The Return of the Spirit
The Return of the Spirit
COPYRIGHT © 2020 by Will Groenewegen
All rights reserved.
Printed by Asquith Press, Toronto
This’s and that’s
fragment the mind
We’re caught in this Way
for the Name
to the very last day.
In the face of the uncertain, who among us has the will? Who dares question the assumptions we make about life, and how to best live it? How many of us set sail from safe lands of custom and forge ahead into the unknown?
Out of its depths, the unfamiliar washes at the shores of our beliefs, its mystery felt with each approaching wave. If we venture in, where will it take us, other than away from what we have come to know? But what is the alternative? With how much resolve can we believe our convictions without first putting them aside and testing uncharted water?
We’ve all examined the explanations and stories of our mothers and fathers with a skeptical eye, haven’t we? Surely we’ve at least considered speeding from their truths and gods on that untamed wind, with all its vigour and courage.
But it is a fierce force, of course, the wind that drives our desire to understand - the ‘why’ that leaves our certainties ungrounded, whipping them about in the air. It plays havoc with the things we think we know. It topples our structures and discards our so-called truths. Long before we disappear into its horizon, it tears at the core of our beliefs, ripping their fabric. Our tattered ships force a decision: rebuild or retreat.
Neighbours and friends call from the departed shore, their voices still recognizable across the water: ‘You’ll go insane in the shadows of those giant waves! Look at the state of your sails! Can you not be satisfied with the water you already know? How can it not suffice? Come back to safety!’
But the boat-folk are resolute: ‘How safe is this safety when it rests on such unthoughtful and stormy ground? Are we really to find our solace there?’ Too many do, and go back to familiar life, their sails (as of yet) too thin for the wind of ‘why’, their ships no match for its force. They about-face and hastily throw their ropes upon the docks and tie them securely there, returning to their ways.
Despite this lack of muster, there remains a part unsatisfied, buried but not forgotten, ignored but not unfelt, that continues its quest in dark corners of the mind. Locked away and far from free it’s haunted by doubts, troubled by questions, and burdened by ‘why.’
And meanwhile, the brave sail off, out of sight, riding the chaos and order of the winds, eager to explore the uncertain, the unconscious, and the unknown, their faces leaning into its spray. ‘Damned fools,’ say the people of the land. Their jealousy covered by righteousness and judgment, they mutter with wild egos, ‘the gods will be angry.’
And yet there is always hope, even for the land-walkers, for in between the shadows of their unimaginative beings the children stare with longing at the departing adventurers on the sea, for they too are obsessed with ‘why,’ and have not yet learned to fear and detest it. They look with confusion and pity at the olden people that tower above them, and vow to never become one; to never be jaded by age or ill-conceived custom, and to one day themselves sail into matters unknown.
According to the books, there was a time before the one we live in now, an age before science and the empirical mind. In that place, they say, much of human experience was animated by myth and ritual. Life was given motion by metaphor, it wasn’t simply understood formally and rationally. It knew that some aspects of the Way could not be accurately talked about. Two worlds, physical anddivine, made up the lens and fueled the movements of the people, and for this, the minds of the people allowed for the idea of an unexplainable unknown. For them, truth was revealed through stories, not laboratories, purpose revealed through action, not fact.
That way of understanding life is all but gone here in our secular scientific modern world, at least on the surface; the mythological view has been replaced by a newer one, grounded on matter and fact, not morals and meaning. In many respects this newer Way does indeed offer clarity, and we are grateful for it. Without doubt, the method is a supreme one, and one we should never let go.
But in the shadows of our categories and classifications, this new material worldview has stunted our sense of what life means, and we struggle to find purpose. We laugh at people who believe in gods, though ours have just changed form. We think of myth as stories for infants, and forget that our reality is still informed by interpretation, by ancient meaning-making apparatus that whisper to us from the deepest parts of our beings.
Granted, for most of what we think about and experience, reason and science are our go-to systems of interpretation, and for good reason: they hold great insight, and improve our lives profoundly. But are there not matters of interest and necessity that lie beyond reason’s grasp? Are we not more than a rationalist’s account of existence?
For insights into the idea of ‘the eternal,’ the material worldview comes up short. When confronting our mortality, or thinking about ‘how to act in the world,’ it doesn’t have much to say. By and large, this worldview sees the human as a being influenced solely by deterministic forces, and in doing so it can’t help but leave us feeling helpless and alienated, like we have no will of our own, no act that offers us catharsis.
The mythological worldview, on the other hand, affords the space to consider and embody those parts of human experience and understanding, a space outside the realm of language, financial markets, and even rational comprehension. It makes use of other powerful tools, like ritual, symbols and ceremony, using them to penetrate the depths of human experience and understanding in ways the material worldview alone cannot.
