Sunday, July 4, 2010

#74. Modern, Pre-modern, Post-modern

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This is the first of several posts dealing with ideas about the integration of science and religion that I've found in the two important books-- Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul and Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution.

I introduced them in the previous post; if you missed that one (#73), you might want to look at it before reading this post. I'll be sharing some thoughts about Michael Dowd's book in the near future. My focus here is some ideas from Wilber's book that I found especially helpful in understanding what's needed for "Integrating Science and Religion"-- the subtitle of Wilber's Marriage of Sense and Soul.

As I mentioned in that previous post, I'd been irrationally prejudiced against Wilber and was happily surprised to learn how much good sense he made once I finally got around to reading his work. He's saying some important things.


One of the most valuable things about Wilber's book concerning the integration of science and religion is his explanation of the differences between the various stages of cultural development in the history of Western society.

The stages are usually named "modern," "pre-modern" and "post-modern." But these terms aren't especially helpful, at least initially, because the central word, "modern," has two very different meanings.

In everyday life "modern" means "contemporary." But in the context of Western culture's historical development, the word "modern" refers to an attitude or cultural perspective about the nature of reality and humanity's place in it that is already about 400 years old.

"Modern" in this context refers to a specific worldview-- a cosmology, as we've come to call a culture's worldview. And to distinguish it from "contemporary," this worldview is usually referred to by the much less familiar name: "modernity."

So our modern world is already post-modern, in the sense that there have been several centuries of reactions to the worldview called "modernity." It's confusing.

But it's well worth the effort to get these terms clear, because only with this developmental view of Western culture-- only with an understanding of what's meant by the three cultural worldviews of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity-- can we make good sense of what's needed for the integration of science and religion in our day.


The worldview called "modernity" dates from the beginnings of science, roughly 1600 CE. In contrast, almost all of the world's religions date from much earlier. For this reason, those religious traditions belong to that cultural stage called "pre-modernity."

In his Marriage of Sense and Soul Ken Wilber spells out well the specific characteristic of the pre-modernity stage of Western culture. It's the understanding that reality is made up of levels.

That sounds strange at first, but Wilber notes that a hierarchical or multi-leveled view of the world has been held in one form or another since humanity's earliest times. Its classical name is the "Great Chain of Being." It's also referred to by the somewhat more helpful name, "Great Ladder of Beings" or the "Ladder of Nature." By whatever name, it's the key to understanding what's meant by pre-modern, modern and post-modern.

The main point is simple enough: when we look at all the different things that exist, we readily recognize that they fall into various categories. 

There are levels or gradations to the kinds of things we see in our world. Some cultures have dozens of levels to their Ladder of Beings; the minimum our minds seem to be able to handle is three.

In the previous post I mentioned the old game Twenty Questions. With its familiar "animal, vegetable or mineral" categorization of things, it's a good example of a simplified "Ladder of Beings."

Another example is the phrase "matter, life and mind" which I've used frequently in these posts. Wilber usually refers to the three basic levels of the Great Ladder as "matter, mind and spirit." Still another common variation is "body, soul and spirit."

Wilber points out that every human society-- from the earliest shamanic culture of Paleolithic times up until the beginning of modern science in the 16th century-- had some version of the Great Chain to express their understanding of "our place in the grand scheme of things."

Wilber says the best expression of the Great Chain of Being in pre-modern Western culture is that of the Franciscan Saint Bonaventure and the 12th-century monastic writer, Hugh of St. Victor. Here are some Great Chain illustrations: the shamanic three-layered cosmos, a Medieval version, and Great Chains from 1579 and 1617.


What marks the change from the worldview of pre-modernity to that of the modern ("modernity") worldview is the loss of this multi-layered Great Chain perspective.

The religious attitudes of pre-modernity cultures tended not only to emphasize the distinction between the lower and upper levels, but to give all their attention to the higher levels. But the great successes of science-- beginning in the 16th century with the astronomy-related measurements made by Galileo and Kepler-- turned the Western world's attention away from those highest levels.

The coming of science resulted, for Western people, in the collapse of the Great Chain of Being. So "modernity" means a worldview where only matter, the bottom rung of the Great Chain, is considered real.

The 400-year-old "modern" worldview simply doesn't take into account what was meant in the pre-modern perspectives by words like "mind," "soul" and "spirit."

This explains why we have such difficulty in understanding these major stages of Western culture's development; we're trying to understand something that modernity says doesn't exist.

It also explains why, from its start, modern science has been in conflict with the traditional pre-modernity perspectives of the world's great religious traditions.


These are over-simplifications, of course, but the primary point, I hope, is clear enough. The worldviews of pre-modernity focused on the spiritual realm, the upper levels of the Great Chain or Ladder, while modernity's worldview considers only the bottom rung to be real.

For many of us, it's difficult to understand just why so many people in the Western world would accept such a claim about the nature of reality.

It's also difficult to understand how early science, in denying reality to all but the lowest rung of the classical Great Chain, tended to overlook the fact that science itself operates by way of those mental activities (such as reasoning and math) which are part of the higher levels of the classic Great Chain of Being.

But in another sense, it's easy to see why science made such a claim. 

Science has been so successful! In its ability to bring about great gains-- in industry, agriculture and medicine, for example-- science, and the technology based on it, went far beyond anything the pre-modern religious worldviews ever came up with.


I'll share some thoughts about the positive aspects of modernity in a future post; they are no less significant than its negative aspects. Wilber is especially good at presenting a balanced view of the gains as well as the losses resulting from the perspectives of modernity.

