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Reconstructing Religion

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Metamodernism and the Meaning Crisis


We live in a world reeling from multiples crises: ecological, political, economic, social. We call this the “meta-crisis.” But there’s another one, what John Vervaeke has dubbed “the meaning crisis,” which I believe undergirds them all, providing this “meta-crisis” its fuel and its inertia.


We live in a meaning crisis, a crisis of meaning at the collective level, which both exacerbates the causes of the meta-crisis while simultaneously keeping us from the kind of cohesive, purposeful vision we might summon to respond to it.


Naïve fundamentalist sureties, and despairing nihilistic apathies everywhere thwart some genuine progress towards regaining our footing in flourishing. Both are direct consequences of the meaning crisis, representing either a reactionary retreat into the secure domain of traditionalism, or the unmoored fall into the abyss of postmodern relativism. Each, in their own way, only adds fuel to the fire of a burning world. It’s my conviction then that, to solve the meta-crisis, we must first solve the meaning crisis. We must get ourselves right with purpose if we’re to survive an Anthropocene era.


To use the language of systems analysis, we must find the ‘leverage points’ for systems-level change. In a complex socio-political system, such an Archimedean Point is to be found, I believe, in people’s beliefs, their psychic orientations to reality, their foundational philosophies and unspoken axioms about the world. An intervention at this fundamental level for individuals can have vast, cascading effects on the larger systems they inhabit.

Thus, if we are to, as the metamodernists winkingly say, “save the world,” we will need to articulate a form of meaning that works again. We will need efficacious meaning to spread, virally, memetically propagating in organic, bottom-up renewal. But, to do this, we must first re-construct meaning after it’s been so precipitously deconstructed.


Collectively, our current societal confusion has come about as the result of the breakdown of effective meaning-making in both of the principal cultural codes we’ve historically used to make sense of the world. First, traditional religion succumbed to modernity’s rationalism and empiricism. Then, the promised Progress Myth of modernity faltered, showing itself in need of radical revision.


When I look around me, I see this disillusionment sweeping generations of people, as well as the scared, reflexive recoil away from it. I see the breakdown of sensemaking, nihilism, and apathy…as well as entrenchment in fundamentalisms; the proliferation of reactionary ideologies promising a return to an older, simpler way of life; and head-in-the-sand New Age woo boasting its own sort of naivete.


For meaning is necessary, absolutely necessary, for human beings. If individuals lose a sense of meaning, the society they comprise will likewise unravel. This is, I believe, precisely what is happening. The death of God, long ago pronounced by Nietzsche, is finally being realized by the rest of us. The shadow of God has finally dimmed. And everywhere, people are waking up to a world they don’t know how to live in, how to make sense of, how to make meaningful.


As an increasingly complex world has occasioned the collapse of both traditional religion and modernity (what Jamie Wheal calls “Meaning 1.0 and 2.0, respectively), it is absolutely vital that we get to reconstructing a new working spiritual framework for human society—what Wheal calls Meaning 3.0, what Vervaeke calls "the religion that is not a religion," what Ken Wilber imagines as "the religion of tomorrow," and what I am thinking of as metamodern spirituality.


Broadly speaking, that’s the goal.


To achieve it, we’ll need to answer a dauntingly difficult question: how do we preserve that pure, immediate, inspirational and motivational sense of meaning that humans once found through traditional mythology without losing or otherwise abandoning the gains of critical, reflective thought, provided so well by modern and postmodern interrogation? This to me seems to be of the utmost importance, because getting this equation wrong has occasioned so much of the sense-making and meaning-making breakdown we see proliferating all around us, and which continues to threaten the very continuance of human civilization on this planet. By getting it right, it’s possible, I think, to reclaim a sense of meaning that works in this prehistoric hardware while maintaining the kind of complexity of thought and awareness we’ll need to navigate an increasingly complex future.


Religion arose in the traditional world, in the traditional cultural code. The world, however, has changed. Religion will need an update if it is to survive—and we need it to survive. As the meaning crisis shows us, something like religion and spirituality must persist if we, as a species, are to survive.


Like Aeneas loading up his hearth gods and sailing off into uncharted waters, we’ll need to salvage meaning from the rubble of the traditional world and learn to inhabit some different island worlds before we can find our destination and build anew. After so much deconstruction of traditional religion, we are finally in a place to start putting things back together. “After deconstruction,” say the metamodernists, “comes reconstruction.”


And so a metamodern spirituality must indeed approach the task of reconstructing religion.

