OF BREAKDOWN, EMPTINESS, AND RENEWAL – Understanding our Complex Cultural Present

by Stephen A. Erickson and Pauline Erickson-Rulf

We live in a time of dramatically altering economic, cultural as well as spiritual landscapes. In short, we live in a time of disruption. Just when nations in the so-called “developed world,” such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and Western Europe were congratulating themselves on having reached a reasonably sustainable level of security and prosperity, smaller and larger tremors began to shake the foundations of what had been believed to be very solid economic support systems. Pensions, social security, free education, unemployment benefits, and a variety of health care provisions had helped to build stabilizing social, political and cultural safety nets, and life in general was seen as a continual uplifting spiral. Future generations, it was believed, would thus be aided and guided by the strong foundations already laid.

But even and especially today, shocks and aftershocks emerging from unexpected places such as government institutions, world banks, Wall Street, terrorist organizations, and natural disasters are threatening the very values of what has guided our ways of life for centuries. These seismic occurrences may finally dislodge the pillars of our “Western Civilization” and with them the aspirations of an emerging yet still fragile global world order. They could also damage the human spirit itself, and do so irretrievably.

We have no guarantee that humanity as we have known it over these last few millennia will survive in its current form or that it will survive at all. Our historical humanity, the way we understand ourselves, has been largely shaped by the ways in which we have interacted with each other as well as with nature, in times of peace and in times of war. These interactions have heavily influenced our belief systems, our values, our needs and sometimes even just our “wants.” But these “modes of human being” – and thus modes of being human – might be coming to some kind of crisis and eventually even to forms of termination. Our established way of human interaction may well be reaching some kind of end stage, consumed by destructive and intensifying disasters never seen before, not in numbers and not in their complex global interrelations.

Our human predicament, something discussed and philosophized about since the beginning of human existence, has become even more precarious in our present time. For the first time in our history, environmental and territorial problems can no longer be compartmentalized and have become increasingly more globalized because of diminishing resources and a seemingly unstoppable global population explosion. The ultimate survival of our species will involve a number of battles that will be hard and desperately fought and, most likely, will follow an ugly trajectory. We wish it could be otherwise. Unfortunately human history has taught us that the peaceful division of available resources is not the way it will go. It never has and it most likely never will.

We should therefore immediately note that this set of circumstances and their frightening possibilities are not new in human history. Our journey through time has frequently suffered traumatic interruptions and has never been underwritten by unassailable guarantees of stability, prosperity, happiness or fulfillment. No, as a matter of fact, there have been many historical moments in the course of our human history when rapid disintegration and breakdown crumbled the foundations of our human existence and were not immediately followed by clear solutions and rapidly available open roads to renewal.

One such destructive time occurred shortly after the Protestant revolution in Europe when horrendous religious wars followed the breakdown of the Catholic hold on European society. Economic conditions became increasingly grave. Societies found themselves torn apart and then proceeded to tear themselves apart even further in a desperate attempt to reestablish some semblance of order. Many thought that some ‘end of time’ had been reached and that safety and stability would probably never return and that the quality of human life would only disintegrate further. A sense of helplessness pervaded this era and various intensely vicious conflicts only spread the sense of hopelessness and futility to more and more areas of human life and interaction. Had there been an officially proclaimed ‘war on terror’ during this period, it would have been said that terror, its sources frighteningly diverse, was winning.

At other times, a breakdown of established norms and societal structures has gone hand in hand with major and rather rapid transformations in outlook. One generation, usually though not always an older one, would suddenly feel left behind and out of touch with the world it had been inhabiting, as if their grasp on a certain understanding of their world seemed to be vanishing. In contrast, an alternate generation, no longer relying on the past for guidance, had already begun to forge new and different orientations by which to recognize and assess what might become the important building blocks of “their” time.

In transitional circumstances such as these, different perceptions and skills first struggle to emerge and openly clash with the more established modes of living. But then these new and untested ways traditionally overpower and then break down the older frameworks and radically restructure the underlying understanding and value system of what makes human life both meaningful and rewarding.

