Our views of faith and transcendence are undergoing rapid and radical change
I was reminded of that recently watching an interview with former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, one of history’s most celebrated and gifted aviators and explorers — a truly singular man. I am struck by how all those hours logged in space — and, incidentally, in spacecraft not much larger than phone booths — shaped his views of transcendence and humanity’s place in it.
Lovell was one the three intrepid Apollo 8 crewmen who undertook humanity’s first translunar voyage in December, 1968. As the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which followed in 1970, he played an instrumental role in guiding the damaged Command Module safely home, not only saving the crew but also safeguarding the long-term prospects of U.S. manned space missions.
But Lovell is also remembered for the thoughtful impressions he brought back from his lunar voyages. His fellow Apollo 8 crew member, Bill Anders, used his onboard camera to the capture the famous Earthrise picture, the first image of Earth from deep space. This image, which thereafter became indelibly embedded in human memory, also made a searing impression on Lovell.
His realization of earth as a fragile ball of mud, a vulnerable ecosystem suspended in space, prompted some extended thinking about humanity, our planet and our place in the universe.
In time, Lovell, turned the conventional religious narrative upside down, and his spirituality took on a this-worldly form. He gained a deeper appreciation for our planet’s stark singularity. After all, Earth not only possesses the right amount of mass and gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, but also, due to its distance from the sun, is exposed to just the right amount of warmth to facilitate the evolution of life on Earth. And aside from all of this good fortune, we are born into a socially evolved human existence that, conceivably, at least, affords opportunities for all manner of contentment, personal growth and self-actualization, certainly if one is fortunate to be born in one of the world’s developed countries. That’s undoubtedly what Lovell means when he argues that being born on Planet Earth effectively amounts to going to Heaven.
New Ways of Thinking
Yet, this remarkable existence is finite. We are transient beings whose life on this tiny, vulnerable ball of mud affords us the potential for a deep well of pleasant experiences and opportunities, but eventually and inevitably our lives run their course. And as Lovell stresses, it’s essential that we humans not only understand this finitude but also embrace it, living our lives consciously and deliberately, knowing that our genetics have allocated us only limited time in this singular place.
Of course, Lovell is not alone in his views. He is expressing a spirituality, if one chooses to call it such, held by growing numbers of well-educated people across the planet — not surprising, considering the long distance humanity has traveled in scientific and technological terms within the past 200 years. We’ve achieved great leaps in our understanding of our universe, the evolution of life on earth, and even the origins of sacred scripture. Given what has been revealed, is it really that surprising that millions of humans have deviated from the religious dogmas improvised over centuries to account for the origins of the cosmos, our world, and our species’ place in it?
I’m one of those people who have deviated significantly from the views I acquired growing up. Indeed, my views roughly conform to those of Lovell. I’m a nontheistic — a culturally Christian nontheist, to be a bit more exact — whose thinking has been inspired by several nontheistic religious philosophers, notably Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering.
After sampling their writings and those of a few others, I’ve reached the conclusion that God represents a kind of congealment of thought and conviction that has unfolded over eons, the result of centuries of struggling with and thinking about transcendence — all those things that we humans perceive as lying beyond our perception and intellectual grasp and that cannot be fully articulated.
All this thinking about what we call God is the culmination of many different factors: our genetic heritage, the subsequent development of language and writing, and our early struggles with nature.
In recent centuries, this ongoing narrative of God has also been shaped by our struggles to come to terms with the implications of the increasingly sophisticated technologies that we have developed over the course of time not only to cope with the demands of nature but also to address the myriad of challenges bound up with human progress.
In a very real sense, nature and human existence have been significantly decoupled, because the knowledge and technologies we have improvised over eons to contend with the challenges of the natural world have grown so big and complicated that they now present their own distinct challenges.
Transcendent Bound in Human Existence
Both Aristotle and Spinoza — and, for that matter, Einstein — characterized God as immanent, embedded in the natural world. I deviate from that view. I would contend that our understanding of God has been filtered through what I have come to call the Networked Human Exoskeleton. (More about this presently.)
As presumptuous as this may sound, I see that as a critical distinction from the thought of Aristotle and Spinoza. To be sure, this largely incorporeal exoskeleton grew out of our struggles with nature and it remains tethered to it in many ways, but increasingly, our ongoing struggle to articulate transcendence and, with it, God, has, for better or worse, become increasingly decoupled from nature, certainly within the West. Our thinking about these vital matters always has been bound up in human thought, culture and, to an increasingly significant degree, in technology, all of which comprise our exoskeleton.
