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Forgiveness and Our Way Forward

Human beings are an unfinished species, both in the sense of having some rough edges and in having a potential that is not yet fully actualized. At different times in history our immaturity has pushed us to the ledge of suicide where we almost gave in to an either/or, all-or-nothing wager on destiny. Thankfully the better parts of ourselves pulled us back for a second thought.

Today we live in one of those times.

Most likely it isn’t disease, starvation, or over-population that will be our undoing. One thing that our growing population is forcing on us, however, is the challenge of learning how to get along and work together for the maximal benefit of all. As our living quarters become more crowded and the crowd becomes more diverse, we are confronted as never before by our differences. Strangers and outsiders have always threatened our neat, closed horizons of identity and mutual trust. We can get along with what we know, with others like ourselves. But with those we don’t know, or who have a different worldview and way of life from ours – what are we to do with them?

The great traditions of spiritual wisdom developed their distinctive visions around this challenge of getting along, particularly at the flashpoint of our differences. Whether it was the ideal of covenant fidelity introduced by Judaism, the universal compassion that awakened Siddhartha and became the central insight of Buddhism, the radical message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness that Jesus lifted into our collective consciousness, or the ideal of full surrender to the divine will beyond our constructs of god that brought Muhammad to his knees – the initiating provocation in each case was a quest for the way of salvation, for a way that leads to genuine community.

Obviously I’m not using “salvation” in the popular sense, as a program of deliverance, escape, and everlasting security in the next life. The word literally refers to a process (spontaneous or gradual) whereby injury is healed, health is restored, division is repaired, hope is renewed, and wholeness is actualized.

If salvation in the history of religion has been mythically and metaphorically represented as being set free, made clean, pardoned from guilt, and saved from certain perdition, the deeper energizing concern has always been over the forces within us and between us that keep us out of paradise, locked up in our suffering, and tragically short of our higher ideal.

As long as human beings have been around we’ve lived in societies – from small clans and larger tribes, to neighborhoods and nation-states. And so, for that same period of time we have had to learn how to get along, work through our differences, and contribute creatively to the formation of genuine community.

I’ve used that term – genuine community – a few times now, so it demands some definition. What I mean by it is a certain qualitative and transformational shift that happens when individuals in partnership make an empathetic connection and experience a deeper communion. Out of this grows a shared intention, a cooperative spirit, and a common vision of their life together. In other words, community is not just a synonym for “assembly” or even “congregation, and it doesn’t just happen. Instead it must be created – cultivated, nurtured, fortified, and regularly renewed.

And that’s where forgiveness is important.

I should really say, that’s where forgiveness is essential, since without it a strained or broken relationship cannot heal and continue to grow. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when the bond of trust at the heart of a healthy partnership is ruptured. Or maybe the partnership was never healthy to begin with. How can you – we might as well make this personal – be an instrument of salvation where there presently is abuse, betrayal, misunderstanding, or estrangement? Although none of us is off the hook as perpetrators in causing harm to others, for now we will pretend that you are the victim.

Whenever you are injured, offended, or betrayed, you will notice – if, that is, you can manage a little introspection – that two impulses arise simultaneously in you. One is the impulse of anger: You didn’t deserve this, it’s not right, that other person is guilty and should pay the price for his or her sin. I’ll call this the vengeance impulse, and as it rises within you in reaction to what’s been done to you by that other person, your anger is preparing to fight back and get even.

The other impulse is fear, which I will call the avoidance impulse. You don’t want the hurt to happen again, so your survival strategy marks a quick departure and takes long detours to keep it from happening again. As long as you maintain your distance and avoid crossing paths with your enemy, you stand a chance of staying safe. Because getting even will likely provoke further assault and additional suffering, your fear might be regarded as the wiser of these two impulses. Just cut this person out of your life. Push him away, leave her behind. You deserve better.

The thing about vengeance and avoidance that you need to understand is that they don’t lead to community. In fact they are serious digressions from what I earlier called the way of salvation.

Getting even or running away actually destroys the conditions in which genuine community can flourish. Think about it. When has the retributive reflex, where vengeance “pays back” hurt for hurt, worked out to the satisfaction of both sides involved? The vengeance impulse will wait for its opportunity – whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or three generations from now. The score will be settled: that’s just the way vengeance works. And running away or hiding out? How can individuals learn to live in community if they are living in separation?

This is the question that Jesus pondered. For our future to be long, prosperous, and happy, human beings can’t keep trading violence or seeking refuge from each other. We have to get along. We must learn how to create genuine community. And everyone needs to be included – the stranger, the outsider, especially our enemy. It was his focus on this particular relationship between enemies that inspired Jesus to understand, profess, and exemplify a new way.

