The primary experience regarding religion in the postmodern age is the denunciation of traditional institutions and forms of worship and the creation of the category of “spiritual but not religious.”
The central argument of and for religion in a post-postmodern age is that religion is an inherently human act and can no more be done away with than breathing. Bad religion (or rather in many cases outmoded and outdated religion) is a significant threat to the future of world peace. The only solution to bad religion however is not the abolition of religion as such (contra New Atheism) nor becoming spiritual without being religious (which is impossible) but the formation of good, even better, more mature religion.
I argue there are two key components to religion in the post-postmodern age: what I will call the absolute and the relative. Or metaphorically I say the Beams (of Light) and the Struts (of Discipline) respectively.
The Absolute is the ultimate and natural State and Condition within which we arise. It is the space of salvation and the luminosity of liberation. This Absolute is the Source and Condition of all that comes to be in any and every moment. This absolute truth has been known across the world for many centuries, if only in very select quarters.
Recently, humans have come to understand that this Absolute has desired (and desires still) to incarnate and to undertake a world-making project. This Absolute has a vision and desperately wants to become real. Discipline within the spiritual life is now best understood as that which is necessarily undertaken in order to make this natural state alive within this world. This natural state becomes a fiery love that burns up the resistance of this world and of our hearts. Discipline is the yoke with which we tie ourselves to this Divine Project, thereby (paradoxically) freeing ourselves. We learn that we are being meditated by God not that we are meditating on God.
In order to more deeply grasp this truth in the reality of daily life there is much that must first be understood (and eventually overcome). Before I lay out some of the more principled understandings of religion in the post-postmodern age, before that is I lay bare the Beams of the Absolute and the Relative Strut-ish Discipline, I must first set the context.
In short, where are we now with regard to religion and how did we get here?
What follows is by necessity a cursory and general account of the current context regarding religion in our contemporary world as a beginning answer to that question.
Starting with modern world (i.e. from the 17th century on) up until today there has been a great and mostly useless argument about the existence or non-existence of God. Whether one was a deist, a theist, or an atheist, all of those seemingly opposed points of view shared one thing in common. All of those camps presumed the world as it was then understood (from the then arising new sciences) and then asked how God fit relative to that cosmic reality. For example, did God exist outside of this world having made it once and then basically remaining aloof (deism)? Did God exist outside of this mechanically determined world and then magically intervene at various points (supernatural theism)? Could one not make up his/her mind constitutionally with regard to this question (agnosticism)? Or was there simply no God at all and nothing but the world mechanically (and then later post-Darwin biologically) determined (atheism)?
All of those positions are failed ones. The mistake of modernity was to first assume the world and then seek to fit (or not fit) God relative to that world. The final gasps of modernity came in the form of existentialism. Jean Paul Sartre, perhaps the most famed of the existentialists, spoke movingly (and tragically) of the final truth of existence as utter meaningless and void. Out of that void, one could begin to shape a life, could choose to make meaning from the nothingness from which we have come and to which we will undoubtedly return.
The failed modern project led to that which was after-modernity (or post-modernity). One—and only one—way of conceiving of postmodernity is to see it as taking the insight that all is void and instead of trying to embrace some heroic individualistic mission to form a personal identity, purpose, and meaning for oneself in the world (a la Sartre), postmodernity rather argued that we must embrace the void, to dive into it and surrender into it.
Postmodernity—in its later mostly European philosophical versions anyway—has had a significant interest in religion. Martin Heidegger awaited the god who was to come. Emmanuel Levinas reformulated traditional Jewish Rabbinic religious and ethical concepts toward an experience of transcendence and care though he was still an atheist. Famed father of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida wrote movingly in his later years on grief, friendship, and negative theology—again all within an officially atheistic framework. Neo-Marxist thinker Slavoj Zizek calls his philosophy a (atheistic) materialist theology. Jurgen Habermas—one of the philosophers who embodies a transition from postmodernity to post-postmodernity—has dialogued with The Pope recently and written on the ways in which secular minded and religious minded folk can live and work together in the future.
