At the Closing of an Age

November 28, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedLast week’s post here on The Archdruid Report suggested that the normal aftermath of an age of reason is a return to religion—in Spengler’s terms, a Second Religiosity—as the only effective bulwark against the nihilistic spiral set in motion by the barbarism of reflection. Yes, I’m aware that that’s a controversial claim, not least because so many devout believers in the contemporary cult of progress insist so loudly on seeing all religions but theirs as so many outworn relics of the superstitious past.  This is a common sentiment among rationalists in every civilization, especially in the twilight years of ages of reason, and it tends to remain popular right up until the Second Religiosity goes mainstream and leaves the rationalists sitting in the dust wondering what happened.

I’d like to suggest that we’re on the brink of a similar transformation in the modern industrial world. The question that comes first to many minds when that suggestion gets made, though, is what religion or religions are most likely to provide the frame around which a contemporary Second Religiosity will take shape. It’s a reasonable question, but for several reasons it’s remarkably hard to answer.

The first and broadest reason for the difficulty is that the overall shape of a civilization’s history may be determined by laws of historical change, but the details are not. It was as certain as anything can be that some nation or other was going to replace Britain as global superpower when the British Empire ran itself into the ground in the early twentieth century.  That it turned out to be the United States, though, was the result of chains of happenstance and choices of individual people going back to the eighteenth century if not further.  If Britain had conciliated the American colonists before 1776, for example, as it later did in Australia and elsewhere, what is now the United States would have remained an agrarian colony dependent on British industry, there would have been no American industrial and military colossus to come to Britain’s rescue in 1917 and 1942, and we would all quite likely be speaking German today as we prepared to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm VI.

In the same way, that some religion will become the focus of the Second Religiosity in any particular culture is a given; which religion it will be, though, is a matter of happenstance and the choices of individuals. It’s possible that an astute Roman with a sufficiently keen historical sense could have looked over the failing rationalisms of his world in the second century CE and guessed that one or another religion from what we call the Middle East would be most likely to replace the traditional cults of the Roman gods, but which one? Guessing that would, I think, have been beyond anyone’s powers; had the Emperor Julian lived long enough to complete his religious counterrevolution, for that matter, a resurgent Paganism might have become the vehicle for the Roman Second Religiosity, and Constantine might have had no more influence on later religious history than his predecessor Heliogabalus.

The sheer contingency of historical change forms one obstacle in the way of prediction, then. Another factor comes from a distinctive rhythm that shapes the history of popular religion in American culture. From colonial times on, American pop spiritualities have had a normal life cycle of between thirty and forty years. After a formative period of varying length, they grab the limelight, go through predictable changes over the standard three- to four-decade span, and then either crash and burn in some colorful manner or fade quietly away.  What makes this particularly interesting is that there’s quite a bit of synchronization involved; in any given decade, that is, the pop spiritualities then in the public eye will all be going through a similar stage in their life cycles.

The late 1970s, for example, saw the simultaneous emergence of four popular movements of this kind:  Protestant fundamentalism, Neopaganism, the New Age, and the evangelical atheist materialism of the so-called Sceptic movement. In 1970, none of those movements had any public presence worth noticing:  fundamentalism was widely dismissed as a has-been phenomenon that hadn’t shown any vitality since the 1920s, the term “Neopagan” was mostly used by literary critics talking about an assortment of dead British poets, the fusion of surviving fragments of 1920s New Thought and Theosophy with the UFO scene that would give rise  to the New Age was still out on the furthest edge of fringe culture, and the most popular and visible figures in the scientific communtiy were more interested in studying parapsychology and Asian mysticism than in denouncing them.

The pop spiritualities that were on their way out in 1970, in turn, had emerged together in the wake of the Great Depression, and replaced another set that came of age around 1900. That quasi-generational rhythm has to be kept in mind when making predictions about American pop religious movements, because very often, whatever’s biggest, strongest, and most enthusiastically claiming respectability at any given time will soon be heading back out to the fringes or plunging into oblivion. It may return after another three or four decades—Protestant fundamentalism had its first run from just before 1900 to the immediate aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, for example, and then returned for a second pass in the late 1970s—and a movement that survives a few such cycles may well be able to establish itself over the long term as a successful denomination. Even if it does accomplish this, though, it’s likely to find itself gaining and losing membership and influence over the same cycle thereafter.

The stage of the cycle we’re in right now, as suggested above, is the one in which established pop spiritualities head for the fringes or the compost heap, and new movements vie for the opportunity to take their places. Which movements are likely to replace fundamentalism, Neopaganism, the New Age and today’s “angry atheists” as they sunset out? Once again, that depends on happenstance and individual choices, and so is far from easy to predict in advance.  There are certain regularities:  for example, liberal and conservative Christian denominations take turns in the limelight, so it’s fairly likely that the next major wave of American Christianity will be aligned with liberal causes—though it’s anyone’s guess which denominations will take the lead here, and which will remain mired in the fashionable agnosticism and the entirely social and secular understanding of religion that’s made so many liberal churches so irrelevant to the religious needs of their potential congregations.

