Between our sense of being in our world and how we imagine the divine we have boundaries and filters that are both organic and psychological.
The organic boundaries and filters are created by our brains to ensure our organic being is able to function in the physical world – to at least survive and maybe flourish.
The psychological boundaries and filters are more complex because they relate to both spiritual and psychological maturity. The extent to which this can be appreciated depends upon how we think about our nature.
A Christian will have an understanding that is essentially different from a Buddhist because each has a distinct theory of human nature and the soul. I have read extensively in both and found Buddhism had a more cogent theory of human nature. Christianity relied on dogma and faith. It was more a drama of philosophy. Each tradition arose from a very different root.
This difference is of interest as we discover more about what it is to be human – fusing new science with old lore. Considerably more intellectual energy in the west has been devoted to the eastern paths than Christianity.
In the first quadrant of the 21st century there are interesting trends in western cultures:
- Christianity is struggling to hold onto its once dominant role.
- Atheism has increased, largely as a reaction against Christianity.
- Alternative expressions of religion and spirituality are growing.
- There has been a steady growth in spiritually orientated inquiry in neuroscience and psychology.
- Our access to ideas and information and the means to share or contest them is unprecedented.
The idea that what we believe, and value is a zero-sum game has taken root among those who are traditionalists and who have an adverse reaction to these trends.
This is a good time to reflect on how we behave as individuals and community members. We can contribute to the evolution of our psychospiritual environment. Or we can try to jam our stakes of hubris and dogma into the spokes of the evolutionary wheel.
We humans do not evolve in any orderly way. Any reflection upon the human condition globally will reveal a spectrum with stark differences. That lack of equality may be unfortunate, but it’s a feature, not a bug. It makes it harder for the ‘good guys’ to exert their beneficent influence. But who said being a ‘good guy’ was easy? This is nowhere better illustrated in the Biblical idea of the false prophet.
Consider this: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15). There is more at
Considering whether what you have been induced to believe looks like an obligation, but it is also a huge burden. It is way easier to find a comfortable nook of faith and belief and settle down than become an irritating type who questions the prophet.
In these days who really knows what is good and true and right? So many people in the present marketplace are motivated by personal gain to present themselves as prophets and guides.
I think our best defence against being a sucker to a fraud or a roadblock to our own evolution is to be aware of two instruments we have and use all the time.
We set boundaries and we create filters to keep us safe and to conserve our energy. If we take responsibility for doing so, and add a modicum of insight we improve our chances of not being suckered and distracted.
Beliefs as boundaries and filters and why they matter
Brain science suggests that the brain will process input from the material world and our imagination in a similar way. I had been listening to Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman’s Words Can Change Your Brain when this insight was casually delivered. The implications were stunning, and I had to stop listening because my head was off down a luminous path.
Our reality, as substantially organic beings, is created by what our senses tell us, plus our imaginings. I want to distinguish between imagination in the ‘creative’ sense and imagination arising from beliefs generated by the mere fact of being conscious organic beings. What we believe to be true, we imagine to be true. And what we imagine to be true we, we can believe to be true.
In our normal lives we process sensory data and modify it with guesses/predictions. This is mostly done in a non-rational unconscious way that can also conform with shared beliefs. Those shared beliefs can be culture-wide, held by a small community or entirely individual.
We modify our organic sensory experiences with multiple imaginations/beliefs, and these make up our reality. That multiplicity of imaginations/beliefs includes the sum of our subjective personal experiences which intersects with other individual subjective imaginations/beliefs and group imaginations/beliefs – family, faith, community, and culture. It’s a massive body of interweaving stimuli that we need to manage. Without boundaries and filters we would be overwhelmed.
What’s true or false, good or bad, sacred or profane, essential or optional, valuable or worthless matters massively. We set value filters and we set boundaries or limits on what we can think, believe, or entertain.
Filters in action
I share a passion for the sacred and the divine with most of humanity. I have beliefs and ideas that are my tools for engaging with what I imagine the sacred and the divine to be. They fit my needs.
I do my best to esteem values and beliefs that are good and true. But I am deeply aware that this is a highly personal business. My personal filters are adapting to new ideas – blocking old notions and being more responsive to new ones. And I resist some ideas when they seem to be too confronting – until I have had time to adjust myself them. But it is also possible to set my filter to block challenging notions.
We filter as we dare.
Boundaries in action
I must limit what I can engage with. Hence there are some religious/spiritual ideas/beliefs/practices I will not consider or pay attention to. They do not meet my needs.
This does not mean that I do not do honour other ways and disparage them as unworthy. They might be something I’d enjoy and value if I had a mind to explore them.
Boundaries are important. Some paths have deep and valued cultural traditions, and they demand time and attention that leaves no energy to engage beyond. Other paths may be a struggle between an alluring diversity and the need to develop depth on only a few options.
