I have the best readers. The reader who sent me the Pew survey, which I turned yesterday into this “Politics & The Crisis Of Meaning” post, writes with this follow-up to that post and its comments:
A few have “dug deeper” and are pointing out something you and others have addressed, which translates in terms of the amount of meaning to be extracted from religion. Religious leaders, really all leaders save for those would be demagogues, vastly underestimate the cognitive tools Americans of all ages have at their disposal to extract and metabolize meaning.
In regards to Christianity, the ability of laity, even pastors, to “bridge the principle gap” from today back to the rituals, narrative, logic flow, and ancient historical contexts of the Bible are slim. Religious leaders who desire to communicate objective meaning into the mental and affective architecture of the lives of laity see this, and they see it constantly conjoined with a lack of investment, on numerous levels. This correlation of ignorance, inability, and lack of desire is a deadly spiritual cocktail, which, as per the “American Way”, is often addressed in terms of pragmatism. The subsequent pragmatic approaches almost always work out into compromised religious cult, thought, and practice. Which is what many commenters are addressing when they say, more simply, “hey, don’t forget the part about how religion has failed”. It has! Religion, Christianity specifically, has failed to spiritually reproduce hearts that “produce a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty, or thirty times what was sown.” Modern Christianity has failed to reach into the metaphysical, ontological, and teleological spheres, extract the light, and convey it to the soul-creature known as human beings.
However, today’s dilemma is something different than what has always confounded soulcraft. In the past the dilemma, at least in part, pertained to the difficulty of and resistance to death to self and engaging individuals in the pilgrims way. Today’s dilemma is more basic and pertains to religion’s inability to convey and help individuals construct meaning, which is really a question of “what is the purpose of religion”. Neo-Liberals believe the purpose of traditional religion is therapeutic, but in a restrictive manner. Thus, Liberals engage in different therapies that are expansive and grant liberty/freedom/rights. In their minds, if it is all about therapy, and therapy is about “soothing the soul”, then why participate or promote practices and beliefs that hinder said project?
This fundamental meaning of religion as therapy, instead of a way back to meaning… a tight binding of oneself to the Way, grew out of the increasingly vacuous and fractious religious events of the past 500-700 years. What is a secular individual to believe when they see all the different denominations of belief? All they see are flavors of therapy, and rightly so, as much of what passes today is simply MTD, if that! I do not fault them for such reductionism, for such reductionism is fundamental to materialistic-naturalism. However, where I do fault them is when they try to reach back into the world of objective meaning and steal, by means of the revaluation of values, for subjective purposes. Liquid moderns are the epitome of the “needy neighbor” as the nihilism of materialism creates existential crisis after crisis.
Thus, it should be no shock that, among other things, consumerism is the default religion of Americans. The void must be filled. And since traditional religion has seemingly ceased to even attempt to elevate the soul to a higher plane, and merely wants to play in the mud, while failing the communicate and translate the extensive glories conveyed by the interjection of the Logos into space time history, then something else will replace it. The search for meaning is insatiable.
I am drawn back to a post of yours regarding “Modernity’s Catastrophic Paradigm Shift” in which you cite something from an Orthodox theologian and his comments on St. Maximus. While the passage is short, I have read through it several times. As someone formally trained within a very specific Protestant, Evangelical theological tradition the commentary is starkly different than many I have read. As has been many lectures/commentary’s from Catholic theologians. The difference was in how the reflections elevated and engaged the whole of me. Too often Protestant theologians, from commentaries to sermons, seem to be either addressing logical or emotional arguments, but infrequently the human condition in wholistic terms. Given that America’s ethos descends from a Protestant heritage, and its Civil and personal religious trajectory is largely Protestant, I cannot help but believe that the present moment of religious unbelief is fueled by Protestantism’s inability to move away from addressing modernism, save for to “react” to it be swinging violently to the other end of the spectrum.
It undeniable that at this point in American history, the body politic is a homogenous set of fractured beings, thrashing about for lack of an orientating universal. Many, many options have and are being promoted, which is part of the problem, but not any old universal will do. And for those, right or left or middle, who believe the solution is political or cultural or personality drive, they are gravely mistaken. The solution will be inextricably tied to meaning. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be human? Given the objective nature of reality, only a limited number of avenues are available to produce meaningful answers to these questions, as opposed to nonsensical or even diabolical answers and solutions.
