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Refresh and Restart

Back in the late 1980s Bill Moyers conducted a long interview with the scholar of world mythology Joseph Campbell, published under the title The Power of Myth. In their conversation Campbell invoked the up-and-coming personal computer as a metaphor for understanding myth and religion.

Campbell suggested that we might think of the various religions as different software applications, all supported by an underlying operating system but programmed to accomplish distinct aims.

On your personal or workplace computer you probably have numerous applications, some of which you use on a daily basis and others less often. A few of them are designed for work productivity, while others are used for creative design or entertainment.

You probably have favorites among them. These are probably the ones you feel most confident and comfortable in using. The other less familiar applications are sitting there occupying space on your hard drive or in the cloud, and your relative lack of competency when it comes to them might motivate you to simply remove their icons from the desktop. Out of sight, out of mind – and no reminders of what you don’t know.

Just because you use one software application more than the rest and are most fluent with it, you probably like it more. If two programs do similar things but one fits your habits and preferences better than the other, you might try to get it to do things it wasn’t really designed for. Are you ready to say that this one application is ‘right’ and the others are ‘wrong’? That it’s ‘true’ while the others are ‘false’? Likely not, or else you would be willing to admit that your opinion is more about personal taste.

Among the religions, one ‘application’ is programmed to connect you with your community and its tradition, whereas another is designed to separate you from the conventions of society and prepare you for the next life. A third type of religious software is a set of commands to help you descend the roots of consciousness to the ground of being-itself, while a fourth offers a program for prosperity in this life.

Just among these four applications – and you should recognize in my descriptions a sampling from actual religions today – you probably regard one as better than the others, as more ‘right’ and ‘true’. But of course, that would be more a commentary on your comfort, fluency, and personal preference than an objective statement about the others, or about religion itself.

Following the etymology of the word “religion” (from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect) Campbell believed that each religion can be true in two senses: (1) according to how effective it is in helping us accomplish our aims (e.g., tribal solidarity, heavenly hope, mystical union, or worldly success), and (2) the degree of fidelity it has with the ‘operating system’ of our deeper spiritual intelligence as human beings.

In fact, nearly all religions place value on the four aims just mentioned, differing with respect to which aim gets the strongest accent.

A more crucial question has to do with fidelity, with how strong and clear is the signal by which a particular religion reveals to us the present mystery of reality, our place in the universe, and the emergent thresholds of our own evolving nature. On this question it might score very low. Ironically it is often the accented factor in the individual application that eclipses and draws focus away from this universal dimension.

Devotees seek to make the local accent into an exclusive virtue, and then promote it to the world as ‘the only way’ of salvation.

If you were to keep your favorite application always running on your computer, eventually it would get slower and less efficient in what it was designed to do. The same is true of the religions: When devotees obsess over that singular aim and absolute truth, with time their religion gets hung up in redundancies and delays and may even ‘freeze up’ or ‘crash’.

This is typically when religion undergoes a fundamentalist regression: the frustration to ‘make it work’ (or believe it anyway) doubles down aggressively and starts enforcing a mandatory compliance among its members. The organizational distinction between the insider faithful and outsider nonbelievers gets further divided on the inside between nominal believers (by name only) and the ‘true believers’.

Fundamentalism, then, is not the advancement of a religion’s primary aim but a regressive collapse into emotionally driven dogmatism; a loss of faith, not its fulfillment.

Because it’s so easy and common for religions to get fixated on what makes them special (i.e., different from others), it is also common for them to lose their roots in the deeper operating system of spirituality. Meditation, mindfulness, quiet solitude, and contemplative presence are spiritual practices that tend to get downplayed and forgotten – but the consequences of this neglect are significant.

When it comes to the maintenance of technology, we understand the importance of periodically refreshing the screen, clearing the cache and clipboard, occasionally closing applications, and restarting our computer. As it powers on again, the support for our programs is more robust and the applications themselves work more efficiently. The synchrony of our software and the deeper operating system has been restored.

Things just tend to go better when we take time to refresh and restart.

 

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The Simple Message

“Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” What if the message of a one-world religion was as simple as that? Obviously the meaning of those words would need to be unpacked before believers scramble on board. There is no magic in merely repeating the words as you break bread, ring a bell, prostrate yourself, or whirl in circles. Religion has really never been about some special power in ritual performances, but rather how these rituals focus attention, unite members of the community in shared intention, and provide thereby a sacred entry into deep time where everything is celebrated as moving in a purposeful direction.

It’s been about connection, as the root religare implies (to tie back or link together). Just because some religions have degenerated into reactionary, separatist, and violence-prone idiocracies (a rule of spiritual idiots) isn’t a sound reason to reject religion itself out of hand as the same. The occasion of bad science or bad politics doesn’t give us good reason to cast science or politics on the cultural junk pile; instead we redouble our commitment to keep science aligned with empirical facts and politics oriented on the welfare of society.

