The Great Levelling

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the most memorable real-life comments I heard during the corona debacle happened over a news story from here in Australia that went viral around the world. A pregnant woman in her pyjamas was arrested and handcuffed in her own home in front of her children. Her “crime”? She had posted on Facebook about an upcoming protest against the corona measures. The memorable quotation came up in a conversation I was having with a family member about the subject who pondered – “Is nothing sacred?”

Like most of those arrested during corona, the woman had her charges dropped by the government a couple of years later

Is nothing sacred? As I mentioned in a recent post on the subject, sacredness is a complex concept. It includes both the notion of holiness and the notion of danger. Since holiness is related to wholeness and to health, sacredness is also negatively linked to illness, disease and death.

The anthropological literature tells us that pregnant women have been almost universally considered sacred across cultures. The reason is not hard to see since childbirth not only creates new life but has traditionally been incredibly dangerous to the woman herself. Morality rates during childbirth would have been measured in double digit percentages for most societies throughout history.

In modern Australia, there are about 25 deaths per year of women giving birth, slightly higher if you include deaths within a month of the birth. That represents about a 0.005% fatality rate. Childbirth is still dangerous, but almost certainly less dangerous than it has been at any time during history.

Could this explain the behaviour of the policeman arresting the pregnant woman? If sacredness is related to dangerousness, it follows that things become less sacred as they become less dangerous. Now that the danger has been taken out of childbirth, pregnant women are no longer considered sacred. Therefore, they can be arrested and handcuffed in their pyjamas.

Note that this hypothesis also serves to explain the loss of the sacred in general in modern society since we live in what is almost certainly the safest society that has ever existed, not just in a medical sense.

Pregnant women are no longer dangerous (sacred), but apparently what that particular pregnant woman was doing was. It might sound ridiculous to think that posting on social media is dangerous. But, in the eyes of those who believed the official corona narrative, such posts were dangerous because they had the potential to be, well, infectious. A well-crafted social media post is potentially even more infectious than a coronavirus.

Social media posts are politically dangerous. Don’t believe it? Consider that many of the colour revolutions we have heard about over the last decade or so were organised and broadcast through social media.

If social media posts are dangerous, does that make them sacred? The question sounds absurd. Millions, if not billions, of social media posts are generated every day. Nothing seems cheaper than a social media post and, whatever the sacred is, it is not cheap.

Sacred rites are traditionally highly involved and time consuming. The initiate is made to work hard to get through. This is not merely done for effect. It mimics a truth about the real world which is that many of the most rewarding things in life do require hard work. That’s why sacred rites have traditionally included long pilgrimages and other tests of endurance and stamina.

Not exactly a sacred image (although, if you look hard, the bottom part of the “f” is actually a cross. Maybe facebook is a religion after all)

Social media posts cannot be sacred because they are way too easy. Click a few buttons on a mouse and a keyboard and you’ve got yourself a post. Because it’s so easy, it encourages impulsive behaviour. How many times do we see somebody post something on social media only to delete it minutes later? Social media seems custom designed to appeal to our lower natures, not our higher (sacred) ones.

It seems that most things that go viral appeal to our lower nature. A philosophical treatise, a beautiful poem, a brilliant novel or symphony or some theological wisdom, these do not go viral. What mostly goes viral is death, destruction and debauchery.

We saw a prime example of death and destruction in recent weeks with the killings in Israel, graphic images of which spread around the internet in just hours. Sadly, that is nothing new. TV news has been full of those for decades, albeit probably not as explicit as the ones we saw. But then something happened that, if I’m not mistaken, was new.

In the days immediately following the bloodshed, we saw what can only be called celebrations on the streets of many western cities. These too were broadcast via social media and the internet. I’m not saying that the killing of civilians is new. It may even be that people cheering on the death of civilians is not new. But such scenes would never have been broadcast on commercial news networks in the days prior to the internet. Therefore, our exposure to such images is new and we can thank the internet and social media for bringing them to us.

No doubt there were many different reactions to the images of the killing and then the images of the cheering. One strong thread that I noticed was an outpouring of what we can call, without hyperbole, despair. This despair was not just limited to the ungratifying sight of watching fellow humans cheer on each other’s deaths. Rather, it was about Western civilisation itself since the images of the cheering were not coming from somewhere foreign and exotic but right at home including some of the most famous landmarks of the West.