In this place, nature is animated and mysterious. In this place, metaphysical ideas, paradoxical problems, and unconscious elements of our beings are not stifled, repressed, or shunned as irrational and infantile. In fact they are revered, for they hold clues to the transcendent potential of our lives. The truth, meaning and reality of such a situation is poorly accounted for in the scientific material worldview - when pressed, it is forced to admit that it can’t go it alone.
That ancient lens, rusting away within us, is needed again, not to replace our current rational one, but to join it. So far, some argue, we have lived in only one or the other of these two Ways of being. And admittedly, we were once superstitious to a fault, but now we’re empirical to a dangerous degree. These two pillars of understanding and experience, mistakenly pitted against each other for the last hundreds of years, have left our equilibrium off, and our potential unmet. But as the great pendulum of human history swings between them, now we know, for we have been to both.
It has, to us, become apparent, that ‘truth,’ ‘reality,’ and where we make meaning come from both sources, equally vital. We understand truth not just as physical matter, but also as moral spirit. We understand that reality comes to us from physical andmetaphysical realms, from consciousness and unconsciousness, from fact and action, from thought and experience. The best path forward makes use of both modes of seeing and both Ways of being.
John Returns to the Sea
All the signs pointed in the same direction. All the voices spoke in harmony. The timing was perfect. It was destined to be.
Or at least, this was a reading of the situation. It was an interpretation of the events. Could it be he was meant to do it? Was he intended to arrive? He came here at the last minute and on a whim, as if it wasn’t his decision at all, as if other and greater forces had it planned from the start. Or at least, this was how one could see it, this is how it might seem to be.
Having been here last year, John Ryder already knew about the little stone house sitting on the warm coast of the Pacific. It was the kind of place he had always favoured: out of the way and out of doors, with sand instead of pavement and fishing boats instead of cars. He thought about it constantly throughout the previous year – about taking time off the daily grind to write and surf in the waves of the early morning sea. Thinking about it helped get him through irritating commutes in the exhaust-thickened streets where he was from. It brought relief at the grocery store, waiting with the other annoyed and unhappy looking people buying processed products under the buzzing of fluorescent lights. ‘Why don’t we at least speak to each other in these god-forsaken line-ups?,’ John would ask himself as they all shuffled quietly to the front of the queue. But he was one of them too, standing there, silently staring at other people’s purchases.
In those moments, John could sometimes make himself remember - he’d close his eyes and see the house, resting slightly crooked next to the moving sea beside the quiet village. It was a coping strategy, undoubtedly, and it helped; his breathing slowed and his jaw would unclench. He conjured up the image whenever he got caught in wind tunnels downtown, making a kite out of his clothes, the angry sour polluting air pushing him back to work. Or when he missed the bus, or when he locked himself out of his truck, or when he dropped his phone and cracked the screen into a thousand pieces on the sidewalk; there it would be, easily accessible in that file in his mind, under ‘how life makes more sense.’
The place can’t be found online. There isn’t even a phone number to call. All you can do is get on a plane, get yourself to the village, and hope to find the old lady who owns it (Sophia is her name). For this fact alone John kept his hopes down, but he crossed his fingers and made his way there anyway. And, as luck or fate or meaningless randomness would have it, an Australian surfer just so happened to be reluctantly packing up after a six-month stay. John quickly found Sophia, and paid her on the spot. It was a very good beginning indeed.
His new home stands alone, anywhere from three to ten metres back from the ocean (depending on the tide), resting about half way between the small village and a massive cliff made of sun-bleached rock. Next to it the little house is tiny and easy to miss. In fact, if you were to walk by it there’s a good chance you wouldn’t see it at all; sun-drenched into its surroundings, the hideaway somehow disappears into the rock and sand that cover the coastline.
Inside is all that is needed for a good writing stint: a bed, a shelf, a plug, a chair, and a desk under a little open-air window that looks out to the water. Beside is a half-outdoor kitchen with a warm sand-packed floor. Next to that a simple shower-room with the sky for a roof and a hole in the wall, so you can see the sea when you’re getting clean.
And what a sea! Warm and endless, rising and falling, coming and going, day after day. For all its motion, it pencils in a horizon so straight, like an iron bar - so wide, you can see the sun rise out of it and drop back into it later in the day - so vast, it can't be fully absorbed with an unmoving eye. The majesty of the nature, the power of the ocean, it made John’s body feelincredible, somehow. And his mind too, in awe at the general wonders of life.
‘It’s so diverse in all of its manifestations, but it’s so whole and united in how it all acts together - like it has a mind of its own...’ It blew John’s mind, to consider this force of life, to consider that great Will that wills its parts into action, that unfragmented sum that transcends its parts, that condition for the possibility of life to occur.
As delightful and annoying as this way of considering was, the ocean was always like this for John - it compelled him to think and experience his life in this way. It connected him to something greater than just himself. It made him feel as if he was a part of something bigger than his subjectivity allowed for on its own. In doing so, it made him feel less alone.
And yet, ironically, and at the same time, the vastness of the sea reminded him of his limitations and finitude, of his little place in the great expanding universe, and how alone he really was. It was quite the catch-22.
