Monday, July 19, 2010

#75. Three Post-modern Movements

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This post is part of the series I began with #73 about two important books concerned with the integration of science and religion: Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution and Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul. They go together as theory and practice. Wilber offers us conceptual understanding and Dowd provides realistic help with the practical details.


In the most recent post (#74) I described the three major social-cultural stages of Western history: pre-modern, modern and post-modern. We need to understand them if we are to have a good sense of why science and religion have been in conflict and what's needed for their integration.

All the world's pre-modern religions have some kind of multi-leveled cosmology, a Great Chain or Ladder of Being. The most common three-level expression of it is "matter, mind and spirit"-- referring, of course, to the physical universe, to human consciousness and to divinity in some sense. Although they didn't ignore the lower levels, the pre-modern religions gave their attention primarily to the higher levels.

In the modern (i.e., modernity) phase of European culture, Western society shifted its attention-- due to the immense success of science beginning around 1600 CE-- to the bottom rung of the Ladder. In this modernity stage of the West's cultural development-- already 400 years old-- only the Great Chain's bottom rung was considered real.

Over the last few centuries, the loss of the pre-modern religious perspectives has provoked several major cultural responses. This post is about the three main post-modern reactions to the "collapse," as Wilber calls it, of the Great Chain: Romanticism, Idealism and Deconstructionism.


I've found Wilber's explanations of the significance of these post-modern movements especially helpful in understanding our present situation with regard to the convergence of science and religion.
It's taking place in a cultural context where pre-modern religious perspectives were denied validity and modernity's collapse of the Great Ladder was considered enlightened progress, so we need to understand these main post-modern responses to that collapse. Each of them has something positive to contribute to the New Story of the universe and our place in it.

Wilber points out that the shift away from the pre-modern religious worldview left the modern West as "the only civilization ever without a Great Chain." He says that "in not much more than a century" the Western world became a flatland that was "devoid of consciousness, compassion, care, values, depth and divinity."

And there soon arose, as Wilber says, "a post-modern rebellion." It was fueled by the interior realms wanting-- Wilber says they were "screaming"-- to be heard.

So we need to keep in mind that post-modernity is a revolt against that flatland, that these three post-modernity movements are reactions to scientific materialism. We need to understand them well if we are to move beyond our present situation that includes things like environmental disasters, religious conflicts, racial prejudices, cover-ups by church authorities of sexual abuses, and the patriarchal suppression of women.


As I mentioned in the previous post, the names of these post-modern movements, at least the first two-- Romanticism and Idealism-- are probably familiar; but if you're like me, you may not be too clear about just what those terms mean.

The third post-modernity movement has so many different aspects that even its name varies depending on which aspects are being emphasized. Examples are Positivism, Behavioralism and Nihilism; sometimes it's just called "post-modernism." Here, I'm using its most general name, Deconstructionism.

We can easily get lost in the words. The important point to keep in mind is that these three post-modern movements are attempts by the people of Western society to deal with the loss of the higher levels of the Great Chain brought about by science. Romanticism and Idealism are opposite responses to that collapse, while Deconstructionism, in contrast, is an attempt to bring about the collapse of science itself.

Little about all this made much sense to me until I read Wilber's Marriage of Sense and Soul. He offers not only an excellent analysis of how things got to be the way they are, but also a very clear presentation of both the positive and the negative aspects of the pre-modernity religious worldview and of the various post-modernity responses to its loss. His fairness and balance are impressive.

(What follows is an intellectual workout, but one that is, I promise, well worth the effort.)


Romanticism. If you're like me, you may tend to associate the word "Romanticism" with classical music, especially Beethoven's. But it is also, of course, a form of art, architecture, poetry and literature as well as a cultural-social and philosophical movement.

As a response to the flatland of modernity brought about by the collapse of the Great Chain of Being, Romanticism is, as Wilber calls it, "a philosophical revolt against rationalism."

He says the Romantic movement "bitterly reproached Enlightenment thinkers for 'dissecting man': for mutilating humanity and denying our life, our communion with nature and our self-expression." Some famous names associated with Romanticism are Jean Jacques Rousseau, Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman. They tried, says Wilber, "to reweave the web of life, to heal the fragmentation, with intense feeling."

He calls this "unified feeling for life" the central aspiration of Romantics. They yearned for wholeness and unity, "for a return to the Origin, to find the lost Beloved, to go back to nature." Terms like "noble savage" and "simple peasant" may be familiar expressions of the Romantic movement's option for regression to a pre-modernity condition.

