authority. Esoteric religion is thus an underground version of what’s going on at the surface of conventional society, but with the veil of ignorance purportedly removed. It’s not really a deeply interior experience at all, just another kind of religion carried on by an elite few.

What I mean by spirituality has nothing to do with supernatural realities, metaphysical realms, or secret knowledge. It is the deeply interior experience of being human: of existing, striving, and becoming fully human, more fully alive. Genuine and true religion is the structural expression of this adventure in the life of society, linking the individual ego inwardly to its own grounding mystery, across the social synapses of community life, and outwardly to the turning mystery of the universe.

In its better days, religion facilitates the progress of spirituality and our construction of meaning. At its worst, it blocks progress and even represses the creative spirit. Unfortunately, many have identified religion with its degenerate forms and historical periods of corruption, concluding that we are better off without it.

It’s this idea of spirituality as a deeply interior experience that grows, develops, and evolves over time which I will expound on here. If we think of human nature as actualizing through distinct periods, then each period corresponds to some aspect of our full capacity which is activated (or suppressed) during that stage. (In the interest of space, I won’t go into what happens when spirituality doesn’t progress and the reasons why. My reader is invited to check out other posts in this blog which delve into the hang-ups that get institutionalized in pathological religion.)

The Age of Faith

In the beginning – and I’m using that phrase for its resonance with Creation myths – we were carried in the dark waters of our mother’s womb and eventually delivered through a narrow passage into another dimension. We were vulnerable and dependent, relying on her (or her surrogates) for the satisfaction of our every need. In the nursing embrace we gained a base of security, and her supervising care instilled in us a sense of reality as resourceful and responsive – in a word, as provident.

This is also the earliest, and deepest, stage of spirituality. To some greater or lesser degree, all of us have (and continuously seek) this experience, which is named faith. It’s critically important that we distinguish such an existential faith – this open trust and absolute surrender to reality – from the catalog of beliefs that any given religion might regard as orthodox (“correct opinion”). Faith in those first days and early years of life was indeed closely associated, if not identified, with the existence of our higher (or taller) power. This may explain why existential faith, as I have described it, is frequently confused with belief in the existence of god.

What we carry with us from that primordial experience is not a set of opinions, orthodox or otherwise, but again a deep interior sense that we are supported in a provident reality. Our ability to relax, trust, release, and open up to What Is will continue to influence everything about our life going forward. Without faith we are groundless, without a sense of support, cut loose and adrift in an absurd and uncaring universe.

This isn’t something that religion itself can give, but religion will tend to translate the dominant or majority experience of its members into a more general worldview and way of life. By cultivating a community that is more grounded and intentional in its care for the very young, religion can foster the activation of faith in all its members.

My diagram suggests chronological markers that define the time periods and developmental thresholds of spirituality. This earliest stage, from prenatal life to the end of the first decade, is what I’ll call the Age of Faith. The prominent themes of spirituality here are grounding, providence, security, trust, and openness to reality.

The Age of Passion

From roughly age 10 to 25 is the second critical period of spirituality, the Age of Passion. This is when our openness to reality involves us in exploration, experimentation, and discovery. It’s also the age when the social construction of our identity undergoes significant trials and temptations. If we’re tracking along with world mythology, then this marks our Exile from the Garden of protection and infantile dependency, to the desert of self-conscious isolation and the jungle of sexual urgency. From here we might look back at what we lost and wish for it again, which is how some religions frame the challenge.

Whether it’s by a method of ego glorification or ego renunciation, the solution in either case exposes a fixation of this period on the separate center of personal identity.

Everything seems to turn around our needs and desires. In calling this period the Age of Passion, I am acknowledging the natural and very healthy way that consciousness regards all of reality as “staring at me,” as “judging me” and “making me feel” one way or another. While the word passion might have connotations of an extroverted drive for excitement, its root definition has to do with undergoing something, being “done to,” and suffering as a patient who is passive (“hold still!”) under treatment.