And while I can’t reject outright the possible existence of some impetus that drives the evolutionary forces on Earth and throughout the universe — some kind of Elan Vital (vital impetus), as Henri Bergson described it — I would contend that we only can be reasonably certain of one thing: namely, of how our yearning for the transcendent has been shaped by human necessity.
The only thing of which we can be certain is how we have conformed our yearning for the transcendent — God — to the sundry demands of our species’ existence across eons. Our present understanding of God represents the culmination of thousands of years of human struggle, not only against the forces of nature but also the complexities that have arisen from humanity’s increasing mastery of the natural world. And over the course of time, as this mastery has been enhanced and perfected, our dialogue with the transcendent has been as much a struggle against the culture and technology, the byproducts of our struggle with natural world, as with the natural world itself.
Defining the NHE
God has emerged from a protracted dialogue. Our understanding of him has been constructed largely through language and daily interactions that have ensued across generations. This intergenerational dialogue has occurred within a network or ecosystem, one that has undergone constant change across centuries. This ecosystem, which has increased in density and complexity over time, is what I’ve come to call the NHE.
Our understanding of God represents the distillation of thousands of years of thinking about the world and our species’ place in it as it has been filtered through this exoskeleton. In a very real sense, our exoskeleton has provided the means of revising, or, to put it another way, sculpting our thinking about God and transcendence. And, of course, this ongoing dialogue about the nature of transcendence has contributed immensely to the formation as well as to the refinement of other facets of society that we now regard as secular: law, technology, and the arts, to name a few.
There are many ways to describe this exoskeleton. The exoskeleton could be described as an extra layer of cerebral cortex. It possesses properties that could be compared with amniotic fluid, a nervous system, and a filtering system. Indeed, it evinces many of the properties of a nervous system. The synergized elements in this networked system – language, writing and technology – ensure the transmission of memes, symbols and concepts throughout the human collective and, ultimately, across time.
In many notable respects, this networked synergy serves the same purpose among humans as pheromone does among ant and mosquito colonies.
Raw, Unfiltered Experience with Nature
Amniotic fluid is an apt analogy too. In a manner of speaking, we not only swim within but are also sustained by the dense network of language, writing, culture and technology that comprise the human exoskeleton. In addition to disseminating knowledge, our exoskeleton sustains our species by supplying a sense of social rootedness and identity and, with these, a measure of emotional and psychological well-being.
Compared to us moderns, our distant forebears experienced a raw, unfiltered access to nature. But our human exoskeleton increasingly stands in the way of any sort of raw, unfiltered communing with nature. Our species’ contemporary perception of nature not only is based on 6 million years of evolution but also on the exoskeleton — the nervous system and filter — that we have constructed over eons to cope with the vicissitudes of existence. And I should stress again the importance of distinguishing between nature and existence. Our perennial struggle has been as much a struggle against existence as nature in the sense that the exoskeleton that we have evolved over time to cope with the exigencies of nature have also supplied their own challenges, particularly in the form of mental pathology, as this exoskeleton becomes more complex and extended.
Our experience with nature no longer is so raw and unfiltered and has not been for centuries. To be sure, until fairly recently in human history, life has been incorrigibly hard and remains so in certain parts of the world, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, where, for example, women spend large parts of their day gathering water for drinking and cooking.
Yet, hundred of millions of human beings throughout the planet benefit from one of the most remarkable facets of technological achievement: an array of time- and labor-saving devices, freeing humans to pursue other interests.
Other species have developed technologies to preserve or to enhance life. But humans have achieved this technological enhancement over an immense scale. Language, which was enhanced centuries later by writing, has proven instrumental in enabling our species to extend our perspective beyond the present – to look ahead, albeit through a mirror darkly, in many cases, and, likewise, by looking backwards, to reflect on the implications of the past.
One of humanity’s earliest and most far-reaching discoveries was fire, which initially provided us with a source of warmth on frigidly cold nights, effectively providing us with an extra coating of fur. But over the course of time, we also discovered how fire could be used to cook our food, which provided us with the equivalent of a second stomach.
Likewise, clothing has provided our species protection from the elements without otherwise having to evolve heavy layers of fur. Advances in foot covering that eventually culminated in shoes secured us cushioning similar to what eons of evolution provided ruminants in the form of dense, keratin coverings known as hooves.
To the sure, these technological advances occurred at painstakingly slow rates across eons.
Writing, which has conferred immense benefits on our species, were not fully realized until roughly a half millennium ago. For centuries, many of the disparate intellectual insights that grew out of and were preserved by writing were limited almost exclusively to an elite coterie of scribes and other specialists.
