A Fate Worse than the Talosians?

Talosian

The Keeper, from Star Trek’s first pilot “The Cage. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount. 

If you are a regular visitor to my blog, you’ve likely concluded from my writing, that I am a huge Star Trek fan.

I’ve posted below one of the most iconic scenes from the entire Star Trek genre, when Picard meets Kirk in the Nexus in Star Trek Generations. I’m especially intrigued by this scene because it embodies the  theme that was expressed loudly, boldly and confidently throughout the entire original series: an unrepentant faith in scientific progress and the eternal perfection of man.  In that respect, Star Trek embodied the values of 18th century Whig liberalism.   It served as a paean to modernism and the unrelenting, undaunted, march of scientific achievement, at least, what remained of it in the late 1960’s, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the midst of the Cold War and as the United States became more embroiled in the what ultimately proved to be the travesty of the Vietnam Conflict.

Civilizational Aspirations

Indeed, looking back more than a half century to its first season, I’m struck by how frequently Star Trek, particularly the original series, dealt with the danger of humanity’s becoming untethered from these lofty aspirations and with reality in general and, as a result, falling prey to some malignant force that would prevent our species from attaining its full potential.

Recall that the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, dealt with this threat in the form of the illusion-making power of the wily, cerebral Talosians, whose atrophying civilization teetered on the verge of extinction — ironically, as the result of acquiring this remarkable skill.

As I’ve pointed out a number of times in this forum, this is one of the  things I’ve always found especially interesting and even inspiring about science fiction: Its having taken on many of the characteristics of religion by pointing humanity to threats, particularly technological threats, that traditional faith, perhaps because of its ancient lineage, is arguably not as well-equipped to do.

Warnings Seemingly Unheeded

In fact, as we move deeper into the 21st century, we seem to be on the verge of harnessing Artificial Intelligence in ways that bear a rather unsettling resemblance to the technology that ultimately threatened the fictitious Talosians. Indeed, quite a few public intellectuals, from the recently deceased cosmologist Stephen Hawking to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and historian Yuval Noah Harari, have essentially picked up where The Cage and other works of science fiction have left off, warning us about the myriad of dangers associated with this rapidly expanding technology.

In the years leading up to his death, Hawking warned us about the danger of our ultimately facing a threat from highly sophisticated, deadly robots, eerily portended in Terminator movie series.  More recently, Kissinger has raised the specter of AI’s imposing on us a set of ethics or morality not of our choosing, much as the technologically advanced Spaniards imposed their religion on the hapless Incans some 500 years ago.

In his most recent book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Harari warns that humans ultimately may be drawn incrementally into a future in which AI increasingly anticipates and assuages every human need and whim without our even having to ask for help, to the point where we are ultimately reduced to a coddled but enslaved species little different from the Soma users in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Equally remarkable is the fact that these warnings seem to be falling largely on deaf ears.  It seems there was a time, certainly when I was a boy growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, that human beings seemed more fully attuned to these threats. Indeed, Star Trek was only one of several science fiction works that alerted us to these threats.  The films “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” and “Westworld” come to mind. Yet, in hindsight, this strikes me as a time long ago when people, especially Americans, still possessed a strong confidence in civilization and its capacity to adjust to rapid change.

Civilizational Ennui

Today, though, we seem to be beset by a kind of civilizational ennui, if not fatalism, one perhaps reflected in the opioid addiction and suicide epidemic that has much of the American hinterland it its grip. One gets the impression that tens of millions of people, not only ordinary people but also many elites in the United States and throughout the developed world, have essentially succumbed to a sort of post-modern malaise, concluding that the  challenges facing us are simply too complex, too intractable to resolve.

I’ve even wondered a time or two if some of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, harbor some measure of comfort from contemplating our species’ demise.  As I’ve observed before, some science fiction movies even seem to have touched on this theme, however gingerly, notably “The Invasion,” an updating of both the 1956 and 1978 versions of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

As with the two previous versions, the aims of the alien invaders are ultimately thwarted, yet in the final few minutes of “The Invasion,” a broadcast commentator almost seems to evince regret that humanity has been granted a reprieve from extinction. Moreover, one of the film’s principal characters, Yorish, rather dolefully observes, “All I’m saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this is no so, when every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence — well, this is a world where human beings cease to be human.”

We seem to have traveled a long way from the heady optimism of Star Trek. Sometimes I even find myself succumbing to the view that we humans no longer possess the will nor the courage to save ourselves from what awaits us.  Perhaps more of us are coming to resemble the disillusioned and nihilistic Dr. Stephen Falken in the 1983 thriller WarGames, clinging to the hope that what ultimately supplants humanity eons from now will be better — more attuned to what threatens them, better equipped to avoid the malaise that seems to be consuming us.

Picard Meets Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.

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A Very Unorthodox 2018 Advent Message

ax

Photo: Courtesy of b.gliwa.

Every so often at around this time, I’ve feel compelled to craft some sort of seasonal message, an Advent message, of sorts.

These messages are not only heartfelt but also are intended to express two things: my evolving views on the Christian faith but also my deep-seated gratitude for this faith, which was instilled into me by my loving, diligent parents and other authority figures. I tend to feel this sense of gratitude rather acutely in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The Incremental Nature of Christianity

For the last few years, I’ve reflected on the incremental nature of the Christian faith. As strange as this may sound, I relate it to how an exquisitely sharpened ax is driven into the trunk of a tree, particularly in terms of how this contact with the trunk occurs. If this were captured millisecond by millisecond by a high-resolution camera, we would see the unfolding of something remarkable. The initial impression would be expressed as a tiny indentation, a mere fraction of an inch in diameter, though becoming much deeper and wider over the course of only a tiny span of time.

Throughout history, the initial effects of political and religious movements have been similarly expressed. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, these political and religious movements seldom extended beyond tiny impressions, almost as if some hidden force stopped a blade only a millisecond or so after striking into a tree.

Like an arrested ax, these movements, irrespective of their beliefs, either fail to gain traction over the course of time or are absorbed — preempted — in some measure by larger and more prominent political and religious groups. That has certainly proven to be the case with the vast majority of aspiring American political parties and religious sects throughout our history.

Yet, in rare cases, the initial impact deepens and, over the course of time, exerts deep indentations into human consciousness, much as a sharp ax driven into a tree trunk.

The Jesus Movement

So it was with the Jesus Movement. Jesus’ crucifixion initially amounted to a tiny pinprick on the human consciousness. But over the course of the days and weeks that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, his small circle of disciples and followers were compelled to reflect on his horrific suffering on the cross. They undoubtedly asked themselves, “How could a life so precious, so selfless and seemingly so significant be snuffed out through such ignominious and humiliating suffering and death?”

How this question ultimately was worked out over the course of the next few centuries transformed the fate of humanity.

A quarter century ago, I recall reading a rather compelling argument by the late diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan. He contended that the universal religion that eventually emerged out of the Mediterranean Basin, which we know today as Christianity, had to be the work of some deity or entities operating with the best aspirations for humanity. As he saw it, the remarkable confluence of events at around the time of Jesus’ birth could not have occurred without supernatural intervention.

At this point in life, I’m inclined to challenge that argument. As I’ve contended time and again, human fortunes have been driven by a network that our species, almost entirely unconsciously, has constructed over eons, one that has grown denser and more complex across time.

The human impulse for survival forced our distant forebears to develop very incrementally across the eons a kind of protective layer, what amounted to a networking of religion, culture, and technology, one that has been constructed via language and, more recently and far more significantly, writing. This protective layer has grown denser and far more complex across ages and has, in a manner of speaking, enabled us to sculpt all that we now regard as essential to the human condition. In a sense, God is embedded in this structure, this network, which I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE) to underscore its indispensably formative, protective and sustaining role on behalf of humanity.

NHE is a mouthful, I know, but I can’t conceive of any term better to express its nature of this contrivance. It has served our species in a myriad of ways, essentially in the form of a multi-generational dialogue that has allowed us to connect and build on ideas and concepts across time, whether these happen to be religious, political or cultural in nature.

The rudiments of this exoskeleton could not have been established eons ago but for the invention of language. Language enabled us to construct a few of the critical facets of this network, one that significantly surpassed the social interaction of simian species. But it was the much later invention of writing that enabled this network, this exoskeleton, to undergo great leaps in density and complexity. Writing enabled humans not only to refine their dialogue but to expand it across generations.

As this network, this exoskeleton, grew denser and more refined across time, it enabled human beings to organize political and religious structures spanning entire continents. And given that these massive political structures encompassed many different languages and cultures, this allowed for the cross-fertilization — the meeting, mating and morphing, as I have come to call it — of many different ideas.

The “Adjacent Possible”

In his superb book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” science writer Steven Berlin Johnson, borrows a concept known as the “adjacent possible” from biologist Stuart Kaufman to illustrate how the cross-fertilization of ideas essentially provides a doorway to newer, more refined ideas and ways of doing things.

This is the critical factor that I believe accounts for why the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin provided such fertile conditions for the formation and spread of the universal monotheistic religion we know today as the Christian faith. As journalist and religious writer Robert Wright aptly observes in his book, “The Evolution of God,” the Roman Empire provided an open platform of sorts, a means by which all manner of political and religious ideas could be propagated across vast distances.

