95puzzle

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In this piece I am warming up to the task of “going after Mom.” It is an unpleasant job, but somebody has to do it. It is said in the tantric tradition that if you do not destroy when necessary (i.e., if you do not destroy frivolousness), you are not following the law of compassion. If we are going to move to a new stage of faith, it really helps to understand what we are leaving behind of the present stage, and what we are keeping. If the movement to the next stage is to be stable, it must be filled with understanding. That is what will make it deft, precise, and life-enhancing.

3-1-95

The Puzzle of Christianity

At this mention of rising from the dead, some of them burst out laughing; others said, “We would like to hear you talk about this again.”   Acts 17, 32.

The place of Christianity in contemporary western culture has been a puzzle to me for quite some time now. Its influence seems to be in decline. (The part of it called “fundamentalism” is demographically a minority phenomenon, involving approximately 10% of the population. The image of its importance is exaggerated by a television presence and its role as a coalition-bloc in two-party politics.)

Christian churches seem to have a very small role in the leadership strata and the educated middle classes of economically developed societies. Among these groups, who embody after all the main stream of cultural development in the world, the instruments of meaning are rational in nature and innovation in meaning systems seems to come more from eastern religions and “new age” experiments than a “revitalization” of christian beliefs. The capacity of Christianity to absorb new forms of consciousness seems small. In its ability to guide change, something is missing.

But to say “something is missing” is not the end of the story, only the beginning. For if indeed Christianity now lacks the ability to lead society’s meaning quest, then it seems to be important to ask why this is so. For Christianity after all originally defined western culture, which is the embodiment of “the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” It takes profound spiritual vitality to define a civilization. So, Christianity once had a vitality that it does not have now.

Something happened in the middle east in the time of Caesar that re-shaped human history. It was originally announced (kerygma) as the activities of an unlettered Jewish preacher who made certain statements, ran afoul of the civil powers, was executed and returned bodily to life. These events were never represented as myth, but as a series of historical events. For some people the account was unacceptable and ridiculous, but for enough people it produced a transformation in the definition of themselves that within fifty years it was a major social force in the Roman empire and within 300 years became the established religion.

It produced certain distinctive characteristics of western culture, e.g., individual worth in western law and custom, socio-political equality, our peculiar conviction that freedom, with all its problems, is the key to human progress, and the institutionalization of science. These have all flourished on this planet only under the regime of the Judaeo-Christian world-view.

What then was at the heart of it? Where did its teachings and its fundamental sense of reality come from? And is there anything about this source that is fragile enough to get lost in the course of time?

If we study our comparative religion well, and examine carefully all the relevant events, it would seem that this source is not originally some vision or a set of teachings. It is nothing more than a simple historical event.

The evidence seems to be quite unambiguous about this. His first followers said that Jesus died and then arose from the dead. And they offered this as a “mere” statement of fact, from which the listener was free to draw his or her own conclusions.

Now today we do various things with this information. We say it was a myth, we wonder if it might not have been some sort of collective hallucination, we worry about not being able to find “the historical Jesus.” And I think this is the key to the puzzle. There was something about that event that proved to be more than humans could handle, and so it was watered down.

I actually started to come to this conclusion over thirty years ago.

I grew up a Roman Catholic in Chicago and entered the Jesuits when I was nineteen. I went to India as a dedicated missionary at the age of 26 and was ordained a priest at the age of thirty-two. Not long after my ordination, I had a clinically fascinating developmental crisis and left the Jesuits, the priesthood and the church. I never looked back.

Oh, I have looked back and continue to look back in the inquisitive sense of how did that happen, how did I get there, how did I get here, what does this all mean? But I never looked back in the emotional/spiritual sense of feeling guilty about departure or wanting to return.

One day in 1963 when I was studying theology with the Jesuits in India, Fr. Herman Vollkaert, S.J. told us to silently read John 20, 19: “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them.”

When we had time to finish and were looking up at him, he shouted at us “What happened!?”, and something fundamental shifted in my sense of my body, my sense of my self. I got goose bumps on my soul and realized that everything I had been taught previously in my religious upbringing was quite superficial. The truth of the human condition that Jesus brought suddenly became marvelous, mysterious and open-ended. I didn’t know it at the time, but that scripture class marked the first day of the last phase of my organizational belonging.

