Religion on Three Levels

At his seminar on The Ancient Roots of Liberal Religion, Rev. Davidson Loehr said that Christian church father Origen (185-254) wrote that religion works on three levels: the literal, the ethical, and the spiritual. I think that’s very true, and I want to expand on the concept.

A disclaimer – other than some brief summaries and a very quick scan of “De Principiis,” I haven’t read Origen, so I don’t mean for this to be a critique or a derivative of his work. I’m simply acknowledging that the concept didn’t originate with me.

At the first level, the myths are literally true, the commandments are absolute, and the primary focus is on tribal identity – what does it take and what does it mean to be a member of a given faith. This is the religion of children and fundamentalists.

At the second level, the myths are metaphorically true, the commandments are guidelines, and the primary focus is on ethics – how to live a good life. Because humans are humans across the world, ethics that are helpful in one place are usually helpful in other places – thus the appearance of the Golden Rule many times in many religions. This is where most mainline Protestant denominations and Unitarian Universalism are now (though there are notable exceptions).

The good news is that once you figure out the myths aren’t literally true and that other folks have some good ideas too, you naturally settle into a universalist world view. The bad news is that once you decide the magic isn’t real, you may also decide that religion isn’t worth the effort any more. This is why religion has declined so much in the Western world over the past few centuries.

At the third level, the myths are transformatively true, the commandments are roadmaps, and the primary focus is on the experience and knowledge of God/dess. This is the realm of monks and mystics, and it requires a focused commitment of prayer, study, meditation, and practice practice practice. It is more of a commitment than most will make and more than many can make.

While Origen believed (as best I can tell from my limited reading) that these three levels were hierarchical (the spiritual is superior to the ethical, which in turn is superior to the literal), I believe they represent three stages through which all must pass – you can’t skip steps.

Obviously, if you get stuck in the literal stage, you’ll end up a fundamentalist expecting to find streets of gold or seventy-two virgins after death. But this is still an important stage. This is where the seeds of myth are planted. When you approach the spiritual stage, the stories you wrote off as fables and morality plays suddenly take on new life and new meaning – they don’t just tell you how to live, they tell you how to transform your life.

This is also the stage where you learn how to believe in something you can’t see. You may (or may not) reject that concept when you move into the ethical stage, but you’ll remember it when you start working toward transformation.

If you get stuck in the ethical stage, you’re likely to lose your motivation to continue growing. Something else Rev. Loehr said was “if it’s all the same, then it’s lost its soul.” He was right. Growth takes a lot of work, and it’s easy to get distracted by the demands of daily life.

But if you try to skip this stage and go straight from the literal to the spiritual, you’re likely to end up like a medieval alchemist or a televangelist (or the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark), trying to use the power of the Divine for self-enrichment and aggrandization. We need to learn universal ethics (and apply them), and we need to learn to differentiate true spiritual experiences from pleasant self-delusion.

Skip both the preliminary steps and you’ll be a Hollywood Kabbalist, playing with the forms of spirituality to feed your vanity without accomplishing anything useful for the good of the world, the service of the Divine, or ultimately, yourself.

Put them all together and you learn how to believe, what to believe, how to live a useful life, and how to live a meaningful life.

As for me, I like to think I’m knocking on the door of the third stage. But if I’m completely honest, it’s more likely I’m still standing on the sidewalk, hesitant to walk up to the house, afraid of the commitment it takes to open the door and walk through…

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