On the night in question he sat in the shallows of the surf, appreciating that the ocean and the air were the same warm inviting temperature. There was no one else around, just he, the breeze, the water, and the stars. ‘It’s amazing that self-consciousness has somehow emerged from the darkness of the universe and the force of the sea,’ he said out loud to the water. 'Even just to consider it; it's such a remarkable activity, thinking is… it’s astounding that we can do it at all!’
How unlikely the odds, we think; chances so infinitesimally small - it could not have been by chance at all: there of course must be a creator and a plan. Or at least, this is how it could be perceived; indeed, this is what many choose to believe.
John grew up in a northern land. He’s tall, in his late thirties, with a thin strong build. He wears light-brown hair, a relatively unkempt beard, and a simple and classic choice of cloth - usually without any visible brands. He’s one of these people who is occupied with the human condition, drawn to the philosophical – and in this age of existential crisis, there was a lot to consider.
Compared to his urban steel home where the sun struggles to shine its light through the tightly planted skyscrapers, the pace and style of life here at the stone house runs on a different sort of clock: it’s slower, and rises and falls with the sun and the tide. Since it's a tiny village, everyone knows each other. John was happy to be a part of it, but it also saddened him. This way of life was too unfamiliar, and he hated that it was. But at the very same time, he somehow felt more at home in this place, as if the trials and tribulations of a life made a little more sense. Romanticizing aside, the whole experience just felt more ‘right.’
Here, miles from the maddening crowds, time passes largely hidden from the world, and days go by with a natural consistency: in the early hours, the sun quietly pulls itself out of the ocean, the surfers and pelicans wake up and share morning waves as they sport and hunt in the early light. Locals perform the outdoor duties that only the morning sun will allow. As the day progresses they take to the shade and trade the stories and strategies of the day while the surfers and pelicans nap in their nests.
Usually some other small event happens too, like a passing vegetable truck getting stuck in the sand on its way through town. Towns-folk rush to aid the truck driver and soon the vegetables are off to the next village. Then low tide comes around, and the local boys perform their chores as they (usually very successfully) hunt crabs and clams in the now-exposed sun-drying rock. They give their findings to their mothers to cook up for dinner. Soon after all this, the sea begins to rise and the sun begins to set, the sky erupts in colour once again, and the surfers and pelicans return to the water. And just as the sun and its light slide up the trunks of the palms and the sides of the stone houses dotted along the beach, the smell of seafood cooking on the fire takes over and satiates the sandy streets, still warm from the day's rays.
John came to learn that such a style and story of life, necessarily set by the sun and the water, renders “what time is it?” a completely different sort of question. Back at home in the city, if you were to ask someone what time it was, often they’ll tell you down to the minute. ‘It’s 9:27.’ The urban experience demands it: if you miss the bus to work too many times you’ll lose your job. In a place like this, if you were to ask someone 'what time is it?' the answer would often not involve numbers at all. Instead, a reply that has something to do with the state of affairs in nature, or a derivative thereof: ‘It’s high tide’ or ‘it’s time to catch tuna.’
‘How nice it would be,’ thought John, ‘if in my life, meaning and value were overtly made in this nature-based way. If the position of the sun and the sea mattered amidst the towers and high-rises in that manufactured forest I call home. It’s hard to conceive in the shadows of the towering bank-castles of our current corporatocracy, yet so obvious its crucial nature in this place. Here, it’s far more often far more important to know where the tide is then where the time is. '9:27' is just not as meaningful and pertinent to daily life as is a shifting sea or a current of tuna.’
Case in point: it is only when the tide is low that John can walk east on the beach and access a set of rock stairs cut into the side of the cliff (there is another way there but it takes forever). You climb up about a hundred steps that are carved into the stone, and at the top lives a man named Gara.
Gara waters his Garden
Gara was born in the country but raised in France. He’s an old, very tall (if not a little stooped), mustached man who returned to his homeland about ten years prior, to retire, and enjoy the rest of his days at the edge of his cliff. His mother was from the village below; his father was a Frenchman.
Gara's accent is thick like the air where he lives, his English is superb, his mind sharp. His half-foreign genes make him stand out in a local crowd, skin more olive than brown, his height and large nose arousing suspicion from the locals as to the origins and trust-worthiness of this potential outsider.
John had met him when he was out exploring one day the year before, and took such a strong liking to him that he visited almost every day thereafter. Over their morning coffees and stiff afternoon coconut vodkas, the two men quickly developed a relationship ‘existencial’ in nature, as Gara would say.
This day was like all the others: after the hugs and handshakes subsided, they found themselves deep in their familiar banter. John told Gara that he had returned to write a book.
Gara was preparing to water his garden, something he did every morning when the sun was at this angle. ‘What’s the book about, my friend?’ he asked.