Sometimes, of course, such new ways have utterly failed. Dark ages filled with tyranny, hunger and despair have blighted our world more than once. Failures aside, however, successor outlooks and shifts in values have continued to emerge over the course of human history, even though they have not necessarily constituted an unqualified improvement over what has been left behind. Major transformations, even for the so-called “good,” have often carried negatives within them. And it is such negative factors that make times like ours so perilous and uncertain. The arrival of the locomotive, the automobile, and then the airplane, for example – and with it the accelerating need for sources of energy – have made transportation much more rapid and convenient. At the same time, the environment has been blighted, roads and cities have become congested, and the air, water and soil have become irreparably poisoned. Competition for energy resources worldwide may soon take the form of open conflict. In the midst of this evolving set of circumstances the atmosphere perceptibly darkens, glaciers melt, waters are polluted, much of the world’s population seeks emigration to more hospitable territories, and food supplies are more urgently sought and precariously retained. This is but one example of positive advance (in this case supplies and modes in transportation) harboring negative (in this case environmental and territorial) consequences.

Today the internet is most definitely one of such new building blocks. How it evolves and transforms modern life will have unpredictable, yet decisive consequences for our understanding of ourselves and, thus, for the way we construe our future as human beings. Still early in its developmental impact on human life, but especially taking note of its enormous transformational force, the internet and the computer age in general are likely to transform our understanding of ourselves as human beings far more in the next few decades than anything that has occurred within the last thousand years. A key feature of our time, brought about by the internet, we believe, is the exponential acceleration of everything around us. Information is exchanged with a speed never before thought possible and the overwhelming flow of information can be enlightening but also be damaging. It will be years before we will be able to understand more clearly where the information age is leading us. But in the meantime, unexpected changes as a result of uncontrollable innovative experimentations are leaving their stamp on the human spirit.

Each time a breakdown in our human history has occurred, it has created an empty space, a seeming void, in which fear and uncertainty have ruled. At the time of this writing, the turmoil and rapid shifts that are taking place in the Middle East as well as in our inner cities are a clear example of confusion and conflict that is masking a looming vacuum, in this case a geopolitical one. What is subsequently encountered or forged in empty spaces such as these is of decisive importance, for any newly emerging “realities,” however dimly perceived, will constitute the building blocks of any possible future with all its particular perils, stumbling blocks, and promise.

And what if the obscurely threatening void is not confined to a particular typology (geopolitical) and region (the Middle East)? What if it is more encompassing and in a metaphorical sense “global”? Increasingly this is emerging as one of the insistent, if yet largely unspoken questions of our time. It is toward a helpful conceptualization of this dreadful question, of the possibility of a deepening void, that our efforts in this book are directed.

One of the common features demarcating the onset of a period of disintegration, breakdown, and subsequent change is a marked and accelerating disillusionment with existing political, religious, financial, and cultural institutions. We come to believe that their actual as opposed to feigned concern for us is meager and that our stake in them is therefore largely destructive to us and best kept small. Confidence in the viability and effectiveness of these institutions is generally lost, and the genuineness of their expressed concern to respond to the needs of those who they were designed to serve comes radically into question. We only have to think of recent Wall Street irresponsibility and corruption to understand how rapidly erosions in confidence and trust have occurred over just the last few years.

This, in turn, spurns opposition to the forms of governance that are in place, whatever they may be. Though such discontent finds its expression mostly in agitated discussions or sullen apathy, it can also result in violent demonstrations or even open conflict of various sorts, military, economic or cultural. Serious social unrest is a constant possibility. We know, for example, from writings stemming from times as distant as Plato’s that disruptions in the established social make-up of a society, job loss, income disparity and chaos are closely correlated. Unfortunately ours is decidedly an era of just such vast and increasing distances between the well-to-do and the poor, the “haves” and the “have-nots,” not only in the United States, but also in Europe and throughout most of the world.

At such precarious historical moments, and we are clearly living through just such a period in our new century, the world’s multiple power centers, however much at odds and in conflict with each other and at odds with themselves, take on lives of their own. They seem to operate in independence, not only of each other but of the experienced sensitivities and circumstances of the people they allegedly serve. Paradoxically, these power centers are also out of the control of those ruling individuals found at the heart of them. That this is just the way the system works and that little can be done to change it, is a statement one often hears coming from the pinnacle of an organized and sanctioned power elite. Infamously, a major Wall Street executive said of an obviously destructive and disreputable set of financial practices, ones that would all too soon bring about massive bankruptcies and foreclosures, that while the “dance” lasted his firm would certainly continue to dance. In this particular case, however, in the wake of which we will be living for a very long time, not only were the dancers affected, including this CEO’s own firm, but severe and perhaps irretrievably damage was done to the dance floor itself.

