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Evolutionary Faith

Even though I’m an amateur blogger, I like to pay attention to which posts my readers are visiting more often. Presumably more visits indicates a greater interest in a particular topic or idea, and I like to think there’s an opportunity for advancing the dialogue together. Among the things I write about, the topics of faith, spirituality, and religion seem to be most interesting – to my readers as well as to me personally.

I know that some would prefer to drop the whole set and get on with life in the modern age, seeing how much confusion, bigotry, persecution, and suffering have been perpetrated for their sake and in their name. But I’ve argued for a long time that these three forces in human history and experience cannot simply be dismissed just because they happen to be problematic.

Indeed, they are problematic precisely because they are so critically important and essential to our continuing human story.

Back in the 1970s James Fowler, a Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University, set about exploring the nature and development of faith, which he broadly defined as the act of relating to reality (“the universal”) and creating meaning. Fowler worked closely with Erik Erikson’s psychosocial model of development, which was and remains the standard theory in the field. His definition of faith cuts beneath the popular notion of it as either a more or less fixed set of religious beliefs (e.g., the Christian faith) or a willingness to believe something without evidence or logic to support it.

Fowler’s idea of faith as a basic orientation to reality and life in the world is therefore nonreligious in any formal sense, and much more experiential.

In his research, Fowler identified six stages of faith – seven including a “pre-stage” condition which he named undifferentiated or “primal” faith. Out of this undifferentiated state the developing individual’s mode of engaging reality and making meaning evolves – through childhood, into adulthood, and beyond. As in Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Fowler found numerous points where development can get arrested, delayed, or fixated, resulting in a kind of spiritual pathology that slows progress and compromises the individual’s successful transit to fulfillment or self-actualization.

My diagram correlates Fowler’s stages of faith with the historical development of religion through its three main types: animism, theism, and post-theism. A way of understanding this correlation would be to see individual faith as the prompt (inducement or drive) for changes in the character of religion at the cultural level; but also reciprocally, in terms of the way a society’s religion supports, shapes, and promotes (or stunts) the faith development of its members.

Finally, the big picture is revealed by those Yin-and-Yang poles of “communion” (mystical oneness) and “community” (ethical togetherness), which I recently explored in my post Human Progress. Once a separate center of self-conscious identity (ego) is established, reality can be engaged by going (1) deeper within ourselves to the grounding mystery of being, but also (2) by going farther beyond ourselves to the turning unity (universe) of all things.

The first path is a via negativa, releasing and subtracting all that goes into our individuation as separate individuals until only an experience of ineffable oneness remains: the mystical path. Stretching out and beyond us is a via positiva, affirming our unique existence and joining it to others in the experience of diversified togetherness: the ethical path.

Just seeing the dialectical continuum of communion (Yin) and community (Yang) there in front of us reveals the evolutionary principle working its way through Fowler’s stages of faith. From its genesis in the undifferentiated or primal experience of oneness where consciousness rests in its own grounding mystery, our engagement with reality progresses through ego formation and, finally, to the breakthrough realization that All is One – all of it together, including us. Our orientation in reality and the meaning of it all shifts, sometimes dramatically, from one paradigm to the next.

In the space remaining, I want to focus in on the three stages of faith that correlate to theism, the type of religion that is organized around the priorities of personal identity (deity and devotee), group membership, and a morality of obedience. Theism itself can be analyzed as evolving through three distinct phases: early, high, and late theism.

Early theism corresponds to the “mythic-literal” stage of faith, where the founding stories of world creation, tribal formation, heroic achievement, special revelation, and the consummation of history are taken quite literally, as setting our orientation in space and time.

In high theism, faith takes on a “synthetic-conventional” mode and the pressures of conformity motivate us to match our attitudes and outlook to the general view of our group. This is typically when the transcendence of god (the deity) is emphasized in worship and devotees are exhorted to worship god in humble submission, as they aspire to be more godly in their daily lives.

Because high theism has a tendency of getting locked into its arrangements of power and authority, it can often and actively work against the prompt of “individual-reflective” faith. As the individual awakens by a deeper curiosity and critical reason to doubts and insights that seem to challenge the tribal orthodoxy, religion can become a repressive force using guilt, along with the threat of excommunication and everlasting punishment, to bring the heretic back into its fold.

But it can happen that theism actually stimulates and encourages an individual’s quest for a relevant and secular (this-worldly) philosophy of life. The metaphorical foundations of theology (“god-talk”) are not only admitted but celebrated, and those sacred stories (myths) which had provided the incubator for our emerging identity back in childhood are now reappropriated as poetic lenses into the creative paradoxes of body and soul, self and other, humanity and nature.

Late theism need not be regarded as the “death” or “eclipse” of theism, but can rather be understood as the transition into an entirely new expression of spirituality and type of religion.

Post-theism – literally “after theism” – is about the farther reaches of human nature and the further stages in the development of faith. Fowler’s “conjunctive” faith actively brings together the heretofore disconnected and alienated aspects of our life: the shadow in our personality, the enemy we had worked so hard to keep at a distance, and the many variations on the theme of Truth that play out across the world cultures.

A “universalizing” faith beholds it All as One, seeking to live in and creatively cultivate genuine community, by such intentional practices as covenant fidelity, universal compassion, unconditional forgiveness, and absolute devotion to the wellbeing and fulfillment of all.

