A social media discussion about Patrick Deneen’s new book on the future of liberalism prompted some thoughts about the loss of faith that has occurred within the West over the last couple of centuries.
I think I’ve shared this account at least once before in this forum: Edward Pusey, a founder of the Oxford Movement within the Anglican faith, while undertaking study in Germany, was first acquainted with the remarkable insights gained from textual study of the Bible. He was shocked, knowing full well that these insights inevitably would cross the Channel and spark an acute spiritual crisis in England. And they did. Britain and the rest of Europe have been plunged into an existential crisis from which they have never fully recovered.
The scientific insights of Charles Darwin only exacerbated these doubts, contributing to an even deeper spiritual crisis.
Liberalism, despite creating a moral and economic order capable generating a multiplicity of rights and an infinite number of personal choices, will never manage to fill the existential void lost following the Nietzschean death of God.
This fact was driven home to me through my own study of networks and through my own formulation of a concept I’ve come to call the Noncoporeal Human Exoskeleton.
From the very beginning, our modern human and, very likely, our hominin ancestors have been constructing a work in progress – an exoskeleton contrived of language, culture and technology, all of which are networked, each part of which is contingent on the rest. And this exoskeleton, speaking within an abstract context, has provided us with a kind of covering or protective layer – hence the choice of the term “noncorporeal exoskeleon.” It has both protected us and pointed the way out of many the problems and challenges that have plagued us as a species. And closely interwoven with that exoskeleton is spirituality.
Spirituality or transcendence – this perception among the vast majority of our species that there is something apart from us and that guides us – is hardwired into our psyches, at least those of most of us. And this awareness has been inextricably bound up – networked – into our exoskeleton, the scaffolding that we have built over eons to guide our species across the vicissitudes of human existence.
And this intertwining of spirituality and our exoskeleton essentially expresses the dilemma we face today as human beings. Our philosophical and scientific advances have challenged some of our most basic notions of transcendence. Equally, of not more, troubling, from my perspective, is that they have rendered much of our exoskeleton obsolete. Conversely, though, we are so intricately bound up in our exoskeleton that we cannot abandon it.
This leads me to wonder: Given that we are so totally bound up with and dependent on our exoskeleton, which, in turn, is so intricately attached to ancient notions of transcendence and spirituality, will it even be possible for us, at least, the vast majority of us, to invent a new ethics bereft of spirituality and transcendence, at least as we’ve understood those terms across eons?
If I am convinced of one thing, it’s that this quest is more elusive than ever and that it may take centuries to restore the equilibrium that was lost in the West with the advent of David Strauss and Charles Darwin.