News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Commentary to Nonsense that Heralds Meaning (1)

Friday, June 10, 2005

Commentary to Nonsense that Heralds Meaning (1)

Originally posted by tharpa: "What I got from your ... post was an excellent basis for the pull, the need, for some sort of spiritual/religious grounding in terms of the individual. Although many of the conditions you describe were of the contemporary predicament, I am not so sure if this sort of overwhelming bewilderment is not a sine qua non of the human passage during pretty much any period. That said, obviously certain cultures and times have the power to make things better or worse, oscillating between wisdom and confusion along the way as they are wont to do."

Thank you for your kind remarks on my last posting. I started a response that would do justice to your concerns about the difference between the pre-modern and modern spiritual predicament of humans; it is currently sitting at 5 pages!

Without wishing to burden you with this manifesto, I will try to simply cast my disagreement with you in as short a form as I can, hoping thereby to gather in the details should the dialog go forward.

I grant you that the spiritual primacy of the individual has been the focus of past religious and wisdom traditions. Although framed in importantly different ways, there do seem to be similarities among the various traditions. Without muddying the waters early on, let's assume that there is some agreement on the idea that it is the individual self that forms the basis for enlightenment/spiritual awakening.

My contention is that the mdoern socio-cultural matrix simply does not allow this state to manifest itself. That is, ab initio, the modern spiritual miliue is one of desolation--by this I mean that the circumstances in which modern humans might hope to come to spiritual maturity simply do not exist. I am following Kierkegaard when I state that the present age has done something that no other age has: it has obscured the aboriginal nature of human beings such that they no longer have an awareness of themselves either as ethical or individual beings. Kierkegaard calls this innate sense of being a person, "primitivity."

This sense of self, of being an individual, is the base upon which any further work at becomeing a self is built. Kierkegaard maintains that this sense of self is threatened with extinction by the modern mind-set. What he means by this mind-set is not quite clear--what it does appear to encompass, however, are social and cultural aspects which in times past if not exactly encouraging self-awareness, at least did not exterminate it at the root. This is what Kierkegaard accuses the modern age of perpetrating.

How might the modern age differ from previous ages in terms of its antipathy to individual self-knowledge? One must look at the role that objectification and the objective sciences play in this; one also can look at the role that the modern technicized society plays; and just as culpably, one can point to the overwhelming growth of rationalization in the modern state. The phenomenon can be assessed from an objective manner (think of Marx's critique of capitalism) as well as a phenomenological manner. It is the latter that Kierkegaard presents.

Important for this analysis is the loss of "inwardness." This can be seen in the emphasis that modern culture puts on objective descriptions of what it means to be human. When the human understands him or herself purely in objective terms they lose that sense of inward space which is required for self-consciousness. One becomes part of the environment, a cog in the wheels of the state, a cipher, a faceless entity whose only identity originates in indentifying with a group. At its apogee, this lack of spiritual awareness can be seen in the examples of fascism, communism, consumerism, and other totalitarianisms.

It is this primitive (Heidegger called it primordial) sense of self and its extermination by the modern spirit of desolation that I believe fuels the outrage of many fundamentalists. That is, having once been a part of the ruling modern ethos, people one day wake up as from a dream--they suffer some type of crisis in thewir lives, and through this crisis they have had awakened in them this sense of self that Kierkegaard says the modern spirit tries to exterminate. The discovery that there might be something more important to human life than becoming a cipher in the bulwark of advancing modernism, these people respond in anger against that juggernaut which 1) almost deprived them of the awareness of their true selves altogehter and 2) threatens to extinguish that new-born self in its desolating advance through time and space.

I will end this posting here. If anything, I hope it at least gives some indication of why I believe that the modern age differs in its "spirit" from other ages.

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