A radically unstructured existence has produced in so many people the feeling of being unmoored, disoriented, and lost. The complete attack on certain fundamental concepts and practices of the liberal Western world brought on by COVID has reinvigorated some of the concerns with certain unconscious habits that had structured our lives. It is one of the reasons why I have been so concerned with those that make important distinctions in the recent intellectual history of the West, including Charles Taylor and Hannah Arendt. They have offered profound investigations of the structures that have not only housed but have also empowered a certain understanding of the human person as being effectively free; i.e. they exist and they are effective because their actions make a difference. This essential content, the effectively free human person, is widely recognized as worth preserving – and the structures that constitutively empower such persons need to be nurtured, preserved, and advanced. It is a powerful model of flourishing, the good life, and it animates most of the best actions in human history. This model, as far as it is conscious, regulates and limits forms of tyrannical and totalitarian threats to human flourishing. In some sense, the concept of an effectively free person also substantiates the heroic character of literature.
In other words, with the surprising eradication of relatively unconscious structures that housed and empowered a certain inspiring model of human flourishing, we may want to reconsider how we have housed and empowered human flourishing. In other words, COVID has not merely made us sick, nor killed many of us, but it also has attacked the constitutive structures that gave life to our freedom. Thus, we might want to consider again the rituals and liturgies that will serve flourishing in the long run.
“[Fasting] brings us… to the realization that what is supernatural in our organic life is something we understood as a unique experience.” With this thought, I concluded a blog on Fasting and Christian Social Action. We should again turn toward how ritual functions. One of the key opportunities is a new space for imagining ways of life, with liturgical structures of rituals that not only house freedom, but also constitute it and empower it.
In the Protestant Reformation, Luther (among others) was concerned and motivated by the question of the why of the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences. This has led to a lengthened history, increasingly broad as well, of a critical approach to particular rituals. For those who do not have the 16th-century practices of indulgences in mind, we can understand certain criticisms of rituals that have a forming and shaping effect on our models of flourishing. Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, including their psychological associations with addiction, have an ever-increasing body of scientific and religious criticism that show how these rituals are destructive to both physical health and overall well-being. So too does our habits of convenience. Literary critiques of social phenomena, such as Rudy Weibe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many, or in non-fiction, Johann Hari’s Lost Connection: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, show this level of critique in small and large communities over issues that range from the habits that contribute to depression, conflict resolution, to a whole host of other social “ills and evils”. The recent popularity of an author like 5-time New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell, who has criticized everything from social elitism in the universities, to structural features of success, to errors in snap judgments, demonstrates that deliberating about the structural features of effective freedom is worth doing AND is also recognized as an essential part of our project at this stage of our history. Many words could be spilled on this worthwhile history.
However, in my understanding, the nature of this criticism in academic work has been the political and public manifestations of these problems.
Meaning in the Origins and Advocacy of our Authenticity
Less obvious has been the awareness of more personal practices that exist within the realm of a person’s agency as an individual. Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos tends to focus on the concept of meaning as a potential turn that places impactful action and effective freedom in the grasp of the individual reader. A lot of these focused on “axioms in the shape of habits”, which got a lot of interest. We should thank Dr. Peterson for bringing to light a combination of theories from Viktor Frankl and Dr. Carl Jung to popularize and centralize a focus on meaningful behavior. However, we should be cautious of his recommendations in that book. A number of axioms are rooted in the idea of “who you want to be”. Understandably, I would like to step away from that individualist idea. In short, individual identity is important, it is not at the level of primacy. The counter-presence of a kind of tribalism exists worldwide. It is only in the tribe that an individual even emerges. Discounting this, as Peterson does, is a confusion of two issues. These two issues are what I’d like to call 1) the anthropology of the individual, and 2) the advocacy of the individual. On the second point, the advocacy of the individual, it is clear that Peterson is quite clear. However, in the realm of the anthropology of the individual, which is a deep understanding and account of the appearance of actual individuals, Peterson offers us no clue. In fact, the fruits of his work have blinded his readers to the moral anthropologies of individuals, and have advocated a kind of egoism which is his contribution to the advocacy of the individual. Perhaps it is the unwitting tribalism he partakes in when he seeks the widespread fame offered by YouTube. After all expansion of one’s name is a kind of performative authenticity.
