A Marvelous World Devoid of Meaning
The Enlightenment, as posited in the previous essay, was a flowering of science which, it was hoped, would bring about a new world order not based in faith or religion but in reason. It germinated a confident optimism that through scientific inquiry, humankind would find answers for our deepest questions, as science became the guiding authority in a new Stage 2. This optimism was not rooted in the authority of the pope or the Bible but on empirical observation of the universe and on reason. The French revolutionaries even renamed Notre Dame Cathedral and many other churches “Temples of Reason.”
And while the Enlightenment was much to our material good (penicillin, after all), it marks the beginning of ongoing skepticism across developed societies in the West. Its underlying concern of securing human happiness through the pursuit of reason has failed. That is, it has failed according to the Enlightenment standard of securing a world free of superstition and violence. The 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history and proof, perhaps, that science would not save us from ourselves. And science itself, once the herald of a new age, has now largely been supplanted by technology (more on that below). Meanwhile, scientific discovery post-Enlightenment has demonstrated that the physical universe—and our place in it—is far more complicated than supposed. The general perception of the world until the Enlightenment was of a purposeful universe designed for human flourishing whose very orderliness was a moral guide for human behavior, inviting us into moderation and harmonious living. But the Enlightenment has done away with the ancient and Medieval worldview in which the cosmos was rationally designed for the flourishing of humankind. Darwinian evolution undermined the Church’s teaching about creation, and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle reveal that we live in a chaotic universe which does not function according to uniform physical laws once taken as given. Thus, the world, post-scientific revolution, is conceptualized as confusing and barbaric, though not without its beauty.
Further, we now know that humans are more complicated than Enlightenment philosophers assumed. They believed that men and women act rationally with little variance, but we know that facts and reason don’t always change our minds let alone our behavior. And we have moved far beyond the optimism of the Enlightenment into deep doubt and generalized pessimism that there is anything which we can truly know nor any authority which we can truly trust. A world in which everything has become interpretation. This is a movement into the doubt and skepticism of Stage 3. Indeed, this emergence of a world solidly situated in an ongoing Stage 3—a world in which we have no clear guiding authorities—is something new, historically speaking. In the West, the ancient Greeks and Romans lived by a clear moral code: virtue was rooted in strength and honor. In The Illiad, for example, the moral man behaves courageously on the field of battle, and it’s the hero in arms that achieves immortality. In the Roman world, the word “virtue” is rooted in the root word “virility.” In the Christian/Medieval world, chastity and fidelity became the highest moral goods. Chivalric knighthood was meant to capture all that was virtuous about these values. To the Enlightenment philosophe, the man guided by reason was the man of morality. And this, perhaps, still comes closest to our contemporary ideal. But we 21st century-ites largely have no clear moral story nor narrative of meaning from which we live. We do have cardinal moral values, such as alleviating human suffering or protecting the marginalized, but we have little consensus on how to go about them.
Nor do we envision a golden age ahead in which we will follow science and reason into utopia. Such a future, in which humankind has put its greatest faults and errors behind—prejudice, racism, and violence—was popularly envisioned as recently as the original Star Trek series in the 1960s (its future vision a close corollary to the critiques and hopes of the Port Huron Statement, described in the last essay). But we no longer have such faith in science. Indeed, science, which was meant to guide us to new, golden shores has largely been replaced with technology. Science, according to the Enlightenment vision, was to liberate humankind. It was going to set us all free, empowering us to solve our biggest problems. But technology has taken over, and its aim is simply to create and consume more. Creating new and better products has become an end in itself, rather than a path towards enlightenment or a new world. As French philosopher Luc Ferry writes:
…contrary to the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which aimed at emancipation and human happiness, technology is well and truly a process without purpose and devoid of any objectives: ultimately, nobody knows any longer the direction in which the world is moving, because it is automatically governed by competition and in no sense directed by the conscious will of men collectively united behind a project, at the heart of a society…
Consumption itself, then, has become the default guiding value in our world. We now buy new smartphones simply because we are expected to buy new smartphones and we consume because that is what we do. And thus, we have come to live in what Neil Postman called a “technopoly,” in which “the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.” Our technopoly is marked by an endless stream of information and stimulation and little moral cipher by which to decode it.