I’ve seen several posts from public intellectuals over the last week with an almost mourning tone predicting the end of western civilisation as a result. For these people, a line was crossed and I think we can call that line the sacred. It’s a similar line that was crossed for some of us with the corona lockdowns. Things that we had believed to be fundamental (sacred) to western civilisation turned out not to be so.

Interestingly, the people despairing this week were mostly, as far as I could tell, people who were in favour of the corona measures, which just goes to show that what is sacred differs from person to person. But we can generalise a trend that has been pickup up steam for at least a decade now in the West: the destruction of the sacred.

Whatever side of the conflicts in the Middle East you happen to be on, celebrating the deaths of civilians is heinous (Note: I’m talking here specifically about the western perspective on the matter, not the perspective of the various peoples involved in the actual conflict). Doing so in front of some of the most famous monuments of western civilisation does give the whole thing a civilisational collapse vibe. What sort of society allows people to celebrate the slaughter of others in front of its most famous monuments? The answer is: a society that has lost all notion of sacredness.

This loss of sacredness in the West is not a new thing. It’s been going on for centuries. What is sacred is what is dangerous and what is dangerous is what is powerful. Gods are dangerous and powerful, therefore they are sacred. Kings allowed themselves to be anointed by Popes since being sanctified increases one’s perceived authority which helps to carry out the job of being the boss.

The destruction of the sacred in the West began with the Reformation which did away with the authority of the Pope. It’s no coincidence that shortly thereafter kings started getting their heads chopped off. Authority and sacredness have always been linked. The rejection of authority began with Luther, continued through the British Civil War, the French and US Revolutions and ends up with us today.

Note that this lack of authority is built into the very structure of the internet. The internet is designed to be decentralised. It will continue to work even when important (well connected) nodes get taken offline. Thus, the whole point of social media and the internet in general is that there is no authority. This is another key reason why the internet cannot be sacred.

If the internet is a spider’s web, who is the spider?

The internet might be the culmination of a trend that’s been in play for centuries. The inalienable right to free speech means that the government does not get to stop you from saying something. That means there is no authority to uphold standards of behaviour. There are positive things about that but there are also negative things. It means that nobody will stop people going into the street and cheering at the death of others.

Almost by default, free speech removes the sacredness of speech. For something to be sacred, there must be danger but also redemption and closure. There must be consequences for action. If you get to say whatever you like and there are no consequences, then your speech is not sacred. For most of history and across cultures, the consequences to speech were ultimately vested in the power of authority. Authority could provide closure and return the situation to wholeness, health and holiness.

Without authority, things cannot be made whole (holy) again. Thus, when behaviour crosses a line that people consider sacred, there is no mechanism to bring things back to equilibrium. The result is modern society where all kinds of things that cross the sacred line are left unhealed. For some it will be the sight of people celebrating death, for others it will be the corona lockdowns and forced vaccinations, for yet others it will be the sight of grown men dancing naked in front of children.

Pretty sure this violates someone’s notion of the sacred.
He’s coming for you.

The common thread from the last decade or so is that we are seeing all remaining notions of the sacred go up in flames in front of our eyes. What constitutes sacredness might be different for different people. But it seems that everybody has a target on their back at the moment and some invisible grim reaper is sharpening his symbolic scythe ready to destroy whatever it is we consider sacred.

The trend does seem to be going into overdrive at the moment. But it is not new. One of the earliest thinkers who saw the profound challenge that the loss of the sacred entails was a philosopher I’ve mentioned here many times, Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s insight is more impressive because the society he lived in still had the outward forms of the sacred. People in his day still kept up appearances. What he intuited was that people no longer really believed in the sacred and the ramifications of this were just starting to appear in the first half of the 19th century.

Kierkegaard called the process of the destruction of the sacred the Great Levelling. All authority, all regulation of behaviour, all discipline, all belief in the elevation of individuals of worth, all of the things considered sacred previously are going away. Since these attributes have also been synonymous with the concept of civilisation, it makes sense that some people believe the process represents the end of civilisation.

History is full of examples of elites who abused their authority and subsequently lost the trust of the public (and often their own heads into the bargain). The Great Levelling is not about that. It’s not about institutional corruption per se. Kierkegaard saw it as an impersonal process that was happening across the board and was not limited to any particular social class.