This is where lesser-known academic work can help us to define and articulate the project living in ways that unify the form and the content of individualism, that can unify theory and practice.
Although I have mentioned Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and The Malaise of Modernity in previous posts, I would like to recommend Dr. Christopher Peet’s Practicing Transcendence: Axial Age Spiritualities for a World in Crisis. In it Peet takes a point from Karl Jaspers and argues it forcefully:
“The kingdom of heaven that is within you is the selfless truth of how you participate in reality both greater than you and that includes you. And, as the common denominator of mystical descriptions of ultimate reality attest, it is an ineffable truth; language is unable to adequately evoke it. The only reality the ego can imagine is one with itself at the center. In moments of selflessness (like love or compassion, but also justice, forgiveness, mercy…), the ego is momentarily transcended and the simple, unmysterious truth that the ego is not central to reality manifests…. The ego asks what transcendence i; the experienced practitioner responds, but not by “giving an answer”… smiles in compassionate but inscrutable silence like the Buddha, sincerely confesses ignorance and endlessly questions around it like a Socrates, provides the ultimate paradox in commanding love like the prophetic witness to YHWH, offers an aphorism that seems to miss the obvious point but in doing so points enigmatically deeper like a Confucius or Chung Tzu, and tells an accessible parable that is impenetrable in its ultimate meaning like a Jesus. The response that addresses the question without giving an answer would be: pray more; meditate again; just sit, watch your breath. What the teacher as expert practitioner wants to convey to the neophyte is to practice until you mature beyond your (ego’s) demand to know the egoless outcome.” (Peet, pp.288 – 289)
Notice how Peet refers to worldwide models of individuality: Jesus, Confucius, the Buddha. What these models have pointed out is that the individual who rests in the ambiguity of not-knowing, who rests in the question and not the answer, is the one in whom egoless individuality is made real. Such an individual takes seriously what I have called the moral anthropology of being an individual with advocacy for individuality as such. And the lion’s share of this work is done in rituals, which Peet highlights as prayer, meditation, and breathing. It gives up the ascertaining of ultimate meaning in language, but rather in practice. And from here on we can make real this combined emphasis on advocacy and the articulation of origins in ritual practice. In other words, we can engage in liturgies of individuality that make it real and effective.
What I don’t want to advocate in the focus on rituals and liturgies is the unconscious practicing of traditions for tradition’s sake. Instead, we should focus on how deliberate practices can constitute a practice of freedom. Much like the practice of sacraments in the Catholic tradition, we should practice certain rituals knowing that they foster ways of “Being-in-the-World” that are authentic and individual, i.e. they help us attain effective freedom.
I have previously advocated three particular rituals that are done for their own sake: meditation, prayer, and fasting. I could also name a monogamous commitment to one person, joyful eating, reading my Bible, “significant other time” (a twice a month gathering with a person or people who are core to my moral anthropology as an individual), and what has been called Tech and Motion Shabbat (an intentional day of unplugging from social and mass media, and of not using a car). Some of these rituals will not be for everyone, yet some might be more important than others. By calling them rituals, I take them on intentionally and use them to foster a greater sense of individuality. But in doing this practice of taking on rituals, I can distinguish them from habits – many of which are destructive to my flourishing as an individual. These habits include needless shopping, smoking, tech obsession, and addiction to church attendance.
Think of deliberate rituals as developing a kind of “muscle memory” for spiritual living. With the increasing awareness of the neuroplasticity of the brain, which is the combination of genetic and environmental inputs into our “being-in-the-world” existence, we can come to understand a liturgical understanding of our unconscious habits and our deliberate rituals as having a real, manifest impact of a kind of individual agency that is effective freedom.
What rituals in your life nurture the authentic individual you are? Which ones will foster your effective freedom? What rituals will help you maintain resilience amidst the widespread disorientation of modern life?