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Tag Archives: Walter Truett Anderson

The Time We Have Left

The moment-to-moment phenomenon of experience is difficult to pin down and is probably impossible for us to fully understand, for the paradoxically simple reason that we are always in it. We can’t get the detachment and observational distance to see it objectively. There is no perspective on experience itself since experience is the place where all perspective is grounded.

But my conversation with Anthony De Mello, Walter Truett Anderson, and John A.T. Robinson has at least clarified terms that can help us slow down the process of experience and make some important distinctions.

Throughout our conversation, De Mello has spoken to the dual nature of awareness, in the way that experience looks within the self to its ground (the S-G axis), and beyond the self to the other (the S-O axis). Lying beneath the self-conscious ego (or simply “self”) and prior to it developmentally, ground is preconscious and “below” the reach of words, making it ineffable. Looking out, on the other hand, reveals a vast field of otherness, putting self in relation with an-other (countless others, in fact).

This is where language is useful: in the work of naming, classifying, defining and explaining this relational field in terms that are meaningful to the out-looking self. Of my three conversation partners, Anderson is the one who examines this construction of meaning from multiple angles – art, advertising, politics, psychology, science and religion.

Although he makes the unfortunate mistake of confusing our construction projects with reality – as others before him in the study of “the social construction of reality” had done – Anderson helps to pull aside the curtain on the wizard at work. For the purpose of constructing a meaningful world, the self (with assistance and guidance from the larger culture) weaves a complicated web around the primary concerns of security, identity and significance.

We spin our world, forget that we did it (and are doing it now), and proceed to assume and defend it as “the way things really are.” But it’s even more complicated than that: because identity is co-constructed with the world it inhabits, even our self concept is something we make up. What we might have thought was a stable place to stand as we put together and repair our world is not stable at all, but is continually adjusted and repositioned like scaffolding according to the work at hand.

All of this could leave us feeling rather nihilistic – that what we call reality is really nothing at all. Behind all the words, values and stories we string across the Void, there is no reality to speak of. Just emptiness, nothingness, no-thingness.

The key difference between the postmodern position of metaphysical nonrealism that I support and out-and-out nihilism is that nonrealism remains open to the mystery of a reality we can’t speak of, while nihilism is ready to throw out the baby (the real presence of mystery) with the bathwater (language and the meanings we project on reality). There is nothing logically or conceptually inconsistent with acknowledging a presence that can’t be named.

And yet, perhaps only mystics (or the mystic within each of us) can suspend the impulse to name the mystery. Meaning-making is in our nature and probably can’t be permanently suppressed without serious repercussions like depression, despair, and insanity. So the question becomes, What do we name the mystery? and How can we talk about it?

This is where Robinson’s “two eyes on truth” becomes relevant – especially when we consider the opportunities and potential consequences of inter-religious dialogue. Religion is frequently where our metaphors, stories and beliefs about the way things really are find supernatural authorization and proceed to become absolute, infallible, and inerrant. With only one eye on reality, our line of vision is flat and narrow, lacking an ability to appreciate background, context, paradox and transcendence.

One eye looks inward to the ground of being (S-G), as the other opens out to the otherness round about (S-O). One is introverted, contemplative and mystical, while the other is extroverted, active, and relational. The first one hesitates to speak in the face of mystery for the sake of prolonging the experience of real presence. The second one can’t stop talking, for the simple reason that talking about reality pushes it away far enough (so to speak) where we can begin making sense of it.

Talking about anything entails making it into an object of thought, and what we gain in meaningfulness comes at a cost of removing us from the stream of direct experience. But the mind needs meaning like the body needs blood, and so we talk. Robinson makes the point that healthy religion must honor the balance between silence and speech, experience and meaning, being quiet in the presence of mystery and engaging in god-talk.

Awareness, meaning, and dialogue: My three partners in conversation, then, complete a compelling picture of our human experience of reality and how we go about making sense of it. Together they offer an interesting model for guiding us into our shared future on this planet – if there is a chance of it being long, creative and prosperous for all involved.

