Engaging Temporal Complexity using Improvisational Theater Techniques

Jonathan (a minister):  I want to talk about religion.

CJ:  Great.  What about it?

Jonathan:  Its future.  Does it have one, or at least one that will benefit us? I look at the ceaseless conflict between faiths in the Middle East, the years of sectarian violence in Ireland, the trivializing roles religion-based “culture wars” often play in modern politics.  My faith is deeply important to me, and I love being a minister.  But religion today can at times seem more like an obstacle to what the world needs than an answer.

CJ:  I think it is both.

Jonathan:  I figured you would, and I think I agree—but I can’t explain my conclusion.  The picture is pretty simple for some people.  Times ahead will be bright if their particular religious precepts prevail—not if they don’t.  The best I’ve been able to get to in my sermons is that our ideas about God need to be more inclusive, more ecumenical.  But that can’t be the whole thing.  It deeply bothers me to realize how often I am not convinced by the words I put forward to my congregation.

CJ:    Let me share a story.  It is a bit long, so bear with me.  What it describes presents at least an interesting way to approach your question.

Jacob:  Sure.

CJ:      Several years ago I and some others in a think tank group I’d brought together decided to take on exactly your question—religion’s likely long-term future.  In trying to get started, we went off in four or five different directions and each time ended up feeling that we had somehow missed the point.  Finally someone said: “We throw the word religion around like we know what we mean.  I don’t think we do—at least not deeply enough to talk about its future.” The group agreed.  To get useful answers, we needed a deeper sense of religion’s function in culture.

We decided to try an experiment.  We would devote two hours to each of four developmentally related voices of the sacred: the animistic spirituality of tribal times; a more mythic polytheism like that practiced in ancient Egypt and much of the classical East; early (more fundamentalist) monotheism; and the more philosophical, humanistic monotheism frequent in modern times.  Our goal was to ascertain what was most important in how each of these broad ways of seeing the world understood and applied spiritual truth.

We saw from the beginning that learning anything useful was going to require unconventional methods.  Religion has always been more about faith than analysis, and early forms like animism are particularly impervious to academic dissection.  We needed not just to describe and define religion’s stage-specific realities, but to somehow inhabit them.

We decided to use improvisational theater techniques as a way in.  We would pick a single issue to which spiritual truth might be applied—we chose the presence of a famine—and try to get inside how each of these very different spiritual orientations might approach it.

Jonathan:  I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall.  What did you discover?

CJ:     A couple of things that relate directly to making better sense of the functions religion (or spirituality or whatever term we find most satisfactory) serves in culture.

Right off we were struck by how faiths of different stages, however disparate beliefs might be, focus on parallel concerns.  We identified four main themes.  Faith at each stage in different ways addresses how things came to be (“in the beginning”). It connects with the experience and meaning of oneness (of spiritual wholeness—the root of the word holy).  It engages the importance of community (for example, in the idea of congregation and the symbolism of communion).  And it emphasizes right social behavior (shared moral “commandments”).

Jonathan:  That seems right.

CJ:   We also noted that these four themes themselves had something in common—that they expressed a related orientation.  In different ways each affirmed connectedness—in the symbolism of creation’s original undivided wholeness, in the perceived unity of the cosmos, in the circle of community, in the harmony that results from shared moral precepts.  This second observation gave us a way to think about religious experience in a more general sense, perhaps come a bit closer to the core of its contribution.

We tried out various ways of putting this common orientation/contribution into words.  We discussed how religion could be understood as a way individuals and societies “connect with connectedness.”  We talked about religion having to do with creative beginnings—with original unity as opposed to the materially manifest world of systemic parts and particulars.  And drawing on the language of myth, we framed the diverse forms of spiritual experience as ways through history we’ve accessed polarity’s more mysterious “left-hand,” archetypally feminine world of experience—in contrast to secular experience’s more “right-hand,” archetypally masculine world.

We recognized that such sweeping generalizations weren’t going to provide ultimate understanding.  They could, however, help us get beyond the particulars of belief and provide enough of a shared foundation that we could proceed.

Jonathan:  Your analysis is a bit more abstract than I am comfortable with, but I can go along.

CJ:    I appreciate your patience.  With this as foundation, we returned to our original task of deciphering religion’s future.

You asked whether it had a future at all.  One of the first things we noted was that culture’s past trajectory would suggest not.  With each cultural stage, “the one” has surrendered more of its power to “the many,”  the world of creative origins has more and more given way to the world of manifest forms, and archetypically feminine sensibilities have been gradually eclipsed by archetypally masculine values. Consistent with this progression, each of religion’s four underlying questions has had diminishing significance over the course of our cultural narrative.

Given this trajectory, it is not surprising that post-modern conjecture might propose that God was dead—or at best a common psychological dependency.  But the exercise also suggested that this apparent finality might not be the end of the story—or, at the least, made clear that we wouldn’t want it to be the end. The four concerns that religion has traditionally addressed should be no less important in times ahead.  Indeed these concerns should only increase in importance.  Just as we would pay an unacceptable cost (indeed a potentially terminal cost) if we lost ultimate connection with other more left-hand aspects of experience—nature, children, our bodies, our imaginations—so too, it would seem, with the spiritual.

