Tuesday 21 February 2023

Nihilistic despair, exploitative package-deals, or lame outsiders - The perceived available options for the spiritually-desperate modern Man

For those of us who believe Thoreau was correct in his assertion that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" - and who believe that this negative condition derives from the mainstream materialist assumptions that this universe (and therefore our life) has neither purpose nor meaning; the various alternative possible ways-of-escape seem to the trapped and desperate like just so many self-interested, manipulative, spiritual package-deals. 

In other words; the typical modern Man lives by a set of fundamental assumptions that mean he has painted himself into a corner of despair, demotivation and disaffection; where nothing that is regarded as real, is relevant or helpful; and everything supposedly real, is impersonal and indifferent to his condition.  

Thus, one who is in such a situation, and who seeks personal purpose and meaning in life, will encounter an array of religious or spiritual packages. Each of these claims to offer - to varying degrees, and in various ways - a way out from the corner of pointlessness and meaninglessness - but at a cost

Meaning and purpose are offered... But only with a price on them. 

To one standing trapped in the corner, that cost is evidence of bogosity, of fraud, of attempted manipulation. 

The cost seems like just another example of the exploitative indifference of The World to the desperate condition of the sufferer. 

There are two types of package deal - traditional religious, and New Age. 

The cost of traditional religions is active church membership - the obedience and service owed to the human institution 'in return for' the (alleged) spiritual benefits. 

The price of New Age spirituality is analogous but different in form; and typically entails buying books and other merchandise, or paying for lectures and workshops. 

Thus - from the perspective of the seeker - personal meaning and purpose have either been monetized, or else entail the quasi-medieval serfdom of time and labour for spiritual benefits.  


What is wanted and needed is disinterested (impartial) help in finding purpose and meaning - a source of help that has nothing this-worldly to gain from the exchange. 

This largely rules-out all professional sources - rules-out all those whose livelihood depends (whether proximally or distally) on getting people to accept a package. 

Yet, of course, all the high status, well-known, 'respected' sources of guidance are professional, and gain from 'converts'! 

The genuinely disinterested are almost certain to be obscure 'losers', and to strike the hard-nosed modern cynic as lame social rejects

Any source of guidance that is obvious and easily available is therefore likely to be regarded as corrupt - and indeed (as of 2023) is indeed likely to be corrupt - since such source must have made a deal with The Evil World in order to attain their position of status, their income, their fame... 

This is probably one of the main reasons why so many ("the mass of") people remain trapped in quiet (or not-so-quiet) desperation. 

They are self-trapped by their own unacknowledged and unexamined assumptions - and they reject all possible sources of assistance - either because these are seen to be peddlers of manipulative package deals.

...Or else the disinterested sources of spiritual guidance are regarded as un-respected worldly failures - genuine outsiders whose obscurity and lack of influence seems like clear evidence that such losers cannot possibly have anything valuable to contribute. 


The Anti-Gnostic said...

Bruce - I agree with two-thirds of this essay. The frauds are, obviously, fraudulent; and the institutions are wholly captured and offer only the burden of religious praxis. This leaves the monkish spiritual guide teaching individual meditations, perceived as an outsider and loser.

There is an ancient human tradition of the solitary monk who devotes his life to contemplation of the Divine, but they have always existed as a part of a human community making themselves available for spiritual guidance to others. Indeed, the Desert Fathers existed only so long as there were Imperial garrisons around to suppress banditry. But people need something more than solitary contemplation. They have to take care of families and nurture children, fighting the atheistic State every step of the way. They need Feast days, liturgies and a communion of saints for support. In sum, they need a safe space for their spiritual journey.

The Jews and Mormons have their Zions, the Amish have their townships, the Buddhists have their Garden nations, and the Muslims have their Caliphates. It is only Christians in their increasingly anarcho-tyrannical homelands who are to be denied their Christendom.

God is good so he created Nature, and Nature is good because she was created by God. A religion that rejects Natural human thriving is gnostic. To pick on a particular example, fasting makes no sense in a society so abundant it can take a quarter of your income and use it to feed your enemies. Fasting is just one of those burdens of praxis in a world that has eliminated calorie-scarcity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A-G - I'm afraid I don't understand the point you are making!

I'd take issue with a couple of things.

"the Desert Fathers existed only so long as there were Imperial garrisons around to suppress banditry" - How about the counter example of the hermit Irish monks (and in the West of Scotland) who maintained Christianity in the British Isles in the early centuries after the fall of Rome?

If you are saying that Christianity must have Christendom, then how about the counter examples of Christ and the disciples, and the early decades after the ascension? Coptic Christians survived in Egypt as a large minority until about 15 years ago.

But if Christianity really does require Christian nations, then Christianity will become extinct (except perhaps in the Fire Nation, which seems to be getting more societally, top-down, Christian, and may end becoming constitutionally so).