We need to be more psychospiritually attuned with our own experience in the moment (De Mello), more intentional and honest in our construction of meaning (Anderson), and more committed to opening both eyes to the present mystery of reality (Robinson). If we can strengthen these disciplines within ourselves, our interactions with others – especially with those who stand in a very difference “world-space” than we – will bear fruit in understanding, compassion, community and well-being.

So I suppose we’re about as far away from realizing this vision of our future as we are willing to pick up these disciplines for ourselves, in our own walk through time on this planet. I can’t stand back and wait for you to get on with it, so don’t you stand back and wait for me either. Let’s become more serious practitioners of being and take responsibility in the time we have left.

There are generations coming up behind us. They deserve a chance.

 

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The Possible Human

Anderson: “Contemporary civilization without ball games and movies would be as incomprehensible as medieval civilization without the Church. Our social reality is shaped by those myths and structures, our personal lives informed and sometimes inspired by them.”

In the early flush of modernity, when the codes of the physical universe were being unlocked right and left at a breathtaking pace, many thought that we were finally past the age of superstition and religion. With god no longer needed to explain how things originally came about or presently hold together, our interest in all things spooky and divine could be left behind. We had grown up and were fully enlightened at last.

The sociologist Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” for the tightly bonded system of myths and symbols, rituals and authorities, traditions and morals that support a more or less coherent worldview (what he called a “sacred canopy”). Education for any society involves constructing the mental framework inside young minds that will filter information coming up from within (intuition) and in from outside (sensation) according to what the worldview allows as plausible (likely, logical, conceivable).

Our cultural deliverance from ignorance was widely celebrated as a breakthrough at last, to the direct (unfiltered) grasp of reality itself. Now we had our hands on the “facts,” without the need for childish fictions or an immature dependency on “papacy” – the authority-line connecting papa to the pope to the patron deity calling the shots. Myth gave way to history, superstition to science, a picture-book faith to mathematical reason.

Protestant Christianity came of age during this truth-rush of modernity. In order to save their religion, as the plausibility structure of Catholicism was coming down around them, Protestants turned the Bible into a history book, replaced images (think of icons) with words (think of The Word), and shifted the fulcrum of meaning from ritual ceremonies (sacraments) to orthodox precepts (doctrines).

What had been publicly managed by a complex institution of ordained authorities got pulled apart and repackaged into a variety of denominational identities, each espousing a slightly (or significantly) different set of beliefs necessary to salvation. Less about “us” and more about “me”; less about now and more about later – when my soul gets to heaven and I receive my reward for getting it right.

Back to science, which was boldly going where no one had gone before – deeper and farther out into the mysteries of matter, expanding knowledge and dispelling superstition. It took a while longer (into the twentieth century), but eventually it became apparent that the theories supporting the scientific worldview were also fictions. Even the idea that science was a worldview – a perspective, an angle on reality, a limited vantage-point with its own operating assumptions and not simply “the way things really are” – came as a shock to the system.

The steady rise of this realization is the story of constructivism – understanding and coming to emotional acceptance of the “fact” that we can’t live without “myth,” that human beings construct meaning rather than discover truth out there in reality. By replacing cathedrals with stadiums, popes with commissioners, saints with superstars, and heroes with celebrities, we are not necessarily any more enlightened or advanced.

The “truth” of any plausibility structure may have less to do with how it matches up to reality, than how effective it is in providing inspiration and guidance to the rising arc of our evolution as a species.

I realize that “rising arc” and the very idea of evolution are themselves metaphor and fiction. But that’s really the point. We need to consciously accept that the meaning we construct is what makes our lives meaningful. Our sense of security, of orientation, identity and purpose are the design objectives of the worlds we make up. The more we have of these things, the more meaningful our lives are.

But where does it all lead? I don’t mean far off in the distance, at the end of time, but later today, after we push ourselves away from the computer and step back into our life? What values will we live by? What choices will we make? What ambitions will motivate us to action? How will we behave towards those we meet? Whether we worship world saviors or sports stars, what kind of life does our devotion inspire and justify?

