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Religion Isn’t The Problem

ego_shadowA common mistake in diagnosing our current predicament is to blame religion, when it’s not religion itself but a particular corrupt type of religion that’s blocking the path to our better selves. Once the focus shifts to theism as the type in question, a second mistake fails to distinguish between corrupt and healthy forms of theism, recommending that we simply push them all into oblivion. Wouldn’t we be better off without religion? What’s wrong with rejecting god once and for all, along with spirituality and everything sacred?

My returning reader knows me as a proponent of post-theism, which is different from atheism on several counts. First, it holds that the major question with respect to god is not about existence but rather his function in the longer project of human fulfillment – even of human salvation, if we understand the term in light of its etymology as “coming into wholeness.”

Secondly, post-theism regards religion (from the Latin religare) as a system of stories, symbols, values and practices that “link” us to the grounding mystery within, to one another in community, and all of us together to the great turning mystery of our universe. In fact, reading those crucial linkages in reverse – first to the cosmos (nature), next to others (tribe), and finally to our own inner ground of being – charts out the sequence of stages in the historical development of religion itself: from body-centered animism, through ego-centered theism, and finally into a soul-centered post-theism.

Religion needs to transform throughout this process, but even if it gets stuck at times (as theism has been stuck for a while now) its connecting function is something we humans cannot do without. You may not be formally affiliated with an institutional religion, but you are nevertheless working out connections that support the centered meaning of your life – and that is your religion.

Lastly, in its deep appreciation of the functional roles of god and religion in the spiritual evolution of our species, post-theism differs from most forms of atheism by insisting on the necessary ongoing contribution of theism. Even after it has successfully awakened the individual to his or her own creative authority, and the virtues once attributed to the deity are now actualized in the individual’s own life-expression, it’s not as if theism can be simply abandoned and left in our past. There will always be more individuals coming behind us whose progressive liberation needs the support that only theism can provide.

So that I can move the discussion out of the realm of official world religions and refresh in our minds the critical importance of theism in human development more generically, my diagram above illustrates the correlation between tribal religion and the original theistic system of the family unit. Freud was correct in seeing tribal religion as a societal model based in and projected outwardly from our early experiences of Mother, Father, and the sibling circle.

Of course, nearly two thousand years earlier, Jesus (among other teachers) had conceived this correlation in his metaphor of god as “our heavenly father” and of our neighbors (including enemies!) as brothers and sisters of the same human family.

It’s not a heresy, then, to acknowledge the equivalencies between the divine higher power of a tribal deity and the parental taller powers that shaped our earliest experience. Historically, depending on whether the principal deity was regarded as a (celestial) father or a (terrestrial) mother, the social system of his or her devotees tended to reflect that hierarchy of values – higher-to-lower (ordained) in patriarchal societies, or inner-to-outer (organic) in partnership societies. Societies (such as our own) that have been significantly shaped by the Judeo-Christian or biblical-patriarchal worldview tend to favor an ordained top-down hierarchy, which predisposed us for the longest time to assume that earthly realities are copies or reflections of heavenly ones, when the line of influence actually runs in the opposite direction.

In other words, literal mothers and fathers have served since the beginning as archetypal origins of our various (literary or mythological) representations of god. This makes a human family the primordial theistic system, and every one of us a theist (at least starting out) in this more generic sense. With this correlation in mind, we can easily see how our developmental progress as individuals through the family system has its reflection in the cultural career of theism. We should expect to see some of the common dysfunctions in family dynamics showing up (i.e., projected upward) in the character of theism at the societal level.

Referring to my diagram, let’s first notice how a parent’s role needs to progress according to the emerging center of personal identity in the child. We begin on the left in a state of ‘infantile dependency’, with our newborn experience entirely immersed in the animal urgencies of our body. In this condition of helpless vulnerability, we need before anything else to be protected, cuddled, and nourished by our parent (typically our mother). Her role at this point is to provide for our needs, to give us what our body requires to be calm, satisfied, and secure. In theism proper, this maternal providence is projected upward as the grace of god – freely and presciently giving a devotee what is needed. Give us this day our daily bread.

If our parent is sufficiently attentive to our needs and provident in her care for us, we are enabled to feel attuned with her reassuring presence. This deep attunement is what Erik Erikson called “basic trust,” and it will serve as the foundation for all developmental achievements to come. In religion, such a grounding trust in god’s providence is known as ‘faith’ – not believing thus-and-so about the deity, but entrusting one’s existence to the present support of divine grace.

The progression from infancy into early childhood introduces a new challenge, in learning how to behave ourselves in polite company. Our parental taller powers serve this development in us by clarifying and reinforcing the rules for social behavior. In addition to continuing in their providential role – but gradually pulling back so we can start doing some things for ourselves – they focus on prescribing for us the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, defining what it means to be a ‘good boy’ or ‘nice girl’. This prescriptive role of our parental taller powers is what gets projected upward as the theistic notion of god’s will. Teach us thy ways, O Lord, and show us the right path.

On our side, we need to obey these prescriptions, these rules of acceptable behavior. A rule system built on the binary codes of right and wrong (with no grey between) is properly called an obedience morality, and all of us need to find our way through it. Some family systems are permissive, which can lead to insufficient clarity and motivation for pro-social behavior, producing moral complacency. Other family systems are repressive, where a child is punished and threatened for acting on his impulses or when she comes close to crossing the line.

Repressive systems are responsible for the rejected and disowned aspects of personality that Carl Jung named the shadow: the part of myself that is unacceptable, censured, or condemned. To fit in and belong we find it necessary to keep all these things in the dark, behind us and down in the cellar of our personality. In my diagram, parental rules (and god’s will as their correlate in tribal religion) which are authoritarian (Because I said so!) and repressive (Don’t you even think about it!) drive down a shadow of insecurity, shame, bigotry, and hostility.

This is the pathology of a dysfunctional theism which is evident all around the planet today, where true believers unleash their own inner demons on their enemies and the world around them. Ironically their moral convictions drive them in destructive ways.

Let’s come back to the healthy family system – for they do exist! As we make our way through childhood, our moral development necessitates a shift from merely obeying (or breaking) rules, to orienting our focus on exemplars of positive virtue. Our parents need to portray for us such virtuous attitudes and behaviors so that we can know how to embody them and live them out. Their demonstrated virtue awakens in us an aspiration to be like them, opening our path to adult responsibility.

Our mythological depictions of god are not only a projection of what’s going on in the theistic family system. The literary figure of deity also serves as a guiding ideal for an entire tribe or culture. We know that not all families are healthy, and no parents are perfect. But just as the general trend in living things is toward their mature and fully actualized selves, so the trend in theism over its long history has been into literary depictions of god that more clearly exemplify the virtues of human fulfillment. Be merciful [or in another version, perfect] as your father in heaven is merciful [or perfect].

We can see this progression even in the relatively brief (1,200 years or so) history of biblical writings, where Yahweh becomes increasingly temperate, merciful, and benevolent in his manner of relating to human beings. (The occasional paroxysms of wrath and vengeance are momentary exceptions to this longer trend in the developing character of god in the Bible, and are more reflective of the distress and insecurity of individual authors and local communities than anything else.)