Yet, this slow eking-out process of human advancement appears to have been periodically disrupted by remarkable innovations that significantly accelerated the rates of our species’ progress.
One of the most significant examples of such disruptive technology is the printing press, which, like few other technological innovations, transformed our exoskeleton, not only expanding it but also enhancing its complexity. Indeed, even in the face of our species newest revolution, the Digital Age, which already has dwarfed the advances associated with the printing press, human beings arguably are still sorting through the social and technological disruption wrought by the printing press, which occurred five hundred years ago.
This immense technological disruption associated with the printing press raised profound implications for what is arguably our species’ most unique exoskeletal innovations: God. While it may sound heretical, if not blasphemous, to many readers, God is as much an innovation as language, writing and technology. And like the other innovations, the evolution of this concept has carried our species a very long way. The evolution of God, particularly into his present monotheistic form, essentially amounts to a ponderously slow but nevertheless monumentally significant software upgrade.
God is Bound in Our Exoskeleton
And like language, writing and technology, God is bound within this network, this exoskeleton. And his standing within his network is closely bound up with other elements. And as all these elements undergo constant change and new elements added, God’s binding within this network undergoes alteration too. But, after all, we are talking about an embedded God — a nonsupernatural and nonrealist God — though one who has exerted immense influence over the course of human history.
And as this network mutates, our understanding of God changes, too. And to an increasing degree technology, in addition to language, has molded our conception of the transcendent. And these advances in technology in recent decades, have afforded us a greatly enhanced understanding of how networks function, which, consequently, has driven the rate and efficiency with with knowledge is disseminated, which has only worked to accelerate these trends.
Expanding the Boundaries of Human Knowledge
This heightened understanding of networks has enabled us to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. We are using this enhanced knowledge not only to extend our gaze into space and into the origins the cosmos but also to look back into our distant past to understand the origins of our pre-hominin forebears. And through this enhanced knowledge, we’ve also gained critical insights into how our distant ancestors first began formulating rudiments of mental scaffolding associated with religion.
As presumptuous as this may sound to some, we have gained a stronger stewardship over our understanding of God.
It’s worth pointing out the enormous gifts that have been conferred on Homo sapiens, not only by evolution, namely in terms of how it contributed to human consciousness, but also by the NHE, which influenced significantly the development and enhancement of consciousness. But these advances have also imposed an enormous psychological burden on humanity, because the expanded perspective afforded by our highly evolved consciousness has not only reinforced the sense of our mortality but also our appreciation for all the acute risks bound up in all aspects of life. For countless millions of human beings across the ages, the expanded consciousness afforded the growth of our exoskeleton has imposed tremendous psychological suffering, expressed in neuroses and even psychoses and the expanded substance abuse often associated with them.
Under the circumstances, is it little wonder why religion and spirituality have been improvised across eons to fill this void and to become an integral part of our exoskeleton?
Some of us have embraced new forms of thinking about transcendence to liberate themselves from these age-old fear of mortality. Some contend that the time has come not only to rearticulate our understanding of God but even to express transcendence in new ways.
Without Conscious Planning or Design
Yet, we humans have been pondering these issues for a very long time. And we should be reminded that this scaffolding was most often built not so much through conscious planning and design — or, for that matter, revelation — but rather through our intermittent brushes with necessity. Spiritual and religious innovation have been improvised, sometimes comparatively quickly, when seemingly intractable situations demanded it.
The God many evangelical Christians still worship fervently in praise centers across the red American heartland was likely conceived in Iraq some three-and-a-half millennia ago as displaced Jewish theologians and intellectuals, desperately seeking a psychological escape from defeat, cultural debasement and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, crafted a new universal monotheistic God
In a very real sense, religion evolved along with us and the many crises throughout history that have beset us.
While this may strike some as terribly banal, if not sacrilegious, one could argue that religious faith serves a role remarkably similar to to stomach flora. We and the bacteria in our stomach have co-evolved across eons. In a manner of speaking, flora, in exchange for safe harbor in our gastro-intestinal tracks, have enabled us to digest food. Likewise, religious belief, occupying space in our minds, provide psychological aid and comfort through the vicissitudes of life.
To put it another way, religions have acquired scaffolding within our exoskeleton to help us endure all the trials and tribulations of a mortal life.
Meeting, Mating, Morphing
And much of this evolution of religion has taken place in the course of meeting, mating and morphing with other religious and cultural beliefs. This not only is inevitable but also arguably provides religion, at least, the ones that develop into full-blown global faith-traditions, with a kind of hybrid vigor.
