How Liberalism’s Contradictions Will Save ItBy Mark Christensen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
In October 2013, Russell Brand wrote a rambling missive for the New Statesman, in which he called for a “total revolution” of the Western political system on the basis it has become apathetic “to the needs of the people.” For the British actor and comedian, “the solution has to be primarily spiritual and secondarily political.”
Fair enough, though the larger, more puzzling issue went unexamined, as it usually does. Having rid itself of the Christian sky god, tamed nature and built a remarkable socio-economic platform, why does it remain so excruciatingly difficult for liberal society to live up to its principles, take the final step and establish the type of fellowship we all profess to want? What is holding us back from trusting the human spirit? What do we think tomorrow will produce that is not already here today?
You get the sense that perhaps some bygone detail has been overlooked but that now, with electoral posturing down to a fine art and the people anesthetized by mass consumerism, there’s little hope of discovering what it is. Feeling the absence of what hasn’t been earned, first world nations, with an irritable nervousness, push on regardless, expecting a better outcome with the same mindset.
As such, it’s hardly melodramatic – the rise of Donald Trump being just one of many harbingers – to suggest the day of reckoning might be upon us.
Cast across human history, with emphasis on Eastern and classical Greek thought, one can articulate a simple cosmology, the notion that Nothing Matters.
Things are always more than they seem. Life is a spiritual journey, a deeply personal search for an ultimate reality, a presence that is both immanent and beyond the world of appearances.
All that we perceive is shot through with traces of divinity, our embodied souls lured Home by a yearning to make the world whole again, to restore pre-cosmic unity. A common sense tells us the natural universe is overlapped by a moral realm, a prior and higher source of order that signifies yet also conceals beauty, goodness and truth, values that transcend time and space. Rise above mortal fear and suffering, including the torment of the grave, annihilate the concept of self and become One with the Creator who binds, sustains and directs History according to a secret master plan. Edmund Tyrone describes the sensation in Long Day’s Journey Into Night:
For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.
Such dualism demands unquestionable faith, since what human beings are rightly accountable for, is irreducible to thought. Our non-goal is a way of life accomplished by the individual acting on free will. “Do or do not; there is no try,” Yoda tells Luke in Star Wars – Episode V. Let go, trust the Force and tap into what is truly meaningful and all-encompassing. Or, quit the present moment in order to observe and interpret unfolding events, though in the process be deprived of a clarifying experience – Nietzsche’s “stamp of the eternal” – that is more real than real, more human than human.
“For a second there is meaning,” continues Edmund.
“Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!”
Of course, surrender to the utter mysteriousness of Now, the feeling of being in the world but not of it, is not without repercussions. Questions relating to a life well lived, where we come from and where we are going are rendered unanswerable. The best we can hope for is allegorical illumination via the direct and immediate qualities of art, narrative and myth. Meaning is found within, created as a response to the character-building conditions of inevitable death, skepticism and the epic forces of fate. Our limitations are to be celebrated, for they foster human dignity and compel us to seek out a unique destiny, a calling guided by the moral wisdom of the heart, our immaterial connection to something greater.
The upshot: grappling with worldly concerns is ultimately unfulfilling, while higher spiritual matters are, for all intents and purposes, incommunicable and non-rivalrous. Political ambition – serving God or some other universal crusade – amounts to mere sound and fury, the mark of a wounded ego. Don’t argue. Don’t judge. Don’t coerce. Just do it.
Whatever its logical merits, Nothing Matters seems an insufficient response to the grandeur of creation. The idea human life is radically subjective, no more complicated, no more interesting, than losing oneself in fatalism and willful ignorance, is jarring. We’re social animals with unique attributes adept at meeting our mutual needs. Yoda’s “do” is an empty doctrine that eschews moral and intellectual seriousness, while its Pollyannish view of conflict – connect and everything will sort itself out – is surely a recipe for anarchy.
We can’t all be Jedi Knights. Besides, it feels like knowledge is millennialist, somehow crucial in bringing History to a close. “I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for,” says Ivan Karamazov to his brother, Alyosha. “All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer.”
Hence the Western tradition of “do not” metaphysics, the legion of pretentious thoughts and words on subject matters that – though this can’t be proved – exceed the remit of reason and language.
As the ancients warned, however, Promethean revolt can be epistemologically fraught. A society that takes a stand against ignorance will naturally deny its hopes and dreams are inexorably vague, and put in place an order that is rational rather than mystical, public rather than private. In one sense honorable, a mission to consciously redeem this broken world using a system of knowledge, an attempt to get, as it were, on the same page as God, is nonetheless blasphemous, the trouble-making liable to kindle the Dark Side of human nature.
For starters, rejection of Nothing Matters brings an obligation to adopt a distorted view of reality, one that presumes Man’s mental and physical powers can Do Something about our collective ideals. This, in turn, requires our inner life to be objectified, and elevated and transcendent values to be treated as being low and measurable. That is, a progressive enterprise – even one claimed to be spiritual – must give undue preference to materialism over the spirit, and the compartmentalizing mind over the heart’s forbidding absolutes.