In The Progress of Wisdom I suggested a way in which we can view several deep spiritual traditions (present-day world religions) as exhibiting our transcultural progress toward a clarified understanding of human fulfillment. The diagram above identifies these stages of awakening to wisdom in the box at the upper-right. Each stage in this broad-scale transformation was preceded slightly by a change in the way god (or ultimate reality) was depicted in the myths, theology, and art of the time.

Covenant fidelity (Judaism) re-imagined deity as less elusive and unpredictable, but instead as committed to the human future by a clear set of promises and fiduciary agreements. A little later in India (Buddhism) an insight into the liberating power of universal compassion took hold. Later still, but continuing with this evolving ideal, Jesus proclaimed his gospel of unconditional forgiveness (love even for the enemy: a message that orthodox Christianity failed to institutionalize). And finally, absolute devotion (Islam) brought this progressive curriculum of spiritual wisdom to a culmination with its ideal of uncompromising commitment to a life of fidelity, compassion, and forgiveness.

To appreciate this as a transcultural curriculum of spiritual wisdom, it’s essential that we see each advancing step in context of the larger developing picture. To split one virtue off from the rest only distorts and perverts it, as when Islamic extremists split absolute devotion from the fuller curriculum and proceed to engage terrorism against outsiders and infidels. Or else, as in the case of Christianity where Jesus’ radical virtue of unconditional forgiveness lies buried beneath an orthodox doctrine of salvation through redemptive violence, it gets sentimentalized and effectively forgotten.

The general point is that as these higher virtues began to awaken in a few individuals, they were added to our mythological depictions of god (or ultimate reality), which then functioned for the entire community as an exemplary model of an authentic and fulfilled humanity. In its worship of the deity, a community intentionally elevates and glorifies the praiseworthy attributes of god, as they recommit themselves to being more like him in their daily lives. In becoming more godlike they are actually becoming more fully human.

Obviously we haven’t been great at getting the message and realizing our true potential as a species. The complications and setbacks that affect every theistic system – the neglect and abuse, the moral repression and shadow pathology mentioned earlier – have arrested our progress again and again. But whereas some go on to advocate for the discrediting of religion and god in the interest of our human maturity, a brighter future, and peace on earth, as a proponent of post-theism I have tried to show that the way to these goals runs through theism (tribal and/or family systems) – and furthermore, that we can’t get there without it.

Our present task, then, is to use our creative authority in the understanding that we are myth-makers who create (and can re-create) worlds. We can elevate an ideal of our evolving nature that calls out our better selves, connects us charitably to one another, and (re-)orients us in the One Life we all share. We need to take responsibility for a theism that will promote homo sapiens sapiens – the truly wise and generous beings we want to be.

A vibrant spirituality after god (post-theos) requires that we go through god. Religion really isn’t the problem.

 

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Moving Into Wholeness

My last post ended with the controversial statement that a religion which is organized around the goal of getting the individual ego safely to heaven is really a delusion from which we need to be saved. It is widely assumed that religion generally is about everlasting security in the next life, including all the obligations – moral, doctrinal, and devotional – a true believer must satisfy to be worthy of its reward. “True religion” (if I can dare use the term) is actually our path out of this delusion.

It’s insufficient, of course, to define true religion exclusively in this negative fashion – as breaking the spell, escaping the trance, exposing the delusion and leaving it behind. If a system in service of the ego, by which I mean the individual human ego as well as the Absolute Ego it projects as its god, interferes with our spiritual progress as a species, liberation is only a preliminary step – however strategic and urgently needed it is. We need to further ask: “So what? To what end?”

Central to my larger argument is a perspective on personal (ego) consciousness as a critical stage in our ongoing evolution as a species (and development as individuals), but as only a stage and not the goal. When religion, which had long been dedicated to keeping our inner being (soul) and outer life (body) in holistic balance, got distracted and then utterly derailed by the rising preoccupation with social identity (ego), this shift marked a “fall” of consciousness out of communion and into a state of self-conscious estrangement.

The entire scheme of mythology was subsequently reoriented on “the hero’s journey” and final atonement with the Absolute Ego of god. Personal salvation became the whole purpose and litmus test of “true” religion. If you ask true believers to contemplate for a moment what their religion would be if the award ceremony of heaven were out of the picture, certainly a large majority of them would protest: “Then what’s the point?”

This religion of ego, ego’s god, and personal salvation is precisely what Jesus (and Buddha before him) sought to leave behind. His parables and social conduct introduced a shock to the morality of his day – as they still would in ours – and effectively shook off the trance for a few who got the message. “It’s not about you,” he said in so many words. “Get over yourself.” 

And that is exactly what the ego seeking salvation cannot do.

So if it’s not about me (or you) and we need to get over ourselves, just what will that mean? Again, getting over ourselves is a requirement if we are to see what’s beyond us. But then the program needs to advance from disillusionment (breaking the spell) to a new vision of reality. Jesus (and Buddha) had a lot to say about that as well, but it only makes sense in the way he intended when consciousness has been liberated from the tightening spiral of “What’s in it for me?”

The diagram below is my attempt to map out the major components, trajectories, and possibilities of human fulfillment – of our evolution as a species in the way it prepares for and then “leap frogs” our development as individuals. For the sake of orientation in my diagram, we’ll begin at the bottom, zig-zagging left and then right as we move upward to the intended culmination of a life lived in conscious communion with others and all things – what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”

Ego Quad

Human beings have a need to know, intuitively more than intellectually, that reality can be trusted. When conditions inside and outside the womb are provident and nurturing, our nervous system settles into a baseline state of calm and spontaneous release to What Is. This ability to relax into being, to let go and rest in reality, is precipitated by the real support that reality provides and is gradually strengthened (or compromised) as new challenges arise. Security may be the way things objectively are, but the individual (fetus, infant, child, adult) needs to feel that reality can be trusted in order for it to become the foundation we call “faith.”

If all goes well, security will undergird the next developmental opportunity, which involves the internalization of control. “Autonomy” doesn’t mean complete independence from external resources or absolute control over everything going on inside. It rather refers to an established center of freedom, perspective, intention, and choice in which the individual has some creative control. Autonomy isn’t the end-goal it has become in some Western therapeutic traditions, but its developmental achievement is arguably essential for progress to maturity.

And because it doesn’t always go well, we should pause a moment to reflect on what typically happens when security is compromised and autonomy fails. A reality that in general cannot be trusted will compel a coping strategy called attachment – not the healthy attachment between infant and mother, but a neurotic attachment where the insecure individual “submits” emotionally to someone or something with the expectation that security will be found there. Inevitably submission pulls development off a healthy path (to autonomy) and takes it hostage to codependent relationships, repressive ideologies, and damaging addictions.

A personality that is held captive by its “idols of security” will tend to take on an inferiority complex where shame – the conviction of being deeply flawed, stained, depraved and unworthy – attracts a dark shadow of helplessness and hopelessness. If it gets dark enough, the individual will go to any length to justify and promote the idol’s absolute authority – and violence is never out of the question.