The Mediterranean Basin during the Roman imperial period provided an unusually rich medium for the merging of the ideals of Greek and Hebrew thought that characterizes present-day Christianity. Indeed, this merging arguably enabled the Jesus movement to make the critical leap to become the world’s first universal religion, a development that held profound implications not only for the Roman Empire but also for future generations of human beings across the planet.

Much of this was portended in the God Fearers — as their name implies, the monotheistic-minded Gentile Roman subjects throughout the empire who identified with much, if not most, of the theology of Judaism, which was practiced throughout much of the Mediterranean world.

It is also worth stressing that Christianity, as the world’s largest and most globally dispersed universal religion serves as its own open-source platform for the formation of new ways of thinking, particularly in terms of how this relates to ethics and the quest toward humanity’s connection to and wider function within the universe — not surprising, considering how deeply Christian views of compassion and transcendence are now so deeply embedded within the human exoskeleton.

In of very real sense, the kenotic (self-emptying) effects of Christianity are still being expressed.

To return to my earlier analogy, it is as if the sharp edge of the Christian ax is still being applied to the trunk of human civilization. And while this impact, in the view of some, is becoming more attenuated over the course of time as a result of secularization, its effects are still profound. Humans, especially in the West, are still engaged in a dialogue that is still profoundly Christian. In a very real sense, the contours of the Christian faith are still being refined.

Perhaps across time we will discover that other advanced species throughout the cosmos have constructed and benefited from similar networks, structures built across eons to protect their species and to pass essential knowledge from one generation to the next.

Fanciful Thinking? 

Some readers may discount all of this as simply fanciful thinking. But it reflects my own protracted struggle to pull disparate threads together into a coherent narrative, one from which others may derive some measure of value.

Recently, a very bright and committed orthodox Christian confronted me with a argument, one with which I’ve struggled with for many years. As she stressed, the problem with taking any view that leaves out a formal Christian god intervening throughout human history amounts to asserting that good and evil simply cannot exist. As she expressed it, “all there can be is mere personal preference.”

Granted, I am no orthodox Christian. I believe that our understanding of God and transcendence is entirely a byproduct of our exoskeleton. Even so, I believe that this greatest of all human contrivances, this exoskeleton, not only has afforded us with grand conceptual and technological leaps but has also enabled us to garner real insights into our species — its genius as well as its acute limitations. In a very real sense, this exoskeleton has enabled us to discern good from evil. And as we refine our understanding of this exoskeleton and how God is embedded within it, we must afford conventional religion, particularly the Christian faith, immense credit. It has played not only a vital but also an indispensable role within this network. Indeed, the march of human progress would not have been possible without the presence of religion, particularly the Christian faith.

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Network Binding and the Course of Human History

United-Methodist-Communion

A United Methodist elder participating in the Rite of Communion. (Photo: Courtesy of Rev. Dr. Gregory Neal.)

The naysayers among us may be right: We Homo sapiens may indeed be on the verge of destroying our planet and ourselves over the long run, but we remain singular creatures, at least, in one sense.

Unlike every previous hominin species, we have managed to settle every region of the globe and even to master an array of radically different geographies and climates.

And why is that?  What special trait do we hold over our hominin cousins?  I would argue it is because we exist within what I’ve come to call a Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton — essentially, a network of culture, language, religious beliefs and technology that, among other things, not only provides us with a large measure of physical comfort and even psychological succor but also functions as a kind of second cerebral cortex.

Our Unique Exoskeleton

Previous hominin species very likely developed their own exoskeletons, though nothing that compares to what our forebears achieved.

One could describe this as exoskeleton in many ways.  It functions as a kind of intangible amniotic fluid, because, in a manner of speaking, we, like a human fetus, are not only encased in it but also depend on it for our survival.  It could also be regarded as a kind of cultural womb in which all of the elements are intricately joined.

These analogies could be extended considerably further, but I am assuming that by now you, the reader, have acquired at least a serviceable knowledge of the concept.

It’s also important to understand that our network — our exoskeleton — undergoes constant change. Imagine standing on a foundation of bricks that are constantly being swapped out or replaced entirely.

The elements comprising our exoskeleton are undergoing similar change — constant repositioning and replacement.  And shouldn’t that be expected of a networked in which all of the disparate parts are so closely connected?  Here’s another way of expressing it: All the elements of our exoskeleton are bound in a network and are contingent on the binding of other elements.

Over the course of time, as the constant shifting and replacement ensues through this network, significant change follows.

Sometimes this change can be relatively rapid and extremely disruptive.   And this applies to all facets of the exoskeleton, whether it happens to be culture, religion, politics or technology.

Luther’s Epiphany

I was reminded of this fact recently reading Fatal Discourse: Erasmus,  Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing.  As the title implies, the book explores the feud that eventually engendered between Martin Luther and moderate reformer Desiderius Erasmus.

As Massing relates in the book, Luther’s theological epiphany regarding his relationship with God significantly affected the manner in which the elements of the Christian faith are bound together, at least, within many of the sundry variations of contemporary Protestantism.

One of the more remarkable examples of how this binding was drastically altered is reflected in Protestant eucharistic traditions.   The Eucharist continues to carry immense significance within the Catholic faith, though significantly less within its Protestant counterparts.

One could make the strong case that Luther’s theological epiphany was almost entirely responsible for this dramatic shift in network binding.   And this is not surprising, considering that Luther’s theological epiphany centered around the nature of his relationship with God.

This represented a drastic alteration of previous thinking.  Luther had been raised and educated in an ecclesiastical system that regarded the church as the primary means through which one achieved and sustained salvation.  And this was secured through a series of sacraments that not only included the Eucharist.

Luther challenged this through his new view of grace, namely grace received from God through faith in the atoning power of Jesus Christ.  Little did he know, initially, at least, that this new doctrine ultimately would work as a solvent of many longstanding Christian practices.

Luther’s doctrine of grace also worked to drive a stake in the heart of indulgencies, which has stoked much of the anger that culminated in the Reformation.   Even more significant, the newfound emphasis on sola fideism (the doctrine of faith alone) resulted in the Eucharist no longer being viewed among many Protestants as an end in itself, which, of course, is the nature of a sacrament, but merely as a means of enhancing the individual believer’s understanding of the role of faith as the basis of Salvation.

This sweeping doctrinal innovation was expressed in many ways.  In a relatively short time, Protestant church architecture began to reflect this new doctrinal emphasis.   The pulpit, a symbol of the preaching of the Gospel, replaced the Communion table as the focal point in many Protestant churches.

Other traditional Catholic sacraments were downgraded or eliminated altogether.  Within the more radical Protestant churches, Communion ceased being treated as a sacrament at all and regarded instead as an ordinance. Indeed, some radical Protestant traditions rejected the Real Presence doctrine altogether, viewing Communion simply as a visual means of memorializing Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.

Luther, ironically, strove to maintain a higher standard for the Eucharist, holding to a slightly revised doctrine of the Real Presence known a consubstantiation, which holds that that the flesh and blood of Christ existed alongside the consecrated bread and wine.

The Ebionite View of the Common Meal

Ironically, Luther’s intransigence regarding his modified Eucharistic doctrine resulted in the sundering of Protestant unity, one that took centuries to heal.  And it must be stressed that the Protestant Reformation was not the first time that the Christian Common Meal underwent a significant shift in network binding.

Some 1,500 years earlier, the Ebionite followers of Jesus regarded the last supper of the Messiah not as a sacramental meal at all but rather as messianic banquet signifying the post-apocalyptic meal that would occur within the future kingdom of God.

Scholar James Tabor, who specializes in early Christian origins, cites a passage in Luke that occurs immediately before a verse that portrays the meal in classic Pauline terms.

“And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:19-21)

However, the other significant branch of Christianity, led by Paul, viewed the last meal in an entirely different light, borrowing significantly from predominantly Greek thinking predominant in the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin, where the bulk of Paul’s ministry was conducted.

Paul asks in Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Tabor also contends that this Pauline interpretation of the last meal is an expression of theophagy, “eating the body of one’s god,” a practice derived from Greek rather than from Judaic religious traditions.  He cites a Greek account written approximately during Paul’s time about a spell involving the consumption of a ritually consecrated cup of wine representing the blood of Osiris.  Consuming this consecrated wine purportedly enabled one to participate in the spiritual power of the love Osiris held for his consort, Isis.

Why have I gone to the trouble to embark on this long and rather tedious exploration of Eucharistic history?  First, to underscore that all facets of our human exoskeleton undergo incremental change as ideas and practice “meet, mate and morph” with other ideas and practices.  Consequently, the network binding that characterizes our exoskeleton undergoes constant change, though, in most case, these changes occur slowly, painstakingly slowly, in most cases.

But there are periods of disruption, when shifts in network binding occurs comparatively rapidly.  Luther’s crisis of faith is an example of one such disruptive event, causing a radical shift in the network binding of the Christian faith’s sacramental structure.

And Luther never could have anticipated just how disruptive this shift would be.

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Toward a New Religious and Secular Fusionism

Yonada

The High Priestess of Yonada confronts the Oracle in the Star Trek Original episode “The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky.” (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.)

