On Jesus

Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  How could a disciple of Christ faithfully understand the significance of this biblical passage while also affirming that non-christians can know and love God?  Doesn’t this statement mean a person must explicitly identify as a Christian in order to know God and be “saved”?

One of the most richly meaningful and poorly understood biblical symbols is the Logos (or Word) of God.  The Logos is associated with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, throughout the biblical narrative and writings in ways that are full of significance.  Logos is the creative, sustaining, and organizing nexus of power that is dynamically and actively present in all creation, giving all things their essential identity and bringing all things to their final fulfillment.  Understanding the meaning of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life requires understanding something of the biblical theology surrounding the Logos.

In the Bible’s opening creation story—in the beginning—it is the powerful Logos (the Word) of God that speaks creation into being from the formless potential represented by the dark, deep waters.  And, curiously, in the same story we are told that human beings have been made in the image and likeness of this creative, divine Logos who transforms formless potential into habitable being.  Human beings, like the Logos, are made to responsibly create, explore, and transform the potential of God’s world into being that is good.

Later in the biblical drama, the writer of John’s gospel, in an epic opening narrative that clearly resembles the Genesis creation account—a narrative which introduces magnificent themes and motifs that will be further developed like is done in the opening of a symphony—makes remarkable claims about the Logos.  The author says it is the same world-creating Logos that was God and was with God in the beginning, by which all things were made, and without which nothing was made that has been made.  John describes this creative Logos as a source of life and light for all humankind so powerful that the darkness has not and cannot overcome it.  And John says it is the same Logos that became flesh in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, who revealed the glory of the one and only Son, coming from the Father, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth.  This is the context within which the author subsequently writes Jesus’s famous words—I am the way and the truth and the life—in what was later designated the fourteenth chapter.

And once again, it is the same personality, the same creative power, that Paul portrays on a cosmic scale in his letter to the Colossians.  Paul writes that the Son is the image of the invisible God, supreme over all creation, in whom all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authoritiesthat all things have been created through him and for him, that he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It is this cosmic vision of Christ, the Logos and Son of the living God, shining forth across a sacramental universe, noticed or unnoticed, as the integrating, organizing, vitalizing power present in all created things that Jesus’s claim about being the way, the truth, and the life must be understood.

cosmos

What does this biblical understanding of the Logos mean for how we understand ourselves, as people who bear the divine image?  One thing it means is our (extra)ordinary impulses towards creativity, vitality, exploration, and transformation are varied expressions of the dynamic power of Logos inherent within our humanity, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God, and, indeed, within all living things that dynamically participate in the activity of God’s good creation.  That within us which creates, vitalizes, explores, and transforms, at its best, and for the genuine betterment of all, is divine Logos actively at work bringing life to fulfillment.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the picture this dynamic power of Logos fully embodied in human life.  Christ exhibits creative, life-giving power to heal the diseased and the brokenhearted, to restore the spiritually crushed, to awaken, to motivate, and to inspire all who are weary and heavy-laden.  And Christ voluntarily moves beyond the boundaries of safety to bravely explore and encounter the dark, threatening powers of suffering, evil, and death, and in doing so he transforms and transcends them by his ever-greater power of life.  It is this pattern of behaviour, this way of life—this transformative mode of being—that disciples of Christ are called to imitate and reproduce in themselves as they actively partner with God’s grace.  Christ, as Logos, dramatically displays the transformative processes of recreating, restoring, reordering, reforming, revitalizing, and renewing.  Even as the Incarnate Spirit of God, he does not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill its latent and often misunderstood purposes in revolutionary ways.

Jesus says, “I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

To resist participating in the heroic work of Christ is to ally oneself with the enemy, the antiheroic Antichrist who works to steal, kill, and destroy.  The Antichrist, by definition, is that varied power, that personality, which works in opposition to the work of Christ.  Sadly, some self-identified Christians, for various reasons, actually become rigid, lifeless, deadening individuals who resist necessary change and renewal, even as they shrivel into spiritual extinction, all as they ironically present themselves as committed followers of Christ.

One of the hardest lessons I have been learning is that sometimes I must resist certain pressures to conform with Christianity in order to fulfill the work of Christ.  For all of the benefits of having a religious upbringing, I have also internalized some excessively conservative, rigid, life-denying tendencies towards resisting change and growth and renewal, even in terms of my basic psychological and social functioning.  Thankfully I am not doomed to remain stuck in arrested development.  By the Spirit of Christ, change is possible.  Nor does this mean I must reject the Christian religion altogether in exchange for pursuing Christ.  But the power of Christ and the Christian religion are not the same thing.  So I must be perceptive in seeing where Christ is at work, where religion has become lifeless and deadening, and choose to ally myself with the recreative, revitalizing power of Christ whenever and wherever Christ and Christianity move in separate ways.

