Custom is our nature. What are our natural principles but principles of custom?
The growing rush and the disappearance of contemplation and simplicity from modern life [are] the symptoms of a complete uprooting of culture. The waters of religion retreat and leave behind pools and bogs. The sciences . . . atomize old beliefs. The civilized classes and nations are swept away by the grand rush for contemptible wealth. Never was the world worldlier, never was it emptier of love and goodness. . . . Everything, modern art and science included, prepares us for the coming barbarism. . . .Everything on earth will be decided by the crudest and most evil powers, by the selfishness of grasping men and military dictators. --Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season, 1873-76
“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”--St. John of the Cross
Most people would say that their lives have meaning. It's not something they think a lot about. It just does, and it does because each of us has been socialized into a set of meanings about which we had no choice. Custom is, in this sense, our nature, and these meanings given by custom or tradition are in the background for all of us, even if we consciously reject some of them somewhere along the way. And while I do not want to suggest that I undervalue the importance of given meanings, it's also clear that in the modern world custom and tradition are not what they used to be. And clearly the pluralization of custom in a globalizing world has a fragilizing effect on human nature--neither are we humans what we used to be. There are opportunities, but also risks that come with this changed context in which humans come to define who they are what they are capable of.
It should be clear that there is something essential in the spirit of modernity, coupled with its capitalist economic engine, that destroys customs and traditions and replaces them with other practices that tend to have a soul-flattening effect. Everywhere modernity has established itself traditions and customary practices have died. Islam is quite right to see modernity (or westernization or globalization) as a threat. It will destroy its traditions as it has destroyed the traditions of the West. And the hyper-cerebral logic of modernity is now turning on itself attacking even the traditions of rationality that have developed since the Enlightenment.
And the result, of course, is social fragmentation and with it the slow destruction of any sense of robust 'given' collective meanings, and with that increased loneliness and alienation, loss of depth and texture in our experience, anomie and a growing sense that nothing is really important, and in the final analysis all that matters is our relative comfort or discomfort. It's in this sense that modernity has had a soul-flattening effect.
If things continue on their present course, we will have soon enough a globalized world in which all collective social meanings except commercial/consumerist meanings will have withered away. Other meanings, insofar as one can find them, will be a matter for individuals and small groups, who will live as islands surrounded by an ocean dominated by a globalcommercial culture that will produce, already is producing, crude Donald-Trump-type culture heroes, elites committed to their own aggrandizement--and thought well of for it, because, according to the new collective values emerging, they are embraced as life's winners. Who are the winners and who the losers, who the master, who the slaves?--that's the only thing that matters in such collective values constellation. And it's a world in which the masses will be increasingly anesthetized by hi-tech bread and circuses, or preoccupied in passively observing elites as they play their power and sex games with one another on tabloid tv and computer screens and iPhones.
In the meanwhile the older traditions continue to provide something of a meaning backdrop, but do so without much, if any, vitality. There are exceptions in pockets here and there, but they are moribund. These dying traditions still provide a certain kind of order, but they no longer have any real life; they no longer have any eros. They are like dead trees that maintain the shape given to them by the life force that once suffused them, but which now are sapless and brittle. So "higher" meaning in the modern age has withered into boring, eros-less abstractions, and its sapless cultural forms have become what African-Americans call “whitebread”--bland, textureless, soulless. Sure, there is a superstructure of meaning, and most people find a way to live a life within it, but it won’t take much to blow it away. And a storm, she's a brewin'.
But I think that what it boils down to this: The enlightenment rationalist model was unbalanced and hubristic. Its culture heroes thought rationality was going to solve everything, and it's only lately that we're catching on to what Hume already saw at the epoch's high point--that reason is the slave of the passions. And it should be clear to the sane observer that the modern rationalist project in its mission to destroy tradition has cleared the ground for the most barbaric passions to run unrestrained. These crude passions have always been a part of the human experience, but now they command the field in a peculiar and unprecedented way, and will continue to do so until or unless other passions, those which Lincoln called our 'better angels', grow once again in the collective consciousness to become potent enough to push back.