We should remember that Kierkegaard was writing at the time when the cult of Napoleon had imploded. Napoleon had been a prime exemplar of the notion of the great man of history; the hero who could turn the tide of civilisation through will alone. Among other things, his defeat called that understanding of history into question. The feeling of the loss of authority not just as the loss of the sacred but also as the loss of civilisation began around this time as the pessimist and nihilist movements got going.

Can it be a coincidence that it was also at this time that the alternative analysis of history as a set of impersonal forces came for the fore? Hegel, Marx, Spengler and Toynbee all followed. Kierkegaard’s Great Levelling is another example of an impersonal historical force. He describes it this way:-

“No single individual (I mean no outstanding individual – in the sense of leadership and conceived according to the dialectical category ‘fate’) will be able to arrest the abstract process of levelling, for it is negatively something higher, and the age of chivalry is gone…

The abstract levelling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything…

the younger man …realises from the beginning that the levelling process is evil in both the selfish individual and in the selfish generation, but that it can also, if they desire it honestly and before God, become the starting-point for the highest life – for them it will indeed be an education to live in the age of levelling.”

Now, we might say that Kierkegaard’s Levelling is nothing more than the inevitable historical force that Spengler and Toynbee would later identify as the decline of civilisation. But Kierkegaard was a scholar of the ancients and made an explicit distinction between the levelling of our time and ancient Rome. Rome had its Caesars, its heroes and great men, all the way up til the end. The Great Levelling explicitly seems to negate the Caesar, as the failure of Napoleon had shown in Kierkegaard’s time.

Kierkegaard’s vision is almost identical to the one that Dostoevsky later presented in The Brothers Karamazov. The only way out is through. The age of levelling is going to destroy all authority and all sacredness. For those able to sit with the spiritual nausea of it, there opens the possibility of a new religiosity born out of the explicit denial of all the theoretical abstractions that the modern world is full of. It is a childlike reconnection with immediate experience. This idea, in different forms, can be found in many other thinkers of the last couple of hundred years.

The Brothers Karamazov is a description of what it means to experience the Great Levelling and come out the other side. Alyosha must face the lies and hypocrisy of religion. Ivan must face the abyss that is the abstractions of modern thought. Dmitri must face the corruption of the state. They are each forced to deal with the destruction of what is most sacred to them.

For Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, religion, philosophy and the worship of politics only separate us from the truly religious. With the death of religion in the West, many have sought to avoid facing the Great Levelling by escaping into abstract thought or politics. That is partly what is behind the hero worship of a Napoleon, a Hitler or a Trump or the worship of abstractions like dialectical materialism. It’s also behind the desperate desire to “trust the experts”.

Even in somebody like Spengler, who was one of the most insightful analysts of the modern West, we find the desire for Caesarism and the return of authority to set things right. Spengler’s comparative history propagated the levelling process and yet he seemed to be simultaneously repulsed by it.

Of course, the levelling process is repulsive. That was Kierkegaard’s point. The internet and social media might represent the final stages of the Great Levelling since they seem tailor-made to force us to confront the repulsion that comes with the destruction of what we consider sacred.

What both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky believed was that to face this repulsion directly would give birth to something new. All past civilisations have been predicated on heroism, authority and the sacred. They have been run by what we call the elites. The Great Levelling forces a radical equality and freedom. Since this is the opposite of what we have hitherto called civilisation, it looks indistinguishable from the end of civilisation. Maybe it is the end of civilisation. But maybe Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky were also right and it is, in fact, the birth pangs of something new.

24 thoughts on “The Great Levelling”

  1. Has the sacred just moved though?

    It seems to me in the west just to have switched from things organic (as in things that are born) to technic (things that are made) as a continuation of the western machine love and urbanisation effect that kicked off the reformation then atheism etc in the west. Tell anyone that you have not vaccinated any of the your children, you think antibiotics don’t work (or even that germs don’t exist), you don’t own a smartphone or you think electricity on the whole is a bad thing and you will get varying reactions ranging from mild amusement to white hot heretic burning anger.

    The attack on the pregnant lady then is the stripping of sacredness from birth and life but the presence of the police officer in full mask garb rejecting the natural world and punishing her for violating an abstract technological space is indicative of where the sacred might lie for the modern west. The gender bending stuff is along these lines too because it is an implicit rejection of the organic structure of our bodies and celebrating technological intervention upon them.

