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The Problem With God

A friend in the Wisdom Circle I attend asked an important question recently: “How is it that the Religious Right can stand behind Donald Trump and what he’s doing to our country?”

For an answer, let’s further ask what the Religious Right is all about. Also known as the political arm of Evangelical Christianity, the Religious Right is an ultra-conservative faction which has historically – even though its “history” is in fact quite shallow – resisted secular modernity by harking back to a fictional “New Testament Church” when the Christian religion was morally, doctrinally, and spiritually pure.

Since that time, Evangelicals claim, the institutional Church has struggled to keep itself from compromising with “the world,” which is morally, doctrinally, and spiritually impure – damned, in fact.

As Western culture grew increasingly pluralistic, the only effective way of preserving its soul was to shrink the horizon of true Christian identity, defined by just a small set of dogmatic “fundamentals.” Over time, this horizon was identified increasingly with the middle class, and even more with middle-aged true believers, particularly middle-aged white men.

Ultra-conservatism, or fundamentalism of any kind, is thus a defensive reaction to changes around us that make us feel threatened and insecure. At its base is fear. Internally, however, this deeper anxiety is converted into resentment and channeled outwardly as anger, aggression, and violence.

A critical mechanism in this conversion of anxiety into aggression is the Religious Right’s construct of god.

The god of fundamentalism is authoritarian, uncompromising, offended by our sin, and vindictive in his prescription of “redemptive violence” (René Girard, Walter Wink, William Herzog II) and vicarious death as necessary for salvation. We can find him throughout the biblical writings, in both Old and New Testaments. This god has his “chosen people,” a “faithful remnant” and “righteous few” who obediently use every means to preserve their purity against the onslaughts of religious idolatry, cultural diversity, social change, scientific progress and secular globalization.

In other words, the Religious Right didn’t just make this god up. He was ready-made in the background of Judeo-Christian mythology.

It needs to be said, however, that other constructs of god can be found in the Bible as well. A minority report, comparatively speaking, conceived of god as supremely benevolent, universally compassionate, and unconditionally forgiving. This is the god sponsored by some of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) and proclaimed by Jesus to be the one heavenly father of all nations, of the just and unjust alike.

Jesus, particularly, was intent on breaking down the walls of separation, and he denounced the Religious Right of his day (known as Pharisees) as deadly vipers and whitewashed tombs.

If we should set these two gods of the Bible side-by-side, we would have to draw one of two conclusions. Either there are (at least) two biblical gods, or else the god of the Bible is bi-polar, in the way he swings wildly between grace and aggression, forgiveness and vengeance, radical inclusion and everlasting excommunication.

The truth of the matter is probably that both conclusions are correct: there are as many constructs of god in the Bible as there are authors and communities represented in its writings. And any god that humans construct will inevitably reflect their strange tendency as a species toward wide irrational mood swings and compulsive behavior.

So, was the authoritarian angry god of the Religious Right just made up one day thousands of years ago by some insecure, embittered, and self-righteous middle-aged white guy? Or was that guy taken in by an ideology that seemed to speak directly to his worst fears, promising salvation through a renunciation of the world, a “holy war” against god’s enemies, and a final rescue to a paradise beyond the confusing grayscale of this life?

That’s a chicken-and-egg puzzle we probably can’t solve.

This entire meditation so far is really a post-theistic exercise in mythological meta-analysis. It has pushed beyond the stalemate of theism and atheism, getting past the question of god’s literal (or factual) existence in the interest of exploring his literary (and metaphorical) meaning. Even a humble theist will admit that the deepest mystery of being, which we objectify and personify under the guise of one god or another, eludes our mind’s grasp and most certainly transcends the boxes of any orthodoxy.

Coming back to my friend’s question, today’s Religious Right is standing behind Donald Trump simply because he is so much like the authoritarian god who stands behind them. His rhetoric of discrimination, his politics of inequality, and his brazenly immoral behavior are untouchable because he is their champion and only hope for an America that is safe again, pure again, and great again.

Their absolute devotion actually blinds them to his blatant violations of basic human rights and spiritual values. An aggressive, abusive, self-righteous, and glory-seeking megalomaniac is god’s man for the job.

