Last issue we left off assessing the relatively novel “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) category, and began to dig at the reasons behind this shift away from the religions of our parents and towards our own systems of beliefs. To look at these reasons we have to first find our place in history. I’m going to draw from Louis Dupré’s book, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture, as it was a compelling (if at times impossible to understand!) journey through history to modernity, addressing specifically the questions we posed last week. (Wait, who is this Dupré guy and why should he shape this conversation? Dupré is a Belgian Catholic phenomenologist and professor emeritus at Yale, spending much of his energy on Marx, Kierkegaard, and the project of modernity in general. While you might think that being Catholic is an “Aha! Bias!” moment, you only have to read his work and ideas to see that all is not what it seems.)
First of all, what is modernity and why does it matter? Modernity is not only the cultural moment in which we find ourselves living as Westerners (if you agree with Dupré that modernity is not over), it is a prevalent mindset. As I’ll summarize from Dupré below, it solidifies the schism between the ‘ancient’ mindset that all is connected—world, self, the Divine—and the distinctly modern mindset that the self is the number one. Modernity, although the word may bring tears of boredom to some, matters because of the ideas it fleshed out: ideas that we, as pseudo-intellectual University students, take for granted, and often try to not take at all because we only needed that one critical thinking course for our breadth requirement. We have modernity to thank for the scientific method as we know it; socially for capitalism, free speech, uncertainty, and the popularity of angst; philosophically for Existentialism, and for Descartes’ cogito (I think, therefore I am). In short, modernity has made possible life as we now live it.
Looking at Dupré’s book, he begins his project by reassessing history and its path to the present, to the point where the Western world began to slough off its religious tendencies. Dupré challenges the widely-held notion that modernity began with the Renaissance and ended with postmodernity. In fact, Dupré intimates that postmodernity as an epoch has not even begun, due to the persistent “modern” mindset. That is, the modern epoch is not offering new ideas in a vacuum, but still blooming from those ancient seeds, agreeing that “[the originality of the Enlightenment] has been singularly overrated.” Additionally, the loss of transcendence and “the immanentization of knowledge had jeopardized the union between objective truth and subjective certainty.” Relinquishing objective truth meant a turn to the subjective, which became the individual self—the new source of meaning. That is, the individual now has freedom to construct meaning for itself, something that was unprecedented in the history of recorded thought. Instead of buying in to an already established belief, the individual has freedom to name their terms, and in casting off the parameters of religion and its rules and practices, the individual casts off the need for a higher power, a god.
Additionally, through several turns of the philosophical crank, nature has become a machine to be studied and understood as an object to be mastered, and not part of an ontological whole, certainly not part of our self understanding. This attrition of the world-picture, commonly thought to have come from the originality of the Enlightenment principles, had been spawning for centuries. Marilynne Robinson writes, “Yet, even as our capacity to describe the fabric of reality and the dimensions of it has undergone an astonishing deepening and expansion, we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all.”
Returning to the SBNR category, we can see how the focus has shifted from the so-called unified world of antiquity, where the world, the self, and the Divine were the trifecta of being, to the fragmented present day understanding of our selves as the primary lens through which we see the world and the (now absent in the cultural mind) Divine. The reigns are in the individual’s hands, and with globalization and technological advances, it’s easy to pick and choose from not only our own cultural artefacts but to be a “global citizen,” choosing from any and every culture’s artefacts. Being “spiritual” no longer has an attachment to religion as such, but is recognized as a separate and distinct way of viewing the world. How those who would choose that moniker actually view the world I cannot say, but I can say that I think we are entering a new cultural epoch. Past the point of rejecting the relics of religious and spiritual thought, the SBNR folks are cresting another hill, where being spiritual or believing in something ‘other’ than themselves is no longer uncool or idiotic. The fact that our popular culture accepts this kind of thinking is perhaps case in point that we are turning over a new leaf in terms of what we deem acceptable ways of thinking. From low modernity where we may or may not be now, through to what most think is now postmodernity, Westerners have gone from “God is dead” to “I want nothing to do with a god or gods or their hateful religions” to “something is missing, and I still feel a connection with the world, but I do not see belief in a god or adherence to religion as a cogent value system.” I think this may be the ethos that undergirds the SBNR cohort.