I often tell friends that everything I learned about life I learned from Star Trek — the Star Trek original series, that is to say — and I say that only half jokingly.

My exposure to that series when it was in syndication in the 1970’s challenged my world view in many respects. Aside from my World Book Encyclopedia library, which was the late-Baby Boomer’s precursor to the Internet, there really wasn’t much intellectual stimulation available to teenager, especially in small-town northwest Alabama in the late 1970’s

One of the Star Trek Original episodes that has especially stuck with me over the years was “The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”

I’ve wondered a time or two how that rather irreligious episode got past the standards department at NBC in the late 1960’s.  As memory serves, I viewed that episode for the first time on a Sunday Morning waiting to leave for church with my parents.  Talk about a study in cognitive dissonance! I even remember my father, a closeted agnostic who grudgingly went along with Mother’s avid religious enthusiasm, furtively listening in, and, at one point, peering into our den and observing, “Gee, that’s a bit sacrilegious!”

A Spaceship Designed as An Asteroid

The episode centers around an extraterrestrial humanoid species that inhabits a computer-guided spaceship disguised as an asteroid. The ship, known by its inhabitants as Yonada, was designed and launched into space by a long-extinct species known as the Fabrini, whose solar system faced imminent destruction by a supernova.  The Yonadans, encased in a spaceship disguised an asteroid, were bound for a new world that the Fabrini had deemed suitable for colonization.

To ensure social cohesion across the long, multigenerational voyage, the Fabrini, invented a religion  — a rather wrathful Old Testament-style relgion, I should add — governed by highly sophisticated computer dressed up as an oracle, which communicated with the people via a high priestess.  The religion also encompassed a book of sacred scripture known as “The Book of the People,” the mysteries of which would be revealed upon arrival in the new world.  Finally, apparently as an extra guarantee against dissent thought and social fraying, each inhabitant was injected with a subcutaneous device known as an “instrument of obedience,” which inflicted intense pain on anyone impudent enough to engage in heretical speech.

The Plan Goes Awry

As it turns out, despite all of the Fabrini’s meticulous planning, the ship’s onboard computer developed a glitch deep into the voyage that not only threw Yonada  off its trajectory but also placed it on a collision course with Daran V, an inhabited planet Federation planet.

Alerted to this threat, members of the Enterprise crew — Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and Dr. McCoy — intervene.  Despite a couple of violent run-ins with the oracle, they manage to adjust the computer to avoid a planetary collusion and to place the ship back on its predetermined course.  But in the course of outwitting the oracle, they have to reveal the secrets of the Fabrini to Natiri, the high priestess.

Natiri, however unwittingly, is forced to embrace the truth about the origins of her faith. She learns that her faith is not so mystical or enchanted at all.  It was invented — improvised — by mortals just like her. She is presented with the challenge of imparting moral precepts to her people in a new light, fusing the teachings of the ancient faith with the new and rather jarring discovery that this faith was contrived — conceived by her forebears to ensure that a tiny remnant of their civilization would carry on in spite of the Extinction Level Event that awaited them.

In a very real sense, the Frabrini conceived and designed for their descendants a version of what I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton, which I’ve explored in some of my previous writings. They not only designed a spaceship but also an intangible protective covering for the Yonadans — a womb, of sorts — comprised of language, culture, law, technology and, most important of all, religion, to ensure that they reached their final destination safely.

The Value of Science Fiction

“The World is Hollow…” and many similar works are among the many reasons why I value science fiction so much.  As I’ve argued before, science fiction is more than mythology:  It functions as a sort of improvised add-on to religion to help us contend with challenges for which many, if not most, forms of conventional faith traditions simply are ill-equipped. And in a very real sense, the challenge presented to this fictitious high priestess, Natiri, closely parallels what is transpiring on Earth today in the 21st century, particularly in the increasingly secularized, religiously disenchanted West.

Like the Yonadans, we live out our lives within our own vulnerable ecosystem — Planet Earth.  It’s not a hollow ball like Yonada, though we are encased, in a manner of speaking, shielded from the frigid vacuum of space only by a thin and rather fragile layer of atmosphere.  Moreover, like the Yonadans, we depend solely on resources available within this fragile ecosystem to sustain us.

Also, like the mythical Yonadans, the resources we depend on to survive not only include food and water but also an intangible protective shroud — the ideals, practices and technologies our forebears have improvised over eons to enhance our chances for survival in a hostile natural world — the human exoskeleton.

Our Own Earthly Confrontation with Reality

And, finally, we, like the Yonadans, have been confronted with our own brush with facts, though, unlike the Yonadans, we’ve not encountered this reality all at once.  After some two centuries worth of advances in all manner of knowledge, particularly the insights we have garnered from textual analysis of sacred scripture and new insights into the evolutionary origins of our species and of the cosmos, we have been presented with a reality that many of us still regard as exceedingly painful, if not unbearable: the mundane origins of our religious traditions.

We have been presented with the reality that our forebears invented religion not only to provide themselves with a measure of social cohesion but also to secure a sense of meaning and purpose in a hostile environment.

To be sure, these precepts and beliefs were not invented from scratch.  They were not planned and designed by some ancient race like the Frabrini and handed down in toto to future generations.

Religious precepts and beliefs were improvised by human beings in response to all manner of necessity and laid down in imperceptibly thin layers across eons.  Indeed, our forebears had no multigenerational master plan in mind.  They had no inkling of the shape their religions ultimately would take. For example, some 3,500 years ago, none of the Jewish intellectuals and scribes who conceived Jewish monotheism in Babylon following the defeat and dispossession of their civilization could have imagined that an offshoot of their faith would be practiced many centuries later by Gentiles in structures known as praise centers scattered across the sprawling plains of a yet to be discovered continent.

It’s also now apparent that quite a few religious mystics, including Jesus, were preparing for an anticipated religious apocalypse.  They carried on their worldly ministrations assured that the world as they knew it would end shortly. They weren’t concerned with building an intricate, enduring system of religious dogma but rather on saving their people from a cosmic upheaval they regarded as imminent.

Like the Fabrini of Star Trek fame, the founders of our ancient religious faith traditions were mortal human beings, traveling through space on a vulnerable ball of mud, and, though they weren’t aware of it at the time, struggling to eke out a sense of purpose and meaning out of and existence that often seemed random and meaningless.

A Heavy Psychological Burden

Yet, this discovery — this demystification of faith— has imposed a heavy psychological burden on countless millions of us.  To be sure, the philosophical and scientific insights that we have gained within the last few hundred years have carried us a long way, certainly in material terms.  But they have also worked to fracture society — to impose a sense of disenchantment, normlessness and even a sense of nihilism among many of us.

Many among our intellectual elites are inclined to discount religion for the simple reason that much of it was invented by pre-Enlightenment, often illiterate or, at best, semi-literate peasants whose experiences with the transcendence became permanent facets of faith only because they were shared with others and somehow were regarded as compelling enough to gain traction and to be recorded.

religious-meme

One of many memes circulating on social media that deride the primitive origins of conventional religion.

I am reminded of a popular social media meme that derides conventional religion as merely primitive superstitions invented by people who didn’t know where the sun went at night.

There is certainly an element of truth to that, but the advancement of knowledge over the past few hundred years has also revealed another vital truth: that religious faith provided the moral scaffolding upon which human beings, particular Westerners, succeeded in constructing the modern secular foundations on which science, technology and liberal democracy were built.

The religious faith traditions that many of our intellectual elites deride today as pre-literate and unenlightened provided much of the deep, richly nuanced moral scaffolding for the far-flung, highly specialized and technological society that prevails today.  And we are in greater need today of well-defined, richly nuanced morality for the simple reason that society is so far-flung and complex.

In very real sense, we are presented with the challenge of the Yonadan high priestess.  We must find a way toward what I’ve come to call a new fusion.  We must find a way not only to reaffirm the value ancient religious teachings but to fuse these teachings with the deep insights that we have garnered from advances in science and technology within the last few centuries.   We must understand that both religious faith and the advancement of knowledge were indispensable in carrying our species out of the dark mists of ignorance into the broad uplands of discovery, deep insight and self-mastery.

To express it another way, we must find a way to bridge the vast distance between Athens and Jerusalem.

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The Embedded God: A Personal Theology

Introduction

conch3

I typically use a shell to symbolize what I call the Non-corporeal Human Exoskeleton (Photo: Courtesy of BrianO918.)

I watched an interview recently with former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, one of history’s most celebrated and gifted aviators and explorers — a truly singular man.   I am struck by how all those hours logged in space — and, incidentally, in spacecraft not much larger than phone booths — shaped his views of transcendence and humanity’s place in it.

Lovell was one the three intrepid Apollo 8 crewmen who undertook humanity’s first translunar voyage in December, 1968.  As the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which followed in 1970, he played an instrumental role in guiding the damaged Command Module safely home, not only saving the crew but also safeguarding the long-term prospects of U.S. manned space missions.

But Lovell is also remembered for the thoughtful impressions he brought back from his lunar voyages.  His fellow Apollo 8 crew member, Bill Anders, used his onboard camera to the capture the famous Earthrise picture, the first image of Earth from deep space.  This image, which thereafter became indelibly embedded in human memory, also made a searing impression on Lovell.

