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Romancing the Inner Child

Jesus is said to have held up the model of a child in helping his audience appreciate what is required to “enter the kingdom of God,” by which he did not mean an afterlife in heaven but the liberated life here and now. Preachers have been exhorting their congregations to be like children ever since, which turns out not to be such good advice after all.

The misunderstanding has to do with the difference between being childlike and acting childish. Jesus was elevating the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity: engaging with life in this way keeps us present to what’s really going on. On the other hand, when we behave childishly we are decidedly not present to the mystery of the moment, but rather disengaged and spinning neurotically inside ourselves.

Our Western romance of childhood regards it as a time of enchantment, freewheeling fantasy, and simple innocence. Growing up caused our disenchantment and introduced us to the world of adult preoccupations, not to mention the moral ambiguity we often find ourselves in. (We’ll come back to that in a bit.)

In many of us there is a longing to return to that idyllic state, and perhaps not a few Christians regard our getting there a precondition of salvation itself (cf., the saying of Jesus).

To put things in perspective, my diagram illustrates three ‘dimensions’ of human psychology. Our Animal Nature is where psychology is rooted in biology and the sentient organism of our body. At the other end of the continuum is our Higher Self where psychology opens toward self-actualization and ‘unity consciousness’ (i.e., our sense of All-as-One). The development into maturity proceeds through a third dimension, where the personality individuates upon a separate center of self-conscious identity – the “I” (Latin ego) from which we take a uniquely personal perspective on things.

This third dimension of ego consciousness is strategically important to the awakening of our Higher Self, as it is from the vantage point of its center that we are enabled to look ‘down’ (or inward) to the grounding mystery of being, and ‘up’ (or outward) to the prospect of genuine community. The distinction of these two ‘poles’ of the continuum of consciousness – a ground within that simply is and a community beyond that only might be – is necessary to keep in mind, as our successful transit will depend on how well things go with ego formation.

For it to go well, each of us needs to achieve ego strength, which isn’t really an individual achievement so much as the outcome of a larger conspiracy of other social agents and forces, like our mother, father, other taller powers, siblings and peers. When this conspiracy is provident, our subjective need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy is adequately met, resulting in a personality that is stable, balanced, and unified under an executive center of identity (or ego).

As we continue our growth into maturity, our centered personality gradually takes for itself the responsibility of constructing its own ‘habitat of meaning’ or personal world. Now the story of who we are (i.e., our personal myth) is ours to determine, at least to some extent, and we have full authorial rights. This is what I mean by creative authority.

With a healthy individuated identity in place, possessed of ego strength and creative authority, we can choose to ‘drop’ from this center and into the grounding mystery within, or ‘leap’ from it in the interest of connecting in genuine community.

Either move depends on an ability to get over ourselves, which in turn is a function of that emotional complex in our personality that was our primary mode of engaging with reality in those early years, but which is now our Inner Child.

When things have gone well for us, the childlike virtues of faith, wonder, and curiosity continue to orient and inspire our adult life. We can surrender ourselves in existential trust, behold the present mystery of reality in wide-eyed astonishment, and explore its myriad features with an insatiable desire to understand.

Such virtues are at the heart of not only healthy religion, but of our best science and art as well. We are less prone to confuse our constructs of goodness, truth, and beauty with the mystery that is beyond names and forms. Instead, they can serve as symbols and guidelines leading us deeper into that mystery where All is One.

But if our early environment as actual children did not support our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy, we devised ways of still getting at least some of what we needed in spite of the circumstances. A profound insecurity made us neurotically self-centered and motivated our manipulation of others for the sake of getting what we needed. For a while perhaps, it worked – but never entirely or for very long.

These childish stratagems of behavior: pitching tantrums, sulking under the covers, telling lies, intimidating our rivals, cheating the system – whatever it takes to get what we want (“Trumpence”) – are now tucked away in the repertoire of our Inner Child. Whenever our insecurity gets poked, triggered, or hooked, our adult Higher Self gets pushed offline and this emotional terrorist takes over.

This is the part of us that actually prevents our entrance to the kingdom of God. When we are in this childish mode, not only is our own grounding mystery inaccessible to us, but genuine community is an utter impossibility. Indeed, we have become its diabolical adversary.