With so many blatant examples of bad religion all around us, I want to call us back to its essential function, summarized in the simple message of “Plug in. Open up. Reach out.” All religions will find the secret to a renewed inspiration and relevance as they realign themselves once again to the vision of reality conveyed in this message. So let’s take a few minutes to unpack what it means.

Web_GroundPlug in

A human being has both an inner life and an outer life. Our inner life, called our soul, trails deep inside to the very root of consciousness. In that deep place within each of us, finally inaccessible even to our own searching mind, consciousness rises out of and recedes again into a mystery that all religions acknowledge as an elusive presence. Before they put words to it and dress it up in symbols, stories, and doctrines, this presence is intuitively known as the very Ground of Being, the creative source in which our existence finds its genesis and provident support.

Reach Out

A human being also has an outer life, called our body, which extends far outside the boundary of our skin – although for the sake of convenience we commonly regard it as a physical object. In truth, however, our body is of the same substance (homooúsios) as the earth and contains the saline of its oceans, metabolizes the light of the sun and has stardust in its cells. It is not a separate thing at all; in fact, our body belongs to a vibrant Web of Life as large as the universe itself. The very nature of our body shares in the interdependence of cosmic reality.


The inner life of our soul and the outer life of our body make human beings a fascinating duality. Outwardly we are connected to the Web of Life and dependent upon its sacred balance of energies, while inwardly we are rooted in the Ground of Being and cradled in a present mystery. These two aspects of our existence, outer and inner, are what religion has long helped us hold together. By coordinating our deeper communion with Being and our wider fellowship with Life, religion (as religare) keeps us whole.

Open Up

But there is yet another aspect of human beings, besides the inner and outer, that introduces a wonderful complication to this enterprise of unifying our experience of reality. What we call ego is our identity as members of this or that human tribe (family, community, culture). Because every social group of humans is unique according to its history, traditions, customs, concerns, values, beliefs, and aspirations, every individual ego – which, of course, carries its own unique set of inclinations, moods, and motivations – is unique as unique can possibly be.

Egos must be shaped to the aims of the group so they can take the responsibility of promoting its peculiar construction of meaning known as ideology. One problem with ideology is that it tends to codify our human insecurities into compensatory convictions of absolute truth. If our tribal existence is particularly imperiled by vanishing resources and competition with a neighboring group, for instance, an idea something like manifest destiny will soon rise in our minds, providing all the justification we need to secure what is ours by right.

It’s at this stage in the game where religion constructed the notion of a patron deity, whose role is to authorize the moral order, incentivize internal reform, justify external campaigns of war, and characterize the virtues to be cultivated in the lives of devotees. These protected memberships served, and still serve, as social incubators of identity. Members are believers, believers are aspirants, and what they aspire to is represented in their deity. Submission, devotion, and obedience train their collective energies on a common ideal which they confess together as the one and only way.

As I said, inevitably (and by design) the constructed identity of an individual ego will carry the social investment of its culture. Family patterns of abuse, neglect, or discrimination – but of healthy nurturing as well – work themselves into the operating system of our personality. I would dare say that all of us, simply because we had to find our way through this broken maze of childhood, enter our own maturity with some deep-set insecurities about ourselves, other people, the world around us, and the prospect of happiness. As a consequence, we play it safe and keep ourselves closed to the greater reality.

An insecure identity, contracted in self-defense and working itself into nervous exhaustion, is that much removed from its own inner life and Ground of Being. Indeed the mere suggestion that “I” (ego) might surrender completely and lose myself in union with the soul’s grounding mystery is contemplated with horror. But outwardly, too, the self-involved ego is ignorant of and careless about the body and its vibrant Web of Life. Reaching out too far and opening its horizon of understanding to the fragile balance of life would take focus away from its precious contract of “me and mine.”

And that’s where the real contribution of “true religion” lies: in challenging us to open up and to drop the illusion of identity. Only then can we plug in to the Ground of our being and reach out to the Web of Life. Only then will we be whole.

This is the simple message.

 

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The Only Way of Salvation

Religion is an answer to the problem or dilemma that besets our human condition. Throughout its long history, the answer of religion has changed according to the nature of its problem.

Earliest religion was focused on the body and a need for the business of society to stay connected to the provident rhythms of nature. It was ceremonial, meticulously ritualized, and dedicated to synchronizing cultural activity with the urgencies, cycles and seasons of life. In its elaborate productions culture spends the energy that nature provides, requiring regular refreshment to continue.

The dilemma or problem, then, had to do with the fact that culture is not a renewable resource. Despite its impressive production output, societies continue to depend on the life energy and raw materials of the planetary environment. Living off the land and taking the life of other animals for food made our earliest ancestors keenly aware of the need to respect this balance, cooperate with nature, and repay a portion by ritual offerings and sacrifices.