But the passions of our better angels are weaker than ever because modernity has had such a withering effect on the life or our souls. Rationality has flattened and disenchanted the world, and in doing so has caused the soul to shrivel, and in its shriveling its capacity for wonder, for reverence, and for a natural, intuitive sense of the sacred. Lots of people say they don't need all that superstitious hocus pocus. But they're like someone who has never fallen in love and wonders what all the fuss is about: for them it's all projection and fantasy and nonsense. Yes, that is how it looks from the outside. But from the inside it's not so easy to dismiss, and when lost, not so easy to forget.
But the argument here is not that individuals are incapable of wonder and reverence, but that the culture as a whole, as a frame that shapes our response to the world, has no lived sense of the sacred anymore. Other, cruder passions have pushed it to the side, or people feel diffident and white-bready, lost and wandering in a maze without a moral compass, and in their disorientation feel themmselves unable to commit to anything, much less fight for it or put one's life on the line for it.
This condition of moderns is what Nietzsche and Heidegger lamented: moderns don't know their own poverty, or know enough to comprehend what they have lost. Nietzsche's proclamation that God is dead derives from his recognition that we no longer find him in the collective consciousness; he no longer informs our collective meanings and our collective aspirations. N. recognized that insofar as the Judaeo-Christian God was the foundation for a culture-wide mythopoesis or metanarrative, he no longer exists. And I don't think there's any quarreling with that basic claim.
And so in this world in which God no longer lives in the collective consciousness, there is a pervasive, culture-wide nostalgia to enjoy again a religious connectedness that our ancestors took for granted. It’s as much an issue for our restorationist pope as it is for the guy with ear-lobe plugs and a full-body tattoo. The first longs for a lost Christendom, the other for a lost animism; the first for an integrated, culture-wide mythos that inspires in men and women self-transcending, noble ideals; the second, a sense of oneness with the cosmos. I sympathize with both, but there is no future in nostalgia. And nostalgia abounds in a culture that can no longer frame for itself a vibrant, collective sense of future possibility.
And in this disenchanted world in which we have killed God, we have made the earth into a thing to be exploited, and the spirits that once numinously made their homes in the glades and streams and groves have withdrawn--or so it seems. Las Vegas is the New Jerusalem of our era, and the pop-Nietzschean Ayn Rand is its prophet. And the people in the culture who are most aware of what we have lost, who feel it most acutely, are living through a culture-wide experience of the world's disenchantment as a Dark Night of the Senses, and a culture-wide experience of the absence of God as the Dark Night of the Spirit.
These 'dark nights' are conditions described by they lyric poet St. John of the Cross in which the individual soul experiences the stripping away of all external supports to be left alone in a dreadful darkness, but he sees this stripping away as a necessary stage of spiritual development. I have long thought of St. John, an early modern who died in 1591, as one who lived intensely on the individual level the experience of the dawning era that would be lived on a collective level three centuries later. But if St. John was the herald of the spiritually darkening age to come, he also points to a way to move through it. This is an idea I plan to explore on and off in future posts: that St. John points to the essential structure of a 'way', if one can get past his early-modern, counter-Reformation style, that gives us a clue now about how to navigate in the darkness.
St. John gives us, at least those of us who are believers, some reason to believe that there is the possibility to move forward into the Dark with confidence that if we remain faithful, we shall awaken to a Good that we, most of us, cannot at the moment bring into view. That doesn't mean it isn't there, only that we cannot see it. But because the beloved has departed does not mean that he or she no longer exists. We find mementos everywhere, but the mementos are not the presence. Only signifiers of a presence that is no longer experienced. Absence is non-presence, but there is no absence unless there was once presence. And it's possible to hold that in memory, like the soldier on the front who holds on to the picture of his beloved back home, while we move forward in the dark. And I think he points us to the development of the cognitive capacity that will allow us to navigate in this darkness, which is the thinking heart, the heart that does not see but eventually feels the presence that it seeks. And this presence, as I describe it below, is the Logos.
I explore in a preliminary way some ideas related to what I'm pointing to in my 2007 post "Disembedding and Theosis," and I'm trying now to get back to those themes. Some recapitulation of ideas will be necessary, but I'm hoping to push or develop them further. I'm going to return to St. John and also Rumi who in a similar way points us to what the thinking heart could mean for us, but I want first to talk about some fundamental issues about how we come to experience meaning in the first place.
So here are some preliminary thoughts rooted in my own struggle to make sense of what we're going through and what a framework for developing a robust sense of future possibility might look like, especially as it might be contrasted with the bleak, globalized commercial future to which I alluded above. It begins with a meditation on how we experience meaning in the first place. So bear with me. What I say below starts out kind of abstractly, but I think I bring it back down to earth in the end.
