In a series of books (e.g., A Sociable God, Up from Eden, and The Eye of Spirit), I have tried to show that religion itself has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of consciousness in a person; it does not deliver radical transformation. Nor does it deliver a shattering liberation from the separate self altogether. Rather, it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, promotes the self. As long as the separate self believes the myths, performs the rituals, mouths the prayers, or embraces the dogma, then the self, it is fervently believed, will be “saved”–either now in the glory of being God-saved or Goddess-favored, or in an after-life that insures eternal wonderment.
But two, religion has also served–in a usually very, very small minority–the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function of religion does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it–not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution–in short, not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself.
There are several different ways that we can state these two important functions of religion. The first function–that of creating meaning for the self–is a type of horizontal movement; the second function–that of transcending the self–is a type of vertical movement (higher or deeper, depending on your metaphor). The first I have named translation; the second, transformation.