Fences keep some things in and other things out. If we manage our boundaries well, we can grow in a balanced way.
Seekers versus followers
We are in an age when being Spiritual, Not Religious is a class that distinguishes itself from the Religious. It’s a distinction that might be thought of as DIY as opposed to following an established method. Its not inherently superior because it has major drawbacks.
But what it does do is articulate a discontent with settled established traditions and aspire to new insights. This is pretty much like early post-Jesus movements. When the filters and boundaries become atrophied as components of a cultural artefact and tradition, they come to serve more the cultural dimension and less the sacred.
The divine is always breaking the rules humans set to contain it. But this isn’t through what we call ‘revelation’ which is a political term to suggest that the divine speaks only through approved established channels. A better term is ‘insight’- an ongoing evolution of awareness open to all.
But cultures need a sense of connection with the divine as much as individuals do. So, faiths serve a vital function at a cultural and communal level. That function esteems stability and conformity. Hence there have always been non-stable non-conforming minorities intent on ‘truth-seeking’ over compliance and conformity.
The importance of evolution
Everything evolves, but at very different rates. Western culture has been messed up by the dogma of perfect creation. Simply, what God creates has to be perfect – so evolution is ridiculous as an idea.
But evolution is the ability to adapt to change, and change is everywhere. God didn’t create a static reality, so the ‘perfect’ creation is adaptive – evolving.
Humans are change resistant. We like things to stay the same, despite the hype over us chasing novelty with a passion. We like a healthy mix of stability and novelty – a lot of the former and a little (but steady flow) of the latter.
So, here’s the thing. Most humans like stability and they like their religion integrated into their culture and community in a way that lets them get on with the essential job of maintaining organic being on a spectrum from survival to flourishing.
But because the divine is always dynamic it puts pressure on the stable and change-resistant to adapt more readily to the changes that are flowing into our reality.
I think this is why movements like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam evolved. What we don’t know is what were the influences on the imaginative level that triggered these movements. We tend to think of the imaginative as not substantive, but if we see it as a dimension comprised of a fusion of belief, fantasy, thought, and emotion it is actually a powerful influence that is shaping our reality. You can call it consciousness if you like.
Our sense of reality is mediated by our brains through the combining of input from organic senses and our consciousness. Of course, there’s a whole field of inquiry about exactly what those words may mean. But the basic idea is plain.
Evolution is a theme that runs through it all. Its only a particularly obdurate, but small (though disproportionately influential) minority that resists. We need to imagine evolution in more fruitful ways.
Setting our own boundaries and filters
We all do this. It is necessary for our emotional and mental health. We can do so as members of large established communities of faith, as members of orders and covens, or as solo or independent loosely affiliated seekers or believers.
There are risks in any of those settings in terms of distorting truths. In fact, no filter will reveal undistorted reality. Filters are an inescapable element of our consciousness. We can’t remove them. We can only be aware we have them. And we need boundaries to protect ourselves from our own follies and conceits as well as protecting others from the same.
The needs of seekers are not met by the communities of followers, and vice versa. Enmity from either toward the other reflects psychological and spiritual naivety.
We are each where we are. Pride in being who we are and in a contest with those who are not like us is psychologically and spiritually immature.
What we set for ourselves is in response to our needs and expectations. It’s not a measure of any contest we have with others.
We like to think that what we believe is true. It is – for us. Our reality is only partially shared with others. This is the awkward truth about our organic existence. We can know about ‘objective reality’ only via our brains which process input from our organic senses, plus our imaginations. In short, what we think is our experience of ‘objective reality’ is crafted our imagination/belief – and the ignorance, pride and immaturity that comprises a good measure of it.
To the extent that we value a shared/objective reality we must acknowledge that our beliefs/imaginations set boundaries and create filters that profoundly influence how we experience it.
And when it comes to the sacred and divine, what we can say as an expression of confident truth? I am starting to see objective reality as the stone inside a peach whose flesh is woven from all who engage with it and imagine it (human and other than human). We esteem the peach not for the stone, but the flesh.
Soon after I drafted this, I began listening to Lisa Feldman Barrett’s utterly remarkable book How Emotions Are Made. She builds on Newberg’s and Waldman’s work by arguing that what we think we know about emotions isn’t right.
There’s so much good work done in psychology and neuroscience these days that our notions of the spiritual/religious can be transformed – if we have a coherent theory of being human as a spiritual being.
Ritual by Dimitris Xygalatas is another beautifully conceived book that gives a fresh understanding of ritual as both a sacred and secular impulse.
For those who grew up in the Christian tradition and who are trying to decondition their mind from that influence, I also recommend the works of Daniel McClellan – his presence on YouTube and Tik Tok and the Data Over Dogma podcast especially.