In simple terms, “things” no longer add up, increasingly fall apart, and are less and less helpful to the wider community from which they originated and which they are supposed to aid and support.

As a consequence, and in intensifying ways in our time, growing numbers of individuals are coming to experience their lives as no longer on solid ground as if, in an often elusive and not easily comprehended sense, the familiarity and stability of their existence were slipping away. More and more people feel lost and left behind in ways that anger and bewilder them, whether this involves finance, the internet, or something deeper, more inchoate and thus less amenable to understanding and communication.

Such people not only experience their lives as no longer fulfilling, but as infiltrated by a sense of emptiness, as if some deeper meaning, one that fueled passions and devotion, was gradually disappearing. If asked, it probably would be hard to state very clearly what that deeper meaning actually is, but these people do feel that something important is departing from their lives. We will come back to this point later, but the rapid growth of “direct-experience” Pentecostal churches, for example, might well be a response to this felt need to recover some lost meaning and so may the urge to dwell for hours on the internet or before television sets where access to “live” experiences and events are easily and continuously provided.

Recently, and quite tragically, what has also gone missing for many is financial stability and comfortable, middle of the spectrum security. Part of the problem any thoughtful person faces is to determine what to say exactly about the value of money, beyond the obvious. After the Great Depression and before about 2008 it was for most an important but not an all-consuming focus of everyday living. Of course people always thought about money and wanted more and there were always arguments over its distribution within a society. And there will always be impoverished people. But there are other dimensions involved with respect to money as well.

During and after 2008, for example, people have had less time to reflect on matters of the human spirit that transcend everyday economic concerns. Other, more pressing matters such as paying the mortgage and feeding the family have pushed matters of the spirit and philosophical considerations further into the background. Such overarching reflections have become a luxury of sort. This is not to claim that spiritual reflections were very prevalent before 2008, but worries regarding financial survival – fears of not being able to “make” it – have come to occupy more and more of our attention.

This is not to say that religion itself is on the way out. No, probably one can even see an increase in religious-oriented places of gathering during bad times. But the focus of attention in these gatherings is most likely not so much spiritual as political. As the spiritual begins to depart, its energies are funneled through more overtly political channels, engendering more and more anger and frustration over the circumstances of our times. The recent emergence of the Tea Party movement is a clear example of this. Just as concerns about terrorism did become a tragic passageway to serious reflection about our society and culture after 9/11, it is money, or the lack of it, that now is becoming the springboard for reflection on the future of our society. The spirit can wait.

Still, there is also clear evidence that “bad times” are better for spiritual seriousness and good times worse. A classical example of this point of view is already found in the Hebrew Bible. Things go well for the Israelites and God gets ignored. Only afflictions and the resulting misery can turn the Israelites back to God. Even before stock exchanges arose, spiritual life still thrived in poor communities all over the world. East-European literature delved deeply into the human spirit during communistic time, but now has lost its urgency to do so.

However, it is not clear that what we have described is quite the case in the significantly secular time of our present – at least not in what we still call the West: Europe and the United States. So what has changed?

Perhaps for many, and maybe unconsciously so, the comforting knowledge of a secure retirement had replaced the worry over a life in the hereafter. If spiritual “health” has any remaining core meaning, it surely includes very centrally medicine and finance, and not acceptance in some morally just heaven. The underlying intuition might be that there is but one life to live and its best outcome is a long, prosperous and healthy retirement phase for this life. For such an end-of-life “bliss” few things are more crucial than the accumulation of money.

We may thus be facing a rather complex paradox: in “post-2008” (the era of an interwoven destabilization of financial systems), we are living in more searching and spiritual times, but only because spirituality is increasingly fused with politics and money.  In this regard we are reminded of the accumulations of personal wealth by a variety of recently emerged mega-church ministers as well as their direct influence on political life. For the more traditional religious mind of the West this circumstance would initially be nearly unthinkable, even though the Roman Catholic Church always mirrored a mixed image of self-effacing poor monks and chastised nuns next to rich and powerful cardinals and the Pope. Surely, in medieval and Renaissance times the religious and the political were strongly fused. But in our modern age we were supposed to be free of this religious influence on political life. We in the West believe ourselves to be governed by laws that specifically separate the powers of the Church and the State. Increasingly, however, God and “Mammon,” are again worshipped in the same breath. The financial climate (and as a consequence the political one as well) has been deteriorating to such a degree that many feel that to solve our immediate financial and political problems “only a god can help us.” Thus, when the “Kingdom of Heaven” becomes little more than a financially secure and prosperous extension of the world of Mammon, the choice between the two “worlds” dissolves.