‘What's it about?’, considered John. Surprisingly, it kind of took him off guard. It was an obvious question, but one, he realized, that wasn’t easy to answer. He thought about it for a second: humans, as he understood it, are meaning-making machines. Sure, objectively speaking, perhaps there’s no meaning to life – that is, the universe might not care one way or another - but subjectively, we can’t help but do it, make it, see value - even if it’s declaring that there isn’t any: the irony of nihilism is that proclaiming that there’s no meaning is a profoundly meaningful thing to do.
It was thus not so much if, but howwe make meaning that was most interesting to John. For him, the current secular story and guide on how to live isn’t great at helping us find and make sense of meaning. He was convinced that it was too materialistic, rational, and economic to offer a sound road map of the hero’s journey. Our traditional spaces, our religious places, that we have always used to develop and experience this epic - are disintegrating, and hard to find. And so the practice of reflecting on the metaphysical, of thinking about our place in the world, and of acting it out through ritual, well, it has all but disappeared. It was no wonder to him that we have found ourselves in such a deep existential crisis. When it comes to understanding meaning, when it comes to experiencing life for ourselves and with each other, we’re rusty, without mentorship, and charged to figure it out on our own.
John felt confident enough to start, although he spoke slowly at first: ‘Well, essentially, it’s about how the ideas we have, and the behaviours we act out, shape our reality… so we should be thoughtful about them.’
Gara nodded and looked over. ‘Good, yes; we can’t just go around believing what we’re told to believe, that’s dangerous. Dangerous indeed. One needs to be an active agent, yes? in the stories they take to be true.’
He pulled his garden hose out from the side of his house, started unraveling it, and pointed it towards John. ‘After all, the way that governments, priests, and capitalists tell us to live our lives is loco.’
John agreed. ‘Yah you’re right, like: ‘it’s okay to treat our planet like garbage.’
Gara shook his head and muttered ‘out of sight, out of mind’. John let out a short sad sigh and added, ‘or how capitalist society rewards us for taking advantage of others, reinforcing the idea that we should only be concerned with ourselves.’
John looked around while he spoke, reacquainting himself with Gara’s outdoor space, noticing the small changes in the set-up since his visit the year before – a new painting on the outside wall over there, a new television by Gara’s little pool on the cliff. In that moment, even while considering the dismal subject matter they were unfolding, he found himself content, mesmerized by the beauty, and the weather, and the words of an interesting friend.
Gara had much to say on the subject at hand. He closed his eyes and focused on giving John book-worthy words: ‘we’re lonely, purpose is hard to find, yet we’re told this modern way of living is better, and more advanced, than all the others. We think that our scientific mind is the only correct way to understand life. That it’s the evolved and civilized way, not like the ‘primitive’ (Gara air quoting) that existed before…’ Gara shook his head, ‘how righteous! How stupid! How short-sighted!’ Gara opened his eyes and looked at his friend expectantly. John smiled and nodded approvingly, enjoying the rant and agreeing with the sentiment.
Gara breathed a few long breaths of warm tropical air, filtered by miles of ocean. Then he dragged the garden hose over to his aloe vera plants and mango trees. He looked over at John: ‘Social norms are sneaky like that, wouldn’t you say?’
John nodded, ‘That’s exactly it, they’re insidious. That’s why we must approach with skepticism and think carefully about what we believe, or unhelpful ideas will take root...’ He looked at Gara watering his herb garden ‘…then they become automatic, right? Our brains wire to believe them, and the crazy becomes the normal. Before you know it, we’re brainwashed, controlled, repressed, mentally beaten down, emotionally fraught.’
It seemed too dangerous to John, the consequences too great. Especially since our current narrative strips the mythological view away, and in doing so does away with our rituals, deadens our spirits, and leaves us with anxious psychologies. But before he worried himself more about it, he glanced towards the gardening Gara, and smiled as the mist from his hose caught a rainbow in the sun. He really appreciated friends like this, that don’t simply believe the way their parents, priests and presidents tell them to. He wanted to meet as many of these kinds of people as he possibly could.
Why didn’t they stress it when we were young? Why weren’t we told when we were kids? Why weren’t they shouting it to us from the rooftops, urging us to step back and question our ideas? Why didn’t they say: ‘don’t just listen to us – think for yourself!’
Far too often it’s the opposite that happens: we’re shunned for being rebels, punished for questioning authority, banned for pointing out the mythological nature of our belief systems, coerced into taking on the script of our time. The slyness of these cultural norms brings with it real challenges: for even if we do resist, it can be a full-time job just to be sure we don’t get duped again.
What didn’t sit well with John was how many people seem to prefer it in that unthoughtful land of mindless living, unwilling to risk the uncertainty and upheaval that dismantling their belief system would surely bring. It is better, they convince themselves, to do as you’re told. It’s safer, they argue, to believe in stories that attempt to resolve the anxieties of life, that promise us certainty, and even ‘everlasting happiness’. But these are just avoidant strategies that keep us from being fully human, are they not? John thought so: ‘Weshouldbe rebels. We shouldthink twice about following the herd, as lonely as it might be on the path.’
