We are all postmoderns now, and that means anything goes. The premodern, traditionalist narrative remains only a ghostly presence, and the modern Enlightenment Rationalist narrative persists merely as an old habit that we maintain for want of anything better. In such a cultural gray zone, people have shown themselves capable of believing in almost anything, and so anything goes.
And believing, I would argue, is pretty much all we've got when it comes to giving our lives meaning. Even pure rationalism is a belief system. There are all kinds of belief systems and our choosing one or the other of them boils down to what any of us is capable of believing plausible. Understanding better what makes something plausible is a big subject, but for now it's enough simply to point out that plausibility is a function of cultural legitimacy, and it's very interesting to consider why some beliefs are considered legitimate and others not. Why, for instance, even just two hundred years ago, did most educated Westerners understand the fundamental stuff of the universe to be spirit, and why now does that same group assume that the fundamental stuff is matter? For Hegel evolution was a spiritual purposeful process, and everyone agreed. Fifty years Darwin says it's a random, groping biological process, and everyone agrees. Maybe fifty years from now, someone will explain how it's both, and everyone will agree. Who knows, because anything goes. Whoever comes up with the most compelling narrative wins.
Whatever. In the coming decades we will continue to live through an awkward
period of cultural fragmentation typical of a decadent
transitional era, not unlike the last two or three centuries of the
classical period as the Roman Empire declined. Almost anything is plausible during such a time. Then as now there was a huge
marketplace of ideas, philosophies, religions. And from this hodgepodge a dominant narrative gradually emerged. Standing in history around the year 100 and looking forward, Christianity would have seemed a very weak candidate to emerge as that narrative. But it did, and it reached its high-water mark of cultural influence at the time of the Renaissance/Reformation, and for better or worse, it's been receding ever since.
I doubt that it will re-emerge as the primary narrative of the near
future, but I believe that it has a latent power that should have an
important influence in shaping the global fusion culture that will emerge over
the next century or two. One thing is for sure,
though: That while the underground springs from which the Christian mystery bubbles will always be a source of life, the Catholic and Protestant narratives are not. Both have come to represent the
calcified remains of narratives that did at one time have genuine vitality. The first
was the Christian narrative of the premodern era; the second of the modern era. Now we need a Christian narrative that draws life from those underground sources that are true to the mystery and yet relevant for the new era dawning.
That doesn't mean that the fundamental story is something that we just make up as we go along. It's rather that our understanding of its truth evolves as our consciousness of it evolves. The Christian mystery hasn't changed, but it has changed us--and changed us in ways we don't understand. I'd argue, for instance, that the very possibility of modernity--its ideas about liberty, individuality, and critical consciousness--depends on the transformations in consciousness effected by Christianity in the West. It's not the only influence, obviously. The Greeks were important, too. But the marriage of Jewish and Greek consciousness in the Christian West gave the world the peculiar disembedded consciousness that developed in Europe. So now having been changed by the impact of Christianity on consciousness, our consciousness of Christianity must change. (What I mean by this is outlined in Part II.)
In other words, because the old narrative has calcified does not mean that earlier Christians were wrong or were fooling themselves--their understanding, as is ours now, was provisional. I see theirs as a form of Christianity that was appropriate for a kind of consciousness (premodern and modern) that we no longer have. Right now the churches are for the most part living off stale bread, and that's why their influence on the larger mainstream culture is so weak or downright sickening.
I understand why many people may not be thrilled by the prospect of Christianity or any other religion providing the basic framework for the primary cultural narrative of the future. But I think that their misgivings are rooted in their perception of religious attitudes that derive from the old consciousness that has overstayed its relevance. Moderns justifiably resented the church insofar as church authorities resisted the emergence of the aforementioned freedom, individuality, and critical consciousness. They saw rightly that the churches insofar as they embodied that resistance to the modern spirit were resisting something new and important that was struggling to be born, and had every right to be born--that was in fact consistent with the deepest logic of the Christianity transformative, maturing effect on human consciousness.