This is the way of unconditional forgiveness. And even though his message got buried underneath centuries of Christian orthodoxy that took his movement in the exact opposite direction, this gospel of Jesus is finally being heard again.

Let’s come back to the very moment when your friend, or someone you trusted, became your enemy. No doubt, our most significant enemies are not those on the other side of the world, but who share our bread, our bed, and maybe even our genes. We opened ourselves up to them and made ourselves vulnerable. We trusted them, and they took advantage of our trust. There you are. What will you do next?

If you let your anger or your fear determine what you do next – whether you allow vengeance to make you into a combatant or avoidance into a defector – you will be giving power to your enemy, for the simple and straightforward reason that your identity in that moment is defined by what they did to you. Your attitude, character, and behavior will be decided in reaction. If you get even, it is in reaction. If you pull away, it is in reaction.

In either case, you are allowing your enemy to define you and limit your options. Fight back or get out. What other choice is there? This is where Jesus saw a third option.

Not as a reactor and giving power to your enemy, but by getting centered in your true nature as a creator. Picture that flashpoint immediately following the moment when the injury, offense, or betrayal takes place: let’s just call that “the space” between you and your enemy. As a creator, your challenge is to step into that space, stand your ground, and demonstrate love.

The ‘standing your ground’ part sounds as if you should be preparing for a fight, but that’s not what Jesus meant. When he counseled his disciples, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well” (Matthew 5:39) he was not suggesting that they should just submit themselves passively to violent treatment by others. For a right-handed assailant to slap your right cheek, he’d have to use the back of his hand. This is how an aggressor intends to humiliate you and put you in your place. In order to “turn the other cheek” you would have to straighten up again and face your assailant, asserting yourself as his equal.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration for his nonviolent resistance to British rule in this very passage from the teaching of Jesus. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Baptist pastor who was additionally empowered by Gandhi’s more recent example, took it to the urban streets for the sake of race equality and human rights.

The message of Jesus was not a glorification of weakness and suffering; his was a gospel about power – specifically about the power of love.

So you step into that space, stand your ground, and then demonstrate love. I say “demonstrate” because chances are, you probably don’t feel much love for your enemy. He just hurt you; she just betrayed your trust. Your anger and fear are both very real. The point here is not that you should have gooey compassion and warm fuzzies towards the one who just “slapped you on the right cheek.” To demonstrate love is to act out the behaviors of love – even if you don’t feel very loving. What are those behaviors? You probably already know:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In the spirit of fake it till you make it, demonstrating love in such ways eventually brings about two very interesting outcomes. First, your anger and fear dissolve away, and in their place arises a creative force that has no equal in all the universe. This force is the bond of partnership, community, and wholeness. A second outcome is that you will completely “disarm” your enemy. Where he was inwardly preparing for your vengeance or avoidance, your forgiveness removes the fuel for his fire, and it won’t be long before he loses all confidence in his power over you.

Forgiveness, then, starts in letting go (the literal meaning of the Greek word) of anger and fear. Jesus taught that it is really not about pardoning sin or absolving guilt. It may be the case that your enemy doesn’t even see the need to repent, and perhaps doesn’t care enough about you to make the effort. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. He may need to be held accountable for the damage he’s done, but it won’t be about appeasing your anger. You may need to move out of the relationship and get on with life without her, but it won’t be as a victim of fear.

You are free, and that’s what matters. Genuine community is where individuals are learning to live together, in the freedom that love makes possible.

 

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Spiritual Intelligence

Spiritual intelligence (SQ) has nothing to do with religious orthodoxy, how much you know about metaphysics, or whether you possess super-normal abilities like yogic flying, seeing into the future, or bending spoons with your mind. Maybe it’s because I can’t do any of those things, that I define spiritual intelligence without appealing to special gifts. As I use the term, spiritual intelligence refers to our largely uncultivated virtue of consciousness which enables us to experience the depth and unity of existence.

This mode of consciousness is uncultivated not because it is buried in esoteric metaphysics or requires years of intensive meditation to develop, but rather for the comparatively more simple reason that our attention is tied up with other things. Specifically with things having to do with the construction, maintenance, and promotion of our personal identity, also known as ego.

But lest we think that any hope of awaking spiritual intelligence depends on our success in beating down, cancelling out, or otherwise eliminating ego consciousness, it’s imperative to understand that our spiritual awakening requires ego strength, not its diminishment.

