The Struggle for 21st Century Belief
Is Also Mine….
Jay B. Gaskill
Intimations of Convergence
Developments in the 21st century will determine the future of major religious institutions for a thousand years. Specific institutions and practices will wither, but spiritual practices and beliefs will always endure in some form, because they are driven by needs central to the human condition.
Institutional religion itself will arrive at a critical moment when its very survival is at risk. Our species’ religious institutions remain relevant and robust only to the extent that they continue to serve their primary functions. Religions exist to provide safe and vital places for the sacred, authoritative centers of moral wisdom, and vital supporting communities united in common spiritual practices. If they do that well in the new millennium, they will thrive. If not….
Increasingly, there is a free market in religion. That trend will accelerate. Most European have already voted with their feet. Chapels, churches, cathedrals, and temples, largely empty of worshipers, have become de facto museums.
We can hope to see a powerful convergence of two currents. A humanism of renewed depth and reach, grounded in ultimate authority (which may or may not be understood or expressed in theistic terms) that will join those branches of religious and spiritual practice which are equally universal in depth and reach. This convergence will take place – if it does – because our species desperately needs secure moral foundations, the kind of moral authority that transcends mere human conventions. We need the large scale critical morality of the prophets: the kind that applies with equal force to ruler and ruled.
I can spot hopeful outlines of this convergence-in-the-making already. But we can also see the shape of the countertrend in the attraction of superficial secular hedonism and spiritual hedonism.
A New Age narcissism may temporarily fill the God shaped hole in the human psyche, but the moral ground then turns into thin ice.
The competing trends will eventually resolve. The catalyst for resolution may prove to be the latest common threat, militant Islam.
My Struggle for Belief
For me, the sense of an Ultimate Reality of Being (as More-than-my-little-puddle-of-“I am-ness”) has always seemed a self evident truth of the universe and sometimes a palpably felt presence. This Presence was always a joy, a source of personal communion and renewal; but sometimes it was only a retreating precious memory, a remembered touch.
I will always be grateful for my kind, funny, solid but never overbearing parents. I was spared the malady of the current age: PTFAS – Post Traumatic Faith Abuse Syndrome.
I believe that ultimate encounters like mine are common to the human experience, even as they tend to be marginalized. The social pressures from the militantly secular “smart people” who still inhabit the academy and dominate the media are hard on the soul.
As the decades followed, the early intimations of a supreme conscious presence that I’d experienced as a teenager became a player in the struggle to reconcile two worlds: The corpus of rational, science-founded belief fought the Evidence that had directly presented itself to my mind.
Much of my introspective life has been driven by the need to achieve a better fit between the picture of the world presented by scientific reason and my mind’s innate recognition of That-Which-Is-More. Somehow that Original Presence stubbornly remained with me: Hallucination? Intimation? Glimpse of the divine? In the end, my choice was not difficult.
Scientific humility and religious humility are complementary.
The divine ontology (meaning simply a reality large enough to admit its Creator) turns out to be fully reconcilable with the scientific world view, especially when the inherent limitations of physical science are finally admitted. The divine ontology just emerged on the stage of life as the Real behind the real. For me, nothing less was, is or can be so uniquely capable of providing the deep explanation of “life the universe and everything”.
The crowning achievement of science, its empirical model, is a deliberately simplified construct. But the very simplification that allows for uniform, measurable results is a distortion; as carefully measuring air pressure changes during a concert disguises the essential differences between music and noise, between Mozart and the recorded mutterings of rodents.
The totality of being is never as tractable as a lab experiment under controlled conditions.
I am competent to understand a world governed by science and reason and to act with the practical confidence that technology provides us. I am happy to understand a reality governed by the moral authority of its ultimate creator and to act with the humble moral confidence that Ultimate Being provides us. Science makes the material world more tractable. The divine presence, reigning as the ultimate origin of matter, energy and hope, the inexhaustible source of being and being-ness, makes the task of living in the material world more tractable.
