• Brendan Graham Dempsey

Metamodern Spirituality and the Meaning Crisis

We live in a world reeling from multiples crises: ecological, political, economic, social. We call this the “meta-crisis.” But there’s another one, what John Vervaeke has dubbed “the meaning crisis,” which I believe undergirds them all, providing this “meta-crisis” its fuel and its inertia.

We live in a meaning crisis, a crisis of meaning at the collective level, which both exacerbates the causes of the meta-crisis while simultaneously keeping us from the kind of cohesive, purposeful vision we might summon to respond to it.

Naïve fundamentalist sureties, and despairing nihilistic apathies everywhere thwart some genuine progress towards regaining our footing in flourishing. Both are direct consequences of the meaning crisis, representing either a reactionary retreat into the secure domain of traditionalism, or the unmoored fall into the abyss of postmodern relativism. Each, in their own way, only adds fuel to the fire of a burning world. It’s my conviction then that, to solve the meta-crisis, we must first solve the meaning crisis. We must get ourselves right with purpose if we’re to survive an Anthropocene era.

To use the language of systems analysis, we must find the ‘leverage points’ for systems-level change. In a complex socio-political system, such an Archimedean Point is to be found, I believe, in people’s beliefs, their psychic orientations to reality, their foundational philosophies and unspoken axioms about the world. An intervention at this fundamental level for individuals can have vast, cascading effects on the larger systems they inhabit.

Thus, if we are to, as the metamodernists winkingly say, “save the world,” we will need to articulate a form of meaning that works again. We will need efficacious meaning to spread, virally, memetically propagating in organic, bottom-up renewal. But, to do this, we must first re-construct meaning after it’s been so precipitously deconstructed.

As it happens, this is the project I’ve been engaged in for the better part of a decade now.

I had no choice.

For me, it was personal.

The meaning crisis is a cultural crisis—in fact, a civilization crisis—and yet, if it doesn’t sound too strange to say, it’s also something I’ve experienced directly.

What I mean is this: Collectively, our current societal confusion has come about as the result of the breakdown of effective meaning-making in both of the principal cultural codes we’ve historically used to make sense of the world. First, traditional religion succumbed to modernity’s rationalism and empiricism. Then, the promised Progress Myth of modernity faltered, showing itself in need of radical revision.

For me, this progressive disillusionment occurred at the individual level, within my own biography: a bit of a rare feat these days, actually, since not many will have had the opportunity to know all-out mythic traditionalism from the inside—even if only to lose it. It’s rare, I say, because to maintain that level of premodern naivete these days, you’ve got to be well-cordoned off from the rest of the world, in a subculture dogmatically committed to maintaining its own worldview in spite of everything, with well-enforced blinders on and a fierce in-group/out-group dynamic. As it happens, that’s exactly what conservative American Evangelicalism has excelled at. It takes a background like that, or a similar bastion of premodern hold-outs—be it Amish, Ultra-Orthodox, what have you—to know, phenomenologically, what it’s actually like to lose a naïvely-held mythological cosmos.

Such was the cosmos I was born into, and from which I’ve emigrated in search of a meaning that still works. What I’m about to say then comes from the vantage of one who’s traversed a number of different cultural codes, and experienced—directly, psychologically—their sequential dis-solutions and dis-illusionments. In fact, the very idea that individual psychological development and cultural code progression can and do map onto one another was one thing that intuitively made sense to me about development stage models like Integral Theory, Spiral Dynamics, and Hanzi’s “effective value memes.” The cultural is personal.

Having experienced this progression internally, at the individual level, offers some perspective, I think, on what’s happening to society in general right now. When I look around me, I see this disillusionment sweeping generations of people, as well as the scared, reflexive recoil away from it. I see the breakdown of sensemaking, nihilism, and apathy…as well as entrenchment in fundamentalisms; the proliferation of reactionary ideologies promising a return to an older, simpler way of life; and head-in-the-sand New Age woo boasting its own sort of naivete. In short, I see the same meaning crisis underway, but now writ large, and playing out at the cultural scale—a meaning crisis, in fact, only now reaching its apogee after unfolding over the course of centuries.

And so I wondered: Could the path I found for personally getting myself out of vertigo and nihilism, beyond the temptations of reactionary solutions, and to a place of constructive spirituality be of use to the culture more broadly?