    The history of the west shows to me that corona and even the current celebrating of civilian deaths as nothing at all new. It’s the inherent momentum of the structure of western thought to head towards a violent. totalitarian, thought police state because the utopian, world bettering tendency can’t deal with the fact that the world doesn’t fit to its vision. Free speech and individual rights have never counted for much besides nice words on a piece of paper. No culture has probably been less free in terms of thought, as no other culture has rammed the the thoughts of the elites down everybody’s throat in such a way, first through the printing press and then via radio, television and the internet.

    The impersonal force of history to me too is the Faustian conception of history, whereas the great man is more classical. The impersonal force is like that unseen hand of the market or the ghost in the machine that the west loves but other cultures may find a bridge too far in abstraction.

  2. Simon – your linking the sacred w/ the dangerous is something I don’t hear in today’s safety-fixated discourse. I’ve often heard the word used in new-age or counter-cultural discourse: especially sacred space. And – for, say, some vegans – life is sacred. Yet what gets designated as sacred space is usually very safe. You refer to heroes & great men & authority, the public institutions of which have been, & remain to a great extent, male-dominated. I wonder where patriarchy fits in this take on what’s happening?

  3. Skip – “Has the sacred just moved though?” – I don’t think so. I think we have actually abolished the sacred. For next week’s post, I think I’ve figured out a way to explain that in more detail but the short version is the sacred requires closure/redemption/holiness (wholeness). I’m thinking of sacredness as a process.

    This may also explain the problem with trying to find where we are in the historical cycle of the Faustian. By now, we should be in the “ceremonial” part of the cycle. That is, we should all be going through the motions of practices that have been in place for centuries but which have lost all ability to generate something new. That’s what happened in Rome, China and especially Egypt. Instead, we are dismantling all ceremony. One thing that ceremonies have is closure. In that sense, they are “sacred”.

    Shane – I think sacredness is the opposite of safety. As I mentioned in my response to Skip, if you think of sacredness as a process, it requires a break from equilibrium, a journey through disequilibrium with all the confusion and danger that comes with that, and then a return to equilibrium. In other words, it requires you to leave safety. Therefore, to stay in safety always is to lose the sacred.

    It’s a good question about the patriarchy. In ancient Rome, the father had pretty much complete legal control over his whole family. Meanwhile, our legal system strongly favours mothers. I’m not sure you could say we’re in a matriarchy, but we’re certainly not in a patriarchy.

  4. Simon – I think you’re right that we’ve abolished the sacred. Seems like it left the building along w/ meaning. So I guess sacredness gives life meaning, much as death does – so if the sacred is close to death, even just of the ego, death phobia is felt as a loss of meaning & expressed as an obsession w/ staying safe at all costs.

    Whatever sort of -archy we’re currently in, it’s interesting that so many more trans folk are transitioning from male to female than vice versa.

  5. Hi Simon,

    If we (as a civilisation) dispose of abstractions, what then are we left with as a society? Why not reconnecting with the realities? Dunno.

    I had to go to a government office today (something, something, roads!), and behind the two ladies working at the counter, stood a bloke in the background. He was just standing there, and seemed unconcerned with all the goings on. He was shifting his weight from one foot to the other too, and didn’t looked bored at all. A mystery. Fortunately the entire episode was over reasonably quickly. A person could ask for easy flexibility from the people working at such a place, and all you may get to do is to follow a process through to the bitter end, which was no refund. Oh well, I guess the state is in a lot of debt.



  6. I’m not sure about sacredness. I’ll wait for your next post. The thing that keeps surprising me (though I really should have gotten used to it by now) is the sheer stupidity. What happened during corona was incredibly stupid. And then we had Ukraine, and now Gaza. “Err, what exactly are you trying to accomplish, and why do you think that the thing that you are doing will have this effect?” Nope, they didn’t think about it. It all sounds like one big “We must do something!!” The thing that I find fascinating is that otherwise intelligent people are so susceptible to propaganda. (It’s not even sophisticated propaganda. It’s incredibly stupid.) I’m talking about people who are way too old for their reaction to be a result of inexperience or youthful folly, way too young for it to be explicable by old age cognitive decline, and way too smart (as evidenced by their ability to successfully perform highly complex tasks) for it to be explicable by garden variety stupidity. No, it’s not personal. The whole culture has become incredibly stupid.

