Two Functions of Religion: Meaning and Transformation

Ken Wilbur, contemporary philosopher, psychologist, mystic and student of human consciousness, proposes that religion has two primary functions: offers meaning (his word, “translation”) and offers transformation. Both he deems important, even critical, contributions to the human enterprise.

For most people, according to Wilbur, religion provides a way to establish meaning. It helps us, as separate selves, to make sense of our lives, cope with difficulties, strengthen our resolve, and endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Through rituals, symbols and narratives people find beliefs that grant purpose and place and perspective. Finding meaning in life is a function of religion that is absolutely necessary. We humans require a strong sense of self.

But some reach for another level of consciousness, a higher (or deeper) way of seeing. They come to that place in the maturation process where the strengths of separate self are insufficient. A strong ego is not enough to hold life together. Our inner eyes are opened. We see God, no longer as separate object, but as subject, God alive within and through us. We see Christ, no longer as separate, but as subject, Christ within us. And we see other humans as part of us, no longer totally separate, neighbors that we love as ourselves (not “like we love ourselves). The music, the orchestra, the violin and violinist cannot be separated. They all belong together. We understand this mutuality on this level of spiritual awareness.

This is the way of transformation. I, the ego, is a mistaken identity. We are so much more. At our core we are God’s beloved. On this level the separate self is transcended, not fortified. There is a dying again and again not to ego but to ego-centeredness, the separate self. In Paul’s words: “Nevertheless I live but not I, but Christ lives in me,” or, “No-thing in life or death, things present or things to come, can separate us from the love of God,” or Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies (breaks open) …” With each act of surrender, separate self-consciousness is broken open like a seed, yielding to the larger creative force of fruitfulness far beyond our efforts or imagining. This spiritual level of consciousness transcends, yet includes the level of egoic functioning, just as the music (divine love, justice) transcends, yet includes the participation of orchestra (faith community), violin and violinist (self).

If my reflection on Wilbur’s proposition is on target, I see three implications for pastoral leaders.

One, you cannot assume, as I did at the beginning of my ministry, that people come to church wanting transformation. Truthfully, neither was I seeking self-transcendence at that point in my life.

Second, we can assume that our members are living at different levels of awareness (consciousness). Some see and interpret symbols, rituals, narratives of Scripture literally, unable to acknowledge truth through metaphor. Some see and interpret rationally, unable to understand truth that appears illogical and contradictory (e.g. lose your life to find it). Still others, likely a minority, see, through repeated gestures of self-surrender, the unitive, non-separation, interdependent vision of the kingdom of God. For them, religion is less about the meaning of their lives and more about the Music of their lives. (No wonder there are such diverse responses to the same sermon.)

The challenge becomes to love people where they are, interpret the gospel in ways they can understand, and be ready to assist their spiritual growth when cracks appear and openings occur.

And third, how about us? In what sense is our religious vocation a source of meaning and/or transformation?

. . .

See Ken Wilbur, The Essential Ken Wilbur, pp.140–143. For more on levels of consciousness, see Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Wisdom Jesus and Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ.

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