As I’ve navigated this interesting but undefined post-evangelical world (exvangelical seems to be the popular phrase) I’ve run into many who began their journey of descent when they discovered that the church was a toxic space.
We all sensed that something was not right. We all noticed that the life we were inculcated to live, in many ways did not at all match the life lived by Jesus according to the very institution instructing us to venerate him.
And at some point, we stumbled out of our place in the cave.
This was the cave of knowing, of certainty, of having all the answers and knowing how it was all going to play out. We were chained down institutionally by shame, fear, confusion, and social inclusion. We were forced to stare at a shadow play of the real world and accept it as literal fact and reality.
But some of us were discontented with the shadows and felt it right to break free and explore what the shadow world was a shadow of. We were taught growing up to avoid “the world” like the plague, lest it seduce us into backsliding and ultimately hell itself. But some of us made it out, and we realized that the evil we were taught to shun was hardly evil at all, and in many ways the shadow world we were coerced to accept was in fact the root of much suffering — for ourselves and others.
Similar to Plato’s allegory thousands of years old, returning to the cave to explain the world outside our hole in the ground fell on confused and fearful ears. So we left, finding ourselves feeling lost and often suddenly missing the companionship of certainty and social position that had been with us all our lives.
And I’ve seen in this caravan of wanderers, those brave and courageous souls, a tendency to secretly carry the sense of shame and guilt, the sense that somehow we are wrong, that the place we held in the caves of our youth was perhaps our destiny. We work overtime and perform mountains of theological and mental gymnastics to make out a strange assortment of beliefs — old and new — to fit together to prove our journey true.
But to paraphrase an old saying, you can’t put new wine in old wineskins. Somehow, when we try to make these competing worlds — the cave of knowing and the world of uncertainty — cooperate, we end up fighting a war on the enemy’s turf. And the worst part about it, there are no enemies and we don’t need to fight!
So I want to contribute a few thoughtful reflections for those brave enough to wander. And I want to focus on this stage of evolution, this stage where we keep trying to validate our evolving journey using the language and the rules of the cave.
Instead, I want to learn to take a critical and independent look back at my faith tradition.
How the hell did we get here?
I believe that answering this question has the ability to free a generation of spiritual exiles from our mental imprisonment to the caves we fled. Our bodies are free from the spiritual hierarchy, but our souls remain locked in the rules of a broken worldview.
It is my prayer that we can transform, with deep love and affection, the stories from the caves that birthed us into the challenging stories of a new way of being.
Caves are the place where we find evidence of the earliest human spirituality. For the most part, early people told stories about two things: dying and being reborn.
Modern anthropologists and archeologists have been unearthing evidence in recent years of how the earliest hominids began to bury each other (imitating the cave, and the womb) for our life after life. It appears there has been a hope that such a place existed since we crossed some mysterious threshold of knowing and understanding. Once we could grieve and conceptualize the loss of loved ones. Once we could conceptualize the never more, we began rejecting and projecting new ways of being in a life after this one, of carrying on forever.
And shortly thereafter, we began applying these principles to the animals we were killing for survival. From the earliest historical evidence (found in caves in the French Alps), to ancient Japanese tribal traditions, to the Blackfoot Native American people, those who have directly handled and engaged with the killing of animals have also created myth regarding their eventual resurrection.
In observing nature, it seemed to people that all life ebbed and flowed, waned and waxed. Here today, gone tomorrow, back next spring.
This hope and anticipation for new life isn’t the product of civilization and theological awareness as I’ve been instructed, it’s quite the opposite, it’s primal.
In France these ancient people would actually descend into their caves for otherworldly experiences that seemed to reflect this awareness of death resurrection: initiations into adulthood in which the child self would die and the adult born, rituals of the hunt that brought both death and new life of the prey they sought, and space to record memories of those they had loved and lost. Some even painted themselves, as if to hope that here in the underworld, they could live on forever.
The cave represented a return to the womb, the earth itself, in which we entered mother nature to be changed and reborn. And so maybe we modern people find ourselves being less of the civilized descendants of primitive people that we want to believe.
We find ourselves instead so overworked and pressured by the demands of a hyper-economized world, that we hardly have time for the type of spiritual ruminations that would draw us into the spaces of fear and mystery, gestation and rebirth. Oftentimes, we instead settle for prefabricated, easy to digest theological tenants that affirm our psyches of conquering and ownership, rightness and supremacy.
It’s interesting, these early people had such a respect for the life they took and the animals they consumed. They could only continue with their hunts once they had developed resurrection myths and rituals. In fact, right alongside the tombs of our ancient ancestors we have found buried also the animals we hunted and ate, proof of their hope that these animals would return to the herd to be with their loved ones as well.
And so rather than the cave being the place of primitive thinking that we have come from, it is instead the temporary holding place for deep spiritual thought and evolution. It’s a womb.
But the cave isn’t reality. The cave is metaphor and myth. And just like a human baby, one can’t stay in the womb too long without consequences. And so we must remember our primitive nature, that drives us to reenter the depths of the world and discover who we truly are, so we can come back transformed and transforming.
And the cave is also a helpful way to separate our journey in this modern world. When Plato first curated the Allegory of the Cave, he was hoping to overcome mythical thinking that had left its proper place in our collective unconscious and instead become Greek reality.
The gods, instead of being representations and allies in the journey to wholeness, became actual, tyrannical beings to be appeased and feared. This type of fearful, avoidance based living defined the time of Plato. This elementary obsession with the ability of Zues to strike you dead — for being too humble or too arrogant, too curious or too boring — dictated the behavior of early Greeks so much that self discovery was nearly prohibited.
And this brings me to the final point about the cave. In Plato’s analogy, the cave people aren’t free to descend into the depths of darkness and unknowing on one hand, and they’re not free to leave the cave and experience life on the other. They are instead chained to the wall, forced to look at shadows from an eternal fire. And their predicament perfectly represents the danger of our time as well.
In this analogy, the people have no autonomy to explore — to spelunk to the bottom of their psyche and unconscious, to swim in the waters of their deeper knowing and primal selves. Instead, they are kept in the same spot their whole lives. They also can’t leave to explore the world of experience and mystery. And in this spot, they are instead kept near the light of an artificial light source that never allows them to experience the teacher that is darkness. They can only see shadows of reality, but the worst part is that they think this shadow world on their cave wall is the real world itself.
They have no hunts, they have no questions or quests, they have no wonder or awe, they just believe the shadow world given them.
And so this is a story for those who have been chained to a shadow world. The chains left scars, the relationships made there strife with abuse of all kinds, and the spiritual wreckage too great to tally. And so the cave represents the place of pain and suffering that many of us fled. And in this way, it is helpful to talk about the cave as the place we have come from.
But like our ancestors, the cave also represents our ability to leap back into the violent, storm-laden aspects of ourselves, and come out new people. A different kind of cave people.
And so like Nicodemus, some of us ask Jesus, “How can an old person be born again? Can they enter their mother’s womb a second time?”
Maybe the answer is actually yes, we can. We just need someone to unlock the chains.