Sharing Understanding

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

... Carl Sagan

In summing up, then, we must say that society is not at all the illogical or a-logical, incoherent and fantastic being which it has too often been considered. Quite on the contrary, the collective consciousness is the highest form of the psychic life, since it is the consciousness of the consciousnesses. Being placed outside of and above individual and local contingencies, it sees things only in their permanent and essential aspects, which it crystallizes into communicable ideas. At the same time that it sees from above, it sees farther; at every moment of time, it embraces all known reality; that is why it alone can furnish the mind with the moulds which are applicable to the totality of things and which make it possible to think of them. It does not create these moulds artificially; it finds them within itself; it does nothing but become conscious of them.
— Emile Durkheim
We humans have a dual nature—we are selfish primates who long to be a part of something larger and nobler than ourselves. We are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.
— Jonathan Haidt

The following theological terms are commonly used in imprecise and often contradictory ways. This list reflects the way I have come to understand and use these terms. I don’t ask that others agree with my definitions. I do ask that we try to communicate with each other with as much honesty and clarity as possible in the hope of achieving mutual understanding and respect, if not agreement.


A rational, comprehensive spiritual/religious (meaning) model based upon the widest possible spectrum of human experience and knowledge. Opthē is intended to be a consilient, scientific, naturalistic, cosmologically contemporary design for vocational, professional and transformative spiritual/religious life. It is committed to living intentionally as self-conscious evolutionary agents in service of the welfare and well-being of everyone and everything on the Earth, and the Earth itself. Functionally, Opthē centers on living a disciplined praxis of Agape': unconditional love, openness, cooperation, non-violence, trust, justice, humor, compassion, altruism, vulnerability, encouragement and humility. Through focus (directed consciousness), liturgy, study, the arts, and critical thinking, Opthē seeks to inculcate, maintain, and celebrate wisdom, passion and evolutionary co-creative agency in life, time, and space. The vision of Opthē is to seek a New Earth:  a human culture beyond fear, war and cruelty characterized by the recognition that all that exists is evolutionary and inter-connected. It is a culture in which all life is sacred; an emergent state of awareness produced by intentional, disciplined praxis. Opthē is the laboratory in and through which we seek to apply and critique our theology.


Traditionally and commonly, theology has been understood to be the systematic and rational study of God, gods, and of the nature of supernatural divine forces. In light of contemporary cosmology and human self-understanding, it is more accurate and useful to define it as the art and science of making intellectual and emotional sense of the self-conscious experience of being alive; the comprehensive, critical study of human relationships to those ideations, axioms and symbols in which we invest trust (faith) and from which we derive meaning (our reason for being). Anselm defined theology as faith seeking understanding (see Faith). Anglican theologian Richard Hooker defined it as the science of things sublime. Both faith and divinity are solidly grounded in human emotional and intellectual experience without any necessary association with things magical or supernatural. Theology is a human, not divine activity. It is the process by which human beings discern and relate to what is most essential and significant for our existence.


The sum of the thoughts, emotions, and values that produce a personal sense of meaning for an individual's life. It is all those things that give one a sense of reason for being. No two people have identical genes, experiences, or story. In the same way, no two people have the same spirituality. Spirituality binds the often compartmentalized, inconsistent and irrational pieces of one's universe together. Spirituality is the result of a person's emotional and cognitive investment in a chosen symbols that produce an intellectual and emotional construction through which one makes sense of his or her life. It occurs on the emotional level first and then cognitively. The meaning we draw from the symbols of our spirituality emerges and deepens through praxis, both personal and communal, active and passive, consciously and unconsciously.  Many people do not experience their spirituality on an intellectual level. They do not usually think about what is meaningful to them in their daily lives. Commonly, we only become conscious of what is truly meaningful to us through critical examination of our behaviors, thoughts and feelings, or when our sense of reality is somehow threatened.


