Integrate the Unknown

“Faith does not simply account for the unknown, tag it with a theological tag and file it away in a safe place where we do not have to worry about it. This is a falsification of the whole idea of faith. On the contrary, faith incorporates the unknown into our everyday life in a living, dynamic and actual manner. The unknown remains unknown. It is still a mystery, for it cannot cease to be one. The function of faith is not to reduce mystery to rational clarity, but to integrate the unknown and the known together in a living whole, in which we are more and more able to transcend the limitations of our external self.

Hence the function of faith is not only to bring us into contact with the “authority of God” revealing not only to teach us truths “about God,” but even to reveal to us the unknown in our own selves, in so far as our unknown and undiscovered self actually lives in God, moving and acting only under the direct light of His merciful grace.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds Of Contemplation

You know how a book stops being a book and starts being a companion? I like that.

Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 3

Sorry for the delay in continuing this series. I misplaced the book this series is based on, Ken Wilber’s A Sociable God. Now that I’ve found it let’s continue. In this entry I’ll be taking a peak at what Wilber has to say in regards to “experience.” Before we get into the book, I think it might be helpful to point out that there is some terminology that Wilber tends to use in his writing that can be difficult to understand if you haven’t read his more complete works. You have two options: A) just sort of glide by and ignore the terminology and just glean the more general point he’s articulating or B) I’ll try to provide some links if you feel compelled to dig in a little bit more. As Wilber unpacks “experience” in the book, the subject matter becomes a bit more dry and complicated. You might find this helpful or just complete mumbo-jumbo. With that said, here is an excerpt from the book regarding “experience”:

Experience goes beyond faith into actual encounter and literal cognition, however brief. Experience, as I am using it, means peak experience, a temporary insight into (and influx from) one of the authentic transpersonal realms (psychic, subtle, causal-for more on these terms, check out this link) In my opinion, authentic religious experience must be differentiated from mere emotional frenzy, from magical trances, from mythic mass-enthusiasms, all of which result in a temporary suspension of reason via regression to pre-rational adaptations, a slide that is altogether different from trans-rational epiphany. (Read here for more on the pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational) Pre-rational frenzies are usually chthonic in mood, emotionally laden, body-bound, and non-insightful– an emotional short-circuit that sparks and sizzles with unconscious orgiastic current. Trans-rational epiphany can be blissful, but it is also numinous, noetic, illuminative, and–most importantly–it carries a great deal of insight or understanding.

Actual faith seems conducive to experience; belief systems seem to inhibit it. When they occur to a person who previously rejected religious involvement, such experiences might effect a “conversion,” with the individual subsequently adopting a particular religious belief system in order to make sense of “what hit him” (e.g., Saint Paul)

If an authentic peak experience occurs to a mythic-religious true believer, it often has the awkward effect of energizing his or her mythic immortality symbols. The result is a “born-again” believer, a particularly explosive affair. To begin with, analytic experience has consistently disclosed that the mythic true believer often possesses a particularly harsh superego (internalized aggression)–an excessive guilt, a surplus repression, often forged in the atmostphere of overly oppressive/puritanical parents. One of the reasons the mythic true believer might have a become a true believer in the first place is to attempt to redress surplus guilt by establishing relations with a fictive-mythic parent who this time around would forgive the guilty transgressions. At the same time, the unacceptable and guilty impulses can be projected as a world of dirty sinner out there. (I believe that is shy a “sinner,” in such cases, is usually two things: a disbeliever, or a threat to the immortality account, and a “dirty disbeliever, or contaminated with emotional-sexual guilt.)

When that type of belief system is hit with an authentic peak experience, the system translates it into terms of it own immortality symbols. The whole ideology thus appears to receive a jolting sanctification; this allows the harsh superego to be extroverted, even more than usual, into a moralizing and proselytizing fury; and the true believer, now with the absolute approval of God Almighty Himself, sets out to remake the world in his own image.

On the other hand, but more rarely, an authentic peak experience might jolt a true believer into a person of faith, with subsequent diminution of particular-belief passion and opening a more universal tolerance.