As you might guess, I am of the opinion that much of the “redemptive violence” committed in the name of god and religion – human sacrifice and substitutionary atonement, persecution of minorities and heretics, acts of terrorism and holy wars – has insecurity and shame at its roots.

But let’s move on.

Assuming a healthy establishment of autonomy with the executive ego in control, an individual is prepared for higher experiences beyond the self. Think about such transcendent experiences as inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love, and notice how each one “gets over” the ego for the sake of a higher truth of some kind. Indeed, if an individual is only calculating the prospect of personal advantage or reward in these experiences, they will simply not be available.

However, just as before, we need to say something about what happens when security and autonomy are not in place, yet the impetus of transcendence is nevertheless lifting the ego in that direction. What results is a pathology which seems to be the inverse of an inferiority complex, where the ego becomes inflated with conceit, glory-seeking, and self-importance. This is the lesser known superiority complex, and while it seems to be caught up on issues utterly opposite to feelings of shame and inadequacy, ego inflation is really just another coping strategy for the insecure personality.

Even if grandiosity is discouraged by religion in its members, the superiority complex can still be celebrated (and justified) in the patron deity who blusters and brags about being the best and greatest, the one and only, who deserves and demands all the worship, praise, and glory. As Absolute Ego, the deity who so comports himself is serving to sublimate otherwise deplorable behavior for human beings into something they can validate and promote through their god.

The way Yahweh carries on in some Bible stories has to make you wonder.

Before we take our final step of ascent in my diagram and contemplate at last the “so what” of true religion, I want to quickly comment on the telltale marks of ego strength, along with their opposite pathologies. Ego strength is a necessary and desirable achievement of healthy development and shouldn’t be confused with egoism, which is actually a symptom of its absence. In other words, personal identity (ego) becomes stuck on itself when it is weak – insecure, manipulative, and craving attention.

A “strong” ego by contrast serves to stabilize the personality, balance its moods, and unify its numerous substreams of impulse, affect, and perspective – what Roberto Assagioli named “subpersonalities.” When these strengths are not present, the individual can be flooded by rising urgencies in the body (borderline personality), swing uncontrollably between emotional extremes (bipolar), or get overrun from within by divergent attitudes and motivations (dissociative identity). I’m doing my best to save these terms from their classification as “clinical disorders” so that we can acknowledge and deal responsibly with them in normal life.

At last we can consider where all of this might be leading, assuming that our zig-zag progress from security to autonomy has gone reasonably well – which is not a safe assumption, as I’ve tried to show. So let’s just pretend that we are not caught in the trance of personal salvation, but have seen the vision and heard the invitation to our intended fulfillment. What sort of experience is that?

My word is communion: the awareness, the participation, the commitment, and the responsibility of living together as one. Importantly, the prefix “com” when added to the base word “union” prevents the couple, several, or many from dissolving into homogeneity where individual distinctions are annihilated. The valued gains of autonomy and ego strength are not canceled out in communion but instead are connected to other centers, in those higher experiences mentioned earlier: inspiration, creativity, compassion, and love.

That is where our liberation finds its fulfillment.

Communion doesn’t need to be defined in exclusively human terms of course, even though our most pressing challenge is in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Jesus understood the challenge as especially critical and urgent in our relations with our “enemies,” which doesn’t only – or even most importantly – mean our adversaries across the ocean, the picket line, or the political aisle.

The enemies we really need to love most are the ones who daily let us down, betray our trust, exploit our insecurity, abuse our generosity, and don’t even seem to care. They are our family members, our neighbors, our former friends.

But that’s another topic – kind of. 

 

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By God, What Do You Mean?

Real progress in religion is hampered by the fact that its primary concern is such an enigma. What people name “God” – or better, what they mean when they use this term – is nearly impossible to pin down. This is partly due to the inherent difficulty in defining something that admittedly has no boundaries or limits. But perhaps an even stronger factor has to do with the indefinite nature of experience itself, like a moving stream in continuous change.

When these two factors (a supposedly boundless object and the dynamic subjectivity of experience) are forgotten, religion becomes a seedbed of dangerous conviction and spiritual oppression. Once orthodoxy is convinced that it has the last word on God, there is no end to what it might muster, justify, or condone in promoting and defending its truth. Well, there actually is an end, once there’s nothing left to burn.

As an outspoken critic of religious orthodoxy and its god – and now I’ve shifted to the lower case, for reasons to be explained shortly – I try to maintain a sharp distinction between our names for God and that which we are presuming to name. Our unique capacity as a species for meaning-making makes us susceptible to falling under our own spell, where we start to believe that reality is as we imagine it to be. (Of course, crucial to this trance-state is forgetting that we have imagined it!)

In this post I will offer an understanding of religion’s primary concern, specifically exploring how experience, meaning, and truth come together (or fall apart) in this often baffling enterprise. An operating assumption throughout is that our names and representations of God – in other words, our various gods – can never fully or finally capture the reality under consideration. If we can agree on this (and not forget it), then perhaps some constructive dialogue is possible.

Even if our depictions of God are different, and significantly so, at least we can learn to appreciate our different depictions as depth-soundings into the marvelous complexity of human experience. Why do we have to put our depictions (as art, story, or doctrine) up against each other for competition and superior standing? Why not celebrate this diversity, claiming it as proof that God is more (and other) than any of us can imagine?

I think I know why.God Spectrum

God as Divine Absolute

It’s interesting how, at the higher levels of theological reflection, God is depicted in such abstract terms and extrapolated to such infinite degrees, that most (if not all) of our differences are logically eliminated. It no longer matters whether we’re talking about the ultimate reality according to Jews, Christians, Muslims or even Buddhists. Once you bracket out the traditional names for the Absolute (referring to what is utterly independent and unconditioned), the reality under consideration is identical.

The reason for this remarkable similarity has to do with the inevitable effect of pushing definitions into infinity (e.g., the Divine Absolute as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent), which is to erase them or stretch them so far that they no long define anything. By definition, so to speak, the Absolute is beyond definition. Whatever qualities are attributed to it are necessarily amplified to an infinite degree – exploded into everything and beyond.

As the Divine Absolute, God is everywhere. If God isn’t in this tree or that cloud, or even in my enemy; if God is only in heaven or on earth, but not in hell – then there is a location where God isn’t, which logically means that God is not everywhere after all. If we are going to reflect on the logical perfection of the Divine Absolute, then anything that is in the nature of God will be without limits, that is to say, infinite. That’s why, at this level of reflection, the differences among our traditional gods dissolve away, leaving only The Unlimited which includes everything but is not dependent on anything for its existence.

This capacity for higher-order thinking is a fairly late development in our individual maturation, coming only after we have gained the cognitive functions and language skills to support what Piaget named formal operations, the ability for symbolic and abstract thought. I like to think of this as the “logical refinery” where concepts drawn from experience are stripped of their situational “dross” and changed into pure ideas, or ideals. God, at this level of abstraction, is not a being belonging to this or that tradition, but absolute and limitless Being, that which transcends yet includes existence itself.

