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Spirituality and the Meaning Crisis, Part 2: The Emergence of the crisis.

Acknowledgement: This article is based on Science and the Sage which is written by myself and Christopher Mastropeitro, as well as work on the nature of wisdom by myself and Leo Ferraro.

In part one I introduced the connections between spirituality, meaning, and the meaning crisis, and historically examined this meaning in terms of three interlocking orders, viz., the nomological, narrative, and normative orders of the middle ages. It was a very powerful system of meaning that was simultaneously religious, rational, and mystical. However, we have lost that system, and the loss began with the Black Death in Europe. The plague traumatized Europe’s collective sense of order and purpose, but it also created a labour shortage. This labour shortage meant a sudden increase in social mobility as people could improve the situation through their own labour. This loss of confidence in order and the increased economic self-determination created an increased sense of personal freedom and the need to create order rather than just fit into a pre-existing one. As is often the case, this new cultural sense expressed itself spiritually. Within Germany the Rhineland mystics began to articulate and promote a new understanding of mystical experience and the spiritual life. The ascent to God was still driven by love; but that love was now seen almost exclusively as a matter of will instead of the self-transcendence of reason. Reason dropped out of the spiritual life, and mystical experience was no longer seen as the culmination of human rationality. Mystical love was understood as the will’s self-negation rather than reason’s self-transcendence as inspired by its inherent love. The will negated itself and thereby created a space in which God’s will could operate. The human will had to turn upon itself in a kind of deep inner conflict and dis-ordering of the psyche in order to create an emptiness into which God’s will would flow. The ascent to God through platonic love was replaced by the descent of God into the vacancy of the self. The self was ultimately not something to be completed, but something to be lost. This new form of spirituality had important implications for the understanding of God.

Ockham and other similar minded theologian’s explicated this new understanding of God. In the new theology God’s will was prior to and not bound by His reason. With Aquinas God’s rationality had been central; with Ockham God’s will was central and any order, including the order of rationality, was freely created by God’s will. Any order was ultimately based on God’s arbitrary will. Ockham also concluded that whatever order human being’s found in their experience of the world was the result of our creative action. Like God, we create with language. This was Ockham’s famous nominalism in which much of the meaning we think is in the world is really only in our language since we use language to make mental connections between things.

The world was actually constituted by a radical individualism, i.e. there are really just individual separate things with no real relations between them. So we see a bunch of trees as a forest, but the forest is not really there. A forest is just a mental connection created by our use of the word “forest.” What is even more difficult to realize is that each of the trees is not really a tree, in the sense that “tree” points to some shared category we are imposing on these individuals with the word “tree.” In itself each individual is a raw unique thing. It is almost as if every single thing has become a radically self-determining thing except of course that all this willing by us with language and by things in their raw uniqueness is completely dependent on God’s even more radical, unique and arbitrary willing. All the connections between things are not fully real or substantially there. They have all dissolved into the one connection between God’s will and whatever it is He is willing.

In some ways this is a very liberating view because of the emphasis it gives to freedom and creativity, and it is no coincidence that this way of thinking helped to generate the explosion of creativity in the Renaissance. However, this vision also captures some of the horror that followed the plague. The mind’s connection to the world has been greatly diminished, the divine has become something non-rational and arbitrary (almost absurd), the inherent meaning of things has been replaced by a gnawing sense that everything is ephemeral and strangely other than we think it to be, and the self is in conflict and is a kind of vacuum.
The integrated sense of self-determination, individualism, and that order had to be made helped to foster a rise in commercialism as Europe began to recover from the plague. Commercialism added to the sense that one could alter one’s status through one’s own efforts, and it began to increase urbanization (which also feeds back into commercialism.) This urbanization and trade started to increase social diversity while also increasing the need for efficient and impartial state bureaucracies that could monitor and enforce the contracts so crucial to commercialism. The system of contracts slowly began to create the idea that humans can be connected to each other outside of shared kinships or religious affiliation. Societies slowly began to become more pluralistic. Such pluralism began to undermine the idea of an order shared by all.

In addition, commercialism put pressure on people to develop better celestial navigation, in order to reduce the risk of losing ships at sea, and to develop better mathematics, in order to keep track of long distance complex trading. This lead to the collection of very careful data about the heavens and increasing attempts to accurately calculate and predict the motions of the heavenly bodies. This work led to the re-discovery that the heavens were not behaving as predicted by the Aristotlean-Ptolemiac model. Trying to track the stars and planets became increasingly complex as people tried to make more accurate predictions.

Finally Copernicus revised the ancient idea that the sun, and not the earth, was at the centre, and he did this precisely because it made the math easier. We have grown very accustomed to this idea, but we forget how radical it was. Copernicus was basically saying that we could all get up on a clear day, all of us stone cold sober and our eyes working properly, and we can all agree that we see the sun rising in the east, passing over us and sailing in the west, and we are all wrong!! We can go through all of Aristotle’s tests for reality, and share a compelling perceptual experience, and we are all wrong because the math says so.