From an evolutionary standpoint, the behavior of an individual organism is where the fate of the species is decided. It’s not about how advanced and sophisticated our philosophy is, but the lifestyle it produces in our choices, sacrifices and commitments. In addition to the forward movement through time (survival, reproduction, prosperity), evolution also opens “upward” (so to speak) into the complexity of consciousness, the capacity for subjective feeling, rational intelligence, a wider compassion and unconditional forgiveness.

This is where the truth of our plausibility structures can be measured, it seems to me. Do they support a life of meaning? Do they inspire us to reach out and connect in ways that are peaceable and benevolent? Do they inspire us to transcend the neurotic limitations of our ego and foster genuine community with our neighbor? Do they help make us more human?

Viewed from the inside, every plausibility structure (from sprawling cultural worldviews to the comic stand-up’s one-liner) makes sense to the degree that its terms mutually reinforce each other in meaningful cross-reference. This is truth as coherence. If language didn’t hold together in this way, nothing would make sense.

Then there’s truth as correspondence – how accurately our plausibility structures match up to and correctly describe/explain external reality. This is where the constructivist suspicion comes into play: that our stories and theories may be more about us (i.e., the author) than the way things really are out there.

Yes, it feels for all the world like we are depicting things as they are, but then again, every portrait assumes a point of view and reflects the author-artist’s perspective (from here, not over there). It’s all an on-going exercise in making meaning.

Finally there’s truth as actualization. As we are able increasingly to let go of the dogmatic assumption that our stories and theories “tell it like it is,” we might become more open to what they reveal about ourselves and the “possible human.”

We tell stories to put our children to sleep at night. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us wake up to a New Day.

 

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The Responsibility of Thinking Well

Anderson: “The best way to keep an audience from seeing the weakness in any plot is to step up the sense of menace; the maxim of hack screenwriters is that when things get slow you put a bear on the beach.”

There is a narrow bandwidth of intelligence where an individual is able to think critically, skeptically and rationally. While this capacity for reason is a natural endowment of human beings, the skills that are necessary to develop it must be learned and practiced in a social context. Optimal learning occurs somewhere between urgency and boredom.

This bandwidth of reason is narrow, but it can be widened with training and discipline. The individual needs to learn how to be “reasonable” even in emergent and high-risk situations, when the stress-response would otherwise kick in and take over. This natural reaction in the body has evolved for the purpose of survival and has millions of years of “practice” behind it. When it kicks in, the energy flowing up to the light bulb in the attic gets shunted to the boiler room in the basement.

It’s not time to think. Pausing to consider your options or take in a larger perspective could forfeit your opportunity for getting out alive. Stress hormones activate a complex syndrome of physiological events in your body, and you just react. Your nervous system locks into a channel that diverts energy away from longer-term projects of digestion, cell repair, and immunity, directing it instead to your visceral organs and exercising muscles to enable a successful escape.

That’s the upper extreme.

At the lower extreme of this bandwidth of intelligence called reason is boredom, and ultimately dormancy – sleep. While situations of urgency will interfere with your ability to think critically, skeptically and rationally, situations of boredom can prevent the kind of concentration of mental focus that reason requires. If the topic lacks sex appeal or real-life relevance, this focus quickly dissolves and the mind falls to a baseline of daydreaming reverie.

Human beings are meaning-makers, and the primary way we make meaning is by telling stories or listening to others tell them. As constructs of language, stories are like gymnasiums where we learn how to swing, tumble and vault through the thought-ways of our culture. Fairy tales, folk legends, heroic epics and the great archetypal myths form a nested hierarchy of narratives that shape consciousness and open the mind to larger, more inclusive realms of human concern.

Reason is trained and strengthened in this gymnasium of cultural mythology. Over time, it graduates from fairy tales to more abstract and sophisticated stories (theories) in its orientation to reality. Graduating doesn’t necessarily entail that you suddenly become intolerant of stories about talking animals and faraway fantasy lands. But once your reasoning intelligence is active, these earlier engagements must be seen in a new light and from a different angle.