The religious historian Karen Armstrong has contended that Islam grew out of a genuine desire among nomadic Arabs to build a cohesive culture and ethos that were as influential and that provided as strong a social bond as those of the Jewish and Christian faiths, which existed in close proximity to the Arabic World.
Likewise, Christianity grew out of an impulse among many in the eastern Mediterranean Basin to build upon the scaffolding of the Roman Empire – to merge monotheism and the high Jewish standards of moral and ethical probity with philosophy of the Greeks to forge a new universal religion. Indeed, the case could be made that Paul, a Hellenized Jew, was the principal founder of Christianity.
Jesus arguably was a religious teacher from a long line of apocalyptic Jewish prophets. What he preached arguably was not radically different from what they taught. And his preaching of brotherly love and tolerance toward the Roman authorities may simply have been a reflection of his belief that the end was nigh and that there was no reason to fret or to become angry about the daily cruelties and indignities meted out by an imperial order that God had consigned to imminent extinction.
Jesus likely not only died an excruciating death on a cross but his body also was likely removed and thrown into a ditch with other Jewish religious and political dissidents who had convicted and executed for sedition.
Paul, however, inspired by Jesus’ sacrifice and, presumably, his oral teaching, wove all of this into what became, centuries later, the world’s principal Abrahamic faith, borrowing not only from Judaic but also Hellenistic traditions and propagating this faith using the transportation and legal infrastructure of Rome.
Much earlier in history, a multigenerational dialogue of Jewish prophets and intellectuals transformed the tribal faith of a defeated and dispossessed Semitic people into a monotheistic religion that, over the course of time, provided the scaffolding for the other two principal Abrahamic faiths.
There seems to be a deep-seated human need to ascribe miraculous turnabouts in human history to intervention by a higher power. Writing very late in life in his memoirs, “Around the Cragged Hill,” the great American diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan believed that something miraculous occurred in the Middle East leading up to the advent of Jesus’ ministry. So many things seemed have been remarkably aligned for this ministry to have occurred and for Jesus’s teachings to have been propagated over the next few centuries throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Kennan ascribed this to intervention to a higher intelligence. However, based on all that we have learned through via networking and emergence theory, a simple secular explanation can be offered. And for eons, the Middle East has provided fertile soil for the emergence and cross-fertilization of many religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
For centuries, the vast majority of human beings were oblivious to this process of cultural cross-fertilization — how disparate ideas, symbols and memes meet, mate and morph, gain traction in human minds and, in some instances, become viral, spreading far beyond the initial point of cross-fertilization. But, of course, this is not surprising, considering that the Enlightenment tools of scientific investigation had not yet been invented. And in sheer psychological terms, the prospect of looking beyond conventional thinking is painful, if not terrifying, for many people. But beginning in the 18th century, advances in human understanding enabled a handful of exceptionally rare and intellectually astute individuals to perceive a reality beyond the intellectual fetters of their time.
It was as if they were able to climb to the highest reaches of the scaffolding of their era to acquire a wider perspective of the human condition, one that would enable subsequent human beings to construct more scaffolding. And these seminal thinkers — Kant, Newton, Darwin, Nietzsche and (Max) Weber, to name only a few —point the way toward a new understanding of transcendence.
The Mixed Blessings of Enhanced Human Understanding
Nevertheless, this new and enhanced understanding presents our species, particularly Westerners, with a double-edged sword as well as a mixed blessing. For many people, particularly physicists, cosmologists, and evolutionary scientists, our enhanced understanding of the natural world has pointed away from an omniscient, omnipotent personal God. And one of the consequences of these new insights is a kind of cultural bifurcation, in which culture is divided between elites, those who perceive the need for a new understanding of transcendence, and those who still hold to old orthodoxies. And this stark cultural division over the nature of transcendence has bred a sense of disconnectedness, normlessness and even nihilism among millions of people.
To be sure, advances in a host of disciplines — biblical scholarship and archaeology, evolutionary science and cosmology — have conferred immense intellectual and material advantages on our species, but these advances have been accompanied by the heavy psychological and social burden that the late German sociologist Max Weber characterized as disenchantment.
Seeing Beyond and Even Before Time
One of the incomparable gifts of existence, that is to say, NETWORKED EXISTENCE, is that we have enabled ourselves, in a manner of speaking, to see beyond time. Language and technology have played indispensable roles in this. And seeing beyond time not only applies to the future but also to the past. And thanks to a combination of things – genetics, Big Data and artificial intelligence, to name few — we not only have acquired better tools to project far into the future but we are also increasingly equipped to extend our perception to our species’ deep past, to prehistory.