So in other words, depending on where we are in terms of religious perspective (belief, faith, non-religious), an authentic trans-personal experience pours an energy into our religious “location,” for lack of a better term. Maybe the metaphor of the ladder can serve us here. Lets imagine a man, a “true believer,” who is camped out on the lower rungs of the ladder. He has a peak experience while walking on the beach. The sun is setting, the waves are gently crashing on the shore, the sand feels cool beneath his feet. In that moment he is overcome with an immense sense of love, joy, bliss, as if God is blanketing him with her very presence. For a brief instant our true believer on the beach gets a glimpse of what it looks like from the very top of the ladder. This peak experience is typically translated by whatever stage one is at. For our man on the beach, he will most likely feel a vivid sense of the greatness of God (a good thing indeed) but as a true believer, this experience has energized the already existing impulse in him to defend his right beliefs all the more. On the other hand, this experience might cause him to rethink his position on the ladder. Maybe what he’s just experienced illuminates a world that is mysterious and unknowable in so many ways. “How do I know my beliefs are right? And is what I believe about God more important than devoting myself to experiencing God to the fullest?” He would then be making a move upward from true believer to person of faith.

Next up, adaptation. If you’ve read this far, thanks for bearing with me. 😉

Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 2

At this point in the series, I’ve gone over belief here and here so now it’s time to move on to the next rung in the ladder: faith. I’m reading from the sixth chapter of Ken Wilber’s book, A Sociable God. Here’s an excerpt from Wilber’s section on faith:

Faith goes beyond belief but not as far as actual religious experience. The true believer can usually give you all the reasons he is “right,” and if you genuinely question his reasons he tends to take it very personally (because you have, in fact, just questioned his qualifications for immortality). His belief system is a politics of durability. The person of faith, on the other hand, will usually have a series of beliefs, but the religious involvement of this person does not seem to be generated solely or even predominantly by the beliefs. Frequently, in fact, the person cannot say exactly why he is “right” (has faith), and should you criticize what reasons he does give, he generally takes it all rather philosophically. In my opinion this is because belief, in these cases, is not the actual source of religious involvement; rather, the person somehow intuits very God as being immanent in (as well as transcendent to) this world and this life. Beliefs become somewhat secondary, since the same intuition can be put in any number of apparently equivalent ways (“They call Him many who is really One”). The person of faith tends to shun literalism, dogmatism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, which define almost solely the true believer.

Paradoxically, the person of faith is often in great and agonizing religious doubt, which the true believer rarely experiences. The true believer has projected his doubt onto others and is too busy trying to convert them to pay attention to his own inner status. The person of faith, however, begins to transcend mere consoling beliefs and thus is open to intense doubt, which the person frequently takes to be a sign of lack of faith, which worries him sorely. But that is not usually the case.

Here is what seems to occur: The person of faith intuits, although in a preliminary and somewhat vague fashion, the existence of very God. On the one hand, this confers a measure of peace, inner stability, and a release from mere belief. On the other hand, precisely because that is so, the person yearns for a greater closeness to this Divinity, a more complete knowledge-union with God. Since the person does not yet have this greater closeness, it throws his present state, by comparison, into doubt (and yearning). In fact the greater the faith-intuition, the greater the doubt. Zen has a profound saying on this:

Great doubt, great enlightenment;
Small doubt, small enlightenment;
No doubt, no enlightenment.

How different is that from the literal and dogmatic certainty of the true believer.

The distinction Wilber makes in this chapter between belief and faith helpfully zeros in on the current struggle American Christianity finds itself in. In a way, I hesitate to move on to the experience and adaptation entries since I could fill the rest of the year wrestling with tension between these two religious stages. Nevertheless, I will try to press on.

As I’ve attempted to make the case before that I believe the primary stage of religious life that most American Christians find themselves is belief. It’s somewhat difficult to get a more secure sense of where we are at due to the broad intellectual apathy that plagues many religous Americans. But I think I’m on safe ground when I make the assumption that most Christians believe that “right belief” gives them some kind of eternal reward. Our predominant religious conviction in Christian America is to attach treasures awaiting us in heaven to a correct doctrinal creed. The assumption is, first, that one can posses correct belief and, second, that said correct belief needs to be shared with unbelievers, or incorrect believers, so they too can enjoy some form of everlasting assurance.