Here is the passage from that earlier post. The Orthodox theologian quoted here is Dumitru Staniloae, from his book Orthodox Spirituality:
So it is a main idea of St. Maximus that things hide divine logoi in them, as so many rays of the supreme Logos. He who discovers them in things ascends on their thread to the knowledge of God and this knowledge must anticipate His direct knowledge.
This teaching attributed to creation and the thought referring to it a necessary role in the ascent of man to God. St. Maximus is a stranger to the idea of a vision which we might attain by bypassing the forms and laws of the cosmos. On the road of our approach to God stands the world – we must pass through the understanding of it. Every man has a mission connected with the world. Everyone must know it according to the power given to him, inasmuch as knowledge can’t come until the gaining of the virtues; everyone must develop beforehand a moral activity in relationship to the world. A mainly negative attitude toward the world frustrates salvation itself. The world is imposed on everyone as a stone for sharpening his spiritual faculties.
By the world man grows to the height of the knowledge of God and to the capacity of being His partner. The world is a teacher to lead us to Christ. Of course it can also be the road to hell. It is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of testing. If we look at its beauty in order to praise its creator, we are saved; if we think that its fruit is pure and simply something to eat, we are lost. Salvation isn’t obtained in isolation, but in a cosmic frame. This value of the world as a road to God is explained by the fact that man must have an object of giant proportions for strengthening his spiritual forces, but also from the intrinsic structure of the world as a symbol of transcendent divine realities. A symbol (from the Greek symballein, to throw together, to unite two things without confusing them), is a visible reality which doesn’t only represent, but somehow makes an unseen reality visible. A symbol presupposes and sows two things simultaneously. It is a “bridge between two worlds” as somebody has said. A word, for example, is a symbol of the spirit, uniting and simultaneously presenting the materiality of the sound with the meaning of thought without confusing them; the human face, likewise, makes the spirit in man transparent by its materiality, and if he is living in Him, God Himself. A symbolic consciousness of the world “sees everywhere in this world the signs and symbols of another world, and perceives the divine as the mysterious and infinite, beyond that which is finite and transitory.” [Berdyaev]
All flesh is a symbol of the spirit, the reflection, the image, and the sign of another far off, yet much more profound, reality.
The alliance of these two worlds, the possibility of their interpenetration, the transfusion of energy from one world into the other, are all communicated to us by means of this symbolic sign. This symbol unveils for us the life of God and signifies for us the entrance of divine energy into the life of this natural world. But on the other hand it guards for all time the sense of infinite mystery and affirms the impossibility of reducing to a common denominator the life of the world and the life of the spirit. Symbolism does not admit the validity of that ossification and isolation of the flesh and the natural world which results from transforming them into entities incapable of permeation by the infinitude of God and the Spirit.
As we turn aside from the life of this world our whole attention is fixed upon the unfathomable and the ineffable; everywhere we are in contact with the mysterious and we see the light of another world, in which nothing ever comes to an end, and which knows no subordination. The world is open to the light, it has no limits, it penetrates into other worlds, and they in turn penetrate into it. Here there is nothing hard or rigid which cannot be subdued.
We had Divine Liturgy today; it’s the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos — or, in Catholicism, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. (“Theotokos” means “God bearer,” and is an ancient title for the Virgin Mary, emphasizing Jesus Christ’s humanity.) We observe the presentation of the child Mary in the Temple in Jerusalem. The idea is that this was the occasion when the child who, as a woman, was going to become the living Temple of the Incarnate God, was herself consecrated to that God. In Orthodoxy, we pray these prayers today in liturgical worship:
Today is the preview of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the temple of God, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation (Troparion).
The most pure Temple of the Saviour, the precious Chamber and Virgin, the Sacred Treasure of the Glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven! (Kontakion).
I am so grateful for my Orthodox faith, in part for the reasons the reader mentioned (indirectly) in his e-mail. There is no form of Christianity that, in my personal experience, more fully conveys the experience of the entrance of the Logos into time. When I am present at the Divine Liturgy, and interiorly oriented to the mysteries present, I am not told about Meaning; I enter into it.