It must build something new. And what it builds must be an efficacious meaningful narrative to meet the urgent demands of the meaning crisis. What might this be?


What if it is the co-creation of religion itself?


What if people found purpose in the collective endeavor to better imagine spirituality for the world? To salvage God from tradition’s limits and give expression to the sacred in new ways that work? What if the new mythology we need is a myth of God’s coming into being, of God’s becoming, God’s metamorphosis, God’s rebirth? For the old God is dead. But what new God is possible? What God is waiting to be born—by us, through us, by means of us?

A life spent in the service of rendering divinity into reality? What more purposeful task could one hope for?


Such an idea may sound radical. And yet, it is precisely what the religious deconstructions of modernity and postmodernity have prepared us for. For modernity killed the old mythic God of traditionalism, revealing the myriad ways that mythic naivete was inadequate and dysfunctional. But postmodernity likewise killed the idea that we could ever become masters of the universe, to have total knowledge of everything and ever really grasp the Absolute. Language is only a tool, and always an imperfect one, to approximate truth. Science, like myth, depends upon, well, poetry—upon metaphor, analogy, models, the imagination: utilitarian symbols that gesture towards truth without ever definitively reaching it.


Whatever we are going to mean by words like “God” and “sacred” then will necessarily remain beyond the ability of words to grasp. Even the empirical realities beyond our sensory ken, be they down quarks or black holes, must find expression through analogy, through metaphor. How much more so the Mysteries orders of magnitude beyond our capacities? Once disillusioned of the absolute reality of our symbols, we can appreciate them for the highly contingent, imperfect, and relative things they are. But rather than this leading us to despair of meaning, this frees us to meaning—to novel expressions of ultimate concerns in taking symbol construction into our own hands and engaging mythic invention consciously. If the Absolute remains beyond us, and if the God of language is a social construct, then any metaphor that evokes in people a sense of the sacred is useful, right, and real. It will never be correct, but it may be more correct, more helpful, more healthful and more functional than prior attempts.


After modernity, myth becomes pathological as history. But as metaphor, it can remain salutary. In this way, symbols can indeed still be spiritually efficacious in metamodernity—but only if they are seen in the metaphorical lens demanded of modernity, and in the relative lens demanded by postmodernity. However, once myth is thus properly understood—which is to say, freed from the pretense of representing absolute ontological realities—then one is no longer chained to the myths of tradition, forced to accept or reject them in toto. Rather, if certain symbols are not efficacious and salutary, leave them behind! Take the gold from tradition and leave the dross. Play with tradition. Bend it, break it, refashion it. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Just don’t treat it as the Absolute, either of truth or of foolishness.


Even bolder: let us invent new symbols! Mythos, properly understood, remains an open genre, a living, present medium, available for expressing the sacred as it is experienced now, today, in metamodernity—yes, even by you. Those who would engage ultimate concerns through this medium and attempt to craft new narratives, new symbols, new metaphors for framing sacred experience are working at the very cusp of religious reconstruction. Likewise those who would take inspiration from traditional religious praxis and shape new sacred spaces, formulate new rituals, foster new communities.


The use of such genres—myth and ritual—is important, I think, and not purely accidental. Traditional religion succeeded admirably at telling meaningful stories that helped us orient ourselves and bind together in effective communities. Those stories spoke to the deepest yearnings and aspirations of the human psyche. Today we refer to these as myths, and the grammar of myth remains one of the most powerful tools in the world. Myth is, you could say, a kind of psychotechnology, one that uses metaphorical language to shape narratives that speak to human beings in profoundly psychologically fulfilling ways. Modernity eschewed this technology for that of the discursive essay and procedural experiment; postmodernity for critical interrogation and deconstruction. All have their merits. But myth is still possible—indeed, urgently needed, provided it is properly approached. In some ways, one might imagine modernity as a moment when the meaning-making process of religion bifurcated into two different fields, science and poetry. Metamodern religious reconstruction would seek to reunite these again in meaningful ways, such that the narratives that orient us to reality are told once more in the language of the heart and of the psyche.

Religious construction done in this way would, I believe, preserve that pure, immediate, inspirational and motivational sense of meaning that humans once found through traditional mythology > without losing or otherwise abandoning the gains of critical, reflective thought, provided so well by modern and postmodern interrogation. Indeed, metamodern myths would be born out of modern and postmodern critique and reflection, but the form they would take would be akin to traditional mythology.


Today, we need not only myth, but very specific myths. We need a myth that tells us the Earth is sacred and not something to be trashed. We need a myth that life is precious and meaningful. We need a myth that places the profound advances in cosmology, physics, and biology into a poetic and psychologically-fulfilling narrative.