A universal but widely varied system of human behaviors through which a culture, community, or group inculcates, shares, develops, sustains, and maintains the values and beliefs that are central (sacred) to it. Religion is to a community or group of people what spirituality is to an individual. While a religion may be a significant part of one's personal spirituality (meaning system), they are rarely identical. Religion is always in service of collective rather than individual meaning, although through time and praxis they become interdependent. Religion is the means by which human beings collectively make and organize meaning and make collective sense of their existence. The object of religion can be anything that provides people with meaning and a construction of reality strong enough to draw a community into being around it. From this perspective, capitalism is as much a religion as is Christianity. The common understanding of religion as being identical with or limited to belief in supernatural forces or entities blinds us from grasping its real nature and pervasiveness, as well its necessity. Only with a deeper and wider conceptualization of the term can we begin to understand the truth of the claim that man is a religious animal and the absurdity of the idea that religion per se can or should be discarded.  
I understand religion as the human social behavior of living in a community ordered under a set of values it deems to be sacred (vitally important). I think that when it is at its best, religion provides a community life focused upon agape' and universal well-being in harmony with all living things, the planet and the cosmos. While the values religious adherents live under have been commonly understood to be of divine origin, they are human values reflecting our own best thinking sifted out through rational critical thinking, wisdom and experience. All the rites and ceremonies of religion are the means and processes by which these values are made sacred in every dimension of people's lives.

Some decades ago, my studies and experience led me to realize that my long acknowledged dissonance with Christianity was over the attributed source of the values, not the values themselves. My spirituality was enriched when I shifted my focus from God to human experience as the source of our values and the ground of our search for understanding of ourselves and the situation in which we exist.

I no longer speak of the holiness of God, but of the ultimate importance (sacredness) of agape', consciousness, and our dedication to the search for truth and the common good through the widest possible range of rational critical thinking, using every form of human expression possible. This is a fusion of our best shared critical thinking, discerned values, and disciplined effort to draw meaning from them. It is an evolved understanding of religion as an evolving process informed by the full range of contemporary knowledge and experience. Opthē is an expression of it. 


Agape’ is one of four Greek words that are translated into English as “love” (the other three being, “eros”, “philios”, and “storge”). Agape’ (the Greek word behind the word love as it most often appears in the Bible) is a form of love free of emotion, qualification, expectation or condition. It denies revenge, merit and/or righteousness and bestows upon the recipient the gift of a state of sanctity, acceptance, and freedom of being without qualification.  
Agape' is arguably the greatest conceptualization in the history of religious and philosophical thinking, because of its effectiveness in mitigating humanity's strong predisposition for selfishness, violence, power-seeking, and meritocratic competitiveness in relationships with one another. Agape’ is love of a quality so transcendent to the emotional and conditional love normally experienced by all human beings that it was long believed to be a creation of divine powers.

Agape' is commonly translated into English as Grace.
Grace As Defined by Sabine Lichtenfels, Co-Founder of the Grace Foundation:

Grace is compassion, dignity, beauty and elegance. Grace is patience that sees a new dawn at the horizon of history; Grace is the umbilical cord that connects us to this vision and guides us. Grace is also the strength to ride the bumps of life with humor and lightness. Those who walk in the name of Grace do not come to accuse. They do not come to impart a new ideology on a land and its people; they come in the service of openness, of perception and of support. Grace listens deeply for what is most needed. Grace is like a consciously chosen naivety that helps us to find our way through the welter of world views so that we recognize the elementary and simple truth behind all things. When we stand in fierce grace we become a channel for the outcry of suppressed life. We use the name Grace for our work because it reminds us to do everything that we do in the name of reconciliation, of the repairing of our relationship with all life and with the family of humanity. In Grace we acknowledge that our resources are best used for the flourishing of all. To give ourselves fully is to meet in Grace. Grace is gratitude for the opportunity to serve life.

A god:     

Any object, symbol, idea, person or value to which one becomes intuitively, emotionally and intellectually attached to the degree that it becomes sacred and consciously or subconsciously produces effective meaning (reason for being), thus becoming an object and source of faith. There is essentially no limit to the nature or number of the gods we humans venerate, and most people find meaning in several of them at any given time, despite incongruities and cognitive dissonance.