Needless to say, some cracks have begun to form on this idol of the true believer and while it can be incredibly painful for many who seek consolation in the “politics of durability,” this is ultimately a very promising development that clears the way for what some hope to be a more authentic Christian pursuit. (When I say more authentic, I do not mean to imply that the belief is not legitimate, but merely less authentic. After all, in keeping with the metaphor of the ladder I used in part one of this series, the lower rungs are absolutely legitimate and necessary. Without them we cannot move upwards. But our view from the lowest rung of the ladder is not quite is exhilarating as it is from the top.) What is so promising about these cracks continuing to form and widen, is that a new posture is emerging within Christianity where doubt and ambiguity are to be wrestled with, cherished, even. When one moves from mere belief to faith, the Biblical text has become not just a static, inerrant, literalist playground. It receives new life in ways that makes one’s daily life more enriched. We leave behind the God who is in his black robe, angrily sitting on the bench ready to levy our deserved damnation and we awaken to a God who is in us yet all around us. Who welcomes us in like a father welcomes a lost son. Our religious life ceases to be defined strictly by a cold and rational system of doctrines. Instead, in faith, we attempt to embrace a love that includes and transcends reason.

As Peter Rollins has frequently pointed out in his books and speaking, we must continue to embrace doubt, not only as individuals, but as communities and institutions of the Church. He suggests that it’s easy to say as individuals that we embrace doubt and ambiguity, but we go to Church on Sunday mornings and leave our doubts at the door. Our songs and our teachings fail to embrace doubt because they, our pastors who teach us and lead us in music, believe on our behalf. Put more simply, we can afford to doubt as individuals because our community believes for us. Rollins uses the music found today in many churches as an illustration. Read the lyrics of a typical worship song and it almost sounds like the words are trying to convince us, the singers, that God is all we want and live for. It’s difficult for me to sing phrases like “I only live for you” when I know for fact, if I’m being honest, that’s incorrect. I’d like to live for “only You” and that sounds really lovely and all, but it’s just not entirely true and there’s no foolin’ the One we’re singing to. So who is it for? I think, like Wilber so wisely frames this issue, these words are being sung to our own unbelieving selves in order to trick ourselves out of our unbelief. It would be nice to have worship gatherings take the opportunity to embrace the ambiguities and doubts that we as individuals and communities will surely encounter. This would help to elevate the center of gravity of Christianity in America to a more authentic stage of religious life.

Next up, experience……but not before some George Michael.

Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation, Part 1

This post will kick off a little blog series I want to do on the sixth chapter of Ken Wilber’s book A Sociable God – Toward A New Understanding of Religion. The chapter is titled “Belief, Faith, Experience and Adaptation.” In this chapter Wilber sets out to make some important distinctions between these four religious elements, ordering them in what Wilber might refer to as a “healthy hierarchy.” What I take Wilber to mean by this term is that while we may rank these different religious elements in order of their “authenticity,” all of the elements bring with them very necessary functions. In the same way a ladder is useless without its lower rungs, we need all the rungs to work properly with one another to provide a sturdy, reliable way up.

First we’ll take a look at the religious element of belief. Here is Wilber’s assessment:

“Belief is the lowest form of religious involvement, and, in fact, it often seems to operate with no authentic religious connection whatsoever. The “true-believer” – one who has no literal faith, let alone actual experience – embraces a more-or-less codifeid belief system that appears to act most basically as a fund of immortality symbols. This can be mythic-exoteric religion (e.g., fundamentalist Protestantism, lay Shintoism, pop Hinduism, etc.), rational-scientism, Maoism, civil religion, and so on. What they all have in common, when thus made a matter of “true belief,” is that an ideological nexus is wedded to one’s qualifications for immortality.

I believe this generates a peculiar, secondary psychodynamic: since one’s immortality prospects hang on the veracity of the ideological nexus, the nexus as a whole can be critically examined only with the greatest of difficulty. Thus, when the normal and unavoidable moments of uncertainty or disbelief occur (magic: is this dance really causing rain? mythic: was the world really created in six days? scientistic: what happened before the big bang? etc.), the questioning impulses are not long allowed to remain in the self-system (they are threats to one’s immortality qualifications). As a result, the disbelieving impulse tends to be projected onto other and then attacked “out there” with an obsessive endurance. The true believer is forever on the make, looking for converts and battling disbelievers, for, on the one hand, the mere existence of a disbeliever is one token less in the immortality account, and, on the other, if the true believer can persuade others to embrace his ideology, it helps to quiet his own disbelieving impulses. It is not the the rightness or the wrongness of the opposing view but the peculiar passion with which it is opposed that belies its origin: what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

When reading this I immediately imagine the over-zealous street preacher who is fervently doing his best to convert the sinners of world. When one reflects on how ineffective the approach of street preaching is nowadays, it’s hard to imagine that converting lost souls is ultimately the true objective. While it maybe the reason found on the surface of the mind of the street preacher, something about this approach tends tip off 99.9% (a generous estimate) of anyone within earshot otherwise. The street preacher is, in the end, always ineffective because something deep inside ourselves tells us that he can’t be trusted. And that makes perfect sense because he ultimately doesn’t trust himself. To repeat Wilber’s line, “…what one is trying to convert is one’s own disbelieving self.”