We are garnering an increasingly clearer picture of the human species in all of its elusive complexity. Indeed, in a very real sense, we humans have acquired insights that we have historically been regarded as the purview of God. We have eaten bountifully from the forbidden fruit and, barring some unforeseen natural or manmade calamity that propels us into a new dark age, there really is no turning away from these new insights. We are stuck with them – married to them. They have become integrated into our exoskeleton. Yet, after roughly 200 years and in spite of all the remarkable insights that we already have gained, we are still digging our way out of a considerable measure of psychic shock. We are still trying to construct a new ethos to replace the one that was shattered by the like likes of David Strauss, Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.
Perhaps the time has come to develop a new way to understand the nature of our existence and mortality and what lies beyond them.
The Embedded God
I personally prefer the term the “embedded God, rather than simply God, to express our emerging views of transcendence. It better comports with my understanding of transcendence as a culmination of centuries of conceptual scaffolding. And this scaffolding has proven invaluable in guiding the fortunes of species throughout some of its most challenging periods. This understanding — this scaffolding — is a multi-generational construction.
God is embedded in this scaffolding and in the network this scaffolding comprises.
This new way of looking at transcendence must also combine the insights of visual art, science fiction and other forms of artistic and literary expression.
In his new book on creativity, “The Origins of Creativity,” the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson relates the tragic life of artist Tolouse Lautrec, the French aristocrat born with a series of crippling abnormalities. But as the legacy of his art reveals, his deformities, particularly his diminutive size, afforded him a closer intimacy to his subjects and also to his choice of colors. Indeed, this is one of the remarkable things about art: the unique perspective of every artist has essentially afforded subsequent generations multiple glimpses into reality. In a very real sense, God has been revealed in much the same way, through individual perspective and through human dialogue across the ages.
Yet, while art and literature provide centuries of accumulated perspectives, the sheer volume of these works prohibit their being curated in ways that provide us with this deep transcendent insight. But imagine if, in some distant future, some potent combination of AI and Big Data enabled us to combine or correlate these multiple perspectives in a way that gave us an unusually compelling and deeply nuanced grasp of reality. Would this somehow enable us to bridge, if not to transcend, many of the divisions that seem to be rending the world, particularly, Western society, apart today? This is not exactly Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, but it would amount to a technological leap that provided us with a perspective that we mortal humans have historically ascribed to God.
Such a culmination may be beyond our grasp for the foreseeable future. For now, though, amid all the wrenching divisions of the present day, we at least can derive some consolation from the fact that science has provided us not only with deep insight into our past but even into our deep past. We have a clearer understanding than ever of how our species groped its way out of the darkness and into a comparatively well-lit broad upland. We have managed to construct a reasonably coherent view of our place in the world and, to an increasing degree, in the universe.
Our Expanding Sensory Capacity
Yes, we still have immense amount of work ahead of us, but we have come very far.
Compared with other species, our sensory capacity is grievously limited. Nevertheless, we have harnessed our limited sensory apparatus along with our the increasingly complex exoskeleton to broaden our horizons significantly —to the point where we’ve managed to reach out beyond the parochial confines of our planet to a vast universe beyond to contemplate the origins of life and our place in this vast cosmos.
Our emerging understanding of networks have altered the way we understand the nature of all things. They have even shed considerable light on how we have constructed our networked ecosystem, the NHE, across time. And this new understanding has instilled us within keener understanding of just how complex this network is and how many layers have been laid, one on top of another, across eons.
It has also challenged our very understanding of human sovereignty. We are not the sovereign entities we once thought that we were, consciously and deliberately expanding our intellectual, scientific and technological horizons, but rather far less singular creatures reacting to necessity, somewhat similar to worker ants.
In fact, advances in networking have now rendered the human understanding of God too complex to be expressed by the traditional creeds and liturgies of the church.
Too Complex to Be Expressed in Creeds
And partly because of this, the matter of worshipping God has become more problematic. Indeed, even the more expansive, open-ended approaches to accessing transcendence, such as the Quaker testimonial approach, no longer seem comprehensive enough.
Perhaps the only alternative for people, at least, the ones actively seeking insight into these questions, within the 21st century is to quit thinking so much about the nature of God and to focus instead on becoming as deeply imbued with the attributes of God and, over the course of time, to share their own experiences of personal growth with the aim of serving as a beacon for others — in other words, to focus more on orthopraxy and less on orthodoxy, living rather than thinking the right way.
Curating our Spiritual Walk
To borrow a common networking term, perhaps it is time for seekers to curate their faith — to arrange their life experiences in the most optimal ways to provide a road map for others. Perhaps this orthopraxic faith is the most realistic way to practice spirituality, or what passes for it, in a post-Christian, post-orthodox age.