I don't quite get the reference to Mormons as if they were not Christians; or where their homeland is supposed to be - but if your meant that Utah was run on Mormon lines, surely that has wrong for several generations - plus the CJCLDS, and all its institutions, is converging very fast at over recent years.

"A religion that rejects Natural human thriving is gnostic." - that seems a rather bizarre usage of Gnostic as an adjective relevant to this era and to a range of religions. The actual Gnostics are *long* since dead and gone, and so is their cluster of core ideas/ beliefs.

But if I knew how your comment related to the situation of a typical disaffected and despairing modern materialist and his vague hopes of a way out of the corner - then I might understand the argument.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

What is wanted and needed is disinterested (impartial) help in finding purpose and meaning

As I understand your essay, modern humans seek spiritual sustenance and perceive their options as severely limited because those offering help and guidance are 1) outright frauds, or 2) the existing institutional Churches who have failed the litmus tests.

That leaves the "disinterested sources of spiritual guidance" who are perceived as "genuine outsiders whose obscurity and lack of influence seems like clear evidence that such losers cannot possibly have anything valuable to contribute."

Do you have any specific "outsiders" you have in mind that you are talking about here? You don't name any, so I'm having to guess you are referring to monastic-types not in any formal institution, who could yet provide necessary spiritual guidance but for their perception as outsiders and losers. And it is this last part to which I was responding.

First, I question the message such types might have for people. If Christianity is a solo sport, then I don't see it's applicability for humans. Solitary contemplation of theological questions may be appropriate for old people withdrawn from public life but younger people having to raise and nurture families and make a living while keeping the atheists at bay will need something more.

If the answer is no, they need nothing more than individual meditation on Christ, then the message, whatever it may be, is simply useless. They have mouths to feed and children to raise and parents to take care of. We do not have the option of leaving our dependents and living on donations and following God Incarnate around the Roman province of Judea.

If the counter to that is, well that's just materialism; all we're really preparing for is the Heaven after death, then that's gnosticism, in the fullest sense that Erick Voegelin used it. A religion that teaches that Creation is utterly fallen (so why did God create it?) and there is no point in trying to thrive in it and protect your country fron anti-Christians is going to go extinct. It is in essence telling your children that they should have never been born.

The religions that seem to be growing are the ones that do their best to knock off the sharp edges of life for their adherents: the Mormons, the Amish, the Muslims, and the Orthodox Jews. Importantly, they grow their religion in their own pews, not from a revolving door of middle-aged converts. So one marker for a healthy religious faith would seem to be that it provides a safe space (a Zion, a caliphate etc.) for its adherents to be Mormon, Amish, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, etc. in.

Christians, by contrast, are told they cannot have the Christendom that was there and as big and real as the sun since at least the Edict of Milan until the end of World War 2. Simultaneous with the disappearance of Christendom, Christianity is going extinct just like the Greco-Roman pantheism that preceded it. If Christians want to halt their extinction, then they better get about creating countries they can be Christian in and grow new Christians in their own pews. Otherwise, Christianity just becomes an elderly, affectatious book club, talking about abstract concepts with no connection to the physical and biological reality created by God.

sayingthetruthisofensive said...

How about the counter example of the hermit Irish monks (and in the West of Scotland) who maintained Christianity in the British Isles in the early centuries after the fall of Rome?"

Pagans and Romans were not Christian but they weren"t viciously anti-Christian. Persecutions were more the exception than the norm in the Roman Empire.

We won't be that lucky this time. TPTB are obsessed about destroying Christianity and the technologies of control and vigilance are way more advanced this time. There won't be any place to hide. We will be chased until the last Christian. I am glad I won't be here to see it.

Bruce Charlton said...


That all depends on what you understand by Christian. I agree that Christian institutions could be destroyed by the kind of global totalitarian leftism that is aimed at by many world leaders. I also believe that this is far advanced already - and that the major churches do net harm, and only contain shrinking 'niches' of real Christians.

But this cannot eliminate followers of Christ, unless they themselves want to cease being Christians. If a slave can be a Christian, anybody can be a Christian - because it is not tied to the accidents of this world. If anyone is determined to take-up Jesus's offer of resurrected eternal life and desires to follow Him - then nothing can stop this from happening, except if he changes his mind.

That is why the modern world is all about propaganda and persuasion, about incremental corruptions disguised as morality etc. Ultimately, the only sure damnation is value inversion, by which people come to desire damnation and actively reject the offer of Heaven. That is what we mostly have now; but it is self-enforced by individual persons - not compelled by the authorities.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A-G - I suspected that you might be a Voegelin follower on this gnostic business. I find him a generally unimpressive writer - but either way, he is a secular and Political writer; and as such *surely* a poor guide to understanding religions, their history, and possibilities?

His abstraction of 'gnosticism' is not a genuinely valid category IMO; and has almost-nothing to do with The Gnostics (not that I approve of the real-life Gnostics - I personally am almost the opposite of a Gnostic) - and seems to have generated vast confusion.