Now obviously that’s not where most people are interested in spending their time and intellectual energy. Besides, a logical abstraction like the Divine Absolute is not something that does much to stir devotion or confirm the validity of your creed. Even worse, if it doesn’t produce religious apathy (who can love an abstraction?), there is a danger that serious theological reflection will lead to heresy. (The omnipresent God is in hell? Unacceptable!)

God as Patron Deity

That’s perhaps why more of us stay in the groove of our religious tradition – belonging to a faith community, going to worship and bringing up our children in the “right way,” studying the scriptures and denominational confessions, believing and behaving as we ought, doing our best to please, flatter, and placate our Patron Deity. The down-shift from a Divine Absolute to a Patron Deity is a step into full engagement with a personified representation of God who has had a long history with “our people” – the insiders, the elect, the chosen ones, the saved.

Patron Deity is a more or less technical term taken from the kind of relationship said to exist between the deity and devotee. This relationship is transactional and supported by the mutual exchange of submission for protection, obedience for reward, worship for blessing. Where exactly is the Patron Deity encountered? The answer is difficult for many believers to accept: In the myths, or sacred stories, in which the deity’s character is first introduced and subsequently developed. In other words, the Patron Deity is a narrative construct – the central construct – of a tradition’s mythopoetic (myth-making or storytelling) imagination.

Our modern Western loss of this mythopoetic imagination, which was the tragic cost that attended our “gain” in a reductive, objectifying, hard-facts-oriented worldview, required that we “interpret” (rather than recite, embody, and perform) our sacred stories as factual eye-witness reports of supernatural realities and miraculous events of long ago. Yahweh, the resident Patron Deity of the Bible, now must be regarded as existing outside the stories (since story has lost its power), somewhere “out there” or “up there” – in any case, no longer exactly here.

In the opinion of many, it is a blatant statement of atheism to even suggest that no one (anywhere, ever) has encountered the Yahweh depicted in our Bible. But in making the statement I am not denying the existence of God, only insisting that the personified representation of righteousness, potency, judgment and mercy – this particular Patron Deity, Yahweh – lives only in the Bible. If it sounds like I’m saying that God is nothing but a fictional figure stuck in the pages of a book, this only exposes how far the modern mind has fallen out of mythopoetic consciousness.

Most of us need to go back to early childhood to recapture a dim memory of when stories weren’t just leisure-time entertainment but our full-time occupation. The world we lived in wasn’t made of objective facts. Instead it was suffused with invisible creatures, heroic challenges, time travel, and numerous branching storylines that we might spontaneously follow into our next adventure. Our world was a narrative construct spun out of stories. The characters we encountered, while not literally existing, were real to us – more real than any dead-heavy fact could ever be.

Yahweh started his career in the imaginarium of the ancient Near East, among a few tribes of habiru that had settled in the Sinai peninsula. The sacred stories they told brought Yahweh to life, and Yahweh in turn brought their world into existence.

God as Holy Presence

So far, then, we have distinguished two very different meanings of God: the theological abstraction of the Divine Absolute, and the mythopoetic character of the Patron Deity. One more step closer to the ground brings us into special settings where God is encountered as a Holy Presence. The sacred precincts of institutional religion (temples, churches, mosques, and cathedrals) are artificial constructions where worshipers gather to call on the Patron Deity and join themselves once again to the timeless realm of sacred story. Typically some kind of ritual performance mediates this crossover from the broken time of ordinary life into the deep time of sacramental experience.

Before temple buildings and architectural sanctuaries, people were likely to have such experiences in natural zones like groves, meadows, grottos, seashores, riversides and mountaintops – places where “something more” seemed to come through, activating their sense of wonder, amazement, awe, or even trepidation. This something more should not be confused with something else. The particular name for God at this level – Holy Presence – is often and too quickly reduced to a being (the Patron Deity?) who adds the something more by coming in from elsewhere. As a spiritual intuition, however, this Presence is not added but “unveiled” (or revealed) as always and already there.

In my diagram above I leave open the question (with curving arrows) of whether the experience of Holy Presence precedes and inspires the mythopoetic imagination, giving rise to the Patron Deity as a personification of the something more; or if established stories of God are engaged in ritual performances that successfully conduct the worshiper into the sacred time and Holy Presence of the Patron Deity. In all likelihood, the answer is “both.”

This dynamic reciprocal support between the Patron Deity and Holy Presence is where conventional religion settles into orbit. Ordinary members are neither interested in, nor do they have the patience (and time) for abstract theological reflection. It’s sufficient to give agreement to doctrines of God’s infinite nature and power and love (etc.) without bothering to chase such statements to their logical (and heretical) conclusions.

Indeed your average believer will likely harbor some suspicion towards the “scholars and academicians” who stretch the concept of God beyond what our minds can comprehend. Their preference is for a theology that maintains allegiance to the Patron Deity of their tradition and demonstrates the prestige of their orthodoxy over others. More important than an intellectual exploration into God is the security of knowing that God is here when they need him, and will reward them for their faith and obedience in the life to come.

God as Grounding Mystery

Another direction that conventional believers won’t typically go is downward – which is actually a decisive step inward, to the Grounding Mystery of being-itself. This is where mystical spirituality lives, and its signature experience is essentially the same across (really underneath) all the world religions. It’s similar to theology in the way it pushes language to its limits, but instead of pushing out, mysticism pulls language in to its metaphorical foundations. Rather than an infinite being, God is being-itself, the power-to-be in everything that exists.

God as Grounding Mystery is the source and support of all things (as suggested in the metaphor of ground). You will not find this Ground by looking outside yourself, however. As the generative wellspring of existence, the only path into the Grounding Mystery is within: inward and away from outward attachments, beneath and past the center of your personal identity (ego), down into the place which is no place, where your being rests in and is released to the provident mystery of reality. If language is useful in labeling, classifying, qualifying, and explaining the outer realm, it is gradually surrendered to a silent wonder and profound tranquility, as there is nothing (no thing) for it to grab onto.

                                                                               

While my explanation of the distinct levels of meaning for God began in the abstractions of theology and stepped down from there, essential to my theory is the claim that it all really begins in the ineffable (wordless, indescribable) experience of the Grounding Mystery. This is, after all, where our existence is rooted and anchored, where each of us takes in our life and lets it go again, where I am and you are: the only place we can ever be.

This is the only place we can ever really be.

 

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The Mythic Quest of Captain Ego

As an advocate for post-theism I give frequent attention to the question of how it differs from theism. I’ve made the point that the “post” in post-theism should not be interpreted to mean that theism is being left behind for a more preferable secular atheism. Whereas atheism takes its very existence from the debate over whether or not god is to be taken literally, post-theism (at least the variant of post-theism I’m interested in promoting) presses beyond the debate to consider how our representations of god in art, story, and theology either support or arrest our spiritual evolution.

