On Psychology

The stages of collective development portrayed in the biblical story of God’s people broadly parallel the stages a person goes through in healthy individual development.  The two most significant revolutions in the biblical narrative centre around the figures of Moses and Jesus.  The revolution of Moses was a revolution of law that formed the foundation of a tribal society, whereas the subsequent revolution of Jesus was a revolution of freedom in the Spirit of God that transcends tribal distinctions.  Moses brought law, order, commandments, rules, boundaries, limits, and standards.  Jesus brought freedom, grace, forgiveness, love, and maturity in following the Spirit of the Law.

Healthy individual development likewise includes some combination of boundaries and freedom.  Without some of both, individuals becomes imbalanced and developmentally arrested in dysfunctional ways.  Learning rudimentary rules, boundaries, and roles while exercising a limited amount of freedom is the general scheme of early human development.  But as an individual matures, she internalizes and builds upon the rudimentary learnings of early life while simultaneously exercising greater amounts of freedom, independence, and voluntary responsibility over time.

We generally acknowledge society’s need for laws to preserve some degree of social order, without which society would degenerate into disorder and chaos.  Useful laws, customs, and cultures function to create needed social predictability, stability, and order.  The same principles apply to psychological development and stability.  Learning to follow basic laws, rules, and boundaries is absolutely indispensable, especially in early psychological development.

Various developmental psychologies acknowledge a child’s need for clear rules, boundaries, and limits as a precondition of healthy early development.  Individuals begin life extremely dependent and helpless.  Each nascent individual psyche needs clearly defined and predictable “laws,” so to speak—guiding boundaries, rules, and standards—to support and orient its development, without which the psyche can become disordered and disoriented as it is pulled apart by conflicting desires, needs, aspirations, and external demands.  This learning also helps lay the foundational structures of an individual’s perceptions and psyche that further development is built upon.

Teaching rules and standards of good behaviour to developing children helps individuals learn how to respectfully and considerately interact with other individuals too.  When children learn how to play well with other children, they are learning basic patterns of behaviour that will later enable them to be productive members of adult society.  So if children do not learn how to “follow the rules,” and if they do not learn how to “play well with others,” there is a greater likelihood they will develop permanently isolating and antisocial tendencies that will interfere significantly with their ongoing development and fulfillment.

Learning reasonable personal and social boundaries allows children and adolescents to strengthen their own psychological boundaries and sense of self, as well as their ability to properly regulate impulses and emotions in complex relation to the external demands of other people and circumstances.  Early boundaries first form around the line between what is me and what is not-me: around my body, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts, my ambitions, and myself.  Repeated boundary violations in any of these areas in the form of unwelcome physical, emotional, or mental manipulation and domination can severely compromise healthy individual development in enduring ways.

Having habitually poor physical, psychological, emotional, and/or relational boundaries—which are typically learned in childhood—is a hallmark of many social dysfunctions and mental disorders.  And raising a child in a disordered, unpredictable, and unsafe environment is a recipe for longterm psychological problems.  Individuals who cannot form some basic psychological order out of chaos for themselves, for whatever reason, will figuratively drown within the stormy waters of their souls.  Individual development cannot occur so long as a person is fighting simply to keep his head above water.  He’s struggling just to survive.  Which means he has no leftover energy to devote to growing or realizing his potentials.

Children (and adults) likewise need boundaries partly because a infinitely boundless environment is overwhelming and unmanageable.  Boundaries and standards function like the dry ground of a familiar island, without which a child would feel as if he is lost at open sea.   So when kids engage in testing boundaries, it is at least partly because they need to gain a psychological sense of the limits of themselves, their relationships, and their environment in order to develop a much needed sense of familiarity, predictability, and safety.

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A common symbol of cultural structures in mythology is the Great Father, which has manifold significance.  Generally, the Father represents the order and culture that organizes human life.  In its positive manifestation, culture provides order, predictability, stability, familiarity, and security, all of which can organize a society (and a psyche) in ways that decrease unnecessary stress and increase psychosocial harmony and productivity.  The Wise Father/King is a mythological image of this positive aspect.  But in its negative manifestation, culture can become excessively outdated, rigid, degenerate, oppressive, and restrictive in ways that inhibit natural and necessary adaptation.  The Tyrannical Father/King is an image of this negative aspect.

