The Soul in The Meaning Crisis
Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 49,50) commentary. Concluding Remarks
Making my way through the 50 videos of ‘Awakening From The Meaning Crisis’ has been similar to reading a big fat 19th Century Novel—even if John Vervaeke’s style is much more hospitable and congenial than that of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The series is intricate, highly conceptual, but at the same time Vervaeke is on fire with dramatic urgency. I suspect most people will give up listening at around episode 20 due to the conceptual complexity of the series, but the hard core listener will be rewarded richly if he or she can make it to the end.
Awakening From The Meaning Crisis also feels like a good survey course in cognitive science and the history of ideas. Vervaeke is bringing real liberal education to the masses, showing that learning is not the sole property of the university—that the reward for knowledge is not a diploma but a greater ability to understand and live in the world. Philosophy was alway supposed to be a living process, not the jargon-ridden conceptual games of a certain kind of intelligentsia. And Awakening From the Meaning Crisis is accessible to all those who will make the effort of attention.
The fact that Awakening from The Meaning Crisis has become an important series—similar to Jordan Peterson viral Maps of Meanings classes and biblical lectures—reveals we are hungry for meaning and depth in a world of soundbites, trivial entertainment, newsfeeds and nihilism. But while Peterson painted broad strokes to appeals to the masses, Vervaeke has a bigger palette and is more careful. The series is an oasis of high level ideas, and it never sinks to any kind of facile story-telling.
Awakening From The Meaning Crisis is quite a lot of work to follow. It requires not a casual listening, but a deep and extended one; it demands our attention and time, avoids journalistic or political commentary, and remains within the realm of living ideas.
Personally, the only way I could digest it was to study and write about it, to have a dialogue with its ideas and read quite a bit of source material, and also have a few conversations with Vervaeke himself. Among other things the series opened me up to a rich and diverse community of voices. Vervaeke never works alone, but always within a tribe of co-conspirators. Awakening from The Meaning Crisis is not an individual but a communal enterprise, even if Vervaeke is captain of the ship.
Vervaeke uses the Greek ‘dia-logos’, which means a conversation with the logos, to signify that genuine dialogue should be sacred activity. To dialogue with the logos is not to argue, convince, or cajole—it is rather to attend to a third sacred principal, similar to what Heidegger called Althea, or the disclosure of truth. Dia-logos does not give us any final conclusion about reality, but rather brings us into alignment with a living disclosure of truth through the dialectical process.
The Socratic dialogue, engaging in philo-sophia, teaches us to be rational—but again Vervaeke does not limit the meaning of rationality to scientific empiricism or logic. Logos—or true rationality—is not merely reason, logic, or proposition—it is making a liveable order from chaos to paraphrase Jordan Peterson. As such it is a sacred activity.
This seems to be the central effort of the series: to combine science and religo: that is, religion minus its dogmatic imperatives and beliefs and science minus its reductionism (via 4E cognitive science which describes cognition as Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, and Extended). This integration adds up to what Vervaeke calls the ‘religion that is not a religion’ which is not antagonistic to science but rather seeks to integrate the scientific world view with relevant religious psycho-technologies adapted to the scientific age.
Therefore symbolic, metaphorical, and even theological thinking are considered in Awakening from The Meaning Crisis—and many of ‘the prophets of the meaning crisis’ are those who tried to find this bridge between religio and rationality. People like Carl Jung and Owen Barfield were not afraid to venture into spiritual, imaginal, and theological realms—and not in a spirit of naive romanticism, but through genuine scientific exploration. Jung, for instance, disliked being called a mystic: in fact he considered his explorations of dreams and archetypal symbols to be highly empirical. And, in Vervaeke’s view, theological/gnostic ideas could be understood naturalistically.