In a sense, this is a harkening back to the writings of Nietzsche, who addressed the so-called “death of God” as an entity “out there,” beyond space and time, directing the fortunes of our species.
Every human being is now the product of a vast and very dense network. Within this sprawling, sophisticated network, we collectively are equipped not only with a highly developed and nuanced exoskeleton but also with an immense exobrain, which most of us carry around in our pockets or purses in the form of a smartphone, which affords us virtually instantaneous access to all of the extant knowledge of the past 5,000 years of recorded human history. And this provides, potentially, at least, every citizen of the Western world with an immense degree of intellectual freedom, the breadth of which was almost inconceivable to humans a few centuries ago.
Ironically, though, the vast majority of us are now overwhelmed by a surfeit of information. And this immense tide of information has increasingly diluted the ability of every institution in the West, including the church, to impose its idiosyncratic views on individuals.
Consequently, for better or worse, it falls on the shoulder of every practitioner of spirituality, whatever that form takes, to become a curator of his/her lifetime journey. In a very real sense, the technology and moral developments that have followed in the footsteps of the digital age have called each of us to become Martin Luthers, to become, in a sense, our own reformers and our own spiritual lodestars.
These technological forces have seriously undermined the traditional structures through which religion — faith — has previously been explored and practiced.
For example, he followers of the nontheistic religious philosopher Don Cupitt have improvised a community known as the Sea of Faith Network to explore the implications of Cupitt’s new religious philosophy. However, as many of them have learned through experience, the mixed success of these networks only underscore the difficulty of creating a community in the midst of rapid social, cultural and technological change when the body of knowledge is expanding at such volumes and at such rates that human beings lack the ability to improvise new social structures to adjust to these changes.
Looking Beyond Mundane Existence
To be sure, many of us have become increasingly addicted to the conveniences afforded by these new networking technologies, if not imprisoned by them. And therein lies the irony of these new technologies: They offer humans an incomparable measure of freedom — freedom of which earlier generations of scientists and philosophers scarcely could have conceived. They have freed us, potentially, at least, from the ignorance that imprisoned many of our forebears only a few generations ago. They supply us with the real potential to look beyond our mundane existence — to utilize the benefits of these networks to become highly informed fully actualized human beings.
Yet, like most technological advances, networking technologies have presented our species with as many challenges as they have immense opportunities for personal enlightenment and growth. Indeed, a growing number of scientists and philosophers have expressed concern that these new technologies will ultimately grow so complex that they will consume and enslave us. Small wonder why the Borg of Star Trek captured viewers’ imagination: they provided a plausible, if not deeply disturbing insight into our distant future or, as the case may be, near future.
Our existence is intimately bound up in our exoskeleton, and the cultural and technological advances that have grown out of it have provided us with the most incomparable of gifts.
It has afforded us with the capacity to become ubermensch (over men), as Nietzsche conceived this term. But its growing complexity has robbed us of all the certainties that characterized previous generations, and each of us increasingly and rather unwittingly is forced to undertake our own solitary walk through life.
To be sure, there remain millions of us who are content to adopt ready-made templates. But they, too, are as much participants of this leap into the dark, though without being as consciously aware of that fact.
They, like everyone else, can only follow the bread crumbs left behind by earlier generations. They are simply embracing templates sculpted by earlier generation, all acting in response to necessity and to our evolving exoskeleton. Yet, like no other previous generation on the planet, we are interacting within an exoskeleton more evolved and nuanced than ever, one that, conceivably, at least, supplies us with the tools to undertake and complete this solitary journey.
A Reaction to Network Complexity
The strong case could be made that human history is not so much a reaction to the uptick in knowledge as to the increasingly complexity of networks that follow this this uptick. New insights stemming from advances in knowledge typically spark network disruptions, and these disruptions occur as a result of shifts in what I’ve come to call network binding.
A good example is the advent of the printing press. This created an expansion of all kinds of knowledge. Especially significant from a religious standpoint, it afforded new insights into the founding texts of Christianity, particularly those of St. Augustine, which exerted a major influence on Martin Luther. This caused a major disruption to the Christian faith, the largest and most influential network at the time within the West, particularly in terms of how it altered the way 16th century northern European kings, intellectuals and other elites viewed the authority of the church. Consequently, the role that the church occupied within European culture was dramatically revised. To put it another way, the manner in which it was bound with other elements in the network, the larger exoskeleton, underwent sweeping change. And in a very real sense, Christianity and the West have not fully adjusted yet to these changes, even as it faces the next big disruption: the effects of the Digital Age.