As a child enters adolescence and eventually adulthood, there is an increasing need for the individual to venture beyond the known boundaries of his father’s home and his forefather’s culture.  There are various adaptive and maladaptive strategies a person could follow when undertaking this (unavoidable) challenge.  Ideally he will have internalized the ways of his forefathers so deeply by voluntarily participating in his traditions as a boy, that now he can creatively incarnate the spirit of his people as he freely ventures into new and unknown territories as a man.  This is the Hero’s Journey in mythology, and it parallels a crucial stage of individual development where a person crosses the threshold from being a student of his tradition to becoming a creative innovator and contributor to his tradition.  It parallels the voluntary acceptance and exercise of greater freedom, responsibility, and independence as the person transitions from childhood into adulthood.

This developmental process is comparable to learning any complex skill.  When a person learns how to play piano, they generally begin by learning rudimentary scales and chords by disciplined practice and repeated exercise.  As they practice more and more, often over the course of years, what was originally a very foreign activity increasingly become second nature.  Once the rudiments have become internalized so deeply to the point where the pianist takes for granted all of the complex tasks she does without even consciously thinking, then she can increasingly express her own creativity and freedom through her music.  But it is a creative freedom that is built upon learning rudimentary structures; a freedom that remains guided by the rules of music.  And it is a freedom that has emerged as a result of rigorous and disciplined practice, without which the pianist could not possibly play as skillfully—or freely.  And if she decides to creatively break some rules of performance, it is with full knowledge and appreciation of the tradition she is a student of.

A general rule of human development is you don’t enter a new stage of development without first fulfilling the tasks of the previous stage.

Which means you don’t become Beethoven without first learning scales.

And you don’t become a responsible adult without first successfully navigating childhood.

And you don’t get to Jesus without first having Moses.

moses

Jesus’s teaching and behaviour was so unusual that was accused by his religious opponents of trying to abolish the law.  In a similar fashion, the Apostle Paul had to defend his teachings against claim that he was antinomian (anti-law).  But both Jesus and Paul defended themselves against these misguided accusations.  Jesus explained that he did not come to abolish the Law but rather came to fulfill its latent purposes in manifesting the ways of the same Spirit that inspired the early laws of his people.  Jesus was bringing his people forward, showing them that following the Law was never meant to be the end goal.

Rather, in its context, the Law at its best is a means for training people in following the ways of the Spirit, for it is the Spirit that people are meant to serve.  Jesus showed that the fullness of human development requires individuals to move beyond rigidly legalistic thinking and living.  But this does not mean the laws are abolished!  What it does mean that no set of laws can exhaustively contain the manifold Wisdom of the Spirit of Love, which is why the transcendent Spirit of the Law must be internalized and honoured even above specific laws if the inherent purposes of the Law are to be fulfilled.

Eventually learning to follow the uncontrollable movements of the Spirit is far more important in the grand scheme of development than rigidly following the letter of the Law.  It is as if Jesus was teaching his followers to move beyond strictly playing the notes on the sheet music, as useful as this exercise can be, towards learning how to freely play in harmony with the rich melodies of Being.

Understanding the biblical narrative in terms of a developmental process also compellingly addresses some longstanding theological debates.  What is the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  What is the enduring value of the Old Testament?  To some extent, these question are similar to asking, What is the relationship between childhood and adulthood?  And what is the enduring value of childhood?

Like all healthy developmental patterns, Jesus represents a revolutionary progression that simultaneously transcends and includes all that came before him.  It is an evolutionary development that is simultaneously conservative and progressive.  So implicit in the biblical story is the general ascent of human development from early childhood into adulthood.  This begins in learning the established rules, customs, and ways of one’s people to the point that one internalizes the spirit that has inspired the laws.  Then as the law and order become internalized structures of one’s being, one matures by following and applying the spirit of the law in the face of new challenges and circumstances in ways that may even transgress the specific laws of one’s forefathers.  One simultaneously fulfills the Law by even transcending laws, because, like Christ, one’s highest allegiance is to the Spirit of the Law.