Our shared experience is all an illusion, and if that is an illusion what other experiences are also illusions? Suddenly the mind is no longer in con-formity to the world (see Part 1). It no longer is in contact with the world. Instead the mind is radically severed from the world, and trapped behind a veil of potentially illusory appearances. Experience doesn’t put us in touch with world; it blinds us to the world. The structure of our experience and the structure of the world are radically different and estranged from each other. It is like we are continuously living in a dream. The only thing that connects the mind to the world’s true structure is abstract mathematical representation. The Copernican revolution is a lot more than the sun being at the center of the solar system. It is about a complete undermining of our sense of the realness of our own experience.

At roughly the same time Martin Luther was bringing together influences from Rhineland mysticism, Ockham’s theology, and the growing sense of chaos of the times. Luther was one of those rare individual’s whose inner experience matched his culture’s experience in such a way that he could charismatically internalize and exemplify it to those around him. Luther was tormented by inner conflict and significant self-loathing. He was an Augustinian monk, and Augustine had also experienced tremendous internal conflict and self-loathing. Augustine had seen this in the writings of St. Paul, and had identified with it. Luther also did so. Luther was influenced through Tauler by Rhineland mysticism, but he found it insufficient. Instead he experienced the self-negation and inner conflict of Rhineland mysticism more as a self-loathing that was intrinsic to an inherently degenerate empty self. For Luther the self is radically folded into and obsesses with itself while also simultaneously experiencing a radical dissatisfaction and disgust with itself. It is almost as if the self is being sucked into its own vacuum. Luther wasn’t seeking for a mystical experienced, but he did want the direct and radical transformation and loss of the self that the mystics sought in order to escape the torment of his self.

For Luther that transformation had to completely come from without because the self was so inherently self-destructive and vacuous. It is not even that the will has to negate itself to make a space for God; it is the even more radical idea that the self has to completely rely on something other than itself for salvation. Salvation could only come from God, and God’s willing/creating of that salvation was due to nothing that one did or could do. It was a completely arbitrary, and completely free choice on God’s part. In this sense, salvation was totally a gift from God. This was Luther’s doctrine of grace, and faith was a completely non-rational acceptance of this completely undeserved, non-intelligible choice by God. Luther was hostile to reason calling it a whore precisely because of the radical nature of his understanding of grace, faith, and God. Luther was terrified of God, and this makes sense given that God had become an inaccessible and arbitrary source of raw cosmic willpower, and it was only through such an arbitrary act by this potentially dangerous God that one could be safe.
In the Protestant Reformation started by Luther much of Europe came to be dominated by these ideas, and they have therefore had a deep influence on Western culture. There are important benefits to these Protestant ideas. One is that Luther emphasized individual conscience and choice. Everyone must discover and accept for themselves, within their own inner conflict, God’s grace. No institution or tradition could do that for one. For Luther the final decider of truth was that point where the mind most directly touched itself, i.e. individual conscience. The mind no longer had any secure contact with the world, but it still had a point where it directly and non-rationally touched itself. This point was a place of security. This meant that no one had any special authority, and he argued for a priesthood of all believers – a radical kind of equality in the church. In this way Luther’s Protestantism help to prepare the way for political democracy.

However, Luther’s views also contributed to the further development of the meaning crisis. Luther’s views are a cultural training in narcissism. For in Luther’s Protestantism the self most authentically experience itself as in the turmoil of self-loathing. The self is self-obsessed, self-loathing, and constantly seeking unearned external validation, i.e., the totally unearned and undeserved grace of God. These are actually the features of a narcissist. A narcissist is someone who is self-obsessed but is nevertheless filled with an anxious self-loathing that must be continually assuaged (hence the self-obsession) by external unearned and undeserved validation. Of course, for Luther there is an escape from this in God’s grace, but if God is removed from that picture then all that is left is a restless narcissist self. The problem was the Luther’s ideas were contributing to the growing disappearance of God. First Luther’s radical individualism meant that everyone was equally capable of interpreting the Bible and the meaning of their own salvation. Luther naively thought everyone would agree with him, but very quickly the opposite was clearly the case. Protestantism began fracturing into a ever growing number sects, and it even had the political consequence of the Peasant’s revolt in Germany that terrified Luther with its chaos and violence. Such expanding pluralism in which more and more views of God were in competition, plus the radical individualism of Protestantism meant that God increasingly became a purely private matter of internal experience. So not only did “God” increasingly refer to something arbitrary and absurd, it increasingly did not refer to the same thing for different people. The term was starting to become meaningless.