Though Jesus believed the individual to be the locus of salvation, a budding movement in his name could ill-afford to esteem the kingdom within. An external benchmark of right versus wrong is essential. The same difficulty arises in terms of being present, like lilies in the field, accepting things as God intended, free of complaint or the want of guarantees. Sure, given its necessity for harmonious relations, a cause should glorify the grace and compassion of a heart-before-head ethos. But only in rhetoric. A mediating institution, if its authority is to carry any weight, must not allow such a romantic temperament to trump official doctrine.
Nor could the church leadership be overt about how the incarnation of Christ fails Ivan’s relevance test. So what the Big Guy died on the cross for our sins. Divine love only enriches the sublimity of existence, leaving us still peering through a glass, darkly.
Over time, the ontological upsides of observing friendship and forgiveness, of embracing the allure of God’s mysterious ways, reading between the lines with spiritual insight and finding humor in his charmed blunder, gave way to the brutality wrought by a despairing head-before-heart Christian autocracy bent on enforcing intricate moral precepts to achieve an all-at-once Home-coming. The cultural riposte, however, was a bourgeois brand of iconoclasm. Western Europe’s pre-modern revolutions purported to champion pluralism and epistemic democracy, an escape from self-imposed tutelage. But the inside game, the essential point of departure, was an upping of the ante on the Latin Church’s half-baked metaphysics, its faint-hearted defiance and sentimental confecting of mystic individualism with iron-fisted control.
There’s a fabulously fractured logic to modernity. Monotheism, in that it semi-trusts its adherents to have semi-blind faith in a semi-ineffable deity, makes no sense. Either back liberty, or commit to Do Something, full-tilt. Why should a community endure self-inflicted alienation and loss of meaning for a measly try, an intellectual purgatory between Nothing Matters and conceptual mastery of reality? The flight from God, our supra-natural ground of being, had already begun. With the non-partisan heart partly forsaken for the pattern-seeking, tribal mind, why not cross the Rubicon of disenchantment and wager that Man, unshackled from religious dogma, could go All The Way?
Clearly, as Stephen Hawking put it in A Brief History of Time, a unified theory of everything “would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would truly know the mind of God.”
Before Descartes, Francis Bacon, caution as he did against reductive hubris, set the tone with his appeal for nature to be “put on the rack and tortured for her secrets.” A century on, Hume demonstrated, in eloquent and convincing terms, that belief in cause and effect is the product of habit and instinct, not reason. Rejected without being refuted, his discrediting of organized effort to vanquish doubt, “fell dead-born from the press.”
Darwin then devastated the inauthentic faith of Christian fanaticism. Life on earth has no obvious goal, no direction or inevitable outcome. Man, the result of a series of evolutionary accidents, isn’t the favored child of the universe.
But disfavored in what way?
True, primordial disorder is troubling if we presume humanity is owed a concrete meaning to life interpretable by all and thus applicable as a binding public ethic familiar to reason. But Darwinian chaos is entirely consistent with faith properly understood, what Nicolas of Cusa referred to as “learned ignorance.” In light of how the realms are configured, the lack of biological design is evidence – the best possible – of a bigger picture, a meaningful meaninglessness that pleads in silence for Man to think, anew.
Myth and imperfect images come closest to explaining our experience of reality because if this weren’t the case, if the Creator’s thoughts and plans could be nailed down, the value of human agency would be a generic intellectualism, a purpose that scarcely touches the soul. The inability of reason to bridge the distance between heaven and earth makes it logical to let go.
Moreover, the infinite gap upholds the principle of pluralism as the only means of restoring Oneness. Each individual, in their own distinct way, must honor the spirit, what is held in common yet is superior to the mind.
Rather than insist Life itself – and therefore politics – has immaterial foundations, modernity co-opted the mutative randomness of natural selection to efface our First Cause. With the specter of an unknowable, interventionist God erased from History, the resulting closed universe, self-begot and stripped of everyday magic, could finally – apparently – be made to fit the paradigms of human cognition. No matter disavowing a veiled dominion condemns Man to wretched materialism, the attendant greed and frustration inclined to fuel his Dark Side. No matter quantum physics, science at its purest, has shown things to be, at bottom, indeterminate.
Taken to the precipice by the inescapable burden of human self-importance, Western civilization faces the do-or-die climax of its tragicomic subterfuge, the curtain call in Heidegger’s gradual forgetting of the mystery of Being.
Plagued by induced amnesia, a joyless ruling class has no inkling of when or how the civilizing mission went awry, what has been sacrificed, or how the West could be complicit in its own spiritual impoverishment. The modern mind, unmoored, over-stimulated and pathologically intolerant of intellectual doubt and uncertainty, is too confounded and traumatized by its insolent genius to instigate an honest critique of its legacy.
Liberty is not the objective of society, and never has been. Man is already free, born equal in spirit, as the French and American revolutions proclaimed, consistent with the epistles of St Paul.
Democracy’s animating hope, like conventional religion, is a one-size-fits-all surrogate for radical faith. As a head-before-heart system, it is at once defeatist and prone to tyranny.