At this point in the gardening Gara spoke up, with more ideas for the book: ‘How about this,’ he said and paused for a moment before: ‘…the powers that be can tryto put their spells on us, but in the end, they can’t force us to believe’, you know? We the people have the final say!’ Gara looked inspired by his own words.
John responded, ‘it’s true. But it’s up to us to use our power…’ John trailed off and gazed across the water. Gara was moving the hose over to the vegetable section of his garden. John turned and watched him for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flock of pelicans flying across the waves in the distance, looking for unsuspecting fish surfing in the crest. ‘…let’s say a bird craps on your head,’ he began.
‘I’d prefer for that not to happen,’ Gara said.
‘And yet for some it’s considered good luck,’ said John. ‘So they wouldn’t be upset about it. Others, say, a super religious person, might get the post-head-crap idea that their God is punishing them for some transgression or another, and the bird-crap event could lead them to terrible thoughts and feelings of guilt and shame. So in the end, it’s not necessarily a negative orpositive experience; it could be interpreted as a sign of good things to come, the harsh judgment brought down by an omnipotent presence, it could mean countless other things, or maybe not much at all. How we think about it, how we perceive it, will determine how we feel about it, and how we act on it.’
Gara was examining the leaves of his avocado trees. ‘Ideas become the pathways in our brains, and the chemistry in our bodies.’ John agreed: it’s not so much that external reality itselfholds power, giving us value and meaning and emotion, but instead the way we interpret it. Deep in our neural pathways, ideas hard wire themselves into existence. It was somehow both a ridiculously obvious and wonderfully profound idea. They glanced at each other for a moment, happy to be in each other’s company again.
Gara had turned off the hose. He was sitting down across from John, rolling a cigarette with some tobacco he had gotten from the market in town. John watched and said: ‘the counter-argument, of course, is a deterministic one: reality is not so much based on our ideas, but instead by our genes. It’s nature, not nurture. That we are essentially material beings, driven by a genetic code, not by unknown creative forces, not by free-will.’ Gara nodded and John continued. ‘In that kind of genetic-based deterministic view, something like ‘violence’ is explained through biology: since we’re programmed, there’s nothing we can do about it; we’re predisposed. And if that’s the case, it’s not really up to us, and with that idea, the urgency to consider our values wanes.’
Gara took a long drag of his smoke and looked at John. ‘Right, right,’ he said, exhaling. ‘And there’s probably some truth to it. But if you ask the experts, they say that’s not the way genes work, or at least it’s not that black and white.’ He raised his index finger and closed his eyes for effect: ‘having a genetic predisposition doesn’t an alcoholic make… it’s the environment, it’s experience, it’s behaviour, it’s self-determination - those are, at least in part, the deciding factors for how and why we do the things we do.’
Today, the task of reviewing our beliefs is as paramount as ever. We’re encouraged to obsess over certainty, and to detest anything that can’t be known for sure. As a consequence, existential concerns are hard to fit into the story of our lives. We’re persuaded to search for someone, or some group, to think on our behalf, and give us the assurances we have learned to crave. We gladly pay for it, we even pray for it. We’re (at the least implicitly) told to repress sadness and pathologize stress, even though they’re natural experiences we are sure to face. Our current script has us running towards antidotes and distractions, and we’re offered little guidance when life inevitably gives us uncertainty and despair.
Before we know it, we find ourselves on the bandwagon of belief. ‘How did we get here?’ one might ask the others, as they bounce along the road of life. ‘Well, what else are we to do?’ the others respond, and suspiciously label the questioner an undesirable.
Upon even a cursory reflection, our current Way of living does not show itself to be as developed and advanced as we may have first thought. Whereas we once saw the physical world and the divine or mythological world as cohabitating, we have at present been reduced to beings that are understood primarily in terms of the material and the economy. Now we look around, more and more in danger of forgetting what it is to be fully alive, and think, ‘what the hell is the point of it all?’
Ours has become an oversimplified and unsustainable story, and one need not look far to see it: we prioritize making weapons over feeding the hungry, we don’t share power with those in need, we’d often rather kill someone for their idea of God then question our own. We murder each other over differing ideas, over profits, over greed. We drive species to extinction, we clear cut forests, we pollute land, water and air to disgusting excess. We focus on what we can know and control in the external environment, and dismiss all that we can’t as less important, even irrelevant. We have all kinds of knowledge, sure, but is this what we’re supposed to do with it? The current narrative doesn’t ask the question, in fact it actively kicks the can down the road, leaving the mess for the next fiscal quarter.
What infuriated John the most is that this state of affairs, based simply on bad ideas, doesn’t have to be. And yet even with all the signs laid out before us, we still tell ourselves that our ‘evolved’ lens is the best way to understand and experience life, and that because of this, our aforementioned priorities are justified.