In other words, postmodernity argued forcefully that transcendence/salvation—were there to be any—must be found in this world not out of it. The technical term for the divine within is called immanence. Immanental transcendentalism is the great goal of postmodern religion—that means merging or finding transcendence within the world not through escaping it.
As noble a goal as immanental transcendentalism was (and still is), it expressed itself via two major flaws in the postmodern age. Those twin errors have reaped untold amounts of suffering as well as caused nearly irreparable confusion regarding how we approach the ultimate.
The first flaw was that postmodernity had no real mechanism for differentiating between and judging amongst the various forms of immanental expression. In extreme cases, just about anything that could be expressed—anything within this world and particularly within one’s experience—was considered to be salvific.
A prosaic example is the notion, common since the 1960s, that the intellect is anti-spiritual and what you need to do to become more spiritual is “get into your feelings”—as if any old feeling were automatically more enlightened somehow than any thought. Martin Luther King Jr. you may recall had a dream, not a feeling. Dreams are visions that involve the mind.
This same virus has infected not only individual spiritual seeking but also social-political movements. By the (il)logical rigor of the position that feelings expressed are the mode of liberation, the Tea Party protests in the United States this year were a great enlightening event—according to postmodern thought. It was a collective form of immanence and hence therefore, according to this school of thought, salvific.
In terms of collective expression of will—if that alone is what is salvation—then there is no difference between the Civil Rights movement and the Tea Party protests. None. Not spiritually, emotionally, or psychologically.
At which point of course postmodernists—generally not fans of hard right-wing American views—would likely balk and say something to the effect of “well I didn’t mean that kind of expression.”
And the phrase “that kind of expression” shows the limits of postmodernity and traps itself in its own self-inconsistency. In other words, that kind of expression understood to be somehow wrong or immoral shows that not all kinds of immanence are equally transcendent or salvific in nature.
Yet, generically speaking, postmodernity lacked any rationale as to why it held the opinions it held regarding which forms of immanence were valid and which forms were invalid. It all became essentially a matter of emotional preference, leaving individuals increasingly alienated from one another (because of their feelings!!!). As I will argue later in more detail, alienation (i.e. the avoidance of relationship) is the primary form of sin—or the breaking of the link to the transcendent. If that is true, then we are lost in a collective practice of sin.
The second flaw of postmodernism with regard to religion was not having a sufficiently grounded yoga or practice—or spiritual technology—to help illuminate the transcendent in the immanent in a profound and really transformative way.
An example. I mentioned earlier that Jacques Derrida towards the end of his life spent a significant amount of time studying and writing on negative theology (traditionally called apophatic theology). Though the term apophatic usually refers to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystical theology, there are Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoism versions of apophaticism (though they go by a different name).
Negative theology was a branch of theology that grew out of mysticism and its true home is in the practice of mysticism. Divorced from mystical praxis, negative theology tends to become rather much a head trip.
In the Christian world, the names most associated with apophatic-negative theology are Dionysius the Areopagite (5-6th century C.E.), St. Gregory of Nyssa (4thth century) and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century). century), Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (16
The negative in negative theology means that this school of theology states what God is not. It shows the limitations of the human mind to conceive of God who is transcendent of normal human thinking and feeling. (I used the word normal there very purposively and it will be clear why I did that in just a second.)
The opposite of apophatic theology is called cataphatic (or positive) theology. It says what God is. God is Love, God is Light, God is Goodness, etc. But apophatic theology states that God is so far beyond our conception of any of these statements that it is more correct to say What God is Not. God is Not Love. God is Not Light. As Dionysius says, since God is the Source and Cause of Goodness, God is greater than Goodness. Since God is the Source of all Being, God is Beyond Being, and so on.