I found of special interest Wilber's note that Romanticism also included what he describes as an "admiration of the violently self-centered hero, rediscovery of the artist (expressive self) as supremely individual creator, and exultation of senses and emotions over intellectual activity."

That "admiration of the violently self-centered hero" still shows today in our culture's irrational adulation of rock stars and celebrities, athletes and military heroes, politicians and charismatic religious leaders. And many of the "back to basics" movements in government, religion and education are also expressions of the fundamental thrust of Romanticism.

Wilber says that the most popular place for the Romantics to go back to was Classical Greece, but that there was also the pre-patriarchal Neolithic period of the Great Mother Goddess and the pre-agricultural age of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers-- still promoted in our day by those he calls "retro-Romantics."

He says that in picking and choosing what we admire about a period and ignoring what we don't (he gives as examples "war, slavery and bride-price"), there is a dangerous tendency, as the post-modernist thinker, Michael Foucault, has pointed out, "to evoke a completely mythical past."

So while our reintegration with nature is indeed important, it's clear that pre-modern societies can't serve as models, and that, as protest and revolt, Romanticism can't function as an integrating force between science and religion. With its emphasis on body, life and emotions, Romanticism excludes the rational. But what's needed is to incorporate the rational into the higher realms of religion's Great Chain of Being.

And yet, the Romantic movement's cry of "back to nature," with its desire for communion with the great Web of Life and the cycles of the seasons, was "an aspiration as noble as any that can be conceived," says Wilber. "We owe the Romantics an undying debt of gratitude" because they were "the first to spot the disease and react to it with horror."


Idealism. This second post-modernity movement is the very opposite of Romanticism: instead of looking back to the past in response to the collapse of the Great Chain of Being, Idealism looks ahead to the future.

While it's hard to say exactly when, sometime around the end of the 18th century an alternative to the longing for the past appeared-- an evolutionary perspective. Wilber says: "German Idealism was an alternative to German Romanticism's looking backward."

Romanticism, he notes, is like "a religious version of the second law of thermodynamics;" it's the idea that the world is running down in some sense, spiritually. It can be found in traditions such as Native American and Hindu, as well as some contemporary feminist views of the Neolithic period as a time of peace and harmony-- and, of course, in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic story of the Garden of Eden. So Romanticism is much like the world's pre-modern religions: in looking back to a "golden age" in the past-- in its urge to go back to nature, back to basics-- Romanticism is the opposite of an evolutionary perspective.

But "within one century," says Wilber, "serious thinkers considered something new: what pre-modern religions had never thought about, that we are growing toward our potential and union with the divine." He calls it "Spirit-in-action" and "God-in-the-making."

These German Idealist philosophers "rail against the idea of return to nature; they see it as regression to sentiment and feeling and anti-rationalism, regression to a less developed state." But we can't go back, says Wilber. The cosmic process is divine self-actualization and self-unfolding. We must move forward to its realization.

So Idealism is a vision of an evolutionary growth toward God. It was spelled out by thinkers and philosophers such as Frederick Schelling, Georg Hegel, Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. "In India," says Wilber, "it was given its most accurate spiritual context by Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin made it famous in the West."

In Wilber's book the section on Idealism includes a fascinating discussion of the area of thought known as epistemology-- our "understanding of understanding," as the Biogenetic Structuralists liked to say.

It goes back to the 3rd-century Neo-platonic philosopher, Plotinus, who developed a "complex spiritual cosmology" involving the place of human consciousness in the unity of all things and realization of divinity. Among the German Idealists, says Wilber, Schelling produced "a profound philosophy of spiritual unfolding and Hegel worked out the details."

The main idea is that in creating the world, the Absolute (Ultimate, Divinity) "manifests" or "goes out of itself," so that the world-- and human consciousness within it-- is nothing less than "divinity in process of being self-actualized."

This idea is startling even for most people today; it says that evolution isn't anti-religion, it's what religion is all about. Wilber mentions a neat phrase used by the philosopher Hegel: that the world's evolution is "the life of God."

"The glory of this vision," says Wilber, is that it is "alive to evolutionary development. It's the first philosophy ever to come to terms with the evolution of the universe." It "brought heaven down to earth and took earth up to heaven."

But "this glorious spiritual flower, the finest the West has ever known," had "one crippling inadequacy," Wilber says. It "lacked a yoga."

By that he means that it "possessed no tested practice for reliably reproducing the religious insights and experience that it's all about." 

And lacking a strong spiritual practice, Idealism degenerated quickly: "In less than a century, the glorious vision had come and gone."

I think the work of Michael Dowd in his Thank God for Evolution-- the second of the two important books I'm describing in this series of posts-- goes a long way toward providing us with an understanding of the kind of "strong spiritual practice" that's needed in our day.