Jonathan:  Certainly each concern has been closely tied to the human experience of meaning.  If it is right to talk of a “crisis of purpose,” somehow they must have continued pertinence.

CJ:     The concept of Cultural Maturity, particularly when placed in Creative Systems Theory more encompassing frame, provides a more conceptual sort of affirmation.  Each of these four concerns relates directly to the kind of thinking Cultural Maturity predicts the future will require and make possible.

Maturity gives sensitivity to “how things come to be” renewed significance—mature understanding makes creativity/generativity intrinsic and ongoing in existence.  Understanding “oneness”—the connectedness half of mature systemic perspective—becomes increasingly critical.  We see deeper appreciations of who we are together—community is an acceptable term.  And, as the measures we use to determine our actions reside increasingly in our human hands, in an important new sense all questions become moral, questions of value and right behavior.

Jonathan:  So we might witness a kind of religious renewal?

CJ:   That is a good question.  Yes and No.  Certainly this picture suggests sustained and even renewed interest in spiritual topics—which appears to be what we see. And the concept of Cultural Maturity goes further to not only affirm that such “forgotten” sensibilities have future value, but to describe how their reengagement is something we would expect.

But, at the same time, Cultural Maturity suggests that spiritual belief as we’ve known it may not be enough.  Much of what Cultural Maturity predicts, at least for the long term, will make many people who identify with the religious decidedly uncomfortable.  The future may help us newly appreciate the sacred’s four core concerns, but will also demand that we address the questions they present in ways that will often seem to contradict exactly what the sacred is most about.

Jonathan:  Heresy (said with a smile).  I need to hear more.

CJ:       The challenge has two related pieces, each an aspect of those new limits intrinsic to Cultural Maturity.  Certainly, a more systemic picture requires that particular faiths surrender claims to perceived monopolies on truth.  Nobody—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, or animist—gets the defining last word.  The simple acknowledgment that diverse religious approaches may have validity will be for some a major stretch.

The second piece goes further.  It argues that the spiritual can have importance in the future only to the degree we surrender conception that makes spiritual truth final truth.  It’s challenging of parental cultural truths in the end also brings into question  parental images of spiritual truth’s origins.  And Cultural Maturity goes further to question any notion that makes spiritual truth not just a kind of truth, but the last word. Religion isn’t alone in losing last word status.  It is the troubling/exciting creative fate for final truths of every sort.  But for many people religion’s particular dislocation is the most fundamentally disturbing.

Both with regard to our own faiths and faith more generally, Cultural Maturity suggests that we can go forward only to the degree we are willing to step beyond sureties that in the past were much of religion’s attraction.

Jonathan:  I still feel left hanging with regard to religion’s future.  I get that questions at the core of religion may find renewed importance.  And I get that warring creeds—and ultimately, if you are right, last-word notions of the sacred in general—can’t continue to work.  But I don’t get what you think religion in times ahead will look like.

CJ:    Cultural Maturity is pretty limited in what more it can tell us.    But there is an approach we can apply.   It draws on a notion implied by the concept of Cultural Maturity and suggested earlier in some of the ideas we’ve explored about the requirements of mature intelligence.  The bridgings that produce mature systemic understanding—that invite us to more fully engage the whole of ourselves (and invite wisdom)—must link not just here and now complexities, but our complexity through time.  The larger completeness Cultural Maturity describes is not just about completeness in the present, but about appreciating our full natures as developmental beings.

It follows, if this is how things work, that we could use religion’s past ordering realities not just to identify the sacred’s underlying questions, but to pull together some of the ingredients in its new answers. Certainly, each stage can be seen to have contributed something unique to religion’s story.  And many of these unique attributes seem pertinent not just to the past, but also to an ultimately full understanding and experience of the sacred.

With animism we witnessed a profound depth of connection in mystery and nature’s rhythms, with polytheistic forms an especially rich and numinous accessing of ritual and the symbolic, with more fundamentalist monotheism a new emphasis on the interpersonal/ moral aspects of sacred experience, and with more philosophical monotheism a more direct appreciation for the intellect and the place of individual choice.

Gathering pieces together in this way provides at best a crude pointer.  Indeed just lumping them gives us only regressive mush.  But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, future religious sensibility must somehow affirm the best from each of these ways of seeing the world—and in a manner that goes beyond the merely ecumenical, that somehow taps with a new depth what they all are together.

It is a thesis that at least provides an interesting place to start.

[Using techniques that tap more of intelligence’s complexity often produce fascinating surprises—as we saw when doing this exercise. When we tried to explore polytheism’s myth-centered world we immediately hit an impasse.  We’d begun by appointing one of the participants god-king.  But when we tried to walk into the room where the god-king sat, in a subtle but distinct way we felt emotionally stopped.  One of the participants suggested we each offer some kind of sacrifice, some gift, and then prostrate ourselves before entering.  After that—no problem.  Such approaches often reveal hidden dynamics with much to teach. ]