His realization of earth as a fragile ball of mud, a vulnerable ecosystem suspended in space, prompted some extended thinking about humanity, our planet and our place in the universe.

In time, Lovell, turned the conventional religious narrative upside down, and his spirituality took on a this-worldly form.  He gained a deeper appreciation for our planet’s stark singularity.  After all, Earth not only possesses the right amount of mass and gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, but also, due to its distance from the sun, is exposed to just the right amount of warmth to facilitate the evolution of life on Earth.  And aside from all of this good fortune, we are born into a socially evolved human existence that, conceivably, at least, affords opportunities for all manner of contentment, personal growth and self-actualization, certainly if one is fortunate to be born in one of the world’s developed countries.  That’s undoubtedly what Lovell means when he argues that being born on Planet Earth effectively amounts to going to Heaven.

New Ways of Thinking

Yet, this remarkable existence is finite. We are transient beings whose life on this tiny, vulnerable ball of mud affords us the potential for a deep well of pleasant experiences and opportunities, but eventually and inevitably our lives run their course.  And as Lovell stresses, it’s essential that we humans not only understood this finitude but also embrace it, living our lives consciously and deliberately, knowing that our genetics have allocated us only limited time in this singular place.

Of course, Lovell is not alone in his views.  He is expressing a spirituality, if one chooses to call it such, held by growing numbers of well-educated people across the planet — not surprising, considering the long distance humanity has traveled in scientific and technological terms within the past 200 years.  We’ve achieved great leaps in our understanding of our universe, the evolution of live on earth, and even the origins of sacred scripture.   Given what has been revealed, is it really that surprising that millions of humans have deviated from the religious dogmas improvised over centuries to account for the origins of the cosmos, our world, and our species’ place in it?

I’m one of those people who have deviated significantly from the views I acquired growing up.  Indeed, my views roughly conform to those of Lovell.  I’m a nontheistic — a culturally Christian nontheist, to be a bit more exact — whose thinking has been inspired by several nontheistic religious philosophers, notably Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering.

After sampling their writings and those of a few others, I’ve reached the conclusion that God represents a kind of congealment of thought and conviction that has unfolded over eons, the result of centuries of struggling with and thinking about transcendence — all those things that we humans perceive as lying beyond our perception and intellectual grasp and that cannot be fully articulated.

All this thinking about what we call God is the culmination of many different factors: our genetic heritage, the subsequent development of language and writing, and our early struggles with nature.

In recent centuries, this ongoing narrative of God has also been shaped by our struggles to come to terms with the implications of the increasingly sophisticated technologies that we have developed over the course of time not only to cope with the demands of nature but also to address the myriad of challenges bound up with human progress.

In a very real sense, nature and human existence have been significantly decoupled, because the knowledge and technologies we have improvised over eons to contend with the challenges of the natural world have grown so big and complicated that they now present their own distinct challenges.

Transcendent Bound in Human Existence

Both Aristotle and Spinoza — and, for that matter, Einstein — characterized God as immanent, embedded in the natural world.  I deviate from that view.  I would contend that our understanding of God has been filtered through what I have come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton. (More about this presently.)

As presumptuous as this may sound, I see that as a critical distinction from the thought of Aristotle and Spinoza.  To be sure, this noncorporeal exoskeleton grew out of our struggles with nature and it remains tethered to it in many ways, but increasingly, our ongoing struggle to articulate transcendence and, with it, God, at least within the West, is bound up in human thought, culture and, to an increasingly significant degree, in technology, all of which comprise our exoskeleton.

And while I can’t reject outright the possible existence of some impetus that drives the evolutionary forces on Earth and throughout the universe — some kind of Elan Vital (vital impetus), as Henry Bergson described it —   I would contend that we only can be reasonably certain of one thing: namely, of how our yearning for the transcendent has been shaped by human necessity.  Gaining a clear perspective of God, will always elude our grasp.

The only thing of which we can be certain is how we have conformed our yearning for the transcendent — God — to the sundry demands of our species’ existence across eons. Our present understanding of God represents the culmination of thousands of years of human struggle, not only against the forces of nature but also the complexities that have arisen from humanity’s increasing mastery of the natural world.  And over the course of time, as this mastery has been enhanced and perfected, our dialogue with the transcendent has been as much a struggle against the culture and technology, the byproducts of our struggle with natural world, as with the natural world itself.

The NHE

God is both transactional and intergenerational.  Our understanding of him has been constructed largely through language and daily interactions that have ensued across generations.  This intergenerational dialogue has occurred within a network or ecosystem, one that has undergone constant change across centuries.  This ecosystem, which has increased in density and complexity over time, is what I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE).

Our understanding of God represents the distillation of thousands of years of thinking about the world and our species’ place in it as it has been filtered through this exoskeleton.  In a very real sense, our exoskeleton has provided the means of revising, or, to put it another way, sculpting our thinking about God and transcendence.  And, of course, this ongoing dialogue about the nature of transcendence has contributed to the refinement of other facets of society that we now regard as secular and that encompasses law, technology, the arts and many other facets of society.

There are many ways to describe this exoskeleton.  The exoskeleton is part extra layer of cerebral cortex, part amniotic fluid, part nervous system, part filtering system.  Indeed, it evinces many of the properties of a nervous system.  The synergized elements in this networked system – language, writing and technology – ensure the transmission of memes, symbols and concepts throughout the human collective and, ultimately, across time.

In many notable respects, this networked synergy serves the same purpose among humans as pheromone does among ant and mosquito colonies.

Raw, Unfiltered Experience with Nature

Amniotic fluid is an apt analogy too.  In a manner of speaking, we swim within the dense network of language, writing, culture and technology that comprise the human exoskeleton.  Our exoskeleton not only provides protection to our species but also a sense of connectedness, identity, civilizational knowledge, and even emotional and psychological well-being.

Compared with us moderns, our distant forebears experienced a raw, unfiltered access to nature.  But our human exoskeleton increasingly stands in the way of any sort of raw, unfiltered communing with nature.  Our species’ contemporary perception of nature not only is based on 6 million years of evolution but also on the exoskeleton — the nervous system and filter — that we have constructed over eons to cope with the vicissitudes of existence.   And I should stress again the importance of distinguishing between nature and existence.  Our perennial struggle has been as much a struggle against existence as nature in the sense that the exoskeleton that we have evolved over time to cope with the exigencies of nature have also supplied their own challenges, partly in the form of mental pathology.

Our experience with nature no longer is so raw and unfiltered and has not been for centuries.  Yes, until fairly recently in human history, life has been incorrigibly hard and remains so in certain parts of the world, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, where, for example, women spend large parts of their day gathering water for drinking and cooking.

Many species have essentially evolved technologies to preserve or to enhance life.  But humans have achieved this technological enhancement over an immense scale. Language, which was enhanced centuries later by writing, has proven instrumental in enabling our species to extend our perspective beyond the present – to look ahead, albeit through a mirror darkly, in many cases, and, likewise, by looking backwards, to reflect on the implications of the past.

Fire initially provided us with a source of warmth on frigidly cold nights, effectively providing us with an extra coating of fur.  But over the course of time, we also discovered how fire could be used to cook our food, which effectively freed of us of the need to evolve a second stomach.

Likewise, Clothing has provided our species protection from the elements without otherwise having to evolve heavy layers of fur, while advances in foot covering that eventually culminated in shoes secured us cushioning similar to what eons of evolution provided ruminants in the form of dense, keratin coverings known as hooves.

To the sure, these technological advances occurred at painstakingly slow rates across eons. Many of the disparate intellectual insights that grew out of and were preserved by writing were for centuries limited almost exclusively to an elite coterie of scribes and other specialists.  Even so, this slow eking out process appears to have been periodically disrupted by remarkable innovations that significantly accelerated the rates of progress.

One of the most significant examples of such disruptive technology is the printing press, which, like few other technological innovations, transformed our exoskeleton, not only expanding it but also enhancing its complexity.  Indeed, even in the face of our species newest revolution, the Digital Age, which already has dwarfed the advances associated with the printing press, human beings arguably are still sorting through the social and technological disruption wrought by the printing press, which occurred five hundred years ago.

And this brings us back to one of the most unique exoskeletal innovations of all: God.  While it may sound heretical, if not blasphemous, to many readers, God is as much an innovation as language, writing and technology.  And like the other innovations, the evolution of this concept has carried our species a very long way. The evolution of God essentially amounts to a ponderously slow but nevertheless monumentally significant software upgrade.

God is Bound in Our Exoskeleton

And like language, writing and technology, God is bound within this network, this exoskeleton.  And his standing within his network is closely bound up with other elements. And as all these elements undergo constant change and new elements added, God’s binding within this network undergoes alteration too.  We are talking about an embedded God — a nonsupernatural and nonrealist God, though one who has exerted immense influence over the course of human history.

And as this network mutates, our understanding of God changes, too.  And to an increasing degree technology, in addition to language, has molded our conception of the transcendent.  And these advances in technology in recent decades, have afforded us a greatly enhanced understanding of how networks function, which, consequently, has only accelerated these trends.