The Age of Reason

After 25 and until we’re about 60 years old spirituality progresses through the Age of Reason. This is typically when we are finishing our qualifications for a career and starting a serious job, finding a life partner and managing a family. By design, it is the time of Conquest and Settlement, when we take creative authority in making meaning, clarify a life purpose for ourselves, and expand our horizon of influence.

Faith and Passion continue to give us grounding and make life interesting, but it becomes increasingly important that our place in the greater scheme of things is relevant and contributes value to the system(s) in which we belong. This is the time in our development when, in the interest of intellectual integrity and rational meaning, many of us step out of organized religion to work out for ourselves a personal philosophy of life.

Religions don’t help when they intimidate us and condemn our quest for relevance as jeopardizing our place in the community or, worse still, in heaven after we die.

But the logical coherence, theoretical integrity, and practical application of meaning is not at all the acid or opposite of a passionate faith – although it does have exactly this effect on a belief system (orthodoxy) based in outdated models of reality and antiquated moral standards. Any belief system that is not rational, reality-oriented, and relevant to our times should either be reinterpreted, remodeled, or set aside.

The Age of Wisdom

There comes a time, however, when our most cherished constructs of identity and meaning need to open, like parting veils, to the present mystery of reality. In other posts I have characterized this threshold between the Age of Reason and the Age of Wisdom as bringing about an Apocalypse – a collapse of our world, a burning away of the canopy we had erected over ourselves for security, orientation, and significance.

The timing of our disillusionment with the years when we are starting to disengage from the consensus trance of school, career, parenting, and managing a household is probably no accident. Just as the carousel is winding down, our inner spirit is ready to drop out.

By ‘dropping out’ I really mean dropping in – out of the illusion of our separate existence and deeper into the present mystery of reality, into the Real Presence of mystery. Wisdom is not a function of accumulating knowledge, but is rather the breakthrough realization that nothing is separate from everything else, that All is One, and that We’re All in This Together. Oneness is not a matter of intellectually comprehending the totality of all facts, but of intuitively understanding that facts and thoughts, self and universe, the grounding mystery within us and the turning mystery all around us, are one reality.

What we do to the Whole, we do to ourselves. What we do to our neighbor, we do to ourselves. We are not separate from the rest. We are one.

Welcome to the Age of Wisdom.

 

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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 Religion That Matters

Two SystemsMy last post ended with the suggestion that what we call religion might best be understood as the way we manage the balance of love and power in our lives. The two systems of supremacy and communion which act like great attractors in the patterns of culture throughout history, also pull on our individual lives, causing us to lean more one way than the other in our personal choices and lifestyles.

The question I’m exploring is whether it is legitimate (and useful) to speak of this management of power and love – the particular set of rules, disciplines, methods, and practices we employ to “hold it together” (from the Latin religare) – as our religion. If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then the salient features that get packaged together in our conventional definition of religion – sacred stories, communal rituals, devotional practices, belief in a supreme being, and the hope of an afterlife – end up as secondary to its principal function.

This would help explain not only why religion looks so different from culture to culture (i.e., its features are more locally dependent), but also why all religions can be classified as either oriented on supremacy (the love of power) or communion (the power of love). Even within a single religion (e.g., Christianity), this balance of power and love can shift from one generation to the next, from one community to another, even as the surface features remain ostensibly the same. What we find is a change of focus in the myths, doctrines, liturgy, and morality as one system recedes and the other moves into dominance.

At the heart of religion (as I am redefining it here) is the priority and challenge of trust, which is where power and love are held in balance or fall apart. In a sense, the whole two-system “mega-system” of supremacy and communion comes down to how we manage – cultivate, nourish, repair, and renew – the trust we have in reality, the earth, each other, and ourselves. This is the sacred bond that holds everything together. It will serve us well to appreciate what’s at stake in the management of trust.