Central to my argument is the claim that a distinct concept of god, personified in myth as one who watches over and provides for us in exchange for our worship and obedience, is not only conducive to our moral development (and therefore in the interest of our tribe as well) but also awakens in us the higher virtues of compassion, responsibility, benevolence, and forgiveness. A longitudinal review of a religion’s mythology (i.e., its library of sacred stories) reveals an unmistakable development of its principal literary figure (i.e., the deity) in this same direction. In other words, the mythological god sets before the community a moral exemplar and stimulant to what we are in the process of becoming.

And whence do these stories arise? Do they come to us by a vertical drop out of heaven or from a period in history when people actually witnessed metaphysical realities, supernatural interventions, and miraculous events? This search for origins and evidence is really exposing the fact that the stories have already lost their power. When multiple narratives cross and weave the very fabric of your worldview, the literary god who lives in the stories functions as a causal agent in the way everything holds together. Once the background assumptions in the myth lose currency, however, or fall out of alignment with present-day theories of the universe, the literal existence of that god suddenly becomes a question for debate.

Because we have lost (or outgrown) our ability to simply inhabit our stories and engage the god who lives in them, the only way theism can hold on is by insisting that its myths are not myths at all, but rather factual reports of things long ago, far ahead, or otherwise outside the world in which we live. So you have no choice but to either take it literally, as orthodoxy requires, or else toss it all on the pile of outdated cultural junk.

Post-theism, on the other hand, encourages a fresh exploration of myth and its resident deity. But rather than reducing mythology to the stories different tribes tell about their gods (comprising the various religions), it insists that we not leave out of consideration the third component of theism, ego, around whose evolutionary destiny this whole thing turns. Beyond being a mechanism of societal cohesion and control, theistic religion has our individual formation, awakening, liberty, and transcendence at heart – at least this is what I aim to show.

Let’s track the hero adventure of this quirky social construct of identity known as ego (or “I”). Depending on where in this adventure we decide to insert ourselves for a look, everything, from its internal state and sense of self, its dependency and regard for others, its perception of time, and its mental model of reality as a whole, will be construed according to a few basic energizing concerns. These concerns are, we might say, the pressure points where individual consciousness confronts reality with its most urgent and timely need.

I see these as formative periods when the linkage (religare again) of consciousness to reality is having to be renegotiated, in the passage through self-consciousness and into what lies beyond. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on just three such formative periods. It seems to me that these three stages of transformation provide a way of viewing ego development as consisting of trimesters (though not all of equal duration) and culminating in the transition of consciousness to the more spiritually grounded (and selfless) experience we call soul.

PerinatalThe transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof has conducted a lot of research into the basic images, metaphors, and mythic themes that inform non-ordinary states of consciousness. Particularly intriguing are the deep and universal images with roots in our pre-personal memories of our mother’s womb and the birth experience.

A kind of paradisal garden prevailed in utero where the biological requirements of our body were instantaneously met. In that environment our consciousness registered a feeling of undifferentiated oneness, blissfully absent the pang of need.

(Already nearly a century ago, Romain Rolland, in a personal letter to Sigmund Freud, encouraged the good doctor to investigate what he named an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with reality, which Rolland believed may lie beneath all religions. Freud adopted the term, but proceeded to reduce it to “narcissistic elation.”)

Then the time came for our “eviction.” The walls around us began to contract and we were forced down a narrow passage with no foreseeable exit. We know from obstetrics that the birth experience is stressful on a fetus: falling out of the bliss state and down a constricting tunnel constitutes, following Grof’s theory, our first experience of trauma as a human being. Occasionally the birth canal and pelvic girdle of the mother are such that a safe passage is difficult or even impossible, which amplifies the distress considerably.

The light at the end of the tunnel introduces the newborn to a strange reality, very different from the one left behind. Instead of an oceanic state of warm satisfied comfort, the infant is jostled about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of flashes, shadows, and odd shapes, accompanied by the intrusion of harsh sounds and fluctuating temperatures. For the first time, need forces itself into consciousness with the inaugural gasp for air and sharp pangs of hunger. This is definitely “east of Eden,” the beginning of life in exile.

When we look out across the mythology of world religions, this pattern of Bliss-Fall-Exile starts showing up everywhere. Even when we survey the so-called secular literature of poetry, novels, and even non-fiction writing, this same archetype of a three-part transition into a state of separation and loss (along with a longing to return to “the way it used to be”) is remarkably widespread. The reason is that this archetype – this “first form” or primal pattern – is really down there, in the earliest strata of our perinatal memory.

DevelopmentalFollowing our expulsion from Eden and finding ourselves in exile, our next challenge involved two more archetypes – Mother and Father. While for many of us these terms match up to our actual biological parents, this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Mother” names the provident power in whom we found nourishment, comfort, warmth, and emotional bonding. She was our secure base, the one place we could go for the reassurance that “all is well.” Our first attachment (after the Fall) was to Mother, and she provided the safe place where we could simply relax into being.

“Father,” contrastingly, was our first Other, whose presence was as an Outsider. His existence called to us from across a chasm of otherness and issued the challenge to step out into our own developing individuality. The secure base represented in the enveloping embrace of Mother needed to be left behind, if only momentarily, in order to prove ourselves capable and worthy of recognition. Father was the pat on the back when we succeeded in a task, as well as the voice who encouraged us to give it another try when we fell short.

Obviously I am invoking the developmental archetypes of Mother and Father in their ideal forms. In actuality no mother is the “perfect mother” and no father the “perfect father.” Consequently ego’s adventure through this phase of the journey is for most of us complicated by fears of abandonment, rejection, criticism – and of the failure that will surely subject us to these dreadful ends. A general insecurity drags on us like gravity, causing us to hesitate when we should better move ahead, or foolishly leap before we take the time to carefully look where we are likely to land.

There can be little doubt that these developmental archetypes are beneath some of the earliest metaphors of God in religion: mother earth and father sky. In the middle of their embrace, our ancestors experienced the provident mystery of reality. Soil and fruit were gifts from mother earth; sun and rain were gifts from father sky. Life itself was sustained in the love they shared, in the way they cooperated for the provision of what early humans required to survive and prosper.

Even in the Bible, reflecting a time when this divine partnership was replaced with the notion of an exclusive sky god – our Father in heaven – the maternal qualities of the earth were still celebrated in song and poetry, as Yahweh’s good and bountiful creation. As time went on, however, and a metaphysical dualism took over late Judaism and early Christianity, the earth was increasingly depersonalized and degraded into a mere resource for humans to exploit. Along with the earth, woman and the body, too, were demoted in value, regarded as the footholds of sin and death.

This is where the mythic quest of Captain Ego is currently stuck, in my opinion. Because our consciousness (speaking collectively) is caught in the web of neurotic disorders – fixated on security (Mother) or overly ambitious for esteem and self-importance (Father) – we are unable to advance on the path to genuine fulfillment. Some of us have, or are in the process of making our way through this impasse. Thankfully, some of those who succeeded cared enough to return with insights and guidance for the rest of us. They passed along their wisdom, and where it hasn’t been corrupted and twisted back into an orthodoxy of world escape, sectarian fundamentalism, or redemptive violence by their so-called followers, we can find help in their teachings.

