The world has entered an age of accelerated evolution and transition. It is characterized by troubling atmospheric and oceanic conditions as well as social disruption, confusion, and random “truths,” not only in the secular world of politics and social intercourse but also in the religions of the Western world that are reaching an “a-ha!” moment as the faithful lift up their heads and see another vision of what life in the Spirit might be about.
This is not only an expansion of consciousness, a coming-of-age of the human psyche which invariably starts with confusion, but includes a further positive dimension that entails deeper insights into the nature of Nature. It is a new richness that is happening to us and all around us, and as in every stage of growth there is struggle and confusion on the journey to arrival—which never really comes.
Our primary interest is Christianity in the Western world that is beginning to evolve into new levels of insight, truth, and understanding. This is Pentecost season, surely a limiting designation for the time of the unbounded Spirit. But this new season in the church year is not as we have known it in the past. We are entering into a new age of the Spirit.
This rather disruptive scenario that I have painted is only one way of looking at what is happening in our world and in our church, in particular the Catholic Church and all Christian churches that confess Jesus as Lord. It may sound a bit obtuse, overly imaginative, farfetched and negative. Perhaps it is a bit extreme, but it must be acknowledged that something significant is happening, even if we may not be able to isolate and identify it with greater precision—yet. Hindsight works with much greater accuracy than foresight.
Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythologist and former professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, may never have gotten a doctorate for all his work in mythology and religious studies, but through his books and interviews he has supplied us with amazing insights and substantial food for thought in the magical world of myth and metaphor so vital to understanding the mysteries of religion. His influence has been enormous. George Lucas, his good friend (as well as producer and director of Star Wars), readily admits that he was greatly influenced by the words and works of Campbell.
In Myths to Live By, Professor Campbell cites a 12-century Cistercian abbot, perhaps a mystic but generally unknown, Joachim of Flora, “who in the early thirteenth [sic] century foresaw the dissolution of the Christian Church and dawn of a terminal period of earthly spiritual life, when the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, would speak directly to the human heart without ecclesiastical mediation.” That is a great insight, considering that it arose during the height of the Catholic hierarchy’s glory days in the Middle Ages. With Pentecost entering the upper room and living among us in our time, it is a great step in the direction of saying that the age of the church has ceded to the age of the spirit. But there are significant nuances to understanding that designation.
Campbell, a spiritual man but admittedly not religious, expands on this notion by drawing the Trinity into his picture. The first age was the time of the Father, the people of Israel, the Ten Commandments, and all that the Jewish Testament teaches us. The second age is that of Jesus, the Christian Testament, and the church. Now, in this third age, there are hovering tongues of fire, illumination, enlightenment, and a new zeal, all of which we might traditionally consider as signs of the church and religion. Instead, Joachim, and Campbell in turn, see this as a time when the church becomes superfluous and gradually dissolves. Is this the time, the beginning of the third millennium, when not only civil society but the church as well are dissolving, and among the Christian bodies a new spiritual life is unfolding for those who have the foresight and insight to read the writing on the wall? Can we propose this to be the case?
In Myths to Live By, Campbell makes more explicit what might be happening:
For there is no divinely ordained authority any more that we have to recognize. There is no anointed messenger of God’s law. In our world today all civil law is conventional. No divine authority is claimed for it: no Sinai; no Mount of Olives. Our laws are enacted and altered by human determination, and within their secular destiny, his own truth, to quest for this or for that and to find it through his own doing. The mythologies, religions, philosophies, and modes of thought that came into being six thousand years ago and out of which all the monumental cultures both of the Occident and of the Orient—of Europe, the Near and Middle East, the Far East, even early America—derived their truths and lives, are dissolving from around us, and we are left, each on his own to follow the star and spirit of his own life.
It sounds revolutionary and extreme. In one sense it is extreme because it is humanistic, selfish, myopic, isolated in individualism with no regard for the inseparable bond uniting every member of humankind that, taken as a unified body, is inextricably bound to this Earth, and that is indeed, acknowledged or not, a spiritual entity, a mystery. The singular, significant, and absolutely essential element is left out, that of the community of humankind. We do not journey alone.
Furthermore, we are living in mystery regardless of how enlightened and evolved we may have become over time. We need to listen to each other because our common bond and insights are what propel, create, and sustain life on Earth. In sum, we need each other and we need the Earth and all that it contains. Together we are one, and we either grow or fall into chaos as one. “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20-21).
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Spirit-time, this third age of spirituality, is the time of panentheism, the cosmos living in the spirit of God, the portal to life beyond religion. Spirit-time, infelicitously called Pentecost, has sadly become another phase in the process of ecclesiastical framework-building and has lost its human designation for living in God. Today, in this third millennium of baptism in the names of Father, Son, and Spirit, this third and final age of union with divinity, we are given an opportunity to shed the guardrails and training wheels, the definitions, doctrines, and dogmas that try to replace the universal and timeless myths embracing human life, in all religions, in all ages, at all times and places. In our zeal to make everything easy and earthbound, we have called them “creation,” “redemption,” and “sanctification” for convenience’s sake. Structures, just verbal assignations upon which to get a foothold, may have started out on the untrammeled path to make the quest our own. We must not adopt them as goals, self-contained realities rather than the myths and hints of timeless, ageless eternity that they suggest.
“Religion is a defense against the experience of God,” said Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. In The Power of Myth, Campbell quotes these words whether or not they were actually Jung’s. Religion is the easy part of directing our minds and thoughts to what lies within and beyond our lives on this earth. Religion is calculated to stop in its own tracks. That’s what doctrines do. Struggle and the work of journey and discovery must somehow, someday, lead to an experience of God, and that is when and where religion falls away, just as the scaffolding eventually must be removed from a structure that is coming into being and no longer needs guides and supports to uphold it and give it a form to follow. Religion has become an end in itself, and that is when it is not life but death, when it becomes a defense against the experience of God.
This leads us to ask why the church must come together in mutual support and encouragement, to build up the body, ἐκκλησία, the body gathered. When we come together in faith-sharing, what have we come for? Is it information? We can get that from books and classes. For what, then, do we come together? If we call it faith-sharing, that is what it must be. Truth be told, we must be encouraged in our faith by a conviction that others know what they are about relative to Jesus, his life and teachings. That is what supports us in our individual faith. It is encouraged by the faith of the community.
There is a significant verse in one of the collections of the mystic Kahlil Gibran. Of teaching, he says, “The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” In The Power of Myth, Campbell relates a conversation with Bill Moyers: “Preachers err, he told me, by trying ‘to talk people into belief; better they reveal the radiance of their own discovery.’” This is what has to happen when people come together as church.
When we gather to express our faith, we are all teachers and learners for one another. We know where we stand with God. When we gather as a large, amorphous, generally nameless and faceless community coming together to celebrate Eucharist, we don’t know where each of us stands in our spiritual lives. We are together, but our thoughts and beliefs are sheltered in our own individual worlds. We can still feel very much alone. But if we gather together in an environment in which we are mutually teachers, givers, and receivers to one another, then we can feel a sense of belonging and bonding. This is the beginning of community. ♦
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.