John said so to Gara, as he watched him cut some aloe from a plant in the garden, squeeze out the juice, and rub it into his hair. (He swore that it was helping it grow back fuller than ever.) ‘There’s so much vested interest in keeping things the way they are - the economy has to keep churning, right? The pill-makers have to keep making their profits. Sure, the icecaps melt because of our selfish warped perspective, but that is of little concern.’ Garalookedpained to say it. They sat in silence for a minute, both lamenting the state of affairs.
John finally broke the silence. ‘It’s like you have to be crazy to fit in and believe it all…. It’s like you have to be insane to be sane.’
The modern age isolates: more and more, people feel a deep sense of emptiness and pointlessness envelop their lives. Where are our bonds? Where is our necessity? What is a meaningful life? We try to avoid these issues, but we just make it worse: repressed anxiety is forced to come out in weird, neurotic, indirect, and hard to manage ways. We are left unprepared, without incentive to deal with it in any satisfactory style. So we medicate ourselves in horror, and convince ourselves that it’s all just fine, or that it’s a lost cause.
But it isn’t fine, and it can’t be lost. The story of the nation is, in the end, just lines drawn on a map. Money, rights, God, the nation – if what we are is ideas put to action, can we not change our ways, and if not society’s, at least our own? With the Armageddon clock at a few minutes to midnight, is there even time?
John and Gara Consider the Book
It was a few hours later. The hot afternoon sun was moving quickly across the sky, and was beginning its dip into the sea. John had gone for a swim down below while Gara napped. They were sitting at Gara’s table once again. John was setting up the chessboard. They got back into their talks as if they hadn’t paused.
‘So...’ John hid a black pawn in his left hand, a white one in his right, and presented his fists to Gara. ‘…part of the book is about how ideas shape our world,’ Gara moved his head in acknowledgement and pointed at his friend’s left hand. John made the first move. ‘Another is that there are some ideas that we just can’t know about for certain, regardless of how much we consider them for ourselves.’
‘Like God?’ Gara offered. He moved a pawn, then poured John and himself glasses of water from a jug on the table.
‘Exactly,’ said John. ‘Making claims about the infinite, the divine, the eternal, objective reality - however you want to say it - is ridiculous.’
Gara nodded again without looking up. ‘Si, we can’t grasp that stuff…’ He trailed off quickly as his eyes focused even more intently on the board.
John finished the sentiment: ‘…They’re too great for our limited minds to comprehend.’
Gara looked up this time. ‘But that’s not what we think these days, right? We proclaim that our religious beliefs are factually true, and act as such.’ He moved a knight.
John frowned and studied the board. What a mistake, he thought to himself. Not Gara’s move, but humanity’s: religious metaphysical assumptions aren’t meant to be taken literally, are they? Their truths are different, deeper somehow. They speak through symbol, myth and metaphor to what lies beyond our methods of comprehension. And science makes the same mistake: convinced that it alone has the proper and objective lens in which to view all things. John moved a pawn.
Gara sighed and considered it for a second. ‘In our effort to eliminate doubt, in our fear of the great void, we cling to certainty where none can be found.’
John added, ‘And we’ll never find it...’ he paused for a moment, and then: ‘…Lacan would say that we are forced to interpret reality indirectly, in the symbolic realm. Kant would say we can’t know reality in itself, we’re bound by filters of time and space.'
Gara was making good work of the game, having just ousted one of John’s rooks from the table. John didn’t seem too concerned, though, his mind was full: ‘Jung puts it nicely too. Something like: as for the universal things we know nothing, only when we admit this will we return to equilibrium, or something like that.’
Gara made another move and then got up. He searched around for a tin box in one of his outdoor kitchen cupboards a few feet away. ‘That’s like Taoist philosophy as well: ‘the name that can be named is not the eternal name’. He opened the tin and poured some coffee beans into his grinder and pressed the button. ‘It’s a good philosophy to build on,’ he said over the noise. Gara stopped grinding and gazed somewhere over John’s shoulder. ‘The problem is, that way of believing doesn’t provide the ground that some are convinced they need - it leaves too many unanswered questions, they argue – it’s not the way they want to travel through life.'
John moved his queen into the fray, hoping to turn the course of the game. Sitting back, he looked over at his friend preparing the coffee. Gara was right: it indeed sounds appealing to believe in something so sure of itself, and understandable that in the face of the disturbing unknown we opt for stories that quiet the psyche's fear of it.
In this dogmatic act, we convince ourselves that we are spared from uncertainty, even spared from our fear of it. But it’s avoidant thinking - we’re too afraid to admit that we interpret reality through limited and finite lenses.
Gara was speaking to this matter: ‘Who can blame us for such safeguards? Life is scary and full of suffering!'
‘Life isscary, and totally absurd, really.’ John said, 'but I’d rather suffer with consideration than live in delusion. If I don’t, I’ve lost the wonder and humility that fuels a good spirit…. it’s the easy way out, don’t you think, not confronting mortality and morality on your own? Would life really be too chaotic and barbaric without the ‘certainty’ (air quotes) that these ideologies promise?’ John shook his head no.