The three attributes of reason mentioned above are that it is critical, skeptical and rational. Critical thinking involves being able to tell the difference (kritikos, to discern) between the meat and potatoes of story, between its argument or main point and the style of its presentation. When we are very young and reason is still getting its grip on the monkey-bars of language, the proportion of potatoes to meat must be carefully arranged so as not to overwhelm the plot or main point with too much secondary material (adjectives, references, details and digressions).

As critical thinking continues to develop, we gain an ability to separate not only substance and style in the story itself, but to distinguish between the story as an artistic expression and its author as artist. Who wrote this? What type of story is this, and what was the likely occasion for the writing? Who is the intended audience, and where does the author intend to take the reader/listener? Obviously this kind of discernment involves leaving behind the initial enchantment of the story, in the way it caught us up and carried us along when we first read or heard it.

Reason is also skeptical (from the Greek, meaning to examine or look closely). Just because it’s there in the story doesn’t make it reliable information about the nature of reality. The “looking closely” of skepticism reinforces the point that the ultimate criterion for judging the reliability of story is one’s own experience. If the story was authored by someone who lived a long time ago, critical thinking will seek to determine the type of story it is. If it’s purported to be some kind of factual reporting or eye-witness account of events, then skeptical thinking will evaluate its claims against the (sensory) evidence available to us. In the absence of such evidence, we are left with the question of the author’s grasp on reality and the trustworthiness of his or her supposed testimony.

A skeptical attitude doesn’t require that we dismiss as untrue everything that may have happened in the past or to other people. But outside of our direct experience we are left with only degrees of probability. Even if the piece of historical writing contains its own fail-safe claims to divine revelation or doctrinal inerrancy, as is commonly the case in the holy scriptures of religion, reason will assign only a relative value of reliability. Reasonable certainty must not be confused with emotional conviction, where it must be true if only because we need it to be so and believe with all our heart.

Finally, reason is rational. Ratios and rations have to do with relationships and portions, which makes rationality about putting things together and making the patterns that support higher meaning. Something is rational when it is logically coherent, holds together, and makes sense. A story about supernatural beings or magical creatures may not pass the bar of skeptical judgment, but it still can be completely rational in the way it offers an internally consistent and logical portrayal of narrative events.

Now, back to the first point, about the narrow bandwidth and cultural dependency of reason. Without a clear and persistent commitment to reasoning and to being reasonable in our orientation to reality, popular culture must find ways of keeping us interested and engaged. It does this by putting “a bear on the beach,” which keeps our attention riveted on the stressor as it distracts us from our need for longer plots and larger patterns. Global security threats and end-time prophecies put us just on the edge of panic (upper extreme), as the glossy photos and celebrity gossip keep us from falling asleep (lower extreme).

It’s not too late for reason. Even faith needs to be clear-sighted and sensible to avoid being hijacked by fear or rendered irrelevant. Good people of faith must be good thinkers as well.

 

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At the Threshold

Anderson: “As we become aware of the social construction of reality – consciously, publicly aware – the boundary erodes between the kind of fiction we call art or literature and the kind of fiction we call reality. History becomes another kind of storytelling, personal and social life becomes another kind of drama.”

Reality is a present mystery – ineffable and inconceivable, yet here-and-now. Always here and now.

“World” is our name for the mental construct that human beings spin like a web over the unnameable mystery. There are many, many worlds – as many as there are individual humans on this planet, busy making up the stories that provide the orientation and context they need to live meaningful lives.

The term “social construction of reality” can be misleading, in the way it suggests that reality is a product of social engineering. Early sociologists employed this term for its obvious impact, exposing the fact that our minds are storytellers and spin-masters, and not passive blank slates or transcendent observers as modernists had believed.

In the interest of clarity, I prefer the term “world” as a reference to this ongoing construction project of the mind. It’s not reality that is socially constructed, but our worlds – our representations of reality, our mental models of it, the myths and theories we make up. Granted, a world is a social construction of reality, but reality itself is not constructed. It is a present mystery, the real presence of mystery, always within our reach yet forever beyond our grasp. It IS – just that. What it is can only be represented, and the moment representation begins worlds come into being.