This heightened understanding of networks has enabled us to expand the boundaries of human knowledge.  We are using this enhanced knowledge not only to extend our gaze into space and into the origins the cosmos but also to look back into our distant past to understand the origins of our pre-hominin forebears.  And through this enhanced knowledge, we’ve also gained critical insights into how our distant ancestors first began formulating rudiments of mental scaffolding associated with religion.

As presumptuous as this may sound to some, we have gained a stronger stewardship over our understanding of God.

It’s worth pointing out the enormous gifts that have been conferred on Homo sapiens, not only by evolution, namely in terms of how it contributed to human consciousness, but also by the NHE, which influenced significantly the development and enhancement of consciousness.   But these advanced have also imposed an enormous psychological burden on humanity, because the expanded perspectivity afforded by our highly evolved consciousness has encumbered us not only with an awareness of our mortality but also with an appreciation for all the acute risks bound up in all aspects of life.  For countless millions of human beings across the ages, this awareness has imposed tremendous psychological suffering, expressed in neuroses and even psychoses.

Under the circumstances, is it little wonder why religion and spirituality have been improvised across eons to fill this void and to become an integral part of our exoskeleton?

Our growing knowledge of transcendence has simultaneously worked to liberate many and to frighten others, especially among those in the West, particularly in the United States, who continue to express transcendence in the form of a divine, sovereign creator.   Some contend that the time has come not only to rearticulate our understanding of God but even to express transcendence in new ways.  The great German-American theological Paul Tillich offered the concept of Ground of Our Being for expressing our new understanding of transcendence.

Without Conscious Planning or Design

Yet, we should be reminded that this scaffolding was most often built not so much through conscious planning and design — or, for that matter, revelation — but rather through our intermittent brushes with necessity.  Spiritual and religious innovation have been improvised, sometimes rather quickly, when seemingly intractable situations demanded it.

The God many evangelical Christians still worship fervently in praise centers across the red heartland was likely conceived in Iraq some three-and-a-half millennia ago as displaced Jewish theologians and intellectuals, desperately seeking a psychological escape from defeat, cultural debasement and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, crafted a new universal monotheistic God

In a very real sense, religion evolved along with us and the many crises throughout history that have beset us.

While this may strike some as terribly banal, if not sacrilegious, one could argue that religious faith serves a role remarkably similar to to stomach flora.  We and the bacteria in our stomach have co-evolved across eons. In a manner of speaking, flora, in exchange for safe harbor in our gastro-intestinal tracks, have enabled us to digest food.  In a very real sense, religious belief, occupying space in our minds, provide psychological aid and comfort through the vicissitudes of life.  In this sense, it functions in a remarkably similar way to stomach flora.  To put it another way, religions have provided scaffolding within our exoskeleton to help us endure all the trials and tribulations of a mortal life.

Meeting, Mating, Morphing

And much of this evolution of religion has taken place in the course of meeting, mating and morphing with other religious faiths.   One could even argue that this effect is not only inevitable but also provides religion with a kind of hybrid vigor.

The religious historian Karen Armstrong has contended that Islam grew out of a genuine desire among nomadic Arabs to build a cohesive culture and ethos that were as influential and that provided as strong a social bond as those of the Jewish and Christian faiths, which existed in close proximity to the Arab World.

Likewise, Christianity grew out of an impulse among many in the eastern Mediterranean Basin to build upon the scaffolding of the Roman Empire – to merge monotheism and the high Jewish standards of moral and ethical probity with philosophy of the Greeks to forge a new universal religion.  Indeed, the case could be made that Paul, a Hellenized Jew, rather than Jesus, was the principal founder of Christianity.

Jesus arguably was simply one man from a long line of apocalyptic Jewish prophets.  What he preached was not radically different from other prophets.  And his preaching of brotherly love and tolerance toward the Roman authorities may simply have been a reflection of his belief that the end was nigh and that there was no reason to fret or to become angry about the daily cruelties and indignities meted out by an imperial order that God had consigned to extinction.

Jesus likely not only died an excruciating death on a cross but his body also was likely removed and thrown into a ditch with other religious and political dissidents convicted and executed for sedition.

Paul, however, inspired by Jesus’ sacrifice and, presumably, his oral teaching, wove all of this into what became, centuries later, the world’s principal Abrahamic religion, borrowing not only from Judaic but also Hellenistic traditions and propagating this faith using the transportation and legal infrastructure of Rome.

Much earlier in history, a multigenerational dialogue of Jewish prophets and intellectuals transformed the tribal faith of a defeated and dispossessed Semitic people into a monotheistic religion that, over the course of time, provided the scaffolding for the other two principal Abrahamic faiths.

There seems to be a deep-seated human need to ascribe miraculous turnabouts in human history to intervention by a higher power. Writing very late in life in his memoirs, “Around the Cragged Hill,” the great American diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan believed that something miraculous occurred in the Middle East leading up to the advent of Jesus’ ministry.  So many things seemed have been remarkably aligned for this ministry to have occurred and for Jesus’s teaches to have been propagated over the next few centuries throughout the Mediterranean Basin.   Kennan ascribed this to intervention to a higher intelligence.  But given all that we have learned through networking as well as through emergence theory, a simple secular explanation can be offered.   And for eons, the Middle East has provided fertile soil for the emergence and cross-fertilization of many religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

For centuries, the vast majority of human beings were oblivious to the this process of cultural cross-fertilization — how disparate ideas, symbols and memes meet, mate and morph, gain traction in human minds and, in some instances, become viral, spreading far beyond the initial point of cross-fertilization.  But, of course, that is not surprising, considering that the Enlightenment tools of scientific investigation had not yet been invented. And in sheer psychological terms, the prospect of looking beyond conventional thinking is painful, if not terrifying, for many people.  But beginning in the 18th century, advances in human understanding enabled a handful of exceptionally rare and intellectually astute individuals to perceive a reality beyond the intellectual fetters of their time.

It was as if they were able to climb to the highest reaches of the scaffolding of their era to acquire a wider perspective of the human condition, one that would enable subsequent human beings to construct more scaffolding.  And these seminal thinkers — Kant, Newton, Darwin, Nietzsche and (Max) Weber, to name only a few —point the way toward a new understanding of transcendence.

The Mixed Blessings of Enhanced Human Understanding

But this new and enhanced understanding presents our species, particularly Westerners, with a double-edged sword as well as a mixed blessing.  For many people, particularly physicists, cosmologists, and evolutionary scientists, our enhanced understanding of the natural world has pointed away from an omniscient, omnipotent personal God.  And one of the consequences of these new insights is a kind of cultural bifurcation, in which culture is divided between elites, those who perceive the need for a new understanding of transcendence, and those who still hold to old orthodoxies.  And this stark cultural division over the nature of transcendence has bred a sense of disconnectedness, normlessness and even nihilism among millions of people.

To be sure, advances in a host of disciplines — biblical scholarship and archaeology, evolutionary science and cosmology — have conferred immense intellectual and material advantages on our species, but these advances have been accompanied by the heavy psychological and social burden that the late German sociologist Max Weber characterized as disenchantment.

Seeing Beyond and Even Before Time

One of the incomparable gifts of existence, NETWORKED EXISTENCE, is that we have enabled ourselves to see beyond time.  Language and technology have played indispensable roles in this. And seeing beyond time not only applies to the future but also to the past.  And thanks to a combination of things – genetics, Big Data and artificial intelligence, to name few — we not only have acquired better tools to project far into the future but we are also increasingly equipped to extend our perception to our species’ deep past, to prehistory.  We are garnering an increasingly clearer picture of the human species in all of its damnable and, until recently, elusive complexity.  Indeed, in a very real sense, we humans have acquired insights that we have historically been ascribed to God. We have eaten bountifully from the forbidden fruit and, barring some unforeseen natural or manmade calamity that propels us into a new dark age, there really is no turning away from these new insights.  We are stuck with them – married to them. Yet, after roughly 200 years and in spite of all theremarkable insights that we already have gained, we are still digging our way out a considerable measure of psychic shock.  We are still trying to construct a new ethos to replace the one that was shattered by the like likes of David Strauss, Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.

Perhaps the time has come to develop a new way to understand the nature of our existence and mortality and what lies beyond them.

The Embedded God

I personally prefer the term the “embedded God, rather than simply God, to express our emerging views of transcendence.  It better comports with my understanding of transcendence as a culmination of centuries of conceptual scaffolding. And this scaffolding has proven invaluable in guiding the fortunes of species throughout some of its most challenging periods.  This understanding — this scaffolding — is a multigeneration construction.

God is embedded in this scaffolding and in the network this scaffolding comprises.

This new way of looking at transcendence must also combine the insights of visual art, science fiction and other forms of artistic and literary expression.

In his new book on creativity, “The Origins of Creativity,” the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson related the tragic life of artist Tolouse Latrec, the French aristocrat born with a series of crippling abnormalities.  But as the legacy of his art reveals, his deformities, particularly his diminutive size, afforded him a closer intimacy to his subjects and also to his choice of colors. Indeed, this is one of the remarkable things about art: the unique perspective of every artist has essentially afforded subsequent generations multiple glimpses into reality.  In a very real sense, God has been revealed in much the same way, through individual perspective and through human dialogue across the ages.