'So what you're really saying is, don't be religious.' Gara was walking over to John with the fresh coffee. He stood over the chessboard and glanced at it for a few seconds before moving a piece. ‘Check,’ he said. John frowned again and assessed the damage, but only half-heartedly - his thoughts were still at the conversation at hand.
Over and over, in discussions he had had throughout the years, it would inevitably come to this, the assumption that if you don't take religion as fact, if you don’t believe in its truth literally, then you aren’t religious, and there’s no point in trying to be. But his feeling was that the opposite is true: religions are not supposed to be understood as facts, but as moral guides to life, and spaces to consider that which our faculties fail to fully grasp: religious truth and scientific truth are different things. It is only within the empirical spell of reason that this realization is so easily obscured from view.
John turned to Gara to answer. ‘If being religious means literal belief in scripture, if it means being convinced that you know the secrets and mysteries of the universe and what happens after you die, that your scripture is the right one and that all the others are not - then I'd say yah, don't be religious.’
Gara was looking intently at the game. ‘It’s like what you were saying before: today’s religious folk have forgotten that ‘God’ (air quotes) is truly un-nameable, and that language and intellect will always fall short in comprehending it.’ He reached in front of him and moved a piece.
‘Right,’ said John. ‘In a way, the trulyreligious are agnostic – they understand that God and oneness are incomprehensible. They understand that we can only explore such matters metaphorically and symbolically - and even thencan’t adequately share these experiences and understandings. This agnostic type of religiosity - one founded on the insight that we know that we can’t know, that we realize that we can’t talk about it clearly or without metaphor, but we consider it none the less - is little found in our age. But if this is what is meant by ‘religious’ then yes! Be religious, bask in the unknown, be wary of explanations put forth by the methods of religions and science.’
Both views pander that the universe makes sense. ‘Its essential nature can be known!’, they yell from both sides. But come on, who are we to make such claims? Gara looked at John while moving his rook across the board.
‘Check-mate,’ he said, and smiled.
How did we get to this place? How did we end up with this lens? Firstly, it is imperative to understand that until about 500 years ago, before the scientific revolution and the rationalism of the Enlightenment period, our interpretation and understanding of reality was very different. In that other place and space, it is said, the many narratives and experiences that made up cultural norms explicitlyhelped forge our morals and guide our actions, and provided a frame that helped people understand and experience their place as individuals andas members of a group. These myths and stories were comprised of metaphors and symbols and lived experiences based on a matrix not scientific and objective in nature: these truths served our lives in a meaningful yet not literal way.
Within the mythological worldview, symbols and rituals manifest themselves in the everyday, and speak to those things that are impossible to adequately talk about. They describe processes of transformation, focusing on the ‘how’ more than the ‘what’. This lens therefore allows the user to explore qualities of life that have little to do with facts and information.
Let’s of course not be too romantic about it - back in the Middle Ages we were arguably too irrational and too superstitious for our own good. Women accused of being witches were tied up and thrown into bodies of water - if they floated, they were witches (since a witch was believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that water would reject their bodies and keep them from drowning). Brutal. So yes, indeed, the uncritical, unhelpful beliefs that arose from solely living within that mythological worldview proved problematic, and needed to be changed.
Our answer was the material lens. Over a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, science, reason, and rationality became the methods and systems that framed our lens on life. And yes, these tools, they are amazing. They provide much clarity! We can knowthings and verify them and build upon our knowledge. The problem is, for it to work (at least the way it presents now), one is forced to think about truth, and what reality is and means, onlyas matter and information in the world, as things we touch and see and count and order. Within this framework, the material worldview does not negotiate with the spirit, and does not like acknowledging things that it can’t verify, and therefore know. Thus, in order to participate in our newer material ethos, one must, in a very real way, discard the spiritand the unknownas what is real and meaningful, instead replacing it with the physicaland the knownas the legitimate Way to understand life.
This switching of worldviews has proved successful; we have almost completely diverted our gaze from the older mythological lens and towards this newer one. And yet for all its benefits, this switch (or at least the way that we did it) has turned out to be devastating for humanity: we lost the capacity to navigate the unknown. We can’t help but try to ‘know it’, or claim that we can.
On the surface we pretend we don’t care, that we’re over all that unknowable stuff. But deep inside we yearn for that other Way. Deep down we all know that seeing this material view of the world as the be-all–and-end-all of what reality is, has cheapened our humanity. By convincing us to dismiss other ways of understanding and experiencing life, it teaches us to detest the irrational, to repress the unconscious, and revere reason above all else. The material worldview is indeed incredible, but we are trapped in its gaze and dazzled by its lights. Reason and scientific knowledge are amazing tools, but we are seduced by their formulas, and, for the time being, have succumbed to their spells.