The meaning of meaning and all the semiotic theory developed over the last 150 years is beyond the scope of what's appropriate here, so I would like just to work with a simpler, more seat-of-the-pants understanding of how we experience meaning. The key word is “connection,” and the key to understand it is the many various ways in which we find and make connections. When we see a connection or make a connection, there is meaning. When we don’t see it, there is meaninglessness. The discrete elements in our experience are meaningless to us unless or until they fall into a meaningful pattern in which each element is connected to the other in a way that makes sense.
Take for example our reading of a poem when any meaning in it at first eludes us; the words don’t make sense. We know the meanings for each word, but they don’t connect with one another in any meaningful way; it seems to be quasi-gibberish on first reading. We try again, still nothing. Then perhaps several times more, and it hits us, and the words vibrate not only with their interconnectedness among themselves, but with something in us that comes alive in response to them. Not just the excitement of breaking the code, but the revelation of a kind of secret that was held in the poem. Its meaning is a discovery, or perhaps it's more accurate to say our experience of it a kind of awakening.
Is it then that something awakens in us that has given the words their meaning? Clearly that's too one-sided. So is there something in us that is awakened by the poet that we both share but didn't know about until the poem was created and read? That comes closer. But then is the poem, particularly if it is a great poem, something that the poet "creates", or is it something about our shared reality that he awakens to somehow and in doing so awakens others to it? I like that because it gets us out of our individual bubbles and into a shared reality.
But then what is it about us humans that allows us to make these connections in the first place? Certainly the kind of acculturation with its imprinting of foundational meanings is an essential background element, but must there not be something that lies behind the acculturation? Even if we cannot know it except as mediated through our acculturation, isn't it something that we must deduce as the ground for the production of culture in the first place? If the creation of cultural worlds is what makes us human, mustn't there, despite all the varieties of culture, be some kind of underlying structure that is the condition for the possibility of culture? I'll argue the point with those who object, but to me it's obvious that there must be some fundamental ground from which culture grows, even the oldest and most archaic of human cultures. I want to sketch out in a preliminary way how I have come to think about it.
Reading is not a passive activity; it is an active one. It has to be. But it's not as if we're making up the meanings that we read. They are there for us to discover, but there has to be something in us that wills to discover it. But what is it in us that gives us this capacity for understanding when we have this moment of discovery or insight? I think of my experience of the poem’s meaning as the experience of something in me that lies dormant as it lies dormant in the poem, a potentio that has becomes actus when some level of meaning discloses itself. What is in me is stimulated by my encounter with the poem, but it is not simply given by the poem. The meaning doesn’t come alive until by an act of will I awaken it in my struggle to understand what is given in the poem. Now the greater the poem, the richer the potential for discovery. Someone else in reading the poem might discover a different aspect of the undiscovered. The poet himself may not be aware of all that is discoverable in his poem.
So meaning, as in this example, comes from the way words connect with other words, but also in the ways in which we make connections in all kinds of ways--in the way people connect with one another, the way memory connects us with our past, and imagination with our future. Meaning has a cognitive aspect but also a feeling aspect, and both contribute to the experience of meaningful connection. Meaning, it could be said, is the gift of Hermes on the head level and Eros on the feeling level; they are each gods of connection.
So our experience of meaning, if it is rich and deeply textured, requires a kind of erotic thinking, the development or the rediscovery of the thinking heart, a retrieval of the idea that we cannot really know something if we do not love it, if by loving is meant having a sense of the mystery and depth of the beloved as 'Thou'. Even things are 'thou' in this sense, because when we are truly awake to Being and the beings in it, those beings have in their different way an animate or ensouled character.
But we no longer understand Eros because our capacity for it has withered with the withering of our modern souls. We moderns (or no-longer-moderns) have atrophied souls but hypertrophied heads and genitals. We have what I've called Missing Middle Syndrome--we've become what C.S. Lewis describedas 'men without chests'. In a soul-atrophied culture, in which there is no robust common experience of the middle that we used to know as soul, we oscillate from head to groin, from groin to head endlessly, pointlessly, compulsively. It gets us nowhere.
