Meaning in life is the degree to which people feel that connectedness to themselves, each other, and the world that alleviates or ameliorates anxiety, absurdity, and alienation so that life makes sense and is worth living.
- John Vervaeke
THE WEST'S CRISIS OF MEANING
Western Euro-American culture is deeply unsettled. The term “meaning crisis” is increasingly used to describe the widening existential vacuum in Western culture. As we emerge into the post-Christian, post-secular age, there's a growing awareness that something fundamental within the culture has shifted or is ending. However, the issues and trends are often ambiguous, and we remain uncertain about what's emerging or coming next.
The roots of this crisis are mainly in the Enlightenment and the subsequent move to a secular world. The West has lost its religious worldview (metanarrative) that intellectually and culturally homed us and provided collective and individual meaning and a sense of common purpose. Once the dominant metanarrative, Christianity is now decaying intellectually, institutionally, and culturally. Nietzsche was right; Santa God is dead.
There are several forms of secular humanism vying for dominance. Of these, the overlapping myths of progress, materialism, transhumanism, neo-Marxism, and the ideology of the Machine are winning the allegiance of many. As a result, there is no longer a common cultural story that unites us. Cultural fragmentation and dislocation have accelerated.
Humans find and maintain narrative perceptions of our lives as meaningful to keep existential anxiety at bay. We are a species that strives not just for survival but also for significance. We want lives that matter. And our cultural and personal stories help provide meaning by explaining the world and informing us how to act.
The symptoms of our existential cultural crisis are apparent and include the mental health pandemic, exemplified by increased deaths by suicide, pervasive nihilism, cynicism, futility, and religious and political extremism. The chaos of mass shootings, widespread substance abuse, violence, polarization, attention-deficit disorder, shallow consumerism, and ecological devastation also result, at least in part, from our meaning crisis.
At risk also is liberalism which has come to define the West, with its religious foundations crumbling. Our current forms of free and open societies result from liberal philosophy and political theory. Many take for granted the benefits of the Western way of life. Representative democracy, human rights, freedom of the press and speech, freedom for and from religion, and open economic markets are the hallmarks and results of liberalism. However, many fail to grasp that, in many ways, liberalism is essentially the political expression of Christianity.
Free societies owe much to the underlying Christian anthropology of free and dignified persons. If the West loses that anthropology, then all bets are off concerning the viability of democracy and open and free societies. However, we must accept that the Christian metanarrative is likely irreparably damaged. As Christianity falls apart, much from its own doing, we see various forms of authoritarianism, illiberalism, and populism willing to trade fundamental rights for dubious short-term goals.
Many of the emerging cultural narratives, grouped under the heading of The Machine, are a turn away from an ecological and organic worldview and anthropology. Instead, The Machine offers a transhuman, technological, cyber-digital, artificial worldview and anthropology. Coupled with the various reductionistic identity ideologies comprising the Woke narrative, the cumulative effect is anti-realist, hyper-subjective, and approaching solipsistic.
Western culture is drifting further away from reality, nature, the ecosystem, and organic views of humanity. When the damage done by hyper-stimulation, screen addiction, and the attempted substitution of online reality for the real world are factored into the cultural equation, the results are very much like what John Vervaeke aptly describes as zombification.
THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS
To summarize, the meaning-crisis has its origins in at least four sets of roots:
1) Amythia - the culture doesn't have a sufficient metanarrative to provide a sense of place, meaning, and purpose. There is no shared cultural narrative to provide wisdom and the context for meaning.
2) The Turn Away from Nature - we've lost any sense of organic anthropology where we understand ourselves as part of the ecosystem, not above it or estranged from it. Hand in hand with this comes emerging themes of transhumanism - AI, brain chips, virtual reality, and the radical identity (Woke) claims. We've lost a sense of common humanity, of who we are and where our home is located.
3) Distractedness - we live in a world with no silence, no pause, and little solitude. Overstimulation visually, audibly, intellectually, and emotionally is the norm. Many are borderline addicted to their screens and iToys, which only distract us further, causing us to focus on the artificial online world instead of the natural one. We're unable to achieve mindfulness which is required for processing meaning.
4) Fragmentation and Isolation - lacking a common story, a common home, and being absorbed by our screens and artificial realities, society is increasingly fragmented, and individuals are growing isolated. Loneliness is pandemic. Communal structures are collapsing. Woke ideology is further segregating the culture. As social creatures, meaning is found most easily in communal settings.
IS THERE A WAY FORWARD?
So, where do we turn to for possible solutions? Are there even any solutions?
Cultural and social theorists like John Vervaeke, Brendan Graham Dempsey, Jamie Wheal, and Bobby Azarian, among others, are recognizing that any viable solution to the crisis of meaning must be a religious one.
Why? And what do they mean by religion?
Humans engage in meaning-making using the tools of spirituality, religion, and philosophy. In this sense, spirituality and religion can be understood as focused on existential issues and not merely supernatural claims. Since the current crisis is one of meaning, any effective metanarrative will therefore have to be spiritual and philosophical in nature because at the heart and core of the crisis are the existential concerns of those systems' purview.
However, by religion, these and other thinkers are not suggesting a turn toward supernatural alternatives. Our post-secular culture and intellectual milieu can no longer accommodate supernatural claims. Such claims have been shown untenable through science and naturalist philosophy. Therefore, returning to superstition, fantasy, and magical thinking is not on the table.
How, then, is religion understood? Religion is understood as a system of narratives and the metaphors, symbols, and rituals that support and express that narrative. Such systems, over time, yield wisdom understood as practical advice for living a good life. None of the above requires claims of supernaturalism. The effects of religion are psychological, even neurological, as well as existential and communal.
So which religious systems hold out the possibility of addressing the meaning crisis?
Currently, forms of Buddhism and Eastern spiritualities, Christian naturalism, and nature-based spiritualities are being explored and tested. In other words, the way forward is some form of spiritual naturalism that encourages mindful living, awareness of interconnectedness, social cooperation, and ecological awareness.
What's needed is a necessary, spiritual, collective turn back toward the natural world and organic anthropology that understands humanity as embedded and interconnected to the ecosystem, not above or outside. It requires humanity to mindfully reintegrate itself into nature's patterns, cycles, and rhythms. We must wake from our screen-induced, existential coma, break out of the interwoven online fantasy world, and reroot ourselves in the earth, sea, and sky.
And this will require a new spiritual metanarrative informed by liberal naturalism and which will result in a mindfulness revolution and organic self-understanding.