About three years later, I formally broke with my upbringing. All my life I had gone to Mass regularly. As a priest I had said Mass every day. When I got to the final weeks of that life, I planned out the day when I would stop saying my daily morning Mass. On that day I went to the chapel where I had been doing it, in order to see what, if any, emotional reaction I would have. The scene was on an upper floor of St. Stanislaus Retreat House in Parma, Ohio, and I was prepared for a twinge of sadness or guilt. But what actually did happen surprised me extremely. I stood there and looked at the little altar, the chalice, vestments and missal that I was never going to use again, and what went through me was a gentle but definite feeling of relief. It was as if my body released some toxins it had been holding on to all my life.

A few years afterwards when I was experimenting with drugs, I had exactly the same bodily experience when I was coming down from an acid trip. It was early in the morning and I had been up all night. My body was gradually cleansing itself of the lysurgic acid laced with strychnine that was common on the street at the time. Every so often there would be a pulse of relief as my cells restored themselves, and in one of these moments my memory spoke to me, “Ah, this is what you felt when you said good-bye to the altar.”

The acid connection only enabled me to label the experience more accurately as a release of toxins. But even without correct labeling, that bodily experience in the chapel signaled to me clearly that I was headed in the right direction. That is why I never looked back. And that is why I do not now practice Christianity let alone preach it.

But I am still keenly interested in understanding the situation. In pursuing that interest, I have come to distinguish clearly between the experience provided by church and the experience provided by the source-event that has somehow led to the existence of church. Something happened in the middle east in the time of Caesar that re-shaped human history, and when I realized what it was, I left church.

It seems to me that if we are to understand the present moment in the history of Judaeo-Christian civilization, we have to come to terms with the difference between how the event we now refer to as “the resurrection” was experienced by those who witnessed it, and how it is experienced now. The difference is in the body.

Suppose that things happened pretty much exactly as the gospels tell them. If so, I think the psychodynamics work this way: (1) A network of intimate personal relationships forms in which full, normal body contact is completely verified. (2) A very public death occurs (“and there came forth blood and water”). (3) A bodily experience occurs after the death that is perceptually identical with the bodily experiences of companionship before the death. (4) A resulting shift of inner-outer perceptual standards occurs that the New Testament called metanoia and which we can now call either a “shift of personality structure” or after Ken Wilber “a stage-specific transformation” as in the following:

…to progress to operational myth, the child has to give up or die to an exclusive allegiance to magical wishes; to progress to rational science, the adolescent has to give up exclusive attachment to mythic outcomes; to progress to yogic adaptation, the adult has to surrender and release isolated/linear rationality into a larger vision-logic and so on. [A Sociable God, 53.]

The key element to watch in all this is the “shift in inner-outer perceptual standards.” This is a sudden increase in introspective competence. The unconscious becomes more accessible. Inner awareness becomes suddenly safer. People open up to parts of themselves that were previously inaccessible. This simply means that the experience of the resurrection perforated the boundary between the (conscious) ego and the unconscious.

Consider Robert Bellah’s comment:

The historic religions discovered the self; early modern religion found a doctrinal basis on which to accept the self in all its empirical ambiguity; modern religion is beginning to understand the laws of the self’s own existence and so can help man take responsibility for his own fate. [“Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review 1964, 374.]

The only problem with this approach would seem to be that it might seriously violate the carefully constructed sense of presence in our bodies that we learn in contemporary culture. I suggest that in this culture we live very gingerly in our bodies. We live much more comfortably in our minds. And so “re-integration”, while momentarily disturbing, is actually a great spiritual opportunity.

If there is indeed this major difference between the experience of the original event and how we tend to experience it now, that would explain a lot of historical data, including the power of the event that started this civilization, and the weakness of the institutions that claim to carry it on now. The resurrection of Jesus gave us some data about death that we are still trying to decipher.

When this event opened up the psyches of Mediterraenean society two thousand years ago, people experienced a new personal, emotional freedom. This condition included an inrush of unconscious content that the ego was not prepared for. Obsessions occurred as well as integration and wholeness. The ego was not yet strong enough to sort through the material that had lain under the cover of psychic repression. Early Christianity was socially very turbulent. Consequently a powerful political concern for mechanisms of control started to arise. Augustine brought this concern to full flower. Around the year 400 the institutional formula for control reached maturity. It included ritual, a bureaucracy and a theory of spiritual reality that divided the world into two distinct parts: “nature” on the one hand and “grace” on the other. That is, the ego and the unconscious were pre-scientifically labeled and a war between them was identified.