Not really if, but to the degree that we have this diabolical Inner Child inside us just waiting to get poked, it is of critical importance that we give sufficient time and mindful practice to the activation of our Higher Self. Scolding, blaming, shaming, and punishing ourselves and each other will only keep us stuck in the neurotic spiral.

To make progress on the path, we need to remind ourselves – and occasionally be reminded – that it’s not all about us.

 

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The Lullaby of Belief

Look out into the galaxies, into a seemingly infinite darkness splashed and speckled with nebulae and stars beyond number. Cosmologists estimate that our universe is somewhere between 12 and 15 billion years old, born from an energy burst in which the primary structures of matter were forged and then flung, stretching the horizon of space-time as it expanded. I read recently that if you were to take two straight pins, hold them out at arms length and cross them together, the point of their intersection would conceal as many as 1,500 galaxies, each galaxy home to many billions of stars, and many of these stars suns to their own planets.

SpaceWhere are you in this cosmic context? Such speculation can make you feel insignificant, until you realize that all of this has somehow worked together, over all those eons and across all that distance, to be aware of itself in you. Scientists investigate the conditions that must have obtained for life first to emerge on our planet. What were the chances that the oxygen excreted as waste by primordial single-celled organisms would eventually inflate an atmospheric dome where aerobic symbians and the teeming populations of animal life would flourish? Not very great. In fact, given the narrow margins and multiple variables that make Earth hospitable to life, your existence is something of a fluke.

If you were to take a mystical slant on this mystery rather than a scientific one, you might be able to look down into yourself, deep into your biology, through helical strands of organic chemistry and beneath the table of elements, poke your head through the space-time fabric of energy strings and quantum fields, and eventually come to an astonished realization that this present mystery of reality is provident. Whatever it is (and there really is no saying), this mystery is the very ground of your being, the life-spring and gracious support of all that you are.

It is a popular mistake to think of the soul as a metaphysical resident riding patiently inside the mortal vehicle of the body – popular not only in being widespread across the religions, but also because it provides reassurance to the neurotic ego (impostor of the soul) that it will not die but live forever. For lack of empirical evidence, science has generally dismissed this notion of the soul as a carryover of superstition or a projection of wishful thinking. And so it should, not in order to pursue its “atheistic agenda” but rather because this popular belief is neither scientifically substantiated nor spiritually respectable.

What we call “body” and “soul” are nothing more (or less!) than the outward and inward orientations of  awareness. Your body isn’t just a piece of meat, and your soul isn’t who you really are. Who you are is your ego – this socially constructed center of identity that puts on and takes off the variety of roles your tribe has programmed you to play (though you quickly forgot you were pretending to “be someone”). This skill in wardrobe change is likely what encouraged the view of the body as merely another disguise, the final costume to be dropped at the end of this earthly life.

brainYour body – just listen to how this comes off sounding like a possession of some sort! – is your place in the sensory-physical marvel of our universe. Looking up into the night sky, it is the complex aperture of your living eye that takes in the faint twinkling lights from across the black vault of outer space. An optic nerve carries these impulses to the visual centers in your brain where they are transmitted along networks of nerve cells, propagated through ion-charged channels, and float as chemical messages across 100 billion twinkling lights of inner space.

The material substance of your body derives as stardust from that primeval energy burst some 14 billion years ago. Your genetic line traces deep into the evolution of life, down through its very recent human expression and back into the trees, to the amphibian marsh, and out into the sparkling sea where an auspicious arrangement of organic chemistry first began to capture sunlight and store it away. Primordial sea salt still runs in your blood and conducts electricity through your cells.

Your soul isn’t just along for the ride. It is where consciousness breaks past the attachments and defenses of ego, descends through longer and more relaxed frequencies of awareness, until it dissolves entirely into the provident support of its own ground. We could call it your essential self (from esse, being), but only if we were careful not to separate it from the living organism of your body. The body and its realm (the sensory-physical universe) is properly regarded as trans-personal, beyond (and around) the ego-centered personality, while the soul and its realm (the intuitive-mystical ground) is entero-personal, within (and beneath).