By removing the immigrants who have infested our country, closing down every outlet of liberal democracy, and putting all enemies under our feet, we will finally fulfill our national destiny as god’s supreme City on a Hill.

When anxiety is so deep and pervasive, shrinking our horizon of membership so as to exclude everyone who is different and disagrees with us is one way – but it’s not a way through. To quote saint Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Both for ourselves and for everyone around us.

The god standing behind the Religious Right and the president they stand behind are one and the same. They are dangerous, but their power is siphoned out of our collective imagination. We can imagine better gods, better leaders, and a nation much better than what we are today.

 
 

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Fuel, Food, and Faith: A Meditation on Our Human Future

fuel_food_faithAs our presidential candidates lay out their visions and identify what they believe are the major issues on our national and global horizons, I thought I would publish a short list of my own. Obviously there are many, many things we could be doing differently – and many different things we probably should be doing – as we look to the future and contemplate the big picture of where we are headed. My list holds just three, but I think that together they constitute an axis for a revolution of creative change.

Fuel

The vast majority of us who enjoy the convenience of flipping switches or turning keys and having power delivered instantly where we need it, don’t typically worry about the source, supply, purity, and sustainability of the energy we use – that is, until something interrupts on our demand. It’s one of those things that make it possible for just about everything else to operate, and it’s these many things (devices, tools, machines, vehicles) that get our attention when they stop working. But where the power comes from (source), how much of it is available (supply), to what degree its production and use generates pollutants (purity), and how long its supply can be expected to last (sustainability) – such questions only rarely cross our mind.

Most of the machines we have come to depend on around the globe are powered by fossil fuels, combustible material derived from the remains of former living things. Fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) are typically deep underground, which means that they are subject to property and access rights, and require expensive equipment to reach them. And who owns the land? Not the homeless poor or working classes. Governments and wealthy corporations – those who make the laws and lobby for special exceptions – coexist as a system and conspire together in shaping the economy in service to their interests.

Inevitably, the governing and wealthy classes prefer things to stay the same (hence they are conservative as a rule), since the way things are supports their privilege and control. Despite the fact that fossil fuels are a limited fuel source and highly toxic to the atmosphere and environment, production continues unabated. In fact, new stores are being drilled and mined to meet the growing worldwide demand. What are we supposed to do, stop driving our cars, lighting our homes, or pull the plug on manufacturing? The current energy grid is designed to power our many machines, and more machines are being manufactured every day, and these depend on the grid to work.

Alternative fuels – e.g., solar, wind, wave, and hydrogen – represent a virtually infinite source, widely available, perfectly clean, and sustainable far into the future. Already today, the technology exists for harnessing energy from the sun and powering our homes, neighborhoods, even entire cities. There is no more plentiful energy supply, available from nearly every location on Earth. Thankfully this technology is making it to the market, however slowly, partly through the efforts of fossil-fuel corporations that are expanding their production portfolios, and partly despite the best effort of others to stop it. A reduction in consumer use (driving less, using public transportation, biking and walking when we can), along with a commitment to purchase cleaner technologies and invest in the companies developing them, is critical to our big-picture and long-term future.

Food

Earth is an incredibly fertile and fruitful planet, and life has been able to adapt and evolve in its oceans, forests, deserts, tundra, prairies, mountains, marshes, lakes and streams. Even at our present population size of 7 billion, the earth’s bounty is more than sufficient to feed all of us. The problem, once again, is not really in the short supply of what we need, but in the political and commercial systems that prevent nutritious food (and clean water) from getting to those who need it.

The privileged classes (and the government their money buys) exploit and exhaust Earth’s food resources, supercharging the soil with fertilizers as they sterilize it with pesticides and herbicides. As a consequence of such practices, the mass yield at harvest increases dramatically while its nutritional value plummets. As huge amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas) are released into the atmosphere from livestock, these chemical toxins leech into the groundwater and lace our fruits, grains, and vegetables, slowly sickening us with cancers and other so-called auto-immune diseases.

The poor quality of highly processed and modified foods means that we have to eat more as we continue to fall below our nutritional needs. Eating more, of course, involves taking in more calories, and excessive calorie intake leads to weight gain, metabolic fatigue and dysfunction, and ultimately to diabetes and other disease processes. A growing interest in organic farming and whole foods is a promising trend, but a simultaneous return (think of it as a homecoming) to the natural intelligence of our body and its deep preference for nutritious and energy-rich foods will be necessary as well.

