The other day I had an energetic conversation with an fellow radical. Sitting together on a bench in the tepid April sunshine, our discussion centered around education. My comrade educates young adults to awaken to the waters they swim in; that is, she helps them become aware of the unacknowledged belief systems they are socialized to accept. As the old saying goes, fish have no idea they swim through water. While I cannot speak for fish as a whole, we humans certainly repeat that pattern.
Humanity seems to have an easier time reflecting upon the past than the present. When learning about the European medieval era, we moderns can speak lucidly about the Christian worldview and how that religion shaped European society. We can talk cogently about religious beliefs, comparing and contrasting them with the beliefs of other religions that also existed at that time. But if we were speaking about the medieval era from the medieval perspective, we would not be using the word belief. Few of us would have understood that we were believing anything. We would have simply lived what we knew to be true. For most medieval Europeans, there was no alternative reality to the Christian one; thinking outside of it, seeing it from a critical reference point, was nearly impossible. It was the invisible water they swam in. Only later, when mercantilism increased international trade, did Europeans awaken to the fact that there were other realities besides the Christian one.
There is an irony in this detached reflection on the past, I think, for in contemporary times we are just as unaware of the water we swim in. Though the waters have changed a little, perhaps becoming slightly clearer, many of us fail to name or reflect upon this fluid. So I will name it now: modernism.
Beyond the Modern
It’s easy to misunderstand what I mean here, so let me clarify. Modernity is used in common speech to mean “now” as compared with the past. Sometimes it is understood to mean the era of high or digital technology, as if it were a way to delineate a historical period. Some scholars distinguish modernity from modernism, the former being a time period and the latter being a paradigm (belief system) that informs this era. For the purposes of this article I use these two terms interchangeably. Thinking of modernity simply as a historical period, as many of us do, might cause us to think that all events, ideas, technologies, and persons born within this time by extension are, or should be, “modern”. This is not true. Many non-modern paradigms dwell alongside and are gestating within the modern world.
Modernism is an ideology arising at the beginning of the so-called “Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries with the ideas of such persons as Marin Mersenne, Renè Descartes, and Francis Bacon. Today modernity is also a hegemony, that is, a dominant mode of thinking about the world that often goes unacknowledged and which holds political power. Modernity is to us today what Christianity was to the medieval Europeans. These two ideologies are very inter-related. I have long understood scientific materialism (one of the disciplines of modernity) to be an offshoot of Christianity, specifically Protestantism, for materialistic science could have come from no other belief system. Essentially all of the early players in the so-called Enlightenment, including the scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries, were Christians. The Church itself played a large roll in supporting the rise of mechanistic philosophy because it justified the theological division between a divine heaven above and a dead, inanimate, hellish earth below. Thus, the Scientific Revolution found an ally in the Church. Jason Hirsch’s forthcoming book Wildflower Counter-Power, expertly describes the forgotten history of this alliance, so poorly understood by contemporary culture and so powerfully influential on the development of modern Western medicine.
Christianity lent modernity its disdain for the Earth, its misogyny, its hierarchical thinking, its binaries, its love of punishment, its obsession with scarcity, its fear of death, and its striving for progressive liberation from the suffering of the world. Though there are differences, to be sure, it is the similarities that are willfully, even shamefully, ignored. Scientific materialism would like to see itself as a rebellious liberator from the delusion and superstition of the religious worldview. But the more I observe modernity with a critical eye, the more I see how blind it is to its own religiosity. Though modernity has claimed the light for its own, it casts an enormous shadow which spans the globe.
To be clear, I am not in any way discounting all of the innovations and revelations of materialistic science and modernity. I do, for example, recognize the value of many modern medical innovations which have saved my life several times over. Yet I do not fetishize nor worship those innovations, as many moderns do. I recognize their usefulness in specific contexts, and yet I acknowledge both their benefits and their harms. I am able to be both grateful and critical at the same time. Let me also state that while I take a critical stance towards modernity and Christianity in this article, I do find some of their ideas useful and beautiful. Studying the socio-political contexts within which these ideologies were born allows us to appreciate the value of some of their ideas and insights. Taken and compared all together, these ideologies allow us to understand more completely the wholeness of human potential. So forgive me if this essay feels excessively polemic, and indulge me, if you would, in this bout of intellectual enthusiasm. (I can't help it, I have a big Sagittarius stellium on an angle!)
Let us begin with this question, as asked by the cultural historian Richard Tarnas: “How did modernity become the single most destructive force in the history of the world?” That might seem like a provocative question to those who are newly aware of the pond called modernity. It might be slightly easier to hear this version of the question: “How did capitalism become the single most destructive force in the history of the world?” The two questions are interlinked, for capitalism is but one branch of modernity. There are others as well, including communism, industrialism, socialism, fascism, neoliberalism, and so on. In Left circles it is quite common to hear critiques of capitalism, but I too rarely hear critiques of modernism, especially in discussions of climate change and other environmental crises. It is not just capitalism that has caused the world’s interlocking catastrophes – it’s modernity as a whole. Questioning capitalism is an important step towards full awakening, but if we stop there the water remains opaque.