Some profess allegiance with Christ by their lips and yet still ally with the work of the Antichrist in their hearts and behaviours, usually by slowly stagnating and withering away in a wasteland of some deadening religious piety.  Jesus’ scathing warnings still echo today, though unfortunately not enough through some of our churches:

Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it…”

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead…”

Better to ally yourself with the work of Christ in your heart and behaviour, no matter what you say with your lips, than to sing praises to Christ while living in support of the forces of death.

If Christians gives Christ a bad name, if Christians misrepresent Christ to their non-christian neighbours, does that mean non-christians are doomed to never know Christ, doomed to suffer in separation from the Spirit of Life?  Absolutely not!  For every single living, breathing human being is made in the image and likeness of the world-creating Logos.  Every single person is sustained by the same Logos, pervading, enlivening, and moving being to its fulfillment.  If Christ ceased to graciously and unconditionally love existence into being, even for a split second, we would cease existing.  Christ, as Logos, already intimately supports and loves all people, right now, moment by moment, into living and being.  So anyone, anywhere, at anytime, who turns towards Christ in the innermost depths of their heart, trusting that to ally with that creative, vitalizing, transfiguring Power of Life is the best way to livesuch a person truly knows and loves Christ.  For one knows Christ first and foremost by faith.  Verbal expression, though important, is infinitely secondary to the profound, hidden, and sometimes inarticulate movements of the heart.

Since the meaning of the name of Christ is so corrupted the minds of so many people by the duplicitous behaviour exhibited by so many Christians, I cannot help but believe a person may know and live according to the Power of Christ and yet not identify with the Christian label or with the Christian religion.  Disciples of Christ should be extremely careful when dividing up people and dividing up the world into who knows Christ and who doesn’t know Christ, for risk of dividing up Christ and opposing his work.  Anyone who cannot be surprised by God does not know God.  Indeed, the Spirit of Christ cannot be contained or controlled anymore than the movements of the wind.  Not by you.  Not by me.  And not even by Christians.

 

On Science & Religion

It certainly should be no surprise that the scientific revolution emerged within a religious culture that so highly values seeking and speaking the truth to the best of one’s ability.  Or that science emerged within a religious culture that assumes history is progressing towards an ideal end and humankind is meant to participate in its unfolding.  Or that science, with its immutable laws of nature, emerged within a religious culture that believes in the existence of an immutable Lawgiver who governs and orders being.  The simple yet often overlooked fact is that science does not stand on its own.  Science, in fact, is necessarily supported by moral, mythological, and metaphysical assumptions about the nature of human life, history, and reality.  In other words, science is grounded in ancient religious assumptions.
science

The scientific method is a highly specialized mode of inquiry that is necessarily nested within moral inquiry, which is nested within mythological inquiry, which is nested within metaphysics.  Science, in principle, does not and cannot define morals or myths or metaphysics by its methods, and yet it necessarily relies on certain moral, mythological, and metaphysical assumptions.

Science assumes, for example, that knowing about the nature of the objective world is morally better than not knowing—that it is better to shine the light of knowledge into the darkness of ignorance, and that collectively pursuing and speaking the truth about our observations of nature, no matter how presently inconvenient or disruptive this may be, is better than twisting our words and theories to protect comfortable illusions of the status quo.  If this moral strikes you as ridiculously obvious, your reaction is evidence of how deeply you’ve internalized it.  Indeed, this moral deeply underlies the scientific approach.  And modern science assumes the process of truthfully observing, documenting, and peer-reviewing our findings about natural phenomena, to the best of our individual and collective abilities, is a morally better mode of being than intentionally bending the truth with lies and illusions that fit our preferred view of things.  Science also assumes that however discomforting and destabilizing the process of researching the truth can be, its discoveries and outcomes will be ultimately good, indeed, better than the alternatives.  Otherwise, why on earth would we engage in the process?

Even though the scientific method, in principle, is strictly concerned with describing what is, applying scientific methods in research and technological development involves making countless implicit value/moral decisions about what should be our present priorities, what should be our future goals, and what should be done with the findings and technologies we accumulate.  These essentially amount to moral judgments between good and bad.  Science has also deeply depended on the myth (meaning narrative) of progress, the story that history has a linear plot that is developing and moving towards a ever-perfect state, if we could only advance our scientific technologies and theories enough to reach our common destiny.  Science also assumes nature has and will always behave according to certain eternal, immutable, predictable “laws,” and that rational human beings have the capacity to accurately observe and describe the behaviour and makeup of nature.  Kept in proper persecutive, science is seen to be supported by a complex matrix of morals, myths, and metaphysics.

Science and mythology are necessarily opposed according to popular misconceptions.  The truth is science cannot operate outside of mythological assumptions about the nature of human activity within history.  The development of foundational morals and myths has been absolutely crucial for humanity’s maturation.  Once we have established some commonly held moral, mythological, metaphysical beliefs which provide order, coherence, stability, and guidance for our common life, we can pursue more specialized and privileged scientific interests.  This has been science’s developmental heritage and pathway.  Without basic morals and myths (which protect us from the chaotic disorder of the unpredictable and threatening unknown) we would necessarily be preoccupied with fulfilling basic survival and social needs by first negotiating how we can live well with one another without prematurely dying or needlessly killing each other.

