Tag Archives: Essence and Existence

Existential Perplexity: Between Transcendental Hope & Nihilistic Despair


I wonder if all “intellectually passionate types” are not at least slightly “obsessive-compulsive” when it comes to what Sam Keen calls the “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” that have burned their way into the very depths of their being — body and soul.

Different “intellectual types” will be passionately preoccupied with different primal experiences and mythic questions. Those differences in experiences and questions may influence whether they are principally drawn to the variety of questions, methods, meanings and values that are alternately associated with the domains of philosophy, religion, history, mythology, literature, art, science, psychology, sociology, enterprise, ecology, economics, politics, or still other domains, in their quest for existential meaning, cognitive coherence, and personal fulfillment.

Some are drawn not by one domain but by many, or even by the ideal of the multidisciplinary polymath, thus attempting to “hold court” with many intellectual domains sitting as friends and colleagues around the table of intellectual and cultural discourse that alternates between constructive dialogue and critical debate.

I have asked myself which “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” have set my mind on fire. While there are several primal experiences and questions that come to mind, one that seems to make its appearance again and again as a “leit motif” is the question of the tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, with “existential perplexity” mediating between them. It is an experience of being “of two minds.” It is an experience that includes both ecstatic experiences of wonder and agonizing encounters with horror. Whole ideologies of philosophy and genres of literature have been based on either the primal experience of wonder or the primal experience of horror as their starting  point. Each view has its own partisans. The “existentially perplexed” live between these polarities — attempting to “take in” and “be taken in” by as much of the Mystery of Reality as they can handle.

Over the years I’ve collected quotes, aphorisms, essays and books by various writers, some who are clearly on the side of transcendental hope while others are clearly on the side of nihilistic despair. And then I’ve collected a third group who appear to live in the “betwixt and between” place of existential perplexity, oscillating from time to time between hope and despair. Still others seem never to have asked the question, a fact I find most astonishing.  I won’t attempt to cite various quote, aphorisms, essays and books in this blog, but you will not have difficulty finding all points of view represented once the right questions are on the mental radar.

Ask yourself these questions: “Do the authors I read and the thought leaders I follow see the supreme reality, whatever they conceive it to be, as friendly, hostile, ambivalent, inscrutable or indifferent?

Do they see it as ultimately meaningful and sublime, meaningless and absurd, or obscure and incomprehensible?

Do they counsel indefatigable hope or unyielding despair?  Or do they talk one minute about hope but then seem to sink back into despair, or begin with despair but gradually wind their way toward hope? If you ask someone who “talks like” an optimist or a pessimist if he “actually” is an optimist or a pessimist and he vigorously denies it, what do you make of that? If someone says he is a “personal optimist but a historical pessimist,” how does that play out in the living of a life which is, after all, embedded in history?

And what do you think when you are told by a “linguistic ironist” that the philosophical question of “existential meaning” is not itself “a meaningful question” because we live in an absurd naturalistic universe in which humans falsely reify nominal abstractions like “meaningful” and “meaningless” that have no objective reality or ontological substance?

What is the supreme reality? Is it the physical universe alone or is there “something more”, something more like “mind” than “matter”, or an integral combination of the two as co-emergent (the neutral monist view), in which “we live and move and have our being?” How did you come to this intuitive and/or analytical conclusion? What are its consequences for you?

What do you make of the fact that most people prefer to simply change the conversation rather than think about these ultimate concerns, to talk instead about matters more instrumental and mundane interest like “what’s for lunch?” or “who’s gonna win the Superbowl?”

Do your preferred “thought leaders” see human existence as primarily influenced and shaped by existential freedom, impersonal  forces, deterministic fate, causal chains or whimsical caprice? To what extent do they feel they have the freedom to re-imagine and re-create their situated lives?

Do they believe, and do you believe, that the conclusions they have arrived at, if any, are primarily the result of their intuitive and embodied access to the tacit dimension or of their rational and scientific analysis of the explicit dimension (See Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension and Personal Knowledge)? How do subjective, objective, and inter-sublective “ways of knowing” all come into play?

Is the dialectical tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair one of your primal human experiences and mythic questions? It has long been one of mine. There is a complex  idiosyncratic personal story beyond my own preoccupation with existential questions that I’ll save for another occasion. How do you live in the midst of existential perplexity? If you decide to “settle” on either ultimate hope or ultimate despair as your “final vocabulary,” how did you get there?

To what extent was your decision, or even your decision not to decide, primarily informed by tacit knowledge or explicit knowing, or more likely some combination of the two? What formative events in your own life experience have conditioned your response to this question? How aware are you of those formative experiences and the ways you have framed them into a normative paradigm not only for your life but for all of life?

Finally, if you are one of those “passionately preoccupied” intellectual types who finds himself “existentially perplexed” between the polarities of transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, how then do you endeavor to live a thoughtful, creative, graceful and fulfilling life from day-to-day? How do you translate a conscious and reflexive life of limitations and possibilities into the practical art of living?