John and Gara were putting the chess pieces away and sipping their coffees. John brought the topic up. ‘It’s a real shame that we don’t think we need any lens outside of the scientific one...’ he said, ‘…we think: what’s the point of providing space to attend to the mysteries of life, and explore truth, with a lens other than science? What’s the point of finding meaning, or figuring out how to act as a human in the world, outside of the rational framework?
‘A lot of us are confused about that, it’s true.’ Gara admitted. ‘I hear it a lot, people who say they feel spiritually empty….’ They gazed out across the sea and thought about it for a while.
How do we engage with the ‘spirit’? The modern story has us laughing at those questions, magazines and TV shows don’t discuss them, we learn to scoff at their value. We feel superior to our ancestors, but are left stunted in the darkness of their shadows, and find it hard to live with a deep sense of ‘why’.
Our new worldview strips life of ritual, so we’re confused as to how to attend to mysterious and metaphysical matters. We’ve forgotten how to tap into the deeper parts of our being, we can’t remember how to use symbol and metaphor. We’re estranged from our bodies and find it hard to be in the present moment. So we dwell on the past, and are more anxious about the future. All this leaves us unsure about what exactly life is supposed to mean, and how to best deal with the uncertainties and discomforts of life.
John and Gara both sat there for a bit longer, looking out onto the ocean and sipping their coffees. They were both silently thinking the same thing: if we were to dislodge ourselves from the material deterministic worldview as our sole guide for ‘how to be alive’, what would our lives look like?
John Makes his Way Home
The person who thinks he has found the ultimate truth is wrong. There is an often-quoted verse in Sanskrit, which appears in the Chinese Tao-te Ching as well: “He who thinks he knows, doesn't know. He who knows that he doesn't know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And not to know is to know”. Joseph Campbell[i]
On his walk back to his little stone house, John's thoughts remained on the problem at hand. He rolled his up pants and walked the surf in the warm thick evening air. How did people believe thousands of years ago? He thought of what the inner world of people's psyches must have looked like when the mythological view reigned supreme. Before science and reductionism overshadowed all, making fact synonymous with truth. He had no clue - not really. Sure, he could read how First Nations peoples had spirits or gods for almost everything, he could look at hieroglyphs and totems and cave art and try to get a sense of what it meant to them and how it shaped their lens.
But it was all a guess really, an educated one or not. He'd read Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. He’d lived in far-off lands and studied Eastern philosophies. He’d visited ancient Mayan cities and Buddhist temples on his travels. From his knowledge and experience he understood, in theory at least, that there was this other way of being. But in a scientific age where philosophy is not stressed and metaphysical reflection is not part of our sidewalk banter, it seemed all but lost.
‘For all their superstitious and dogmatic thought, at least organized religions are pondering these things, ‘I'll give 'em that’, he said out loud to the ocean moving at his feet.
Nietzsche was right: our switch in worldviews led not only to the death of God, but so too the metaphysical assumptions that were part of the package. How now do we contend with mystery and wonder? Have we killed our greatest insights? Is the voice of our spirit but a muffled whisper in our new mode of living?
John breathed deeply and walked up to the house. How and where are we moderns supposed to think about these matters of belief and truth and reality? With both reason and religion so certain in their ways, where does the spirit find solace? Where are our elders now? Who will show us the rituals, who will lead us through the rites of passage in our present world? How do we commune with the ineffable under the intoxicating knowledge systems of the smug?
In that moment, John wished he had been a friend with Nietzsche, that brilliant mind so concerned with the death of God. He wanted to talk it out with him. When he got to his place he went inside and did the next best thing: open his copy of The Gay Science:
How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves? What was holiest and most powerful of all that world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? [ii]
The question was as relevant as ever, what with so many people these days admitting that they don’t really believe in anything. In the margins of Nietzsche’s passage, John wrote notes to his would-be friend:
You’re right to ask, dear man: are we glad to see God go? Yes, Christopher Hitchens, we know, it is ridiculous that there would be an omnipotent father and super-ego in the sky personally invested in our lives. ‘That is for superstitious fools’, says Richard Dawkins and the like. ‘It’s the unresolved Oedipus complex of our kind’, says Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic friends. But these are now obvious, not radical points. Do we have to proceed with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude? Do we have to throw the baby out with the bath water?
John looked up for a moment and gazed out his open-air window at the sea. He breathed in the warm misty evening air and kept jotting down words:
The human experience is not one we can explain in boxes with well-defined boundaries. So much of what it is to be us is murky and impossible to properly comprehend. Despite any claims to the contrary, neither reason nor religion have the answers. Until we are agnostic in our approach, armed with both the material and mythological worldviews, we won’t best approach this thing called life.
He put his pen down and looked out intently through the window to the sea. He could taste the salt and feel the misty spray in the air. He finally was clear about what to write in his book: how can we understanding meaning, and see life as sacred, in the modern world?
With this question floating around in his head, he flung himself into bed and was asleep within seconds.