The fact that we even believe we can discard mythology and metaphysics in exchange for modern science is partly indicative of how deeply we’ve internalized and acclimatized ourselves to certain myths and metaphysics that inextricably support science.  We take them so much for granted that we actually believe we no longer believe them.  When we foolishly try to pry science out from its grounding morals, myths, and metaphysics, or when ignore the traditions of knowledge it has developed in, we are at risk of becoming unstable, disintegrated, fragmented, and disordered.  Just as a child is at risk of becoming disordered and unstable when he denies the formative and enduring influence of his parents or ancestors, so science is at risk of becoming disordered and unstable when it denies the formative and enduring influence of religion.

 

Selections from “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief” by Jordan Peterson

Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought – but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself – is denying the world – is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future – transforms the past from shelter to prison.

The individual embodiment of collective past wisdom is turned into the personification of inflexible stupidity by means of the lie. The lie is straightforward, voluntary rejection of what is currently known to be true. Nobody knows what is finally true, by definition, but honest people make the best possible use of their experience. The moral theories of honest people – however incomplete from some hypothetical transcendent perspective – account for what they have seen and for who they are, insofar as that has been determined, in the course of diligent effort. It is not necessary, to define truth, to have seen and heard everything – that would make truth itself something impossible. It is only necessary to have represented and adapted to what has been seen and heard – to have represented and adapted to those phenomena characterizing the natural and social worlds, as encountered, and the self, as manifested. This is to say, merely, that the truth of children and adults differs, because their experience – their reality – differs. The truthful child does not think like an adult: he thinks like a child, with his eyes open. The adult, however, who still uses the morality of the child – despite his adult capacities – he is lying, and he knows it.

The lie is willful adherence to a previously functional schema of action and interpretation – a moral paradigm – in spite of new experience, which cannot be comprehended in terms of that schema; in spite of new desire, which cannot find fulfillment within that previous framework. The lie is willful rejection of information apprehended as anomalous on terms defined and valued by the individual doing the rejection. That is to say: the liar chooses his own game, sets his own rules, and then cheats. This cheating is failure to grow, to mature; is rejection of the process of consciousness itself.

The lie is therefore not so much a sin of commission, in most cases, as a sin of omission (although it may take the former condition as well). The lie is a matter of voluntary failure to explore, and to update. The appearance of an anomalous occurrence in the ongoing stream of experience only indicates that the present goal-directed schema within which behaviour is being undertaken and evaluated is characterized by the presence of a flaw. The “place” of the flaw, the reasons for its existence, the “meaning” of the flaw (its potential for altering interpretation and behaviour) – that is all something hypothetical, at the first stage of anomaly emergence and analysis. The unknown has to be “mined” for precise significance, before it can be said to have been experienced, let alone comprehended; has to be transformed, laboriously, from pure affect into revision of presumption and action (into “psyche” or “personality”). “Not doing” is therefore the simplest and most common lie: the individual can just “not act,” “not investigate,” and the pitfalls of error will remain unmanifest – at least temporarily. This rejection of the process of creative exploration means lack of effortful update of procedural and declarative memory; means adaptation to the present, as if it still were the past; means refusal to think. The rectification of error is, after all, not inevitable; it is neither effortless nor automatic. Mediation of order and chaos requires courage and work.

Adoption of identity with the heroes of the past – necessary, but with implicit pathological potential – is transformed into certain corruption, when the identified individual is a liar, who has voluntarily rendered himself incapable of personal heroism. Adoption of group identity and position means access to the power embodied in the past – means access to the collective strength and technical ability of the culture. This power is terribly dangerous, in cowardly and deceitful hands. The liar cannot see any value in weakness or deviance, in himself or others – only the potential for chaos – and he cannot see any value in chaos or uncertainty. He has no sympathy or patience for or appreciation of his own weaknesses – or his own strengths – and can therefore have none for the weakness or strength of others. The liar can only pretend to embody what is best of the past, in consequence, because he cannot support or tolerate the presence of necessary deviance in the present. This means that the liar is a tyrant, because he cannot stand being a fool.

The liar cannot tolerate anomaly, because it provokes anxiety – and the liar does not believe that he can or should withstand anxiety. This means that he is motivated to first avoid and then to actively suppress any behavioural pattern or experience of world that does not fit comfortably into his culturally-determined system of affect-regulating moral presuppositions. Avoidance means that anomalous experience is kept “unconscious,” so to speak – which means incompletely realized. The implications of the dangerous thought remain unconsidered; the presence of the threatening fantasy remains unadmitted; the existence of the unacceptable personal action remains unrecognized. Active suppression does not mean intrapsychic “repression,” in the classic sense, but aggressive action undertaken in the world, to forcibly eliminate evidence of error. This may mean treachery, spiritual cruelty, or the outright application of power: may mean application of whatever maneuver is presumed necessary, to destroy all indication of insufficiency. The bearer of bad news therefore inevitably suffers at the hand of the deceitful individual, who would rather kill the source of potential wisdom than benefit from its message.

