Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Perspectives on the Birth

(Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds)

On Saturday, Ross Douthat (a writer with whom I rarely agree) put up a splendid column in the New York Times titled "Ideas from a Manger". I will quote from it at length:

PAUSE for a moment, in the last leg of your holiday shopping, to glance at one of the manger scenes you pass along the way. Cast your eyes across the shepherds and animals, the infant and the kings. Then try to see the scene this way: not just as a pious set-piece, but as a complete world picture — intimate, miniature and comprehensive.

Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.

The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star.

If you read my Thursday post "Why So Many Cannot See Obama", you may see that the biblical, secular and spiritual world views, as described by Douthat, correspond very neatly to three levels of development of consciousness (per Ken Wilber and many others) - traditional, modern, and postmodern.
  • Traditional/Biblical - Literal; concrete; hierarchical; myth and membership-based; no shades of grey; faith stories accepted as revealed truth without investigation; friend or enemy - neutral doesn't count; dogma and rule-based; the Divine entered the human realm in Jesus who opened a Path for our return to the Divine realm - but not in this lifetime; hating paradox, the different faces of God had to be concretized, made actual, objective in the Triniity - God is transcendent (the Father), immanent (the Son), and ever present (the Holy Spirit); only Jesus can ascend to the Divine realm in his lifetime; God is wholly other; humans are fallen and sinful.
  • Modern/Secular - Reason rules; revealed truth is discarded; scientific method gives men tools to uncover the physical laws of the world; Universal Reason ("I think, therefore I am", true for everyone) leads quickly to the Universal Rights of Man and the movements to Democracy; God is dead, or dying, or has retreated to Original Clockmaker, who has since wandered off; pragmatism rules - what works, what is efficient, what is profitable; interiors are mostly ignored; truth is what can be measured, objectively shown; Art and Culture are split from the real and practical world; with the destruction of Fascism and Communism, Market Capitalism rules the field; Christ's birth is probably an historical fact, but of no intrinsic importance.
  • Postmodern/Spiritual - Truth, limited to what could be proven scientifically in the modern/secular worldview, is now delimited further - truth is relative to the context within which it is languaged; values and meaning regain importance; the transcendent reenters the conversation but without the clear "Angels and Bright Star" that gave the traditional/biblical age its clarity of purpose; focus is on the individual ("what feels right") and marginalized groups who have been dominated, mostly unconsciously, by the elites who rule the market roost; this group detests war, corporatism, government militarism and spying, all elites (except their own); Jesus as historical figure may be interesting; Jesus as Mythic Savior is not; since metanarratives and Truth have all been fully deconstructed by brilliant academic relativists, the postmodern/spiritual is not sure where to look to find solid, unshifting ground.
  • Integral - The stage emerging now; probably (per Wilber) 5% of the US is at this level; complex, vision-based thinking; capable of "seeing things whole", seeing the patterns that may be emerging; tolerance, which first emerged at modern/secular, expanded to cover all minorities and marginalized groups at postmodern/spiritual, becomes a natural way of being and is extended to all beings, and to the entire Creation; integral knows that all levels are necessary, that all of us start our lives even before egotistical, develop through traditional, then modern, and if we keep growing, to postmodern and integral; the Divine becomes central again, as we understand that everything and everyone comes from Spirit and is returning to Spirit; that evolution has a direction, which is that very return, and that we are all called forward and upward by the "strange attractors" of our yet-to-be realized-and-still fully-felt spiritual potentials; an integral person looks at Rembrandt's picture and sees not an actual event, showing God taking human form; or an image of a pleasing, but factually false story; or a powerful image that is true as a deep psychological archetype - the integral person sees this image as a powerful reminder that this Divine Light is present within each and every one of us; in fact it is present throughout Creation, not as pantheism, but as panentheism - God, the Divine as an unloseable part of everything and all of us - the possibility that calls us to our True Selves, and calls Society to grow to its full potential of Justice, Freedom and Fairness.
Douthat is right. There are "cracks" in the current structure; but the cracks are at all current levels, and are preparing the opening for what is trying to and will emerge: the birth of the integral age.

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