Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover

6. An Introduction to the Genealogy of the Meaning Crisis

© 2017 J. Vervaeke, C. Mastropietro, F. Miscevic, CC BY 4.0

In section 4, we discussed the modern domicide of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, and the historical domicide of the Hellenistic Era. Now, we turn our attention to a more encompassing historical domicide. The meaning crisis has its historical origins in the disintegration of three very powerful orders of a worldview that had previously helped us to make sense of the world. We provide an overview of this genealogy in the following section, reserving a more extensive discussion for a forthcoming monograph.1

6.1 The Meaning that Was Lost: Three Orders of a Worldview

6.1.1 Nomological Order

The first of these connections was cradled by the Aristotelean worldview, where there existed a powerful affinity between objective reality and subjective perception. This worldview had two components: an account of how the mind viewed the world, and an account of how that world was structured. For Aristotle, these accounts were integrated and mutually supporting. To know something was to understand its form, but “form” didn’t primarily mean the shape of a thing. It meant the deep structure that governed its organization. A bird, for instance, was not constituted by features and anatomy (feathers, talons, beak, flight, etc.) but from the underlying structure by which these features were cohered and animated. And just as hand conforms to the spatial organization of an object when grasping it, so does the mind conform to the structural organization of the world when it notionally grasps its structure. This was the Aristotelean knowing, a deep, structural conformity between mind and world.

One of the most fortifying elements of Aristotle’s worldview was that it allowed criteria for falsification, a checklist for reliably determining whether or not something in the world was real: (1) ensure the perceiving organ was not malfunctioning (i.e. the quality of our eyesight), (2) that the intervening medium was not distorted (clarity of day or night) and (3) that the perception had consensus with others. Perception that passes these tests imbues information―it possesses the perceiving individual of the form of the thing perceived.

Aristotle’s affinity between mind and world extended and reflected the mind’s intentionality into the properties of the universe. Everything moved with purpose in this worldview, and an intrinsic sense of belonging coordinated the natural direction of all actions and objects (smoke to clouds, objects to earth, etc.). The earth was at the centre of a purposeful cosmos, an inherently beautiful and ordered place that made sense to us, resonated with our experience and gave us the sense of understanding the world and our place within it. Since it has to do with the fundamental principles by which knowledge and reality co-operate, we call this worldview the Nomological Order (“nomos” means law or rule).

6.1.2 Narrative Order

Aristotle’s purposeful worldview was so compelling that when Christian thinkers encountered it in the Middle Ages, they found it threatening to their theology, but impossible to ignore. The most influential of these thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, worked hard to integrate Aristotle’s metaphysics with important ordonnances of the Christian worldview. Yet there was an important change in the adaptation of the Aristotelean framework. In the Greek world, time, like the heavens, was understood as a cyclical movement. For the Christians however, following the Jews and Zoroastrians before them, time was a line with a narrative, consisting of a beginning, middle, and end. Moreover, it was the unfolding of a story: the creation, fall, and redemption of the world. This metanarrative, applied to Aristotle’s purposeful cosmos, anchored the affinity of person and universe to the symbolic narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection. This singular, intervening event turned the repeating cycle into a single arc, creating a definite telos within a single cosmic story, and a climax for all converging purposes in Aristotle’s perfectly cohered universe.

This metanarrative teleology, which we will call the Narrative Order, provided an overarching story into which the minutia of the cosmos―individuals and their own stories―could fit and belong. Further, it introduced the idea that the agency of persons could intervene in the cycle of repetition and meaningfully impact the course of cosmic history.

6.1.3 Normative Order

Thomas Aquinas was also instrumental to the emergence of a third order, born from a marriage of Greek and Christian spirituality. The former, originating with Plato and Aristotle, emphasized a process of rational self-transcendence. For Aristotle, “form” was the blueprint of intelligible structure for all reality’s objects. The stuff that it imbued with organization was otherwise unstructured and chaotic. Aristotle called this stuff “matter”―not physical material, but pure, formless potential that was unknowable in nature. Form created a purposed reality from matter, just as a chair is made from wood that could otherwise be used to make a variety of other objects. It is the form of “chair” that fashions the object from the material. Form was the DNA that turned inanimate matter into life. It in-formed mere possibility with knowable, intelligible reality.

In Aristotle’s framework, form was not simply a binary to matter, but marked a scale of being with increasing rationality, a hierarchy of complexity and intelligibility. Living beings were more in-formed than inanimate objects because their form had agency. They were self-moving. Human beings were more in-formed still, not only self-moving, but self-moving in thought―rational, self-realizing, and commensurately more real. For Plotinus, who integrated Plato and Aristotle, this rising scale of realness marked a journey to self-transcendence and realization. It reflected a fundamental desire to deepen one’s connection with reality. This insight was powerful. It connected the rationality of self-movement to the process of realization: the more rational a being, the more it structurally organized itself to become more real, and the more connected it became to the structure of reality as such.

