“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Post-Secular Spirituality

Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIISAnnick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.

I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.

But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?  I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.

Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift”  (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).

If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).

On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.

Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?

Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :

…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).

What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.

What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of livingseems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.




13 responses to “Post-Secular Spirituality”

  1. Darrin Drda Avatar

    Excellent post, as usual. You may not be surprised to hear that I consider the ecological crisis to be spiritually based, thus requiring a spiritual cure. As you rightly suggest, however, the exact form of that restorative spirituality remains uncertain, although I”m beginning to get some intimations that I hope to put forth more clearly in my next book… One question: do you know why Annick uses the term “spiritual imaginaries” in referring to certain religious and philosophical traditions? This seems to either convey or invite a certain po-mo cynicism.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Darrin! Actually, Annick prefers the term “world-views.” “Spiritual imaginaries” is my play on Jacques Lacan’s and Charles Taylor’s phrase “social imaginaries.” I like the phrase, not because it implies living in a meaningful cosmos requires “make-believe,” but because it gives a nod to the ontological role of imagination in the formation of social worlds.


  2. insomniac Avatar

    “But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?”

    I suggest that we view biological systems as a web of information processing subsystems. At all levels, from single cells to ecosystems, we find information in the form of feedback loops, regulating all activity. This flow of information is invisible, encoded and acts very much like our own neural networks. In this model, this web of communications networks equals the spiritual realm. Foremost is the communication between symbiotic partners. Civilizations has cut us off from the plants and animals that sustain us, leaving us without “spiritual connection” to the Natural world.

    Looking for discussion. =-)

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I’ve always been intrigued by information theory, not just as it applies to biology and ecology, but physics. I think atoms could also be described as self-organizing systems embedded in recursive flows of information. As for civilization having hung up the phone on nature, that is one way of looking at it. It is as if all the various forms of pollution we produce is our unconscious, as we have forgotten that, in a healthy ecosystem, there is no “waste,” no “meaningless information” that is simply excreted and not re-used or re-integrated by other organisms. We’ve broken the connection by producing only toxic byproducts, or “noise,” unusable by any other layer of the ecosystem.

  3. Ross Wolfe Avatar

    I cannot agree with you, Darrin. The ecological crisis, in my estimation, is a wholly material affair. But as with all affairs of materiality, it gives rise to a whole host of ideological positions that reflect the underlying basis of what’s going on. These ideological configurations encompass the various “spiritual” responses to the crisis unfolding between society and nature.

    For my part, I fear that many of the spiritualist attempts to reunite humanity with nature, without having first enacted a substantial societal transformation of the metabolic relationship between nature and humanity, is doomed to be a largely individual, and largely delusional affair. I don’t doubt that the urge to reconcile man with nature on a individual basis arises out of a real feeling of alienation. Humanity most certainly is alienated from nature. But it this “spiritual” disconnect does not have an answer in appeals to past paganisms, neo-shamanism, or alchemical revivalism (all of which are associated with Bill Mollison’s permaculture movement). Still less should it look to the “underdeveloped,” “indigenous” peoples of the earth for a more “holistic” approach to nature.

    Sadly, this spiritual crisis that arises out of solidly material conditions cannot be ameliorated by spiritual means. Man does not live by spirit alone, he needs bread and shelter and all the other innovations of civilization to realize his own nature. So I would argue that only a thoroughgoing materialism can rescue us from our present position of wholesale alienation and potential environmental collapse.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Ross, by this logic, your “materialism” is just another ideological superstructure floating atop whatever is “really” going on in the chaos of relations we call “social,” no? It seems counterproductive, even misleading, to oppose “spiritualism” to “materialism,” especially in reference to indigenous peoples and traditions, for whom the abstractions “matter” and “spirit” are equally beside the point. What alienated, industrialized people call “spirit,” usually at a loss for what we might mean, a more participatory culture experiences directly in the warmth of the breeze on a sunny day (or in the shock of a thunderstorm). Spirit isn’t separate from nature for primal peoples. I believe anthropologists get it exactly backward by suggesting that animism is a projection of human powers onto a neutral material world; in point of fact, nature is animate, autonomous, active, and despite all our science, it remains mysterious and beyond our control. If there is a projection, it is not that resulting in animism, but the mechanomorphism that cancels it by projecting our industrial mindset onto the world. Even for the more Western Alchemical tradition, spirit is precisely that aspect of materiality that makes it lively, active, and capable of initiating “spiritual” changes in the psyches of those who learn to transact with it appropriately.
      I would argue that the only hope we have of escaping the pervasive network of ideologies characterizing late capitalism is to turn again to the source of our life: the biosphere. Ecology is not an ideology, but an attempt to scientifically describe and ethically participate in those biomaterial conditions that make ideation possible in the first place.
      Food for thought.

  4. jogayot Avatar

    very nice and concise post. especially in its critic of new age and hail to the spiritual materialism. here is something lighthearted off/on topic that actually propted me to make an “effort” of a comment: http://xkcd.com/900/


  5. Ross Wolfe Avatar

    I would say, however, in a non-spiritual sense, that humanity as it presently exists in society must be transfigured in order to at last be fully human, marked off from the rest of Nature. Man, in mastering his own form of social organization, can himself at last free itself from the bondage of his own history and the impositions of nature and become the true Lord and Master of himself and of the World. Just as human society must be transformed, so must also nature be transformed to fit society’s needs, and society to sustain and even enhance nature through technology.

    So again, probably the closest I would come to flirting with any sort of spirituality would be the Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov’s concept of “God-building,” whereby humanity itself attains the status of deity through the self-conscious mastery of Society. Lunacharskii, leader of the Commissariat of Enlightenment, likewise followed this creed, as well as the writer Maksim Gorkii.

