The Prophets of The Meaning Crisis
A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 46, 47, and 48)
In the final episodes of ‘Awakening from The Meaning Crisis’ series, John Vervaeke proposes certain ‘prophets of the meaning crisis’? But what does he mean by prophet? And who are the prophets we should listen to—as one world falls apart and we move into a brave new world with all its dystopian and utopian possibilities?
The prophet sees the kairos, which means a threshold or turning point in history. He or she is not a fortune teller or an occultist in Vervaeke’s formulation, but more like a philosopher sage. The prophet is someone who deciphers the seemingly impossible paradoxes, double-binds, and contradictions of the times — while offering a narrow path to a promised land. What do we find on the other side of the present Kairos? Before telling us, the prophets must diagnose the various pathologies of our times.
There have been no shortage of prophetic pronouncements of doom since Nietzsche declared God is dead. We have killed God, the prophet Nietzsche told us, and we will never wash the blood from our hands. But Nietzsche the prophet also gives us a vision of the future—imagining new kind of human being. What would that human being look like? Nietzsche‘s gave us the Overman to overcome the ‘all-too-human’ predicament. However, Nietzsche arguably fell victim to the kind of idealism and metaphysics he criticized: the overman now seems like a tragic figure, an inflation and worship of the individual.
In the age of technology, if neither God nor the individual is the metaphysical center of our lives the what is? Heidegger talked about Diasen, and Paul Tillich spoke about the ‘God beyond God’, various people have spoken about ‘the ground of being’. Existentialism is more interested in ‘being’ than Gods, ideals, or afterlives (existence precedes essence according to Sartre). It is our dasein—our being in time—which is what has been overlooked. Our job is therefore to rediscover the ground of being rather than follow any abstract metaphysics.
Futhermore, if there is no father figure in heaven who holds the strings and demands our loyalty and praise, who and what will we serve and how will we make life meaningful? What do we do in that ‘God-shaped hole’? After the death of God, it has been far too easy to fall victim to nihilism: which means ‘pseudo-religious-ideologies’, technological triumphalism, fundamentalism and ultimately despair.
Therefore we have to ask: how do we find an alternative to nihilism on one hand and fundamentalism on the other? What is the way between religious and scientific reductionism? How to discard the fundamentalisms of both religion and science and yet keep the living and tissue of both? This this is Vervaeke’s relentless question. Again it is important to note that fundamentalism can be found in both bad science and bad religion.
Vervaeke’s fundamental answer is relevance realization, which has been elaborated on elsewhere. But in a nutshell, this means discarding dualistic ‘two world mythologies’ and scientism. We need to to integrate the scientific world view and the essential psycho-technological aspects of religion (what he calls religio), while discarding dogmas and iron-age hierarchies. This means going beyond ‘belief’ in a totalizing deity on one hand, and a world of dead atomic parts on the other.
Too late for the Gods, too early for being
According to Heidegger, our metaphysics have lead directly to nihilism and ‘the history of western metaphysics is a history of nihilism’. Nihilism, which seems to have been particularly marked in the history of modernity and post-modernity, is the result of a struggle between imperial expansion and desolation, between inflation and deflation, between a triumphalist monotheism and a relativism postmodernism — between naive hope and defeatist nihilism, ultimately leading to ruin.
The prevalence of nihilism seems dasein marked in The West even if it is now a global phenomenon, and nihilism is the inevitable result of absolutism, a denial of a dynamic principle. Eastern religion and philosophy, on the other hand, have benefited from a positive concept of emptiness, space, or the void—Kyoto school philosopher Nishida Kitarō tells us. In the west emptiness is negative, the last thing we want. And rather than embrace the liminal possibilities and potential of empty space, we hysterically fill it up with a lot of stuff. (Perhaps eastern religion actually focuses too much on emptiness and not enough on incarnation, and a balance is best. But that is another discussion).