Modernism is more than capitalism and more than scientism. It is also industrialism and the fetishism of machines. It is materialism (i.e. the belief that we can only know what is measurable; that only what is physically measurable is “real”). It is humanism and anthropocentrism. It is colonialism. It is racism and white supremacy. Modernity is the many-headed hydra which extracts and consumes the living animate Earth, desecrates it, and turns it all to white ashes.
As a life-long Leftist, it was a shock for me to discover that many of the alternatives to capitalism I had for so long championed were part of the same intellectual lineage as capitalism. As I looked more closely, I could see many similarities between them all. Neither socialism nor capitalism questions the supremacy of mechanical thinking and materialism. There is no honoring of the Sacred in either of those ideologies. Though both profess a commitment to liberation, equality, justice, wealth, and happiness, those privileges are applied exclusively to humanity (or only certain classes within humanity) – Nature falls outside the realm of what is protected and enfranchised. Even when modern economic or political disciplines are created to fold in the externalities of capitalism or industrialism, such as ecological economics or “Big Green” techno-environmentalism, they still perpetuate many harmful ideas such as the objectification and commodification of Nature, dependence on extractive economies, centralization, bureaucratism, reliance on high-throughput machinery, and the ethos of progress. To be clear, if put to a choice between socialism and capitalism, I strongly favor socialism; if put to a choice between progressivism and social conservatism, I strongly favor progressivism. Yet I wish to study more closely the ideals underpinning each of these paradigms and recognize their harmful consequences; it’s time to see through them.
Four Modes of Religiosity
My above critique of modernism is what I now understand to be post-modern. Post-modernism is an intellectual discipline arising in the 1970’s which critically analyzes and dismantles the previously unquestioned beliefs of modernism. While modernism is positivistic, post-modernism is negativistic. In a way, post-modernism is to modernism what late-modernity was to Christianity.
For a while I resisted post-modernism because it offers no solutions, really. It is often nihilistic, dismembering all meaning and casting it on the ground to be picked at by carrion crows – all is naked, exposed, and debunked. At first this exposure terrified me. How can I believe anything at all, how can I have faith in reality, if I can see through everything as just figments of my culturally-conditioned imagination? My exposure to post-modernism contributed to an existential crisis that spanned several terrifying years.
Slowly, I’ve found ways to appreciate the truth-telling that post-modernism has to offer, and at the same time find my way through even that ideology towards an older way of thinking that predates post-modernism, modernism, and Christianity alike: animism. Animism, or the understanding that everything in the Universe is alive, sentient, vital, and ensouled, is a spiritual tradition common to all Indigenous cultures. It is, in my opinion, the default setting for the human soul. Before children are indoctrinated into other belief systems they have an innate animistic sensibility. Through the eyes of a child, everything in the world is imbued with magic. Trees and squirrels and bubbling streams shimmer with aliveness. There is a sense that some mysterious force pervades everything, that all is interconnected, and that each person is interrelated with everything else in the world. It is a return to the senses, a return to our felt experience of reality. There is no need for transcendence, for the Divine is here all around us and can be experienced in daily life. Yet modernism, with its hierarchical, progressive (i.e. wish for linear progress), and racist sensibilities, sees animism as primitive, heathen, and “less evolved”.
Two thinkers in particular have assisted me in the last few steps of reclaiming my animism: Richard Tarnas and James Hillman. Richard Tarnas builds off of Robert Bellah’s ideas about the historical development of religion to explain the movement between four ideological/spiritual/religious modes of humanity: the Primal (animist), the Axial (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Classical Greek, etc.), the Modern, and the Post-Modern.
In the Primal paradigm, all the world is imbued with numinous divinity of which the self is part and permeated by. In the Axial paradigm, divinity is lifted away from the world to a transcendent realm “above” or beyond the Earth and humanity, and the goal is to transcend material existence to join with the Divine in that heavenly realm. Hierarchies of spiritual value develop. The Earth and its creatures are often seen as lesser than humans, and as having been created for the benefit of humanity. In the Modern paradigm, the world is seen as dead matter, having no divinity, sentience, or consciousness; only humanity has consciousness. This is very similar to the Axial paradigm except that the transcendent realm is deleted. In the Post-modern, there is no divinity or consciousness anywhere, not even within humanity; all the world is subjective and random; all attempts to make meaning of the world are negated and discredited as indulgent fantasies.
Tarnas hints that in the present era we are just beginning to see a movement towards a post-post-modernity – out of the humus of modernity’s rotting corpse sprout little green seedlings. Some call this a Second Axial age, but I disagree. From what I observe in my generation of radicals and in many spiritual communities all over the world, those seedlings are animist – we’re cycling back to the beginning. This I call re-enchantment.
