The Modern Age in Search for “God Surrogates”

Even before “the death of God” announced by Nietzsche the modern age has been in search for various unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era. In his book Culture and the Death of God, Terry Eagleton writes, “The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to tome as forms of displaced divinity.” In this book Eagleton examines the limits of the Enlightenment, the legacies of the Idealists and the Romantics, the Crisis of Culture, the Death of God, and the challenges for Modernism and Post-modernity.

If I were to draw a “mental map” or “cosmogony” of the territory that encompasses the various dimensions of our “ultimate concerns” I would begin by placing Spirit and Nature at the top and bottom the page, so to speak, with Interior Subjective Reality on the left side and Exterior Objective Reality on the right side. *Note: Synonyms for “Spirit” include Freedom, Geist, the sublime, the life force, the ineffable, essence, Being, Process, creativity, the abyss and the Absolute.

What is the relation between Spirit and Nature? This is a primal question. In “metaphysical dualism” Spirit and Nature (Mind and Body) are two separate realities. In various forms of “metaphysical monism” either Spirit reduces to Nature, or Nature is an emanation of Spirit, or both are regarded identical. In Panpsychism Spirit and Nature remain distinct but inseparable. For “metaphysical agnosticism” the question of their relation is regarded as either unknowable or meaningless.

The Left side of our cosmogony is aligned with the Right Brain, with art, poetry, Romanticism, existentialism and the realm of inwardness, passion, subjectivity, participation, quality, sensibility, and taste, in short, the intimate “first person” account of reality. The right side is aligned with the Left Brain, with science, technology, the Enlightenment, positivism, and the realm of outwardness, rationality, objectivity, detachment, quantity, utility, scale, in short, the third person detached account of reality.

In the four corners within the nexus of Above: Spirit, Below: Nature, Left: Interior and Right: Exterior I would place Ken Wilber’s four quadrants: In the upper left quadrant is the internal individual sector of Intentional Purpose. In the external individual sector is Behavioral Action. In the lower left quadrant is the internal collective sector of Cultural Traditions. In the lower right quadrant is the external collective sector of Social Institutions.

Then in the center I would place the integral vision of the universal human in the fullness of his/her identity and in all his/her relations. This integral vision includes the eight dimensions of the body, senses, emotions, imagination, reason, volition, conscience, and intuition.

Terry Eagleton’s thesis is that in the absence of God in the modern secular age various ambitious but inadequate attempts have been made to find God surrogates. These include each of the elements that I’ve just listed in my cosmogony. The Enlightenment generation set forth their surrogates in such ideas as Reason, law, science, progress and democracy. Idealists and Romantics set for counter-surrogates in such ideas as Spirit, Transcendence, Being, Essence and Process.

As the jacket of the book puts it, “Eagleton goes on to discuss the state of religion before and after 9/11, the ironies surrounding Western capitalism’s part in spawning, not only secularism but also fundamentalism, and the reasons while the various surrogates for the Almighty have shown themselves to be unsatisfactory.” One must read his book in order to see why he claims that each of these ambitious attempts to postulate a God surrogate is inadequate. In many cases these various attempts serve to borrow from the Judeo-Christian tradition and to smuggle various new “god concepts” through the back door. His point is that it is harder to be a true atheist than many modern secularists realize.

Eagleton’s astute survey of modern intellectual and cultural history disserves a close reading. Another book that explores much of the same territory is “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God,” by Peter Watson. The two authors reflect different perspectives on the various attempts to find or create meaning, purpose, value and hope in the modern (and post-modern) world after the cultural “death of God.” However, Eagleton’s book makes more clear than does Watson’s the radical consequences for humanity if we take Nietzsche’s atheism seriously. Eagleton maintains that most atheists today are still living on the borrowed memories, theological concepts and assumptions of the Judeo-Christian tradition, even when they deny and repudiate this tradition. This is true in different ways of the Enlightenment generation and also of the later Idealists and Romantics.

Another curious theme that surfaces in both books is that some modern atheists experience an inner crisis and return to some kind of religious orientation, even as some religious types experience an inner crisis and turn to some kind of atheistic orientation. The traffic flows in both directions. In any case it is a curiously complex, multi-sided and paradoxical age in which we live.

 

 

 

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