A commonly used epithet for the deity/meaning object of the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other belief systems that embrace a supernatural cosmology. God is frequently understood literally or metaphorically as the sole or supreme all-knowing creator of the universe. All conceptions of God are products of the human mind.


The attributes and qualities of those forms of intense meaning experienced as being sacred or transcendent. The term is often used in reference to the study of those things human beings establish and regard as holy or sacred. Theological scholars in England have traditionally been referred to as "divines" because of their commitment to understanding the importance of human meaning-making at its deepest and most profound level. The experience of divinity and sacredness is a human perception that has no necessary association with supernatural thinking or cosmology.


Trust based on experience; anticipatory emotional confidence. It emerges from giving primary significance to something perceived as trustworthy. One can have faith in anything, objective or subjective, in which one finds cognitive and emotional meaning and in which one has come to invest confidence. Faith is supported by a construction of reality produced by the transformative experience of making an emotional/cognitive investment in something of primary meaning.

“He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”— Frederick Nietzsche


A self-evident truth that requires no proof; an accepted principle or rule. Axioms are the values that govern our lives and by which we evaluate the events, circumstances and conditions we experience. In some circumstances, axioms can become the "Theos" of one's theology.


 A representation of an experience. It points to something or some relationship within that experience. More, it provides us with a means of participating in that something or that relationship, which otherwise could not happen. A symbol is not logical and is not a one-for-one representation of the experience it represents. Symbols are multi-vocal, ambiguous, analogical and powerful. 


Unlike a symbol, a sign is clear, precise, and carries a one-to-one relationship to its referent. It unambiguously represents that to which it points. 


A true, although not necessarily factual, story about cultural meaning. It tells a truth which could not otherwise be easily grasped, in symbolic narrative form. Notice that this is essentially the definition of a symbol.


Theology (theory) and its application (practice) in the form of a dynamic, intentional and evolving expression of faith for the purpose of forming, sustaining, and evolving meaning.

Intentional Community:    

 A community of people purposely practicing a life model constructed around a primary meaning. It is characterized by joy, commitment, praxis and mutual accountability. 

The Butterfly:     

A metaphor for human life guided and transformed by the evolving values and emotions of the neo-cortical area of the brain: joy, love, reason, logic, altruism, compassion, forgiveness and cooperation.

The Reptile:     

A metaphor for human life guided by that portion of the human brain composed of the cerebellum and brain stem, which we have genetically inherited from our reptilian ancestors. It is essentially the starting point of all mental response to external stimuli and produces immediate and essentially subconscious actions of raw self-preservation and survival.


A Primary Function of Religious Community

This article was gleaned from the November-December 2010 edition of the UTNE Reader. It is couched in the language of Andrew Holecek’s Buddhist faith and deals with the practice of mindfulness. While I don't share his cosmology, Holecek captures one of the essential functions of all intentional religious communities better than anything I have come across in a long time. As with mindfulness, love and concern for universal well-being must be practiced and grown in us in the same way if it is to become an integral part of our being and actions.

Also, please note that Holecek identifies materialism as a religion of its own that is practiced in and through our culture.

_ _ _

Pray it Again... and Again...

by Andrew Holecek

Spiritual training involves scrubbing out deeply ingrained habits, which takes time and reiter­ation. It is like trying to flatten a scroll that has been coiled for thousands of years. One pass of our hands across the surface won’t do it. We have to press it out again and again.

Accomplishment in any discipline involves repetition. If we want to build muscles, we don’t lift ten thousand pounds at one time; we lift a few pounds thousands of times. Just as repetition is the source of necessary hardship for a piano student aspiring to be a concert pianist, it remains so for spiritual students aspiring to wake up. We hear the same teachings continuously, we practice the same mantras ceaselessly, we return to the meditation cushion, and then to our breath, incessantly. In the Tibetan tradition, one does one hundred thousand prostrations, one hundred thousand mantra recitations, one hundred thousand mandala offerings, one million guru yoga recitations—and that’s just for starters. These may seem like outrageous numbers, but they are nothing compared to the numbers we have already accumulated in our practice of materialism.