We need metamodern mythmakers—poets of the sacred. But, like poetry, the effort of such reconstructionists will necessarily be individual and decentralized. We don’t need another capital C Church, propagating a new organizing dogma for everyone to adopt by coercion. What we need is organic creativity and highly personal expressions of the divine. The Religion of Tomorrow is not another closed-canon, close-minded set of beliefs either imposed, adopted, or rejected. The Religion of Tomorrow is open-source, co-created, and personally developed. And as more and more creatives recognize the significance of such a task, more and more myths will spread among us, providing people material they can adopt or adapt as they see fit, as fits their psychic needs. In this religion of tomorrow, not everyone needs to be a creative mythmaker, just as in our current digital world not everyone is necessarily creating memes or recording podcasts. Artists create for themselves, but also for the world. So, too, the mythopoets to come. What gets created can become a mythological commons, open to inspire meaning in others, and fair use for development and adaptation. For either by transformation, adaptation, invention, or propagation, we can all be co-creating the sacred.


The world, I noted above, is in no way uniformly operating at one particular cultural code. Cultural and personal development is an uneven process, and society will continue to be widely populated by people using different epistemes, different stages, different “effective value memes.” What if, I wonder, there were metamodern myths put into the world that could speak to people at all these stages? Myths that speak in the mythic-traditional mode through the mythic modality—and yet, because they stem ultimately from a metamodern cultural code, also operate effectively in a rationalized modern mode as well as a deconstructed postmodern mode? That is, what if we had polyvalent myths, transculturally-coded myths? Myths that could reach and speak to millions of people, regardless of stage or code?


I see no reason why the myth of transforming God couldn’t work in this way. When we speak of God, we are, perforce, speaking mythologically. The very word “God” carries with it millennia of connotation, association, and depth—an aura of awesomness, a patina of profundity. What if our new mythology was itself rooted in the narrative of working with God to realize God’s self in the world? To assist God in God’s coming-to-be? Perhaps we see all religious traditions as participatory in this great endeavor. Perhaps this effort has been unfolding for millennia, as elements of God came online, now in Egypt, now in Mesopotamia, India, China, Palestine. Perhaps we stand at the edge of an unprecedented period, to which these various developments have been leading: our conscious awareness of God’s transformation and humanity’s role in the process. What has hitherto been unfolding haphazardly over the centuries can now become intentional, conscious, deliberate, as human beings turn to myth, to art, to poetry, to sculpt the latent God out of the rock of time, in order that God can become more what God has been becoming all this time.

Such a project seems far more compelling than all this mindless getting and spending of late capitalism, I’d say. Such a goal seems more evocative than the paltry aspirations towards comfort and convenience which have stripped modern and postmodern humanity of its soul. Such an effort seems Meaningful, I think, in the deepest imaginable way. And if for some this Meaning is engaged mythologically, for others it might be engaged more naturalistically, as the perennial effort to draw closer to ultimate reality and to a more just and beautiful society: the gods of human endeavor that we are always straining to approach, but never finally realizing.


So where does all of this leave us? As ever, in the present moment, one both pregnant with possibility as well as haunted by the specters of impending catastrophe. We live in a time between worlds, which means that the old world has passed away, or is passing away, but the new has not yet arrived. We have a sense of where we’ve been, but no certainty of where we’re going. And as the chasm between past and future opens wider, more and more people are desperately scrambling for something to hold onto. Some clutch their fundamentalisms or absolutist ideologies, while others free-fall into nihilism, apathy, or despair. None of this helps. What we need is genuine, efficacious Meaning, up to date with reality, functional, aspirational, bottom-up and broadly applicable. To get there will require some hard personal and cultural development, which means some difficult disillusionment. But if disillusionment can be understood constructively, not as the loss of myth and meaning, but as their clarification, refinement, and improvement, perhaps we can make the desperately needed update to religion our precarious moment demands of us. Perhaps the myths and meaning we find on the other side will bring just the sort of clarity and commitment needed to tend to the myriad problems besetting us. Perhaps constructively co-creating the future together isn’t so different from co-creating God. That’s something to believe in anyway. So let’s get to making.


 

Brendan Graham Dempsey is is a writer whose work focuses on the meaning crisis and the nature of spirituality in metamodernity. He earned his BA in Religious Studies from the University of Vermont and his MA in Religion and the Arts from Yale University. He lives in Greensboro Bend, Vermont. www.BrendanGrahamDempsey.com

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