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On Current Events

What our world needs now is true individuals.  We need individuals who are willing to step outside of the dominant groups, individuals who will not conform strictly to the expectations of the tribes.  We need individuals who are willing to transcend the divides of partisanship and polarization, individuals who will refuse to simply take sides in response to genuinely complex issues, individuals who will courageously seek to understand and constructively challenge all sides.  We need outstanding individuals who are truly willing to stand out from the groups and speak up about the problems they see in our societies wherever they occur.  We need individuals who are willing to responsibly bear the burdens of being true individuals, for the purpose of identifying and addressing the problems we face, and for the positive advancement and benefit of all.  We need true individuals who will be committed to manifesting their potential and following their individual conscience above all else.

Belonging to groups isn’t necessarily bad.  We can often accomplish far more when we cooperate and work together.  And despite the costs of belonging to groups, there are many significant benefits.  Groups can provide safety and security.  Groups can provide friendship, community, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.  Group cultures can also establish common and predictable orders that provide stability and helpful resources for their members, which promote multiple positive benefits.  Everyone needs groups to belong to.  Living in separation from others is a harsh and dreadful existence that can end in insanity.  This is why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments a human being can be subjected to.  We need one another, to a great extent, in order to discover and become our best selves.

And yet allying unconditionally with groups has immense costs as well, particularly for the individual, but also for the group.  If I place my group’s expectations above my individual conscience, I may have to sacrifice my own individual conscience, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and values in order to conform to those of the group.  Part of individual development certainly involves voluntarily learning how to discipline oneself and make personal sacrifices for the good of others and the good of the group.  But this can be taken too far, and when it is taken too far the cost is immense.  Group cultures can also become tyrannical, rigid, stagnant, and oppressive forces, zealously imposed by their members in ways that demand strict conformity and uniformity at the cost of real individual diversity.  Groups that consistently ignore and punish individuals will also eventually face extinction, because it is individuals who creatively revitalize and adapt the group’s heritage to meet present and future challenges, without which the group will ultimately ossify and fossilize like the dry bones of their ancestors.  And indeed, allying unconditionally with one’s group can end in tribalism, the result of which is primitive social conflict and the loss of the individual.

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Despite its benefits, being and becoming a true individual is fraught with many costs and challenges and risks as well.  Sometimes groups will crucify true individuals.  History testifies to this.  But even if the group doesn’t go so far as to eliminate individual nuisances and troublemakers in this way, the group may instead choose to abandon or exile the individual as punishment for their independence.  Because individuals may stand in opposition to the patterns, problems, and pitfalls of the group.  Individuals uncomfortably challenge the status quo.  And individuals who express independent viewpoints or exhibit interest and openness towards “outsiders” may be treated with suspicion and disdain.  This kind of behaviour may be perceived as a violation of trust and a punishable act of betrayal by other members of the individual’s group.  So being a true individual opens one up to the possibility of intense criticism, social rejection, hatred, and even violent punishment and abuse, and not just from one’s own group but potentially from every dominant group in society.  This would be intolerable for most people, and understandably so.

But there are surely benefits to being an individual.  Individuals may be more independent, authentic, and truer to themselves than the typical tribesman, following the dictates of their own conscience above the dictates of the group.  Individuals may develop and manifest their unique potentials to the best of their abilities.  Our societies have also been advanced by individuals, by those who heroically engage in difficult and even dangerous challenges in creative and new ways, thereby adapting beyond what has previously been achieved by those who came before them.  Individuals may be the creators and innovators and world-changers who help move humanity forward.

There are costs and benefits to belonging to groups, and there are costs and benefits to being a true individual.  So understand your options and pick the costs you are willing to pay along with the benefits you desire.  And know you will not be able to have all of the benefits without any of the costs.  One of the most challenging and necessary problems everyone must face in life is how they will simultaneously meet their social needs and their individual needs in a way that benefits themselves and others.  One of our culture’s greatest advancements and achievements was granting inherent dignity, worth, and freedom to the individual.  Yes, unrestrained individualism has its poverty and dangers.  But I fear we are at risk of returning to dangerous forms of tribalism if we continue to marginalize and obscure the individual in favour of granting a greater value to groups.  So may we each seek to become individuals, and may we each value and listen to the individual voices around us, and may we each have the courage to offer a truly individual response.

 

On God

The Christian understanding of God as Trinity is an incredibly meaningful vision of Transcendent Being with many layers of significance, the brilliance of which cannot be exhaustively explained or comprehended. One level of meaning contained in its theology relates to the three symbolic Personalities of the eternal Father, Son, and Spirit intimately bound together in one Being. Understanding the transcendent symbolism requires considering its relevance to the immanent, generational patterns between fathers and sons who are bound by a common spirit.