Yet, while art and literature provide centuries of accumulated perspectives, the sheer volume of these works prohibit their being curated in ways that provides us with this deep transcendent insight.  But imagine if, in some distant future, some potent combination of AI and Big Data enabled us to combine or correlate these multiple perspectives in a way that gave us an unusually compelling and deeply nuanced grasp of reality. Would this somehow enable us to bridge, if not to transcend, many of the divisions that seem to be rending the world, particularly, Western society, apart today?  This is not exactly Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, but it would amount to a technological leap that provided us with a perspective that we mortal humans have normally ascribed to God.

Such a culmination may be beyond our grasp for the foreseeable future.  For now, though, amid all the wrenching divisions of the present day, we at least can derive some consolation from the fact that science has provided us not only with deep insight into our past but even into our deep past.  We have a clearer understanding than ever of how our species groped its way out of the darkness and into a comparatively well-lit broad upland.  We have managed to construct a reasonably coherent view of our place in the world and, to an increasing degree, in the universe.

Our Expanding Sensory Capacity

Yes, we still have immense amount of work ahead of us, but we have come very far.

Compared with other species, our sensory capacity is grievously limited. Nevertheless, we have harnessed our limited sensory apparatus along with our the increasingly complex exoskeleton to broaden our horizons significantly —to the point where we’ve managed to reach out beyond the parochial confines of our planet to a vast universe beyond to contemplate the origins of life and our place in this vast cosmos.

Our emerging understanding of networks have altered the way we understand the nature of all things.  They have even shed considerable light on how we have constructed the human ecosystem, the exoskeleton, across time. And this new understanding has instilled us within keener understanding of just how complex this network is and how many layers have been laid, one on top of another, across eons.

It has also challenged our very understanding of human sovereignty.  We are not the sovereign entities we once thought that we were, consciously and deliberately expanding our intellectual, scientific and technological horizons, but rather far less singular creatures reacting to necessity, much like worker ants.

In fact, advances in networking have now rendered the human understanding of God too complex to be expressed by the traditional creeds and liturgies of the church.

Too Complex to Be Expressed in Creeds

And partly because of this, the matter of worshipping God has become more problematic.  Indeed, even the more expansive, open-ended approaches to accessing transcendence, such as the Quaker testimonial approach, no longer seem comprehensive enough.

Perhaps the only alternative for people, at least, the ones actively seeking insight into these questions, within the 21st century is to quit thinking so much about the nature of God and to focus instead on becoming as deeply imbued with the attributes of God and, over the course of time, to share their own experiences of personal growth with the aim of serving as a beacon for others — in other words, to focus more on orthopraxy and less on orthodoxy, living rather than thinking the right way.

Curating our Spiritual Walk

To borrow a common networking term, perhaps it is time for seekers to curate their faith — to arrange their life experiences in the most optimal ways to provide a roadmap for others.  Perhaps this orthopraxic faith is the most realistic way to practice spirituality, or what passes for it, in a post-Christian, post-orthodox age.

In a sense, this is a harkening back to the writings of Nietzsche, who addressed the so-called “death of God” as an entity “out there,” beyond space and time, directing the fortunes of our species.

Every human being is now the product of a vast and very dense network.  Within this sprawling, sophisticated network, we collectively are equipped not only with a highly developed and nuanced exoskeleton but also with an immense exobrain, which most of us carry around in our pockets or purses in the form of a smartphone, which affords us virtually instantaneous access to all of the extant knowledge of the past 5,000 years of recorded human history. And this affords every citizen of the Western world with an immense degree of intellectual freedom, the breadth of which was almost inconceivable to humans a few centuries ago.

Ironically, though, the vast majority of us are now overwhelmed by a surfeit of information. And this immense tide of information has increasingly diluted the ability of every institution in the West, including the church, to impose its idiosyncratic views on individuals.

Consequently, for better or worse, it falls on the shoulder of every practitioner of spirituality, whatever that form takes, to become a curator of his/her lifetime journey.   In a very real sense, the technology and moral developments that have followed in the footsteps of the digital age have called each of us to become Martin Luthers, to become, in a sense, our own reformers and our own spiritual lodestars.

These technological forces have utterly destroyed the traditional structures through which religion — faith — has previously been explored and practiced.

The followers of Don Cupitt have improvised a community known as the Sea of Faith Network to explore the implications of Cupitt’s new religious philosophy. But the mixed success of these networks only underscore the difficulty of creating a community in the midst of rapid social, cultural and technological change when the body of knowledge is expanding at such volumes and at such rates that human beings lack the ability to improvise new social structures to adjust to these changes.

Looking Beyond Mundane Existence

Many of us have become increasingly addicted to the conveniences afforded by these new networking technologies, if not imprisoned by them.  And therein lies the irony of these new technologies: They offer humans an incomparable measure of freedom — freedom of which earlier generations of scientists and philosophers scarcely could have conceived. They have freed us, arguably, at least, from the ignorance that imprisoned many of our grandparents only a few decades ago.  They supply us with the real potential to look beyond our mundane existence — to utilize the benefits of these networks to become highly informed fully actualized human beings.

Yet, like most technological advances, networking technologies have presented our species with as many challenges as they have immense opportunities for personal enlightenment and growth.  Indeed, a growing number of scientists and philosophers have expressed concern that these new technologies will ultimately grow so complex that they will consume and enslave us. Small wonder why the Borg of Star Trek captured viewers’ imagination: they provided a plausible, if not deeply disturbing insight into our distant future or, as the case may be, near future.

Our existence (dasein, as Martin Heidegger termed it) is intimately bound up our exoskeleton and the cultural and technological advances that have grown out of it have provided us with the most incomparable of gifts.

It has afforded us with the capacity to become ubermensch (over men), as Nietzsche conceived this term.  But its growing complexity has robbed us of all the certainties that characterized previous generations, and each of us increasingly and rather unwittingly is forced to undertake our own solitary walk through life.

To be sure, there remain millions of us who are content to adopt ready-made templates. But they, too, are as much participants of this leap into the dark, though without being as consciously aware of that fact.

They, like everyone else, can only follow the bread crumbs left behind by earlier generations. They are simply embracing templates sculpted by earlier generation, all acting in response to necessity and to our evolving exoskeleton.  Yet, like no other previous generation on the planet, we are interacting within an exoskeleton more evolved and nuanced than ever, one that arguably supplies us with the tools to undertake and complete this solitary journey.

A Reaction to Network Complexity   

The strong case could be made that human history is not so much a reaction to the uptick in knowledge as to the increasingly complexity of networks that follow this this uptick.  New insights stemming from advances in knowledge typically spark network disruptions, and these disruptions occur as a result of shifts in what I’ve come to call network binding.

A good example is the advent of the printing press.  This created an uptick in knowledge, all kinds of knowledge.  Especially significant, it afforded new insights into the founding texts of Christianity, particularly those of St. Augustine, which exerted a major influence on Martin Luther.  This caused a major disruption to the Christian faith, the largest and most influential network at the time within the West, particularly in terms of how it altered the way 16th century northern European kings, intellectuals and other elites viewed the authority of the church.  Consequently, the role that the church occupied within this network shifted.  To put it another way, the manner in which it was bound in the network, the larger exoskeleton, underwent sweeping change.   And in a very real sense, Christianity and the West have not fully adjusted yet to these changes, even as it faces the next big disruption: the effects of the Digital Age.

Back to that remarkable irony: We are faced with a literal surfeit of information — information that represents the culmination of thousands of years of human thinking and striving.  Human beings should be drinking from this firehose.  Yet, in most instances, we are dying of spiritual and intellectual thirst.  And what accounts for this?

Patrick Deneen, a University of Notre Dame political philosopher, is right: The spiritual and political impasses in society are due significantly to the success of modern liberalism.  Liberalism’s comparative success lies in the fact that it has enabled human beings to access and to capitalize on the benefits of our exoskeleton like on other competing ideology.

Indeed, some futurists have even contended that our exoskeleton may grow so dense and complex that it ultimately will attain consciousness that, over time, will dwarf and even devour humanity.  It’s as if a mollusk, enclosed in well-nourished and dense shell, is ultimately  devoured by it.

Elites Will Always Be With Us

And in the midst of all of this, large segments of the West’s population, namely elites, have moved away from the religious tradition that still provides the principal scaffolding of the West: Christianity. And this largely accounts for the cultural war that is raging throughout the Western world, though particularly in the United States.  This scaffolding is worn and outdated, as all scaffolding tends to become over the course of time, but that does not detract from the fact that this scaffolding still provides the underpinning of much of our cultural and legal traditions.

Yet, even as this scaffolding is abandoned by elites, we have not yet managed to improvise new scaffolding to replace it.  At best, we have only laid down the broad contours of this new scaffolding, and it’s conceivable that the West may never manage to lay out anything as comprehensive and as nuanced as the Christian ethos that has underpinned Western culture for the last 1500 years.

One of the mainstays of modern elitist thought is that capitalist greed has driven the fortunes of the West and that much of what we associated with modernity and human progress is bound up economic exploitation — a variation of the Marxist narrative.