For this street preacher, his religious perspective is rooted in the idea that one can possess the correct idea about who God is while at the same time waging war on the “lost” who have the wrong idea. It is a quest for certainty and a war on doubt. That is ultimately the difference between belief and faith. Belief burns doubt at the stake while faith makes doubt a trusted friend.

But the element of religious belief can be a benefit. Wilber writes:

“On the more benign side, belief can serve as the appropriate conceptual expression and codification of a religious involvement of any higher degree (faith, experience, adaptation). Here, belief system acts as a rational clarification of transrational truths, as well as the introductory, exoteric, preparatory “reading material” for initiates. When belief systems are thus linked to actual higher (authentic) religiousness, they can be called, not because of themselves but because of association, authentic belief systems.”

Wilber stops short of giving us any concrete examples of this in the book but I think the metaphor of the ladder works well here. If all you have is the lower rung of the ladder, then the ladder ceases to be of use. But if your ladder has the higher rungs as well as the lower rungs, the lower rungs then prove valuable, but only because the higher rungs are in place. In the same way, belief by itself is useless and often times harmful. Only when belief links to or provides a clearing for the more authentic stages does it have value.

Next up: Faith.

The Churning Sea

“Information alone is strength without coordination. We become a danger mostly to ourselves when we have it. Understanding is the ability to coordinate that raw information in meaningful ways. Understanding creates a certain enthusiasm. We can direct our knowledge toward potentially useful ends–but we may also be a danger to others. Wisdom, however, is knowing how, when and why we use our understanding; wisdom is settling into our understanding without being too enamored by it.

The internet encourages only the knowledge-gathering stage without considering coordination or meaningful connections. Despite Google and Wikipedia’s best efforts, understanding is not born of the answers algorithms provide–answers and understanding are not the same thing. Some will sift through the answers and information, seek to coordinate it, and emerge with understanding–but this is still not the same as wisdom.

Unfortunately, the Information Age does little to encourage the development of wisdom. This requires time, experience, contemplation, patience, suffering and even stillness to obtain. But the churning sea of information never settles long enough to allow for the emergence of wisdom. We are left instead with “the conceit of wisdom rather than real wisdom” and become a burden to society rathe than a boon.

If we are not alert, the Information Age may stunt our growth and create a permanent puberty of the mind.

— Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels

Shane, you swished the three on this one, buddy. To anyone out there who doesn’t buy and read this book, I feel sorry for you. 🙂

This Book Drops Bombs

“The “god values” in our lives are those things that concern us ultimately. Our real worship, our true devotion directs itself toward the objects of our ultimate concern. That ultimate concern may center finally in our own ego or its extensions– work, prestige and recognition, power and influence, wealth. One’s ultimate concern may be invested in family, university, nation, or church. Love, sex and a loved partner might be the passionate center of one’s ultimate concern. Ultimate concern is a much more powerful matter than claimed belief in a creed or a set of doctrinal propositions. Faith as a state of being ultimately concerned may or may not find its expression in institutional or cultic religious forms. Faith so understood is very serious business. It involves how we make our life wagers. It shapes the ways we invest our deepest loves and our most costly loyalties.”

James Fowler, Stages of Faith

There’s a feeling you get when you start a book and you know it’s going to bring it. I’m getting that feeling in a pretty strong way just a few pages into this fine offering. A book either drops bombs or it doesn’t and you can usually tell right off the bat. This book drops bombs. I’ll post more bombs as they are dropped.

Knowledge of Good and Evil

When we lead with our judgments, love will seldom happen. If the mind that needs to make moral judgments about everything is the master instead of the servant, religion is almost always corrupted.

Some would think that is the whole meaning of Christianity, to be able to decide who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. This is much more a search for control than it is a seach for truth, love or God. It has to do with ego, which needs to pigeonhole everything to give itself that sense of “I know” and “I am in control of the data.”

I guess God knew that such would be the direction that religion would take. So God said, “Don’t do it. Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” What he’s trying to keep us from is a lust for certitude, an undue need for explanation, resolution and answers. Frankly, it makes biblical faith impossible.

— Richard Rohr, Things Hidden