Observe our popular culture in film and fiction--there are only the genitals to make vivid experiential connections and the head to make meanings, but the two operate in their own orbits, and don't really talk to one another. And we suffer from an internal sense of dissociation that mirrors the dissociation and fragmentation of the society around us. Our disorientation is the result of the stupor that results when we have lost our souls.
And so we long most deeply for meanings that are not just head meanings or or a sense of connection that derives not just from the temporary satisfaction of our instinctual impulses, but meanings that can be effected only at the level of soul. And yet we are so soul-shriveled that we cannot imagine such meanings anymore and have no clue even how to look for them, so we settle for innumerable variations on cheap sex in the back of the car, intensified now by its manifold virtual possibilities.
Our popular culture, for this reason, exults in the life of instinct as if it's some affirmation of life, liberty, joyousness. But it just isn't. It's Charlie-Sheen pathetic. It's just a parody of eros and its sacred mysteries. It's pathetic the way fundamentalist Christians and Muslims pathetically focus on everything that is unimportant in their religious traditions. It's all so much going through the motions because, I guess, it's better than doing nothing. It's something. Or if it's got any juice to it, it's a form of obsession or compulsion, and it's better to be obsessed or in the grip of a compulsion that to feel numb and dead.
The difference between modern, soul-withered man and archaic, soulful man is that for the latter the connections are obvious and given in their naturally soulful experience of the world around them; they are all already on the soul level fully or nearly fully actus. And for him the world is full of wonders. For the modern the wonders in the world have withdrawn, or seem to have, because he has lost the cognitive capacity to experience them. And so we moderns and no-longer-moderns are mostly aware of the disconnections and therefore the the lack of meanings in a meaning-flattened world.
But here's the question: has the world flattened, or is it just that it seems flat because we are soul-flat. Is it that there is no meaning, or that our capacity for experiencing it has become so diminished that we no longer have the range of experiences that provide the data for us to make meaningful connections? Or Is it that the data is there, but we haven't awakened to it, that we are having the experiences but missing their meanings because we haven't the interior capability to make the connections? In other words, do we experience the world as we do the poem in the example described above? Is it that the connections are there, but we just haven't awakened to them, perhaps because we haven't tried hard enough. And so therefore, Is it possible, perhaps, that the gods have not abandoned us, but that they await our re-awakening to their presence.
So back to a reflection on potentio and actus, which is largely derived in my thinking about it from Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Barfield and Nietzsche saw that the world of given collective meanings and given connections no longer had any vitality. Nietzsche and Barfield agree that we are living in a dead-tree world rather than in a living world in which the collective consciousness is vibrant with life and meaning. Barfield’s word to describe a human experience rich with connection and meaning is 'participation', and for him it comes in two varieties ‘original’ and ‘final.’ His word to describe our life lived among the dead trees is 'idolatry'. Original participation is experienced by embedded, animist cultures in which everything is connected and merged into one another and in which the world is alive with spirits. Final participation is a stage of human development that lies before us in the future in which the autonomous, buffered modern self will re-embed or de-buffer in a deeper and more richly textured experience of Being.
Remnants of original participation lingered on in Europe through the medieval period and even into the nineteenth century in some rural areas where the old ways hadn’t quite died. But a phenomenal world emerged in the West during the modern period in which layer upon layer of meanings had been stripped away by a withering rationality. All that remained was a kind of minimalist husk whose meaning was mostly defined by its utilitarian or economic value, rather than the I-Thou relationship that is more characteristic of aboriginal and other premodern cultures.
For Nietzsche this stripping away of given meanings was a liberation because it cleared the way for an unprecedented, open-ended human project in a joyous effusion of self assertion unrestrained by tradition, Kantian categories (or whatever). For Barfield this original rich experience of meaning was a necessary step in the evolution of consciousness. Meaning moved from out there as something publicly experienced to something grounded in interior experience, from the Mosaic stone tablets to the supple human heart, and the possibility for movement from outer to inner, from burning bush out there, to burning heart in here, was effected by the incarnation of the Word as described in the prologue to John's Gospel. For the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, is about the new law, a felt experience (in Heideggerian a new mood?) of something that is born within, and so from this within new practices and attitudes are developed be developed. So for Barfield God has not died, he's just gone into hiding in the depths of the human soul. And he argues that the new human task is to renew the face of the earth by making the Logos now in potentialis, actualis. At least that's how I read him.