The lie is easy, and rewarding, as it allows for the avoidance of anxiety – at least in the short term. In the long run, however, the lie has terrible consequences. The “avoidance or suppression” of novel or unexpected experience, which is the abstract equivalent of running away, transforms it perforce into determinate threat (is the categorical equivalent of labelling as threat). The domain of unprocessed novelty, defined prima facie by inaction and avoidance as “threat too intolerable to face,” expands inevitably with time, when the past is held as absolute. More and more experience is therefore rendered intolerable, inexplicable, and chaotic, as the cumulative effects of using the lie as a mode of adaptation inexorably manifest themselves. The lie transforms culture into tyranny, change into danger, while sickening and restricting the development and flexibility of adaptive ability itself. Reliance on the lie ensures – as fears grows – heightened, pathologized identification with the past (manifested as fascism, as personal and political intolerance), or decadent degeneration (manifested as nihilism, as personal and social deterioration).

Identification with the spirit of denial eventually makes life unbearable, as everything new – and, therefore, everything defining hope – comes to be axiomatically regarded as punishment and threat; makes life unbearable, as the realm of acceptable action shrinks inexorably. The attendant and unavoidable suffering experienced in consequence generates the desire for – and motivates actions predicated on the attainment of – the end of all experience, as compensation and revenge for sterility, absence of meaning, anxiety, hatred and pain…

The individual who lives by the lie continually shrinks his domain of competence – his “explored and familiar territory.” Eventually, in consequence, he has nowhere left to turn – except to himself. But his own personality has, in the meantime, become shrunken and inept, as a consequence of underdevelopment – as a consequence of repeated failure to participate in the process that turns “precosmogonic matter” into “spirit” and “world.” Nothing remains but weakness, resentment, hatred and fear. Thus the chaos that is rejected, in consequence of the desire for too much security, attains its inevitable victory. The “vicious circle” created by the liar spirals down inevitably to the “underworld”…

The individual lies to convince himself, and others, that he embodies the greatness of the past. He pretends to be upright and courageous, instead of acting morally and bravely. Truly courageous actions might turn the group against him, and it is only identity with that group that keeps his head above water. The lie means denial of self, means the abandonment of mythic identity with God, means certain involuntary “revolutionary” collapse, in time. The lie means conscious refusal to modify and reconfigure historically-predicated behaviour and belief to incorporate novelty and alleviate threat.

Endless failure to voluntarily update means the generation of a morass, around the individual, where the “water of life” once existed: means transformation of what could be life-giving water into a deadly swamp, composed of past errors, unresolved traumas, and current difficulties. This is the domain characterized by Freud as the “unconscious,” into which “repressed memories” are cast. But unprocessed information is not precisely memory. That which has not yet been explored is not yet memorable – not yet even “real.” The consequence of untaken action is more accurately “potential from which ‘spirit’ and ‘world’ could be constructed” – much of it implicit in the world as it currently exists (instead of “stored in memory”). (Implicit, that is, in the form of as-of-yet unencountered but latent “trouble” – in the form of the unanswered letter, the unpaid debt, and the unresolved dispute).

This self-generated swamp grows increasingly impenetrable, as time passes inexorably onward; becomes increasingly “uninhabitable,” as the consequences of long-term avoidance propagate (as the monsters of the bog sprout new and hungry heads). This “accumulation of precosmogonic potential” is tantamount to reanimation of the dragon of chaos (is precisely equivalent to the re-awakening of Tiamat, who eternally sleeps, under the secure and familiar world). The more restricted, fear-bound, faithless and repressive the particular mode of adaptation – that is, the more extreme the lie – the more horrendous, dangerous, intolerable, and powerful the associated dragon. It is in this manner that attitude comes to define the world. Every attempt to wish any aspect of experience out of existence transforms it into an enemy. Every facet of being hidden from the light leads a corrupt and sun-starved existence, underground. Experience – absolute reality itself, in the final analysis – cannot be denied without consequence; cannot be merely fantasized out of existence. The enforcement of a wish merely ensures that the information contained in the denied experience can neither be removed from the domain of threat, nor utilized for adaptive purposes.