Back to that remarkable irony: We are faced with a literal surfeit of information — information that represents the culmination of thousands of years of human thinking and striving. Human beings should be drinking from this fire hose. Yet, in most instances, we are dying of spiritual and intellectual thirst. And what accounts for this?
Patrick Deneen, a University of Notre Dame political philosopher, is right: The spiritual and political impasses in society are due significantly to the success of modern liberalism. Liberalism’s comparative success lies in the fact that it has enabled human beings to access and to capitalize on the benefits of our exoskeleton like on other competing ideology.
Indeed, some futurists have even contended that our exoskeleton may grow so dense and complex that it ultimately will attain consciousness, one that, over time, will dwarf and even devour humanity. It’s as if a mollusk, enclosed in well-nourished and dense shell, is ultimately devoured by it.
Elites Will Always Be With Us
And in the midst of all of this, large segments of the West’s population, namely elites, have moved away from the religious tradition that still provides the principal scaffolding of the West: Christianity. And this largely accounts for the cultural war that is raging throughout the Western world, though particularly in the United States. This scaffolding is worn and outdated, as all scaffolding tends to become over the course of time, but that does not detract from the fact that this scaffolding still provides the underpinning of much of our cultural and legal traditions.
Yet, even as this scaffolding is abandoned by elites, we have not yet managed to improvise new scaffolding to replace it. At best, we have only laid down the broad contours of this new scaffolding, and it’s conceivable that the West may never manage to lay out anything as comprehensive and as nuanced as the Christian ethos that has underpinned Western culture for the last 1500 years.
One of the mainstays of modern elitist thought is that capitalist greed has driven the fortunes of the West and that much of what we associated with modernity and human progress is bound up economic exploitation — a variation of the Marxist narrative.
To be sure, the history of human striving, which has culminated in the construction of the NHE, has always been bound up in elitism. Elites have always enjoyed a distinct advantage simply because they have more assets to leverage. Elites have tended to predominate in all cultures because of the assets they bring to the struggle, namely singular intellectual and moral, emotional and even physical attributes. And if, eons ago, humans had somehow succeeded in flattening the competitive landscape, our exoskeleton arguably would not be as dense and refined as it is.
Granted, the flattened landscape that has emerged from the digital revolution has contributed immensely to the remarkable and rapid uptick in knowledge and technological innovation. Some undoubtedly cite this phenomenon as an example of how a relatively flatter class structure could contribute to scientific and technological progress. And this flattened landscape has leveraged the voices and talents of many remarkable people who otherwise would be marginalized in the previous industrial era.
But the flattening was made possible principally by outliers — intellectually and entrepreneurially gifted elites. And these outliers, despite the democratizing effects of the digital revolution, still exert a vastly disproportionate share of influence.
Nietzsche and Foucault raised a valid point in arguing that history, rather than being studied dispassionately and in its totality, should be mined for the insights that can be employed to enhance our present-day quality of life.
One of the great tragedies of history, though, is that humans, great and ordinary alike, have failed to understand the unusually refined and complex nature of the human exoskeleton, which not only is disproportionately and necessarily influenced by outliers but that, by its very nature, requires that change occur only incrementally.
Human efforts to dismantle huge swathes of the exoskeleton and to reconstruct new elements from scratch — the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, for example — conferred immense human suffering from which our species is still recovering.
From Orthodoxy to Orthopraxy
In this post-Christian, post-orthodox world, one characterized by a high emphasis on orthopraxy, right behavior, the emphasis on morality, deep morality, has become more important than ever. Orthodox Christianity has historically supplied that deep morality. And with its effective loss, the West has been deprived of an ethos that essentially enabled Westerners to function on something resembling autopilot.
Rabbi Irwin Kula is among several religious leaders and sages calling 21st century humanity to recognize religion as a form of technology, which essentially amounts to the building up of scaffolding to enable our species to better understand the nature of the transcendent and to drive more meaning and enjoyment from our mortal existence and, in the course of which, to apply meaning to reality and to order it in a way that better ensures we coexist with each other in peace. But compared to our forebears, we operate under a distinct disadvantage, because this mortal struggle is shorn of the mystery — the enchantment — that characterized earlier ages.
It’s important to stress, though, that there was no nefarious plot by monarchs, the illuminati or anyone else to deprive the West of its enchantment. It simply worked out that way in the course of our exoskeleton’s response to necessity. And this fact underscores that we humans are not sovereign in the way we always have imagined ourselves to be.
