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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: Christianity

Awareness and religion: Your path or someone else's

Stephen H. Provost

What’s the difference between religion and spirituality – or, more specifically, between doctrine and awareness? A lot of people have tried to answer this question over the years, but I’ve decided to offer my own perspective.

Religious groups often appoint a priesthood or hierarchy to administer their rituals and oversee dogma. Hence the term “organized religion.” But without that dogma and without those rituals, the hierarchy simply wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s not the priesthood that defines religion, in my view, it’s the rulebook ... which the priesthood uses to remain in power.

Spark of awareness

Religions often coalesce around a spark of awareness – a basic idea that’s powerful enough to gain a foothold in the imaginations of more than a few people. That idea isn’t the problem; it’s the “coalescing” factor. It tends to produce a rigid us-versus-them mentality that’s fortified by an ever-growing list of dos and don’ts.

These rules serve to separate people into two categories: the faithful and the heathen. They define who’s “accepted” and who’s not, but they don’t really do much else ... except to justify the existence of a priesthood (whose members benefit by being in power) – and to dim the spark of awareness that started fire in the first place.

From time to time, a reformer will come along and try to peel away the layers of dogma that have buried the original idea – and they’re usually castigated for it. Jesus the Galilean, for instance, said all the law and the prophetic utterances in Israel could be distilled into two simple principles: love God and love your neighbor. Martin Luther argued that Christian believers could have direct access to the divine, with no need of a priestly middleman.

The existing religious hierarchy, perceiving a threat to its power structure, did its best to silence them both.

The fact is, if you boil all the dogmatic dos and don’ts down into one or two simple principles that apply to everyone, two things happen. You discover you don’t need a hierarchy. And you focus on commonality, building bridges rather than walls. The priests obviously don’t like the first of these two repercussions. But they don’t like the second much, either, because they thrive off false us-versus-them distinctions – the kind of distinctions that leave the impression that “we’re better than they are.”

The priests can then lead the faithful into battle and claim credit for waging “spiritual warfare” against evil.

Ironically, these complex, Byzantine rules and restrictions create a simplistic, black-and-white dichotomy that pits the saints against the sinners, the chosen against the damned, the clean against the unclean. Such false simple-minded distinctions make the “in” group feel superior to those on the outside – who become dehumanized in the process. The entire process is akin to offering snake oil as a treatment for personal insecurity.

The spark remains

None of this means there’s no value in religion. Most religions, after all, are based on that positive spark of awareness that’s still there under all the dogma. And that spark can motivate people to do wonderful things in spite of all the spiritual red tape inherent in hierarchies and commandments.

But wouldn’t it be a lot easier to cut through that red tape to the heart of the matter?

That’s the idea behind Empyreanism. It’s based on two simple principles: awareness of self and awareness of the world outside. One leads to the other. There’s no map on how to get there, though, no set of prescribed rituals to follow or approved commandments to keep. Some people might use moral codes as guides. Others might make use of meditation. Or nature walks. Or conversations with close friends. Or being of service to others. Or some combination of the above and other tools not mentioned.

Some of these guides, or tools, will be of more help to one person than another, and that’s fine, because our paths are all different and our journeys uniquely our own. Guides can accompany us on those journeys, but they cannot walk the path for us. If we think they can, we doom ourselves to go no further and instead be diverted onto a path someone else has chosen – a path that is theirs, not ours.

Religion is someone else’s path, but awareness is uniquely our own. That’s the difference.

Everything else is just red tape.


Empyreanism: The quest for awareness always starts within

Stephen H. Provost

Spiritual definitions have always been a bit of a sticky wicket for me. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring various beliefs, but none of them ever seemed quite right.

Most of them were theisms: monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism. ... While I found something to admire in each of them, I felt a bit like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit in the home of the three bears.

The problem is, it was somebody else’s house.

Exploring the options

The teachings of Jesus the Galilean often inspired me, but the dogma that grew up around him seemed at odds with much of what he said. What do you make of an admonition to “judge not” when Jesus’ followers these days spend so much time sitting in judgment? To “pray in secret” when so many condescendingly announce, “I’m praying for your soul”? To turn the other cheek when so many self-proclaimed Christians clamor for war?

Indeed, monotheism seems vulnerable to abuse by its very nature: The temptation to disguise one’s one biases as “the will of God” and attempt to force or intimidate others into heeding them will always be there. Not all monotheists succumb to this temptation, but enough of them do that it made me uncomfortable identifying myself with such a movement.

I found polytheism fascinating. The myths surrounding many gods in various traditions offer amazing insights into human history and psychology. They shed light on our attempts to explain the world around us and offer evidence of the connections we share with other humans and with nature. But I couldn’t take them literally. The gods were, it seemed to me, archetypes that offered important knowledge, but not actual celestial beings.

Pantheism was appealing – except for the fact that, if everything is divine, how is that different from everything not being divine? A definition that is all-encompassing loses its meaning. And its power.

Atheism isn’t even a belief so much as a philosophical statement: “I am without god(s)” is what it literally means. Atheists will tell you as much, and that’s all well and good. But it’s a negative statement, and I realized I wasn’t interested in defining myself in negative terms anymore.

