It has become a truism in anthropology that the world, in the eyes of the earliest human beings, was populated by spirits. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that in a crucial sense, the ancients were correct. Human beings were subjects—they not only lived, but experienced, perceived, felt, and thought. Subjectivity is the primary fact of human life, a precondition for all others, and yet, because of its nature as the context of all experience, only expressed through symbol and metaphor, and projected, as it were, onto every aspect of the world that we perceive.
We do not conceive the world as a place created with us. We come to being, we awaken, within a reality that is already there. Behind experience is the experiencing spirit, self, or soul. Therefore (and this “therefore” expresses an intuition of eternity), behind the world itself, this place we have come to, are spirits, selves, or souls. As human society develops into more organized forms, the spirits—or some of them at any rate—become gods. Gods not only experience the world, they create, sustain, and control it.
The development of religion mirrors the degrees and stages of human self-consciousness. The social unit—the clan, the village, the tribe—comes first. Rousseau had it backwards. We experience ourselves as social beings first, and only later do we become aware of our nature as individuals per se. It is natural that this should be so, since survival for homo sapiens can only be achieved together, as a group. Moreover, we are not born alone, but from a mother and father, and we are immediately in their realm and that of their kin and clan.
As society grew and developed, so did the power and authority of the gods. The more complex the society, the more powerful the gods. The god of the tribe was an intimate aspect of each individual’s experience—the symbol of his or her own experience as subject—and at the same time was the power and authority of the tribe itself. Mythology guides us not only on our journey as individuals—the stages of life, the hero’s journey, and so on—it also establishes the foundations of culture and social organization. In truth, there is no “both” or “also” for early humanity—they are one. The god of the tribe is the god of the soul.
In Martin Buber’s great philosophical work I and Thou, he explained the direct relationship between human subjectivity and the eternal (or Divine) in terms of the “I and Thou” of the book’s title. For the earliest human beings, however, the distinction between “I and Thou” and “I and She” (or “I and He”) is not conscious. Perhaps only the shamans, with their perilous voyages to the hidden worlds where they encounter and grapple with mysterious beings alone, and with only their magic to aid them, are aware at this stage, at some level of consciousness, of the “I and Thou,” or what I choose to call the god of the soul.
The authority needed to organize human beings into societies was always conceived as primary and eternal. The imperative of survival, later manifested in consciousness as fear of death, made it so. We should never minimize or dismiss the incredible power of this god of the tribe. It connects the essential subjectivity of the individual—the only being experiencing everything in life—to the rest of the people in the tribe, affirming a shared agreement on the nature of the soul and the world.
But as human society developed, individual self-consciousness progressed. Like a baby who gradually learns to distinguish itself from the environment, human beings gradually became more aware of themselves as existing individuals. They still lived in the context of the tribe—or the city-state, kingdom, or nation—but the distinction between self and society became more conscious.
In like manner, the god of the soul and the god of the tribe—or, more precisely, our experience of these metaphorical powers—began to diverge, ever so subtly at first, and then more and more. They both took on the characteristics of whatever cultural type emerged at a given time. But there was also a difference, one that has had tragic consequences for humanity. The god of the soul, by necessity, retained its direct experiential nature. Regardless of where the seeker or devotee lived, or what culture or religion he or she came from, the relationship between spirit and source, mortal and eternal soul, was the only thing at stake. It was intuited, finally, that ultimate truth, reality, the Divine, transcends all the conditions and circumstances that we call the world, and that includes the family, the clan, the tribe, and so forth. This development can be observed most markedly in the emergence of Buddhism, which challenged all the accepted categories of religion (including gods, after-death beliefs, and the dualist structure of reason itself) in favor of a message of total liberation and understanding. The other religions manifested this in less extreme forms: as mysticism, secret teachings, and wisdom traditions.
In contrast, the god of the tribe, what we now call organized religion, retained its function as the authority for social organization, while becoming gradually alienated from the god of the soul. Why? Because the direct spiritual experience challenges the power principle by making religion a matter between “I and Thou.” It’s not that human beings no longer needed to connect with each other through religion. Quite the contrary. The problem was that the ability of those wielding power and authority in society to control their subjects was threatened by an intuition of eternity that could potentially eliminate the boundaries between classes, tribes, and nations. In short, the path of the mystic led to the realization of an identity between the soul and God, the human and the divine. At the end of the way of the mystic, subjectivity discovers its eternal nature. In the god of the soul’s terms, this is freedom, happiness, liberation. But if we translate this experience into the language of the god of the tribe, it means equating oneself with god, eliminating the gulf between the king and the subject, i.e. undermining social authority.
Whatever actions were taken by human beings wielding power over other human beings were given the sanction of the human authority’s particular religion. This resulted in a sort of inner struggle. The god of the soul symbolized love, cohesion, goodness, and what we eventually came to call morality. Revenge, punishment, hatred, killing, and the waging of war against those outside the tribe—these were sanctioned by the god of the tribe when the tribe thought it necessary, but the inner contradictions became acute. The god of the tribe had to claim moral authority as well—whatever public religion says is acceptable, is therefore moral. As it turns out, any human expression of passion, greed, and power was capable of being deemed moral simply because it served the self-interest of the tribe, or more accurately at this stage, the powerful. Thus we see, for example, the burning of Indians at the stake because they would not convert to Christianity. Thousands of other examples abound. For all its virtues, including (arguably) the taming of self-destructive forces within society, public religion failed to contain the power principle, and instead became a mere vehicle for it, until today it is almost totally discredited as a beneficial or civilizing force.
Mysticism was thrust to the margins of religious awareness—tolerated or sometimes even revered, but not accorded any social relevance. When mystics went too far, they were attacked as heretics, even murdered. The god of the tribe attempted to conciliate the god of the soul by giving it an isolated realm of its own—the monastic tradition. Buddhism, as we know, took on all the characteristics of public religion, as was inevitable if its message was to reach anyone, and its inner core grew within monasticism. In East and West, much beauty was born and preserved through this tradition, but it has proven sterile in terms of influencing the social order for lasting good.
Rationalism, born of the Enlightenment, maintains that we must abandon religion, and by extension, spirituality, since it doesn’t recognize a distinction between the two. I don’t agree that this is desirable, because I maintain that the human intuition of eternity will always require metaphorical expression, both individually and in community. But I also don’t even think that it’s possible for such a change to take place. Human beings will always have spirituality and religion. The question is, what kind?
I am convinced that is necessary for us to see through the curtain of mythology in order to free ourselves from religious authoritarianism. Religious truth must be perceived as metaphor, not as literal truth—and at the same time metaphor must be recognized as the source of meaning. This change will involve the end of the idolatry of the book—the idea of revealed scripture bearing absolute authority cannot stand—and the end of the idolatry of power, which is based on the fear of death. Religion can only be an environment for people to encounter the mystery together, a community in which a culture of spirituality can thrive, and in which poetry can find its home. No longer can it constitute an authority for controlling people, a foundation for the existing social order. Religion has failed in that regard because it failed to uphold its connection to the soul—the subjectivity of the existing individual—and instead maintained the idolatry of the “outside” world, the abstract realm of things possessed through power.
It will be objected that this is no more possible for us than the atheist vision of a society without religion at all. Perhaps that’s true. I believe, however, that we cannot mend the wrongs of religion without understanding its power, its sources in legitimate human needs, and those of its aspects that reflect a common truth.