To be sure,  the history of human striving, which has culminated in the construction of the NHE, has always been bound up in elitism. Elites have always enjoyed a distinct advantage simply because they have more assets to leverage.   Elites have tended to predominate in all cultures because of the assets they bring to the struggle, namely singular intellectual and moral, emotional and even physical attributes.  And if, eons ago, humans had somehow succeeded in flattening the competitive landscape, our exoskeleton arguably would not be as dense and refined as it is.

To be sure, the flattened landscape that has emerged from the digital revolution has contributed immensely to the remarkable and rapid uptick in knowledge and technological innovation.  Some undoubtedly cite this phenomenon as an example of how a relatively flatter class structure could contribute to scientific and technological progress.  And, granted, this flattened landscape has leveraged the voices and talents of many remarkable people who otherwise would be marginalized in the previous industrial era.

But the flattening was made possible principally by outliers — intellectually and entrepreneurially gifted elites.  And these outliers, despite the democratizing effects of the digital revolution, still exert a vastly disproportionate share of influence.

Nietzsche and Foucault raised a valid point in arguing that history, rather than being studied dispassionately and in its totality, should be mined for the insights that can be employed to enhance our present-day quality of life.

One of the great tragedies of history, though, is that humans, great and ordinary alike, have failed to understand the unusually refined and complex nature of the human exoskeleton, which not only is disproportionately and necessarily influenced by outliers but that, by its very nature, requires that change occur only incrementally.

Human efforts to dismantle huge swathes of the exoskeleton and to reconstruct new elements from scratch — the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, for example — conferred immense human suffering from which our species is still recovering.

From Orthodoxy to Orthopraxy

In this post-Christian, post-orthodox world, one characterized by a high emphasis on orthopraxy, right behavior, the emphasis on morality, deep morality, has become more important than ever.  Orthodox Christianity has historically supplied that deep morality.  And with its effective loss, the West has been deprived of an ethos that essentially enabled Westerners to function on something resembling autopilot.

Rabbi Irwin Kula is among several religious leaders and sages calling 21st century humanity to recognize religion as a form of technology, which essentially amounts to the building up of scaffolding to enable our species to better understand the nature of the transcendent and to drive more meaning and enjoyment from our mortal existence and, in the course of which, to apply meaning to reality and to order it in a way that better ensures we coexist with each other in peace. But compared to our forebears, we operate under a distinct disadvantage, because this mortal struggle is shorn of the mystery — the enchantment — that characterized earlier ages.

It’s important to stress, though, that there was no nefarious plot by monarchs, the illuminati or anyone else to deprive the West of its enchantment. It simply worked out that way in the course of our exoskeleton’s response to necessity.  And this fact underscores that we humans are not sovereign in the way we always have imagined ourselves to be.

In a sense, the scales have fallen from our eyes. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain has been exposed, and, as it turns out, there is no man or entity at all, simply an eons long struggle on our part to improvise responses to all manner of exigency, and, in the vast majority of cases, without our being scarcely aware of the implications of our actions or their connectedness with other elements of our exoskeleton. Indeed, for eons, we have been scarcely aware of this exoskeleton and how the disparate parts of it affect other parts of this vast, largely incomprehensible human projection.

How Then Should We Live?

This brings us around to the vital question:  How then should we live in this post-Christian age?  Moreover, how is possible to live freely and deliberately in a world in which we are conceivably being overwhelmed by our exoskeleton, something on which we have never exercised full stewardship from the beginning?   To express this in even more ominous terms, how do we exercise freedom in an era in which our exoskeleton grows increasingly more complex with each passing day, even to the point where it could overtake our species entirely and even supplant us as the dominant entities on this planet?

In one notable respect we are free —free in the sense that Nietzsche envisioned freedom roughly two centuries ago.  We have been liberated, however unwittingly, by our own technological advances.  All of us —not just professionally trained, philosophers, theologians and clergy — are being challenged as never before to look beyond the historically prescribed notions of good and evil and to search for grains of truth within this immense, digitally flattened information landscape.

To be sure, there will always be spiritual versions of those whom the Objectivist Ayn Rand disparagingly and rather unjustly characterized as second-handers — conformists, people who do not wish to take a leap into the dark and who are content to follow orthodox expressions of faith: Catholicism or one of the numerous iterations of Protestantism.

They will likely represent the overwhelming majority of seekers for the foreseeable future.  Yet, even these more conventional paths amount to leaps of faith, because within this new information order, orthodoxy no longer is regarded sacrosanct, as it once was. In this digital age, even they are forced, however unwittingly, to choose among many alternatives associated with human existence.  And we should recall that Luther’s wrenching conversion occurred in a steadfastly Christian milieu and essentially amounted to a binary choice between Catholic dogma and one that Luther perceived as an older, and far more orthodox one espoused by the Apostle Paul and Augustine.

Curating and Creating Our Own Sacred Spaces

However, for the rest of us, a rather embattled but growing minority, it seems that the only alternative is to determine, each in our own way, how to become as deeply imbued with the attributes our civilization has historically assigned to God.

This brings us back to the challenge of curating our lifetime journey— sharing the experience of this solitary, lifetime walk with others.

In a very real sense, our individual responses to the exigencies of life amount to their own acts of creation. Lloyd Geering has observed that each of us is born into and cultivates over the course of a lifetime his or her own womb of culture. He offers a memorable quote by Austrian scholar, writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lykeus: “Every time a man dies, a whole universe is destroyed.”

To view it another way, the advances in digital media and the tidal wave of information that has followed have transformed us not only into unwitting Nietzscheans but also into Martin Luthers. By that I mean that many of us, secularist and orthodox believer alike, have, in the course of dealing with the exigencies of life, undergone our own transformational Tower Experiences, much as Luther did.   In many case, these have placed us on a moral and ethical path.

Improvising Our Own Solitary Treks

While the Digital Age may be undermining our ability to keep pace with societal change and may even be eroding our personal freedom as human beings, it has afforded us with greater opportunity than ever before to compile a digital record of our thoughts.

By curating what we learn and discover on our own, we not only conceive and create our own sacred spaces but also share our personal journeys for the enlightenment of other spiritual sojourners.

We are being challenged — perhaps forced would be a choice of words in this context — to improvise our own solitary treks through life. We are being forced to undertake Kierkegaardian leaps into the dark as we carry on with tour individual lifetime treks through the vicissitudes of life.

All we really have in the end is our own personal fortitude and courage to travel through this mortal existence and to follow the bread crumbs dropped by earlier generations of wanderers — that and the freedom to reflect on our own experiences and to leave behind bread crumbs of our own for future generations of wayfarers.

And that brings me back to the question:  How do we affirm personal freedom and sovereignty in the digital age?  As I see it, some 5,000 years of recorded human history have demonstrated that we have an obligation not only to follow the bread crumbs laid down by earlier generations of human beings but also to lay down our own crumbs for present and future generations.  We have an obligation to relate to others the lessons of our own lifetime journeys — to become curators on behalf of others.

In carving out our own paths, we, in the course of our own solitary struggle, should create our own unique but sacred spaces. And as we reflect on our own experiences in life — how we not only adapted to the inevitable exigencies but also learned from them — we should consider sharing these with others.  Like earlier generations, we should strive to lay our own breadcrumbs.

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The Solvents of Faith

Catholic-Eucharist

Catholic Eucharist. Photo: Courtesy of Marie Lan-Nguyen

I have to say that I found Rod Dreher’s recent musings on the disillusionment with and abandonment of Catholicism by his friend, Tommy Tucker, not only perceptive but also deeply moving and even prescient reading.

Indeed, it served as a backdrop in an e-mail exchange I hard earlier this morning with a relative, relating to her what a thoroughly anti-institutional Christian apostate I’ve become, certainly within the last few years.

Disillusionment with Evangelicalism

My spiritual metamorphosis was somewhat different from that of Tucker’s. I grew up in the Southern Baptist faith, and from a very early age, I tried desperately to articulate why this faith simply didn’t click with me. It finally occurred to me at some point that I shared one thing in common with the late German sociologist Max Weber: In terms of religion, I simply am not musical. I don’t relate to religion as most people do and likely never will.

That turned out to be one of the great psychological epiphanies of my life, and cleared space for an enormous amount of personal growth and creativity.

Like many other adults in the 21st century, that realization his inspired me to eke out my own philosophy, though borrowing significantly from Christianity. I strive, however inconsistently, to live my life as compassionately as possible but also in freedom – or, at least, what I define freedom – free of the institutional fetters of any church authority, free to call sacred moral and ethical cows into question.

Granted, I’ve never suffered the loss of someone exceedingly close to me or been faced with a terminal illness. And I concede that those two prospects alone conceivably would be enough draw me back into some form of conventional faith. But following a lifetime of struggle with spiritual issues, I consider myself significantly happy and reasonably well-integrated. And, needless to say, I don’t think that I am alone, even in the Deep South. Lots of people who have undergone severe spiritual crises have also managed to work their way through them and have even succeeded in building a coherent post-Christian vision.

An Enduring Affinity for the Christian Faith

Yet, I still feel a special affinity for Christianity. I still maintain a residual, cultural affiliation with Protestant Christianity through membership in the United Methodist Church, a denomination to which I gravitated in college. But that’s only because I share a common culture and a modicum of religious affinity with many individual United Methodists.