 

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Paths Into Reality

Although I spend a good amount of time defending the role of religion as the “system of utilities” that translates our spiritual intuitions into the structures of meaning in everyday life, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that intuition precedes the structures which translate it, and that meaning is secondary to the mystery at the heart of experience. My utilitarian account of religion, where its validity is determined by its usefulness in representing the mystery and supporting a way of life that promotes genuine community, offers a helpful criterion for criticism as well as one that appreciates religion’s valuable contribution.

Religion’s behavior of late has provided more grist for criticism than appreciation, however, leading many to wonder if perhaps its long career is approaching an end. As science and secularism continue to spread across the planet and pervade modern consciousness, perhaps it is time to just let religion go. The problem with letting religion go is that it isn’t going away as many hoped it would, but is instead going the way of irrelevancy and conviction (which are really flip-sides of each other), increasingly willing to condone or commit violence in defense of its idols.

So I will try again to rehabilitate religion to its proper role in personal life and society, this time not by tracing out its system of utilities but instead by looking deeper into the spirituality it intends to embody and express … at least originally. If it doesn’t do this very effectively at our cultural moment, our task should be (I would argue) to deconstruct religion back to its source – not its prehistoric origins but to the source-experience of mystery that informs all true religion, whether animistic, theistic, or post-theistic.Tao PathsI’ve chosen the symbol of Taoism as the backdrop of my illustration above, for the simple reason that it is perhaps the best visual image available for contemplating the nature of reality (or anything) as a dynamic duality of principles. An experience of the present mystery of reality takes place and unfolds along primarily one of two complementary paths, an interior path to the Grounding Mystery (or ground of being) or an exterior path into the Provident Universe (or universal order).

The interior path descends into deeper centers of solitude, progressively farther from the light of sense discrimination and “world awareness,” to the Grounding Mystery where all mental associations and even consciousness of oneself dissolves away. For this reason it is named the “dark path.” This movement apart (or away) from others, objects, and external reality generally is also called apophatic, which refers to the subtraction of words and a refusal to attach mental labels to one’s experience.

A more determined discipline of abandoning names and representations of the mystery is known as renunciation – saying “no” to something that qualifies, delimits, or otherwise interferes with one’s direct experience of the Grounding Mystery. Since the dark path proceeds by separating oneself from surface distractions, surrendering attachments and refusing to put words on the mystery, it often goes by the Latin name via negativa (way of negation). The goal ultimately is to lose (one’s sense of) oneself entirely in mystical union with the Grounding Mystery, to the point where Nothing (literally no thing) remains.

It is out of this ineffable awareness of Real Presence that the meditator will be refreshed in his or her intuition of oneness; that just as his or her deep inner life opens into the Grounding Mystery, so it can be said of all things. The existence of each thing is really a process of be-ing whereby it manifests the mystery of being-itself in its own limited form. All of existence takes on a sacramental character as the outward manifestation of this deep inner mystery.

In many early cultures, and even into the medieval period, a people’s cosmology (their mental model of the universe) was honored as a sacred picture of reality. This helps us understand why the revisions introduced by empirical science were so strongly resisted, and why even Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton initially explained their observations with adjustments, such as epicycles in planetary orbits, that could preserve the sacred cosmology to some extent.

This outward turn leads naturally to our consideration of the second path. The exterior path ascends into higher orders of communion, farther out into the light of sense discrimination and beyond world awareness, to the Provident Universe where all things “turn as one.” At this highest level, nothing is left out and all things exist together as illumined parts of a greater whole. For this reason it is named the “bright path.” This movement towards (or joining as part of) others, objects, or external reality generally is also called kataphatic, which refers to the addition of words and qualifiers in a fuller description of experience.

On this ascending path we are saying “yes” to the distinctions that qualify reality into a Provident Universe, where all things conspire together for the emergence of life and consciousness. Our ability to contemplate this is itself evidence of the fact that our universe is provident, not only in the organism of our body and highly evolved nervous system, but in Earth’s pro-life environment by virtue of its proximity to the Sun, along with the relative position of our galaxy within the expanding fabric of space-time. Theoretically every bit of it makes a contribution to the whole, suggesting that the farthest distant nebulae somehow play (or once played) a part in our present contemplation.

As we move up and out from ourselves, then, we are engaged upon the via positiva, a path where every new encounter is added to our understanding of the whole. The self is not negated but affirmed, world awareness is not renounced but transcended – surpassed and included within a larger frame of communion (literally “together as one”). Whereas the Grounding Mystery is deep within all things and accessible only by the inward via negativa, the Provident Universe is all around each thing and includes all things by the outward via positiva.

Now that we have the two paths of spiritual experience in view, I will draw my reader’s attention to the square at the center of my diagram. This is the box of identity, of the individual personality and its captain ego, which is conditioned according to its driving ambitions for security, attachment, and meaning. Each of us along the way enters into, negotiates, wakes up inside, converts to, and occasionally abandons (betrays, forsakes, releases) the identity contracts that define who we are. The rigid strength of this box is what I call conviction, which is the point where belief takes control of the mind rather than the healthy vice-versa. Just like a convict, an otherwise free and creative intelligence is “bound and determined,” and we all know where that leads.

To the box-dwelling ego, both spiritual paths present an intolerable threat for the simple reason that they require an individual to let go of “me and mine.” Security, attachment, and even the meaning locked up in one’s orthodoxy must be surrendered in the interest of touching and really seeing the present mystery of reality.

But since boxes are easier to manage (as well as mandate on others), most of us choose to stay inside.

 

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