Cycle of BeliefScience and spirituality are thus two ways we touch the present mystery of reality, outwardly and inwardly. Neither mode of experience is terribly interested in what it means. Meaning comes later; or more precisely, it is subsequently constructed as we try to make sense of our experience. In the spontaneous moment of engagement with reality, we are typically transfixed in wonder, not thinking about it but somehow aware of it all at once. As we stand under the starry canopy or surrender deeply to being, our wonder turns into a quest for our place in it.

Our quest for meaning is articulated in questions, about who we are, how it began, where it’s going, and (perhaps most urgent of all) why we are here. These questions are invitations to answers – meditations, stories, and theories that bend the outgoing line of inquiry back like a boomerang to the contemplative mind. Answers give us the orientation we seek, serving to validate our questions and provide conclusions we can use to build out the larger meaning of our life.

Once a conclusion has been reached, the original urgency of our questions as well as the inspiration of our quest effectively come to an end. As the word suggests, a conclusion is a closure, a period to silence the question mark. Once a conclusion is settled on, our mind uses it as foundation and scaffolding to higher-order questions – and so on we go.

If we were paying attention we’d take into account the various ways that the present mystery of reality – the way things really are – spills over the rim of our neat conclusions. Since meaning is a mental construct and not a property of reality itself, a wider and deeper exposure to life requires stronger commitment to our conclusions, a degree of emotional investment in their truth that can hold them in place despite serious erosion of their credibility. A conclusion that persists only (or mostly) because we need it to be true is called a belief.

Both science and spirituality are committed to investigative methods that subject belief to the scrutiny of actual experience, whether by means of controlled experiments or meditative disciplines. In that zone between, however, where the tribe, its deity, and the socially conditioned ego conspire to promote and defend our beliefs, meaning becomes fairly quickly outdated. The lack of experiential support and this rapid recession of relevance then call for more commitment to keep everything in place, until we reach the point where our emotional dependency on things being just this way makes us forget that we have been pretending all along.

Over time – years and decades for the individual, generations and centuries for the tribe – beliefs slip out of sight and gradually become the unconscious assumptions of our worldview. Instead of the fresh answers to questions they once were or the emotional investments they later became, these assumptions are now carried along (from sumere, to take up) as the mental filter that screens out not only contradictions and discrepancies to what we believe, but the present mystery of reality itself.

When religion lost its roots in mystical experience and the spiritual reflex of wonder, its ostensible purpose was altered, from waking human nature to the grandeur of existence and our evolutionary ideal as a species, to perpetuating former revelations and keeping believers comfortably asleep. What probably started as a celebration of existence and communal participation in the cycle of life and death eventually became a bastion of security and a program for getting out alive. Today its deepest assumptions are grossly incompatible with the present discoveries of science and spirituality, and its convictions – where emotional commitment to belief is so extreme as to make the mind a prisoner (convict) to its own absurdites – are pushing us to the brink of self-destruction.

The way forward begins right where we are. It is time to wake up.

 

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Life in Three Dimensions

A human being is intended to live in three dimensions. I’m not referring to the three dimensions of ordinary space, and by “intended” I’m not suggesting that someone out there (i.e., god) has designed us with this specifically in mind. More along the lines of the genetic entelechy (inner aim) that drives and guides a living thing toward the ideal of maturity, my theory is that the individual develops – and our species is evolving – into a three-dimensional life according to the entelechy of our human nature.

So what are the three dimensions? Let’s start with life in one dimension. One-dimensional life is driven purely by unconscious instinct and guided by the urges and reflexes that keep an organism connected to the life-supply. I’ll name this the “elementary” dimension as it concerns what the organism of our body needs to stay alive and grow. It is basic and necessary and doesn’t require us to think, choose, or make decisions. Thankfully, you don’t have to decide when to breathe or how you will digest your food. It’s all taken care of automatically by the unconscious code in your cells, glands, and organs.

A human being has an animal nature, which by definition anchors us firmly in the elementary dimension of life. Your body is constantly seeking (though unconsciously, that is, below your conscious attention or control) situations where your biological needs are satisfied. I’ll call the general condition where these needs are connected to the life-supply security (‘S’ in the diagram below).