Faith

Other members in my weekly Wisdom Circle gathering are reasonably suspicious of the term ‘faith’, and they guard against what they anticipate will be my attempts to pull them back into the religions they left behind. It’s critically important to distinguish the doctrinal orthodoxy or belief system of a religion from the question of whether and to what degree an individual is able to relax into being and trust in the provident nature of reality.

I’m not speaking of Providence in the old-style Puritan sense, referring to the watchful protection and abundant provision of a god above or ahead of us. Instead, the provident nature of reality is based on the straightforward and obvious perception that our life, consciousness, creativity, and aspirations are not separate from the universe but manifestations of it. You and I are living expressions of a provident reality, as evidenced in the fact that its 14-billion-year process has brought about the conditions (on this planet, at least) for us to evolve and flourish, as part of a great community of life.

The faith I’m speaking of is not the property of any religion and has nothing to do with belief in god. As an inner release to the grounding mystery of being, faith opens us to existence and is our surrender to the deeper and larger process moving through us. Other words, such as oneness, communion, presence, grace, and peace, serve equally well – or poorly, insofar as the mystery they name is ineffable. When faith is active, we enjoy an inner peace and can reach out without a need to grasp, control, or manipulate others and the world around us. We can instead be present, attentive, mindful, caring, and generous.

When faith is inactive or missing, however, a profound dis-ease troubles us. We feel unsupported by reality, which in turn compels us to attach ourselves to anyone and anything (including ideologies) that promises some reassurance, relief, or escape. Of course, nothing outside us can compensate for inner insecurity. When we were infants, the intimate connection between safety and nourishment that we experienced in the nursing embrace perhaps encouraged a strong correlation in our minds between faith and food. This cross-wiring of our nervous system explains why we often seek comfort more than real nourishment in what we eat, and why the marketing of ‘comfort food’ is so wildly successful in our Age of Anxiety.


My axis of terms – Fuel, Food, and Faith – is arranged in that order to confirm what should be obvious to us all. If we can’t move to cleaner energy sources and break free of our dependency on fossil fuels, our planet’s warming climate will turn soil to sand, shrinking the area of tillable land worldwide. If we can’t farm food that is wholesome and nutritious, we will need to eat more and more of it, compromising the global supply and bringing upon ourselves a growing number of health complications. But if we can’t transform the politics that drive the decisions and divide us along lines of wealth, race, gender, and creed, the brighter future we hope for may be out of reach.

Our politics will change as people change, as we learn how to cultivate inner peace. The future of humanity starts now, with you and me.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Fully Present

Fully PresentIn the Wisdom Circle I’m part of, conversation flows along tangents into topics that interest us or challenge our pursuit of a relevant secular spirituality. Whatever arena we wander into, it’s not just a new perspective we’re after, but some kind of meaningful and responsible course of action. Given such-and-such, what can we do in the interest of greater honesty, integrity, and effectiveness? Our objective in every case is to clarify how a fully engaged spirituality might affect or transform the way we live in this world.

I am reminded of the diagnostic matrix used in conventional psychotherapy for identifying and treating a client’s peculiar form of suffering. Typically a strong and overwhelming feeling of unhappiness is what first motivates an individual to seek professional help, and it’s here that interpretation begins. And as such feeling will commonly exert either a suppressive or compulsive effect on behavior, sapping one’s drive or spurring conduct that only adds to the problem, any counselor who’s paying attention will also look carefully at what the client is doing.

After the linkage between feeling and behavior has been established, the task of therapy becomes one of bringing to light the associated thoughts and beliefs which have the client locked in a mindset that is perhaps irrational, unrealistic, juvenile, or delusional. As thinking provides an overlay of commentary on suffering – adding justification, self-judgment, conspiracy theories, or just more confusion to the pain – it is necessary to get this storyteller out of the closet and into the light of interrogation. It is hoped that by changing up the mental script a client will begin to feel better about things, start acting differently, and thereafter produce more positive results.