    Voltaire famously quipped that “If we should someday discover that God in fact does not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him” — so that humanity may behave in a moral fashion.

    Mikhail Bakunin, the seminal Russian anarchist, just as famously inverted Voltaire’s formulation: “If we should someday discover that God in fact does exist, it would be necessary to destroy Him” — so that humanity will not wait for the promised land but rather take it upon itself to bring Heaven to Earth.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      I think you are overlooking the extent to which nature is already social. Are you really suggesting that there is an ontological gap of some sort between human communities and the rest of the earth community? Nature certainly places limits on our productive capacities, but it is also the condition of our freedoms. The ecological crisis is a result of industrial civilizations attempt to do exactly what you’re suggesting: remake nature in our own image. It turns out that our economy is utterly dependent on a diverse array of non-human economies that function for the most part beneath our everyday awareness. Our mistaken assumption that earth could be harvested on an industrial scale as mere raw materials for our own needs and desires has already severely impaired the livelihoods of many non-human members of the earth community. Regardless of whether or not, like the Deep Ecologists, you think non-human beings have any intrinsic value, there are utilitarian reasons to avoid destroying the ground and condition of our own existence.
      I wouldn’t want to falsely reify the categories of nature and art/technology, but I think the joke is on us if we expect nature to conform to any rational system of control devised in human laboratories. Ecosystems are evolving processes that don’t sit still long enough for our static categories to adequately conceptualize them. Perhaps “God” as some anthropomorphized sky daddy with complete technical power and control over all of creation is no longer relevant to our attempts at post-industrial civilization. “Gaia” is not such a divinity, but rather a sort of hyperobject (Tim Morton’s term) that generates fear, respect, and wonder in us precisely because its being is so much bigger than our thoughts, its reality so much wider than our ideas. We cannot conceive of the living earth in our own image (as the monotheistic traditions have); the life of the earth defies our classical image of deity, challenging us to cosmologize our spiritualities, which in the Western context, have tended to become more introverted and withdrawn from the marvel of the material world all around and within us. To this extent, we are more in agreement, Ross. I, too, think heaven must be brought to earth.

      1. Ross Wolfe Avatar


        I do not deny that the subjugation of nature by society has already led to some disastrous consequences. I attribute this to the short-sighted, chaotic, and anarchic hyperexploitation of nature by private individuals and corporations acting according to their need to valorize raw materials extracted from the planet. Because our society is mindlessly driven by the force of capital, which is inherently insatiable, there is very little that international regulations or Green ideology can do to stabilize the situation. The basis of society must be fundamentally transformed so that society can attain a more self-conscious, rationally planned mastery over itself and nature. Nature must be socialized to the maximum possible extent, and our tools of calculation and manipulation must be refined to the point where both the most wide-ranging and most surgical procedures can be enacted so as to reshape the world. This is not technological messianism; social revolution is an absolute prerequisite.

        I also think that setting limits on our abilities to comprehend and control ecosystems or nature is just as short-sighted. The human mind is capable of comprehending objects that exist in a state of flux. Ecosystems may be exceptionally huge, complex fluctuating objects, but this does not place them beyond the pale of human comprehension. Obviously we are not able to exercise godlike control over the environment in the manner I am suggesting at present, but we have already shown that we can readily shear off the sides of huge mountains, redirect entire rivers, tunnel through the earth to astonishing depths. To appeal to science fiction, why wouldn’t society want to use a weather machine if such a thing could exist? We could make rain wherever a place needed rain, sunshine wherever a place needed the sun. Devastating hurricanes could be murdered in their infancy; tornadoes reduced to a light breeze. Why not enhance and indeed perfect nature? Why not a Jules Vernean clockwork at the center of the earth, harnessing the forces of the shifting tectonic plates? I do not deny that we have damaged the environment greatly, but I consider this the result of irrational social organization more than I do some inherent limit to our abilities.

        “Gaia,” even as a “hyperobject” or non-deity, still strikes me as a reification, a vitalistic fetish form. It reeks of spiritualist ideologies and associations.

        I certainly agree with you, however, that deities have been inordinately anthropomorphized throughout history. I contend, however — even knowing that this kind of talk carries risks — that humanity has not been sufficiently theomorphized. I would say that it even falls short of being human insofar as it is still bound by the laws of nature and of history, which confront society as alien forces. So humanity might not yet deserve the mantle of deity just yet. Heaven can only be brought to earth by a revolutionary social act.

  6. Brian Avatar

    I just listened to a talk by Erik Davis that touches on this topic- http://www.matrixmasters.net/blogs/?p=262

    I appreciate the way he, like you, Matt, casts spirituality as an engagement with the playful, poetic dimensions of the imagination, which is “the core, the source, the matrix of our multi-dimensional experience.” With the imagination fully engaged, he reminds us that we can’t avoid the skeptical voice of scientific materialism, and simply retreat to a concretized New Age belief structure. Indeed “any kind of restorative, sustainable renewal of our planet has to exist on the imaginal realm as well as the realm of technical solutions, political developments, and technological fixes. It’s a multi-dimensional problem.”

    We must fully integrate both facets of our existence, our rationality and our spiritual imagination, as the problems we face are multidimensional, and cannot be approached on any one front alone.

  7. Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] religious revival itself will not necessarily put a dent in capitalism. Žižek is fond of pointing out how New Age spirituality only functions to support the commodificati… And in some sense, even religion as understood esoterically (in both Western and Eastern contexts) […]

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