A healthy ego is energetically stable and emotionally balanced, serving to unify the personality under an executive center of self-control. Because so many things can compromise the achievement of ego strength – early trauma, childhood abuse, a dysfunctional home environment, chronic illness – many of us end up somewhere on the spectrum of ego pathology, as what is generally called a neurotic ego.

Characteristics of this condition include insecurity, anxiousness, compensatory attachments, binary (either/or) thinking, inflexible beliefs (convictions), and difficulty trusting oneself, others, or reality as a whole. Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals who struggle in this way are often attracted to religions that insist on our sinful condition, our need to be cleansed or changed, and that promise a future glory for the faithful.

As I said, while only a small percentage of us are completely incapacitated by ego pathology, all of us are faced with the challenge of working through our hangups and getting over ourselves. In what follows, I will assume a sufficient degree of ego strength, enough to provide a stable point from which we, by virtue of an activated spiritual intelligence, are able to drop beneath and leap beyond the person we think we are.

My diagram presents a map of reality, along with the different ways that consciousness engages with it. The nested concentric circles represent the various horizons corresponding to distinct evolutionary stages in the formation of our universe. Thus the largest horizon, that of energy, was earliest and also includes all the others, as they represent its further (and later) transformations.

Energy crystallized in material form, physical complexity gave rise to life (organic), the life process gradually evolved abilities of detection, reaction, perception, and feeling (sentience), which after a long journey eventually developed the faculty of self-conscious awareness (egoic). This is the transformation which is heavily managed by our tribe, in the construction of personal identity and moral agency.

Identity is a function of what we identify as, and what, or whom, we identify with. Personal identity will always be located inside a social membership of some sort, where the individual identifies as “one of us,” and in turn identifies with other insiders and their common interests. The tribe shaped our emerging self-conscious awareness so that we would fit in, share our toys, wait our turn, and not rock the boat.

Our life has meaning by virtue of the stories that form our character and weave personal experience into the larger patterns of social tradition and cultural mythology. If we assume that the construction of a secure identity is the end-game of human development, then this is where we will stay.

Things can get complicated here because some tribes need their members to fervently believe that this way is the one and only way. Everything from religious orthodoxy to consumer marketing is dedicated to making sure that individuals are fully invested in “me” (identify-as) and “mine” (identify-with). As long as they can stand convinced that the tradition holds their key to security, happiness, and immortality, members who are under the spell of a consensus trance will be ready to sacrifice (or destroy) everything for its truth.

The global situation today is compelling many a tradition to pull in its horizon of membership, so as to include only those who possess certain traits or have surrendered totally to its ideology.

And yet, because human beings do harbor the potential for spiritual awakening, any effort to cap off the impetus of their full development will end up generating a spiritual frustration in the individual, which will ripple out from there into the membership as discontent, suspicions, and conflicts arise.

My diagram illustrates personal identity (ego) as occupying the center of everything and sitting at the apex of evolution, where consciousness bends back on itself in self-conscious awareness. As long as the individual is fully wrapped up in the adventures of Captain Ego, the rest of reality – that vast depth and expanse which are essential to what (rather than who) we are – goes unnoticed.

Underneath and roundabout our self-absorbed condition is the present mystery of reality. As the Polynesian proverb goes: Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.

In reality, our existence is the manifestation of a grounding mystery (or Ground) which plunges deep and far below that little outpost of self-conscious awareness at the surface. This ground of being will not be found outside the self but only within, for the deep structure of reality itself is present also in us. Underneath and supporting ego consciousness is a sentient nervous system. Beneath and upholding that is the living organism of this body, rising gently in waves of vital rhythm. Still farther down – and, remember, deeper into – the life process are the crystalline lattices of matter. They in turn bind up and dissolve again into the vibrant cloud of quantum energy.

You’ll notice how the ever-deeper release of our meditation opens to us an experience of ever-greater capacity, the essential depths and fullness of what we are as human beings. Notice, too, that we don’t have to exert a vigorous discipline on the ego in order to get it out of the way. We simply need to let go, so that consciousness can be released from its surface conceit of personal identity and drop into the ineffable (wordless and indescribable) mystery of being-itself.

This is one aspect of an awakened spirituality: We experience the internal depths of all things by descending into our own. Everything below that magenta horizontal line, then, is deep, down, and within – not just of our own existence but of existence itself.

Above the line is out, around, and beyond the center of ego consciousness – beyond who we think we are. As we go down, then, awareness is simultaneously opening out to the turning unity of all things. The horizon of personal concerns gives way to a more inclusive sphere of sentient beings. As we identify as a sentient being, we also identify with all sentient beings.