Postmodernism began with disillusionment, as people slowly (or suddenly) began to realize that our worlds belong to us as their creators. In earlier times, when by military conquest, commercial trade, or missionary outreach a dominant culture would come in contact with a different worldview and way of life, the strange stories and rituals of “those people” were generally dismissed as superstition. The invaders were in possession of the truth. Their myths were not bizarre fictions but the revealed world of god.

Their world was reality; there was no mystery, only meaning.

As a way of appreciating this evolutionary process of disillusionment, we can distinguish between premodern, modern and postmodern stages of cultural development. Rather than as measurable periods of historical time, I’m using these terms to distinguish different states of mind, in this slow realization of our role as meaning-makers and world creators.

In premodern times, human societies existed in relative isolation. Worlds, as constructions of reality, were like canopies of meaning elevated overhead and staked to the ground at the geographical boundaries of tribal territory. Individuals would be born, spend their lifetime, and go to be with the ancestors – all inside and underneath this single coherent world-canopy.

The modern stage began as the edges of this cultural canopy were lifted and attached to poles, allowing a world to be carried or stretched over a larger territory. This was the age of explorers, conquistadors, traders and missionaries, who encountered “those barbarians” and proceeded to exterminate, colonize, or convert them to the truth.

There are still many today who remain fully “illusioned” or entranced in this modern mindset. As Joseph Campbell put it, according to this mindset “myths are other people’s religion.” We alone have the truth. No world-and-reality distinction here. Our world is reality, the way things really are.

Postmodernism, then, is a mindset where this distinction starts to become evident. But more than that, it is accepted as something more than just a transitory feature of our lives. In other words, it’s not just a “philosophical fashion” that characterizes our times, but rather constitutes a transforming breakthrough in our self-understanding as a species.

Postmodernists are not necessarily better or more advanced than modernists, but their disillusionment does tend to promote a humbler attitude in how they hold their worlds against the backdrop of reality. This further translates into greater tolerance, respect, curiosity and understanding when it comes to their regard for the worlds of other people.

The modernist conviction that once motivated true believers to become martyrs or murderers in defense of their truth just doesn’t have the same entrancing power anymore – at least for the waking minority. An appreciation of your world as an illusion, albeit (we hope) a meaningful one, helps take off the pressure of having to fight for validation and supremacy.

Life becomes more freely creative, more interesting, and more fun.

But then there’s that part about taking responsibility for the worlds we create. It’s not all fun and games. After all, meaning is a basic psychological need of human beings. It provides orientation and context in our quest for security, identity and significance. Without meaning a person will fall into a hole of meaninglessness called depression. Down in that hole, nothing seems to matter – because it doesn’t.

Disillusionment – also known as awakening, realization and enlightenment – can be exhilarating at first, but then the “dis” starts to pull at the seams of your illusion and stretch the fibers of your sacred canopy. Not knowing where, or even whether, this unraveling will stop, there is an overwhelming temptation to roll over and go back to sleep.

This explains why the phenomenon of fundamentalism is correlated to the rise of postmodernism. It is its shadow, the dark counterpart of fear, dogmatism and violence that strives to pull us back under the covers. Fundamentalists profess their myths as the supreme truth, even though the primary subject as portrayed in the narratives has never been experienced by anyone.

This is a dangerous time in our history as a species. As we stand together on the cusp of creative change, chances are greater than ever that some of us will resort to desperate measures in their attempt to “save the truth” of their world and way of life. Such convictions hold our higher intelligence captive (as a convict) to deep insecurities that must be acknowledged and transcended.

Just know that there are many more like you – even now waking to the light. Find them. For your sake and theirs, find them.

 

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Holding On and Letting Go

Anderson: “People of power and position are not the only ones who resist threats to a belief system; so do ordinary people who have internalized that belief system and take it to be absolute reality. The collapse of a belief system can be like the end of the world. Even those who are most oppressed by a belief system often fear the loss of it. People can literally cease to know who they are.”