EsotericThis final set of archetypes I call “esoteric,” not because it is secret knowledge but rather because it involves a decisively inward turn (Greek esoterikos = inner) of consciousness. The esoteric teachings of religion take us directly into mystical spirituality, where the initiate is led along a descending path toward an experience too deep for words. In order to make the descent, ego must drop through a series of levels by letting go of the various convictions, beliefs, expectations, and attachments that give it identity, that together define who “I” am.

Of course this also means that ego needs to “let go of god” – or its idea of God. In the process, theology, which is only a theory of God, falls apart and dissolves away, releasing awareness at last into the ineffable mystery of being itself, or what some mystics name “divine presence.” This divine presence is not the “presence of god,” as if the deity who was somewhere else a moment ago is now here with me. It is pure presence, the Real Presence of mystery, the present mystery of reality. This is what is meant by the “post” in post-theism, referring to the experience of presence after ego has let go of its god.

A number of mystics speak of this experience of the grounding mystery as a kind of return to the envelopment of bliss we enjoyed before this whole adventure got underway. In his interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”), Joseph Campbell is invited to contemplate the implications of saying “not that Eden was, but that Eden will be.” (Eden is the Hebrew name for the garden paradise in Genesis.)

After a pause Campbell replies: “Eden is.”

 

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Edge Religion

By definition religion is a force for social cohesion. In “linking back” (religare) the many divergent concerns of daily life to a metaphor of ultimate reality, it provides a system of values and constraints that serves to hold a community together. This metaphor isn’t just a name for something already known objectively, but is the vehicle of language that first names the mystery and represents it, locating it amidst and beyond the necessary activities of everyday experience. It is what we call God.

In this view, God (the unnamed mystery) isn’t something that comes to us from somewhere else, even if god (the metaphor) might well encourage the assumption. Whenever we talk about something, we understandably assume that there is some thing we’re talking about. Our talking about it makes this thing better known to our minds. By qualifying and explaining it, we are as it were throwing a net of definition around it and bringing it closer to us. The mystery with which religion is (or at least originally was) chiefly concerned, however, is not a mysterious object to be explained and thereby rendered meaningful. It is rather the deep support and radiant presence of reality felt in the providential uplift of conscious being, of life in this moment.

The God-metaphor, then, or what I simply refer to as “god” (with a lowercase ‘g’), is a product of our imagination, a reflex of the mind to put labels on reality, push it into the distance where we can regard it as “this” or “that,” and then grasp it as an object of understanding. As metaphor (from meta + phorein, to carry across), our representation of God facilitates the experience of mystery across the threshold and into the web of language, where it can be expressed as meaning. Further articulation of meaning is accomplished through the media of art and story, where the metaphor takes on dimension and weight, opening up various ritual ways for us to link daily life back to the present mystery of reality.

So now we can add to our starting definition of religion as the link-back of everyday concerns to a metaphor of ultimate reality, by saying that this is primarily a ritual (ceremonial, sacramental, liturgical) system of social behaviors. In coordinating tribal life in this fashion around a metaphorical representation of the present mystery, social cohesion is successfully maintained. And because it is designed to bring individuals into agreement over their shared identity and specialized responsibilities to the group, I will call this form of religion “conventional theism” (from theos, god with a lowercase ‘g’). It’s been around for many, many thousands of years, and is still the dominant form of religion in our day.Conventional TheismThe illustration above provides a way of understanding conventional theism as coordinating the hearts and minds of individuals, and individuals with the larger group, around the orthodox representation of God (or god). I don’t mean for the balloon with the word “deity” imprinted on it to be taken as a lampoon, but merely to pick up on the point made earlier, that god arises out of the metaphorical imagination and is eventually (if it gains widespread agreement) tethered to the frame of community life as the focus of worship and belief.

Insofar as the deity is made in our image – that is to say, in a way that reflects back to us the personality traits, character strengths, and waking virtues of our own higher nature – it serves to inspire us to life above our animal instincts and juvenile impulses. As we contemplate in our minds and glorify with our hearts this chosen metaphor of God, it represents to us a better part of ourselves that is to some extent still in our developmental future.

Yahweh’s career across the time arc of the Bible demonstrates this dynamic perfectly, beginning as a warrior deity to a band of near-eastern nomadic tribes; taking his place as Lord and Creator in the era of national settlement; reaching out in compassion to the poor and marginalized during the downfall of King David’s dynasty; and resolving at last – around the time of Jesus but most clearly in the life and teaching of the Nazarene – to lift the curse of guilt from his enemies by a unilateral and unconditional forgiveness. If you should put early-Yahweh and late-Yahweh side by side, you would have to conclude that the two were different gods – so great was the evolutionary distance traveled by his community of faith over the course of centuries.

Such an evolutionary view of religion, tracking the developing metaphor of God as a reflection of our spiritual awakening and moral progress in community, must beg the question: Does a time come when the metaphor has served its purpose and is no longer needed? Are there more “mature” approaches to the mystery and our own life adventure, which could help religion stay current with our evolving spirituality? I suggest there are, and even now some forms of conventional theism are beginning to invite these voices of what I call “edge religion” into the conversation.ReligionAnd so I will make yet another appeal on behalf of post-theism – not as an alternative to theism, but rather its natural fulfillment as a system for social cohesion and spiritual guidance. By definition, post-theism explores the frontiers of faith development “outside the box” of conventional religion, but without abandoning the box and trashing its patron deity. The structural support and moral orientation provided by conventional theism is, I will argue, still important and necessary to the formation of faith as individuals (especially the very young) are in the process of having their identities constructed in community with others.

But there comes a time when, for many, the conventional representation of God becomes too small, too confined by doctrines, and increasingly irrelevant to daily life. These are folks who typically begin asking questions and challenging the usual answers inside the box. They are searching for a spiritually grounded way of being in the world, one that can help them continue to evolve in their faith. They aren’t interested in disputing the existence of god, and more of them today are refusing to be converted back to the religion of their youth. Consequently they wander outside the box foraging for spiritual sustenance, sometimes feeling guilty for wanting more (or something else), and often struggling with the loneliness of no longer having a community.

But there is hope. As I said, some theistic religions and denominations are providing space for these “edge dwellers” – and they have something of great value to contribute. Basically they come in two varieties, and it’s not unusual to find both strains of post-theism in the same individual. They represent the mystical and ethical edges of conventional religion, although they have no interest in merely recovering that familiar warm feeling in worship or sifting through the commentaries of church doctrine. They bring tools.

Let’s recall the significance of that balloon tethered to the frame of conventional theism. It is the preferred metaphor of God, the orthodox representation of the present mystery within and all around us. It calls to us – reminding us of who we are, where we belong, how we should behave, and why we are here. But when (not if) the individual’s spiritual capacity and depth of experience is no longer promoted by the god we all know, something needs to be done with that balloon.

