Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
If the crisis of Western Culture could be reduced to a bumper sticker, it might be this one: “Nietzsche Was Right.”
In 1882, Nietzsche put some stunning words in the mouth of a character: God is dead, we have killed him, and the implications are staggering. Let me quote from the passage:
“Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”
The prophetic madman then realizes he has come too early: that the understanding of what’s happening has not dawned on mankind. But it will. It will.
A crisis was coming to the Western psyche, and Nietzsche was its most famous prophet. But he wasn’t the only one. Carl Jung saw it coming as well: in his masterpiece “Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Philip Rieff describes the entire Jungian project as pre-emptive effort to head off a collective crisis of the spirit by giving the Western world a new kind of religion, one based on inner symbols that we could all put in the center of our psychological lives. To the extent that it is true it remains an ongoing project: it hasn’t saved us yet.
The awareness that yes, in fact, we are in crisis began to hit us after the destruction of two world wars and the creation of a whole new kind of identity, one no longer based … as all identity had been in the past … on fixed points in an eternal firmament. A global economy in the world of Freud and Einstein meant everything was relative: your race, your ethnicity, your profession, your religion, even the ground you stand on. Once these had been skin that was impossible to shed, but now they were clothes someone could take on and off, in a universe where not even matter and time were constant.
We no longer anchored ourselves to enduring truths, whether universal or personal. Instead, we had become what Rieff called “psychological man,” whose only organizing principle was the pursuit of happiness.
Sounds good, right? So why was this a crisis?
Because it turns out that human beings are not suited for a universe without a center. Much in the way that new studies have shown that giving people too much choice tends to make them unhappy, giving human beings an infinite number of ways to pursue our own happiness — a thing we don’t even really understand — is terrifying and troubling. This is the essence of what Sartre meant when he wrote that “man is condemned to be free.”
Given the freedom and power to do nothing but pursue our own satisfaction, we entered what W. H. Auden and Rollo May called “The Age of Anxiety.” Our limitless freedom makes us deathly afraid — and more afraid of death. We are desperately looking for guidance on what to do and who to be. Especially because — and we’ve all noticed this — when we pursue nothing but happiness, we tend to go off the rails. Pursuit of happiness without a corresponding sublimation to responsibility turns us into monsters (tragic or comic).
But where do we turn for guidance? God is dead. The universe is relative.
“I find that contemporary therapy is almost entirely concerned, when all is surveyed, with the problem of the individual’s search for myths,” May wrote in 1991. “The fact that Western society has all but lost its myths was the main reason for the birth and development of psychoanalysis in the first place.”
This is what made Nietzsche truly prophetic: he didn’t just say “God is dead.” He said that to be worthy of this death, we ourselves would have to become Gods. We have to step up to the plate, and re-create the center of the universe—both personally (for each and every individual one of us) and societally.
I know. Right?
Seeking a Low-Carb Religion Substitute
Generally speaking, we’ve not only refused to step up to the challenge, we’ve pretended the challenge has an easy work-around.
It’s no accident that a major revival in fundamentalist religion occurred alongside the mass realization that the modern world would not — could not — offer us a fixed point by which to measure our lives. Many people are trying to not just to believe in God (which is reasonable on its own terms) but insist that He take the responsibility of living authentically off our shoulders again. “Do what the scripture says and don’t worry about the rest” isn’t just believing in God, it’s trying to disbelieve in modernity.
Others are trying to go back without using the term “God,” but by anointing another deity. As Rieff and Jacques Barzun have both noted, “art” has come to replace “religion” in form and function among many secular societies. As James Davison Hunter wrote in an introduction to Rieff’s thought: “In the material culture, art once addressed to sacred order is liberated from theological reference and now addresses only itself. Accordingly, in the structure of social authority, the artist replaces the prophet, the therapist replaces the priest, and so it goes.”
We also have technology as a prophetic cult. Computers, we’re told, will become so advanced — so smart — that they’ll be able to tell us what to do and who to be, and even if we don’t understand it, it will all work out because they’ll have so far evolved beyond us. No need to take responsibility for your own destiny anymore! And if that doesn’t work, Big Data will give us all the answers we need and we’ll never have to make a human choice again because given sufficient data all our questions will be answered and our existential responsibilities be lifted.
Do I actually need to say — to spell out — that all these attempts to avoid the problem of personal agency by re-creating the God of our fathers in the form of art and data will fail? You cannot go back to a system where something tells us what to do and we obey “just because it’s so much more advanced that it must be right.”
There is no way to avoid the challenge Nietzsche prophesied. We have to grow into worthy moral centers in our own right. We have to deal with our freedom and our limits head on and sublimate ourselves to meanings of our own choosing. Even harder: It can’t be something we put on and take off like a costume when it suits us. Otherwise it will be a fashion accessory, not a meaningful way of life.
That’s incredibly difficult. And, looking around at our culture, it’s easy to see that we’re not ready yet.
To live in such a world we must build societies that help people find ways to move forward, through the abyss and to a better kind of sublimation and a meaningful life that does not depend on the universe having a center.
And it seems very likely, at this point, that any such successful process will not begin with intellectualism — with a blueprint or a theory. It will begin, instead, with a community, and with the rituals that sustain community.
Unity Unbound by Belief
A common cause, a common activity, a common ritual — a thing we do — may be a more effective bond for community than a thing we think or believe. Indeed, if we want to preserve our individual consciences, our freedom to question, to search, to invent — if we refuse to accept a required orthodoxy handed down to us from on high — then beliefs cannot be the glue that holds our society together. Only a common activity, rooted in common struggle, could do that. Even if God is dead — especially if God is dead — we may still need sacraments. Not fixed points in an eternal firmament, but moments of immanent and transcendence that as Larry Harvey suggested, give us experiences of spirit and soul — subjective realities however you define them.
The time may have come to define our communities not by what we believe but by what we do — activities that anyone can engage in, and define for themselves, so long as they lend their hands and their talents to the effort.
Can any ritual achieve this? Or only a “radical ritual?” What distinguishes the two? How do we build them? How do communities take them and give them life? What convinces individuals to take them on voluntarily — for it must be voluntarily — and respond to them both personally and in community in a way that creates lasting personal health and communal connections?
This year, both in this series of articles and in the creative endeavors of 70,000 Burners, we hope to find out.
Photo of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony taken by a U.S. Army photographer.