In the diagram above, a red line from feeling to doing represents that irresistible impulse to act in ways that perpetuate or amplify an individual’s suffering. The curved green line is meant to illustrate that elevation into thinking which will expose the faulty logic and distorted beliefs keeping it all in play. Higher elevation into thinking involves the individual in more rational reflection and discrimination, where the driving narrative of one’s personal myth can be analyzed, updated, and strategically modified.

In our Western psychology of mental health, these three correlates – feeling, doing, and thinking – form the ‘holy trinity’ of therapy. The better therapies work with all three in a more or less balanced way. Nevertheless, each one has also been favored over the others in the major schools of medicinal (feeling), behavioral (doing), and cognitive (thinking) therapy. Competition among these schools has prompted research into which modality is superior, or what combination of factors represents our magic door to mental health.

Interestingly enough, the research has shown all of them to be about equally effective, and maybe the results improve a little when they are combined in some way. But ‘effective’ here doesn’t mean significantly effective. In fact, they perform just slightly better than placebo and often come with side-effects no one wants. Research consistently bears out the greater influence of another factor, quite apart from the specific treatment protocol: The quality of relationship between therapist and client (called the therapeutic alliance) proves to be the real magic door. Any why is that?

In my diagram, the deeper essence of this fourth factor is identified as the individual’s sense of grounding in a reality that is supportive and provident. Obviously, a therapist (or anyone else) who is welcoming, trustworthy, empathetic, insightful, and encouraging will demonstrate such a reality to the client. The ‘alliance’ part of this involves an individual in gradually calming down, finding ground, getting centered, and opening up to the other person. The more open a client becomes, the more confirmation he or she receives that reality is provident and supportive, which in turn encourages an even deeper release and a larger horizon of faith. This is the dimension of being (be).

This factor of grounding offers a fourth correlate in a more complete picture of mental health and happiness. Changing how we think with talk therapy, how we feel with drug therapy, and/or what we do with behavior therapy is not enough. I have drawn lines from each of these three to the grounding mystery within, because it’s only as they are internally grounded that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be genuinely creative. Otherwise, insecurity will tend to hijack our faculties and generate a delusion of our separateness (isolated, exposed, defensive, critical, judgmental, etc.) – where true happiness is impossible.

You’ll notice that the line between think and be is actually an arrow, from the latter to the former. Because thinking is the mental activity by which we construct meaning and build out a worldview, it is vitally important that its product (i.e., our perspective on and orientation in reality) is properly grounded in the way things really are.

No doubt this reveals my cognitive bias, but enough of my own experience and observation of others has convinced me that until our thinking is reality-oriented and the meaning we construct is sufficiently clear-sighted to acknowledge that the grounding mystery cannot be captured in words or theories, we will tend to become prisoners of our own convictions and fall that much farther out of touch. By the time that happens, how we feel and what we do have been commandeered by a distorted, outdated, and dogmatic orthodoxy.

A human being is a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment. Ideally we live our lives as passionate and reasonable people, growing ever more proficient in the skills that help us be successful individuals, partners, parents, community members, and citizens.

The big question has to do with the degree in which we have realized our full potential, evolved our consciousness, and found our way back to the place it all begins, right here and now.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in The Creative Life

 

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The Irenic Revolution

OneMy children are in their twenties now and making their way into college degrees, careers, and relationships that will hopefully support happy and fulfilled lives. They are kind, creative, and fun-loving kids who worry sometimes about drifting out of touch with classmates and childhood friends as they pursue their dreams.

One type of silent trauma we all struggle through at this time in life is a deepening sense of being on our own in the world. A system that supported and moved us along for so many years now expects us to settle into jobs, manage households, and occupy tax brackets that will help turn the wheel for others coming up behind us.

One concern of my kids has to do with finding a place where they can connect with others their age and explore, in community, the meaning of life. Churches these days are either too dogmatic and moralistic, telling people what to believe and how to behave, or else equally stuck in complacency where the question to which “Jesus is the answer” has long been forgotten. The failure of Christian orthodoxy to keep up and stay relevant with contemporary science, the current secular scene, and the irreverent curiosity of young people in their “individuative-reflective” stage of faith (James Fowler), makes it unattractive – even offensive – as an option.