When you were still in the womb, and especially just after you were born, your nervous system was picking up signals and forming an internal impression regarding the provident nature of your environment. To the degree that its basic needs were met, your body established an internal state of security – a visceral (gut-level) sense that reality is safe, supportive, and favorable.

Generally speaking, wombs are more secure environments than the space outside the womb, but every human being has to undergo this “fall from paradise” and hopefully reestablish connection to the life-supply. For the rest of your life, your body and nervous system will continuously monitor reality for how providently it supports your needs. Outside of Eden the supply flow from resource to your need fell short of the instantaneous satisfaction that an umbilical cord provides. So already in your first hour after birth the pang of craving and anxiety broke the spell, causing you to cry out for caring attention.3D

If your caregivers were indeed attentive and responded to your cries with the support you needed, then this twinge of insecurity was resolved and you could relax into being. But no parents are perfect, nor could they be there at the very moment when your need declared itself, which is why all of us get hooked by anxiety to some extent. If we have difficulty as adults relaxing into being (or having faith in reality), then it’s not entirely our parents’ fault because they weren’t completely off the hook themselves (double meaning intended).

The quality of attachment to your caregivers can be measured in terms of intimacy (‘I’ in the diagram to the right). This refers to how close, warm, loving and supportive these bonds were, making it an extension of security. Because humans beings have a social instinct, this pursuit of intimacy occupies the critical crossover point between the first and second dimensions of existence. These attachment bonds served as your biological environment outside the womb, and so they are strongly correlated to your sense of security …

But your parents were also the first higher powers (or taller powers) who began the process of installing in your spongy brain the cultural codes of your tribe. This is what it means to say that intimacy is a crossover point between the first and second dimensions, from the elementary to the “ethnic” (referring to a primary human group). A human being cannot survive without social support. Those early intimate relationships not only satisfied your physical needs to some extent, but they also forged the emotional and interpersonal foundations of your identity (ego, or social self).

As you continued to grow into this second dimension, your tribe gradually trained and equipped you to take on specific roles and responsibilities (‘R’ in the diagram above). To the degree that society is a role play, your occupation and performance within this interactive system was a shared investment of everyone involved. You were expected to abide by the rules that dictated exactly where in the play your part came up (what I’m calling occupation) and how you were to carry it out (performance).

Eventually, after numerous roles on a variety of social stages, you were encouraged to take up a more or less permanent occupation in the world of work. As is the case with all your roles, there was a subtle but very persistent pressure on you to identify your self with this work role. The more successful this identification is, the more you are willing to lose and sacrifice on its behalf. Obviously this makes the exit transition of retirement problematic for individuals whose self concept is completely tied to their job or career.

And this is where most of us are currently stuck: in the second dimension, struggling to keep our relationships intact as we daily go to work and trade our creativity for a paycheck. A two-dimensional human being is not a totally fulfilled human being, however, which is why so many of us are frustrated, bored, and chronically depressed. The entelechy of our nature compels us to break through to a third dimension, but our present condition has such a grip on us that the upward thrust of our inner growth slams against the ceiling of the conventional world.

The “grip” I speak of is also known as the consensus trance, the contraction on consciousness exercised by the assumptions, expectations, and concerns of society. A tribe maintains order by its success in managing the mental limits of its members. If you feel stuck in the second dimension, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of your tribe in providing the intoxicants, prescriptions, distractions, amusements, excursions (as long as you come back!) and fluffy retirement package for sticking it out.

Few people wake up from this trance. Sleep-walking through a life of mediocrity is just easy enough to postpone a breakthrough. Religious orthodoxy spritzes a little more hallucinogen into our minds to keep us from causing a disturbance: Just wait. Your reward in heaven will make it all worthwhile.

But there are a few – and you may be one of them – who do wake up. They start by asking questions such as “What’s the point?” “Who really cares?” and “Why should I give away one more day of my life to something that doesn’t really matter?” Or they come to certain conclusions like “I’ve been living inside a mass delusion my whole life!” and “Life is short, and then you die.”  The truth of this is indisputable: you will die someday, and you don’t know when.

It could be tomorrow.