In the battle between the Orwellian vision of an all-powerful authoritarian state controlling a large population and Aldous Huxley’s vision of a population so doped up that the need for a totalitarian state is obviated, Huxley has won out. Orwell envisioned, in 1984, a world entirely controlled by Big Brother in which, for example, to control the population, reading is forbidden. Huxley envisioned a world in which there would be no need for the controlling apparatus of a central state because the populace would be so numbed out and over-stimulated. In such a society there is no need to outlaw books because no one wants to read or think. Thus, Postman’s prescient book title—Amusing Ourselves to Death—as he described the society we are becoming. Our current technopoly provides pleasure and comfort but very little sense of meaning, and the end result is despair. We are surrounded by so much stimulus and information (via Facebook, cable news, the internet, et al) that we have little time to make sense of it let alone find meaning in the midst of it.
Thus, even as our technology continues to improve and progress, we are racked with doubt and skepticism about meaning and our epistemology—our confidence about what we can know at all—has radically shifted, to the point where we hardly believe there are any objective facts at all nor any coherent narrative behind them. And we have no grand societal project around which to organize. No Enlightenment project, as it were. In such a world, whoever masters ratings, rather than reason, can be king, as the 2016 US presidential results perhaps reveal. The propaganda arm of President Donald Trump’s administration, which often consists simply of Tweets from the president himself, is a dark omen of the world before us, so full of misinformation or outright deception. Optics and legerdemain carry the day, not facts. In fact, we have never had so many facts at our disposal, and yet confusion reigns about what they all mean and which ones we can trust.
How then can we have high level conversation about what morality or virtue—and therefore, spiritual maturity—is? Indeed, philosopher and author Alasdair MacIntyre describes our contemporary situation as having not even the common language to have a conversation about morality, let alone to define what it is. This, he says, is a catastrophe which we do not recognize. We are now lost in all the information available to us, with no moorings for how to interpret it. Studies reveal that if you take a group with any particular political leaning and show them facts that contradict their beliefs, they will not believe the facts. This penchant for confirmation bias has always been a part of human thinking, but the proliferation of our technology means it can happen more quickly, as there’s always a confirming bias on hand.
The Brave New Morality Which No One Understands
In a deconstructed world like ours, what becomes of morality? In our Stage 3 world, even without any clear guiding authority, nevertheless, values have emerged about which there is general consensus. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, sums up this brave, new morality simply:
1. Be fair.
2. Do no harm.
These values—being fair and doing no harm—form the basis of our new ethic, such as it stands. Or at least, they form the basis for contemporary debate, as we seek to draw boundaries and establish a new stage 2. Philosopher and author Charles Taylor agrees with Haidt but uses slightly different language to describe the shape of our morality. Our moral horizons, says Taylor, are now anchored by the moral good of “respect” for others. This entails, for example, alleviating human suffering.
All of this may seem obvious, but in fact such moral goods have not always been givens. In ancient Greece, for example, the warrior/honor ethic put a far greater emphasis on an individual’s own dignity than it did on caring for others. Succeeding on the battlefield was far more virtuous than, say, caring for the poor. In our world, on the other hand, respecting others has become the leading moral good. Nevertheless, apart from alleviating the most blatant forms of suffering, we don’t always have clarity about what is meant by respecting others. A man holding open a door for a woman was once (and in many places, still is) considered respectful; in some places, it is now considered an offense.
We can sum up the moral injunctions listed above (be fair, do no harm, respect others) under the banner “play nice.” These are not bad values, as such. Being fair and doing no harm are solid moral goods and not far removed from the central plank of Jesus’ morality: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). Yet, on their own, devoid of broader context, they are threadbare goods for providing a framework of meaning.
First of all, they are subjective. After all, what do you mean by “fair” and what do I mean by it? What is harm and do we agree on it? Sometimes what is for someone’s best—for their spiritual development—feels painful. It can certainly feel like harm even if it’s for their (or your, or my) good. So what is included in “harm” and what is excluded? And do we have the language to speak of it? As a pastor I’ve been around numerous debates in which Christians have said that excluding queer Christians from fellowship is an act of love, for their own good, whereas many queer Christians I know interpret this as a great act of harm.
