Modernity is, among other things, the story of the gradual shriveling up of that sense of the “sacred” as a given in human experience. The common name used to describe this story is secularization, but that word only scratches the surface of the significance of what has happened to us in the last five hundred years. My goal here is not to lament what we have lost. The social conservatives’ are naive if they think we can find a way to go back to an earlier form of consciousness just by reintroducing sacred talk into our public practice. I will make an argument elsewhere that we are moving into a post-secular era, and this movement into the future will require the retrieval of much from the premodern era that was jettisoned during the Modern Age. Retrieval and nostalgia are not the same thing.
But the conservative program is essentially nostalgic, and its strategies that focus on prayer in schools or other religious practices in public places will not solve the problem. Such strategies derive from a significant underestimation of how deeply secularized we have become. Yes, surely, our public institutions and political discourse have become profoundly secularized, but even more significant has been the degree to which our cognitive/perceptual capacity has become secularized as well. Secularization has affected not just our institutions and public discourse, but also the very way we experience the world. It affects what we see or don’t see in nature, in other people, in the everyday world that surrounds us in our homes and workplaces. Our public, secular language is an honest reflection of our secular experience. Just changing the language won’t change the experience. The cultural shift into a post-secular idiom is already underway. But we need first to understand where we are and how we got here.
It has often been noted that we Moderns in the West have developed what is fundamentally a mechanomorphic imagination of reality. The world has lost its numinous quality, its ability to enchant. We see it now as a big machine—as something interesting and complex and full of unanswered questions about how it works, but we have a very hard time thinking about it in terms other than as something machine-like. And in some quarters of the culture there is serious talk about how the human being is evolving into something evermore machinelike. We see this reflected particularly in contemporary film. Cyborgs are everywhere.
But we moderns also believe that our mechanomorphic view of the world is an accurate reflection of the way it really is. Any talk, for instance, that suggests that the earth is our Mother, as has become popular in New Age and ecological circles, seems dotty and overly sentimental. And yet for people in an earlier age, this was their reality. That the earth was a godlike being was as obvious to them as the law of gravity is to us. The gods and goddesses were everywhere inhabiting and animating the streams and forests and mountains, and the modern sensibility finds it impossible to believe this experience of the world was ever anything more than the product of the over-fertile imaginations of a primitive people still living in a dreamworld. For moderns this is the mentality of children who have not yet awakened to the way things really are—the way the enlightened, rational modern sees them. But maybe the truth is that moderns have fallen asleep to a world that premoderns were awake in. We are hyper-aware of things and the mechanics of things, but oblivious of the kind of spiritual activity that permeates things and gives them their life.
So to say that meaning has collapsed does not of course mean that there is no meaning; it is simply to recognize that the public world into which we have been socialized has been stripped of any possibility of there being sacred meanings. All that is left to us are the husks of things, and when we look at these husks we see only their physicality, and so our questions about them become limited to their mechanics and how they work. And so one is left with the world as a machine, and if one asks what this machine is for, the only answer that makes sense is for our economic and entertainment uses. In such a world, what is there to hope for but better bread and better circuses?
The old religious answers to that question have come to seem incredible because the language in which they were developed was steeped in an experience of the world in which the sacred was a part of everyone’s common experience. If for moderns it doesn’t make sense to talk about the spirits who animate nature, how can it make sense to talk about the sacraments, or transubstantiation, or apparitions, or the communion of saints? These words are labels for experiences common to the premodern consciousness. To use such language meaningfully assumes a kind of everyday experience of the sacred and of a sense of intimate connection with mostly invisible worlds. In a world that moderns have come to experience everyday as a machine, such language just doesn’t work. It’s too much at odds with our ordinary understanding of how things are.
And so as the sense for the sacred as a common experience diminished during the modern era, so did meaning. Surely people find ways to give their lives meaning; but these meanings have no robust transcendent reference or validation. Meaning as something given from out there has progressively diminished over the last five hundred years. Meaning has become more and more what we make it. We live in a Potemkin village of "public" meanings, for what lies behind them is simply the void. Meaning is not "given" out there; meaning is what we project into the world from within. This is now a commonplace idea with which every Freshman in college is familiar. It's at the heart of what conservatives object to when they talk about moral relativism. But conservatives do not offer a way forward; their only answer is to look backward with nostalgia to a time when things were less "relative," when what was given by tradition was accepted without question.
This is why, in my opinion, Nietzsche is the eye of the needle through which any way forward must pass. He didn’t persuade the culture that human existence was essentially absurd. He simply saw with greater clarity than most others what had happened in the West, and drew out the logical consequences. I see him much as I described Gregory House in my Purgatorio Man post several weeks ago. He strips us of our illusions, and requires that if we are to move forward honestly we must do so on terms that are chosen in freedom, not given by tradition.
His absurdist metaphysical narrative is an articulation of our era's dark night of the soul, a dark night through which we must all pass if we are to mature spiritually. The mother's milk of tradition is no longer proferred. We have to stand on our own. Nietzsche's was such an attempt to walk in freedom--a failed attempt, but a noble one nevertheless. His is not by any means the last word, but it is a word that must be heard and absorbed if we are to find an honest way forward.
Nietzsche was nauseated by the modern experience and by the kind of soulless human being it was creating. A part of him was the nostalgic conservative classics scholar who wanted things to go back to the way they were in a Golden Age. But for him the world of public given meaning as it had been defined by the Christian West no longer made sense. And so now humans had two choices that led to false consciousness: either to continue in religious beliefs that simply could not be held by anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty; or to revert to Last-Man, bread-and-and-circus meanings.
He thought both were forms of slavishness insofar as they were founded on a fundamental gesture of the soul toward unfreedom. He recognized that there are no possibilities for transcendence within the closed circle of the world as he felt any intellectually honest person had to see it. But he insisted that even in a world that was metaphysically meaningless, the human being nevertheless had to find a way to aspire to be something “more.” The human being is hardwired for transcendence, whether we like it or not. But toward what does that transcending point?
He saw as his philosophical task to find a way to affirm that in a world where nothing is given to him—in a world where all a human being has is his own freedom and will and the inner resources of his soul—to achieve nobility by self-overcoming. If there is no transcendence out there, then transcendence is something that one must find within. And so “self-transcending” becomes its own goal. There is no heaven or future afterlife reward of any sort. The human being’s dignity and nobility lie in his refusal of such fantasies and in refusing to surrender to any meanings except those of his own making. Such a human being he called the uebermensch, translated sometimes as the ‘superman’, but more accurately as the ‘overman’. But really what he meant was the ‘overcoming man’.
I think Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the problem was essentially correct; and his solution, while it had a tremendous cultural impact during the twentieth century for good and ill, points to a truth about human nature and human aspiration that is only part of the story. The human being is truly an “overcoming man,” and I would agree with Nietzsche and his disciple Sartre that the deepest dignity of the human being lies in his unconditional freedom, and I would agree that the assertion of this freedom is at the heart of what makes the human being in his thinking and in his willing the remarkable and unique creature that he is. But the human being is in fact so much more. And the absurdist narrative central to the Nietzschean metaphysics is not the only one in which such an affirmation of radical human freedom is possible. There is also a Christian possibility.