If tomorrow is your last day, how does that awareness affect what you do with today? Quite often when people ask themselves this question they break into a new realm of awareness, into what I’ll name the “existential” dimension of a human being. The fleeting character of life and the role play of society inspire in them a focused quest for the really real. This is the search for authenticity (‘A’ in the diagram”) and an authentic life, for the genuine ground of reality.

Finding it around you and inside yourself does not constitute an easy answer to your quest(ion) after the really real. You will still die, and it could be tomorrow. But now – and that’s a key existential word – you have the opportunity to be spiritually grounded, deeply centered, fully awake, and completely alive. As each moment unfolds like a flower, you draw its beauty and fragrance into every cell. Even if it’s painful and more like a thorn, you can be there and touch reality with open awareness.

The existential dimension of life is therefore about being present and responding in wonder, mindfulness, and gratitude to the present mystery of reality. It doesn’t throw off responsibility, renounce intimacy, or abandon security; but it may motivate you to quit your job for something more creative and true to your soul, leave a relationship that’s abusive or dead, or take a risk for the life you really want.

There are no guarantees.

According to reports, those who have awakened to authentic life don’t often win the affections of their two-dimensional contemporaries. Sometimes they have ended up on the street, in exile, or on a cross. But if you could go back for an interview and ask them whether it was all worth it, to a person they would no doubt respond with something like, “Are you kidding?!”

 

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Standpoints in Reality

My “Conversations” with recent philosophers, theologians, and mystics over the past year have helped me reconsider some terms we commonly use in the investigation of what makes us human. The longer history of higher thought has continuously required us to make distinctions in what we had earlier grasped as “one thing.” The words individuum and atom once named basic and unbreakable units of reality. Now we have created numerous and sometimes competing disciplines for exploring the many parts of the individual and the atom.

Of course, these many parts can become disconnected in our minds, giving rise to further specializations that eventually leave us with so many scattered pieces that we might abandon all hope of ever recapturing a sense of the whole. This “sense of the whole” is what Abraham Heschel meant by wonder. Somehow, after or on the other side of all this mental business of dividing and defining reality into its many pieces, we need to pause and re-member – put them back together so we can appreciate the unity of being.

In that spirit, I want to pause and reflect on that fascinating bit of reality called a human being. And I want to engage this reflection in light of the philosophical commitments of perspectivism, constructivism, evolution theory and metaphysical nonrealism. These were commitments of my Conversation partners, and they are major features of our emerging postmodern worldview – which is still being worked out, by the way.

A human being is a trinity of body, ego and soul. Each of these terms names a particular standpoint in reality, a certain mental location, as it were, where we can take a perspective on things. They are not pieces of a human being – as if one could be removed, lived without, or left behind with a human being still intact. Rather they are aspects or dimensions, distinct ways by which our existence as human beings is expressed and extended into reality.

Standpoints

I’ll begin with the body, for that is where we all begin. Also called our “animal nature,” body is the organismic basis of life. It is a complex organization of vital impulses that I call “urgencies” – urges which have evolved around the need to convert energy from the environment (sunlight, water, nutrients) into biological fuel. As a biological organism, the body has evolved ways of adjusting itself and adapting to its surroundings so as to maximize the efficiency of this energy conversion.

As a dynamic energy converter, the body is an organic intelligence that carefully balances its own internal state with the changing conditions of its environment. This orchestration of maintenance (state) and adjustment (reaction) keeps a human being in providential niches where life can be sustained and supported in growth.

If all that sounds coldly impersonal, that’s because it is. We now know that body precedes the personality and serves as the biological basis to the formation of ego. Ego, then, is a second standpoint in reality, extending out of the body and engaging the world at a higher level. This doesn’t make it better or more essential to what makes us human – although it seems right to acknowledge ego as an evolutionary stage beyond the vital urgencies of the body.

Ego refers to the socially constructed identity of a human being. In order to become “one of us” at the tribal level, each human being must gain sufficient liberation from the urgencies and compulsions of biological life. The tribe helps this to happen, by giving the child an alternative set of directives, which Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality is necessary to the formation of identity, providing a counter-force to the animal instincts and redirecting (but also repressing) these impulses into socially acceptable behavior.