In time, the focus shifted to more socially unique concerns like security, membership, identity and purpose. Thus arose a religion of the ego. If life energy is drawn up from the animal nature of the body (and from the greater “mother nature” of our planet), then ego is where a large amount of this energy is expended. Pursuits of security and recognition, property and status, quickly exhaust themselves. They are not replenishing cycles but more like straight lines losing strength and trailing off in the hopeful pursuit of “enough.”

As the personality is chronically stressed by discontentment, eventually the ego fastened on a marvelous fantasy – that one day a clean escape would be made, leaving behind the mortal burden of the body and accomplishing at last a perfect state of everlasting security. What we can call “ego religion” is focused on artificial life, not natural life; on a life that is unnaturally extended along a straight line that never ends. Its fantasy is of a disembodied and entirely metaphysical existence, reunited with a “heavenly father” after a painful and frustrating sojourn with “mother nature.”

Ego religion tends to be denominational (heavily invested in the tribe and its tradition), proselytic (focused on conversion and recruiting members), moralistic (enforcing rules on how one should live), and gnostic (upholding and defending certain doctrines as necessary to salvation). As a program for resource management, social cohesion, and mind control it can’t be beat. While it demonstrates little sacred concern for nature and the body, vestiges of earlier (nature) religion persist in its holy days (holidays) coinciding with solstices, moon phases, and seasonal transitions.

What raises the concern of many today is not so much that ego religion is all those things just mentioned, but that it pushes an agenda of escape, disassociation from the body and nature, and departing to a better place. How long can it go on, where we use up the resources of one location and abandon it for the next? How much longer can we continue to generate stress – perhaps the one renewable resource of culture – and multiply the diseases of body and mind?

How long, really, can we live as “souls inside bodies,” waiting in patient hope or hastening the day when we shall be set free from this prison house and rewarded in heaven for being good and getting it right?

So that is the problem of our human condition today. The fall-out of this divided life of ours – suppressing, craving, consuming, wasting and leaving – makes coming back not only less and less appealing, but over time less and less possible. The irony is that, while religion might offer an answer to this problem, religion is itself a major cause of the problem. The vision of a scorched and lifeless landscape contained in some of its apocalyptic myths is slowly (but less slowly) becoming our self-fulfilling prophecy.

If religion is to offer an answer to the dilemma of our human condition, then it will be a call to return. Interestingly enough, this is the literal meaning of the familiar word “repent.” In this case, it’s a call to return to what we have been trying so hard to leave behind – the earth, nature, our bodies, and the burden of mortality.

This is what I am calling “soulful religion,” which is not a religion about immortality, metaphysics and the afterlife, but rather of incarnational living, creative community, human fulfillment and planetary well-being.

In fact, it seems to me that this has been The Way of Salvation from the very beginning. During the long winding diversion into metaphysics, escapism and redemptive violence, a few brave lights did emerge from time to time. They spoke of life HERE, love NOW, and of liberty beyond the confines of tribe, tradition and orthodoxy. It didn’t go well for many of them.

Ironically (again) the very crusaders who persecuted and stamped out these light-bringers later memorialized and venerated them in their churches. But not until the story could be rewritten and the savior remade into a drop-in rescuer, a god in disguise, or a scapegoat for sin. (Jesus was made into all three.) As Bible scholarship is able to do its business outside of denominational publishing houses and unmotivated by religious convictions, the emerging picture of the “historical Jesus” is looking less and less like the Savior of Christendom.

In a time when many are asking about truth in religion and the way of salvation, we need to consider this possibility. It’s not that one religion is true while the others are not; or that all religions are true in their own way; or that religion itself is nothing but superstition and lies.

Rather, the religions are like squiggly lines moving across history, each one a meandering path through the landscape and time zones of our collective human experience. Most of the time, a given religion is busy working out its metaphysics, redefining its membership, getting back to fundamentals, or accommodating itself to the larger culture.The WayBut once in a while, the squiggle takes a turn and comes very close to the invisible guideline of fulfillment, wholeness, well-being and genuine community – to the greater wisdom and higher ideal of our own human nature. The light goes on, fear drops away, love opens out, and peace settles in. For this brief moment, as it aligns itself to The Way, a religion can be said to be true.

And in the next moment, as this truth gets defined, professed, and defended as the “only way” to god or heaven or life everlasting, it just as quickly veers away and falls off course. In some eras of history – and maybe we’re in one now – it’s possible that all religions are squiggling off in the distance, while just a few individuals around this whole planet – and maybe you’re one of them – are waking up and stepping quietly on The Way.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in Post-theism/New Humanism

 

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The Birth of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check yourself. I’ll do the same.

 

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