Both he and Nietzsche agree that freedom is at the center of the human project. But Barfield's is a Christian understanding of freedom. It envisions the nobility and dignity of the future human being and his existence on the earth as dependent on his willingness to undertake the struggle to make what is implicit explicit and in doing so to awaken what is in potentialis or slumbering in both nature and the human soul, because they are the same thing--Nature is the human unconscious. A fully animated experience of Being is there in the collective unconscious like a repressed memory. And for him the implicit that is to be made explicit, the potential to be made actual, the slumbering to be awakened is the Logos--the substructure of Being and the ground for its intelligibility by the awakened, thinking heart, which is, to put it in Christian language, the Logos thinking in us. I am arguing that the key to the restoration of the withered soul is the awakening to this presence of the Logos which lies in the soul's depths, but also in the depths of everything. The Logos is not a head thing; it's a Being thing, and as such a soul thing.
The story of the world for the last three thousand years has been that of a gradual human disembedding, to use Charles Taylor's term. It's been a movement from original participation, to use Barfield's phrase, to a radically disembedded experience of the human being as autonomous or buffered Self. The shift to autonomy reached a kind of tipping point among educated elites in the period between Descartes and Kant, and its culmination in the doctrine of radical, open-ended freedom articulated by Nietzsche and later Sartre, which has become the new commonplace values backdrop for cosmopolitan, Western educated elites. In such an autonomous state, humans have a sense of their individual freedom and a lack of external restraints that were unimaginable in previous epochs. And the challenge that lies before them now is what they will do with that freedom.
We humans are free, but we don't seem to have the will (or is it the inspired imagination) to do anything really constructive with it. We are as a result passive, and we are allowing the technological/economic tail to wag the dog. We are serving it, rather than finding the vision and the will to make it serve us. It's remarkable to me, considering the challenges humans face now, particularly with the way in which information and biological technologies are pushing for what appears to be an inevitable transhuman mechanomorphic redefinition of what it means to be human, that there is so little push back from the older humanistic traditions--at least any push back that seems to matter. There simply isn't enough mass among our cultural elite which believes in those traditions anymore. And so my preoccupation, and the underlying preoccupation of this blog, has been about how to resist the coming barbarism, and the only answer is to counter with an alternative vision of the future that will be robust enough to galvanize the collective will to fight for it.
We're all one way or another Nietzscheans now, but really there was only one Nietzschean and he died in an asylum. His diagnosis of what ails us was correct, his cure questionable at best, and at its worse produces symptoms worse than the original ailment. So the challenge is to frame a robust alternative cure--one that accepts the basic Nietzschean frame that there is no robust sense of shared, culture-wide meanings, and so no robust sense of the "better angels" working with us in our collective consciousness. But they are there, and the task is to find a way to awaken them.
The challenge should be easier and more naturally embraced by Christians. It should be easier for them to accept that the connections are there--as they are in the poem I talked about earlier. This is the work, and it is, I believe, where the imagination, the inspiration, and the will to push back will come from. But while this is a difficult work, I don't see anything else that is likely to work.
I don't think that to undertake this work it's essential to accept in some credal or doctrinal sense that the historical Jesus of Nazareth is identical with the Logos in John's Gospel. The important thing is that people of good will become grounded and oriented again, that they lose their diffidence, and begin to push back. And my argument here is that to be so grounded embraces that it's possible to accept pluralism and multi-perspectivalism at the same time that one embraces that there is an underlying lawful, liberating, love-abounding substructure to reality that is the source of all meaning, the giver of all productive purposes, healthful customs, and living traditions.
I call that ground the Logos, and I do believe that what happened 2000 years ago mattered to the history of the earth in a central way. But I also believe it doesn't matter what you believe; it matters what you do, and awakening the Logos to produce the forms, the practices and attitudes that are needed to meet the world-transfomring challenges that lie before us. That's the critical task no matter how you think about it or how you do it. This is how we save our collective soul, and how we as individuals restore our collective missing chests.
There is the particular, local, and historical--but it must be held in a tension with a transcendent grounding that exists in a very real way in potentio in the depths of every human soul, and which when awakened awakens in magnificent variety and particularity. But more important this awakening, whatever its manifest variety, provides a potential transcultural framework for people of good will everywhere to come together to decide what a good, healthful, human future should look like. Otherwise the barbarians take the field unopposed.
Ed: This post originally appeared in February 2011.]