LOSING OUR (TRADITIONAL) RELIGION
The religious world I inhabited as a child and adolescent was, for good and ill, richly enchanted. You talked to God, and He listened. Many even said He spoke to them directly. God was the purpose and end of everything; the creator of the world, and the one who would bring about its end and healing transformation.
Not everyone believed in God, though. In fact, most of the world had apparently missed that boat. People were generally fallen, and given over to evil, misled by The Devil and his legions of demonic forces in a millennia-old struggle with celestial powers. Some people were so lost, in fact, that they’d actually become possessed by demons themselves! The best protection against all of that was to know and cherish God’s unique revelation, which He had spoken directly to human beings in the past, who then wrote it all down. The Bible contained it all, and in it one could find the clear answers to all of life’s challenges, since every last word of it was inspired and without error, written down with pristine accuracy by Moses himself, or by inspired Prophets like Isaiah and Daniel, who were so touched by God, in fact, they’d even been able to intuit the future! As for the stories about Jesus, they were written down by eyewitness disciples, making first-rate historical accounts of the most amazing events to ever transpire on earth: miraculous events, where the power of God could change water to wine, or exorcise those demons from the possessed, or even cause a person to come back to life after dying! True, things like that didn’t much happen anymore, which could be cause for doubt… But that was why we needed faith, and to hold fast to it no matter what—to not let The Devil tempt you away from the truth and lead you to disbelief. Because if you became an unbeliever, and died that way, you’d go to Hell, where you’d burn in torment for all of eternity for turning your back on the one true savior. Amen.
I literally believed that. I believed it, literally.
I believed it so strongly, in fact, and took to heart so intensely the existential import of it all, that I was ready to devote my entire productive life to it. If the Bible contained the ultimate truth, I wanted to know that thing in-and-out and upside-down. Who was Hezekiah? Josiah, or Zephaniah? What was their world like? What were their enigmatic texts about? What did it all mean? So I started studying it. I spent years learning Greek, and Hebrew, and threw myself into the field of biblical studies, with a fervent interest to learn the history and context of it all in the greatest depth.
As I said, though, this personal story of mine is actually just a miniature version of a much bigger tale: the story of Western Culture itself. I was just late to the game—an oblivious traditionalist holdout in what had long already become a very modern world. (A bit like Brendan Fraser’s character, actually, from that 90s movie, Blast from the Past.)
I wasn’t the first person to turn my zealous interest to studying the Bible. It didn’t take long after the scientific revolution and the dawn of modernity for people to turn scrupulous observation and analysis to Holy Scriptures. People had been applying their acute attention and meticulous observation in this way to make astonishing historical insights about Holy Texts since the 1700s. Gradually, they noted inconsistencies, leading to the recognition of different source materials, leading to entirely new theories about authorship and compositional history than those of tradition. With fastidious skill and argumentation, they could eventually prove that texts were written far later than originally thought, that the authors weren’t the people they were claiming to be, that different sources told different tales, that different narratives contradicted one another in glaring ways, and none of them were written by eyewitnesses. They showed, for instance, that the biblical texts weren’t so unique after all, that there were countless other gospels and apocalypses that most people had just never heard of simply because they weren’t canonized. They could trace the invention and evolution of what had been presumed to be timeless theological absolutes: the character and nature of God, and even the existence of The Devil himself.
By the 1800s, the story one walked away with was messy, historical, evolutionary, imprecise and imperfect, and a million miles from the neat, tidy Truth of the fundamentalism I’d known.
That old story was, from this new vantage of knowledge, actually absurdly naïve, quaint, and mythological.
From the standpoint of modernity, the traditional appears like so much silly superstition and fairy tales. The modern is disillusioned of tradition’s illusions.
GRIEVING THE LOSS OF NAÏVE TRADITIONALISM
My experience, like that of the West more generally, has been the disillusionment of traditional Christianity. But what I’m saying here applies just as well to any of the other traditional religions. Jesus didn’t turn water into wine, but neither did the Buddha leap out of his mother’s womb and proclaim he would achieve enlightenment; Mohammad didn’t fly through the air on a winged horse, and Moses didn’t part the Red Sea in two. All the great world religions arose before modernity, and so all assume a premodern worldview in their articulation of absolute truth. It took the development of modern thinking to even differentiate ideas like “natural” and “supernatural,” or “historical fact” and “poetic truth.” Subjective and objective worlds were more blurred, and “religion” itself wasn’t even a category until there were multiple “religions” to compare.
The upshot of all of this, of course, is that people today will be incredibly confused and mistaken if they hold religious stories as instances of literal, historical fact. This is both a misinterpretation and an anachronism. It is, however, the pitfall of all traditionalism, at least as it’s come to co-exist simultaneous to and interacting with the modern cultural code.
Conservative American Evangelicalism is very much an instance of the traditional cultural code operating in today’s world. So is every fundamentalism. I was born into it, but others adopt it willingly, enthusiastically. To moderns, this may seem bewildering, but it shouldn’t. The traditional cultural code much better reflects the kinds of belief proclivities and behaviors human beings have hardwired into us by nature. Modern rationality and empiricism took millennia to come online; traditionalism was what we lived in for the thousands of years before that. It just comes more naturally to us. The psyche, before having it trained out of it, is a world of myth and absolutes, of narrative meaning and human-sized stories. It is an enchanted world, full of meaning and symbol. It is a world in which supernatural forces can and do influence human affairs. It is a world where bodies have souls, and souls can be eternal.