Those post-theists who are mystically oriented wield the tool of a straight pin. They help us to realize – on the likely chance we have forgotten – that our representations of God are constructs of our minds, a convenience of language in providing handles on reality. These metaphors are not simply labels affixed to a literal being “out there” and separate from us, but rather spring from the inner life of the soul where we rest in the provident mystery of Life itself. Popping the balloon is not intended as sacrilege or “atheism”; it is what’s required if we are to experience the ineffable presence, the unnamed and unnameable ground of Being.

Ethically oriented post-theists are often motivated out of a concern that the so-called “will of God” has become too predictable, too much an endorsement of our petty ambitions and self-serving moralities. They bring scissors. By snipping the balloon string, these revolutionaries want to return freedom, unbounded generosity, and creative license to our metaphor of God, which means that we need to release our patron deity into the infinite sky, into the God beyond god. Only when God is no longer “our god” will religion be able to reach out to the stranger, love the enemy, and include everyone without judgment but rather in celebration of community.

We will never be without religion. However religion will be without more and more of us until it welcomes those on the edge and listens to what they have to say.

 
 

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Contents Under Pressure

Religion

The phenomenon of religion has evolved with the rise of human culture, perhaps going back millions of years to our hominid ancestors. Its function has always been to “link together” (religare) the separate concerns and activities of daily life in a coherent way by orienting it all around a single transcendent focus. “Transcendent” here doesn’t necessarily mean supernatural or metaphysical, but simply above and beyond the field of temporal attachments.

Theism is the standard and conventional form of religion, as it coordinates tribal life around a metaphor representing the provident power(s) behind the world as we know it. As a constructivist, I hasten to add that the so-called “world as we know it” is really a construction of our own minds – not the given sensory-physical realm outside us, but the layers of value, meaning, and significance that we weave around it. Like spiders we spin our web of language across the universe and call it home.

The deity of theism – an agency of intelligence, personality, and will that might be represented in any number of human or nonhuman forms – is how religion depicts the provident power(s) on which our lives depend. Instead of being revealed to us through the clouds, as someone coming to religion from outside might assume, this deity is actually a kind of creative reflex of the mythic imagination. The many stories (myths) that together form the narrative fabric of human meaning (our worldview) are not eye-witness reports of supernatural encounters, but rather poetic-literary portrayals of the present mystery that gives us life, supplies our need, and receives our last breath.

As societies grew larger and more complex, the tribal practice of reciting traditional stories and ritually participating in the life of god required institutional support. Certain individuals were elevated to positions of honor and authority by virtue of their familiarity with the deity. Or perhaps it was the other way around: individuals with social clout and community influence took on the mantle of high priest and presented themselves as ordained mediators between god and the people. As the sacrament of storytelling and ritual enactment became difficult to manage for a growing population, it was found that community agreement could be more efficiently achieved by converting this sacramental experience of god into a system of orthodox beliefs about god.

My illustration above intends to show how, with the addition of an authority structure and an “official” orthodoxy, religion gradually pushed the providential metaphor of the deity out of its literary habitat (as the principal figure of sacred story), into a supernatural space outside the world, and farther away from the relevant concerns of daily life.

And this is where we are today – arguing over whose deity is the one-and-only, trashing the earth, suppressing freedom and creativity, and thrusting our species to the embattled edge of oblivion. But don’t worry, if you’re on the right side your soul will be safely delivered to a better place far away.

So whereas once upon a time religion could do its job by connecting individuals to one another in community and anchoring the community to a reality celebrated as provident, it slowly but surely removed its members from communion with the Real Presence of mystery and became instead a tinderbox of spiritual frustration, small thinking, moral regression, and redemptive violence.

In the meantime this dysfunctional religion invented its own myth – now no longer in the traditional sense of a sacred story grounding us in a provident reality, but rather a narrative deception about our human fall from grace and into the hopeless condition of sin. The consequent “gap” between earth and heaven, nature and supernature, human and divine is characterized by rampant depravity and ignorance, veritably crying out for the authority and orthodoxy that religion itself provides.

The earth, our bodies (particularly woman’s) and our life in time were reconstructed in this myth as fallen, corrupt, and condemned – unless saved (purified, separated, and redeemed) according to the prescription laid out in holy doctrine. If the times happen to be especially stressed and insecure (as they appear to be now), the program of salvation becomes an emergency exit from a world believed to be in the process of irreversible collapse. Over a matter of just 3,000 years or so, religion invented a myth of estrangement where humans are fated to perdition without the saving intervention of “the one true faith.”

As a counter-voice of sanity, a growing number have been calling for the dismantling of theism, insisting that belief in god at this advanced stage in our history is not only unnecessary, but irresponsible. And not just irresponsible, but intellectually and morally backwards. While “atheist” used to be a label for one who refutes the existence of (a) god, it evolved over time into an outspoken defiance of god out of allegiance to human values. Today atheists join hands in solidarity against the abuses of religion, leaving its god to exist or not exist as a matter of indifference.

In my defense of post-theism, I have frequently heard from conventional theists and atheists alike that my position is just a convoluted form of atheism. I’m really a closet atheist but just afraid to admit it to myself. To suggest that the mythological gods of religion are literary figures (in story) and not literal beings (in reality) is effectively denying the existence of god, is it not?

Actually, the “after god” of post-theism is very different from the “no god” of atheism. While atheism commits itself to arguing against the literal existence of god (or living as if it doesn’t matter), post-theism regards the literary existence and mythological career of the deity as highly relevant to an understanding of our evolution as a species.The literary deity inspires us, calls to us, and places demands on us in order to actualize what is presently dormant, unacknowledged, or repressed in us.

Yahweh, the biblical god of Jews and Christians, does not have to be real to be important. To say that Yahweh never spoke the universe into being, parted water, or raised Jesus from the dead in any kind of (as we might say) scientific-objective sense might sound as if I’m refuting his existence and seeking to undermine the religions founded on these doctrines – but I’m not. The literal existence of Yahweh is literally beside the point and outside the plot (mythos) where his truth as metaphor is found.

As a constructivist I regard every picture of reality, even the scientific one, as a construct of our minds. Religious myths and scientific theories are merely two kinds of storytelling, the one (science) weaving narratives that explain the physical universe confronting our senses, as the other (religion) does its composing out of a more internal intuition of the present mystery that sustains us. Science joined the conversation around the campfire quite late, when religion had already been about the business of myth-making for many thousands of years. Its more detached and mathematical approach to things did in fact compete with religion’s sacred fictions of fabulous characters and miraculous deeds, convincing a growing number to abandon these tales as so much primitive superstition.

In the illustration above, the entire institution of religion rests on a foundation of spiritual experience – what I call the experience of mystery or the present mystery of reality. We are in this stream (a better metaphor than foundation, which suggests something fixed and unchanging) all the time, but we can only be aware of it now, in this very moment, for in the next moment this mystery will present itself to us afresh. Out of this experience of Real Presence, along with an exquisite awareness that it sustains us providentially in this moment, arise the metaphors of the mythic imagination.