Second, Luther’s rejection of any tradition or institution meant the focus of spiritual life switched to the home and to one’s daily work. The monasteries were shut down in Protestant countries. This was unfortunate because until then the monastery and the university were complimentary institutions. The university was the knowledge institution where one went to acquire knowledge whereas the monastery was the place wherein one cultivated wisdom, i.e. where one could train a spiritual process of self-transformation and self-transcendence. Knowledge and wisdom were supposed to compliment and balance each other. With the loss of the monasteries this balance was lost. This imbalance is felt in our culture. We know where to go to acquire knowledge, but we do not know where to go to cultivate wisdom. However, it is exactly the cultivation of self-transformation and self-transcendence that is needed to overcome narcissism. Also, as the spiritual life shifted to daily work and home life, and as the mystical and philosophical faded into the background there didn’t seem to be any specific experiential content to the spiritual life. In an important sense if everything in your daily life is sacred, then nothing in your daily life is sacred. Once it becomes a cultural assumption that family life is central and work is very important then the distinction between daily life and spirituality disappears. Once again the result is just to intensify the focus on your personal life and this tends to reinforce narcissistic tendencies.

Meanwhile Copernicus’ revolution was unfolding with increasing power. Galileo followed Copernicus’ lead about math and concluded that mathematics was the language of the universe. It was math that described the reality of things. Galileo made a distinction between those aspects of our experience that can be described by math such as the length, mass, or speed of something, and those that cannot such as the beauty of the rose or the sweetness of the orange. The first existed in the object, i.e. were objective, while the second only existed in the mind (the subject of experience) i.e., they were subjective. The beauty of the rose is just as illusory as the sunrise. All those experiences that seem to make things meaningful, such as the experience of beauty or sweetness existed only in the mind and were illusions projected onto reality. Not only was the mind severed from the world behind a veil of appearance the real world was actually a meaningless one and experiences of meaning were purely subjective.

However, Galileo went further with his discovery of inertial motion. It now became clear that things did not move because of an internal drive and on purpose, but because of accidental external pushes. Nothing happened on purpose. There was no overarching narrative at work. Stuff just happened. Human beings suddenly were strangers in this world, because we seem to act on purpose in a universe that fundamentally does not. We don’t belong. The universe went from being a beautiful almost living cosmos enacting a great story to a lifeless place of random collisions signifying nothing. So the mind’s connection to reality was severed and the mind was trapped inside its experience, and this experience continuously creates the illusion that the world is meaningful and purposeful when in fact it is not. We are all radically individuals disconnected from each other as much as from the world. But there was more to come from Galileo. With the discovery of inertia motion it became clear that matter was not the potential for form, instead it was actually stuff in its own right. It was a substance. That meant that form was just the result of how motion shaped matter. There wasn’t a hierarchy to reality (see Part 1) in terms of increasing reality. There was just the flat reality of matter in motion. So there was no longer a nomological order uniting the mind to the world, no overarching narrative order providing the purpose for it all, and no normative order for ascending to the divine.

People had lost the orders, they had lost the monastic wisdom institutions, they saw the church fragmenting and society differentiating, the felt that God was withdrawing into being nothing more that just absolute raw absurd power (think about how absent God is from Shakespeare’s plays and how in them the supernatural is largely just horrific in nature), and they increasingly experienced themselves as restless empty selves desperately needing external validation to assuage self-loathing.

We cannot unlearn the effects of the Copernican Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, or the Scientific Revolution. That is not an authentic option for us. We don’t want to give up the freedom, knowledge and power that they have afforded us. However, what we find is that there is a scientific picture of the world in which we have no place. Our lives are hungry for meaning, wisdom, and transcendence from the prisons of egocentrism and narcissism. We are not happy as radically isolated individuals; we deeply want connections to others. We don’t want to be living inside a subjective dream or hear that all of our experience is an illusion; we want to connect deeply to what is most real. Yet our culture does not have the ideas, institutions, or resources for guiding us. We cannot shrug this off as philosophical ideas or history that does not really concern out lives, because these ideas shape our politics, incarnate in our technology, echo through our popular culture, and haunt our longings.

This radical and inescapable disconnection between what our culture tells us is really the case, and what we most deeply need to flourish as human beings is the meaning crisis. It is a spiritual crisis of immense proportions. Since spiritual naturalism attempts to bring together spirituality and the naturalistic worldview of western scientific-rational culture, spiritual naturalism must tackle this crisis head on. In Part 3 we will see how this might begin to be done, but looking at the cognitive science of meaning making and wisdom.


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john-vervaekeJohn Vervaeke is an award-winning instructor at the University of Toronto. He is an engaging speaker and available for lectures and media appearances. He is knowledgeable about a wide range of topics including wisdom, mindfulness meditation, psychology, cognitive science, foolishness, artificial intelligence, general intelligence, rationality, popular media, and Buddhism & its interaction with Western society and psychology. His website is


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