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Religion and the Fourth Consciousness

Posted on: January 16, 2022

Category: Theology

Religion and the Fourth Consciousness


I do not usually write about things related to or close to mysticism, and this writing is not directly about that subject. The comments to follow, however, are unusual for me. I will be general, but I do want to address consciousness (awareness) in a theological way. I will start with classic psychology.

Sigmund Freud has three levels of consciousness, though he did not put it this way. The first is the Id or the natural drives of life (sexuality, hunger, defense). The Id is “consciousness” in the sense that it is direct awareness of the quest to survive. Then comes the Ego, a second level, that is consciousness of the self. It is self-awareness. The questions here are identity questions rather than survival questions. Who am I? How do I fit in? Why am I unhappy? Finally, there is the Superego. This is consciousness of social norms. It is the act of self-surveillance, that is, the ability to look upon the ego experience from the broader perspective of social guilt and the social good.

There is also the “unconscious,” which was Freud’s great breakthrough. The drives of the Id can be unconscious and can surface in the ego in strange ways. Suppressed things also form the unconscious. Anger with co-workers can be suppressed and surface at home to strike out at family members. Guilt from childhood can be suppressed to surface in adulthood through obsessive behaviors. One can get carried away with Freud creating fantastic theories about unconscious behaviors, but I do not want to engage in this line of questioning.

What I do want to comment on is what consciousness can mean in religion. To the three classic forms named above (Id, Ego, and Superego), religious traditions usually add a fourth. This level of consciousness is harder to explain. It has names like the cosmic consciousness (Richard Bucke), the collective consciousness (William James), and the higher consciousness (Friedrich Schleiermacher). I think that Jesus parables involve this fourth level of consciousness, and in the spirit of Jesus I like to call it the comic consciousness.

Before introducing the comic element, the fourth level of consciousness should be understood. The reference is not to the Superego. It is not about being aware of or guilty about proper social norms. It is not consciousness as in the expression, “my conscience is bothering me.” The fourth level is about the awareness of being an individual in a universe. What is life in light of the vast universe?

Existential philosophy claimed that life is absurd. The chances of there being a planet that supports life, and the chances of there being human life, and the chances of you being alive are next to nothing. Absurdity expresses a fourth consciousness that is aware of life as a kind of meaningless gesture, a gift from nowhere, to be accepted while it is lived without purpose. Jean-Paul Sartre famously called this absurd condition nausea. It’s a fascinating term, and it points to what religion generally tries to do with the fourth consciousness.

In religion, the existential sense of the absurd is not very often present. Religion more often is serious business. Different religions have different ways to get at the fourth consciousness. In Hinduism it is expressed with the union of Atman and Brahman. Atman is the absolute inward reality of the individual self. It is our soul, but as we move deeply into our soul, we discover that the individual soul is the universal soul (Brahman). Atman is Brahman.

In Buddhism a similar teaching exists. In Buddhism, the more we individuate ourselves (I am this or that, I have this need and that one), the more we sink into “Dukkha,” into our form of suffering. Obsessions with the self are forms of suffering. What relieves suffering in Buddhism is Nirodha, which means extinction or letting go. We heal ourselves when we accept the fourth consciousness, which allows us to see that our individual self is only part of the processes of the universe. Nothing is personal. Let it go.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also have lessons about the fourth consciousness but not as directly available. We have to search in monotheism for mysticism. When the Torah is understood mystically in Judaism, it expresses the fourth consciousness. In a mystical sense, the Torah is the order of the universe, and life finds its meaning when it trusts the unfolding of the universe. Here, the Torah is not about doing right or wrong (the Superego). It is about a relationship of integrity with all that is.

Christianity uses the mystical image of the Christ in a similar way to how Judaism can use the mystical image of the Torah. The body of Christ is cosmic. It’s not Jesus. It is rather what Jesus was in or maybe about. Mystically, being in Christ is not about confessing a belief: that would again be the Superego. Being in Christ is about being in the universe not selfishly but as part of the All. The Christ nature inside the self is the same as the Christ nature outside in the universe.

Islam shares ideas with Judaism and Christianity, but in Islam it is the mystical Qur’an. The fourth consciousness in Islam is particularly expressed in Sufism where realizing the true self is realizing the true light within the self. The true light is the mystical Qur’an: not the words of the text but the spirit out of which the words were born. The true spirit is the cosmic spirit, and to realize this spirit, this true spirit, in life is to realize the light of the cosmos in the flesh.

We could conclude, still in a general way, that religion is about the fourth consciousness. Like existential philosophy, it is about an awareness of the self in the cosmos. But unlike existential philosophy, religion has a harder time finding this peculiar existential experience to be comical. Religions get lost in rituals that arise from the fourth consciousness, but the rituals forget why they exist. The rituals become very serious. The rituals become more important than the comedy upon which they rest.

Once, when I was a practicing minister in a Christian church, I meant to recite the Lord’s prayer. For some reason on that day, I started reciting the Nicene Creed instead of the Lord’s prayer. I have never memorized the Nicene Creed completely, maybe because I’m too liberal to think it that important or maybe because I usually had the text in front of me. In this instance, I did not have the text, and my congregation did not have the creed memorized. We managed to get about halfway through together, then all hell broke loose. Some people thought this was hilarious, but others were very upset. That is the nature of rituals. They can be incredibly upsetting or absurd.

When I think of Jesus parables, it is absurdity that comes to mind. The parables are certainly not rituals even though they are often recited with the seriousness of rituals. The parables are comic scenes that play with existential absurdity. The comedy is not laughter but the exposure of the all too human. Sometimes figures in the parables do strange things like finding a lost coin and celebrating the find by spending the coin. Sometimes human pathos seems to be the subject. There is the typical hopelessness of human behavior in the find of buried treasure parable. Human beings will do anything for treasure.

Jesus was more like an existentialist than a religious, though in his time this distinction could not be made. Still, it is important to hear the secular nature of Jesus today amidst the seriousness of religious customs. It is important to hear the comic nature of the fourth consciousness. The comic nature makes us laugh but it also makes us reconsider everything. In the second act, hope exists.


© David Galston

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