It is possible that we are in fact adapted to the world – that we are adapted to the world as it actually exists, rather than to the world as we wish it might be. It is possible that our experience contains information precisely sufficient to insure our happy survival. This means that every task left undone – every emergent “territory” left unexplored – comprises “latent information” from which “competent personality” could yet be extracted. If experience is valid as “source of world and spirit” then those elements of experience that have been avoided or suppressed or devalued may yet contain within them what is absolutely essential to continued successful existence. Voluntary transformation – voluntary movement towards “the good” – would therefore mean re-integration of cast-off “material”; would mean voluntary incorporation of that which appears, at present, indigestible. The alternative to this “voluntary pursuit of the inedible” is eventual psychological catastrophe, at the social or individual level, engendered through involuntary contact with the “hostile forces” of rejected being. From the mythological perspective, this psychological catastrophe is accidental reunion with the terrible mother, on territory of her choosing. This “Oedipal incest” culminates in certain suffering, on the part of the unwilling “hero”: culminates in suicide, dismemberment, castration – ends in the final sacrifice of “masculine” consciousness, and in the victory of the underworld.

The identity of the individual with his culture protects him from the terrible unknown, and allows him to function as an acceptable member of society. This slavish function strengthens the group. But the group states that certain ways of thinking and acting are all that are acceptable, and these particular ways do not exhaust the unknown and necessary capabilities of the human being. The rigid grinning social mask is the individual’s pretence that he is “the same person” as everyone else (that is, the same dead person) – that he is not a natural disaster, not a stranger, not strange – that he is not deviant, weak, cowardly, inferior and vengeful. The true individual, however – the honest fool – stands outside the protective enclave of acceptance, unredeemed – the personification of weakness, inferiority, vengefulness, cowardice, difference. He cannot make the cut, and because he cannot make the cut, he is the target of the tyranny of the group (and of his own judgment, insofar as he is that group). But man as a fool, weak, ignorant and vulnerable, is what the group is not: a true individual, truly existing, truly experiencing, truly suffering (if it could only be admitted). Consciousness of intrinsic personal limitation, and apprehension of its consequences, brings with it clear definition of the nature of subjective experience, when allowed to surface, and fosters attempts to adapt to that experience. It is for this reason that only the unredeemed – the outcast, the sick, the blind, and the lame – can be “saved.” Apprehension of the true nature of subjective experience – of individual reality, outside the delusionary constraints of the group – is of sufficient power to demoralize, absolutely. The eternal consequence of self-consciousness is therefore the expulsion from paradise – in its maternal and patriarchal forms. But such a fall is a step on the way to the “true paradise” – is a step towards adoption of identity with the hero, who is not protected from the vagaries of existence, but who can actively transform the terrible unknown into the sustenant and productive world. Acceptance (at least recognition) of the mortal limitation characterizing human experience therefore constitutes the precondition for proper adaptation. The lie, which denies individual experience, is denial of the fool – but the fool is the truth.

Acceptance of mortal weakness is the paradoxical humility that serves as a precondition for true heroism. The heroic attitude is predicated on the belief that something new and valuable still exists, to be encountered and assimilated, regardless of the power and stability of the current position. This belief is further based upon faith in human potential – upon faith that the individual spirit will respond to challenge, and flourish. Such belief must be posited – voluntarily, freely – prior to participation in any heroic endeavour. This is the necessary leap that makes courageous and creative action possible; that makes religion something real. Humility means, therefore: I am not yet what I could be – an adage both cautious and hopeful.

On Mythology

What do strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown all have in common?  Knowing the answer will help you understand an important feature of ancient mythology.  Ancient religion’s field of concern encompasses all of human being and experience, objectivity and subjectivity combined.  So understanding the significance (and functional value) of mythological symbols and stories requires understanding the subjective emotional and psychological states they illustrate or provoke.  So, once again, what do strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown all have in common? They all can potentially provoke our fearful, survival responses (fight, flight, or freeze) when we encounter them.  They are all potentially chaotic, sometimes deadly entities that can threaten to destroy existing psychological and social order, coherence, and stability.  It’s certainly no coincidence that evil forces of chaos and disorder are depicted variously as predatory creatures like a snake, a lion, and a dragon in the Christian theological tradition.  Likewise, strangers, new ideas, predators, natural disasters, and the unknown are related in the mythic mind partly because of their similar psychological and emotional significance.

Ancient mythological thinking certainly isn’t all bad.  It actually profoundly underlies our psychological makeup and functioning.  But for its many benefits, it does have some liabilities.  For example, the mythic mind is prone to react to a stranger in the same way it would react to a predatory animal, or to see a new idea as if it were a natural disaster.  Can you see why this could become a problem?  This isn’t necessarily bad, especially if your an ancient tribesman who wants to protect your tribe’s existing order and traditions, and avoid needless conflict and bloody encounters with other tribes.  Perhaps it’d be best to just keep your distance, and this is a helpful risk-avoidance measure in such an environment.  But the mythic mind can become a hinderance if we allow ourselves to avoid accepting change, adaptation, strangers, and new ideas as if they will always have the same impact on us as predators and natural disasters.