I have had selfish thoughts millions of times, bragged about myself, criticized others, gossiped, cheated, lied, and practiced self-centered actions millions upon millions of times. I have been mindless billions of time. I have forgotten the truth countless times. The numbers are astronomical, and so is the sphere of their influence.

Now when my teacher tells me I have to recite one million mantras that cultivate compassion, I know why. He is not torturing me, even though it sometimes feels that way. He is simply using the universal laws of reality, the same ones that I have unconsciously used to get me so stuck, to now consciously get me unstuck.

On the spiritual path we replace unconscious habits of confusion with conscious habits of wisdom. Instead of my unconscious practice of sloth, impatience, greed, anger, or any of the selfish habits that come so easily to me, I consciously practice discipline, patience, kindness, love, and many of the selfless habits that are still foreign to me. I am working to become familiar with good habits.

The spiritual path is hard because we are stopping old habits that come so easily and replacing them with difficult new ones. For example, mindlessness is natural to us. It is easy to space out and be distracted. Try to look at an object without wavering for a few seconds and you will see your talents for distraction. This is a bad habit, formulated over countless repetitions, and is a central unconscious practice on the worldly path. It is no longer even a practice, but a constant performance. We have accomplished mindlessness.

On the spiritual path we want to replace this bad habit with a good one. Even though mindfulness is a natural expression of the awakened mind, it has been buried under aeons of mindlessness, so we have to work to dig it out. The initial stage of mindfulness practice is called deliberate mindfulness because it takes effort to bring our wandering minds back. It is difficult only because it is unfamiliar.

One sign of progress on the path is that deliberate mindfulness evolves into spontaneous mindfulness. With enough practice, it becomes effortless. We have formed a good habit, even if we did not have a good time doing it.

The path is full of magic, but it is also full of mechanics. The skill of a concert pianist is magical, but this skill is the result of causes that are painfully mechanical. Similarly, the skill of effortless mindfulness is magical, but its causes are equally mechanical. There is nothing glamorous about the hard work of repetition. Understanding the mechanics of spiritual development dispels illusions about the ease of accomplishing it.

Science speaks about phase transformations, or punctuated equilibrium. A common example is the manner in which water comes to a boil. Put a pot of water on the stove, turn on the heat, and wait. Depending on the intensity of the heat and the temperature and volume of the water, it will boil slowly or quickly, but either way there is a period when nothing seems to be happening. All the energy is going into the water with no obvious result. The phase transformation from water into steam takes time.

Similarly, when we engage in spiritual practice, we have placed ourselves on the stove and turned on the heat. If our practice is halfhearted, then it takes time for that low temperature to transform us. If we practice wholeheartedly, the higher temperature brings us more rapidly to a boil. Either way there is a period when nothing seems to be happening. Lots of energy is going into our practice, but nothing is cooking.

As long-term practitioners reflect over years of practice, they discover they are starting to get warm. The changes come slowly because the water that is being heated is so cold, and the heart of our practice is usually tepid. But sooner or later we come to a boil. After years of practice we “suddenly” transform from an uptight, aloof person into an open, loving one; from a confused sentient being into an awakened one.

Lasting spiritual changes arise from simply being present, again and again. Religion means to link (ligio) back (re). Linking back on the spiritual path takes place every time we return to our breath, our body, our mantra, or the present moment. With each return we are taking a small step toward enlightenment because being fully present is a fundamental expression of enlightenment.

Andrew Holecek is a Tibetan Buddhist who serves on the adjunct faculty of Naropa University. This excerpt is from his 2009 book, "The Power and the Pain: Transforming Spiritual Hardship into Joy", in the Autumn 2010 issue of Light of Consciousness.


Religion - Keep Your Eye on the Pea

By Bill Papineau

The word “religion” is read, heard or said all the time in our culture.  But despite the frequency of its use, very few people go to the trouble of explaining what they mean by it.  The late writer and pundit Christopher Hitchens once said, “Religion poisons everything”. He viewed religion as a toxic substance. Does that make people who study religion toxicologists? Christian writers sometimes say that our present society is sick because we don’t have enough religion. Are they talking about the same thing as is Hitchens?  Unless their intent is to prescribe chemotherapy for our culture, I don’t think they are.