This down (within) and out (beyond) shift of consciousness is what awakened Siddhartha’s universal compassion; he understood directly that suffering (pain, striving, frustration, and loss) is the shared condition of sentient beings everywhere.

Continuing in this down-and-out fashion, the descent of awareness into the organic rhythms of our body takes us to the still-farther horizon of all living things. And within/beyond that is the horizon of matter in motion, the revolving cosmos itself, which finally surrenders to the quantum energy cloud where this whole spectacle is suspended. So at the same time as consciousness is descending into the ground of being, it is also ascending through the system of all things, the turning-together-as-one (literally ‘universe’). Inwardly we come to experience the full capacity of our being, as outwardly we transcend to the awareness that All is One.

These are not logical deductions, mind you, but spontaneous intuitions of our spiritual intelligence. It sleeps in each of us, waiting for its opportunity to awaken and set us free.

 

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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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Curriculum Spiritus

Curriculum SpiritusIn a recent post I offered a perspective on religion which views it as a single transcultural evolutionary phenomenon, not merely this or that religious tradition but religion itself as the creative incubator of a higher spiritual wisdom. Already this sounds suspicious, given the fact that religions today (and for a while now) have been more conservative and reactionary as forces in society than genuinely progressive and spiritually avant-garde. That fact – especially today – cannot be denied.

But this goes to my more general argument concerning the validity of theism. If we can let go of our very modern reading of theism which reduces it to superstitious belief in the literal existence of god, and allow also that it provides a personified (metaphorical and literary) ideal of those virtues of character and community that humanity is evolving toward, then theism can be affirmed in its value – even as we contemplate our destiny on the other side of god (post-theism). When I defend the developmental necessity of religion, and more specifically of theism, I am not thereby automatically giving support to any historical version of it.

I chose four religions in particular: two strongly monotheistic (Judaism and Islam), one fully post-theistic (Buddhism), and one whose subsequent history abandoned the post-theistic vision of its “founder” (Christianity). Despite distortions and setbacks in each tradition, something of critical importance to the evolving wisdom of our species was clarified and offered up for us all. Part mystical realization and part ethical insight, the distinctive revelation – or, if my reader can’t hear that word without a supernatural backdrop coming to mind, then the distinct discovery – of each religion marked an advance in our human understanding of and progress into genuine community.

What’s more, the chronological sequence of the four traditions (Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) represents a progressive development, with each revelation building on and extending earlier ones. Whether these realizations and insights spread through time by cultural diffusion (migration, commerce, conquest) or by means of something more akin to Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious,” together they comprise what I propose to name the curriculum spiritus of our species.

Curriculum is defined as a course, literally a path or track; and spiritus is Latin for the vital breath that animates and enlivens. Together they refer to the path of human evolution, advancing by a progressive awakening to that distinct contribution of our species, genuine community – a conscious, creative, inclusive, and responsible way of life in the universe characterized by deep empathy. This choice of genuine community as our aim, over the popular notion of religion’s purpose as the successful rescue of the individual soul to everlasting beatitude in the next life, actually marks a recovery of its raison d’être (reason for being).

Again, I’m not suggesting that religions today really understand their greater cultural role as stewards of our collective spiritual wisdom, distracted as they frequently are by domestic squabbles, shrinking memberships, and the challenge of recapturing relevancy in the wake of secularism. Whether the four religions I feature here are healthy and true – in the sense of getting us closer and deeper into genuine community – is of secondary importance. The most important point is that the mystical realizations and ethical insights, in short, the spiritual wisdom gained over the millenniums concerning the virtues that conspire in the formation and longevity of genuine community, have already been uploaded. This wisdom is available to us now, regardless of our formal religious affiliation or lack of it.

So, let’s revisit this curriculum spiritus, which I am saying represents the collective wisdom of our species concerning the virtues that inform and sustain genuine community. My diagram takes the distinctive revelations in their linear-sequential order and rearranges them on a cross-axis to suggest some creative tensions inherent among them.

Covenant fidelity names the breakthrough realization where individuals in relationship consciously subordinate self-interest to the priority of their partnership together. Partners accept certain obligations and responsibilities to each other for the sake of strengthening community – the whole which is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Their need for belonging (fitting in) and recognition (standing out) is fulfilled, even as the call is honored to transcend ego in the interest of their shared life together. The general message is: Here’s what it takes to live together in peace and cooperation. Do your part and all will go well.