In much the same way, American scientific institutions alternate between openness to spirituality and violent rejection of it.  The era of the American Society for Psychical Research was followed by that of the war against the Spiritualists, that gave way to a postwar era in which physicists read Jung and the Tao Te Ching and physicians interested themselves in alternative medicine, and that was followed in turn by the era of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and today’s strident  evangelical atheism; a turn back toward openness is thus probably likely in the decades ahead. Still, those are probabilities, not certainties, and many other aspects of American religious pop culture are a good deal less subject to repeating patterns of this kind.

All this puts up serious barriers to guessing the shape of the Second Religiosity as that takes shape in deindustrializing America, and I’m not even going to try to sort out the broader religious future of the rest of today’s industrial world—that would take a level of familiarity with local religious traditions, cultural cycles, and collective thinking that I simply don’t have. Here in the United States, it’s hard enough to see past the large but faltering pop spiritual movements of the current cycle, guess at what might replace them, and try to anticipate which of them might succeed in meeting the two requirements I mentioned at the end of last week’s post, which the core tradition or traditions of our approaching Second Religiosity must have: the capacity to make the transition from the religious sensibility of the past to the religious sensibility that’s replacing it, and a willingness to abandon the institutional support of the existing order of society and stand apart from the economic benefits as well as the values of a dying civilization.

Both of those are real challenges. The religious sensibility fading out around us has for its cornerstone the insistence that humanity stands apart from nature and deserves some better world than the one in which we find ourselves. The pervasive biophobia of that sensibility, its obsession with imagery of rising up from the earth’s surface, and most of its other features unfold from a basic conviction that, to borrow a phrase from one currently popular denomination of progress worshippers, humanity is only temporarily “stuck on this rock”—the “rock” in question, of course, being the living Earth in all her beauty and grandeur—and will be heading for something bigger, better, and a good deal less biological just as soon as God or technology or some other allegedly beneficent power gets around to rescuing us.

This is exactly what the rising religious sensibility of our age rejects. More and more often these days, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I encounter people for whom “this rock” is not a prison, a place of exile, a cradle, or even a home, but the whole of which human beings are an inextricable part. These people aren’t looking for salvation, at least in the sense that word has been given in the religious sensibility of the last two millennia or so, and which was adopted from that sensibility by the theist and civil religions of the Western world during that time; they are not pounding on the doors of the human condition, trying to get out, or consoling themselves with the belief that sooner or later someone or something is going to rescue them from the supposedly horrible burden of having bodies that pass through the extraordinary journey of ripening toward death that we call life.

They are seeking, many of these people.  They are not satisfied with who they are or how they relate to the cosmos, and so they have needs that a religion can meet, but what they are seeking is wholeness within a greater whole, a sense of connection and community that embraces not only other people but the entire universe around them, and the creative power or powers that move through that universe and sustain its being and theirs. Many of them are comfortable with their own mortality and at ease with what Christian theologians call humanity’s “creaturely status,” the finite and dependent nature of our existence; what troubles them is not the inevitability of death or the reality of limits, but a lack of felt connection with the cosmos and with the whole systems that sustain their lives.

I suspect, to return to a metaphor I used in an earlier post here, that this rising sensibility is one of the factors that made the recent movie Gravity so wildly popular. The entire plot of the film centers on Sandra Bullock’s struggle to escape from the lifeless and lethal vacuum of space and find a way back to the one place in the solar system where human beings actually belong. To judge by the emails and letters I receive and the conversations I have, that’s a struggle with which many people in today’s industrial world can readily identify. The void scattered with sharp-edged debris they sense around them is more metaphorical than the one Bullock’s character has to face, but it’s no less real for that.

Can the traditions of the current religious mainstream or its established rivals speak to such people? Yes, though it’s going to take some significant rethinking of habitual language and practice to shake off the legacies of the old religious sensibility and find ways to address the needs and possibilities of the new one. It’s entirely possible that one or another denomination of Christianity might do that.  It’s at least as possible that one or another denomination of Buddhism, the most solidly established of the current crop of imported faiths, could do it instead.  Still, the jury’s still out.