What’s more, my kids and many other young people who may have grown up under the tutelage of theistic religion are no longer willing to buy into the idea of a god ‘out there’ who is watching over the world, intervening on our behalf, and waiting for our saved souls on the other side of this mortal life. The metaphysical backdrop that may have once given context to a mythology of ups and downs, incarnations and ascensions, virgin births and miraculous resurrections, garden paradises and a home in heaven, no longer fits with what we know about the universe and the adventure of life on our planet.

But they’re not ready to declare themselves ‘atheists’, either. Somehow the argument over whether or not god exists seems unimportant to them. If a literal deity (the god ‘up there’) doesn’t make sense in light of contemporary science, and if the old dualisms of body and soul, matter and spirit, insiders and outsiders no longer resonate with our current world picture, are we left only with the responsible choice of tossing it all aside and leaving religion behind?

In the heat of their reaction, many have not taken a moment to consider the possibility that god might be a literary being and not a literal one at all, and that the sacred stories (myths) where this literary figure lives might still have metaphorical significance, even as the backdrop of an archaic metaphysics has become incredible to us.

Because young adults today are separated from their peer circles by the obligation of getting on with their lives, it is common for them to feel isolated, but also aberrant and alone in their ordeal. If churches and even parachurch organizations are not providing welcome to their questions, doubts, and ‘heretical’ interests, where can they turn? Perhaps they are indeed exceptional, in the sense that no one really shares their struggle or can understand what they’re going through.

And that’s where I tell my kids: You are not alone. In fact, you are part of a worldwide majority of young people who happen to believe, quite mistakenly, that they are lone delinquents of their dominant cultures. As the regulated and gridlocked world of adult life subjects you to a shakedown of your creative intelligence and free-ranging curiosity, this is your opportunity to reach out and find each other. CircleWhat the world needs now is an irenic revolution, inspired and led by young people who want to transcend differences and explore our common ground as human beings. In communities dedicated to the shared pursuit of peace and understanding, they will help move spirituality outside the boxes of orthodoxy and atheism, into a post-theistic future. Together they will foment tolerance, loving-kindness, honest dialogue, and radical responsibility. Instead of terrorists who seek to generate anxiety, they will be irenists (from the Greek irene, peace) who cultivate a deep center of calm presence, inner strength, and creative authority. Their mission in the world will be to wage peace in every quarter until every person on this planet is fearless and free.NetworkI am part of such a gathering which meets every week to talk about the concerns, challenges, and opportunities we daily face as human beings. We call ourselves a “wisdom circle,” not because we’re so smart or have all the answers, but to remind us of our primary task, which is to listen and learn from one another as we seek to live by the principles of wisdom. We understand these principles as guiding insights into the nature of genuine community, where individuality is respected, creativity is celebrated, empathy is nurtured, and unity (not always agreement!) is our highest aspiration.Mega NetworkOur wisdom circle has no ambitions of growing our numbers to the point where we exceed the seating capacity of our homes. We would never allow our gathering to become so large that we could no longer arrange ourselves in a circle, but instead have to sit in rows (like church pews). The point is to look at the faces of each other, to listen to each other, learn from each other, and leap together in the consilient experience that is community.

One question that soon comes up is, What should we talk about? Is the topic of conversation merely a roulette wheel of whatever somebody wants to discuss? Sometimes. More often, however, the dialogue gets started around a recent blog post of mine. (It doesn’t stay on the topic necessarily, but sidetracks can be unexpectedly fruitful as well.) My “tracts of revolution” blog is a library of reflections on such topics as spirituality, philosophy, science, the brain, psychology, education, religion, post-theism, the new humanism, mysticism, ethics, favorite authors, and current events – all sharing the golden thread of my general theme, which is ‘exploring creative change’.

Why don’t we – or why don’t you, reader – find a few others who want to be in dialogue over things that really matter? Commit to gathering weekly. Set up a rotating hosting schedule; brew some coffee, spread a table, open a bottle of wine. Decide on a topic; or choose a blog post, share the link, and ask individuals to read it beforehand. Remember that consensus or agreement is not the purpose of a wisdom circle, and I certainly would not want my views and conclusions to become some kind of orthodoxy. PeaceThe purpose is to become a community, because community is why we’re here. We need to start thinking like the universe and living as one.

Join the irenic revolution.

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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