Caught between the perspectives of the scholar and the religious practitioner, Andrew Cooper explores the meaning of faith in a world fixated on reason.
But we are, I think it can be said, inescapably religious. The great historian of religion Mircea Eliade described the drive toward the “discovery of the sacred” as an innate feature of human nature. The forms and symbols that express sacredness vary widely, but the inner movement toward it is a constant. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung saw modernity as the setting of a great spiritual drama. Throughout human history, religions have provided symbols and myths that deepen human consciousness and give coherence and meaning to the affairs of life. As Jung saw it, conventional religion had grown anemic, its rituals, stories, and symbols drained of numinous content. How, he wondered, are human beings to reestablish their links to the deeper strata of consciousness without sacrificing the great gains made possible by the discourse of reason?
There is no single formulation that captures modernity’s religious dilemma in all its depth and dimension. But certainly one key aspect of it concerns a conflict in attitudes toward the past. Traditionally, religion has looked to the past, for it is there that mythos finds those golden ages, sacred origins, great revelations, paradigmatic understandings, and prototypical acts that are foundational and authoritative. In Buddhism, for example, emerging schools and movements have most often established their legitimacy by basing themselves on a particular scripture or body of scriptures and through that linking themselves to the religion’s founder. But in the particular case of Zen Buddhism, being a school “not dependent on words or letters,” it is the teacher-to-disciple transmission that affirms that link and, through it, the lineage’s authority—and not just authority, but preeminence.
For most of human history, it was natural to look to the past to find one’s model for facing the present. Since the world of the spirit, the transcendent realm, is characteristically experienced as being metaphysically prior to everyday existence (as in, for example, such Buddhist ideas as Buddha-nature being original nature, or nirvana being an unconditioned realm of experience), it makes sense that the transcendent, or its realization, would also be assumed to be temporally prior as well. But today we know the past in a way our ancestors could not. We are no longer as free to project onto the past the face of the present. What is more, the very idea of the spiritual privilege of the past goes against the tendency of logos, and thus the ethos of modernity, to look to the future for the greatest good—in human progress, in evolution, in the promise of science and the power of reason. The gap here is not just a matter of discrepant views but of discrepant worldviews, of the underlying beliefs that structure how the world is construed and how human action is assigned meaning, value, and purpose. For us moderns, the past is not what it used to be.
Armstrong likens the current period to the Axial Age (c. 700-200 B.C.E.), a time of tumultuous social and economic transition. During the Axial, the old paganism ceased to address new religious needs adequately. Out of the need to find new ways of being religious were born the unifying faiths of today’s world religions. Today we face a similar challenge, and in Armstrong’s view, we’ve yet to answer that challenge in a definitive way. The alarming rise of fundamentalism must, she maintains, be understood in this context. It is an attempt, however misguided and regressive, to find certainty in an uncertain world. It is, one might say, a false solution to a real problem.
While Armstrong may be right in asserting that we have yet to articulate a historically meaningful answer to the challenge posed by our times, it is in our nature to respond, as best we can and in ways we may not even understand, to the problem we are given. If one accepts, as I do, that we humans are inescapably religious, that we possess an innate drive to experience the sacred, then surely we must, in the midst of our bewilderment, be struggling to fill modernity’s God-shaped hole. I agree with Armstrong that such a model has yet to be systematically articulated. But by looking into the details of actual experience, an outline of that faith may become apparent. We can’t help but live out—each in our own way—a portion of the answer, even as that answer eludes our grasp.
Andrew Cooper is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. He is currently at work on a book about the problems and possibilities of religious faith in contemporary life.
Image: © John Lindell