    Is there a relationship between the loss of sacredness and stupidity…?

  7. Shane – yes, that raises the concept of “born again” or “second birth”, which is not just a Christian thing but captures the whole idea of a cycle of sacredness/meaning/learning. When you complete the cycle, you are born again. That means you faced “death” and came out the other side. I think it is strongly linked with death phobia since most religions tell us that we will be born again after we die, whether in heaven or again in this world.

    Chris – yes, that’s the exact point. If you can learn to shut down the part of the mind that’s obsessed with abstractions what are you left with? “Pure” experience, maybe? Actually, the implication is that a state of pure experience is really scary and probably even dangerous to society since we have to plan things and then carry them out in order to survive. Somebody has to pay the something-something-roads bills 😛

    Irena – What if everything has always been really stupid and the only difference now is that with our information networks we all get to see it for what it is? Are Putin and Xi really smarter than Biden or is it just that they are able to control the media so that all their own corruption and stupidity never sees the light of day?

    Having said that, I think that learning and the sacred are the same in that both require cycles or iterations. Sacredness implies a hierarchy and that means you need to transcend that hierarchy over time by iterating over the same cycle. Maybe another way to look at modern society is that there is no longer a shared iteration of sacredness/meaning. This comes back to my first point, Putin and Xi have the power to enforce their meaning on the whole society in a way that Biden cannot. So, maybe it’s not that we have gotten rid of the sacred but that we have pushed it down to the individual level. You have to create your own version of the sacred.

  8. Fair enough, the ceremony part is crucial, although I still think it lingers in some technic things like childhood vaccination mentioned above, it’s painful and dangerous and affirms you as a part of the modern world.

    Pushing the sacred to the individual level is a continuation of Luther and Calvin isn’t it? The individual will before God? And then Nietzsche on a secular level? It’s the singular idea of the west when it all boils down to it.

    It’s interesting in this respect that in western Europe especially the Christianities that are making a comeback are Orthodox and Catholicism, both explicitly ceremonial. It shapes that both of these will form the second religiosity because of that ceremonial aspect you mention.

  9. Skip – I don’t think child vaccinations count as sacred because they are treated as a perfectly normal thing to do, not much more exciting than taking a panadol. The corona vaccinations, on the other hand, were definitely a sacred rite in the structural sense. That makes sense because I suspect humans have a inherent need for the sacred and many people in modern society suffer from its absence. Thus, when there’s a panic on, we revert back to sacred rites, although we have to dress them up as “science”.

    I agree about Luther and Calvin but they were inspired by Christianity and that’s the link between Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky too. Spengler was trying to disentangle the Faustian from the Classical. I understand why and yet how can you have a Luther or a Dostoevsky without a Jesus or a St Paul? But I think is also solved by the concept of cycles within cycles. There is a Faustian cycle beginning with the Reformation and it builds on the cycles that came before. I think Toynbee called the Reformation the “third” cycle of European history.

  10. Well I think this is why Spengler was trying to constantly bang the drum that Jesus and St Paul were not classical at all but Magian and have more in common with the orthodox world of today or Muslim’s than the ancient Greeks or Romans before about the 3rd century AD or modern westerners. It’s the difference between Oedipus and Job, one is about Stoicism the other is about Islam (submission). In the former the Gods are fickle and will mess you up but you must endure and the endurance is heroic, in the latter if in the end you submit before God, you will find peace but also importantly, reward (Everything turns out alright in the end).

    I think it’s something we often miss that in the Divine Comedy Muhammad is in the circle of hell with the other Christian heretics, and back then it was understood how close together Islam and Christianity are and without taking the latter into account as a further development of what we think of as Orthodox Christian thought (perhaps because it’s all Arabic and inaccessible to the west ) it’s easy to get lost in the weeds in the first millennium after Christ. Maybe this is why in Russia Islam and Orthodox co exist easily.

    The west goes through this really bizarre period at the end of the dark ages and into the Romanesque and early Gothic where the Catholicism of the Old Roman Empire lands is at the beginning similar to the orthodox Christianity of the East but then in the northern lands this Celto-Germanic, syncretic, Lord of the Rings style stuff comes sweeping into it, with Gargoyles and forest spirits and the Lady of the Lake, into the Mary as Goddess myth and the forces of the light versus the Devil and his minions. This leads into the crusades and warrior priests (and popes too), and the next 800 years where westerners claim to be like Christ but act just like their Viking ancestors ( and Faust/Macbeth/King Lear) all around the globe.