Frankly, although I was ordained and served 14 years as an Episcopal priest, I have never liked the word very much. It has always held the musty damp odor of close-mindedness and rigid belief for me. But with the evolution of my own thinking has come the realization that this is more the result of context than the word itself; how the word is used and who is using it. The meaning of the word has evolved in context along with everything else in our world.

First used in the Latin of the Middle Ages, the word represented being bound to an order and discipline of an office in the Church hierarchy. It was applied to clergy and the members of church societies who took vows to live under the authority of Church leaders and in agreement with ecclesial vision and rules. Persons who were under such vows were called “religious”. It is important to point out that lay people were not “religious”. The term applied only to those who had some sort of vocation in the Church itself and did not refer to holding belief in God per se; that was assumed. Being religious had nothing to do with belief in a heavenly deity. Pretty much everyone in the pre-Copernican world believed in deities of one sort or another.

Over time, influenced by the many social and intellectual developments in human history such as Copernicus’ discoveries, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the movements they inspired, the word religious came to mean holding belief in the Christian faith itself. Its use evolved to denote one who espoused the Judeo-Christian faith as opposed to holding the newly plausible idea that there is no God. In time, it further evolved to include people who affirmed the deistic beliefs of cultures outside the Western world, so that one could be called religious if he or she espoused any belief in supernatural or transcendent entities. What began as a term for people under vocational vows in the Christian Church, “religious” became a term for anyone who held belief in any form of faith in a divinity. “Religion” went from referring to a degree of commitment to the Christian Church to a collective term for any deistic belief system. This is how the word has been understood by most people for the past century or so.  For theologians, however, the evolution of its meaning has continued.

At this point, I need to say a bit about theology. In its most academic sense (and as I profess it) theology is the objective study of human beings in relationship to their gods in the light of all other areas of human knowledge. As discussed above, for a long time in human intellectual evolution, the literal existence of God or gods was assumed and theologians worked under this same assumption. In the past several hundred years, we have gained vast information about human beings and our world.  This information has helped theologians achieve an objective intellectual distance from which to examine the gods. The God of Christianity, once assumed to be unknowable, all-knowing and singular has been revealed to be a human construct (whether or not he actually exists) and as such has been forced to share his universe with the gods of other cultures. Now, more recently, theologians are making us aware that these gods (who have traditionally been understood as beings of some sort) are being joined by often even more significant gods who are not beings at all but who serve the same purpose of providing essential meaning for the lives of their adherents. These gods are not new in human experience. They have been with us in some form from the beginning of human culture. What is new is our recognition of their significance and the way they function in human reality. I call them the “Ism” gods; nationalism, capitalism, communism, militarism, racism, et al. It turns out that theology isn’t so much about gods as it is about us.

I’m sure it sounds very strange to put something like nationalism or patriotism on the same plane with the Christian god, but when viewed functionally, it is easy to see their power. People believe in a nation. They have faith in the myths, history and writings of the nation. They are moved to tears and inspired to action by its traditions, music and holiday rituals. They find reason to live in the national history, purpose and mission. They are willing to sacrifice and even die for the national interest. For many people, the nation is a god and one more important than the god they claim to worship on Sunday. This is evidenced by the fact that what the Sunday god wants is routinely dismissed for what the nation god wants. Nationalism is very much a religion.

OK, perhaps that was a little sneaky, but if I accomplished what I set out to do, the problem with the way “religion” is used today should be apparent. It is being used in a way that doesn’t reflect what we know about human beings and the way they make meaning. Human beings need to make meaning in order to exist. Whatever form that meaning takes, it can be said to be a god and there are those who are religious about it. When we hold a god in common with one or more others, it is a religion. Understood in this way, there is no religious versus secular dichotomy. We all invest trust in a god or gods and find significance and meaning from the relationship. We all share one or more of these meaning sources with others; we are all religious.

I'm very curious as to what poison or poisons Christopher Hitchens savored.