In a sense, the scales have fallen from our eyes. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain has been exposed, and, as it turns out, there is no man or entity at all, simply an eons-long struggle on our part to improvise responses to all manner of exigency, and, in the vast majority of cases, without our being scarcely aware of the implications of our actions or their connectedness with other elements of our exoskeleton. Indeed, for eons, we have been scarcely aware of this exoskeleton and how the disparate parts of it affect other parts of this vast, largely incomprehensible human projection.
How Then Should We Live?
This brings us around to the vital question: How then should we live in this post-Christian age? Moreover, how is possible to live freely and deliberately in a world in which we are conceivably being overwhelmed by our exoskeleton, something on which we have never exercised full stewardship from the beginning? To express this in even more ominous terms, how do we exercise freedom in an era in which our exoskeleton grows increasingly more complex with each passing day, even to the point where it could overtake our species entirely and even supplant us as the dominant entities on this planet?
In one notable respect we are free —free in the sense that Nietzsche envisioned freedom roughly two centuries ago. We have been liberated, however unwittingly, by our own technological advances. All of us —not just professionally trained, philosophers, theologians and clergy — are being challenged as never before to look beyond the historically prescribed notions of good and evil and to search for grains of truth within this immense, digitally flattened information landscape.
To be sure, there will always be spiritual versions of those whom the Objectivist Ayn Rand disparagingly and rather unjustly characterized as second-handers — conformists, people who do not wish to take a leap into the dark and who are content to follow orthodox expressions of faith: Catholicism or one of the numerous iterations of Protestantism.
They will likely represent the overwhelming majority of seekers for the foreseeable future. Yet, even these more conventional paths amount to leaps of faith, because within this new information order, orthodoxy no longer is regarded sacrosanct, as it once was. In this digital age, even they are forced, however unwittingly, to choose among many alternatives associated with human existence. And we should recall that Luther’s wrenching conversion occurred in a steadfastly Christian milieu and essentially amounted to a binary choice between Catholic dogma and one that Luther perceived as an older, and far more orthodox one espoused by the Apostle Paul and Augustine.
Curating and Creating Our Own Sacred Spaces
However, for the rest of us, a rather embattled but growing minority, it seems that the only alternative is to determine, each in our own way, how to become as deeply imbued with the attributes our civilization has historically assigned to God.
This brings us back to the challenge of curating our lifetime journey— sharing the experience of this solitary, lifetime walk with others.
In a very real sense, our individual responses to the exigencies of life amount to their own acts of creation. Lloyd Geering has observed that each of us is born into and cultivates over the course of a lifetime his or her own womb of culture. He offers a memorable quote by Austrian scholar, writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lykeus: “Every time a man dies, a whole universe is destroyed.”
To view it another way, the advances in digital media and the tidal wave of information that has followed have transformed us not only into unwitting Nietzscheans but also into Martin Luthers. By that I mean that many of us, secularist and orthodox believer alike, have, in the course of dealing with the exigencies of life, undergone our own transformational Tower Experiences, much as Luther did. In many cases, these have placed us on our distinct moral and ethical paths.
Improvising Our Own Solitary Treks
While the Digital Age may be undermining our ability to keep pace with societal change and may even be eroding our personal freedom as human beings, it has afforded us with greater opportunity than ever before to compile a digital record of our thoughts.
By curating what we learn and discover on our own, we not only conceive and create our own sacred spaces but also share our personal journeys for the enlightenment of other spiritual sojourners.
We are being challenged — perhaps forced would be a choice of words in this context — to improvise our own solitary treks through life. We are being forced to undertake Kierkegaardian leaps into the dark as we carry on with tour individual lifetime treks through the vicissitudes of life.
All we really have in the end is our own personal fortitude and courage to travel through this mortal existence and to follow the bread crumbs dropped by earlier generations of wanderers — that and the freedom to reflect on our own experiences and to leave behind bread crumbs of our own for future generations of wayfarers.
And that brings me back to the question: How do we affirm personal freedom and sovereignty in the digital age? As I see it, some 5,000 years of recorded human history have demonstrated that we have an obligation not only to follow the bread crumbs laid down by earlier generations of human beings but also to lay down our own crumbs for present and future generations. We have an obligation to relate to others the lessons of our own lifetime journeys — to become curators on behalf of others.
In carving out our own paths, we, in the course of our own solitary struggle, should create our own unique but sacred spaces. And as we reflect on our own experiences in life — how we not only adapted to the inevitable exigencies but also learned from them — we should consider sharing these with others. Like earlier generations, we should strive to lay our own breadcrumbs.
(This was edited and revised Dec. 25, 2018. More revisions are anticipated in the future.)