The language actually begins with Paul. In the classic passage in Romans 7 he ruminates on his compulsions. The name he gives to the ego is “my true self” and the name he gives to the unconscious is “sin”: “When I act against my will, then it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me.” Carl Rogers could have done wonders for Paul.

By the time we arrive at the duel between Augustine and Pelagius for the soul of christianity 400 years later, we find the proponent of unalterable bodily and unconscious impulses (the weak ego position) gaining the clear victory. In a brilliant presentation that deserves to be read and re-read, Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve and the Serpent) asks the question, “Why would anyone choose to feel guilty?”

I think the answer is in developmental psychology. Only a modern ego could even ask Pagels’ question. Augustine and those he spoke for did not experience guilt as a “choice.” It was a given. That is how a lesser-developed ego handles the split-off elements of the self that lie in the unconscious. It is simply subject to them. It must defend. We must not be thrown off by Augustine’s intellectual brilliance. Emotionally he was not a maturely-developed person.

So, Christianity set up a regime of ritual, inquisition and guilt to control the dark forces of the unconscious and further strengthen the ego. In this regime, what we now call the ego was called “grace”, and what we now call the repressed elements of the unconscious was called “sin.” The full story of the evolution of this regime is fascinating and long, but at this time we only need to note two points about it.

The first is, as Pagels puts it, “The eventual triumph of Augustine’s theology required the capitulation of all who held to the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel.” [AAS, 126.]

The second is that the resurrection of Jesus was changed from a bodily event into an intellectual event. Christianity cultivated, not the experience of the resurrection, but the idea of the resurrection. With Augustine, Christianity retreated into its head. And one of the things that got lost in the move was direct engagement with death.

We need to be candid about this. In spirituality, death is the test. A spirituality that does not give equanimity with death is not mature. (I am not talking about drugs. There are many tranquillizers available. I am talking about fully awake engagement.) A spirituality that is mature experiences death not as bad news, not as good news, in fact, not as news at all. It experiences it as simply the next step. None of us is going anywhere.

This brings us — with the intervening steps of fifteen hundred years — to now. Here we are, embarked on a global meaning-quest in a situation as confused as the Mediterraenean world at the time of Jesus. But there are two huge differences between today’s confusion and the one 1500 years ago. The good news is that our socially established command of reason has given us stronger egos. We are not as easily prey to guilt and projection. The bad news is that as a culture we have become imprisoned in our heads and so the source-event of Christianity is not readily accessible as a full-body experience.

But if one is mindful, I submit, the real thing is still available. I think it is important to recognize that this event is now fully in the public domain. What re-shaped history and got lost because it created too much freedom is really not the property of the organizations that think they have some special title to it. It is in fact just out there lying in the street. Anyone who wants access to it can have that, without joining anything. (I know Jesus recommended baptism. But that was then; this is now. Its pedagogy is complete. I personally recommend against it. Baptism devalues birth.)

So this is my solution to the puzzle of Christianity: history is developmental; life is developmental. The source-event of Christianity was such a powerful opening into the non-material side of self that the personality structure of the culture of the time could not handle it. And so Christianity turned the experience of the resurrection into the idea of the resurrection. Thus the problem of contemporary Christianity is the same as the problem of western culture: we are stuck in our heads.

However, the bodily event is still available, still powerful, and can contribute a much-needed element of precision to our sense of the relationship between spirit and matter. I think this question of precision is crucial in the present meaning-quest of western society.

However, it is a question that must wait for another time. I do not want to lose my focus. The point now is only to call attention to the fact that the source-event of western culture is no longer experienced as it originally was, and to recover our spiritual vitality, we need to return to it. I think this does not now happen in any ecclesiastical exercise that I know of. But I think does happen anywhere, any time some one asks with mindfulness, “What happened?”

I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to anticipate what anyone might find when they do this. I simply say, “Have the experience; then let’s talk.” I know the conversation will be interesting, solve many problems, and not leave anybody out.

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