There are exceptions to triumphalist monotheism in Western mysticism of course, and Meister Eckhart and others certainly had an idea of ‘divine unknowing’—but more often they were burned at the stake. The monotheistic God became reified and the west focused on ‘the having mode’ while neglecting ‘the being mode’. The proverbial baby was tossed out in the dirty water of fundamentalisms.
We have to recover the ‘being mode’ again, rather than wait for any eternal reward, was Heidegger’s message. What matters is our dasein— Heidegger’s famous term for or being-in-time — not any total ‘metaphysical system’. The fact that we are thrown into the world and will die, does not have to be a situation of grim despair; mortality and impermanence make life all the more precious and give us an opportunity to ‘care’. And Being-in-time is our existential situation, regardless of whatever metaphysics we believe in.
Heidegger described the situation of modern man as being ‘too late for Gods and too early for being’. We do not believe in the old God anymore, but we have not yet to found a consuming meaning and being in own lives. We are lacking what Vervaeke calls ‘religo’—or the communal meaning-making function that religion used to provide—and have become atomized beings, disconnected from each other and ourselves, victims of a kind of domicide. Where is our home if it isn’t in religious identification, ideology, or even in nation? Are we not all spiritually homeless in the internet age?
‘The having mode’ is ultimately disappointing — — acquisition is not a basis of meaning — as the present pandemic and the ecological crisis have made acute. Not that having health and a certain amount of prosperity is not well and good, but the prophets of the meaning crisis — including John Vervaeke himself — tell us that being is ultimately what matters. In other words, no matter what you ‘have’ — it is a ‘kingdom of ashes’ without a deeper meaning.
Being is not a ‘standing reserve’—in Heideggerian language—or an object for us to measure or exploit. The rose discloses itself to us at the same time as it withdraws—truth can never be fixed or reified in time. In other words, if we try to trap the ‘being’ of the rose—by making a factory of roses for instance—we have missed the rose completely. The rose is a pure and shining mystery, coming into our consciousness for a moment then disappearing—we cannot pin it down.
The rose, to continue the analogy, is valuable not because it represents some narrative, myth, or ideal. It is the ‘pure shining moment’. This kind of spirituality is post mythical narrative and is more about ‘eternal nowness’, to use buddhist terms. Narratives help us organize society and are essential, but they are not the end of the spiritual journey. Perhaps there is a post narrative spirituality, Vervaeke tells us, which grows beyond mythos and is more about the revelation of being, a disclosure of a living truth, a truth which can’t be captured or framed.
The imaginal and the imaginary
‘There is no conflict separating so-called ‘matter’ from ‘spirit’. It is all only spirit! It is all gold pretending to be lead! No ‘thing’ is ever trapped within anything else…never was…and never will be. ‘Something’ never came into existence ex nihilo out of ‘nothing’. These dualistic concerns are all irrelevant to the actual work of gnostic realization. Whether a cosmic big bang or act of a creator god ‘happened’ is such an irrelevancy. The mechanistic concerns of both nihilistic scientific reductionism and eternalistic religious fairy tales are equally toxic in this sense.’
- David Chaim Smith
I quote the Jewish mystic David Chaim Smith here because it gets to the heart of the matter here. If we are to go beyond ‘nihilistic scientific reductionism’ and ‘eternalistic religious fairy tales’ we have keep both our hard-headed empiricism and our imagination. The religion of the future has to include the poetry but never re-ify the mythologies of the past. Therefore it will take great creativity to express ‘the religion that is not a religion’ or the ‘God beyond God’ that Vervaeke speaks of. This means employing symbolism in a way that is ‘imaginal’ (to use Henry Corbin’s term) rather than ‘imaginary’, and to liberate ourselves from reifying reductionism on one hand, and naive romanticism on the other.
Gnostic realization should be understood as a unification of all realms as being ‘one taste’, as they say in Buddhist Tantra. We need to go beyond what has been called the gnostic heresy, because it separates matter from flesh, and promotes the ‘two-world-mythologies’. Gnostic realization should collapse the boundary of higher and lower, between spirit and flesh, between religion and empiricism. We have to recover both the imagination of the prophets and poets and the emptiness of the saints and sages.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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