Deconstructionism. This third post-modern social movement is quite different from the other two. Romanticism looks to the past and Idealism looks to the future, but both are protests against the rationalist materialism of science. In contrast, Deconstructionism tries to undermine rationalism and science itself.

Wilber notes that the key idea for understanding the Deconstructionist worldview is interpretation. As a third post-modern response to the loss of the Great Chain, it doesn't focus on facts about God or the world but, instead, on our human self-awareness and how we interpret the words we use to describe our experiences of God, world and self.

By "interpretation" Wilber means something like what might be called "our communal understanding." His name for it is "inter-subjective understanding." He notes that even in understanding animals, we have to interpret their actions if we are to know what they mean.

And this, he says, is the great contribution of the post-modern perspective: "In the face of faceless flatland, it is a bold reassertion of interiority." Things, including animals and human persons, have an inner reality-- an internal self-organization-- which is no less real than their "without." The higher rungs of the Great Chain are as valid as the bottom rung.

But this post-modern perspective is especially complicated. Not, however, because it affirms the reality of interiority, but because each of us has our own inner understanding of the external world. Each of us has our own interiority!

I found a good expression of this critically important concept in the Textbook of Transpersonal Psychology and Psychiatry: "Transpersonal theorists generally agree that the reality people experience is a construction of the individual. Similarly, Transpersonal psychiatrists would generally agree that any attempt to know reality through observation is not objective but influenced by the observer's biases."
At some level of experience, probably most of us would agree that we all construct our own world, that each of us interprets reality in our own 

But the extreme post-modernists took this understanding too far. They said that there is nothing but interpretation. All we have is interiority. This extreme view denies any objective understanding of the exterior world. In this reversal of flatland, says Wilber, "the only truth is interpretive whim."

"And the wonder of it," he adds, "is that this position managed to convince a fair number of academics as to its truth as a cure for modernity's ills." It is "now the prevalent mood of academia, literary theory, new historicism, much political theory, and all 'new paradigm' approaches."

Even here, however, Wilber shows his outstanding sense of fairness and intellectual balance. He insists that that the core assumptions of this post-modern perspective contain what he calls "moments of truth" which are accurate and need to be honored.

(Please hang in there! The final sprint in this intellectual workout is a quick look at these three "moments of truth.")

The first of these "moments of truth" which needs to be honored is that our understanding of reality is not "pre-given." By this Wilber means that we are, in fact, always interpreting the world, always "constructing" our understanding of reality.

A second "moment of truth" in the post-modern viewpoint, according to Wilber, is that the meaning of any expression of our understanding is always dependent on the context in which we express that understanding.

The point here is that while interpretation is in fact an essential ingredient in our understanding of the cosmos and we can't deny that there's some objective ground for our interpretations, it's also the case that the meaning of whatever words we use to express our experience depends on the context of those words we use. So to insist that no context has any more validity than any other-- as the extreme Deconstructionists do-- just isn't helpful.

The great value of these first two "moments of truth" is that they allow us to see that human consciousness, expressing itself via language, isn't simply a representation of a pre-given reality but a participation in the very construction of our world. This understanding is what was ignored-- overlooked and missed-- by modernity's flatland perspective: that language is, in fact, a powerful creative force. "Language creates worlds," says Wilber.

The third "moment of truth" is perhaps the most important of all; it's that "no single perspective is privileged." The post-modernity worldview values diversity: it recognizes that multiple contexts and perspectives need to be taken into account.

"All ideas need to be understood as partial-- possibly even distorted-- truths," says Wilber. "We need to add up all the perspectives, attempting to grasp the integral whole of the multiple contexts that disclose the cosmos."

And we need to see, he adds, that doing so "results in not just a representation of our world but a performance of it."


"Performance" may seem an odd word, at least at first, but it helps to clarify the immense positive values given to us in all three of these post-modern movements. Yes, as Romanticism says, we need to recover our communion with the natural world. And Yes, as the Idealists' insight has it, the natural world is nothing less than the unfolding of the "life of God."

But Yes also-- I'd say especially-- to the perspectives of Deconstructionism that offer us an integral understanding of our participatory role-- our place, job, task-- in the evolution of the universe. They provide us with a job description for the New Cosmology.

As I see it, Ken Wilber (with his theoria in Marriage of Sense and Soul) and Michael Dowd (with his praxis in Thank God for Evolution) are helping us to figure out the nature of our cosmic job description-- and how we can go about evaluating our job performance.

(End of workout!)

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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.