Here’s the thing: the unknown is simultaneously threatening and promising, a domain that evokes an ambivalence of fear and curiosity.  An unknown stranger may intend to me harm, but they may also be a friendly bearer of new knowledge that can further my development and redemption.  An unknown predatory force may be dangerous enough to destroy me, but it also may present valuable benefits if I face it, conquer it, and harness its gifts.  The only way to determine the actual significance of that which is currently unknown is to carefully move outward to encounter and know it.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t chaotic forces that should be challenged or avoided.  We live in a world where there are real dangers.  And sometimes our negative emotions do alert us to the presence of malevolent or dangerous forces.  It would be naive to assume everything and everyone would be all good if we simply got to know it/them better.  But the unknown in general tends to provoke negative emotion.  So it would be equally naive to assume everything and everyone currently unknown to us would be all bad if we got to know it/them better.  Sometimes what is currently unknown to me is not actually threatening or dangerous, even though getting to know it may temporarily destabilize and reform me.  Sometimes what/who is currently unknown to me has promising potential to positively recreate me, if only I would voluntarily seek out the new information and experience contained within it.  This process can nevertheless be uncomfortable, even painful.  I may be required to tear myself down and rebuild.  But it is an unfortunate mistake to assume all of the unknown is necessarily dangerous and threatening disorder, since what is currently unknown to you or me may contain the promising knowledge of salvation and adaptation.

There’s a real problem when a religious person rigidly assumes their own negative emotion (fear, anxiety, anger) when encountering the unknown is the voice of God communicating to them that they are certainly in the presence of evil.  Religious or not, just imagine what kind of person you would become if you never voluntarily faced anything or anyone that made you the least bit anxious or afraid or uncomfortable.  You would become controlled by every passing state of neuroticism.  When someone (religious or nonreligious) maladaptively assumes their negative emotions are infallible indications of the presence of real evil/danger, they become psychologically enclosed in ever-thicker prison walls reinforced by their own fear and anxiety, walls that protect both from real forces of chaos as well as promising opportunities for positive, adaptive learning and change.

We can witness this ancient tribal psychology unfolding today in how opponents involved in ever-polarizing political, social, and religious conflicts engage with one another.  We can see it in the development of separate echo chambers that silo groups off from others and reinforce competing senses of group-righteousness.  We can see it in stereotyping and demonizing those who are different so they’re easy targets for hate.  We can see it in the fearful or indignant unwillingness many exhibit to even talk with people who hold different political, social, or religious perspectives.  Having insight into ancient psychology shows us how the attitude we adopt towards that which is currently unknown will significantly determine whether we see it as a something threatening that prompts fear or as something promising that prompts curiosity and excitement.


Many of these ideas have been significantly influenced by the work of Jordan Peterson from his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.  I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in a much more rigorous, detailed explanation of this evolutionary understanding of religion.

On Evolution

I have come to believe our best pathway forward involves religion coming to terms with scientific truths, and science coming to terms with religious wisdom. Religious activity and traditions are a universal human phenomenon. People across time and place have engaged in religion. And evolutionary development does not preserve adaptations that have no benefits for survival or further innovation. Which raises the question, what are the evolutionary benefits and values of religious activity?

Some modern critics of religion blithely mock the phenomenon without ever seriously investigating its evolutionary purposes. Evolutionary science is relatively new in the grand scheme of history, and serious interest in understanding the nature of religion from evolutionary perspectives is even newer. For decades, scientists and religionists have often battled out their differences in either/or conflicts, pitting science and religion against each other. Perhaps it was necessary for us to dis-embed ourselves from our religiousness, to some degree, and for some period of time, in order for us to see it and appreciate it from a new vantage point.

Relatively few people have pursued in-depth understandings of how religious activity may be positively understood within the history of human evolution, even despite the fact that religious organizations like the Roman Catholic Church have endorsed evolutionary science as compatible with Christian belief, just as one example. But these things do take time. And perhaps this isn’t surprising, since integrating scientific and religious modes of knowledge is a complex pursuit that exists on forefronts of our existing understandings of things. If we are to take evolutionary theory seriously then we need to take the universal phenomenon of religion seriously, and understand its positive benefits instead of simplistically writing religion off as essentially pointless superstitions.

Systems of shared beliefs, values, and practices provide a number of significant benefits, despite obvious and inherent restrictions. They help regulate social, emotional, and perceptual stability for individuals in a group by providing a fixed, constrained set of meanings, expectations, customs, norms for understanding experience and interpersonal behaviour. Without some ordered system of beliefs and values, individuals become psychologically and socially awash in the practically unrestricted meanings of objects, experiences, interactions, and situations. They drown in a sea of psychological and social chaos. Ordered belief systems protect from distressing encounters with the unknown, which is one big reason why adherents are motivated to defend and protect them—they are defending and protecting what is functionally defending and protecting their psyches and societies from being plunged into (potentially deadly) disorder. Well-functioning religions define social cultures that shape what we pay attention to and what we ignore in the practically infinite phenomena of our moment-to-moment experience of Being. As cultural animals with limited fields of perception, religions define psychological and social boundaries and goals that simultaneously protect, guide, stabilize, regulate, and unite the complex lives of individuals and groups.

