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December 27, 2009

Today the mystery of the divine and the individual human life is more apparent to more people than ever before. Why? It’s the fault of the anthropologists. Anthropology, in practice, is the study of someone else’s culture. For over a century, university anthropology departments have sent one of their own to study, say, an isolated tribe living in a far part of the world. These anthropologists would admire the tribe’s explanations of why the rain falls, who God is, and how families and societies should be arranged. The anthropologist would say to themselves, “How quaint. They’ve created this entire worldview and religion for themselves that is really quite beautiful. It’s not true, though—what we believe is true—what this tribe believes they made up.”

Later, this anthropologist would return to the university lecture hall and describe the tribe’s beautifully-crafted explanations of how the world works, who God is, and the rest. Afterwards the anthropologist, while walking to lunch, would smack himself on the forehead and think, “Oh my gosh—maybe we created our culture and religion, too.”

Everyone who has access to global media or the Internet has the potential to encounter the same realization as anthropologists have been having for decades. As a result, people are increasingly concluding—not that all beliefs are relative or all beliefs have equal value—but that our beliefs and cultures—and partially our religions as well—are created by people.

More precisely, people today are concluding that religions have layers—and that the “surface” layers are created by people, but the sources of each religion are not.

The three layers are:

Mysticism, the deepest layer, represents the origin of human religious experience and source of human religions. The experience of the love of God and movements of the Holy Spirit resides at this level, as does the muse of inspiration for artists, poets, musicians, writers, theologians, and intuition for scientists. Unnamable, undefinable, and utterly intangible, this is the experience of the Beyond in our midst

The founders of each of the major world religions had an encounter with the divine—an experience of true Mysticism. These founders—Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and others—attempted to share these profound mysterious revelations with followers who were slow to understand. Jesus, unable to define or intellectually describe what God revealed to him, chose artistic means–parables about the nature of the divine, and way of God–to communicate those spiritual truths. The Buddha, in what is considered the founding sermon of Zen, simply held up a flower and said nothing. Only one of the Buddha’s followers understood what the silent sermon meant. To a lesser degree, music, art, and literature—regardless of whether it tries to render a religious “point”–attempts to illuminate a mysterious, perhaps Mystical aspect of human experience or existence.

Some of these founders’ early followers created rituals in an attempt to help others emulated the initial Mystical experiences of their religion’s founders, and have experiences of their own. Early Christians, for example, created rituals of baptism and communion to emulate—and hopefully invoke a fraction of—the spiritual experiences of Jesus’ baptism and the disciples’ communion with God during the Last Supper.

Again, Knights are uncomfortable with the free-form spirituality at this level; Gardeners welcome it.

The Theology layer is next closest to the surface. The Theology layer ties those early rituals and beliefs about God into narratives or other contexts to make the Mysticism more tangible and more easily understood by believers. The Theology layer contains all our beliefs about God rather than our experiences of God.

Some Knight theologians create long logic trains to “prove” their arguments about how God works, and how the divine relates to humanity. The broadest efforts to formalize these arguments are referred to in Christianity as “systematic theology”—a study required by clergy-in-training in seminaries. The narrowest version of these efforts is called “apologetics.”

Knights today—both liberal and fundamentalist—clash over whose Theology is finally and absolutely correct. This clash has partly driven the culture wars of recent decades.

Gardener theologians also craft organized views of how God relates to humanity, but these views are less concrete and feature fewer “non-negotiables”—they allow for more mystery. Gardeners are often less attached to the Theology layer—and do not fight over it—because they believe there is Mysticism beneath. They understand that the map is not the territory.

The Practice layer consists of all the ways we live out these beliefs about God. This layer includes how we design our church buildings, arrange the pews, what times we hold worship services, and all our criteria for what we consider morally and spiritually acceptable.

Put another way, Mysticism is the pure water of God’s Spirit. Theology congeals or gels Mysticism to make it more “grasp-able” for people. Practice freezes the Mysticism into ice, making it solid, easily understood, and free from uncertainty.

Reformations happen in religions when they revisit the Mysticism layer of the religion, and question the foundations of the religion’s reigning ideology in the Theology layer. Surface changes, such as embracing “contemporary worship” styles in Christian churches, do not a Reformation make—they are merely like changing the hub caps on a car.


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