One of the working threads in my current conversation regards (a) world as a human construction of meaning. There are as many “worlds” as there are mentally functioning human beings on this planet, and each individual migrates through numerous world-constructs in an average lifetime.

A world is not reality, but only a representation of reality. It is “made up” of our recurrent thoughts, persistent opinions, personal and family stories, as well as the overarching myths of our culture that can bridge many generations. Inside these enclosures we feel relatively secure, conserve an identity (or several identities), search for significance, and work out our purpose.

Another, but less inclusive term for what we are calling a world is belief system, which tends to take the discussion in a more cognitive direction. Beliefs are judgments and conclusions that nevertheless still require an emotional “boost” to cross any gaps in logic, insufficient evidence, or lack of direct experience. From the root-word meaning “to hold dear,” belief is less about knowledge than commitment.

We are emotionally attached to our judgments about reality. It gets even more complicated when we realize that many of our beliefs are nothing more than emotional commitments to other beliefs. We need them to be right, or else all hell might break loose. At least our worlds might fall apart, which is probably worse.

Anderson makes the point that “ordinary people,” as distinct from those in positions of power and privilege, are just as defensive of the worlds that make their lives meaningful. We could also add those of lesser fortune, who labor and strain under the weight of oppression. If you see yourself as a victim of evil-doing, at least you have an identity equipped with its relevant concerns, coping strategies, aspirations for freedom and “the good life,” along with your own retinue of fellow victims, enemy-oppressors, and occasional benefactors.

The fact is, we need our worlds just as much as our worlds need us to create them. Problems arise when we forget that we’re making it all up and start insisting on our world’s absolute truth. The postmodern discovery is that every world is a project (coming out of us), a construct (built and arranged around us), and a representation (of reality). While our amnesia regarding its origin and status as so much pretense may be adaptive to some degree, our insistence on the absolute truth of our belief systems is where all wars, most divorces, and many mental illnesses likely begin.

After the birth of what I am calling the “postmodern discovery,” many believed that the time had come for humanity to advance beyond the need for belief systems altogether. But that turned out to be just another emotional judgment (belief) of an emerging worldview – another phase in the evolution of worlds, despite the elevated self-consciousness of its perspective.

It seems to me that the real challenge is to occupy our worlds in humble awareness of their nature as fabricated, provisional and necessarily short-sighted views on reality. Psychologically we can’t live without them. But in the interest of our health and longevity as a species, and of the health of our planet, we need some combination of courage and compassion to reach through the emotionally charged boundaries that separate us from each other.

When our worlds do collapse – either completely as in the phase-transitions to a “new mind,” or only partially as we slowly outgrow earlier convictions – the experience can be nothing short of apocalyptic. What had provided security and a place to stand feels as if it is falling away from under our feet. What had provided us with orientation and a sense of direction suddenly comes to pieces above our heads.

Because who we are is so deeply implicated in how we see reality, the breakdown of our world amounts to a loss of identity.

Just as post-theism entails transcending or going beyond the objective existence of the mythological god, so too does this evolutionary moment require that we loosen up and let go of our egos as fixed identities. Such self-transcendence needs to happen if we have any hope of staying in touch with what’s really going on, with the really real, with reality.

Letting go is scary, and it’s not without risk that we release what has given us security for what might lead to fulfillment.

This is where the old guard is typically called in. Tribal authorities, holy tradition, sacred scriptures and the mythological god are all being summoned inĀ  defense of our out-grown worlds. We don’t want to lose what we have, even though it has already lost much of its relevance to our daily lives. So we close our eyes and hunker down, and call it faith.

If we take the step from this fixed position, we want our foot to land on another fixed position – somewhere we can lean into and put our weight, something that’s stable and certain. But both stability and predictability are features of belief systems, not actual experience; of worlds, not reality.

The present mystery of reality is dynamic, and actual experience is much more fluid than our rigid belief systems can comfortably admit. And yet it’s a mark of both maturity and faith when we can climb to the edge of our worlds and leap from what we think we know, into what is beyond belief.

