Post-Secular

The west has always been secular. It held onto a soteriological strain which often visits religions the moment they reach a peak of ecclesiastical ornamentation. Christianity internalized the Jewish law from which it descended and, thus, became a new church of ecclesiastical ornamentation.  Many are well acquainted with the pairing of Buddhism and secularism, for instance. Less popular is the notion that Christ's incarnation into a body which could die, rise and then leave man alone could only ever result, theologically, in secularism.

  It didn't, however, simply result in people no longer believing in God and going about their merry ways. Nietzsche's announcement that 'God is dead' was not a shout of triumph but a prophetic warning of the two hundred years of nihilism that would follow. Secularism accommodated materialism, which in an attempt to mechanize the universe according to necessary imminent law, simply anthropomorphized the world further. Human history became a play of folly, the passions and forces of oppression. However, materialists failed to measure the subconscious babel sputtering out of the world events that would follow the French Revolution and the success of parliamentary and communist revolutions later. People love to talk about how close revolutionary secular ideologies were and are to Christianity; how perfectly interchangeable certain concepts were. Marxism is nothing if not an endorsement of the very slave morality that Nietzsche condemned in Christianity. There is, however, one major difference: Marxism lacks redemption. It has a heaven, yes, and it has a devil, yet it has no idea how to get to the one and how to defeat the other.

  Max Stirner, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was keen on drawing comparisons, by not too far of a stretch, between every capitalized monadic noun which comprised the western way of thinking. 'God,' for Stirner, was no different than 'Progress.' 'Man' was no different than 'Son of Man.' Stirner's solution was to turn 'the Ego' into his own capitalized noun. Stirner's influence, though not insignificant amongst artists and political radicals, was not significant across the west. I merely pair him and Marx as opposite poles to determine just how far one can take secularism. One either goes the way of utopia and idealism as in Marx, or one goes the way of self-worship as in Max Stirner (though they really are extremes of the same impulse). Secularism is the freezing of a single moment which one finds within the dynamic evolution of a religious system. The Gospels, the Baghavad Gita, the Buddhist Palli texts all represent a moment of ultimate liberation from the illusions of dogma and a deliverance into oneness with the divine. Each of these, however, are given a mission to move forward. Secularism skips the oneness bit and often takes whatever substitute it can: democracy, humanism, socialism, etc. In democracy, there's at least the illusion that those who agree are one on a certain issue to some extent. Socialism forces everyone into a supposed economic oneness. Humanism seems to offer man no other purpose than to consider his greatest instances objects to be worshipped surreptitiously by the unaccomplished.

  Bertrand Russell asked if there was anything still worth worshipping. The past two hundred years have shown us that our primate species will worship just about anything that keeps us comfortable, unaccountable for our actions, excuses our irresponsibility, flatters our prejudices, feeds us sweeter and sweeter candies, strokes our egos, grants us a sense of entitlement, offers all, takes nothing, thrills cheaply, rewards easily, affirms unendingly and breaks in accordance with our wills under very little pressure. This would all fall under the category that Michelstaedter called the 'path of rhetoric:' an ontological sense of privation marked by one's need to project one's desires onto an object which one then hopes will turn back and affirm one's  ego (this is essentially the common consensus domain of experience that all of us automatically live in, or the conditioned world: what the Hindus call samara). To this Michelstaedter opposed 'the path of persuasion,' an ontological state which swallows that very sense of privation, seeking fulfillment through no object but the self-sufficiency of persuasion. Though this would at first seem to give Platonic thought a modernistic veneer, it in fact extracts the very spiritual essence of ancient Greek thought. Socrates was not speaking in hyperboly when he mentioned inspiration by his 'inner genius' or 'daemon' but was in fact following a common spiritual exercise in the ancient world meant to cultivate and distinguish one's dual nature. This is precisely the origin of many written dialogues throughout history: The two voices are actually speaking from two different imminent natures found in one subject. One sees a more recent resurgence of this in Nietzsche's The Wanderer and His Shadow. Kierkegaard made use of this device as well, as did Blanchot. Similar to this concept is the Attman of Indian thought; the true inner Self - pure being stripped of all contingency and conditioning, which is man's connection with Brahman, or the ultimate reality to which everything comes at to which everything returns. All of these different theological concepts are worth cross referencing in order to extract their essential metaphysical natures. Michelstaedter himself said that his philosophy was nothing new and that it represented perennial wisdom; it had just been ignored and redressed in new vocabularies throughout the ages. His message is that most examples of good news in religious and philosophical systems have an essential nature which amounts to liberation from false reality (rhetoric) and deliverance into pure being (persuasion). One would be tempted to counter, 'Wouldn't secularism simply offer one more way in which one might liberate oneself? Why any concern for the divine at all? Couldn't one just as well follow the example of Michelstaedter and Nietzsche if not Max Stirner, rather than Christ, Krishna or Lao Tzu?'