By placing universal compassion in opposition to covenant fidelity I am trying to bring out the creative tension between loyalty to the in-group and a wider sympathy that reaches to “outsiders” as well. Extending the horizon of fellowship to such an infinite degree as to include “all sentient beings” effectively removes the boundary separating insiders and outsiders, and forces us to reconsider the very notion of membership itself. If I am a middle-class, North American, white male human being, all of those distinctions except for the very last (being) can play into the trance that I am separate from the rest. Genuine community arises in the resonance of the “inter-being” (Thich Nhat Hahn) of all things, and when I live out of that deep realization of oneness, compassion flows.

We are all familiar with how such expansive compassion can suddenly collapse to exclude our enemy, referring not primarily to an outsider but to an insider who acts against us. When one partner betrays the other, or when one abuses the good faith of the other through theft, injury, or deception, a resentment and “righteous indignation” can build over time, such that no judicial process for setting things right can finally resolve. The one who has been hurt stores away this wrath until a moment, preferably aided by the element of surprise, when vengeance can be satisfied. But then, such retaliation only convinces the new victim that something must be done to get even – and back and forth it goes.

Unconditional forgiveness begins with the resolution not to repay evil for evil, but rather to “love your enemy.” The due process of justice can even be encouraged, given that, as Harold Kushner points out in his important book How Good Do We Have to Be? (1997), holding the wrong-doer accountable is how we acknowledge his or her humanity as an ethical being. Even with the wheels of Justice in operation, however, our willingness to release the desire for vengeance and regard our enemy with loving-kindness instead is at the heart of this virtue. And if your enemy doesn’t know – or worse, doesn’t even care that you are hurt and offended, then what? Let go, and love anyway. Genuine community must not only be bound by covenant fidelity and extraverted in universal compassion, but it also must inspire partners to honor and love each other without conditions attached.

The inevitable complications of living in community, and for community, make it tempting at times to surrender its ideal and settle for something easier to manage. Those in political authority, the economic class with the most market share, the greatest debt burden, usually those with the most to lose – such voices start to shift the moral discourse and social policy in favor of their own special interests. Something more realistic, but what inevitably turns out to be just another version of realpolitik privileging those in power, gets played out, inventing ways of justifying prejudice, neglect, oppression, and violence against the new outsiders.

What’s needed in this situation is absolute devotion to the ethical ideal of genuine community – to the covenant fidelity, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness that will keep us actively engaged in its pursuit. This virtue in the curriculum spiritus stands opposite the willingness to drop our moral right to retribution (i.e., forgiveness). And their tension – letting go of what is rightfully ours and simultaneously holding fast to an ideal we will not compromise on – is surely the place in this system of virtues where the entire project of genuine community most often comes to frustration.

What if we determined never, in any circumstance, to relax our devotion to the work of genuine community? What if our devotion, in this sense, was absolute – pure, unmixed, independent of ego ambitions, urgency, or expedience? What if, above all, we were committed to a life together, reaching out in love and letting go of anger, giving ourselves continually to this work and refusing to settle for anything less?

The world would be a very different place, would it not?

 

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The Progress of Wisdom

I write this on the day after the city of Paris suffered a coordination of terrorist attacks on its citizens. Just this morning we learned that ISIS (a radical sect of Islam that seeks to establish a theocratic state) has claimed responsibility for the slaughter of 129 innocent lives (and still counting). It’s tempting to jump on the anti-Islam wagon and talk about how dangerous this religion is to our civilized security and to the future of free democracy and human rights. How it should be pushed into extinction as quickly as possible – along with all religion while we’re at it.

But I won’t. Instead I’m going to offer a very different perspective on this religion and its place in what I’ll call the progress of wisdom on our planet. We gave our species the name Homo sapiens sapiens (“very wise person”) prematurely and perhaps in denial of the catastrophic foolishness of which we are capable. Or it might have been prophetic of the direction we are evolving, which is increasingly toward a more rational, cooperative, and ethically-minded mode of being. I realize that the atrocities in Paris argue against such an optimistic view, but I should emphasize that I am not making a claim for having arrived, only that we have been evolving in this direction over the millenniums of our ascent as a species.

My second point is a bit harder to defend, which is that religion has been crucial to our advances in wisdom. Today the voice and behavior of religion tend to reinforce the growing opinion that it is a regressive force in modern culture, closing down the mind, perpetuating superstition, and putting up walls where we should be building bridges. And I agree: religion itself is frequently the most strident opponent of spiritual awakening, reluctant to validate and quick to condemn our need to transcend ritual, creed, and orthodoxy for the sake of a higher realization. But as I’ve said before, the regression and corruption of a religion (or even all religions) doesn’t automatically mean that religion itself should be rejected out of hand.