As my diagram illustrates, the systems of supremacy and communion interact along two parabolic arcs that converge in “trust” and diverge again into their opposing values. Farthest out from center are the oppositions of virtue/competition and equality/cooperation, which is where the peculiar accent of a religion will be most obvious.

It’s important to remember that virtue is not about “being good” in the moral sense, but refers rather to the unique power (character strength, creative talent, uncommon intelligence) that makes the individual something special. In a supremacy system, priority is given to the discovery and development, typically in competition with others, of what makes us exceptional. On the other side is equality, where exceptions are downplayed in the interest of what makes us similar, of what we have in common. This common ground becomes the basis of cooperation and partnership in a communion system.

We can understand how major ideological differences would be easier to defend and maintain the farther out from center we identify ourselves. In a sense, it’s safer out there: we can stay in our heads and keep our distance from those “glory seekers” or “bleeding hearts” on the other side of the scale. But our religion only works for us at that point where we find ourselves face to face with “the other” – the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy. The question of whom we can trust, whether we can (or should) let down our guard and open ourselves to the other, take a risk and be vulnerable for the sake of a genuinely human-spiritual interaction – that’s where it really matters.

Jesus understood this with laser clarity, it seems to me. What you may believe about God, or whether you even believe in one; whether or not you are a confessing member of a church, temple, synagogue, or mosque; whether you can recite scripture or pray before meals; whether you are preparing your soul for immortal beatitude in the next life or just living from one day to the next – none of this really matters if you close yourself off from others, if you refuse to build trust where it’s missing, or repair trust where it’s damaged or broken.

Ironically (and tragically) much of religion today has become a means of escape, not just from this coil of mortality at the end of life, but from the proving circle of exposure, vulnerability, and risk where so much is at stake. Our churches and denominations are protected memberships where we can sit alongside like-minded believers, feel confirmed in our truth, and carefully plan our engagement with the world outside. But if my theory holds, none of this is religion that matters. True religion – if I can dare use the term – has nothing to do with either monastic escape or strategic outreach to “save” the world.

Lest my readers who are former churchgoers, enlightened nonbelievers, or independent post-theists are thinking that religion can and should be left behind, I’ll remind you of my working definition, which has to do with the way you manage the balance of power and love in your life. How you cultivate trust and negotiate its challenges, how you use your influence to nourish connection, how you fulfill your responsibilities in the covenant of relationship – that is your religion. Leaving the church and giving up on its god doesn’t set you free from religion; it may indeed have been a necessary step in getting you more seriously invested in a religion that matters.

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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As If

  1. God has a plan and is in control.
  2. Everything happens for a reason.
  3. You have an immortal soul, but …
  4. Don’t trust yourself.
  5. A better place awaits those who obey God.

I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions.

This is what Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wrote while hiding from authorities in a boat, after he and his brother had successfully carried out their mission of bombing the Boston marathon. Dzhokhar’s brother Tamerlan died on his way to the hospital from gunshot wounds by pursuing police and from being dragged under their own get-away car.

We Muslims are one body: you hurt one you hurt us all. Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven. Now how can you compete with that?

Now we might spin this into an exposé of Islamic fundamentalism. But if we did, it would only be to put a buffer of dissociation between an ideology that motivated these young men to violence in God’s name, and the more respectable theism of American Christianity. Of course, in the process of pushing this ideology away and condemning it as against what God is really all about, we protect ourselves against the possibility of a revelation – also known as disillusionment.

It can be expanded and morphed into countless variations – as it is among the world’s many religions – but this ideology consists of just five beliefs. A belief is when we pretend to know something, but don’t realize that we are pretending. In our trances of conviction and in the name of our delusions, human beings commit atrocities against other people, life on earth, and future generations. It doesn’t really matter what name you attach to the delusion; the essential mechanics of the phenomenon are the same across the board.

As we look at the five statements that make up this dangerous ideology, it should be obvious that they can be turned in the interest of emotional comfort or unconscionable violence. What decides the difference? If these were diametrical opposites the answer would be easy. The purpose is to calm anxiety, promote peace, and connect us meaningfully to the world around us. But could it have another purpose as well?