It has become difficult to convince people that a chronic concern over money, effectively catered to and enhanced by the financial press, is a misplaced focus and that underlying feelings of emptiness cannot be solved by a filled wallet. Of course the easy availability of money has many positives. It quiets nagging worries that can fill the mind to overflowing, leaving no space for contentment or fulfillment. Money alone surely has the power to free the mind of these earthly worries, and our self-possessed and ideologically indifferent secularism is surely proof of such a prevailing focus.

In today’s society, two challenges stand in the way for those who would make the case for a more spiritual deepening and a true spiritual vocation. One is quite longstanding, viz., finding a convincing enough way to overcome the belief that an emptiness within can actually be filled by worldly possessions, and, thereby, obtaining the insight that the focus on wealth might be a real and underlying impediment to spiritual growth. Secondly, and more recently, it has become especially challenging to argue persuasively that emptiness could have a meaning reasonably described as transcending the financial, especially now that we live in the face of bankruptcy, foreclosure, joblessness, poverty, and their oppressive variants and consequences.

Before we set out to exam further present trends regarding belief, emptiness, our human future, and whatever else is needed to get a better understanding of our present time, a brief word about prayer.

Naturally, as is easily documented and readily observed, people pray a great deal when times are bad. Prayer is typically employed to petition that times will get better. Prayer is often characterized as being compensatory as well. Having no hopeful prospects in this life, the sincerely pious may focus on inner feelings or on rewards to come later in another realm or, less generously, that various worldly tormentors, those held responsible for upset or unhappiness, might suffer now or in the hereafter.

It is not surprising that from this a certain “fundamentalist” way of thinking has emerged anew and is gaining strength in our society and throughout large portions of the world. Many believe that if we pray hard enough, and if we could just go back to how things were – if we just could do away with all the new thinking and those sometimes “scandalous” ways of living – everything would be made right again.

Fundamentalist thinking, in whichever of its many forms, is not likely to prove helpful, however. It actually might make things worse. This is because the contentment of a society and the conviction that there is a deep and reliable meaning to human life actually finds its origins and sources of sustenance elsewhere. These origins and sources are not exclusive to one particular religion, nor exclusive to one specific form of government, and neither are they exclusive to a certain family structure. It is this somewhat ancient and underlying origin of our various understandings of personal fulfillment and happiness, as well as some reflections on its various misinterpretations and limitations, that this book is about.

We do not have specific answers to offer, and certainly won’t prescribe a “certain way.” All we hope to do is to explore and better understand what constitutes and makes a human culture fulfilling, what opens the road to the possibility of such a flourishing culture, and what almost invariably tends to shut a nurturing culture down. In any case, successful or not, our musings will hopefully contribute something important to the debate regarding our current historical situation. For only through a better understanding of our human situation will we be able to deal with the upheaval of our own uncertain times and forge the necessary building blocks for a happier future.

THE AXIAL MENTALITY AND LIFE’S MEANING

Before we proceed further with our explorations and excavations of the present, we need to look closely at the overarching belief system that has shaped our Western world and has served to validate the core dimensions of our historical human existence. It is by no means confined to the West, though most of our discussions will draw its examples from Western material.

The belief system that has shaped us could be labeled axial thinking and its orientation has provided much of Western humanity with a sense of its own significance over the ages. It has spawned answers to questions such as: What is it exactly that gives value to human existence? What has given and continues to give life meaning? Is there a life beyond this one? And, if so, how might we secure it for ourselves?

The pursuit of these kinds of questions is central to axial thinking. This pursuit is driven by a specific metaphor. Within the axial model, life is seen as a journey, a journey toward a final destination not altogether of this world and, thus, as a prelude and a preparation for some sort of afterlife. The emergence of this kind of belief brought forth the Axial Age, a time that may well now be ending (more on this later), but a system of attitudes and beliefs in which most of us are still precariously residing.[1]

So named by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), and frequently discussed by others, the Axial Age was said to have begun during the period between 800 and 200 BCE.  During this time most of the world’s major religions were formed and Greek metaphysical philosophy came into being. In the course of these few centuries a central distinction emerged that we continue to take for granted today, even as it progressively loses its orienting force. This distinction, common to traditional religion and Greek metaphysics, is one between appearance and reality. Inextricably tied to it are companion distinctions involving bondage and liberation, confusion and insight, and darkness and light.