  Very well, if that suits one. However, secularism is no less susceptible to the same flaws and ideological traps which visited exoteric religion. In other words, if secularism considers itself the truth on no grounds but its own self-designation as a category that is not another (namely, religion), it cannot be wholly determined to what degree it has any special monopoly on human flourishing or human wellbeing or furthermore, that it is somehow less capable of falsely tracing the nature of fundamental emotive forces and ontological categories. A mechanistic view of the universe will always change depending on our interpretation of the machinery, which is little different than assigning moral sanctions to the realm of divine law as it suits us. Neither of these pose an immediate problem, though the mechanistic view, when performed, is often carried out at the expense of the intersubjective historiographical interpretations responsible for culture itself. The atomization of life performed by secularism is akin to a game being picked apart and studied, but never actually played. In fact, not only does it prevent play, it turns play into futile labor.

  But perhaps we arrive here at a fundamental categorical distinction between the secular and the sacred. Secular atomization seeks to turn everything that is different toward neutral standardization. From the view of transcendence, all that is different is in fact an emanation or effect of what is essentially undifferentiated. While this might not seem like much of a distinction on the surface, it becomes more apparent once we locate the structural motives which belong to each. The trajectory of the secular is mastery over nature, though paradoxically, it always hopes that nature will reveal its fundamental mechanics, thus lending us the means to its mastery. The path of the sacred, on the other hand, relies on a mytho-poetic organicity which seeks to close the circle of communication with the unknown as a means of canceling ontological privation whilst simultaneously creating the terms for survival and flourishing (faith).

  Both secular institutions and religious institutions are and have been capable of the same violence, but it would be more accurate to say that this is due to fundamental presuppositional errors perpetuated by ideological structures designed more for the survival of the ideas themselves rather than the people who devised them. Whenever people are subordinated to ideas, there is always a chance that the conclusions will be catastrophic. But an active principle, such as transcendence, which does not perpetuate mechanistic conceptions of the universe but rather defines a kind of experience within the universe, does not subordinate its subjects (its participants in its experience) to destructive acts in order to carry out an 'agenda' in the matter of ideology, (though ideologies have unquestionably claimed special proximity to transcendence). Transcendence, precisely in the ontological manner in which it is posited, cannot be helped or aided along. Transcendence is pure agency itself (in fact, the highest possible agency). One could refer here again to Michelstaedter and assign ideology to the realm of rhetoric; that is, radical rhetoric, which does not accept the rejection of the subject from whom it seeks affirmation but pushes such a subject into the realm of irrelevancy, or worse, death. Transcendence, on the other hand, represents the path of persuasion. Regardless as to whether or not it persuades anyone of its reality through rhetoric, by definition it is self-sufficient; it believes in the totality of its own agency, so what does it matter to it if we deny its existence? This calls to mind Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, which states, roughly, that if the greatest imaginable being would have to exist in all imaginable worlds, it would then follow that such a being exists in this world. Scientists have long posited that just because we don't know the mechanics of the universe now doesn't mean that we will not know them later, thus placing anything that might now qualify under the category of 'transcendence' into the realm of mere speculation in the face of provable, localized knowledge.

  Belief in transcendence is not incompatible with the scientific view, even if they have historically excluded one another. Transcendence and its accompanied sacred space is rather the radical acceptance of the unknown (one's impotence) in the face of that truth which, perennially, even if unknown, knows itself enough to function in the world and in people's lives. It is the truth which does not wait to be measured.

  It wouldn't be a stretch to say that a sort of 'post-secular' spirituality would depend somewhat on a scientifically curious spirit, but we would then have to distinguish just what is meant by 'scientific.' It is a mode by which we must apprehend the importance of interpretation in historical narratives and in religious matters; recognizing that interpretation is a fundamental agency in society and responsible for the very epistemology by which we arrive at our ontological distinctions concerning the Divine, natural law and varied political topologies.

  A post-secularity would not only entail a careful examination of those agencies once anulled from their very function in the Enlightenment-era, but it would entail a way to read events with an experiential reason even as one respects the ontological authority granted by the history of a tradition to its own internal vocabulary, in flux though that tradition might be. In other words, a post-secularity does not exactly offer the option to go backward to an Enlightenment-era atomization or specific religious traditions in such a way that they would keep their respective sets of metaphysics intact. Rather, a post-secularity would have to pragmatically acknowledge the varied nature of different kinds of truth, but also, how different kinds of truth can, quite involuntarily, step on and extinguish other truths to the detriment of everyone.

  Paradoxically, this attitude is nothing new. One can find it in the likes of William James, John Dewey, Emerson and Goethe, just to name a few. This is quite fitting as it is ultimately a position that operates outside of time, perhaps considering redemption itself a matter which must be accepted rather than worked up to, though the remaining work would best be done even in this spirit, in keeping with Krishna's instruction to Arjuna to act without being attached to the result.