For Christian thinkers in the ancient world, such as Augustine (who read Plotinus), this pursuit of rational self-realization and self-transcendence, i.e. the pursuit of wisdom, was motivated, as Plato had realized, by a deep love for what is real. For Augustine, reason’s capacity for self-transcendence was dependent on this Platonic desire, and it drove a process of ascension whereby we could transcend our reason and be in conformity to ultimate reality, a mystical union with God. Love was an extension of Aristotle’s rational process, and drove the practices of reason and wisdom to form a Platonic-Christian spirituality that Aquinas was able to integrate into the Aristotelean worldview. The product of this integration was the Normative Order, reference to an ontological structure that connected us fundamentally to reality, and therein, in-formed us about the nature of good, setting forth a hierarchy of values that could tell us what to seek and what to love, that we may ascend the levels of reality and fulfill the potential of our self-moving, rational soul.

These three orders, the Nomological Order, the Narrative Order, and the Normative Order, became tightly integrated and mutually supporting. The story of God’s love (narrative order) inspired the rational-mystical ascension to God (normative order) through the deep connection between the rational mind and the structure of the cosmos (nomological order). The world was inherently meaningful, beautiful, rational, valuable, and spiritual. We were all tightly connected to this cosmos, and we had a coherent place and purpose within it.

6.2 How the Meaning Was Lost: The Fall of the Three Orders

6.2.1 Supremacy of Will over Reason

The unravelling of the three orders is not a single historical incident, but was likely preconditioned by the Black Death in Europe. The plague created a significant labor shortage that sparked a sudden increase in demographic relocation. The abrupt trauma to Europe’s social structures, combined with increased economic self-reliance, gave rise to a new sense of personal self-determination. This expressed itself spiritually as well as economically. Within Germany, the Rhineland mystics began to articulate a new understanding of mystical experience and the spiritual life. The ascent to God within the normative order was still driven by love, but it was now understood as a force of will instead of the self-transcendence of reason. Mystical experience was no longer seen as the culmination of human rationality, but as a self-negation of the will, a re-ordering of the psyche that created 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, which was no longer something to be completed or perfected, but something an individual must shed to make room for the divine.

This new form of spirituality had important implications for how people of the middle ages understood God. William of Ockham and other similar-minded theologians posited that God’s will was prior (and not beholden) to His reason. With Thomas Aquinas, God’s rationality had been central; with Ockham, God’s will was central, causative of all order and rationality. Ockham also concluded that, correspondingly, any order that human beings found in their experience of the world was constituted linguistically, and arbitrarily. This nominalism amounted to a kind of radical individualism, in which any taxonomy that arranged objects or entities (i.e. a forest comprised of trees) was a contrivance of individual will rather than a connection that was inherent to the cosmos. God’s will was, above all, the determination of all order and rationality.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the emphasis on freedom and will that emerged from the Black Plague correlated with the explosion of creativity in the Renaissance. However, there was also horror in this new vision. The decentering of reason from the Normative Order meant that the mind’s connection to the world had been greatly diminished. The divine had become something non-rational and arbitrary, almost absurd, and the inherent meaning of Aristotle and Aquinas’ worldviews had been replaced by a gnawing sense that everything―including the self―was ephemeral, strange, and something other than we thought it to be. This primacy of the will undermined the notion of an ontological structure imbued with intrinsic value. It annulled the marriage between the rational and the mystical that had been so essential to the Normative Order.

6.2.2 Luther and the Narcissistic Self

Over a century after the onset of the Black Death, theologian Martin Luther, backgrounded by the chaos of the times, was bringing together influences from Rhineland mysticism and Ockham’s theology. Luther was an Augustinian monk, and like Augustine himself, he had identified with the tremendous internal conflict and self-loathing expressed in the writings of St. Paul. Luther experienced the self-negation of Rhineland mysticism more as a self-loathing, intrinsic to a degenerate self that was both reflexively obsessed and dissatisfied. Luther wasn’t seeking a mystical experience, but the same loss of self that the mystics sought to escape the narcissistic torment of their own self-preoccupation. Since the self was vacuous and self-destructive, it could not be the vessel for salvation. Any normative transformation had to be imposed from without by God’s will, which was raw, non-rational, and terrifyingly arbitrary. Luther’s doctrine of grace and faith was the non-rational acceptance of this arbitrary will.

As Luther’s Protestant Reformation grew, much of Europe came to be dominated by these theological ideas, and they developed a deep foothold in Western culture. Faith and salvation became personal rather than collective undertakings, and individual conscience and choice became favored over institution and tradition. The mind’s most secure and meaningful connection was no longer with the world, but with itself. Luther argued for a priesthood of all believers, a radical kind of equality in the church without clerical authorities. In this way, Luther’s Protestantism help to prepare the way for political democracy.

