Is there anything left to save? Historically there seems to be less and less. It’s hard to support claims of some sort of divine being in the Mediterranean world at the peak of the early Roman Empire with no independent historical record. This shortcoming blew a hole in the Christianity boat decades ago. In fact the effort to create a modern patch for this hole set up the whole nineteenth century fundamentalist recreation that grew out of the long twisted history of fringe Christianity that was a big part of the colonial America foundation. The only patch that worked was to claim that the mashup of texts that grew out of early populist cults built on Greek, Egyptian, and Judaic mythologies nearly two millennia ago was, itself, divine and not subject to question. But that actually played hell with the original populist, Graeco-Roman cults that were totally spiritual and had no actual anthropomorphized divinities. All of this was totally dependent on a fairly ignorant and barely literate population. This is the main version of American religion that has finally run aground and is breaking up in early 21st century America. That reality is well picked over with the remaining lightly involved folks trying to get some distance from the mess and the hard core barricading themselves in small town America and trying to turn Donald Trump into a really, really ugly Jesus. That is not working out well at all. I think that anyone with a sense of mindfulness and compassion, the basic principles of the new spiritual reality, has got to feel bad about Jesus ending up like this. It’s time to quit complaining and do something about it.
A little background . . .
We know the end of religion as a general problem of human society is in sight. Yet the forces of fear and ignorance are most dangerous in their desperation. As is often the case this is happening as a normal generational change tied to both basic education but, more importantly, to enhanced communication and information availability. Social media is the most direct instrument of change that we have ever produced. It is already recreating us for the new virtual paradigm. Luckily for the more open societies this has happened before the forces of denial i.e. the percentage of the population scared shitless of change, figured out what was happening. While the attacks on the evolving social media civilization are nearly continuous, the forces that represent the old world don’t understand things well enough to know what is happening. In closed, i.e. ideological/religious societies the attacks are direct control and censorship. That is the great battle that is shaping up to shake the new Chinese world to its roots. But that is another topic. The religious world is living on life support by grabbing the old alliances with authoritarian fascism to brutalize and even killing people who don’t comply. And that is another story, also.
This is the positive story of what can be done to salvage things of value from the old religious traditions that held important places in people’s spiritual lives for generations. While positive, it is fraught with peril as the normal human reaction to intellectual conflict is to make things binary until one side wins (us versus the subhuman ‘other’). Religions in post industrial, open societies are understood to be mostly worthless and increasingly so entangled with evil as to be pathogenic. We need to deal with this process of change rationally and work to disconnect the culture and spiritual salvage operation from the entangled patterns of superstition and malignant ignorance. That is not an easy process but the benefits of doing it are significant. And one of those benefits would allow a growing percentage of the population involved to step back from the conflicts fostered by the dying religions and their most hopelessly addicted followers. While these followers are often linked to reactionary, neo-fascist nationalist movements the two groups are not completely overlapping. This could reduce the damage being done by building a social buffer between old religionist groups and authoritarian nationalist groups allowing space for these antiquated institutions to fade away or change form. After all we are all, now, changing form and many of our problems are the result of not having space or time in which to do that.
The new spiritual divide
First we need to identify the process of change and steadily emerging outlines of what is replacing the old religions. There are thousands of religions at any one time if we define traditional religions as the combination of mythology, morality, and general explanation for what we experience in our daily lives from beginning to end. There are certain basic similarities to these traditional religions and their effectiveness can still ring bells of wisdom with us. But the term religion, I think, will cease to be used for these just as it is disappearing as a descriptor for human spiritual styles and systems. In their ancient form religions were context specific to tribes or cultural groups asand conquests substituted new gods for old or simply merged them into a new cultural amalgamated religions based on changing political domination. The movement of youth for mating to another village, tribe, or family necessitated a change in spiritual symbols and rituals. In Classical Greece, specifically Athenian society, each family of maintained their household spiritual system with relevant objects and divinities. As we will see we are not in some unheard space with our move away from religion to a personal spiritual system providing the sense of interconnection in a vast, scientifically defined universe. We are simply moving away from an evolved, authoritarian political form of spiritual systems that was a product of a specific stage of human cultural development. The benefits of this were specific to that stage of imperial civilization as first identified by Karl Jaspers in his Axial Age.
Much of this contemporary change is already being done spontaneously as change tied to the overall paradigm shift. The rapid decline of religious affiliation continually mulled over in the mass media and well along in post industrial societies, typified by the millennial generation, actually dates well back into the twentieth century with counterculture and New Age trends. This can logically be tied to the late nineteenth century European and American intellectual movements attempting to replace the already comatose religions with something new. These failed as they followed the old religions to non-scientific theories that were easily disproved. One exception, and there are probably other examples in different spiritual traditions, was the transformation of Theravada Buddhism into a meditative spiritual tool for the general public. This took place in Burma (Myanmar) in the late 19th century under British colonial rule. While various forms of meditation were at the very foundation of Buddhism this was only for those inside the sangha or priesthood. This modern change in colonial Southeast Asia directly affected the spiritual movement in England as cited above.
This power to define our environment risks cutting people off from any reality other than what is being defined for them by forces unknown.
There is a lot to disentangle. For the purposes here we can see this as the already existing split between religion and personal spiritual systems. The dislike of this century’s generation for affiliation to traditional religions is not abandonment of spiritual awareness but simply distaste for failed versions of spirituality that are defined as religions.
What are we saving?
Figuring out how to save Jesus is a challenge. Is there anything to save? This cannot be an historical process or we descend into the old wreckage of mythology based religion. The moral and ethical essence of the old religions are, now, almost completely encompassed in evolutionary ethics as that process has come to be understood over the last fifty years or so. This is the universal morality of social animals long recognized as the basis of all religions. So what are we saving?
Humans are creatures of relationships and metaphors. We learn by comparison and pattern matching. To be simplistic, the repeated appearance of a pattern in our environment or in human relationships verified that pattern as a “truth”. This is the basic technique of modern advertising to implant models of desire and acquisition in targeted populations. To handle abstractions we need symbols and handles that can be used. This is also the technique of meditation and centering to provide tools for calm elimination of the incredible level of informational noise in modern, connected life and to protect our personal moral base integrated with our planet, all life and the universe in which we exist. The constant change from accelerating scientific knowledge and virtualization of human society provides greater and greater control over our perceived environment. This power to define our environment risks cutting people off from any reality other than what is being defined for them by forces unknown. The rise to power of someone such as Trump and the forces of neofascism are, I think, a direct result of people cut off from a personal spiritual center.
Perhaps this is a way to save Jesus. Not as a tool of the old religions but as a valuable symbol of personal spirituality to help support people more familiar with Jesus as a symbol of compassion and mindfulness than with the Buddhist tradition. After all there are symbols of love, compassion, and mindfulness in all mature spiritual traditions. Their distortion into symbols of hate and ignorance have debased them in the modern world. A post religious merger would restore them as valuable spiritual tools with a growing diversity of meditative techniques allowing personal centering in an era of staggering change.
Let’s remove the symbols that have spiritual value from the grasping hands of the old religions and return them to people to use for personal meditation and the quest for spiritual self-knowledge.
What I’m advocating is an open acceptance of different meditative tools using traditional symbols as the means of support for open, spiritual life. Let’s remove the spiritual symbols that have value from the grasping hands of the old religions and return them to people to use for personal meditation and the quest for spiritual self-knowledge. That is where we need to go and where many of us are struggling to be.