To say that God is not Love is not the same as saying God is Fear. Fear, not hate, is the opposite of love. To say God is not Truth is not saying God is false. It is saying God is transcendent of our notions of True and False. Our human notions of Truth and Falsehood are dependent on our experience in this world. They are dependent in fact upon each other—we know what good is as what is not evil and we know evil as the opposite of good. Our human mind works in this dualistic manner. According to our human minds, as long as there is a one there is a second. There are only left hands because there are right hands and vice versa. If there were no right hands there would be no left hands either. To counteract that mental tendency, the great ancient Greek realizer Plotinus called God, “The One Without a Second.” Like Dionysius saying God is Beyond Being, Plotinus meant that God is beyond our typical conceptions of this or that, right or left, one or two, good or bad.
Now the key here is that apophatic-negative theology is not just a mental act that teaches us some conventional degree of humility concerning how our minds never quite understand the complete reality of the world. Negative theology is birthed from a “positive” experience of being with the transcendent God beyond our conventional (i.e. normal) minds and emotions—that is in mystical experience. Dionysius called his experience of the God beyond Being “dazzling darkness.” God’s Light became so bright to him that it “knocked out” his normal consciousness. The state of such an experience with the Divine beyond conventional words and feelings is called in Christian history The Cloud of Unknowing. There is an experience, a real experience of transcendence, but it is so subtle, so beyond our normal conceptions that it is as it were like being in a cloud, being in a place of unknowing in comparison to our normal “knowing” modes of discursive reason.
Each of those mystical writers goes into extraordinary detail to describe the process, the actual practice (i.e. the spiritual yoga or technology) that one must undertake in order to reach this state beyond normal consciousness.
Derrida—here representing the postmodern urge and mood—never undertook those practices (so far as I can tell by his writings on the subject). He never shows the “positive” transcendental side of negative theology. He sees negative theology as a way of showing the inability of the human reasoning mind and its word-filled manner of speaking to ever grasp the totality of any moment. While not untrue, this version of negative theology misses its most essential element: namely that the partiality of the human mind is only ever really “seen” and understood from another vantage point. That is, we only ever truly know the limitations of our normal minds if we “see” our minds from a different perspective. This other “seer” is what Ken Wilber calls, following the great medieval Christian mystic St. Bonaventure, the “eye of spirit” as opposed to the “eye of mind” or the “eye of flesh”. The “eye of spirit” knows and sees in a qualitatively, unpredictably, different manner than the eye of our mind or the eyes of our senses.
As such, postmodernity became a “talking school” of spirituality and religion. It was still all too identified with the eye of mind. All of the postmodern writers above, though they write beautifully and at times transcendentally, have no real way of teaching how they got to the point of view that they did that offered them such a majestic vista on the life process.
Without a mature intellectual understanding of the spiritual nor a practice to help reveal and deepen it in one’s life, postmodernism floundered.
Opposed to (but ultimately aided by and dependent upon) that postmodern school of religion has been the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is an attempt to return to the premodern world of imposed traditional myth and social formation. This drive towards fundamentalism is occurring in all of the world’s major religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and yes even forms of Buddhism. Fundamentalism is ultimately about a drive for power, in its most disturbing cases, through the use of violence. Buddhism has merged with Sinhalese nationalism in Sri Lanka to lead one of the most bloody horrific counterinsurgency campaigns in contemporary history. Right-wing Hindustanis proclaim India a Hindu country for Hindus. The “settler” movement to claim the whole of the supposed ancient land grant from God to the Jews in modern Israel is driven by a religious apocalyptic messianic Zionism. Evangelicals in the United States seek to undermine the teaching of science, the civil rights of gay persons, and the rule of law in a pluralist secular society. And of course there are Islamic fundamentalisms of all kinds of shapes and sizes some seeking utopian states others nihilistic terrorists.
Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon—it is only at most one hundred years or so old. As religious scholar Karen Armstrong has brilliantly shown, fundamentalism is just another one of the utopian modernist visions of an unstoppably progressive march into a perfect future for all beings under the umbrella of one ideology and anyone who stands (stupidly) opposed to their own social salvation will just be crushed to a pulp. This worldview is the same mentality that drove communism, fascism, nationalism, modern globalizing capitalism, and socialism.
Fundamentalists have assumed the modern understanding of truth—whereby things are true only if they are materially real and provable (usually via science). Islamists argue the Qu’ran offers the real form of human social, political, and economic organization. Creationists argue The Bible is the real source of true science in the world. And on and on. In the actual traditional world to which all these fundamentalist claim to stand for and desire to revive, modern science did not exist and was not afforded such a prime value. Traditional Christian theology—like in St. Augustine from the 5th century—did not believe The Bible’s ultimate truth rested on its scientific value. It did not rise or fall on whether creation happened in exactly 7 days or not. As Augustine said, if the science shows The Bible to not be scientifically true, fine go with the science, as The Bible’s truest message is about the nature of God as Love and the redemption of the universe, something to which science cannot speak.
Fundamentalism, particularly since the 1960s, has also taken advantage of the postmodern (or pluralistic) world. It has cloaked itself in the aura of an oppressed minority needing special rights. It displays itself in aggressively emotional, anti-intellectual forms of social protest, like a collective mass of 3 year olds throwing an enormous temper tantrum—though possibly a temper tantrum with bombs and guns.
The rise of fundamentalism—particularly in the US—has birthed its inevitable doppelganger: New Atheism. New Atheism, represented by the names of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and a whole host of other lesser knowns, is a form of neo-modernist (anti)religious discourse. It takes aim at both multicultural postmodernism and premodern fundamentalism. It also aims its fire at liberal/moderate religious believers as providing cover for fundamentalists.
The New Atheists are not that New however. They are simply re-playing the arguments from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries concerning religion just with some more updated facts and figures and media savvy techniques. They believe, as do all modernists, in one fundamental objective truth. Though they wouldn’t call it belief, of course. They are unable (and unwilling) to differentiate between the various kinds of religious mentality, labeling all belief in a transcendent as literal, mythic, supernatural, and fundamentalist in nature. To the degree they are seeking to stop the rise of fundamentalism and promote rationality, science, liberal human values of tolerance and difference, as well as freedom of conscience and inquiry, hats off to them. To the degree they become their own fundamentalists on an irrational and ultimately mythic (and therefore unquestioned) crusade to wipe religion from the earth, then they become what they hate.
All of these positions—New Atheist, fundamentalist, postmodern, wishy-washy liberalish religion, all have failed for the post-industrial world. These failures leave us at our present impasse, an impasse that will only be overcome by the rise of a post-postmodern religious sensibility.
The Future and Promise of Post-postmodern religion
The first tenet of a post-postmodern religion is:
All of this, i.e. the world, life itself is within God (or the Ultimate).
God is not within it; it is within God. God can be said to be pervading all of this, embracing all of life, but we are in God.
This tenant holds both the classical and the postmodern together in a profound synthesis. The ancient tradition understood that there was a transcendent whose domain alone was the location of salvation. The postmodern world with its immanental transcendentalism is also included in this tenant by having everything within that transcendent source. Therefore salvation is not discovered by escaping life and the world but rather by transcendence precisely within this world.
Everything arising in this moment (and this moment and this moment, unendingly) is arising within the mind and heart of God. Therefore the cosmos is both saved and meaningful. This is the good news of this story. The consequence of this good news however is that the world as we experience it is sadly (horrifically) not that vision. If everything is arising in the mind of God, if we are literally in this moment swimming in God’s ocean, lounging in God’s house, then what does that say about how we treat ourselves, one another, and the very earth on whom we depend?
If any of us took seriously that we are at this moment (and in every moment) both entirely arising within the very self of the Divine and that this Divine has undertaken a project, how different would our lives be? How different would our commitments look? How we spent our time? How we talked and acted, how we moved in our bodies? What we listened to, reflected on, thought about?