As a system for “linking back” (Latin religare) the individual to his or her community, the community to its history, its history to the cosmos, and all of it to the grounding mystery of being itself, religion has been the glue in human culture. And in its guiding fictions, known as myths, religion has provided for the contemplation of our destiny, our obligations to one another, and of our own evolving nature. Its revelations have come in stages, at precisely the times we were ready to discover more of ourselves and actualize a higher wisdom.

Once an insight was gained or a principle introduced, its transforming power didn’t always, if ever, meet with unanimous acceptance. This is where it is helpful to distinguish between the historical religions (including the history of religion) and the stream of higher wisdom that has been progressing over the millenniums. Think of it this way: as religions evolved, new ethical insights and mystical realizations were “uploaded” to a collective depository of higher consciousness that transcends each and all local cultures. Every time these insights and realizations are contemplated, taught, shared, and put into practice, that wisdom is “downloaded.” The religions exist in local time and get closer or fall farther away from these truths depending on the political intrigues, moral campaigns, or economic hardships that happen to be tying up energy. The stream of wisdom, however, is timeless.Stream of WisdomWhat is the guiding ideal to which this stream of collective spiritual wisdom leads? As I survey four of the major world religions and consider the unique “upload” of wisdom represented in each one, the answer to this question becomes obvious. Humanity is evolving in the direction of genuine community – conscious, creative, vibrant, and inclusive. The essential principles and conditions that make such community possible have already been uploaded to the stream of wisdom. It just happens that downloading activity has fallen off sharply of late, which means we are not accessing this wisdom and putting it into practice.

In choosing these four religions I am not “rejecting” others. From my study of religion, which includes a fairly exhaustive survey of the major traditions, I find that these four in particular – Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam – were both originators and early outspoken witnesses of the “insights and realizations” that promote genuine community. Other religions may sound similar bells, but these voices were the first and clearest in articulating them. Let’s take them in chronological order, as suggested in the above diagram.

Covenant Fidelity

Judaism discovered and introduced the first principle of genuine community, which offered a way through the impasse caused when emotion and self-interest drive human relationships. Each individual finds pleasure in the other’s company so long as they can get along and stay in agreement. But when interests diverge and their goals fall out of alignment, or when one betrays the other or causes injury – then what? The rule of nature would likely motivate a separation, but not until the offense is redressed. And the more painful, the better.

The ethical insight of covenant fidelity places that relationship inside a system of constraints that are meant to “overrule” the impulses of emotional self-interest and retaliation. A covenant is a compromise (literally a “shared promise”) where individuals commit themselves to the health and longevity of their relationship, instead of being driven by what they get or hope to get out of each other. When disagreement, injury, or betrayal occur, the covenant holds them to their promise and exhorts their best efforts in working things out. As an ultimate aim of covenant fidelity, genuine community becomes the context for reconciliation.

It’s important to see that in Judaism’s concept of covenant fidelity, the objective is not to let wrongdoers get away with it, but neither is it the best thing to let the fur fly until the victim is fully satisfied. The rules of covenant say things like, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” where a punishment must fit the crime in the interest of repairing broken or strained relationships. In the normal dynamics of any partnership individuals will fall in and out of affection for each other, but faithfulness to the covenant of their relationship will keep them both oriented on a greater good.

Universal Compassion

Siddhartha Gautama took the Hindu doctrine of Brahman as the One Being in myriad manifestations and followed it all the way to its logical conclusion: If all things are manifestations of One Thing, then all things must also be connected by a sympathetic energy. For the future Buddha the implications of this mystical insight were revolutionary and far-reaching. The outcasts of his society were no less deserving of happiness than those in the highest caste, and no one is exempt from the human condition, which he compared to the chronic pain (dukha) caused by a dislocated joint.

We are all off-center and out of alignment with our proper being. Insecurities drive us to attachments that inevitably magnify suffering as they fall short of our expectations, dissolve under their own impermanence, or change without our consent. In desperation we grip down all the more, only to make our problem much worse. All of our defenses and strategies, our hopes and convictions, end up pushing us deeper into suffering. What we need is to see – really see – that our suffering is self-induced, and that all of our aggressive self-promotion is counterproductive. Making it all about “me” makes us incapable of seeing beyond ourselves to the shining truth of existence.

This understanding of ourselves, where we can acknowledge the insecurity beneath the ignorance that in turn drives the damaging ways we treat each other, can ignite in us the power of compassion – not just for ourselves but for all people. With this ethical vision of universal compassion, rooted in the mystical realization of the interconnectedness of all things, our evolutionary path to genuine community made a decisive advance.