Sacred Second Self
The sacred second self is a term which Vervaeke has adapted from the term the divine double. This is the person we aspire to be: the one who is more rational, more virtuous, more wise and embedded in the flow of life than our present self. Vervaeke even suggests that we might call this sacred second self our soul, redefining the soul as a dynamic process of becoming rather than a final realization. The notion of sacred second self, according to Vervaeke, avoids the potential theistic inflation which the divine double connotes even if the divine double still feels to me to be the more powerful term.
Vervaeke draws on Henry Corbin here, who spoke of the divine double as a kind of angel. This may be hard for the average modern trained in positivism and scientific reductionism to swallow. But Corbin’s angel is not the sweet renaissance cherub: he or she is more like Rainer Maria Rilke’s terrifying angel (In The elegies Rilke wrote: every angel is terrifying). This kind of angel is the terrifying possibility of a fullness that is beyond our ability to conceive. The divine double—the angel that beckons us—our potential fullness—feels terrifying from our limited perspective and because of the great struggle we all need to engage in realization. To grasp the divine double is, in the formulation of Paul Tillich, find the courage to be.
There is no question here of whether the angel or divine doubles exists, but rather of the necessity of imagining him or her. Corbin calls this the activation of the ‘imaginal’, which is different than mere ‘imagination’ or fantasy because it is grounded in a creative developmental activity. The divine double, or sacred second self, is not some kind of divine being who will come and save the wretched sinner, but our potential being, our ‘buddha nature’ to put it in Eastern terms.
Vervaeke’s term—the sacred second self, is psychological and spiritual, an attempt to bridge the divide between myth and science, and rejoin the broken and separate realms of science and religion. Awakening From the Meaning Crisis means creatively redefining the world, and rediscovering this lost unity. Getting back our souls in other words.
The God beyond God
It is interesting that, while Vervaeke is a scientist and a naturalist, he concludes his series with renegade theologians of one sort or another—including Henry Corbin, Paul Tillich, and Owen Barfield. One might even think that he was searching for God!
The question of the Meaning Crisis might be: what kind of a God can we discover after Nietzsche declared God is dead, and in the scientific age? According to Paul Tillich that would be the God beyond God. Concepts change, so perhaps our concept of God has to be renewed. And perhaps we can go beyond theism and non-theism, in Vervaeke’s view, and bridge the the East-West divide.
God in the age of process philosophy and cognitive science is no longer a mythical figure who lords over the earth form heaven, nor some kind of ‘personality’ that we have to believe in. He (or She) is not an ultimate resting place or final destination. The God who is beyond theism and non-theism is more like a creative principle, a process of becoming, an inexhaustible becoming and transcending.
Part of the problem with the nihilism of the meaning crisis is that there is no transcendence principle, but we are told to ‘be ourselves’ as if our natural state would be some kind of goal. But actually self-transcendence—going beyond the self image and the so-called natural state—is what religion has helped us do since the beginning.
Owen Barfield, according to Vervaeke, goes further than Heidegger here in positing a transcendent principle—rather than just the more receptive principle of Heidegger (or the buddhist nirvana). Transcendental breakthrough is as important as acceptance, action as important as letting be. We participate in transcendence in history making—we therefore need a creative principle which does not reify God into some kind of cosmic dictator.
The thrust of Awakening From the Meaning Crisis is not toward conclusive answers to our current existential predicaments or towards any new kind of ‘scientific theology’—it would like to do away with fundamentalism on one hand, and scientism on the other. He does however ask us to rediscover the best of science and religion.
Vervaeke gives us the widest possible net, the most flexible world view, the biggest ocean we can possibly swim in. He gives us some tools but it is up to us to re-imagine and re-discover ‘religo’ and continually create relevant psycho technologies which are in sync with the present but not divorced from the past.
The virtue of the series is just how expansive and yet careful Vervaeke is to avoid inflation or deflation. He walks the razors edge, as all great thinkers must do, and comes up with a genuine theory, a theory of relevance and meaning.
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
The Prophets of The Meaning Crisis
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