For all his progressiveness, Luther’s views also contributed significantly to the development of the meaning crisis. In Luther’s Protestantism, the self most authentically experienced itself in the turmoil of self-loathing, and in the pursuit of God’s unearned grace, His external validation. Without this validation, the spread of Luther’s theology amounted to, among other things, a cultural training in narcissism; people were trained to seek external, unearned validation to compensate for the notion of a vacuous, self-loathing self. Meanwhile, Protestantism began fracturing into an ever-growing number of sects. Such expanding pluralism, combined with the radical individualism of Protestantism, meant that God increasingly became a purely private matter of internal experience. Not only did “God” refer to something arbitrary and absurd, it no longer referred to the same thing for different people. The term was starting to become meaningless.

Luther’s rejection of tradition and institution meant a transference of spiritual life from the institution to the home, and into one’s daily work. Consequently, the monasteries were shut down in Protestant countries. Until that time, the monastery and the university had been complementary institutions; the latter served the acquisition of knowledge, and the former was the place wherein an individual cultivated wisdom, and trained a spiritual process of self-transformation and self-transcendence. These institutions and their associated functions were complementary educators. With the disappearance of the monasteries, this balance was lost. Without a systemic way of cultivating wisdom, the growing narcissism trained by Luther’s theology―now focused in the everyday practices of home, work and family in which sacredness and spirituality were now abstracted―was unchecked within the broader culture.

6.2.3 Pluralism and the Copernican Revolution

The newly integrated senses of self-determination and individualism described above helped to foster a rise in commercialism as Europe began to recover from the Black Plague. There was a prevailing belief that an individual could alter one’s status through determined effort, and this belief seemed to engender increases in urbanization and trade. By extension, this gave rise to unprecedented social diversity and created the need for efficient and impartial bureaucracies that could monitor and enforce the contracts so crucial to commercialism. The system of contracts reinforced the idea that human beings could be connected to each other outside of shared kinships or religious affiliation. Societies slowly began to become more pluralistic, and this further undermined the importance of a single order shared by all.

The engine of commercialism produced many unexpected innovations from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance, and these innovations set the scene for the transformations to come. The complexities of long distance trading and commerce put collective pressure on the culture to develop better celestial navigation and mathematics to reduce the risk of losing ships at sea. This led to more careful collection of data about the heavens and calculations about the motions of heavenly bodies, revealing that the heavens were not behaving as predicted by the Aristotelean-Ptolemaic model. Pragmatic improvements to these mathematics inspired Copernicus’ astronomical revision that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the known universe.

The revolution triggered by Copernicus’ discovery upended the presumptions of Aristotle’s epistemology. It demonstrated that a person’s experience could pass each of Aristotle’s tests for reality―perception, medium and consensus―and still be wrong. The quality of experience was now subjective. Mathematics, not experience, was now the measure of realness and the language of the universe. If our fundamental cosmic orientation was misconceived, then everything was now vulnerable to illusion. Suddenly the mind was no longer anchored to the structure of the cosmos, and Aristotle’s nomological order could no longer be trusted to keep us in conformity with the world.

Galileo took Copernicus’ revolution even further with his discovery of inertial motion, which revealed that things did not move because of an internal purpose or cosmic drive, but because of accidental external pushes from other, unintentional forces in the world. The loss of these drives implied that here was no overarching metanarrative at work within the cosmos, no story that enacted itself through the movements of objects and individuals. This meant that human beings were now strangers, alone with our intent, acting with determined purpose in a world that fundamentally lacked it. The universe went from being a beautiful, living cosmos unfolding a great story to a lifeless series of random collisions signifying nothing.

The dissonance between the human being’s experience of meaning and the purposeless vacuum introduced by Copernicus and Galileo’s discoveries inevitably interacted with Luther’s narcissistic self and arbitrary God. In consequence, the mind’s connection to reality―and the people and objects within it―was severed and the mind was trapped inside the illusion of its own experience. With the discovery of inertial motion, it became clear that matter was not the potential for form, but substance in its own right. Form was not, after all, the blueprint for cosmic purpose, but simply the result of how motion shaped matter. There was no value-based hierarchy governing reality any more than there was a great narrative to guide it. 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.

The historical domicide described within the loss of these three orders represents a comprehensive breakdown of the agent-arena correspondence discussed in section 3.4.3, which is essential to creating and sustaining a worldview. Therefore, the symbol of the zombie apocalypse, elucidated by our four horsemen of the apocalypse (section 5), exemplifies the loss of these orders in its portrayal of the “Gray Life” of the meaning crisis.

1 See Mark Taylor’s After God as a work influencing the arguments in this section (Taylor 2007).