Unconditional Forgiveness

With Christianity – or I should say with Jesus, since the Christian religion was unable to institutionalize the heart of his teaching – came the invitation to accomplish something that would neutralize, or better reverse, that one inviolable moral imperative which holds every tribe together when all else fails: hostility for the out-group. Of course, the boundary separating insider and outsider can be drawn arbitrarily as impulse dictates, which means that what we’re really talking about is how we regard and respond to “the enemy.”

Obviously our enemy doesn’t have to be over the sea or outside our borders. The ones that cause us the most distress and provoke our greatest hostility are the enemies who were formerly our friends, people we trusted but who betrayed our trust, even those we had let into our deepest confidence and most private concerns. Looking around, Jesus observed how much unrest in human relationships is due to a perceived retributive imbalance between individuals and groups. One side has “gotten away” with something, has taken more than his or her share, or caused damage that must be repaired before things can be right again. The trading back and forth of this “retributive reflex” – each side getting even with the other but perpetually throwing off the balance in the other’s mind – is what locks us in never-ending border wars,

The orthodoxy of Jesus’ day had set limits to how many times one should be obliged to forgive an offender. According to rabbinical tradition a remorseful and repenting offender ought to be forgiven as many as three times – more than that puts the guilty party’s sincerity in question. Behind this limit-setting was the conviction that an unrepentant sinner doesn’t deserve the gift of forgiveness. In fact, an unrepentant sinner (as well as the perpetually insincere penitent) deserves to be punished. Instead, Jesus counseled the radical response of unconditional forgiveness. Effectively he told his disciples to just let go and stop counting; love anyway. When the retributive reflex in our hearts is extinguished, the world around us will change.

Absolute Devotion

Now we come to the contribution of Islam. As his generation was languishing amid a stifling pluralism and moral laxity, Muhammad realized that what they were missing was a commitment to something that transcended all the temptations and distractions in the foreground. This supreme reality was the will of Allah, and to submit oneself to the will of Allah would ignite a passion and purpose that no worldly power can overcome. The Muslim’s first task, then, is to vanquish the evils of greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy in his heart, by the systematic and relentless discipline of jihad.

By “absolute” devotion we are referring to an ongoing act of full surrender to Allah’s will, not calibrated on the basis of our circumstances or conditional upon our internal motivation. Absolute literally means perfect, not mixed or adulterated, free from restriction or limitation. Allah’s will is not interpreted through anything, whether it be a holy book or even The Prophet himself. It must be desired, grasped, internalized, assimilated, and realized in the world without compromise. There is an evident danger in this idea of an absolute will, and the Muslim doctrine of the Qur’an as the inerrant word of Allah that must simply be read and obeyed has made the religion especially attractive to extremists who come to regard their own wills as beyond question or debate.

Throughout its history Islam has shown vulnerability to take-over by radical ideologies. Whoever steps into power and assumes an air of authority has been able to exploit the absolute devotion of true believers. The violence in Paris is another example of how the internal struggle of jihad can get perverted and projected outward onto “the evil other” in a kind of religious insanity.

But if we can see this principle of absolute devotion in the sequence of revelations, as whole-hearted and unwavering commitment to something beyond the individual ego, a different picture emerges. I propose that each of the four principles builds on the others, extending and deepening our understanding of what genuine community entails.

Genuine community =

an abiding faithfulness to the health and longevity of relationship (covenant fidelity)

+ a profound appreciation of our shared suffering and connectedness (universal compassion)

+ a decision to release our grievances and treat our enemy with kindness (unconditional forgiveness)

+ a relentless pursuit of its realization on earth (absolute devotion)

The stream of wisdom is the property of no single religion or culture; it is ours collectively as a species. Homo sapiens sapiens.

Commence with the download!

 

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What is Post-theism?

The representation of god in myth and belief has served three key functions over the long course of history: as (1) the hidden agency behind the forces and events of nature, (2) the transcendent legitimation of political authority, and as (3) the advancing ideal of our moral development as a species. In some cases, these three functions have been taken up into different deities, while in monotheism they were incorporated into a single supreme god.

Since roughly the fifth century BCE, the West has been progressing through a series of cultural transformations, where each of these “functions of god” was taken over, absorbed, and transcended by the mythological god’s human creators. What was once projected outward – behind nature, above the throne, or ahead of our moral striving – was gradually and steadily internalized by the human spirit. With each step, our evolution has progressed into a new “post-theistic” era, relative to the function of god that has been rendered obsolete.

