Dao Du Jour, Day 72: On Magma and Dogma

Chapter 72:

“When they lose their sense of awe,

people turn to religion.

When they no longer trust themselves,

they begin to depend upon authority.”

~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.

Brother David Steindl-Rast offers a pregnant metaphor to help us think about the evolution of religions: a volcano.

The founder of a religion is a volcanic eruption—that one-in-a-billion person blessed with a god-consciousness that blows the minds and hearts of his people, turning over the tables of conventional values, as Jesus does in the temple. The founder breaks the old tablets of good and evil, and creates space for new ones. Like the trickster figure in mythology, the founder disrupts, but it is a creative disruption. It is liberating the lava compressed by the culture.

But after the initial burst of dynamism, as the founder dies and his message gets interpreted and institutionalized first by his followers and then by followers of his followers, the lava flow begins to slow, congealing and crustifying into the kind of rock in which it was previously imprisoned. Magma becomes Dogma.

One of the things that astonished the Jewish authorities about Jesus was that he spoke “as one who has authority.” From the dogmatic point of view, such a person is Satanic; from the magmatic point of view, such a person is enlightened. It’s easy to conflate the Satanic and the magmatic since they both oppose the dogmatic, but they are quite literally worlds apart. The Satanic is what Robert Kegan calls the “imperial self,” imposing its will on the world, while the Magmatic is more like Kegan’s “self-authoring self,” who is liberated from both his selfish impulses and the “conformist self,” the fear of excommunication from his culture.

What separates them is awe—awe at the sheer existence of the world–the Buddha eye, Christ consciousness, the childlike way of being that sees the kingdom of heaven in the here and now. The Buddha eye can see the lava in the land. Lava is fast-moving land, land is slow-moving lava.

The church is perpetually at war with the mystics because it is trying to stuff God into images, words, ideas, beliefs, and rules. But this is like trying to contain a volcanic eruption, to build a box to hold lava. The most important feature of the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, is that it was empty. As nature abhors a vacuum, God abhors a box.

We need boxes, of course. But the boxes that religions offer people should be like presents: not to be stared at and worshipped, but to be opened, to discover the surprise hidden within. The Buddha likened his teachings to a raft designed to help you across the river; only a foolish person would get to the other side and continue to carry the raft around on his back. The present is not the box. After you’ve opened the box, you can throw it away.

Children, of course—and dogs—know better. They can play just fine with the wrapping paper. It’s adults that need to play the game of hide and seek we do with trash and treasure, boxes and presents, dogma and magma.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”

What Do You Think?