Covertly warring against the transcendent nature of its universal values and a God it either refutes or pays lip service to, secular liberalism has had to turn to lies, diversions and demagoguery. Contest the faux humanism of the legislative, fiscal and surveillance mentality of ‘Do Something, Anything!’ and one is apt to be labelled dim-witted, a heartless heretic who abides disorder, injustice and human suffering. Only an apologist for superstition and obscurantism, a loon intent on returning us to the Dark Ages, would revel in the limitations of state power.
Pavlovian fear of the existential character of our relations with reality and each other, has led Western society into further confusion and hypocrisy. Jesus exemplified – not just preached – the transformative potential of Brand’s proposed solution and was crucified for pointing out its rational implications: “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?”
While the gospels might momentarily stir the soul, as with the scene in Episode IV when Luke switches off his onboard computer and uses the Force to guide the proton torpedoes into the Death Star, few shoulder the personal responsibility for enacting such faith, what philosopher Simon Critchley defines in The Faith of the Faithless as that which “proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security, and which abides with the infinite demand of love.” When it comes to the crunch, we fickle moderns, little different from religious control freaks, trust in the homogenizing clout of the Empire, unconvinced the furtive workings of our increasingly depleted moral lives could ever align with something greater.
We’ve strayed too far, for too long, to notice – let alone admit – how life really is. It’s too much to ask, to simply open our hearts. To accept ourselves. To enjoy things as they are, free of the vast, rapacious machine within which we’re all helpless captives, going through the motions, awaiting the eternal footman.
Despite spiraling nihilism and anomie, our post-Christian civic religion is resigned to going All The Way, in the wrong direction. Why undertake the hard emotional work required to be open and attentive to whatever Now brings forth, when the prevailing belief is that adversity, the frailties of human nature, even mortality itself, are obviously just obstacles soon to be overcome on our behalf? In a technologically possessed, narcissistic age, impelled by the petty intrigues of blathering moralists and the new heroes of science, all partakers are incentivized to overlook how pathetic and ludicrous it is to expect the zero-sum wrangling of our bureaucratic hegemony to satisfy the ultimate needs of the people when we ourselves are unwilling to do what is necessary: put people first.
Change, of course, is going to take more than a few celebrity articles and mindfulness coloring books for the masses. The cultural inertia for vain questioning dates back to Socrates. While not solvable as a problem – there are no problems in a Nothing Matters universe – the quest for a common intellectual denominator can, nonetheless, be put to bed if viewed as a kind of theological riddle.
Question: In an otherwise absurd reality, wherein it’s logical to make a blind leap of faith that ends all speculative thought, how can a decidedly destructive utopian impulse for knowledge, emancipatory politics and power, driven by the conviction the mind can and should subjugate spirit, ever be vindicated as crucial to our story of redemption? Or, posed differently: is there a way to do cosmic justice to the extraordinary attributes of reason and language, employ them for a joint purpose more significant than survival, while still retaining the dignity, personal freedom and meaning that is conferred when one affirms human finitude?
Answer: When it’s vital each part of the whole, on its own particular pilgrimage Home, learns to accept its ignorance. The West can give up the futile urgency of its rebellion, yet still get a return on its reckless gamble.
Relying on power to remake the world, forcing everyone onto the same page as God, according to some revealed truth or sophisticated contract of human rights or a final understanding for Ivan, denies the uncertainty imbedded into reality, which is integral to meaning and purpose. There’s a cross-over point where it becomes irrational for society to not put the spiritual before the political. If not razed by outside antagonists riled by Western duplicity, civilization will be razed from within, by the likes of Trump.
Like it or not, it’s time to honor the intimate call made to each of us by placing our hope in the individual and local community, not the system.
But this doesn’t mean politics becomes useless. Democracy can serve as a vehicle for sharing a compelling, rational interpretation of why it’s important the page be deliberately incomplete or random, and thus perpetually baffling. While there is no ready-made solution, no literal meaning to life or definable goal for humanity, a universal awareness of such can help resolve our condition, and deliver on a shared non-goal.
In attempting the impossible, by trying to argue and fight our way to peace and unity, Western progress has unwittingly connected the entire planet. Unlike Hume’s era, it’s now feasible to disseminate a global meta-narrative of why it’s essential there are some things human beings are not meant to know, and how this relates to the profound discontents of religion and secularism, and the skeptical findings of philosophy and science. Appreciating the bittersweetness of modernity is the release we hanker for, for it gives society permission to relinquish the lies used to safeguard the wild goose chase of progress.
Human beings are certainly in this together, but the last step – receiving the stamp of the eternal – cannot amount to a premediated, centralized enterprise, as this naturally privileges the mind, leaving us stranded outside the salvific moment. By trusting moral instinct rather than thinking, our higher purpose can be achieved as the collective, extemporaneous outcome of us carving out our own destiny, in concert with the enigmatic forces of fate.
Reason can and will triumph when every mind rationalizes the relevance of its limits and lets go in unison.