With so clean and rosy picture as that as one’s basis, the modern narrative may indeed seem bleak, dull, and dark by comparison: a incomprehensibly vast, unguided universe of infinite space; everything just atoms in a void; the emergence of life a fluke; its evolution an unseemly narrative of “eat or be eaten”; human suffering without justification, and death, the ultimate end.
If you’ve never known the confidence and surety of traditionalism, perhaps this sounds like an overblown caricature. It isn’t. To those who’ve only known modernism and postmodernism, the most naïve and idealistic thing they can envision is modernity, with its utopian ideals and efforts in this world. But imagine literally believing you yourself will be taken up into Heaven to live forever in the eternal presence of God, in the true world beyond. No earthly utopia can match that kind of transcendental idealism. Nor can you comprehend the sense of isolation and loneliness felt when you accept that it doesn’t exist; to think that no one is looking down on you, watching out for you. Having lost this mythological sense of the world, I get it. Losing the traditional world is hard. And at first, it really, really sucks.
Welcome to disillusionment.
DISILLUSIONMENT: THE CHAOS BETWEEN WORLDS
Disillusionment is an incredibly disturbing process, so let’s talk about what it really means.
Becoming existentially disillusioned means nothing less than the collapse of your world as you know it. The pillars holding it up have fallen down. The fixed center crumbles, and everything loses its relative meaning. Your world, your cosmos, falls apart.
Such is the nature of a meaning crisis. And they are of existential importance—existential, not just in the philosophical sense, but existential as in a matter of life and death. A crisis of meaning is a dangerous thing. A religious world is like a bubble containing your oxygen on an inhospitable planet. If the bubble bursts, you’re naked before the elements. A religious world is an oasis of order carved out of a desert of chaos. A life lived outside of meaning is a fragile and precarious one indeed.
This, it seems, is a universal human trait. The affliction of meaninglessness through the breakdown of one’s meaning-giving framework has always been made, by the mind, a matter of life and death. Today, for instance, we are seeing record levels of suicide in the developed world as more and more people enter a disillusioned modern world and find it inhospitable to their tradition-shaped psyche. Scores of people, it turns out, would rather not exist than live in an existential malaise, in a nihilistic void.
The same psychological principles are at work today, in all of us. We all have the same prehistoric hardware. So when your meaning breaks down, your basis of values crumbles. Without values, you can have no motivation, no drive to act, and no ability to do one thing versus another. You become paralyzed, apathetic. Everything is pointless. You have, in short, a meaning crisis. Who cares if the world burns? Who cares if the environment goes to shit, or people in your town are living in poverty? Why care about anything? Caring is for suckers. Meaning, value—it was all an illusion.
That’s what happens when you lose your central pillar. You’ve lost your sense of the absolute, and now things exist in radical relativity to one another. You can see now that what you thought was absolute reality was in fact but a contingent world. In this way, you gain a vantage on your old work, as if looking down on it from above. Your world has been relativized, and the experience is then one of vertigo, a vertigo of nihilism. You’re swimming in the unordered realm, the unexplored territory of chaos, without a center, and thus without a basis of value. All that you knew to be value you now recognize as partial and parochial.
Hard as it may seem, though, this is the path of spiritual growth. To see more of the truth, we must first clear the slate of preconceptions, of misconceptions. To find God, one must first lose “God.” This will feel like despair, like falling into the abyss, and losing everything of value. But take heart. All is not lost. By the end, you will have gained more than what you parted with. What comes back will be refined, and more purified of illusion; because what you lost was never going to serve you anyway; it never really had.
During your deconstruction, though, it’s best not to think of such things, but to follow the process where it leads you. You cannot skip this Dark Night, or you will also skip the Dawn. You must simply do your best to integrate, in all earnestness, the truths you find in the course of your disillusionment. These must solidify before anything else.
Such is the path of spiritual growth. However, this is also the path between cultural codes. Modernity and postmodernity each offer their own forms of disillusionment and insight. With each break, we lose the surety of the past; but if we can survive the interim chaos, we can land on higher ground, with better vantage to take in more of reality.
Any metamodern spirituality worth its salt must take the lessons of modernity and postmodernity to heart before attempting to move beyond them. Religion arose in the traditional world, in the traditional cultural code. The world, however, has changed. Religion will need an update if it is to survive—and we need it to survive. As the meaning crisis shows us, something like religion and spirituality must persist if we, as a species, are to survive.
The question we must answer, then, as I said at the outset, is this: how do we preserve that pure, immediate, inspirational and motivational sense of meaning that humans once found through traditional mythology without losing or otherwise abandoning the gains of critical, reflective thought, provided so well by modern and postmodern interrogation?
Like Aeneas loading up his hearth gods and sailing off into uncharted waters, we’ll need to salvage meaning from the rubble of the traditional world and learn to inhabit some different island worlds before we can find our destination and build anew.
So let’s get disillusioned, shall we?