For meaning is necessary, absolutely necessary, for human beings. If individuals lose a sense of meaning, the society they comprise will likewise unravel. This is, I believe, precisely what is happening. The death of God, long ago pronounced by Nietzsche, is finally being realized by the rest of us. The shadow of God has finally dimmed. And everywhere, people are waking up to a world they don’t know how to live in, how to make sense of, how to make meaningful.

As an increasingly complex world has occasioned the collapse of both traditional religion and modernity (what Jamie Wheal calls “Meaning 1.0 and 2.0, respectively), it is absolutely vital that we get to reconstructing a new working spiritual framework for human society—what Wheal calls Meaning 3.0, and what I am thinking of as metamodern spirituality.

Broadly speaking, that’s the goal.

To achieve it, we’ll need to answer a dauntingly difficult question: 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? This to me seems to be of the utmost importance, because getting this equation wrong has occasioned so much of the sense-making and meaning-making breakdown we see proliferating all around us, and which continues to threaten the very continuance of human civilization on this planet. By getting it right, it’s possible, I think, to reclaim a sense of meaning that works in this prehistoric hardware while maintaining the kind of complexity of thought and awareness we’ll need to navigate an increasingly complex future.

It’s been my effort, born of direct struggle with the insights of the successive cultural codes—traditional, modern, postmodern—to find my way to a meaning that still stands after so much critical reflection, and stands tall. To find a meaning as psychologically fulfilling as traditionalist mythology, as accurate and dependable as modern science, and as social-contextually aware as postmodern critique. Such a paradigm strikes me as the natural end of a distinctly metamodern spirituality, a framework for exploring our ultimate concerns as humans in a new religious imaginary at home in the 21st century.

To get there, though, requires making some hard-won developmental gains, at both the individual and collective levels. It requires authentically learning and integrating the key insights of the various cultural codes, and navigating their successive layers towards a broader, more holistic vision.

Such development, however, is inherently difficult, because to do so means intentionally pursuing and embracing a direct assault on whatever your current paradigm is. It means willfully subjecting your most cherished preconceptions and existential axioms to a thoroughgoing scrutiny. It means a voluntary sacrifice of your sacred cows on the altar of personal growth. It means coming to recognize the degree to which what you take to be absolute is actually only partial, and that what you thought was ultimate reality was actually an illusion.


One of the reasons I think this has been so hard to achieve in the domain of spirituality, and thus why religion and spirituality have remained so regressive for so long, is because the process of disillusionment required for such growth is not itself recognized as a spiritual practice.

To the traditionalist, to become disillusioned is to “lose the faith,” to “backslide,” to turn apostate, become an unbeliever. It is perceived as the very negation of religion, not its salutary path or development towards a higher stage.

Those pushing the disillusionment narratives from the other side seem only too eager to confirm this fear. The secularization theory in general, and the New Atheists in particular, pronounce loudly and unflinchingly the notion that spirituality itself is simply a childish superstition whose days are numbered. To become disenchanted is simply to grow up, and thus wake up to the hard truths of reality: which is to say, Godless materialism, period. Full stop. Goodbye God, hello unguided and mechanistic universe.

This framing, presumed by theists and atheists alike, ultimately proves counter-productive I think. Understandably wary of such prospects, disillusionment from the standpoint of tradition becomes simply “The Devil’s work.” To abandon the inherited myth as given is, it would seem, to abandon any possibility of God, spirit, or religious community. Looking around at the growing nihilism and advancing meaning crisis, it’s not hard to see why many take a hard pass on that ticket to apparent nowhere.

What I’m arguing for here is different. Yes, disillusionment is necessary: not to lose our spirituality—but to deepen it, strengthen it, refine it. Proper disillusionment does not ineluctably entail the destruction of religion, but rather its development, its maturation, its improvement.

If traditionalists could hear this, and believe it, perhaps more would embark on the difficult but deeply rewarding spiritual path out of naïve literalism, confident in knowing that it is not to destroy your God that I say these things, but to better reveal God. To remove some of the veils, that we may better know Spirit—less as we have imposed upon it, and more as it is, or might be.

NEXT: Deconstructing Religion

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