Shared systems of beliefs, values, and practices, at their best, also support psychological, social, moral, and character development among individuals who voluntarily adhere to them. A complex cultural system does this in a variety of ways. It provides ritual practices and strategies for disciplining one’s perceptions, thoughts, desires, imagination, and behaviours in unison with one’s group, such as praying and mediating, studying sacred texts, performing acts of service, tithing money and resources, and more.  It provides shared cultic (meaning worship) practices for members to participate in to actively, artistically, and collectively express adoration, praise, longing, and thanks towards the divine Ideal.  It provides common ethical goals and ideals to live by, along with social accountability. And it preserves a supply of historically tested traditions, rules, and legendary heroic role models from past generations to be practiced, emulated, and updated for today. Forming productive, stable governments and economies also depends on establishing common group norms, rules, and ideals for guiding cooperation, competition, and trade. So well-functioning religions also serve supportive, developmental, adaptive, and productive purposes.

One way we human beings are unique is we live within stories. Individuals and group always have some sense of where they are, where they want to go, and how they intend to get there. We have an awareness of time as uniquely self-conscious creatures, which in some ways is both our blessing and our curse, and which provides us with a sense that our lives unfold in a kind of narrative journey (we don’t just instinctively live in the moment. As self-conscious creatures with highly developed memories and imaginations, we can consciously remember our past and plan for our future in rather sophisticated ways that ideally serve our adaptation). It also appears ancient tribes that created religious symbols, stories, and mythologies were able to grow into larger sizes than tribes that didn’t. Because shared stories can support social development and promote ongoing exploration and adaptation in ways that serve to bind people together in increasingly greater numbers around pursuing goals that further their common evolution. So shared religious stories provide narrative and social coherence and stability, without which people become fragmented and unbalanced, both socially and psychologically.

So it’s no wonder people usually respond harshly or irrationally when you challenge fundamental beliefs of their religion, for you are threatening to subvert a complex system of values and beliefs that functions to simultaneously stabilize their psyches, regulate their emotions, discipline their desires, and inform their aspirations; a narrative system that instils individual and group identities based on a shared understanding of the historical past, present, and future; a social system that provides accepted interpersonal boundaries, taboos, and expectations, which increases relational predictability and decreases stress; a moral system that prescribes shared ethical standards for orienting behaviour and growth; a cultural system that is familiar and organized to help adherents live cooperatively and productively; and a metaphysical system that delineates sacred, fundamental, and often half-conscious presuppositions about the essential nature of human life and experience, all of which serves to keep the (psychologically, emotionally, and socially) overwhelming and threatening chaos of encountering the absolute unknown at bay.

The same dynamics exist, to some degree, in every cohesive human group and culture, since complex human cultures function to provide psychological, emotional, historical, social, moral, political, economic, and metaphysical stability and coherence to life, for individuals and their groups, without which people will be left alone before the harshest elements of nature to suffer and die. Humans are cultural animals and religions are some of our most sophisticated cultural creations (and ones that foundationally underlie even the development of later, “secular” social/cultural/political developments). Tribes that developed religions that better fulfilled these purposes could outnumber and outlast tribes that didn’t.

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How do gods fit within human evolution? God/gods are complicated entities, serving different purposes depending on the context.  That said, human beings are continually bombarded and possessed by powers/forces that direct our actions and operate beyond our conscious control or influence.  In polytheistic settings, gods (and angels and devils and demons, for that matter) may be functional personifications of specific powers like love or anger or sex or warmongering.  And these powers (what we would perhaps think of as “psycho-social drives”) are gods because they’re eternal (meaning they’re pre-existing forces which live on forever, generation after generation) transpersonal (meaning they appear to universally affect and direct behaviours of all finite beings, from humans to animals) forces that can arbitrarily possess individuals and/or group and influence their behaviours and destinies, often beyond one’s conscious control.  High gods are functional personifications of the powers and shared goals a group orients themselves towards and commonly pursues as the highest ethical ideal (and a major, monotheistic God tends to represent a hybrid of powers and ideals, such as Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Love, Peace, Justice, etc, all integrated within a single entity).

And how do revolutionary religious leaders fit within human evolution? Our most revered figures are described in stories which are told and transmitted, generation after generation, as models worthy of moral and behavioural emulation. We are rightly enamoured with charismatic individuals like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth—with people who have responded to human suffering and challenges with extraordinary courage. They are brave leaders and explorers who have charted new pathways forward through the unknown and threatening wildernesses of nature, relationships, and the human soul, even as they endure intense struggles and suffering in their pursuit of greater adaptation, liberation, and transcendence.