Furthermore, “playing nice” is a grand ideal, but it does not necessarily move us into the maturity of Stage 4. Doing no harm, for example, is not the same as doing good. We need more than a “no” to move away from; we need a “yes” to move towards. (No wonder people are so frustrated and despairing in our world.) And the new morality does not necessarily lead to internalized selflessness and generosity. Rather than internalizing goodness, the goal too easily becomes to be perceived as nice or to convince ourselves that we are nice without having to do any of the hard work of becoming virtuous. Social media facilitates this: simply post that Republicans/Democrats are idiotic/evil and you will feel you have accomplished something, with very little risk to your person. Post that we should be welcoming to immigrants and someone will likely post that first we must take of our veterans (as if it’s an either-or). The result is people yelling louder and louder while no one listens or hears, yet by this means we are able to relieve our anxiety. By comparing ourselves to others without having to take any virtuous action in the world, we feel the relief of righteous indignation. No wonder virtue signaling—the act of declaring your opinions in order to demonstrate your moral rightness to others—is rife all around us. And no wonder, as this game escalates, we live in an increasingly sanctimonious world in which people are continually afraid of what they can and can’t say. A world in which people either seek to control others by regulating behavior on the left or by pushing back against political correctness on the right.
Second, since we have no consensus on what fairness and harm are, these values leave us firmly in the realm of individual morality with little sense of our communal connections. As Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, puts it “We [have moved] from a world of “We” to one of “I”, the private pursuit of personal desire.” Stage 4 maturity is rooted in seeing how all things are connected; it is the realm of “we,” not of “I.” On hand, the values “be fair” and “do no harm” make us think of others and then push us towards Stage 4. But at the same time, we can become so concerned with what is fair to us and obsessed and offended with what feels like harm that we end up getting stuck in a narrow and individualistic interpretation of the world which pushes us very little towards seeing others or the maturity of Stage 4.
In the next essay, we will explore just how this individualism can keep us stuck and can keep us from maturing towards Stage 4.
 Remembering that Stage 2 always needs an authority to anchor it. See http://www.storyflight.com/four-phases-of-spiritual-development-part-i
 The Stoics, whose thought anchored the ancient and greatly influenced the Medieval worldview, believed that nature revealed a harmony with which an individual, through right behavior, could align in order to find flourishing and happiness.
 Newton’s Laws of motion, for example, only go so far and break down near the speed of light. Time itself, Einstein proved, is relative.
 See “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. February 27, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds [9/30/19]
 Derrida’s statement “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”, meaning either “there is nothing outside the text” or “there is no outside-text” is popularly taken to mean that everything is interpretation. See Jordan B. Peterson’s commentary in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Random House. 2018. Page 311.
 To be clear, I am saying that we are looking to establish a new Stage 2, which is the pattern of history, but we have never been less clear on how to do this. Nietzsche, for whatever we may agree or disagree with him in particulars, was perhaps correct in predicting an ongoing battle between competing ideologies before a new moral order would emerge.
 Meanwhile, the Greek (and then Roman) philosophers emphasized moderation and balance in the virtuous individual. Aristotle correlated this “golden mean” to behavior on the battlefield: the virtuous man is neither cowardly or brash; rather his courage, as with all virtues, lies in between these extremes.
 Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. Harper Perennial. 2011. Page 212-213.
 Ferry. 213-214.
 See Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage. 1993. Page 71.
 An argument developed by Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Penguin Books. 2005.
 See After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. University of Notre Dame Press. 2007. “Chapter Two: The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism.”
 See Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions” in Political Behavior 32. 2010
 See the Morality in the 21st Century Podcast. “Episode 8: Jonathan Haidt.” 9/3/18.
15 Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge University Press. 2003. Pages 14-15.
 I always remind myself that Jesus was kind but he was not always nice.
 In Jesus’ formulation “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus goes further than his contemporary Rabbi Hillel. Hillel said, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it." Jesus extends this idea into more positivistic moral statement. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/rabbi-hillel-quotes-on-judaism-and-israel [9/30/19]
 Thanks to my friend Mike Goldsworthy for articulating this so clearly, in personal conversations.
 Some of this fear is good and right. The #metoo movement, for example, made afraid and rightfully so those who abused positional power exploitatively.
 In an interview with Jonathan Haidt. Morality in the 21st Century Podcast. “Episode 8: Jonathan Haidt.” 9/3/18.