In axial terms, human life is construed as a journey from appearance, which is experienced as confusing and imprisoning, to the light of reality, which is believed to be liberating and enlightening. In terms of this complex imagery our present world is a place of partial exile, a shadow realm replete with trials and temptations. But within axial thinking there is a definite purpose to this frustrating and painful circumstance. The trials of life are seen as opportunities for gaining a better orientation and thereby securing further passage into the light and toward reality itself. However much hidden and shrouded in mystery, our ordinary and often challenging human world is understood to be the stepping stone to something lying beyond it, a transcendent realm where a full realization of the meaning of human life can finally be achieved. The transcendence involved has traditionally been understood more literally, as a concrete place, as heaven, though our modern era has tended to pursue transcendence more as a life transforming metaphor.

We have only mentioned the core aspects of the axial mentality here, but we will be coming back to them soon and often. It is the gradual, though accelerating disintegration of this mentality that concerns us most. A loss of underlying confidence in its credibility has left many today feeling unanchored and somewhat adrift, as if a really meaningful life has to be sought elsewhere and by other means than the one that the axial mentality has for so long provided.

This erosion would help to explain, for example, the obsession so many have these days with the lives of others as they are seen in the news and on reality shows. It would also help to explain the excessive news coverage of celebrities. It is as though the focus on the experiences of others might provide some kind of  “filling” for needy seekers. Whether or not these seekers are consciously aware of it, the needle of their own lives must hover close to “empty,” and it is this emptiness that drives their somewhat obsessive curiosities. Not only are they closely following the lives of celebrities, but of just about anyone who is willing to expose their private lives with all its ups and downs. It is a curious sign of our time that more and more reality shows in their ever more extreme detail are filling the television and computer screens. Maybe the plight of others is in some way reassuring to these people, as if providing some sort of proof that life is pervasively unfair and misery is shared.

The age of the internet has surely contributed to this overload of shared experience. Quiet reflection is becoming a thing of the past, something only an earlier generation might resort to. But it has had other consequences that might reflect negatively on the human spirit. Much of human interaction in the past, and we mean way back to the origin of the human species, was determined by eye-to-eye contact and body language. The spoken word surely became the main form of communication, but additional and more subjective messages were submitted silently through personal contact. Just as much as the spoken word, these intuitive aspects of our personal relationships extended the understanding we had of each other.

The demands and excitement of our new communication technologies, however, do not allow much time for direct contact and even less for the assessment of how we come across to others. There simply is little space left for sustained reflections. E-mailing twittering, blogging, googling, U-Tubing, face-booking, and text messaging have taken on a certain urgency and immediacy as if the constant streaming of dialogue, the instant electronic connecting with others, by itself could give meaning to life. It is not unusual now for a person to send out or receive hundreds of electronic messages a day, but pay genuine attention to almost none of them.

This constant reaching out for some connection, however, can also be seen as a symptom of a certain illness, even though many will probably not acknowledge this and might be surprised by the notion that there is an oppressive emptiness, a void in their lives that no amount of electronic or other activity can alleviate. We will be coming back to issues of solitude, emptiness, togetherness, and fulfillment later as well.

But first we need to have a further look at the kind of world structure we are now living in.

Important foundations of human society, such as economics, politics and religion are increasingly out of joint, scrambled or even in conflict with each other.

Economic circumstances, for example, are terribly difficult for many and may become even more difficult in the near future. Much has been written lately about the excesses of Wall Street and the breakdown of our financial system. Our recovery from this breakdown may well be slow, painful, and very long. Though we will be referring to economic and financial problems as we move forward, our overwhelming concern is with the human beings whose problems these are. Our belief is that even deeper problems confront our age than financial ones, though continuing financial malaise and even deprivation may make these deeper problems less accessible and more painful.

Politics, also, has become very fractured and nasty over the last decades, especially most recently. Some will say that politics has always been this way. That may be true and though our major concern will not be with the political order (or disorder), it needs to be mentioned. If the diagnosis of our current human situation is correct, our analyses will have certain consequences for politics, just as they are likely to have economic repercussions. But, again, these will not be our central concern. It has been said that life’s larger issues usually begin in mystery and end in politics. We plan to stay nearer to the beginnings, the origin and source of our present human predicaments, thereby closer to mystery than to the tangled and only provisional endings of various controversies as found in our noisy and overheated political present. This will not always be easy since the political is penetrating the religious realm in very controversial ways.

