What we all want is life, and this discussion about living vs. zombie traditionalism is really a discussion about how culture helps us to live or gets in the way of our living well. A vibrant culture is one in which people are alive--deeply, richly alive. Not just physically healthy, but alive in the soul, and alive in the spirit. Is zombie traditionalism alive? Well kind of, if being undead is a kind of being alive. But none of us looks at that as the real thing, the kind of life that we most deeply long for.
Anybody who has traveled in a third-world country knows that the people there are alive in a way that people who live in modern, secular societies are not, despite the poverty most of them live in. On the physical level they are poor, but on the soul level they are rich. There is something in their not-yet modern culture that animates and ensouls them in a way that we moderns and postmoderns no longer experience. It's this impoverishment of soul that most characterizes modern societies, and our having soul or lacking soul is not something that is an individual psychological characteristic; it's a culture-wide characteristic with individual variations.
Spirit is not the same as soul. You can be poor on both the physical and soul levels and still be spiritually rich. I've been fortunate enough to meet some rare individuals whose saintliness directly correlated with an asceticism of body and soul. Asceticism is the willful deprivation of life on the physical and soul levels in order to be radically open to the spiritual. Certain rare individuals can choose it as their life's commitment. And I would also say that the rest of us have times during our life when we need to dry out, so to speak, and a temporary asceticism is healthful in such situations. In other words, I think asceticism has its place, but it's not something you can build a culture around.
Attempts to do so are almost always humanly disastrous. There is a certain type of pinched Christianity that has assumed that the ascetic model as socially normative for the culture at large, that your success as a human being is somehow linked to your poverty on the physical and soul levels. The kind of joyless Puritanism that prohibits dancing, alcohol, and frivolity of any sort is a form of misplaced asceticism. And enforced celibacy among Catholics is another.
I'm not against celibacy. I've known lots of people who have amply demonstrated that a well-lived celibate life is possible, but there is a tendency within Catholicism that is rooted in this idealization of asceticism that really values celibacy as the higher and more deeply spiritual calling, and that's just nuts. And it's this tendency that I'm convinced is at the root of the Church's resistance to married priests. There is no better example of zombie traditionalism in action than the attitude for many conservative Catholics who would look at married priests, if there ever were any, as inferior. No one would say that the Eastern Orthodox Churches lack spiritual seriousness, and yet they've figured this out. Celibacy should be an option that people called to it can choose as a special vocation within the orders--but the Church's refusal to budge on this with regard to the priests in parish ministry is as out of touch with the reality on the ground as Bush's policies in Iraq have been. It is the product of the kind of bubble thinking that might have some idealism in it, but has no soul life. It's obtuse on the level of soul.
But most of us are obtuse in matters of the soul. That's our dilemma. I for one don't claim any special soul qualities. I'm about as dull-souled as they come. But I think I understand the nature of the problem, and that saves me from utter obtuseness, and shedding one's obtuseness is the first step toward developing an effective solution. Because the traditionalist solution which tends toward an unbalanced spirituality is not a solution. The secularist postmodern solution, which since Freud tends toward a celebration of the instinctual life, is not a solution.
Our instinctual life and our spiritual life are two components in what make us human, but they live in an uncomfortable tension with one another. We are neither animals nor angels,we are humans, and that means that who we are is woven out of the angel and animal parts of our being. And the place where that weaving takes place is the soul. And this weaving, I believe, is at the heart of what the human task is, and it is a redemptive task.
Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death does one of the best jobs I know of in describing this awful tension between the spiritual and the instinctual in the human being. This has always been true for human beings, but for historically peculiar reasons, we postmoderns suffer the tension with particular intensity at this time because we are afflicted by Missing Middle Syndrome--we're all head and genitals, intellect and instinct, and and are impoverished when it comes to the middle, connecting element, which is soul. This is the price we have paid for being modern--the drying up of the middle.
I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, so long as it is understood as a transitional stage, a temporary wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. Because now soul is no longer given to us as our birth right as it is in premodern traditional cultures; it's something we have to create or weave out of the materials given to us from our spiritual and instinctual lives.
This is for me the most important thing to understand, and in my view it's the central cultural task for the coming century. This kind of thing is being done all around us without our recognizing it for what it is. My goal here is not to promote a program, but to understand what's going on, and in this I am influenced here by Owen Barfield, whose short book Saving the Appearances had an enormous impact on me early on, to a point where I don't know how much of my thinking is his and how much is mine. It was one of those books that when I read it it's as if he was telling me something I already knew. And I have read no more plausible explanation for our current crisis of soul, nor one that is more hopeful about pointing a direction toward its resolution.