I also remain a conservative who believes that functioning, healthy societies require an ethos that is grounded in deep thinking about how we should relate to each other as well as how we fit into the larger natural world. And for this ethos to serve people adequately, it must be widely supported virtually every member of the community.

The Decline of Mainline Protestantism

Christianity has historically supplied the foundation of this ethos. But I agree with Dreher and other traditionalists that United Methodism and other forms of mainline Protestantism essentially amount to ghosts and are increasingly ill-equipped to contributed to any sort of significant moral dialogue. They are in steep decline and will exert little cultural influence among rising generations of young people in the future. While Evangelical Christianity likely will exert a significantly larger share of influence, it will never summon the intellectual and cultural clout that has historically defined Catholicism and, until a few decades ago, mainline Protestantism.

This brings me to Catholicism. As my father, a closeted agnostic, once astutely and aptly observed, Catholicism IS the principal scaffolding that has supported the civilization of the West. One develops a deep appreciation for this reading the works of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Catholicism possesses unique traits and strengths that other Christian faiths lack and have lacked from the very beginning of the Reformation. And it is worth pointing out that northern Germany experienced an acute decline in public and private piety following the advent of Luther and Protestantism.

Over the course of 1500 years of institutional evolution within the scaffolding of the old Roman Empire, Catholicism has developed a kind of gestalt that no other form of Christianity has come close to approximating. And that is why I, despite my secularism and apostasy, always read with a sense of sadness and even despair about the precipitous decline of Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity.

The Catholic Gestalt

Even so, I’m not sure that what has been broken can ever be fixed. This Catholic gestalt functioned for almost two millennia because other cultural forces at work in Western society not only comported with it but also sustained it. Indeed, a largely beneficial cultural symbiosis prevailed in the West because of how all these cultural forces hung together. But the die was cast roughly half a millennium ago with the advent of the New Learning and the printing press: the cultural and technological forces that have emerged in the West have steadily hastened the erosion of this symbiosis – this gestalt.

In the face of all these challenges, Catholicism, compared with other Christian traditions has been equipped with one rather formidable asset. Its gestalt has been comprised of all manner of things – doctrine, liturgy, martyrs, shrines, and saints, to name a few – but the church’s highly elaborate and developed hierarchy, backed up by the doctrine of Apostolic Ascension, has functioned as the principle adhesive.

The Catholic sex scandals with the last decade have done much to erode the moral credibility of this hierarchy and, consequently, the Catholic faith in general. But erosion has been setting in for centuries, and as simplistic as this observation may strike some people, I believe that rising levels of scientific and cultural complexity, which have necessitated increasingly higher levels of mass education, have been the driving factor of this erosion. They comprise the Pandora’s Box of the spiritual decline of the West. The better educated people become, the more inclined they are to question entrenched authority, irrespective of its nature.

To be sure, the fear of everlasting torment worked against these trends for a considerable time among many Catholics and conservative Protestants, but even the most basic doctrines of the church are now challenged by some 200 years worth of textual criticism, virtually all of which are now readily accessible on the Internet through search engines and a few clicks of a mouse.

Somehow this takes me back to a comment I ran across years ago by the nontheiest political philosopher and Anglican priest Don Cupitt, who once recalled his own materially deprived childhood in WWII England as well as the rapid societal change that followed in the wake of the Allied victory, particularly in terms of how this change afforded greater access to higher education.

“We’ve all grown up!” Cupitt observed.

In some respects, our species has grown up, and the greater access to higher education throughout the Western world has played a significant role in this maturation.

The Hispanization of the American Catholic Church

Under the circumstances, it is small wonder why the fortunes of American Catholicism are so tightly bound with future of Hispanics, particularly Hispanic immigration. Immigrants are in a very different place than the middle-class American Catholics that many aspire to be like some day. They currently lack the levels of higher education to which the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of previous waves of Irish, German and Italian immigrants have taken virtually for granted in recent generations. Small wonder why Hispanics will comprise the bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy for some time to come. But, in time, they will ascend the economic and educational ladder, much as their Irish, German and Italian antecedents have, and over time, Catholicism inevitably will faced with the same maladies as declining mainline Protestant faiths.

Education, particularly higher education, is the great solvent that challenges all forms of authority, particularly religious authority.

As the Sovietologist Archie Brown has related, Soviet and Eastern European communism succumbed 30 years ago to a myriad of factors, but one of the principal ones was the rising levels of education that Soviet and Eastern European political elites instituted among their citizens to foster economic growth.

Perhaps Dreher is right in arguing that after a long Dark Age humanity will grope its way back to orthodox Christianity. As I see it, if advances in science and technology are sustained throughout this dark epoch, humanity may ultimately emerge centuries from now with an ethos that borrows heavily from Christianity but that deviates significantly from it.

Whatever the case, I am one Protestant apostate who bemoans the loss of the Christian scaffolding of the West. particularly as it is expressed within the Catholic faith. A society this extended and complicated requires a deep well of morality and ethics.

Catholic Christianity once comprised this deep well.

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When Parents Push Too Hard

football

Way back in the 70’s as a adolescent, I learned a valuable life lesson, one that I tried to practice in my own relationship with my two precious daughters as they were growing up: namely, the dangers of pushing kids too hard and too far.

I grew up with a special challenge. As fate would have it, I was one of the most uncoordinated and untalented “athletes” who ever passed through the intramural and school-sponsored sports programs of Russellville, Alabama – a bitter reality for a small-town Southern boy, and one rendered even more difficult by the fact I was the son of a stellar athlete. My father was an All-State high school football player who went on to complete college on a four-year football scholarship at Troy State Teachers College (now Troy University).

I was the ultimate athletic cipher. I knew it, my coaches knew it – and occasionally pointed it out in exasperation, often in front of the other coaches and kids during practice – and, deep down, I think that my parents knew it too.

Yet, my mother and father, who were otherwise excellent, diligent parents, insisted that I play football all the way from intramural to Varsity football. I always wondered if they thought that I eventually would throw some switch and metamorphose into some sort of gifted athlete.

The fact was that I was too short-legged to be a running back and too small to be a lineman. Yet, for some reason, my parents were unable to admit this.

Between my Dad’s obstinance on this particular issue and my mother’s Wages family mule stubbornness on just about every topic under the sun – well, they comprised a pretty formidable duo.

Indeed, Mom, in particular, was convinced that I was all talk and no action. And she had concluded, along with Dad, that my conspicuous athletic failure was a troubling harbinger of a indolent adulthood. Mom even resorted to invoking the name of someone in town who was born into a decent family but who, sadly, had never amounted to much of anything, flunking out of college and ending up in a menial job.

I’ll just use the name Charlie Whiteburg for purposes of illustration.

“Jimmy, you’re going to end up just like Charlie Whiteburg – all talk and no action! I am going to drive by the (place Charlie worked) some day and see you sweating and grunting alongside him in the summer heat!”

This particular guy was rather rotund and had a tendency, in Bob Hope fashion, to wear his pants well above his hips, almost up to his nipples.

In time, I unwittingly built him up in my mind into a sort of doppelganger. I’d occasionally conjure up images of my finishing high school, failing college and, in the end, looking just like poor, rotund Charlie, with my pants hiked well above my waist – an incorrigible flunky yoked to a menial, dead-end job for the rest of my life.

And, not all that surprising, I was frequently overcome by panic attacks for many years after that. And though I got that pretty much under control 30 or so years ago, I would still visit a counseling psychologist every so often to enhance my coping skills.

About 8 or 9 years ago, I was referred by a very close friend to a crackerjack therapist – a woman from an Orthodox Jewish background who grew up in Boston.

In the course of my therapy, I related my childhood fears of mutating into a Charlie.

“Jim,” she said, after about 6 weeks of visits, “I have built a very lucrative career dealing with Southern Protestant guilt and anxiety, and among all the clients I have ever dealt with, I have never encountered anyone who was served a bigger helping than you!”

We both got a hearty laugh out of that one.

Parents do their best – and I was fortunate to have two truly exceptional and accomplished parents – but based on my own experience with intramural and high school athletics, I vowed that I would try to give my kids as much leeway as possible and in every facet of their lives.

I didn’t always succeed because, after all, old habits die hard.

My oldest daughter decided to drop out of karate just short of her black belt. Her decision initially bothered me – a lot – and I initially gave her a bit of a dressing down about not finishing what she started.

But I thought about those seven MISERABLE years of football that my folks imposed on me, and I apologized. And, of course, neither she nor I ever evinced a moment of regret about her decision.

It was the same with soccer for both my daughters. After a couple of years they had their fill, and I readily assented to their dropping out.

And both ended up finding their own passions and ended up embarking on happy, fulfilling lives.

You can’t mold children in your own image. You may attempt it, but all that you will get in return are neurotic, embittered kids. Truth is, all you can do is to establish a moral and ethical template, though with broad parameters to accommodate your children’s unique personalities, temperaments and interests.

That’s not a foolproof child-rearing strategy – not by a long shot – but based on my own experience, it’s the most realistic gameplan for raising happy, self-actualized children.

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