Early on, the gods of nature dissolved into physical laws, material forces, and mathematical formulations. Personified hidden agencies were no longer needed to explain weather events, the movement of planets, or the revolution of seasons. The rise of natural science pushed the Western experience into a post-theistic age, with respect to the mysteries of the cosmos.

It took longer for the political and moral frames to advance, however.Post Theism

Kings, tyrants and despots continued to claim ordination by the gods, which partly explains why temple religion has received royal and state support for centuries – even to this day. Nevertheless, the rise of democracy began to take the power to rule away from the god and his monarch. A republican or constitutional form of government might still anchor its legitimacy in a vision of human nature as possessing certain inalienable rights endowed by the Creator, but responsibility for the political order is now firmly on our own shoulders.

The rise of science and democracy, then, marked two major transitions to post-theism in the West. Today we are on the progression threshold of a third shift, now focused on morality and what it means to be “good.”

No doubt, the democratic revolution – first in Athens, then later in Philadelphia – compelled this ethical shift, since the king’s order or a denominational moral code has less warrant when the divine authority once believed to stand behind it is no longer taken literally.

But one key moment in this transformation came with the teachings of Jesus.

The prophets of Israel – particularly Amos, Hosea, Micah and Isaiah – had already dared to internalize the voice of god and speak not just for him, but as him:

21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5)

No longer the priests, who were religious insiders of temple/throne religion, but outsiders (some ex-priests) took on the challenge of redefining traditional standards of moral obedience, righteousness, justice and compassion. By standing in god’s place and exhorting the people to stretch out for higher truth and a wider (more inclusive) love, the prophets prepared the way for Jesus.

Like no one before him or since, Jesus somehow had the audacity to not only redefine god’s will but his very identity. The deity who had been identified with holiness, separateness, vengeance and retribution was made-over into a “prodigal god” – wastefully kind, benevolent, compassionate, and forgiving. This last virtue particularly, forgiveness, was radically deconstructed by Jesus.

In his life and teaching, forgiveness – also known as loving your enemy – became a gracious and unconditional initiative, and not just a considerate response to repentance. As a proactive virtue of love, forgiveness could become a redemptive force inside the individual, between enemies, and across the world. To get there, the old god of morality who still operated according to the logic of retribution (“you get what you deserve”) needed to be absorbed and then transcended. Jesus was so bold as to invite his disciples to outdo god by forgiving without even the expectation of repentance.

In the ensuing decades after Jesus, some of his fans and followers grasped the radical nature of what he had done. By constructing a myth about his resurrection, his ascension into identification with god, and then descending as spirit one last time to become incarnate in the community carrying on in his name, the early Christians fulfilled his vision and ushered in the last great post-theistic age.

With the prophets and later Jesus, the Western trajectory of human evolution (by co-opting the near-eastern influence of Jewish history) had internalized and gone beyond the moral ideal of god. Now such advanced virtues as universal compassion and unconditional forgiveness were not just represented and glorified in Christian worship as  “the god of Jesus Christ,” but they were expected to be embodied and lived out on the ground of daily life as well.
                                                                                                

This quick review of post-theism as it progressed through the cultures of Greece and Israel should clarify where it is different from the quasi-philosophical position of atheism. While atheism is energized by its opposing stance relative to theism (“no” to its “yes”), post-theism involves not a refutation of god but rather his assimilation by the human being.

Imagined, composed, projected, glorified, obeyed, emulated, internalized and finally transcended – thus god is not so much displaced by natural science, liberal democracy and a radical ethic, as taken over and his “functions” assumed by his original creators.

For this reason, post-theism does not bother with lampooning religion or engaging in sacrilegious irreverence. It has no interest in exposing belief in god as weak-minded and childish – although it has an obligation (we might say, in the “spirit of Jesus”) to address and resolve the tendencies in religion toward dogmatism, bigotry, repression and violence.

Essentially, post-theism understands god differently than atheism. Our human representations of god are products of our own curiosity, speculation, creative imagination and spiritual insight. Even though we once needed to regard them as objectively real, we can now appreciate this need as a critical phase in the longer advancement of humanity into a way of life increasingly more grounded and responsible, more caring and inclusive, more daring and authentic.

One other important difference: in its evolutionary view of religion, post-theism affirms belief in god as developmentally appropriate. Until an individual is ready to “take god back,” an external deity provides the necessary security and support, confidence and inspiration, to both relax in faith and reach out into a higher purpose.

The historical progress of the larger culture must be repeated and fulfilled in each living generation.

 
 

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