 

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Reality Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Nature of Reality

If you were the only sentient being in this universe, you probably would never become aware of the discrepancy between your worldview and reality-as-it-is. Of course there would be perceptual mistakes, as when the cool oasis in the distance turns out to be only a mirage. But these would amount to minor illusions. Over time you would carry forward your lessons and make the necessary adjustments.

The term “reality” is used pretty loosely, even today when the discrepancy between our personal worlds and what they are meant to represent is finally acknowledged – at least by some. This acknowledgement is one of the marks of our postmodern mind. Human beings are meaning-makers, and the closed webs of meaning that we create – individually and together as cultures – are the worlds we inhabit.

Even one of my conversation partners for this round uses “reality” in reference to our individual and cultural constructions – as in you have your reality and I have mine. Personally I prefer the term “world” when speaking of these constructs of human language, perspective, and meaning. Especially on the level where such constructs serve as more global habitats of meaning.

This saves “reality” as the way things really are, apart from and beyond our constructs. You have your world, I have mine; but there’s still something outside our boxes, so to speak. Besides being fantasies conjured out of the creative nothingness of our imaginations, at least part of our world is meant as a representation of the way things really are. Even if we’re wildly off base – which is probably the case at least some of the time – there remains the present mystery of reality.

Just because we (mis)take our constructions or representations for the way things really are doesn’t mean we should be content to persist in that delusion. If I am fully convinced that the end of history will be crashing in at any moment, this is not my reality. Even as I take it with all seriousness, sell my possessions and abandon civilization for refuge in the desert, reality is what it is. There have been countless examples where delusional prophets were forced to apologize to their followers and review their calculations the following day.

So we live inside worlds of our own making. These worlds may be fairly reliable representations of the way things really are, but they also serve as shelters against the unknown. A happy and productive life would likely be impossible if we had to figure out everything from scratch upon waking each morning. Meaning provides a sense of security.

But this relationship between meaning and security isn’t exactly reciprocal, in that more security doesn’t always support a more meaningful life. In fact, as we lock ourselves up inside our personal and cultural worlds, grateful for what is familiar, stable and certain, the air in there quickly goes stale. Because meaning seems to be a function of relevance, reference and transcendence, it is diminished to the degree that our awareness shrinks to the dimensions of our mental boxes. Smaller boxes feel more secure, but they are less meaningful.

The authors I will be reading and reflecting on are definitely “outside the box,” as we say.

DeMello

Anthony De Mello (Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, 1990) was a Jesuit priest whose life and writings were a lively dialogue with Oriental spirituality. Based on retreat talks he gave on mindfulness, freedom and happiness, this book takes a humorous yet revolutionary tour through what it means to be truly aware.

 

Anderson

 

Walter Truett Anderson (Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, 1990) wrote one of the definitive popular guides to postmodernism. In that book, he helps us become more self-consciously aware of our role as creators of the worlds we inhabit. The relationship of our brain to language, and of the constructs of language to the perennial question of truth are considered.

Robinson

 

John A.T. Robinson (Truth is Two-Eyed, 1979) was the DeanĀ  of Trinity College in Cambridge, England. He challenged current thought on matters of theology, especially the way Christian orthodoxy has made god into an article of doctrine and forgotten God as spiritual Presence. The “two eyes” in Robinson’s title represent Oriental and Western approaches to truth.

 

I can already imagine a conversation among these three, where De Mello investigates the inner-psychological groundwork of awareness, Anderson interrogates the constructions of reality that spring up from there, and Robinson explores how very different world-constructions can challenge and enrich each other in healthy dialogue.

Throughout my reading and reflections on passages from these authors, I want to carry forward from my previous Conversations the insight that reality is a present mystery. However we frame it up, whatever filters we use to make it useful to our needs, the nature of reality is such that it is both within us as the ground of our being and beyond us as the universe to which we belong.

You are invited to join the conversation as well. Read along with me and share your insights by leaving comments along the way.

 

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