The Christian tradition (from which I come) states The Kingdom of God is always already but not yet. Always already is the Absolute truth, the truth that all of this is arising in, through, and as the Ultimate.
The not yet part is that this truth is not yet established in our manners of being. Our educational, political, economic, cultural, psychological, relational, lives are not first and foremost sourced in Source.
Which leads us to (the previously mentioned) second tenant of a post-postmodern religion:
Sin is the breaking of relationship with the Absolute.
Since all of this is within God (or the Absolute, Ultimate, or whatever term is preferred), then all of this is suffused with the radiance of the Divine. What in Biblical terms is called The Glory of God. Therefore, pure relationship in utter freedom within the life process is the expression of awakening (i.e. a true transcendental immanentalism).
Consequently, breaking with relationship, avoiding relationship is the action of sin. Avoiding/breaking relationship is the act of alienation from and rupture with The Absolute. St. Augustine, roughly fifteen hundred years ago, wrote that sin is the curving in on the self (incurvatus se in Latin). Sin, according to Augustine, was breaking from relationship and proper placement in the stream of life and locking oneself into a solipsistic inwardness, a place of isolation that ceased to be open to life and to God.
And here is where the Strut of Discipline is needed to solidify in earthly life, the Light Beams of the Radiant Blissful Absolute.
The disciplines of the post-postmodern religious existence are not predicated upon exclusion of life as was common in more traditional forms of spiritual practice. Again, exclusion of life is avoidance of relationship and lies at the root of sin. The life disciplines are, however, not predicated simply on the unwise and immature reactive expression of any arising thoughts or feelings (as discussed earlier with regard to postmodernism).
The disciplines are mostly (though not entirely) already things we are doing. They involve basic pieces of life like: breathing, eating, exercise, money, career/work, sexuality, and relationship. Other elements that one may or may not be doing that deserve a place: worship, meditation, and study.
But in this way, the vision is to undertake these practices of life with consciousness, and love. To more and more have the bodymind surrender into the wakeful, bliss, heartful Absolute. This surrendering is done so that our beings may become vehicles for the further evolution of this Divine-initiated project.
The disciplines are forms of learning—the word discipline is from the same root as disciple (“student”). The disciplines of life in the post-postmodern religious way are means to become a disciple of existence. The call for our times, I believe, is to become a disciple of The Absolute Beams of Light in the midst of this world, to learn how to bring The Light (via disciplining) into this world. It is a calling to light up the darkness in and through our minds and feelings, our bodies, and cultural and social realities.
The disciplines are the struts upon which the Absolute may rest in this existence. Struts, Wikipedia tells me, are “designed to resist longitudinal compression.” The longitudinal spiritual and emotional compression of The Absolute without the shock absorption of the struts of disciplined life can be brutal indeed. The movement of The Divine Project, the very journey of God, needs vehicles (i.e. needs surrendered beings willing to give themselves to this undertaking). But the vehicles need struts to maintain “performance on the road.” The Beams of Absolute Light are themselves a kind of rocket fuel, a jet propulsion system for these discipline vehicles. Discipline without The Absolute is like constantly polishing, cleaning, and waxing the vehicle that forever sits in a garage.
These two together—The Absolute and Relative, the Always Already and the Not Yet, The Radiant Beams and the Struts of Discipline—are the foundation, construction, and edifice of religion in the post-postmodern age.
To begin in this way, first locate the place within yourself where you are always already free and ultimately full of joy. Where you are right now, by grace, and without effort, resting in peacefulness, awake with tender love and happiness. Relax totally into that current. That current is the energy of God. It is there The Absolute Light is shining through you and out from you to en-lighten the world.
And then begin to surrender all of your life, all of your body, your thoughts, your feelings, everything into that current. Devote yourself to become a channel for that current to awaken this world.
It is always already but not yet. Help the not yet come closer to being the yet.