Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Messianic Age: A Kabbalistic View

Millennialist predictions vary as to what the transformations of 2012 are meant to be. For some, 2012 represents The End of the World, the apocalypse, the destruction of society, or even life as we know it. For others, 2012 represents an inflection point in human consciousness, a tipping point at which our age's accelerating growth in spiritual consciousness suddenly wins out over its equally perilous growth in material chaos and devastation.

In fact, this distinction -- whether the "next age" is about spiritual transformation or material destruction -- has long been a part of Western apocalyptic thinking. The latter tradition is better known: the Rapture, the End Times, the Apocalypse. However, the former tradition is also present in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. There have just been too many Times of Transformation: 1666, 1848, Y2K (remember that?), and literally hundreds of others, now long forgotten. Then again, who knows? One of the benefits of the "spiritual view" is that it makes predictions less important. For the Kabbalists, the cyclical and linear aspects of time represent the feminine and masculine aspects of Divinity, the power of Now and the trajectory of temporality.

One of Judaism's central historical tenets is the belief in a Messiah, a redeemer who in some future time will change, or even end, history. Jewish beliefs about the Messiah have themselves evolved over time. Initially, the Messiah was seen as a purely military/political leader who would bring independence back to Judea. Later, the Messiah became seen as a cosmic figure who would change the entire nature of reality. Likely under the influence of Christianity, the Messiah was sometimes seen as a semi-divine figure, even one who would atone for the sins of Israel. In contrast to such traumatic and supernatural accounts of messianism, there has been a longstanding Jewish tradition to regard the messianic age as one of evolving consciousness rather than revolutionary history.

Imagine a world in which everyone understood that all of us are God. Not one in which each person thought he or she was God alone -- that would be disaster. But one in which the nonduality of Being was understood, in some form or fashion, by all human beings. This would be an entirely different world from the one we now inhabit, free of the conflicts and crises, petty and grotesque, which fill our moment. And imagine what it would be like, right now, to believe that, as Ramana Maharshi has said, "civilization . . . will finally resolve itself, as all others, in the Realization of the Self".

Now, in our postmodern information age, the noosphere is indeed upon us. Already, thanks to global information technology, the hidden mystical teachings of the world's religious traditions are accessible to everyone, as are the great wealth of scientific, cultural, philosophical, and artistic works from the better part of humanity. But even this is just the beginning. The internet, nanotechnology, and wearable computers are but the initial stages of a noetic revolution in which nonmaterial information may displace material matter as the ultimate future of the body. Most probably, we are only a few decades away from being able to upload our minds onto renewable data media. Is this the "immortality of the soul" of which some religions once spoke? What is the meaning of humanity if we are able to transcend the limits of matter? And more proximately, what is the significance of this new knowledge, accessible all over the world -- including, for our purposes, the highest truth (singular!) of so many spiritual traditions, that there is really no one either reading or writing these words?

What terrifies fundamentalists is that religious meaning evolves over time. Yet from an integral messianic perspective, that is exactly what it should be doing. There is no experience apart from interpretation, not merely because mystics must interpret their experiences according to the language and culture they know, but because those linguistic and cultural structures condition the nature of the experience itself. Perhaps "I" will "have" a "vision" of "angels," but all of the quoted terms are cultural constructions. The structural/historical conditioning of experience is unavoidable, so much so that it makes little sense to speak of "experience" or "God" or "mysticism" apart from the stages in which such experience is interpreted. Put simply, God looks different depending on where you stand.

From what Wilber (following the integral approach developed by the philosopher Jean Gebser) calls the magical stage, God looks like the provider who answers all of your (egocentric) needs. From the mythic stage, God -- as understood in your faith tradition exclusively -- is the sole source of salvation, and everyone who doesn't believe in Him is doomed. From the mental-rational stage, God is a moral principle and the Bible a useful, though flawed, teacher of ethical truths; other teachers may also be valuable. From the pluralistic stage, God is love, expressed in a thousand ways by a thousand religions, all deserving of respect. And from the various integral stages, God is variously Nothing, and all of the above. Experiences of all types are available to all kinds of people. But the same experience will be immediately contextualized and interpreted according not only to one's religious/spiritual/scientific tradition but also one's "stage" of religious development.

Utopian ideal? Exactly -- and that is exactly the function of the messianic urge, here reconfigured away from nationalism, triumphalism, and supernaturalism, and toward the dawning of realization on earth. Will everyone be Christian or Gnostic or Jewish in the messianic age? Will a magical chariot descend from the sky? Of course not -- that misses the entire point. Rather, the nondual wellsprings of the Baal Shem Tov's (and many other) teachings will water a thousand plants in Eden, a biodiversity of spirit which, as in ecology, nourishes the whole by supporting difference. Consciousness will shift until such a point at which even the lion may lie down with the lamb.