Recovering “The Divine Center” After “The Death of God” — Healing Nature, Humanity, Self and Society


“Announcing the Death of God is like shattering the atom. The fragments fly in all directions.”

In his book, Also Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his protagonist proclaim, “God is dead and we have killed him.” Are these words spoken in cosmic horror and excruciating dismay or in intoxicating glee and liberating relief? Perhaps an ambivalent combination of both.

It is tempting to draw an analogy between the “death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There are several problems with this analogy. First, there may well be more than five stages of grief. Second, they may not follow any single sequence of stages in all people. Third, they may not be linear at all, but rather elliptical, circling back repeatedly and for different durations. And fourth, any attempt to draw an analogy between the death of a single finite mortal human being, or even many human beings, and the very Ground of Being Itself in all its  protean, polymorphic, numinous and ineffable essence is problematic.

Nevertheless, it fair to say individuals have different kinds of reactions and responses to “the death of God” in the modern secular moral imagination and in their own personal existential lives. These reactions and responses span a wide range of attitudes and emotions that include intoxication and relief, absurdity and despair, irony and reversal, acceptance and indifference.

These emotional reactions and responses may remain constant throughout a person’s life, or they may shift and change along the way. In some cases there may even be a “return to God” who is no longer “dead” for them but suddenly and surprising “alive and well,” resurrected, so to speak, on the other side of atheism, skepticism, secularism and indifference. Sometimes “the Divine Center,” re-imagined and re-membered, emerges in a trans-modern integral vision as the organizing principle of the Totality of Being after a long hiatus of fragmentation.

After the Death of God in the modern secular moral imagination we witness the fracturing and fragmentation of the meaning of Nature, Humanity, Self and Society into atomized and competing forces and  ideologies.

Within the Natural Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the divergent philosophies of dualism, positivism (or materialism), phenomenology, panpsychism, and pragmatism. Likewise, within the scientific community there is a contest between the methodological approaches, privileged domains and final vocabularies of the mathematicians, physicists, geologists, botanists and biologists.

Within the Humanistic Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the competing branches of the humanities, including literature and philosophy, mythology and history, each with its own methodological approaches and final vocabulary.

Within the Psychological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various schools of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy that fixate on different aspects of the psychological self, including the functions of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, perception and judgment. Further, there is a contest between the schools of psychology that include behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, existential psychology, family systems psychology and social systems psychology.

Within the Sociological Center as the Organizing Principle of Reality those forces and ideologies are expressed in the various social, economic and political traditions, including socialism and capitalism, liberalism and conservatism, communitarianism and libertarianism, and all manner of hybrid combinations as well the principled pragmatism of radical centrists.

When the Divine Center is re-imagined and re-membered as the Organizing Principle of Reality, here, too, we find a variety of spiritual and cultural traditions that have sometimes cooperated and sometimes competed with each other. These include the archetypal ways of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet and Mystic. Today these four great traditions are coming together in global dialogue in the respectful and cooperative spirit of the Parliament of the World Religions.

With the re-emergence of “The Divine Center” in the trans-modern age, something transformative appears beyond the ancient idols of superstitious religiosity, the medieval institutional idol of authoritarian religion, the modern secular idols of hyper-rationalism, reductive scientism and sentimental romanticism,  and the post-modern idols of irony, absurdity, parody and satire. The “trans-modern turn” is toward an Integral Vision of Reality in which the Divine Center respects the diversity yet unites the Natural, Humanistic, Psychological and Sociological Centers of Consciousness, Cognition, Creativity and Culture. Each of these four vital centers contributes to the Total Ecology of Being.

The various reactions and responses to the announcement of the Death of God in the modern secular age are understandable. So is the corrective-movement that seeks to look beyond the death of God in the modern secular post-ontological imagination. Some of us are experiencing a re-awakening of “The Divine Center” that organizes the integrates the Natural, Human, Psychological and Sociological spheres of life that comprise the Totality of Being into a Unified and Diversified Whole. For some of us there emerges an “anatheism” beyond the old categories of theism and theism, polytheism and pantheism. For some of us the re-emergent Divine Center speaks through a “sacred secularity” that recognizes “epiphanies” in many subtle and unexpected guises – including literature, philosophy, art and science along with traditional and syncretic  religious forms. The Divine Center  speak to us in a hidden and silent language of the Spirit beyond words.  It speaks to us through the elliptical and evocative forms of symbols, archetypes, metaphors, analogies, stories, music, drama and the arts. The Divine Center evokes a transcendent vision of the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the ineffable, the unnamable. the unseizable. It awakens in us a “tacit knowledge” of the Comprehensive, the Universal, the Luminous, the Holy, the Beloved, the Merciful, the Supreme Good.