Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Dilution Of Meaning

Book Review

Destruction of Religious Images in Zurich
Destruction of religious images in Zurich, 1524. (From the Panorama de la Renaissance.)
Source: JRB

In a book review essay (Terry Eagleton; Culture and the Death of God), in The Jewish Review of Books, Jonathan Sacks writes that in the face of post-modernism and of the decay of traditional signposts of meaning, humans will seek meaning elsewhere. Using a chemistry metaphor, many will mix together various vials of beliefs and values that are now readily and easily available in this culture of consumption. Often, there is little coherence or cohesion in the elixir, but the individual will consider it his or hers alone.

My personal experience and observations and that of others supports this assertion. All the secular 'isms are to a large degree a search for a meaningful existence, a meaningful life. Even the negation is in itself an act of individual faith, although this is not always apparent.

Sacks, the emeritus chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writes:
We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship. Eagleton’s book is a brisk, intelligent, and provocative tour of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, understood as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute. The Enlightenment found it in reason, the Idealists in the human spirit, the Romantics in nature and culture, the Marxists in revolution, and Nietzsche in the Übermensch. Others chose the nation, the state, art, the sublime, humanity, society, science, the life force, and personal relationships. None of these had entirely happy outcomes, and none was self-sustaining.

The end result was postmodernism, a systematic subversion of meaning altogether. Postmodernism is Nietzsche without the anguish, tragedy, or will to power—all the things that made Nietzsche worth reading. Now, in place of the revaluation of values, we have their devaluation. We are surrounded by choices with no reason to choose this rather than that. Postmodern consciousness, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, is “subjectivism without a subject.” Eagleton calls it “depthless, anti-tragic, non-linear, anti-numinous, non-foundational and anti-universalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority.”

The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. We are left, Eagleton writes, with “Man the Eternal Consumer.”

There the story of the search for transcendence might have ended. But then came 9/11 and the realization that religion had not gone away after all. It had just signaled its presence in the most brutal fashion. “No sooner had a thoroughly atheistic culture arrived on the scene . . . than the deity himself was suddenly back on the agenda with a vengeance.”

The real trouble—and here Eagleton is surely right—is that the West no longer has a set of beliefs that would justify its commitments to freedom and democracy. All it has left is “a mixture of pragmatism, culturalism, hedonism, relativism and anti-foundationalism,” inadequate defenses against an adversary that believes in “absolute truths, coherent identities and solid foundations.” The West has, intellectually speaking, “unilaterally disarmed at just the point where it has proved most perilous for it to do so.” Eagleton regards this as an irony, but it is not. It is precisely the West’s loss of faith that made it seem vulnerable to its opponents. It is mostly the failure of postmodernism to speak to the most fundamental aspects of the human condition that has driven those in search of meaning and consolation into the hands of the anti-modernists for whom freedom and democracy are not values at all.
The worrisome sign is that as atheism gains a greater hold in the west, so will fundamentalism and extremism in this century, often of a violent nature; we are now witnessing the beginning of this trend of the emergence and dominance of pre-modern, or anti-modern. faith:.

Sacks writes:
The occupational hazard of monotheism is dualism: the division of humanity into the children of light and the children of darkness, the redeemed and the infidel. The result is that in the 21st century we will face a world of increasing religiosity of the most unreconstructed, pre-modern kind, whose devotees believe themselves to be commanded to convert or conquer the world. Too little has been done within the faith traditions themselves to make space for the kind of diversity with which we will have to live if humankind is to have a future. As religious groups turn inward under the impact of aggressive secularism, all that will be left will be the extremes.
If we value our democratic culture and civilization we ought not to take any delight in the increase of extremism, wherever and however it rears its head. Ridding the world of religion, if it were at all possible, is no solution to humanity's problems. As I have argued many times, the long history of religion has helped shape humanity and confers meaning to many of the peoples with whom we share our planet; the problem, so to speak, are extremists who have politicized and simplified religion without any hint of understanding its deeper more profound meanings and the search for transcendence. Sacks' article title is right on the mark: "Nostalgia for the Numinous."

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You can read the rest of the article at [JRB]

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