The body’s internal state serves as the subjective reference of the ego’s stand-point in reality. If the body is anxious, the ego says, “I am afraid.” If the body is incited to aggression, the ego says, “I am angry.” If the body is satisfied and content, the ego says, “I am happy.” The “I am” in each case exposes a tendency of the ego to identify with the body’s internal state.

Otherwise, the ego might say something like, “I feel afraid” – which demonstrates an ability to distinguish between a subjective feeling and its underlying biology. This ability to separate affect and behavior provides an important gap that the ego enjoys as freedom – the freedom to choose a course of action (or restraint) above the compulsions of the body’s animal nature. Not everyone is successful arriving at this point, as evidenced in the proliferation of neurotic disorders where the individual gets stuck in overwhelming affect states and compulsive behaviors.

But if – and this is a very big if – an individual is able to gain sufficient liberation from reactive impulses and adequate moral guidance from the tribe, another standpoint in reality is made available. This is what we call the soul.

My challenge here is to understand soul without relying on metaphysical realism. It is becoming less meaningful and relevant these days to regard the soul as some kind of ghost in the body, which can carry on perfectly well (or even better) without the burdens of mortality. Metaphysical realism treats the soul as a thing, separate from and independent of the body. This thing is believed by many to not only survive the body, but to live forever. As we should expect, the tribe has exploited this belief for the purpose of enforcing the moral conformity of the ego.

Just as ego uses the body’s internal state as the basis of identity, soul is a still-higher standpoint in reality where feeling and thought differentiate out of this subjective affect. The ability mentioned earlier, of distinguishing between “I” and “this feeling I have,” is a sure sign of the individual’s transcendence of ego. But again, transcending only means “going beyond,” not leaving behind.

Once lifted above the need to either protect or promote identity (ego), affect can differentiate into even subtler experiences, which have produced great works of art and other cultural achievements of our species. Feeling and thought are the Yin and Yang of the soul, with each creative expression adding spread and height to the growing tree of wisdom. They complement each other, deepening and expanding in creative partnership.

Only ego sees them as opposites, where one must win and the other lose.

Soul joins the dance, where the push and the pull, the rise and fall, the silence and the sound come together, only to spin out again. In that moment – yes, in every moment, but now in full mystical awareness – the soul is in the presence of mystery. This is the place of inspiration (feeling) and enlightenment (thought), where all the “parts” are suddenly seen – in a sustained flash of intuition – as rooted in a common ground, as diverse fruits of a single tree.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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Mystery and Meaning

Heschel: “The delicate balance of mystery and meaning, of reverence and action, has been perilously upset. Our knowledge has been flattened. We see the world in one dimension and treat all problems on the same level. From the fact that we learned how to replace the kerosene lamp, we have deduced that we can replace the mystery of existence. We may be able to experiment with mice and still be unable to experiment with prayer.”

Imagine being in seminary where all the doctrines of your tradition are fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Biblical foundations, the historical creeds, your denominational standards – all of the edges meet together so tightly, so perfectly. You learn how to translate, interpret, expound and preach the truth as it is represented on the face of your jigsaw puzzle. You will be instructed, examined, ordained and installed some day as an “expert” in these things. But in your second year a seminary professor puts Heschel in your hands. Kaboom.

The “delicate balance” that Heschel speaks of here is indeed delicate, but it is far from being in balance – especially now, as the 21st-century planet is more cross-connected and interdependent than ever before. As we are confronted by alternative worldviews and competing perspectives, the temptation is to lock down our own and defend its truth.

Nietzsche comes to mind. All we have is perspective, a view from somewhere; a construct, an untruth, and never truth itself. Heschel’s distinction between “mystery and meaning” is getting at the same idea. Mystery is not what is still unknown, but our experience of the unknowable. Our effort to make sense of this experience and translate what it means – in symbols, metaphors, stories, theories and doctrines – is so much secondary conjecture. We make up a picture, analyze it into pieces, and then spend generations figuring out how the pieces fit together.

I suppose it’s not only the psychological value of the resulting world-picture – giving the illusion of reality as secure, stable and significant – but all the generations of human effort invested in meaning-making that motivates our extreme attachment to the meaning we make. The certainty and control we feel on the inside of our world is preferable to the open and fluid nature of what’s really going on “out there.” Like those children in a sociological research study who played only in the center of an open field but explored the entire property after a fence was installed, we need to feel that chaos and danger are kept out of our cultural playgrounds.

