Metaxis is the Greek word used by Plato to describe the condition of in-betweenness that is a structural characteristic of the human condition--we humans are suspended on a web of polarities--the one and the many, eternity and time, freedom and fate, instinct and intellect, risk and safety, love and hate, to name but a few. The human being until the modern period was considered itself to be such a polarity as comprising both angel and beast, a spiritual being with transcendent aspirations and longings for eternity that ennobled him at the same time enmeshed with a troublesome, instinct-driven body that suffers and dies.
It is hard for humans to be simultaneously both angel and beast, so there is an understandable tendency for individuals to embrace one and reject the other--or to alternate having a beast phase, then an angel phase, then a beast phase, and so on. The conflict between the Angel party and Animal party has been at the heart of the culture war in America at least since the Scopes trial. The first party refusing the human's animal provenance, the second refusing its spiritual provenance.
The last burst of culture-wide affirmation of the spiritual side of the human being occurred in the late 18th early 19th century, the era of the German Idealist philosophers and English and German Romantic poets. But Romanticism marked an interesting transition in the life of the human spirit, because it was an era during which Spirit was immanentized, internalized, subjectivized--or to put it another way Spirit went underground--or yet another way, humans began to recognize that's where it had been for some time by then. Let's rehearse a little of the historical trajectory:
In response to Hume’s radical skepticism, Kant developed a philosophy in his Critique of Pure Reason, which he described as a “Copernican Revolution.” Meaning and human cognition were not something merely given as a fait accompli as the empiricists claimed, nor were they guaranteed because that’s the way God set things up, as Descartes and Berkeley asserted. Meaning was a human creation, constituted by the individual subject’s mind. The human subject was what he called the “world-constituting ego.” The extra-mental world was a jumble of raw data that needed to be deciphered and organized by the mind’s software, which he called the a priori categories. Scientific truth was guaranteed by the inherent lawfulness of the mind’s operations. If there is no mind, there is no lawfulness.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Kant’s philosophy caused an intellectual euphoria among a group of philosophers, poets, and artists, the aforementioned Idealists and Romantics. His philosophy had the effect of turning the world on its head in his emphasizing the centrality of the meaning-creating function of the human “I”. If the world-constituting ego is the source of all meaning, then the extra-mental world is no longer a constraint on human possibility. Human possibility is constrained only by the limits of the human mind’s capacity for creative thought. And so Kant’s philosophy created the conditions for what became the wildest kind of metaphysical speculation. His world-constituting ego was a huge theme in the philosophy of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel who took it much farther than Kant would ever have allowed—Kant’s philosophy was quite clear in proscribing metaphysics as beyond the scope of reason.
Nevertheless the Romantics, intoxicated with this new idea, were not to be constrained. And at this time was born a tremendous optimism that a new kind of free human being was possible. Such a being would be freed from the shackles of oppressive traditions and would with the unlimited capacity of the free human imagination create a new world. And in the middle of all this exuberance occurred the French Revolution, which Romantics and Idealists at first embraced as the world-historical movement by which this liberation would be delivered to Europe and then to all of mankind. And if their optimism was curbed by the excesses of the Terror, it was fanned back into full flame by the emergence of Napoleon, who they felt would demonstrate to the world what a world-class, world-constituting Ego could do.
By 1848, the last breath of this kind of revolutionary hope had been gasped. Reaction had set in, and a new mood quite cynical about the grandiose assertions of the Romantics took over. In the absence of any high, spiritually oriented metaphysical aspirations, the culture of the West took a very materialistic turn in light of the ideas about human origins proposed by Darwin and the human economically driven future by the progress-minded commercial- and technology-infatuated bourgeois. In a post-Darwinian world any talk of the progressive self-revelation of the Hegelian Absolute or world-constituting egos as a force driving history seemed a little nutty. All such lofty idealism evaporates when confronted with the grittier ‘scientific’ explanation offered by the Darwinians and a new breed of pragmatic materialist thinkers for whom talk about Absolutes was nonsense. The more modest claims for metaphysics elucidated by Kant were once again adopted, Western culture was left with no 'out there' anymore that was thought plausibly spiritual. If there was a spiritual dimension in reality, it had collapsed to exist exclusively within the human being, but because so many humans didn't feel particularly spiritual, and because the new science emphasized the animal origins of the human being, the spiritual dimension of the human being became at best optional in late modern and now postmodern thought.
I explore the consequences of this move in the essay I posted entitled "From Outer to Inner; From Given to Chosen", but I want to add a few thoughts here. I think that a mature Christianity has to accept that the spiritual has collapsed into the human and that this is the meaning of Incarnation which we are celebrating in a few weeks. To say this does not mean that God does not exist; it does not mean that spiritual transcendence is no longer woven into the human condition as the warp with the woof of its animal materiality. It's an apophatic movement of the mind and the imagination that brackets questions about who or what God is in Himself as the unknowable Absolute Other, and accepts that all it's fruitful to think about is who He is for us, and what we know about that was fully presented by his emptying himself into the human condition in the time between Christmas and Easter Sunday some two millenia ago.
And once one accepts that and works with it as a primary shaper of his imagination, Christianity can no longer be framed as an angelic project, about seeking eternity or worrying about extra historical-spatial dimensions of reality. I'm sure they exist, but they are irrelevant to the existential human challenges that confront us, which are exclusively concerns that must be dealt with in space and time, here and now. We are not angels; we are humans. And that means we are spiritual beings whose nature and destiny are enmeshed with the nature and destiny of the earth. Once one accepts this way of framing Christianity, it ceases to be a doctrinal head trip and becomes an existential project that is summarized in the word metaxis. And that's where the common ground between believers and nonbelievers of good will lies.
We live in a fallen world, and yet the Kingdom of God has followed us, fallen from the heavens to become embedded in the interior depths of the human soul. We all of us live in that tension of having dual citizenships, it's just that some are more aware of it than others. But those who are aware have a special duty to become peacemakers and reconcilers. But their effectiveness in such roles will largely depend on their effectiveness in managing the tension within themselves. I suspect, but need to think more about it, that this idea of metaxis is the key to understanding the Beatitudes, but more on that another time.
See also my piece on Steinbeck's East of Eden, entitled "Shrewd as Serpents Guileless as Doves."