I realized, at this point, that all of these beliefs related, in one way or another, to god(s) – beings presumably superior to human beings. Humanism was different, but it focused (naturally) on humans, and I was attracted to a broader approach that recognized humanity as just one strand of thread in a much larger tapestry of the universe.

The kingdom is within you, and all around you.
— The Gospel of Thomas

The Thomas revelation

I started describing myself as “eclectic” to indicate I was open to strands of philosophy from various traditions, but the description that always resonated with me most strongly was a saying attributed to Jesus in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, a work with ties to both Gnostic and mainstream Christianity:

“If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But rather, the kingdom is within you, and all around you.”

That sounds a lot like pantheism, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

In some quotations, Jesus refers to it as the kingdom of God; in others as the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” to the ancients meant the celestial firmament, or, metaphorically, the highest state of being. To say that the kingdom of heaven was within was to say that, inside each of us, there exists the highest state of being. But there’s something more: It’s all around us, too, if we only choose to recognize it!

Key to the kingdom

The key in discovering this celestial kingdom is recognition, or awareness, that it exists. Roald Dahl once said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” That might sound like you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias, but I’m convinced that’s not what he meant. The point is, unless you’re looking for something – even something ordinary like a loaf of bread in the supermarket – you’re not likely to find it except by a lucky accident.

The second-century philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer and mathematician, referred to the highest heaven as the Empyrean. It was a place of elemental fire and perfect light. Hence the Latin name, incorporating the words for fire (pyr) and the prefix for within (em). The translation could be “in the fire” or “the fire within.”

Within us, and all around us. The kingdom of God. For Ptolemy – who was not a Christian but an Aristotelian – the Empyrean was the seat of God – pretty much the same thing Jesus referred to. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian, either, since Christianity didn’t exist until after he died. The saying attributed to him in The Gospel of Thomas reflected an insight that transcended Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy or, really, any other belief system.

In fact, it wasn’t a system at all. It was, and is, a state of awareness and a gateway to achieving that awareness. The first step is to understand that the gateway to kingdom is within. This is because awareness always comes from within. Although it’s expressed in celestial terms, looking for the kingdom in the sky is futile: “or the birds of the sky will arrive before you.” This is why, I think, the saying is constructed the way it is, placing inner awareness of the kingdom before the declaration that it is also “all around you.”

The message seems plain: You won’t recognize the kingdom around you until you first become aware of and acknowledge it in yourself.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Heaven or hell

That’s where it – and you – are forged “in fire.” And it may feel more like hell than heaven. That’s why, I suspect, some turn away from it. The light from the fire is too bright, and the heat it generates too much for them to withstand. To recognize the kingdom is to recognize self, and only through that recognition can one begin to acknowledge the kingdom that exists all around us. Perception is the necessary precursor of awareness.

And awareness is not a belief system or doctrine or series of commandments. It is pure, undiluted understanding. But to go back to Roald Dahl’s observation: the belief that understanding can be attained always precedes understanding itself. Those who wish to find this magic, this alchemy of the soul, must first believe that it is there to be found.

Not in the sky. Not in the sea. But in the celestial core of the self.

Suddenly, the Psalmist’s declaration can be read in a whole new light: “You are gods; you are sons of the most high.” Not offspring of some old guy with gray hair and a beard sitting on a mythical throne in some external heaven. But scions of the highest celestial reality that exists within us and functions as the seat of divinity. The seat of self.

The spirit within.

When I realized the implications of this – that awareness, and the quest to attain it, was at the core of my being – I understood why the various “isms” I had explored all fell short of what I was searching for. Those “systems” shared the same desire for meaning, but each began by seeking it on the outside – in the sky or the sea, as Jesus said, or in a “holy book,” a sermon, a culture, a set of commandments or social expectations.

Hard work or easy answers

It’s easier to exist in an external system than in the fire. The answers are provided for you. You haven’t found them yourself, and they may not even apply to you. They’re like prepackaged fast food that has lost most of its nutritional value sitting on a shelf in shrink-wrapped cellophane. If you’re diabetic and they’re full of carbs, they could kill you. If they’ve lingered on that shelf past the sell-by date (e.g., are no longer relevant), they can make you sick.

If you start by looking within – by figuring out whether you’re a diabetic or allergic to peanuts or at risk of a heart attack if you eat fried food – you’ll recognize the kingdom outside: what’s good for you. It’s scary to look within, and there are plenty of people on the outside with their own agendas who want to keep you from doing just that – so they can sell you their prepackaged answers and get you hooked on them.

They often do this by offering to replace the scary aspects of self with a different kind of fear: threats of condemnation if you fail to do as they say. But such threats are false, and facing false fears never fostered growth. It’s only by facing the seat of your true fear – inside you – that growth will occur.

I call this dedication to awareness Empyreanism – or Panempyreanism, because it exists “within us and all around us.”

When it comes right down to it, I guess that’s what I am: an Empyreanist. I decided I’m done trying to make myself fit in someone else’s house. Goldilocks has gone home.

Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
— John Hurt as the War Doctor, "Doctor Who"

Trump and evangelicals have everything in common

Stephen H. Provost

Repeat after me: The end justifies the means. If you ever find yourself scratching your head when an evangelical appears to brazenly contradict his own principles, refer back and repeat again.

It’s all you need to know.

The phrase sums up the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose brand of ruthless politics earned him fame, or, rather, infamy, in the Middle Ages. The upshot is that actions aren’t morally right or wrong in and of themselves; their morality is determined by their results — which leads to the conclusion that might makes right.

If you’ve ever wondered why evangelical faiths, which preach things like turning the other cheek and practicing unconditional love, resorted to crusades and violent jihads in the service of that “love” ... refer back and repeat again. This was their mindset. It had nothing to do with love, and it was anything but unconditional. Believe or die. It was as simple as that.

Why do people who profess to believe in honesty, compassion, respect and fidelity support a pathological liar who brands refugees as rapists and brags about grabbing women’s genitals without permission? Refer back and repeat: The end justifies the means.

Whenever your first moral imperative is evangelism — to convert others to your way of thinking — all other principles are open to compromise. Even such high principles as unconditional love. Instead of offering such love freely, evangelicals too often resort to placing conditions on receiving it (at which point it’s no longer unconditional at all).

Crusades and witch trials

In the Middle Ages, the only thing unconditional is your surrender. The terms were dictated at the point of a sword, as in the crusades, or upon the threat of being burned at the stake, as in the Salem witch trials – where the “choice” was really no choice at all. The sinner accused of witchcraft could either refuse to recant and be burned alive, or confess to something they didn’t do ... and be burned alive anyway. Their only reward for lying — breaking one of the Ten Commandments — under duress was the promise of heaven from someone about to kill them. Such cruelty by a servant of “heaven” could hardly have reassured them about what lay in store there.

(One caveat: Not all people accused of witchcraft in such situations were burned. Some were drowned. Or crushed to death.)

These days, the methods are seldom physical torture, and the conditions aren’t always dictated “on pain of death.” But the same principle continues to apply: A quid pro quo is still offered in place of unconditional love, because the ultimate goal of evangelism isn’t love, it’s conversion. “Love,” like torture, is just a means to an end.

The fundamental quid pro quo, for any unbeliever (not just one accused of witchcraft), is the promise of heaven in exchange for a confession of belief. You can make a “deal with the devil,” but you also must make a deal with God. Deals — especially when signed under duress — are not unconditional love. But because this particular deal is at the heart of evangelism, it’s become a model for evangelicals, who often place conditions on other actions of “love” toward the sinner. They won’t scratch your back unless you scratch theirs.

Not all evangelicals behave this way. Some view love, not conversion, as their prime directive and really do show that love without any ulterior motive. But the fact that conversion is the ultimate goal for so many means that “the art of the deal” will always be a temptation for evangelicals – and one they have a hard time resisting.

Disposable morality

Because morality is of secondary importance to salvation, it becomes disposable. And, as a result, evangelicals wind up engaging in something they regularly criticize when others do it: “situational ethics.” For people who profess to believe in absolute principles, this kind of thinking is anathema. Evangelical voices often rail against it. Yet even situational ethics can be excused in the service of evangelism, and the resulting hypocrisy is also permitted if the outcome is a “saved soul.”

“When you do it, it’s evil; when we do the same thing, it’s noble.” Because the results are different.

The end justifies the means.

An evangelical’s quid pro quo can be as radical as a conversion at gunpoint, or it can be as simple as offering someone a helping hand and “inviting” them to attend church. An invitation like this leaves room for the would-be guest to decline, but it’s clear that he’s expected to attend. There’s significant social pressure to do so under the rule of reciprocity. When someone does you a favor, you feel obligated to reciprocate. The reason is simple: You don’t want to remain in that person’s debt. The rule of reciprocity gives him leverage in dictating how you discharge that debt, and a suggestion that you attend church can be a way of using that leverage.


Evangelism is, at its core, convincing (or coercing) someone to believe what you believe. In short: winning. “God” must win, and “Satan” must lose. But the minute you sacrifice principles on the altar of success, you also render labels like “God” and “Satan” meaningless. Undefined by any moral compass, they mean whatever you want them to mean in the moment.

Evangelicals, politically speaking, are often motivated to by the stands they’ve taken on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, and so forth. But even these principles can be compromised or sacrificed altogether in exchange for the overarching goal of simply winning. The idea is that, once they’ve won, they’ll have unchecked power to enforce their views on these issues. Power supplants principle as the immediate goal, and the drive to achieve it by winning becomes not only everything, but the only thing.

This is why so many evangelicals who appear to be at odds with the current president issues of substance and character, support him enthusiastically. They view him as their King David: their champion, destined to win. And if winning is everything, they have everything in common. It’s not about love. It’s all about the art of the deal: getting the other party to sign a contract that’s favorable to your side, even if it means concealing the fine print or forcing a signature under duress. The methods don’t matter.

Refer back and repeat after me …