Now on the other side of seminary and after a decade and a half of church ministry, I can sometimes become deeply discouraged over the conviction and arrogance that characterize this world-building enterprise – especially when it gets tied to inerrant holy books and infallible authorities. And it’s not just religion. Every human tradition hands along the conclusions of previous generations, and with each transfer of knowledge our reality gets that much smaller.

In my denomination, Calvinism was smaller and more tightly controlled than Calvin’s own faith had been; Calvin’s orthodoxy was itself a reduction of what the apostle Paul thought and wrote about; and Paul’s doctrinal platform was much more dogmatic than Jesus had been. As scientific discoveries, commercial trade, and world travel were pulling open the boundaries of our known universe, local tribal traditions were systematically closing the Western mind.

We need the balance of mystery and meaning. Without a conscious commitment to return to experience, our explanations become rigid, heavy and increasingly irrelevant over time. The security we feel on the inside of our fabricated and well-defended worlds eventually gives way to a kind of fatalism – the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called it ennui (the “sick and tired” feeling of boredom). Perhaps we can condition and predict the behavior of caged mice because their situation is so similar to our own.

The moment I begin reflecting on my experience, the business of meaning-making is well on its way. I need to make sense of it – and isn’t it interesting that we have an implicit acknowledgement of our role as creators of meaning, in this common phrase about “making sense” of things? I need meaning in order to keep sanity and thrive as a human being. But can I have too much of it?

Experience is the free-flowing spontaneity of life in this present moment. Yes, I need to make sense of it. I will keep working to figure it out, and then configure these figures like so many jigsaw shapes, into a picture that’s meaningful to me. And you’ll keep doing the same.

But let’s make a pact. Every once in a while, we will put down our puzzle pieces and push ourselves away from the card table. We will take a deep breath, release the tension in our mind and muscles, and open our attention to the present mystery.

Here and now. Amen.

 

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Depth Theology

Heschel: “Depth theology seeks to meet the person in moments which are affected by all a person thinks, feels, and acts. It draws upon that which happens to [us] in moments of confrontation with ultimate reality. It is in such moments that decisive insights are born. Some of these insights lend themselves to conceptualization, while others seem to overflow the vessels of our conceptual powers.”

Post-theism asks the question of what comes after (post) theism (belief in god). This is not the modernist campaign of secular atheism, which proceeds on the assumption that we no longer need god to explain the universe and orient our lives. Secular atheism stands in opposition to religious fundamentalism, and the error of both camps is their fixation on god. Does god exist or not?

People are made to feel as if they must take a side on the issue. They are “true believers” if they say yes, “atheist unbelievers” if they say no. Post-theism regards both sides of the debate as caught on a technicality. The mythological god is our own invention, a long historical project (and projection) of our creative imagination, the reflex and representation of our confrontation with ultimate reality.

In other words, we didn’t just “think god up” one day because we were bored or confused or lonely. An experience of the real presence of mystery provoked – and still provokes, from those who haven’t entirely lost their sensitivity to the depths of life – an outpouring of rhythm, dance, song, poetry, imagery, metaphor, myth and the mythological god. All of this was – and is – very spontaneous, wonderfully playful and unselfconscious.

With each additional “layer” of creative output, we have gradually come to see more of ourselves in our art. Now, in this cultural moment of post-theism, a growing number of us are realizing that the mythological god is really the advancing ideal of our own evolving nature. For the longest time, this creative process was so much a part of us that we simply took these impressions of mystery and expressions of meaning as separate from ourselves, existing “out there” and on their own.

In an earlier day we could debate the existence of (our) god or refute the existence of (their) god. Today it’s less important, even a distraction. But there’s more at stake than ever before. Heschel’s “depth theology” helps us look back at the path that has led to where we are, but it also gives us better vision for what still lies ahead. We don’t need to abandon theology (god talk) or throw aside the mythological god. Instead we might learn how to read the depth-soundings of our own spiritual life, treating all this theological labor as so much experiential code rather than supernatural revelation.