An unresolvable fact of our life in time is that things come at us randomly. Kind people suffer and mean people flourish; and yes, mean people suffer as kind people flourish. Televangelists can pump the notion that God favors those who are obedient, generous, and forgiving (although that last one doesn’t get as much airtime), but actual experience and just a little honest reflection will easily pry the lid off that deception. Still, it’s comforting to know (or pretend to know) that someone is watching over us and will someday give us what we deserve.

When, exactly? There’s no telling, but you can rest assured that if it doesn’t come in this life, God will bless you richly in the next. For a lot of people, just knowing (or pretending to know) that we don’t really die but merely continue on after the eye-blink of death in everlasting perpetuity is sufficient to reconcile them to the hardship, trauma, and bereavement that are inevitable in this life. That makes this bearable. We can put up with a lot here, with the assurance that it will all be better there.

For the Tsarnaev brothers, the promise of an after-life reward provided more than enough motivation to rip off limbs and kill innocent bystanders. Even the prospect of dying for their cause wasn’t a deterrent – if anything, it was a stimulant to what they did. God’s plan involves the triumph of his religion, which will come about either by the conversion or destruction of unbelievers. God is in control and is moving human events in the direction of a preordained destiny. Whatever happens along the way, you can know (or pretend to know) that it’s all happening according to plan.

Every statement in the above set has a metaphysical anchor, except one. The existence of an external deity who has a plan and is in control, whose reasons may be inscrutable (and therefore beyond question), and who will reward our obedience and sacrifice with endless beatitude in the next life – the hook for each one of these beliefs is importantly just (or far) outside the horizon of direct experience or presentable evidence. This is frequently used as an argument for their authority, strangely enough.

Religion is about metaphysics, and metaphysics can only be known by revelation. Charismatic prophets, inerrant scriptures, and orthodox doctrines all give warrant to the validity of our faith. Don’t worry over the fact that you haven’t encountered the personal deity as he is depicted in the sacred stories. It happened, and that’s all you need to know (or pretend to know). Besides, who are you to question it? Your sinful nature, mortal ignorance, personal stupidity, or undeveloped faith (multiple choice, and “all of the above” is the best answer) preclude you from any kind of claim to authority.

So we can see that none of the other statements of this dangerous ideology would stand up or hold water if confidence in our own experience, intelligence, and insight were not disqualified beforehand. If you can be dissuaded from trusting yourself – or better yet, if distrusting yourself can be accepted as obedience to divine revelation – then you are absolutely dependent on the external authority of religion.

But as Alan Watts often asked: If you can’t trust yourself, is it really a good idea to trust this distrust of yourself? This is typically where orthodoxy warns us to stop asking questions.

When we believe something, we pretend to know – and then forget or never wake up to realize that we are acting “as if” we know. But isn’t this what we mean by faith? Don’t we need faith to believe in an external deity, his overarching plan, our own immortal souls, and a life after this one? The answer is “No.” All you need is the willingness to believe these things, but that isn’t faith.

PeaceIt is possible to question, doubt, and disbelieve almost every statement in the ideology under consideration and still have faith – a mystically deep, spiritually grounded, and truly relevant faith. Almost every one. But when you lose or give up trust in yourself, you really can’t trust anything else.

Faith is full release to the present mystery of reality, experienced as provident in this beat of your heart, this breath in your lungs, this thought in your mind, this moment of being, this passing opportunity of life. All of this rises up from within and all around you as support, grace, and real presence.

Until we are given permission to trust ourselves, or take it back from those who are withholding it from us, more and more people will suffer the consequences of our convictions. We will continue to take our gods as real, read our myths as literal accounts, claim the infallibility of our beliefs, and be ready to surrender everything – common sense, reason, peace, and life itself – for the sake of what we only pretend to know.

 

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