    This is why I think the through line is not from Christ to Luther but from the Eddas and Beowulf to Luther but the last 700 years or so have really been a victory of the more horrific side of Faust. Tolkien as a hardcore traditional Catholic is really instructive here to me because although it’s fantasy what he tapped into with Lord of the Rings is the main Celtic-Germanic artery of Western Europe buried underneath 2000 years of Eastern symbolism. He gave the antidote to Saurons folly as the reenchantment and connection with the natural world (to co create in Gods creation) that was western European peoples original state; the children of the northern forests.

  11. Skip – well, that raises the possibility that I talked about back in my series on Spengler which is that the whole Roman-Christian beginnings of the Faustian were a pseudomorphosis. Maybe the last 700 years haven’t been the horrific side of Faustian but have been the actual Faustian. Then Kierkegaard’s insight is that the Faustian is repulsive, including to itself.

    “Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow,
    a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more.
    It is a tale Told by an idiot,
    full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

    This theme comes up again and again. It’s in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dürer, Shakespeare, Spengler, the list goes on. There’s a great bit in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation episode about the Reformation where he’s looking at various busts of contemporaries of Luther and he shakes he head and says “what a problem for the rest of the world”. The implication being that you can see all the problems in those faces from hundreds of years earlier.

    Interestingly, none of this seems to apply to Goethe so maybe Goethe does represent the positive Faustian at its highest.

  12. Simon – some synchronicity: a friend who’s just moved was telling me last night about creating ‘sacred space’ in their new place. Based on past exchanges & time spent in their house, I take this to mean their whole living space; home is conceived of as & feels like a sanctuary, a carefully ordered temple.

    Yet they aren’t concerned w/ safety in the ordinary sense, don’t care about locking doors or that money is about to run out. Danger is experienced as inner – a kind of psychological precarity. For me, this recalls shamanism in earlier tribal cultures: an outlier existing in constant proximity to the sacred via ritual & psychic danger.

  13. Zarbarzun – thanks for that. Looks interesting. The checkout didn’t seem to work for me on the Steiner site but I found a copy on archive dot org – This sounds similar to Jung’s argument that the modern West is integrating the material/feminine/satan.

    Shane – it’s also true about the early days of modern Europe/Faustian culture. My understanding is that the early Church, we’re talking around let’s say 1200 AD, tried to get the common folk to stop thinking about angels, demons and nature spirits (as Skip referred to) since that was not part of Christian theology. They failed and so ended up incorporating those ideas into the Church. I haven’t tried to verify if it’s true, but I’ve read that that was the origin of selling indulgences. It was a protection from the evil spirits. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, as the Church’s influence has waned, the spirits are making a comeback in various forms.

  14. @Simon

    I’m pretty sure that Putin and Xi are smarter than Biden. Biden is sadly suffering from dementia, and so it’s not very hard to be smarter than he is.

    I’ve been pondering your broader point, though, especially this:

    “This comes back to my first point, Putin and Xi have the power to enforce their meaning on the whole society in a way that Biden cannot. So, maybe it’s not that we have gotten rid of the sacred but that we have pushed it down to the individual level. You have to create your own version of the sacred.”

    There’s definitely something to this. I still hear people (fewer and fewer of them) who repeat various slogans (e.g. about the “West” or the “Free World”) that once upon a time had the ability to inspire. Nowadays, they inspire far fewer people. To some (many) of us, it sounds about as silly as if one of those ancient Egyptian priests suddenly appeared before us and started preaching the divinity of the Pharaoh. “What planet are you living on??” So, I suppose you’re right: we are called upon to create our own version of the sacred. That might work for an occasional mystic here and there, but it does nothing to foster social cohesion and inspire cooperation. And in any case, few people seem to be able to create their own version of the sacred. It’s all ersatz sacredness. For example, in place of a pilgrimage, people fly to Barcelona (or Prague – my gods, all those tourists) and then post selfies on Instagram.