Our experience of the present mystery of reality is profound and ineffable. We are in it all the time, but only rarely does our consciousness open sufficiently so as to be overwhelmed by its preciousness, power and depth. In “normal” mode – or what is effectively our trance-state of everyday life – our attention and energy are devoted to the priorities of our tribe. Dutifully we fall in line and roll along the grooves of morality in our pursuit of happiness. But when it does happen, when the box breaks open and reality rushes in, we catch our breath in terror, amazement, ecstasy, or holy recognition.

Human beings are body-and-soul, with an ego squeezing out in the middle and making it seem as if we are bodies with souls, or souls with bodies. In our confrontation with ultimate reality – or I should say, shortly thereafter – we begin to process our experience by feeling its lift and impact, thinking through its meaning and implications, and letting it move us into creative action. Or not, depending on how spiritually grounded and open-minded we are to the mystery; or how flexible, encouraging, and spiritually attuned our tribe is.

Post-theism insists that we still need god; that myth, theology and organized religion retain an important place along the arching line of our evolution as a species. We just see them differently now. We see them as having come out of us, not as dropping out of heaven. We see them as creative expressions of a profound and inexpressible experience – which is a paradox we can celebrate and don’t need to fear.

We see them as suggestions and guideposts of a way still unfolding, intimations of the possible human. Join the movement.

 

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Always Here

Heschel: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul, and a moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

A sign is something that, by definition, points beyond itself. A curved arrow on a sign alongside the road indicates that the road ahead is going to curve, just as a stop sign points to an action required of a driver approaching an intersection. Fever is a sign of infection, and rising interest rates are often a sign of inflation. But what does it mean to speak of our existence as significant? Does it makes sense to think of a human being as pointing beyond itself, whose value is not self-contained but only discovered in an act of self-transcendence?

It may seems as if I’m splitting hairs here, but “meaning” and “significance” are not mere synonyms. If my life is meaningful, then it has value and importance to me. But if my life is significant, then somehow its value is no longer mine or about me but about my place within a larger system of reference. Meaning is “for me” while significance is “from me”; one is a confirmation of relevance, whereas the other is a consecration of existence.

The difference in these two words that are often used interchangeably helps to illuminate the threshold between ego and soul. The shift from personal to spiritual awareness requires a detachment from “me” and “mine,” often described metaphorically as a death followed by an outward leap of full release into a greater reality. So much of religion – all of it, Nietzsche would say – is arranged around the ego and its anxious need for security, identity and immortality. Everything is personal, and even ultimate reality is personified. The final goal is “my” salvation, the rescue of “my” soul from sin and death – a soul that is “mine” and belongs to “me.”

While in professional ministry I was chronically frustrated over the egoism of contemporary Christianity – and it isn’t merely a modern problem but has deep roots in historical Christian orthodoxy. People go to church or leave a church based on its adequacy to their needs as religious consumers. They are looking for convenient services, a fellowship of like-minded believers, and a promise of everlasting life in heaven.

Were they to come across a saying of Jesus on the necessity of dying to find real life or giving up everything for the sake of the New Reality he called God’s kingdom, a flash of insight might cross their faces. But just as quickly it would vanish and their egos would grab onto the “so that” – the reward, the prize, the payoff. What’s in it for me?

In choosing significance over meaning, Heschel is intentionally moving beyond morality and the mythological god, beyond ego and tribal orthodoxy. Heschel’s God is clearly something other than a supernatural ego, demanding worship and jealous for glory. For him, religion is not about rescue but presence, not meaning but mystery, not dogmatic certainty but wonder, gratitude and responsibility.

The very formation of ego generates the delusion that I have a body and a soul. As the center of my personal identity, ego also divides time into past and future, what happened to bring me here and what’s coming next. As is the case in all forms of dualism, the opposing pieces are inevitably distorted and misunderstood. Even more tragic, however, is that the division of consciousness between an outside (body) and an inside (soul), a before (past) and an after (future), distracts us from the only reality there is – here and now.

God is a word that points beyond itself, beyond language, and beyond the mind to the present mystery of being. Soul is a deep center of awareness that connects us to God as the ground of our being. And this moment – right now, before we try to grasp it and make it meaningful – is our jumping-off point, where we must let go and give ourselves over to the wonder of being alive.

 

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