The eternal Father is the perennial representative of the old and existing order of things. The Father ideally trains the Son in the wisdom and ways of their ancestors for the purpose of raising the Son to full maturity. The Father provides the Son with a safe home to grow up in as the Son learns the Father’s ways. The Father also perpetually guides the Son in his development and life as the Son seeks help from the Father, even as the Son ventures beyond the Father’s domain. In evolutionary terms, the Father signifies that which continually conserves and supports present and future generations of life.

The eternal Son is the perennial representative of the new and changing order of things. The Son begins his journey as a child by learning the Father’s ways and faithfully reproducing them in his own life. The Son earnestly seeks to know the Father and obey his leading throughout the Son’s budding development. Once the Son has reached adulthood, with the Father’s supportive encouragement the Son eventually leaves the Father’s home, the known boundaries of safety and comfort, to endeavour into unknown and dangerous places for the purposes of confronting and conquering the forces of chaos for the good of the world. In evolutionary terms, the Son signifies that which continually recreates existing orders while also exploring beyond them into new domains for the benefit of present and future generations of life.

The eternal Spirit is the perennial representative of the indwelling and enduring bond that unifies the Father with the Son across geographies and generations. The Spirit actively indwells both the Father and the Son to eternally bind them together in a living union that outlasts each generation. The Spirit reminds the Son of the Father’s ways, instilling the Father in the Son’s heart, and connects the Son to the Father no matter where the Son may go, creating an unbreakable and living bond between them. In evolutionary terms, the Spirit signifies that which continually revitalizes and unifies old orders with new orders across the generations of life.

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This vision of God should influence our understanding of Christian life and community. Christian disciples are called to honour the Father while following the patterns of the heroic Son.  Any Christianity that rigidly resists change, development, and growth is a Christianity the denies the recreative role of the eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Such a “Christ-ianity” is not worthy of the name and should arguably find another label for its religious parody of the recreative Way of Christ. Some Christian churches are all Father to the exclusion of the Son and the Spirit. These communities and their members tend to become rigid, stagnant, and lifeless since they resist the movements of the Son and Spirit that would change and renew them.

In contrast, other Christian churches react against the tyrannical Father by forming churches that exclusively follow the patterns of a rebellious Son. These communities and their members sometimes have the initial attraction of being new and progressive, but they may risk becoming chaotic, shallow, and aimless if they evolve without being firmly oriented in the developmental history of their ancestral traditions. Sadly, it is exceedingly rare to find a Christian church that honours both the eternal Father in union with the eternal Son in a Holy Trinity of Being, perhaps because these Personalities exist in perfect relationship only in God. Elsewhere they tend to be dysfunctionally related.

Interestingly, a Trinitarian vision of Transcendent Being is also strikingly compatible with an evolutionary understanding of the dynamics and nature of living development. The vision of God as Trinity portrays the eternal Father, the eternal Son, and the eternal Spirit as living together in a loving unity of uncreated Being as they simultaneously work at conserving, supporting, creating, progressing, unifying, and revitalizing created being for the perpetual good of all life. Simply put, life thrives and flourishes when it properly honours the Holy Trinity of Being.

On Politics

How do we form a healthy, thriving society together?  What should be our highest ethical values and goals?  Should we strive to create a free society?  An equal society?  Or should we strive to create a free and equal society?  Lately the political right and left have become even more deeply divided along these ethical fault lines than usual.  The right wants a free society (sometimes to the neglect of promoting social equality), while the left wants an equal society (sometimes to the neglect of protecting individual freedom).  Rarely do I hear individuals voice an interest in transcending the dominant dichotomy by seeking to create a society that is both free and equal.  Most public voices are so partisan that they appear to assume talking positively about the ethical values promoted by “the other side” would be perceived as a violation of trust, a punishable act of betrayal, by members of their own tribe.  Stepping out beyond the safe boundaries of a one’s tribe to express independent views or suggestions can surely be a harsh and dreadful thing.