In the Christian theological tradition, Jesus Christ is understood to be the ultimate prophet, priest, king, and human being—the figure who has fulfilled each of these roles and superseded the existing patterns of even the most admirable past figures of his tradition, from Adam to Abraham to Moses to David. Jesus is the meta-hero, the ultimate archetype, who climactically unites the best of his heroic and archetypal predecessors into a single identity and pattern of activity. Jesus says he hasn’t come to destroy the Law and the history of his ancestors, but to fulfill it. The specular theology and mythology surrounding the figure of Christ attests to this fulfillment, as the new testament writings creatively weave together various old testament figures and themes and promises around the accomplishments of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the model, par excellence, of what it looks like to serve and pursue God—the highest ethical ideal. Thus his disciples (students) have voluntarily committed themselves to learning his teachings, following his example, and accepting his Spirit and Mind (the Life and Psychology of Christ) as their own. Members adopt a particular way of being in society and the world, a pattern which ideally serves protective, preservative, regulative, supportive, adaptive, and transformative purposes simultaneously. Any religion that fails to protect and stabilize while also supporting further exploration, adaption, and transformation is not fulfilling all of its ideal purposes for its members.

It should be no surprise that humanity’s knowledge first emerged in artistic forms of dramatic images and stories before it developed into more articulated forms of abstract propositions.  Just as individuals first go through imaginative stages of psychological development as children where they learn primarily through story-form and art-form before developing capacities for more abstracted logic and objective thought, our species has collectively evolved through similar stages of development.  In addition, the essentially moral concerns of religious activity (how should we live with one another?) preceded more privileged scientific concerns (what is objective nature?). For both individuals and groups, earlier stages of imaginative, dramatic, artistic, and moral/behavioural modes of knowledge provide the necessary foundations for later, more rational, scientific levels of development (which is why a parent will typically read illustrated children’s stories to their three-year-old instead of textbooks on advanced logic or mathematics or physics [unless, of course, their three-year-old is some exceptionally gifted genius. But even then, they’d probably still have to wait until the kid is at least four or five.]). This developmental process is even instantiated in the historical development of the brain: more ancient emotional structures developed prior to more rational, cortical structures, and neurobiological and psychology health depend upon integrating, balancing, and coordinating their functions.

Psychological, neurobiological, and cultural development illustrate the necessity of both transcending and including what has been learned and gained in previous levels of development. We become disintegrated and disoriented, individually and collectively, when we attempt to transcend and reject our previous stage of development, upon which our new stage has necessarily been built. This is partly what has been happening when so-called modern, rational, enlightened westerners have decided our religious heritage is nothing but silly superstitions that can be safely rejected and left behind in our ancient past. These people take for granted the pivotal role religious activity played in the survival and evolutional of their own ancestral lineage, and still plays at deep, tacit levels of psychological and social functioning, even for the “modern” human being, just as emotions still play a significant (and more powerful) role in the neurobiological functioning and behaviour of a “rational” being.

Healthy religions (and societies and governments, for that matter) achieve some optimal balance between preserving order from the past and openly exploring and evolving in the present in the face of new challenges, experiences, and information. The is the perennial battle between conservatives (who want to conserve what’s been built) and liberals (who want to change what’s been built). At their worst, conservatives want to preserve what’s bad with what’s good, whereas liberals may want to discard both the good with the bad in the name of innovation.  In other words, conservatives sometimes want to keep the baby and the bathwater, whereas liberal want to toss out both.

At their worst, conservatives have no respect for the need to change and little appreciation of how present demands and circumstances should update traditions of the past.  They tend to under-appreciate our need to venture out beyond the boundaries of historic traditions, learn new information, and update our current practices to meet the demands of the present and future.  At their worst, liberals have no respect for the past and little appreciation of how the accumulated practices and wisdom of our ancestors should inform our present endeavours.  They tend to under-appreciate our need for rules, customs, and traditions to order our lives, and how cultural systems decrease collective/individual stress and promote social and psychological integration and stability.  So they often take for granted how ridiculously ordered and predictable our societies have become thanks to our inherited cultural systems of shared beliefs, values, and customs.  At their worst, partisan/fundamentalist conservatives and liberals each end up with half-stories and half-strategies for addressing the full complexity of human life and experience.

But at their best, conservatives work to preserve the best from the past and liberals work to incorporate the best new information from the present into inherited systems in ways that update and revivify old traditions for present and future generations.  At their best, conservatives and liberals (whether in religious or political spheres) recognize they need each other, and they see greater value and possibilities in working together instead of against each other. This is certainly no coincidence since evolutionary development conserves the best of what’s evolved from the past and adaptively incorporates the best of present evolution in response to current and future challenges. The same kind of balance between the extremes of rigid order (the conservative mistake) and chaotic disorder (the liberal mistake) must be struck for healthy psychological functioning in individuals and healthy social functioning in societies. Every individual and group needs some ordered system of beliefs and values as well as a steady flow of new input and information in order to achieve wellbeing, without which we either drown in a sea of chaotic stimuli or ossify in a walled-off desert of hyper-rigidity.


Many of these ideas have been significantly influenced by the work of Jordan Peterson from his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.  I highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in a much more rigorous, detailed explanation of this evolutionary understanding of religion.