The deity is born, and just as suddenly we find ourselves engaged in a dialogue with the primordial support and deeper intention of our existence. Post-theism is the contemplation of what’s next (“post”), as we continue to grow Godward.

 
 

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God Beyond Belief

In his popular lectures on the topic, Joseph Campbell would frequently start out with a definition of mythology as “other people’s religion.” Curiously the assumption of insiders is that the depiction of their god in the sacred stories of scripture came by supernatural revelation, while stories of other deities outside their tradition are quickly dismissed as just mythology.

A purely objective consideration of myth across the religions will not be able to distinguish which stories were “revealed” (by god) and which were “produced” (by humans). The god of our Bible is not less violent or more merciful than gods we can find in stories elsewhere. But even in the polytheistic age of the Bible when other gods were acknowledged if not honored and worshiped, we find this tendency to regard other people’s religion as generated out of ignorance rather than by illumination.

So let’s stay with the Bible for now, and ask why so many believe in the existence of Yahweh*, the patron deity of Jews and Christians. The popular assumption, once again, is that they believe in Yahweh’s existence because the Bible (the principal resource of Judeo-Christian mythology) contains historical accounts and eye-witness reports (encounters, sightings, and auditions) of the deity. Yahweh created the cosmos, liberated the Hebrews from Egypt, revealed himself to the prophets, and sent his son for our salvation. These things are taken and accepted as facts – historical, objective, and supernaturally validated.

Creation

What I’m calling the supernatural validation of biblical stories can be analyzed into three closely related but independent claims. First, the Bible is an inerrant resource for our knowledge of Yahweh. Every word – or in a softer variant of the inerrancy doctrine, the intention behind every word – is the revelation of Yahweh to those he elects to save. To prove Yahweh’s existence by appealing to the Bible as his infallible revelation to us is an argument of obvious circularity, so we hasten on to the next claim, which is that the Bible records literal accounts of Yahweh’s self-revelation to people much like us.

This is how to escape the fatal circularity of the inerrant Bible argument: Because the stories of the Bible are factual reports of events in history, however miraculous and supernatural, the real anchor for our knowledge of Yahweh’s existence and character is human experience. Prophets and visionaries, but also average folks like you and me, were granted the privilege of divine visitations and apocalyptic visions. They were actual witnesses; their accounts were taken down with perfect accuracy and provide us with what we know about Yahweh. If the biblical stories were not grounded in actual events outside the Bible, they would be nothing more than … well, myths.

Even with that critical move, however, believers are still on shaky ground, for how can we know that these historical “revelations” were not really hallucinations of something that wasn’t there? So-called ecstatic experiences (e.g., clairvoyance, glossolalia, out-of-body experiences, “hearing voices”) are observed among patients in mental clinics and state hospitals around the world today. I suppose it could be argued that these are the true charismatics of our age, though tragically misunderstood and wrongly diagnosed. But who’s to say that those visionaries behind the Bible were not mistaken or mentally disturbed?

To answer – and effectively silence – this question, the third and final claim for the supernatural validation of our knowledge of Yahweh is that these visionaries didn’t just “see things,” but that he showed himself directly to them. Authorization for the orthodox doctrines concerning god’s nature, character, attributes and accomplishments therefore transcends both the Bible and human experience.Ascension

The argument is thus that (1) Yahweh exists (out there as a separate being) and (2) revealed himself to people much like us, who then (3) recorded their experiences and facts about Yahweh in the inerrant resource of our Bible. Even though Yahweh isn’t speaking out of burning bushes, parting water, multiplying loaves, or raising dead people back to life anymore, the faith of a contemporary true believer is measured by how willing he or she is to simply trust that the same deity is out there, watching over us, and getting ready to ring down the curtain on history.

But what if Yahweh doesn’t exist – and by “exist” I mean out there as a separate entity, “above nature” (supernatural) and metaphysically real? What if no one has ever encountered this deity in the realm of actual human experience? What if the Bible isn’t a factual record of extraordinary encounters and miraculous interventions?

What if, that is to say, Yahweh is a literary character, the principal actor and prime mover in the collection of stories that shaped the worldview of Jews and Christians – but not a literal being?

Of course there are people today who claim to have had personal experiences of the biblical deity – or any number of countless other gods and goddesses, spirit guides, angelic or demonic beings, fairies and departed souls. Perhaps because we want to hold open the possibility of higher dimensions to existence, or because we can’t conclusively disprove their reality, or maybe we don’t want to come across as judgmental, simple-minded or faithless, we let the popular discourse continue unchecked. Who knows, but perhaps these individuals are genuinely gifted. Could they be seeing and hearing things from which our ignorance or skepticism prevents us?

Someone has to say it, so I will: No.

Metaphysical realism – belief in the existence of independent realities outside the sensory-physical universe – was the inevitable consequence of mythological literalism. When the myths lost their tether to sacramental celebration, ritual reenactment, and the contemplation of mystery, they floated up and away from daily life to become “timeless” accounts, ancient records, and long-lost revelations. But before they were taken literally, while they were still serving as drama-poetic expressions of experience and the narrative structure of meaning, myths were fictional plots bearing the life-orienting metaphors on which human security, community, and the shared search for significance depend.

The stories of the Bible are indeed myths (from the Greek mythos, a narrative plot), not to be taken literally but engaged imaginatively. Much of the worldview they promote and assume is out of date with respect to our current science, politics, ethics, and spirituality. At the time of their composition, the biblical myths were very similar to those of other tribes and traditions, but with Yahweh (rather than some other deity) as the metaphor of the community’s dependency on the earth, its place among the nations, its origins and destiny, and its moral obligations.

As human culture evolved, so did Yahweh. Indeed, one of the principal functions of a deity is to model (in example and command) the preferred behavior of his or her devotees. The storyteller is sometimes at the leading edge of this evolution, as when a minority voice among the prophets began representing Yahweh as unimpressed (even offended) by the sacrificial worship of his people, demanding instead their care for widows, material help for the poor, and inclusion of the marginalized. Later, Jesus of Nazareth gave the wheel of evolution another turn when he began to tell stories of Yahweh’s unconditional forgiveness of sinners (love for the enemy).

At other times, those telling the stories and thereby controlling theology were motivated by less noble, even base and violent impulses. Yahweh’s wrath and vengeance as represented in the myths subsequently provoked and justified similar behavior in his devotees. Depending on what you are looking to justify in yourself or get others to do, chances are you’ll find Yahweh endorsing it somewhere in the Bible.

I’ve defined myths as fictional plots bearing life-orienting metaphors and shaping our view of reality, with the deity chief among these metaphors. Rather than looking outside the stories for facts that might establish their truth, I’m arguing that we need to look deeper inside the stories to the human experience of mystery and our quest for meaning that inspired them.

Theism insists on the objective existence of god, while atheism rejects it. Post-theism is our growing awareness that the argument, one way or the other, just might be distracting us from the real challenge at hand.

                                                                               

*In reading the name Yahweh, and throughout the continuing scriptural tradition, a title (Adonai, The Lord) was used in its place as an expression of reverence.

 
 

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