The second requirement for a successful response to the challenge of the Second Religiosity bears down with particular force against these and other established religious institutions. Most American denominations of Christianity and Buddhism alike, for example, have a great deal of expensive infrastructure to support—churches and related institutions in the case of Christianity; monasteries, temples, and retreat centers in the case of Buddhism—and most of the successful denominations of both faiths, in order to pay for these things, have by and large taken up the same strategy of pandering to the privileged classes of American society. That’s a highly successful approach in the short term, but the emergence of a Second Religiosity is not a short term phenomenon; those religious movements that tie themselves too tightly to middle or upper middle class audiences are likely to find, as the floodwaters of change rise, that they’ve lashed themselves to a stone and will sink along with it.

In an age of decline, religious institutions that have heavy financial commitments usually end up in deep trouble, and those that depend on support from the upper reaches of the social pyramid usually land in deeper trouble still. It’s those traditions that can handle poverty without blinking that are best able to maintain themselves in hard times, just as it’s usually those same traditions that an increasingly impoverished society finds most congenial and easiest to support. Christianity in the late Roman world was primarily a religion of the urban poor, with a modest sprinkling of downwardly mobile middle-class intellectuals in their midst; Christianity in the Dark Ages was typified by monastic establishments whose members were even poorer than the impoverished peasants around them. Buddhism was founded by a prince but very quickly learned that absolute non-attachment to material wealth was not only a spiritual virtue but a very effective practical strategy.

In both cases, though, that was a long time ago, and most American forms of both religions—and most others, for that matter—are heavily dependent on access to middle- and upper middle-class parishioners and their funds. If that continues, it’s likely to leave the field wide open to the religions of the poor, to new religious movements that grasp the necessity of shoestring budgets and very modest lifestyles, or to further imports from abroad that retain Third World attitudes toward wealth.

I’m often asked in this context about the possibility that Druidry, the faith tradition I practice, might end up filling a core role in the Second Religiosity of industrial civilization. It’s true that we embraced the new religious sensibility long before it was popular elsewhere, and equally true that shoestring budgets and unpaid clergy are pretty much universal in Druid practice. Still, the only way I can see Druidry becoming a major factor in the deindustrial age is if every other faith falls flat on its nose; we have a strike against us that most other religious movements don’t have.

No, I don’t mean the accelerating decline of today’s pop Neopaganism. Old-fashioned Druid orders such as AODA, the order I head, routinely get confused with the Neopagan scene these days, but we were around long before Neopaganism began to take shape in the late 1970s—AODA was chartered in 1912, and traces its roots back to the eighteenth century—and we expect to be around long after it has cycled back out of fashion. If anything, the volunteer staff who handles AODA’s correspondence will be grateful for fewer emails saying, “Hi, I want to know if you have a grove in my area I can circle with on the Sabbats—Blessed be!” and thus less need for return emails explaining that we aren’t Wiccans and don’t celebrate the Sabbats, and that our groves and study groups are there to provide support for our initiates, not to put on ceremonies for casual attendees.

That is to say, AODA is an initiatory order, not a church in the doors-wide-open sense of the word, and that’s the strike against us mentioned above. I suspect most of my readers will have little if any notion of the quiet subculture of initiatory orders in the modern industrial world. There are a great many of them, mostly quite small, offering instruction in meditation, ritual, and a range of other transformative practices to those  interested in such things.  Initiatory orders in the Western world have usually been independent of public religious institutions—this was also true in classical times, when the Dionysian and Orphic mysteries, the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and later on the Neoplatonists and Gnostic sects filled much the same role we do today—while those in Asian countries are usually affiliated with the religious mainstream. In traditional Japan, for example, people interested in the sort of thing initiatory orders do could readily find their way to esoteric schools  of Buddhism, such as the Shingon sect; this side of the Ganges, by contrast, attitudes of the religious mainstream toward such traditions have tended to veer from toleration through disapproval to violent persecution and back again.

Eccentric as it is, the world of initiatory orders has been my spiritual home since I got dissatisfied with the casual irreligion of my birth family and went looking for something that made more sense. A book I published last year tried to sum up some of what that world and its teachings have to say concerning the age of limits now upon us, and it had a modest success.  Still, one thing all of us in the initiatory orders learn early on is that our work is something that appeals only to the few. Self-unfoldment through disciplines of realization, to borrow a crisp definition from what was once a widely read book on the subject, involves a great deal of hard and unromantic work on the self. For those of us who are called to it, there’s nothing more rewarding—but not that many people are called to it.

Individuals and small communities can make their own kind of difference in helping to shape the future, and those of my readers who have suspected that this blog has something to do with that kind of difference are not mistaken. Still, as we stand here at the closing of an age, we are poised between a death and a difficult birth; I plan on saying something about the prospects for the birth later on, but first, there’s a death to witness. I’ll be talking about that more next week.

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is a widely read author and blogger whose work focuses on the overlaps between ecology, spirituality, and the future of industrial society. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, and currently heads the Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn.

Tags: religious sensibilities, social movements