One rule of warfare is never cede any ground to your enemy unless you absolutely have to.  The current political landscape has become so combative that opponents tend to approach one another in ways that are oddly like warriors engaged in some tribal conflict.  Attempts are rarely made the understand the moral motivations of “the other side,” let alone affirm some of their legitimacy.  The extreme right (which has increasingly become the mainstream right) wants smaller governments and less state intervention in the lives of individuals for the purpose of maximizing individual freedom.  The extreme left (which has increasingly become the mainstream left) wants bigger governments and more state interventions and controls for the purpose of maximizing social equality.  The right promotes their own agenda in ways that focus on positively expanding individual freedom and interprets the left’s agenda in ways that negatively restrict individual freedom.  Whereas the left promotes their own agenda in ways that focus on positively promoting social equality and interprets the right’s agenda in ways that negatively diminish social equality.  In the process neither side tends to acknowledge the inherent mix of potentially positive and negative outcomes associated with promoting freedom or promoting equality, but rather only those potentials that serve their partisan priorities.   This isn’t to suggest there aren’t some on the right who also care about creating an equal society and some on the left who also care about creating a free society.  But the public discourse has become so polarized that nuanced discussion has no place in it.  It doesn’t fit or support the dominant narratives.

You can notice the biases in the one-sided narratives partisans present of themselves and their opponents, which sometimes verge on parody.  Right partisans say things like, “We’re just standing up for the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives and what they want to do with what belongs to them without outside interference.  The left just wants to create a tyrannical totalitarian state that controls our lives, forces assimilation, and eliminates independent thought and freedom.”  On the other hand, left partisans say things like, “We’re just standing up for justice and equality for individuals and groups, especially for people who are poor and marginalized.  The right just wants to get rid of the government so our lives will be thrown into anarchic chaos and the rich and powerful will be allowed to ruthlessly exploit the disadvantaged and increase their dominance to no end.”  The way extreme partisanship has steadily become more mainstream on both sides is certainly cause for concern.  There is a disappearing middle ground typically occupied by moderates where most of the productive dialogue and debate usually happens.  But this middle ground is hard to hold when the political battle becomes so polarized that the only way to find some social support and shelter is by exclusively allying with one of the two warring tribes.

titanwar - zeus

Our current problems and situations are strangely reminiscent of those found in ancient polytheistic cultures.  These were times when separate tribes worshipping separate gods would go to battle to determine whose god was more powerful and therefore deserving of collective allegiance.  Typically each god (consciously or unconsciously) functioned as a personified representative of particular ethical values and hierarchies in these wars.  With the collapse of Western society’s shared, cultural monotheism—a cultural system which, among many things, provided our recent ancestors with social stability, coherence, and orientation—we have functionally returned to a kind of cultural polytheism where different tribes (and individuals) ally with different gods as they battle out their differences on both earthly and heavenly planes.  The current battle escalating between the high gods of Freedom (exclusively worshipped by the extreme right) and Equality (exclusively worshipped by the extreme left) deeply threatens to disrupt the already-shaky stability of our society, especially if we accept the increasingly popular assumption that this war is a mortal struggle between irreconcilable enemies where only one can emerge victorious.  We consider it a sacred right for each individual and tribe to pursue their separate interests and ultimate concerns, and for good reasons.  But one potentially dysfunctional consequence of the collapse of our society’s unifying values and narratives is each tribe fights to remake society in the image of their separate gods.

Is there any way of moving beyond participating in a mortal battle between Freedom and Equality and instead seek a society that simultaneously promotes freedom and equality?  E.F. Schumacher has offered a helpful distinction between “convergent problems” and “divergent problems” that is relevant here.  He says convergent problems are problems that clearly have only one answer.  So the answers to these problems converge on a single solution.  For example, what does two plus two equal?  What is the capital of Canada?  What temperature does water boil at?  Convergent problems are problems that have been solved.  In contrast, divergent problems are problems that tend to elicit multiple, sometimes equally legitimate answers that may even conflict.  So the answers to these problems tend to diverge into many solutions.  Does God exist?  What is God like?  What is the highest good?  What is the best way to educate and raise our children?  How do we create a healthy, thriving society?  Divergent problems are of a different order than convergent ones since properly respecting and addressing the dilemmas they present requires tolerating ambiguities and paradoxes without hastily forcing them to resolve into easy but inadequate certainties. Divergent problems, then, are problems that are unsolved and perhaps even unsolvable.