It is human nature that the old resents and resists, often violently, being pushed aside by the new. We see it all the time. We saw in Europe during the religious wars of the 1600s. We see it it now in the violence of the Muslim world. These wars have very little to do with the spirit of the religions they were or are being waged to defend. They are about the preservation of cultural identity, about fearing the loss of a way of life that one loves, about the persistence of old habits when new habits must be learned. And, of course, there is good reason for them to fight for the preservation of the old ways because there is tremendous value in them. Precious things get lost. But history is a bitch, and it has this way of forcing the issue in ways that almost all of us would prefer it wouldn't.
But as painful as these losses are, they are, I would argue, a part of growing up, in the spiritually evolutionary sense. The losses have to be mourned, and then we have to move on. Clinging to the old when the old has become obsolete is "Lot's
Wife Syndrome"--the impulse or longing to look back with nostalgia
rather than to look forward with hope. And it is this impulse which
leads inevitably to the calcification of souls and cultures. And it is
that calcification that prevents so many of our intelligent contemporaries from taking religion
seriously, because that's mainly what they see--the rigidity of old
forms that no longer deliver life in a fresh, healthful way. But it should be pointed out that moderns have also calcified
to the degree that they look backward toward the rationalist ideals of
the Enlightenment with nostalgia. Stubborn modernists like E.O. Wilson are as resistant to postmodernity as the Reformation era popes were to modernity.
But Enlightenment rationalism is as inappropriate for our time as Catholic medievalism. That does not mean that rationality is useless. It does not mean that Catholic ritual is meaningless. It just means that how we understand the uses of rationality and ritual have to be adapted to the different circumstances in which we now find ourselves.
The mass, for instance, is a ritual that makes much more sense to premodern consciousness than it does to a modern consciousness. It has roots in archaic practices that go back thousands of years. The very concept of "blood sacrifice" is something that is fundamentally repugnant to the contemporary sensibility. And yet something trans-temporally Real is celebrated in it, and the Catholic Church, whatever happens to its faux medieval superstructure in the coming decades, provides a service to the world by every day and everywhere performing this ritual. And I believe that as we move more deeply into postmodern consciousness, we will once again develop a deeper apprehension for the significance of what happens in the mass. Postmodernity will be globally syncretistic in its retrieval of lost wisdom from the world's premodern legacy, shaped by the retrieval of aspects of lost or forgotten understandings rejected by modern rationality. If it's hard to comprehend what the mass effects now, I believe it will be easier for future generations.
Even if the main Catholic and Protestant narratives have calcified, lots of people do in fact find genuine meaning in the Christian mystery as it lives in the biblical narratives and in the subterranean streams of grace that nourish their souls in ways that they are mostly unaware. So when I speak about developing a postmodern narrative, such a thing will have practical value only insofar as it brings the subterranean to the surface and makes it more available, something easier to find and from which one can drink deeply. There are now communities of people which are like desert outposts, oases built around springs where these underground currents have broken to the surface. That's the Christian task as I understand it--to increase the number of these outposts, so that eventually the wasteland might be transformed, the face of the earth renewed.
Neither the medieval narrative nor the modern narrative, no matter how much either of these habits of mind persist in our day, meet our needs. This has been true at least since the end of World War I when the West lost its confidence in the optimistic Enlightenment narrative. T.S. Eliot's great poem in 1924 announced that we had entered "The Wasteland," and that's where we still wander. We are in a period now which is neither here nor there, neither in Egypt or Canaan. The old thing is left behind; the new thing has not yet been found.
And it has become clear to me that the future of Christianity, because it does have a future, will have more to do with what is happening now out in the desert--at the periphery rather than what issues forth from the official center. For it is up to the rest of us to develop a narrative that is compelling and which orients us toward Canaan, and if we do it in a way that draws truly from the depths, the official church, whose managerial class, no matter what level of false importance they give their institution-preserving agenda, is no less thirsty than the rest of us, will sooner or later come to drink from those springs as well.