From my POV, you are primarily concerned with socio-political issues, and are mainly wanting a peaceful, prosperous and enjoyable mortal life on earth - and are looking for a religion that might (theoretically) be a means to that end.

Only if you and yours can be Christians in a supportive socio-political context, do you believe that Christianity is possible.

In effect: your are saying that that Jesus's message has Never been universal, and that nowadays there are no Christians in the world; and that nobody can become a Christian anywhere - without *first* persuading sufficient numbers of others to provide the Christian- environment he demands!

I regard that as an impossible and historically false attitude, and as putting the cart before the horse. For reasons that are all over this blog for the past decade.

You can only understand this different perspective (which is different from anything in ancient or indeed pre-modern times) - if indeed you *want* to understand it! - you can do so only by understanding in its own terms; and not by fitting into your pre-existing categories
- especially not pre-exiting secular categories like those of Voegelin!

In other words; I think you need to snap out of your present attitude, and focus on doing what You, personally can do Now - without waiting for other people to make things better first, which is never going to happen.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

People get their spiritual nourishment from pop culture, whether it's mainstream pop culture or one of the various idiosyncratic subcultural or countercultural forms of pop culture.

Intellectuals sneer at pop culture for lack of reflectivity, and politically conscious people criticise it for its propagandistic and ideological coded messages, but most people just tune that out while their spirit focuses on the archetypal stories of protagonists overcoming adversity, and these stories are cathartic and refreshing for their spirit. This isn't just in films and TV shows. Music and sports also accomplish the same end. Most people are too exhausted and anxious to receive spiritual nourishment from any other source, so I for one don't begrudge them it.

The people in real danger are those with intellectual pretensions, because they can be deceived on a much deeper level. When intellectuals look at some pop culture misinformation and fraud, they sigh and express their concern for the "brainwashed masses"; but the human spirit is more intelligent than mere intelligence and these "brainwashed masses" are mostly taking what they need from pop culture and filtering out the rest. If you tried to point out the ideological purposes of what they're experiencing, they'd mostly shrug it off and say they don't care about it. This doesn't mean they aren't open to subconscious suggestion, but that it only does a certain degree of harm. Intellectuals, on the other hand, can really become convinced of these fraudulent "package deals" and ideological systems...

People get what they need and what they ask for. An intelligent young man who feels alienated in modern society embraces some sort of Marxism as an antidote — this just means he hasn't become fully conscious yet of how spiritual the problem of alienation is, and how any such ideology is inadequate to address it. That's his fault for spiritually deceiving himself and wanting to play the game of party politics as an escape. If he traced the roots of his insight about alienation back to its source, he'd be able to transcend his Marxism.

There's a reason why in the legends, the great spiritual master and advisor is some poor and mad seeming fellow living on the margins of society. It's not just that the *spiritual master* has to be disconnected from the "mainstream" to gain his insight, it's that the *spiritual seeker* has to get away from it in order to prove his worth and adequacy for meeting the master. And there are plenty of ways of doing that today. The Internet has made countless spiritual texts and resources open to the public, and if someone is ready to receive it, their own spirit guides/ guardian angels will certainly get it in their hands.

One phenomenon I've found promising is the community discussing Near Death Experiences on YouTube. Of course, it only skims the surface of things, but it isn't a pretentious community and has a lot of people sharing authentic spiritual insights and experiences. That information is now publicly available on YouTube for anyone who seeks it. Such people are fulfilling a kind of religious or ecclesiastical function for our contemporaries.

On the whole, the fractured and frequently mercenary spiritual environment of our society has just made it all the more necessary to practice intuitive thinking and uncompromising honesty with oneself. Nothing I've received from my "heart" has ever been wrong.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - The tone of your comment suggests that you regard the situation as basically OK for most people most of the time - but, as I said at the beginning of the post, I do not.

Indeed, I regard a large majority of people - at least in the West - as more profoundly corrupted than at any time in human history; because of the prevalence of value-inversion wrt more and more of the most important values.

This means that it is not 'merely' a matter of people 'not believing' in God, or Jesus Christ, or the reality of divine creation - but that people assume, believe, and desire evil for themselves.

So the 'availability' of helpful material makes no difference; just as masses of people choose to believe incoherent lies in the realms of politics and morality, despite that the truth is easily available; or that the fact that these are lies, can easily be worked-out simply by paying attention and taking things seriously.

William Wildblood said...

Surely to say that people get their spiritual nourishment from pop culture means that people get no spiritual nourishment at all. If intellectuals sneer at it for its lowbrow qualities, more reflective people would dismiss most of it for its spiritually corrupting nature. Take music as an example. Modern pop music is not like folk or popular music of the past which was simple but tuneful and sometimes a lot more than that. It's profoundly debased for the most part, both musically and lyrically.