Religion has exhibited disruptive and even destructive tendencies over the last half-century or so. Yes, this has often been the case with religion. Besides its redeeming and charitable contributions, its horrible dimensions have been evident throughout the ages and, thus, are nothing new. And our time may by no means be the worst of religious times. Religion has routinely wrought damage at the same time as it has struggled to heal and to save. Our observations will involve neither an attack on religion nor an attempt to replace it with a new and upgraded successor faith. At the same time, our reflections might offer some novel views. And this might involve somewhat of a departure from existing traditions. But our reflections will invariably be tentative and provisional. In this regard our “agenda,” if any, is very modest. But we strongly feel that the three traditional pillars of our society as mentioned above are out of joint and are the cause for confusion and feelings of displacement. An analogy may prove helpful.

Let us consider the human spirit as undergoing a pervasive and annoying itch. The itch is distracting and in fact often painful, and there is the strong urge to scratch it. But we are well aware that scratching does not help and might even lead to a further festering on the surface and a worsening of the underlying problem.

It is our view that the economic, political and religious treatments of the experienced “itch” in our time, the diverse “scratchings” that are now taking place, are largely misguided. They miss the mark. Palliative in nature, they are only effective in treating symptoms and manifestations of an underlying “condition” – the human condition. Regarding the human condition itself, these “scratchings” can only provide temporary relief at best and more likely a further deterioration of the human spirit itself.

We have to ask ourselves the following crucial question: What important dimension of the human spirit may transcend or reside beneath the economic, political and religious realms? What might give meaning to human life over and beyond (and significantly beneath) these tried and true and now also severely fractured societal pillars? Instead of supportive, have they become damaging? How damaging will this be to our culture in the West and, thus, to our understanding of ourselves?

Maybe the best way to initially describe what we are after is through the phrase expressive (cultural) connectedness in a time of spiritual emptiness. This, admittedly, is a bit of a mouthful and needs further explaining. The following insert, although somewhat abstract, could be helpful. Feel free, however, to bypass it or to return to it later.

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The English poet T.S. Eliot (1811-1865) claimed that the relation between religion and culture was so intimate that culture might best be understood as the incarnation of religion. We, however, wish to replace the word ‘religion’ with the term ‘spirituality.’ Culture is thus understood as the various ways in which our spirituality is incarnated and expressed, sustained and oriented. We view religion, politics and economics as dimensions by means of which spiritual life emerges and is supported. By speaking of spirituality in this way, however, we do not mean to imply that it is exclusively a “subjective” phenomenon, as is our sense of taste. We not only leave open but circumspectly encourage consideration of the view that our spirituality could not exist at all without having been engendered by that which is transcendent, not only of us as human beings but of the world of nature as well. This transcendence might prove to be mostly metaphorical, but we do not reject out of hand the possibility that it also could be very literal. Considerations such as these are usually contentious in very strident ways and involve theological baggage that we believe is best left at home, if this is in fact possible. In this sense we prefer to travel light.

A first, very provisional approximation to what we mean by culture, then, is that matrix of revelations, connectedness and intentionality through which we are aware of ourselves as, and thus are, human beings. In other, slightly more misleading language, it is the realm of our consciousness but only so far as the “objects” of our consciousness are construed as part of our consciousness as well.

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What to make of our present Western world when cultural life, the one- or perhaps two-way mirror through which we have understood ourselves, is increasingly fogged over and showing massive cracks that give back “fun house” distortions? Approaching our concerns through these reflections will obviously prove challenging. We are assuming without extensive argument that what we are calling culture is not just the outgrowth of various combining elements of religion, politics, and economics, but that it has its own underlying and more fundamenal autonomy. We are also partially separating the spiritual from the religious and allowing the spiritual a measure of independence from specific religions and their attendant theologies. And we will be offering a sketch of human life – a potentiality for its authentic living – that significantly reorients our scientifically determined, digitally dominated and media reinforced understanding of the 21st century’s congealing trajectories.