Schumacher writes that “Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims.  The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both.”  He notes that the only ethic that is able to reconcile the ethics of freedom and equality in human communities is an ethic of love.  For love both honours the freedom and dignity of individuals, and yet voluntarily acts to promote the wellbeing of others.  Love does not coerce or force or oblige or impose itself on others.  And love does not neglect or ignore or exploit or abuse others to get what it wants.  Love freely seeks equality amongst the people within its sphere of concern.

This highlights an inherent limitation of governmental solutions in addressing all social problems.  For love cannot be forcibly legislated by any authority—not even by God.  Love may inspire and invite, but it cannot coerce.  Otherwise it ceases to be love and becomes something else.  Interestingly, the Christian theology of God understands God as Love: three Personalities eternally existing in perfect freedom and equality of Being, and thus intrinsically concerned with promoting the freedom and equality of all people made in God’s image.  God as Trinity is a transcendent reality that actively hold the ethics of freedom and equality together in loving harmony.  Is it a coincidence that our deepening social and political divides seem to be worsening in the recent wake of our culture’s monotheistic collapse?  Are we witnessing a functional return to a more polytheistic, tribal society that is fragmenting ethical values once held together by our recent ancestor’s trinitarian vision of God?  It’s hard to say for sure how related these events are.  Though it seems to me to be more than a mere coincidence, to some degree, that these polytheistic patterns have been emerging in the aftermath of monotheistic breakdown.

 

On Jesus

Life is everywhere indwelling and surrounding us, right here, right now, immanently pulsing, permeating, progressing, and present, within you, and within me, as radically close as our next breath yet as prevailing as the winds.  You don’t need to look long or hard to find it.  Simply pause and take notice.

The psychotherapist Carl Rogers believed one of his primary tasks as a therapist was to notice the impulses towards life innately growing within each of his clients and to help cultivate their unique development.  Supporting this transformative work requires creating the right conditions and providing the right care for new life to grow.  I might need to till up dry ground, remove stones from the earth, pull up weeds, and prune back dead growth.  I will need to ensure what’s growing receives enough water and sunlight to flourish.  And I will have to plant new seeds where they have adequate soil and space to develop into full maturity.  Properly cultivating new life—whether in my garden or in myself—requires a careful combination of ongoing work, attention, wisdom, patience, and time.

Jesus says, “I have come so that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”  Elsewhere in scripture he uses a vivid agricultural metaphor to creatively describe the way we participate in living this abundant life with him and through him.  Jesus says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful… Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

true vine

This striking biblical image of living in close and intimate connection to Christ, as branches to a supporting vine, partly portrays the nature of Christian identity.  It symbolizes what it means to profoundly identify with the Living Christ and participate with him in continually revitalizing all things.  To find one’s identity in Christ—the eternal Son and the world-creating, world-sustaining Logos—means, among many things, to identify one’s most profound and enduring sense of self with the recreative, exploratory, courageous Spirit of Sonship, the Spirit which is always actively at work in the dynamic processes of reordering, reforming, restoring, renewing, reinvigorating, and resurrecting, so all things may continually bear fruit that fulfills their innate purposes.  So I identify myself with Christ by becoming a partner and agent of recreation, participating with Christ in the constant renewal of the world.

Learning the art of living involves fully and actively participating in the dynamic unfolding of Life.  Indeed, the ultimate call of Life is to risk actively trusting and participating in it, which cannot be fully done from the safe place of a detached observer.  The answers to life’s most perplexing and pressing questions will not be found in a fixed set of abstract ideas.  My life and your life are not static events or still frame images, but dramatic and dynamic processes continually evolving in us and around us across time and place.  Life is a winding river, not a stagnant puddle.  Life, properly lived, is more of an active verb than a static noun.  It is only when I resist flowing with the movements of Life that my life becomes stuck, stagnant, static.  

Likewise, Christian spirituality is less of a commitment to a rigid set of foregone conclusions and more of a voluntary participation in the dynamic processes of abundant living. Christian spirituality is more of a faithful commitment to practicing the transformative mode of being and becoming modelled by Christ, a mode that involves continually deconstructing and reconstructing, dying and rising to ever-greater Life.  Following the Spirit of Christ may require voluntarily cutting away deadwood in myself, my personality, my character, my habits, and my traditions—cutting away anything that is preventing Life from becoming every good thing it could possibly be.  Partaking in this process can be simultaneously painful and reinvigorating.  Indeed, this experience illustrates the paradox of Christ’s teaching that I cannot discover greater Life until I willingly lose the life I now have.