But it's the collapse of the Great Chain-- the loss of all but the bottom rung of the Ladder-- that I want to give my attention to in this post. Wilber calls the negative aspects of the worldview resulting from scientific materialism "flatland."

It's a boring world, that "flatland." Without mind and soul and spirit, persons are reduced to things, and there's no wonder and awe, no surprise, no meaning to our lives.

To a great extent, Western people accepted that flatland worldview. The idea that only the old Great Chain's bottom rung is real became, as Wilber says, the "official philosophy" of Western culture.

Wilber calls this shift in cultural perspective the disaster of modernity and some scholars refer to it as the "disenchantment of the world."

But it's important to keep in mind that the "flatland" disaster was not the last word in Western culture's historical development.

The third phase of the Western world's cultural history, "post-modernity," resulted from the collapse of the Great Chain. Many Western people reacted against the shift from spirit to matter and to the boredom and meaninglessness of modernity's "flatland" worldview.

But they weren't sure just how to respond or what to put in its place. Over the last several centuries, there have been three major, and quite different, social and cultural responses to the collapse of the Great Chain.

If you're like me, some of the names of these major social-cultural movements are probably familiar: Romanticism, Idealism, and 

Deconstructionism. But you may also be like me in being more than a little hazy about what those words mean.

Personally, I was more than "just a little bit hazy." I simply didn't know what they had to do with the integration of science and religion.


I'm grateful to Wilber for my newly-acquired understanding of these three major post-modern cultural developments and of how important they are for the integration of science and religion. I'm planning to share my understanding of these three post-modern movements in the next post.

In this post I want to include some thoughts about just what's meant by the higher rungs of the Great Chain.

It's precisely because the worldview of modernity doesn't take into account what was meant by words like "mind," "soul" and "spirit" that we have great difficulty in understanding the three main stages of Western cultural development.

And it is, of course, why modern science has been in conflict with traditional Great Chain of Being perspectives of the world religions from the start.

Wilber says that the integration of science and religion ultimately comes down to two things: whether science can accept the higher rungs of the Great Chain and religion can accept the lower rungs.

And, as he puts it, "the discussion has to be in terms acceptable to both."

So it's important to be clear about just what the higher levels of the Great Chain mean in order to understand well the various post-modern responses to their loss.


It's an indication of how thoroughly Western society believed in the modernity worldview that in our day words like "mind," "soul" and "spirit" are probably the most ambiguous words in the English language. 

The very existence of what they are referring to has been denied, so we need to work hard to understand them.

For a start, we can say that among other things words like "soul" and "spirit" refer to our powerful desire to know and understand ourselves and the world we live in. They also include the drives we experience within ourselves to improve our situation: to make our world better. So words like "quest" and "invention" and "creativity" are part of the upper end of the Great Chain perspectives.

In more personal language, we can say that the Great Chain perspective of "matter, mind and spirit" refers to the fact that we are (or have) a physical body, that we are (or have) self-awareness, and that we are (or have) a concern for an ultimate (big picture) understanding of the facts of our existence.

In terms of our inner psychological experience, we might describe the three basic levels of the Great Chain by saying that "matter" refers to physical things outside us, "mind" refers to what we experience within ourselves, and "spirit" refers to the perspectives we have about how those inner and outer experiences go together.

If it didn't refer to sex, a phrase like the "facts of life" would be a great way to describe what the traditional religions meant by "spirit" or the "realm of spirit." Nowadays, "spiritual" has such negative connotations that, in the healing professions of psychiatry and psychology, a phrase like the "realm of the transpersonal" is often used instead.


Religiously-oriented people tend to jump in here with a comment like, "You're talking about God." I'd say, "OK. But we're trying to get some clear ideas about just what we mean when we say that."

In the flatland worldview of modernity, the word "God" refers to an object or thing, just as "human person" does.

In contrast, in the quotation which Michael Dowd uses in the chapter on revelation in his Thank God for Evolution, and which I used at the beginning of the previous post, Thomas Berry refers to the creative source of the world as "that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being."

"Mystery," for me, seems an especially good way to say what "spirit" or the "realm of spirit" mean in the pre-modern religious traditions of the world. Our pre-modern ancestors definitely were not talking about an object or thing when they used terms like "God" and "holy spirit of God."

A good example of that pre-modern understanding is how frequently the word "mystery" shows up in the 3,000-year-old Tao Te Ching, which I shared my version of in several recent posts (#68-72). An anonymous reader, commenting on #72 says, "This post 'explains' God." That's right on target. The ancient Tao Te texts do indeed help us to understand what we're struggling to talk about when we use words like "God" and "spirit."

We struggle to be clear about what we mean by the higher rungs of the Great Chain precisely because their very existence is what the worldview of "modernity" stopped paying attention to.

And that loss is what the various "post-modernity" perspectives are responses to.


It's not only because the modern world is already post-modern that all of this seems so confusing. Many of the Earth's peoples, especially those in what used to be called "second or third world countries," still live to a great extent in pre-modern cultures. So globally, our contemporary world is not only modern and post-modern but also pre-modern as well. No wonder it seems so utterly confused!

We need a new evolutionary Great Chain, a new Ladder of Beings, that both traditional religions as they mature and modern science as it grows up can live with.

We're ready for a New Cosmology! People like Michael Dowd and Ken Wilber, and many others I've mentioned in this blog over the last few years, can help us as we grow up.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.