Certain insights have followed me over the years. Among the most important of them is the understanding that our most valuable epiphanies and inspirations are themselves authentic divine messages.
We humans may never again inhabit an age where a displeased deity moves mountains and destroys cities in retaliation for our failings. But that would not mean that deity somehow was weakened by the modern age. We’ve just been temporarily blind to the subtlety and power of divine influence.
There is a key to unlocking the secret of divine power:
Suppose that, in this universe and century, our sole interface with the realm of the divine is limited to “mere” information exchange. Because this is the Creator’s information, that exchange would potentially convey the design-form of all intelligence, power and goodness that was, is or ever can be, including the moral law, and the design of our moral recovery. With information like that, one could make a universe. That information interface, alone, would be powerful enough to remake the world. Or make another.
So I’ve come to understand that all those surprising benign acts of human achievement, creation, and grace, are themselves divine miracles that stand on a par with mountains moved cities razed, and infidels struck by lightning.
Our creeds are the poetry of sustaining belief. I have struggled through the various traditional creeds, often feeling like a mountain climber working around hazards on the way down a precipice. But I’ve been reassured in that exercise by the knowledge that all religion and liturgy is spiritual software. Always, it’s the connectivity that matters. Our “platforms” were designed to process divine information. But we are required to pay attention. Each generation generates its new versions and updates of spiritual software, including patches on earlier versions. The real goal is access. In this, we all see seek better connectivity.
My Personal Creed
In the holy origin of all things;
In the infinite consciousness that is shoehorned into every living, conscious person, born and reborn in each child;
In the eternal impulse to creation, present in at all times and places.
That creation is holy and that conscious being is holy.
That these three facts are sacred – holy origin, infinite consciousness, and inexhaustible creation - because they are aspects of the Holy One, the ultimate source of all moral truth, all beauty, and all hope.
That it is precisely this, the deep unity whose reality is directly perceived by the mystics and saints, that binds us to all conscious beings throughout time and beyond time.
That this is the rock on which all ethics is founded.
And that it is the core insight, the ur-foundation of all authentic religion.
That, even if human beings were placed again on the earth deprived of any memory or history of religion, of the enlightened ones, of the saints, mystics or prophets, our species would necessarily rediscover these basic things; because they are truths inscribed in the warp and woof of reality itself, imbedded in the architecture of all consciousness, awaiting rediscovery.
That what we perceive as physical reality and non-physical reality share an integrated ontology-- living consciousness is the bridge-state between them.
That the common form of conscious being, the shared architecture of living consciousness, originates in and connects all being to the Holy One.
Therefore each of us stands in intimate relationship with the Holy One, whether we believe or not. And whenever we apprehend the numinous level of experience, we apprehend the presence of the Holy One.
That we inhabit a realm of reality we call “the universe” or “the world”, wherein the work of creation is unfinished.
That we have been assigned to share the tasks of ongoing creation, ensuring its continuation and safeguarding its fruits -- these precious things were entrusted to our care.
That we were given a holy task: practice integrity with humor and humility and experience the journey of life, including all its pain and joy.
That we are asked to know the Holy One who fills the world with hope, who stirs our hearts, and whose face can be seen in that of all beings we encounter.
That we are expected to promote the Good, by honoring, facilitating and fulfilling creation in us and outside ourselves, by respecting the integrity and favoring the health of all conscious beings (starting with our own), and respecting all lives, starting with our own.
That we are challenged to face the reality and threatening nature of evil in an unfinished universe, opposing all evil with character, intelligence, courage, and learning.
We were brought here as children.
We were given the world so that we might grow and become wise.
We are called to play and to learn, because play is the fountainhead of creation, the wellspring of joy, and the birthright of children, that by learning, we may yet become the wise children of God.
Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Jay B. Gaskill.
Permission to reproduce (with acknowledgment) may be obtained by contacting Jay Gaskill via email: firstname.lastname@example.org