 

On God

A perennial story of humankind is the generational narrative of fathers and sons who are unified by a shared spirt.  This eternal drama has been playing and replaying, generation after generation, for so long that its looping (and transpersonal) themes have profoundly impressed themselves on our collective traditions, memories, and ways of life.  The Christian doctrine of God as Trinity partly represents the ideal roles of the archetypal Father in relation to the archetypal Son as they share intimate communion through a common Spirit that eternally binds them together in an unceasing mutual exchange of love.  There is a great deal of practical significance in the Christian understanding of God as Trinity, since Trinitarian theology at least partly signifies these perennial, archetypal Ideals.

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It is important to remember these archetypes emerged in traditional societies that practiced traditional gender roles.  So it is easier to grasp the meaning of these ancient symbols by attempting to understand them in their original wordings within an ancient context.   Ancient mythology creatively uses gendered symbols (feminine and masculine) such as the Great Mother and the Great Father to communicate insights that often extend beyond gender categories.  This means the archetypal significance of gendered symbols is not necessarily exclusively relevant to only one gender.  The media and the meanings should not be too tightly conflated.  Nevertheless, erasing gender when interpreting ancient mythology would create unnecessary, anachronistic confusion.  Since I am interested in highlighting some of the archetypal significance of Trinitarian theology, I will use the symbolic language of the Father and the Son along with its corollaries.  But understand that the meaning of these archetypes are not exclusively relevant to men.

Fathers and sons have fulfilled important roles through history.  According to the Trinitarian Ideal, fathers have been responsible for raising their sons to know the ways of their people.  Good fathers love their sons dearly and desire the best for them as responsible members of society and contributors towards the common good.  Good fathers wisely judge and guide their sons in their budding development with the intention of bringing their sons to complete maturity, while allowing them to realize their full potential.  Good fathers provide security and order and standards for their sons that support their growth.  Good fathers teach their sons the boundaries and expectations of the family and adult society to prepare them for entering into adulthood.  Good fathers instil their spirit within their sons to be a guiding light and helpful presence throughout their sons’ lives.  And good fathers eventually allow their sons to bravely leave behind the comforts and securities of their fathers’ households, and move out into harsh and treacherous lands to actively conquer threatening forces of the unknown.  In other words, good fathers teach their infant sons the ways of their forefathers, and then encourage their adult sons to venture out on their own, beyond the familiar boundaries of their fathers’ territory, heroically exploring new lands and advancing the known domain of their ancestors.  Good fathers therefore allow their sons to evolve in this perennial, heroic, generational adventure, as sons revitalize the ways of their forefathers for the good of those living today and tomorrow.

Good sons love and honour their fathers throughout their childhood development.  Good sons listen to their fathers and learn the ways of their people from their fathers who act as generational representatives of their forefathers before them.  Good sons obey and respect their fathers’  authority, trusting that their fathers are genuinely concerned for their wellbeing.  Good sons deeply internalize the traditions of their fathers and carry them in their hearts wherever they go.  Good sons cherish their traditions so dearly that they refuse to let them die with their forefathers.  Good sons intimately learn and know their fathers’ ways for the sake of regenerating and reincarnating the living spirit of their fathers for present and future generations.  When the time has come, good sons bear the responsibility of adulthood, and intelligently carry their traditions forward in response to the new challenges of today and tomorrow.  Good sons engage in this process by moving beyond their fathers’ domain of safety, while still carrying their traditions in their hearts, and actively assimilating new experience and information from unknown territories with the known ways of their fathers, thereby participating in the perennial pattern of creatively updating the past for the present and future.  In other words, good sons make all things new.

trinity1

Fathers may fail their sons if they do not adequately or correctly teach their sons the ways of their forefathers or the ways of society.  Fathers may also fail their sons if they rigidly oppose their sons’ desire to heroically venture beyond the security of home and become transformed by encountering that which remains new and unknown.  Fathers who expect their sons to strictly adhere to their cultural traditions without any freedom to adapt whatsoever risk crushing their sons’ exploratory spirit of sonship and stunting their growth.  Overly obedient sons may learn to present themselves as identical copies of their fathers before them, but they will have become spiritually dead inside in exchange for choosing the path of strict conformity.  Permanently shackled to the heavy burdens of dead tradition, they will have paid the high but necessary price to receive approval from their tyrannical fathers.