What are the underpinnings of a “culture?” Is it even possible to lose one’s cultural understanding altogether and for a cultural emptiness and thereby a spiritual vacuum to emerge? Wouldn’t culture always be present in one way or another as a kind of glue that binds us and orients us, both in groups and as individuals? These are vexing questions.

To better understand what our present world is undergoing, we are hoping to refocus our perception of some of the familiar building blocks of Western thought. We will craft a new mosaic, a somewhat contrarian picture of human life in the world, one that will give us glimpses of a future that is both as disturbing as it is exhilarating, but is in any case hopeful in ways that various alternatives to it are not.

No picture of our future can be cogent and complete, however, even if all we have just mentioned is accomplished, without further reflection on the consequences of that technologically driven globalization that increasingly pervades our time, reconfigures our understanding of ourselves and alters our human spirit.  Much, of course, has been said about it already, but perhaps not always the right things and in the right way.

We believe that a particular time has come to its end and that a new era is beginning.  As it happens, part of what we are leaving behind is what we will loosely call “modern philosophy,” a phrase with which we indicate not so much a specific time period as a particular mode of thinking. In its professional diversity and technical virtuosity the philosophy of the last few hundred years or so, and especially of the last half century, has lost much of its direct relevance to human life. It has also become embedded in a technical language that excludes those not trained in its specificity and intricacy. Through this circumstance we believe that philosophy has gone astray. It is also our view that, rightly pursued, philosophy is as deep and as important as what is pursued through religion. We therefore believe that the time has come to question again what philosophy is meant to be, and what could again be the audience it should attempt to reach. That it should again concern itself with the meaning of life, and question who and what we are, is a central dimension of our undertaking.

Philosophical thinking from the Greeks through the French and German philosophers has always found its grounding in the ancient etymological sense of philosophy as the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia). Bu endorsing this conception we are not suggesting that we return to some former golden age of philosophical thinking. We neither believe that such a return is possible nor that it is even desirable. As we have turned into the twenty-first century, a significant, even radical departure from tradition in this respect is virtually inevitable. Too much has altered in the world and in our human understanding to make a “pre-scientific” quest for wisdom tenable as the autonomous undertaking it was for the Greeks. The dramatic acceleration of those changes wrought through internet technology has enmeshed us in a world that we are forced to conceive quite differently, even, than it was conceived just forty years ago. This “coercion” has reverberated back upon those constitutive images we have of ourselves, thus impacting our sense of what humanity not only has been, but what it is likely to become. Nearly three quarters of a century ago the German philosopher Martin Heidegger had perceived technology through the lenses both of danger and of “saving grace.” He may prove to have been right.

Steve’s 1999 book The (Coming) Age of Thresholding[i] already marked this transition, and announced the crossing of a threshold into a new space, a new territory within which Western thought must understand itself and pursue its work. The Thresholding book may have been premature, yet much has happened since its publication and has only deepened fundamental insights that thresholding has fostered. Most importantly 9/11 has happened and the near financial “meltdown” of 2008.

In any case, we need to reconsider and reappropriate for our time the appropriate meanings of love and of wisdom. It is by no means clear that our faith in or our comprehension of either is very strong — especially in an age as understandably insecure and cynical as ours.

To bring philosophy, the love of wisdom, back on track and directly into our lives we do need to understand our cultural underpinnings. We must envision what culture might actually become, and how our inheritance from the axial age influences our current living and thinking. We have to examine those places from which our present values originate, and if we are indeed still motivated by axial thinking, we need to explore that ancient longing for a belonging that first pointed us towards salvation. Further, if life’s compass is now veering in a different non-axial direction, we need to investigate that as well. Can we detect a transformation in the way people see themselves within our contemporary cultural environment? Perhaps at least a start can be made.

We believe that a process of a reorienting will mark our new century. We have in fact named the very process of reorientation thresholding, and its time The Age of Thresholding. The metaphor of the threshold as an inbetween that serves as a passageway can also be illuminated through a linguistic metaphor. In the complex and tangled story of life on this planet we humans are but a sentence. But our sentence is not yet finished. We are currently living in a comma, in a no longer but also in a not yet. How will the next clause change our current sentence? What will succeed that comma that we now are?

 


[1] The majority of scholars confine the axial age to the roughly six-hundred-year period of its inception. Our more liberal understanding of this age extends its scope to include the period of its continuing influence, thus up at least into the present.


[i] Erickson, Stephen A.: The (Coming) Age of Thresholding, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1999.

 

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