  15. Irena – yes, but the irony is that what have been called sacred rites up until have also been nothing more than ersatz sacredness. Religion has mostly existed to create social cohesion rather than lead people into any form of actual sacredness. Luther’s rebellion was predicated on that fact. So, now we’ve ended up in a situation where each individual’s experience of the sacred, in whatever form they find it, doesn’t come from society. Where does it come from? It must come directly from God without intermediation. That was the perspective which Kierkegaard believed was being opened up. Many people experience it as despair but I think most theologies have noted that you have to go through despair to get to God.

  16. Simon: “Many people experience it as despair but I think most theologies have noted that you have to go through despair to get to God.”

    Ha! That’s for the aspiring saints. Force it upon the masses, and watch your whole culture lose its mind. Now you’re probably going to tell me about initiation rites in small-scale societies. 😉 Maybe it’s different in small-scale societies. But also, the initiates do get substantial guidance from the elders, don’t they? And our elders are nowhere to be found. As you have pointed out yourself, of course. 🙂 So now we’re all self-initiating, with rather suboptimal (hehe) results.

  17. Irena – “So now we’re all self-initiating, with rather suboptimal (hehe) results.” Practice makes perfect 😉

    Toynbee and Spengler both predicted what the latter called a “second religiosity” and I’d say we’re living through that right now. Just like we have an empire pretending not to be an empire (the US empire), we have a religion that has none of the external hallmarks of a religion. But what is that if not the logical conclusion of Protestantism? Therefore, we are living through the second Protestant religiosity this time in its full form with no church but only, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, the single individual before God.

  18. @Simon

    Re: second religiosity

    Here’s something I’ve been trying to figure out. When people such as, oh, let’s see, Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Konstantin Kisin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, etc. go on and on and on about the superiority of the West, is this an example of second religiosity? I mean, it’s a thing that quite a lot of people used to sincerely believe, but that rings less and less true with each passing year. To me, it sounds like they’re trying to revive a dead/dying faith.

  19. Irena – I’d call that chauvinism. Chauvin, of course, was a French soldier who didn’t want to accept the defeat of Napoleon so it’s an attitude that almost presupposes that something has gone wrong. More broadly, I’d say nationalism and chauvinism are attempts to avoid a second religiosity in a psychological sense.

  20. Simon: “I’d call that chauvinism. Chauvin, of course, was a French soldier who didn’t want to accept the defeat of Napoleon so it’s an attitude that almost presupposes that something has gone wrong. More broadly, I’d say nationalism and chauvinism are attempts to avoid a second religiosity in a psychological sense.”

    Ah, but the weird thing about it is that a fair number of these West cheerleaders are only weakly Western. Konstantin Kisin is a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the UK. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali immigrant first to the Netherlands and then to the United States, and a one-time Muslim hardliner. It’s as if it wasn’t the French Chauvin who couldn’t accept the defeat of Napoleon, but some random Albanian peasant who somehow ended up fighting for Napoleon. And rather than saying “gee, I miscalculated,” he doubles down on Napoleon’s greatness. But maybe that’s why it’s hard. If your nation lost, then it lost. Sucks, but it happens. But if *you* miscalculated, then you individually are the one who screwed up, right? So, I don’t think it’s *quite* nationalism/chauvinism. There’s something else going on, which is why second religiosity occurred to me in this context.

    BTW, I don’t mean to pick on the people I listed. The reason I know about them to begin with is because they do have some interesting ideas. I’m just saying it’s weird.

  21. Irena – well, Europeans have had about a millennium of being told they are sinners. So, for every Kisin there’s about a hundred others pushing the sinner angle. Of course, it’s all done in secular guise these days. It may be that Europeans have an innate need to be told they are sinners, although I think it was Freud who hypothesised that this was a human universal.

  22. Simon – after doing about 2 minutes ‘research’, I get the impression the Catholic Church started selling indulgences as an incentive to join the Crusades & to fund them. Which of course is all about suppressing those evil pagan spirits.

  23. Shane – the funny thing is that the word pagan was originally something like “country bumpkin” in Latin. It had the meaning “person would couldn’t fight”, which made sense since valour in battle was a core virtue for the Romans. The early Christians used it to mean country “person who still worshipped the old Gods” and those people mostly lived on the land (Christianity was a city religion in late Roman times). Then the same word was applied by feudal Christians, who themselves lived on the land, against the Muslims who were living in cities!

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