Likewise sons may fail their fathers (and their children) if they carelessly and rebelliously ignore their fathers’ wise instruction, making a mistake that will ripple through the generations after them.  Sons may also fail their fathers (and themselves) if they do not voluntarily embark on the hero’s journey by harnessing their youthful spirit of sonship towards bravely advancing beyond their fathers’ familiar domain, creatively regenerating their fathers’ spirit and traditions in themselves for the future benefit of their sons and their society.  Fathers fail their forefathers when they unsuccessfully teach their traditions to their sons or rigidly discourage their sons from advancing beyond them.  And sons fail their future sons when they fail to learn their fathers ways or if they fail to heroically leave their fathers house to be transformed by the unknown.

These archetypal themes appear throughout the biblical story surrounding the activity of God as Trinity, particularly in the drama of the Incarnation of Christ.  The Apostle Paul describes some of the Son’s heroic journey in the following hymn from his letter to the Philippians.  He introduces the hymn by encouraging his readers to be of one spirit and one mind as they are united in Christ and committed to patterning their behaviour after his example:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

The Son’s heroic journey of descent becomes his pathway of ascent to the most exalted realms.  It is this Christlike pattern of behaviour that Paul encourages his readers to practice in their own lives and relationships. Paul, at least in part, is encouraging his readers to adopt the courageous and transformative Spirit of Sonship as their own—the Spirit that inspires us to voluntarily venture towards life’s most incredible challenges with an intimate love and trust in the Father in hopes of becoming transformative agents of recreation.

trinity crucified

Christ voluntarily left behind the securities and comforts of his heavenly home to assume the new form of a human being.  He continued loving and serving his Father as he acted as a heavenly ambassador in a foreign land, sent by his Father to represent his Father’s ways to estranged people.  Christ faithfully followed the leadings of his Father’s Spirit within, daily seeking direction from his Father in solitude and prayer.  Carrying and honouring his heavenly Father’s Spirit in his heart, Christ reinvented and revitalized the traditions of his earthly forefathers, challenging and changing them where they had become dangerously rigid and dead, thereby fulfilling the perennial task of the eternal Son.  Christ demonstrated his heroic spirit of Sonship most clearly in willingly facing down the threatening and unknown forces of suffering, evil, and death in his crucifixion, and conquering them while becoming transformed in the victory of his resurrection.

The Father, Son, and Spirit clearly need one another to form an interdependent Living Reality that continually contributes towards the good of all people and the revitalization of the world.  The Father and Son without the Spirit cannot share a common bond or power of life, which causes them to become relationally estranged and impotent to renew historical traditions.  The Son and Spirit without the Father cannot be solidly grounded and oriented within ancestral wisdom, which leaves them vulnerable to developing historical amnesia and disordered identities.  The Father and Spirit without the Son cannot proactively explore beyond what’s already known and heroically adapt in the face of new experience, which dooms them to a future of spiritual ossification and extinction.

Future progress always belongs to the children of every generation.  It is up to the Son to intimately know the ways of the Father and creatively embody them in his way of life.  The Son must continually learn and regenerate the Father with the help of the indwelling Spirit for each successive generation.  It is up to the Son the learn his Father’s ways and reform his forefathers traditions to meet present circumstances without betraying their original Spirit.  The Son, with the help of the Spirit, is the perennial source of fresh creativity, vitality, newness, and transformation, the perennial explorer of new territories previously unknown and unconquered.

Any society that persistently fails to honour the Holy Trinity, either willfully or by foolish neglect, will suffer and eventually perish if it stubbornly continues in unrepentance.  This isn’t just true for explicitly “Christian” cultures for the archetypal symbolism of the Trinity I’m referring to here is a universal process that all healthy, thriving societies have practiced throughout history.  The Father, Son, and Spirit also symbolically parallel the perennial evolutionary processes of ongoing conservation, ongoing creation, and ongoing regeneration, which need to be coordinated for stable adaptation.  Together they form a powerful and eternal Living Reality that must be respected if we truly desire to flourish.

 

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.