Towards the Alchemical
Recently, I listened to a lecture series called “The Alchemy of Psychology” by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman. It was then that everything clicked into place for me. Through his study of alchemy, that esoteric philosophical tradition arising from the Hellenistic Age in Greece, Egypt, and Persia, Hillman presented alchemy as a useful framework for giving context to the transmutation I was experiencing of my own consciousness from modern to post-modern to post-post-modern/animist. The system of alchemy is very complex and deliberately convoluted (for it is not a literal system but a metaphorical system) so I’ll just briefly touch on the key points that hit home for me.
Alchemy is an esoteric art and science which attempts to refine and transmute different states of consciousness (thus why Hillman finds strong resonance with psychology). These states are symbolically represented by metals, elements, and planets. The goal of the work is to create “gold” and the philosopher’s stone, neither of which are literal physical materials, says Hillman. Though alchemists certainly did laboratory experiments, modernity’s literalism made its symbolism out to be “real”, thus violating the alchemical warning for the work: “beware the physical in the material”. The philosopher’s stone allows the alchemist to fall completely in love with the world, forsaking transcendence, receiving and being impressed by all the world’s sorrows and joys. Yet these emotions only impress the alchemist lightly, temporarily. The philosopher’s stone is said to be soft like wax, which once impressed can be easily smoothed again. The alchemist allows emotions to come and go, to move fluidly through them while continuing to dwell in a state of perfect love and resonance with the divinity of the world; continuing to engage in the proliferation of beauty and wisdom on Earth. This, I believe, is deeply animist. Though alchemy was popular in the medieval era and some alchemists were monotheists who wished to transcend the mundane world, I may use alchemy for more pagan purposes – that is, to become completely of the world, neither transcending nor forsaking it as so many of the Axial religions instruct us to do.
The major principles and processes in alchemy are based on color symbolism. Colors are fundamental to every culture and language group in the world. Four colors in particular are the most basic: black, white, yellow, and red. In alchemy, the work begins with a prima materia (a first material). There are many names for this prima materia, depending on its qualities. It represents the aspect of the alchemist’s life that requires transformation. One of the prima materia’s names is candida, or white, which should be differentiated from the silver-white of a later stage. Candida is ignorance, innocence, being unmarked and unsullied by the world.
The first stage of transformation is black, associated with lead, which represents being charred by the traumas and despairs of the world. It is a state of depression and hopelessness. All of us must go through this stage to reach more refined levels of consciousness, though it is a state hated and feared by white states of consciousness. Black is related to the trials, blockages, wounds, and hard-fought wisdom governed by Saturn.
The next state is white again, but this time it’s a silver-white called albedo. It’s a place of tranquility, transcendence, reflection, leaving emotions and troubles behind us in the sublunary world, for this is the state associated with the cold, barren moon, luna. There is no change and no hardship here. In this state we develop positivistic spiritual systems to make us comfortable with detaching from the world. This is essentially what is now known as "spiritual bypassing". The silver albedo seems to have resonance with the Irish myth of King Cormac mac Airt, whose silver apple branch could be shaken over the court whenever his people's hearts needed soothing; with the silver branch he took away their pain. Those in the albedo state believe in oneness and binaries – one god, one truth, right versus wrong, good versus evil. This is the state of white supremacy, seeing itself superior to the “unevolved” black. Modernity is a white state of mind. (Note: Hillman wrote an excellent article called "Notes on White Supremacy" (PDF linked below) on the use of color symbolism for the purposes of white supremacy in the early modern era when colors were first associated with groups of people, i.e. so-called “races”. Alchemy predates the association of colors with “races”).
Many alchemists stopped the work after having achieved the silver-white, thus some alchemists believed albedo was the goal of alchemy. But the pure, perfect white must inevitably be spoiled. When the Sea King Manannan mac Lír stole Cormac's daughter, son, and wife, no shake of the silver branch could sooth his sorrows. Forsaking numbing, he went out after them. This is the next stage, yellow. It is associated with sulfur, which is the color of corruption, temptation, lust, emotions, and real experiences that break the neat narratives of the albedo. Post-modernity is yellow. It recognizes the existence of multiple, contradictory, paradoxical truths that cannot be reconciled or dismissed. Though this state seems like a regression from the point of view of the silver-white, yellow is what allows us to re-identify and reconnect with the world through our senses, to be tied up and tangled in physicality once more.
The last color is red, which is associated with the metal gold. It is the state of seeing the meaning and beauty in physical life, moving through white metaphorical thinking, seeing through it. In this state of mind we may allow ourselves to feel emotions and contemplate ideas but do not attach to them. We identify completely with the world so that individuality falls away and all of life is experienced as interconnected and divine. It is a re-embrace of the senses and of Nature. The red, I believe, is a return to an animist state of mind.
The Hermetic Path
The transmutations required in the work of alchemy are guided by Hermes/Mercury, the hermaphroditic psychopomp, the magician, the messenger, the trickster. Hermes is an in-between, a transgressor of all boundaries and binaries, constantly tricking the consciousness into change. What I love most about Hillman’s take on alchemy is that it is fundamentally polytheistic – he sees no hierarchy in these states of consciousness, for we are constantly cycling through them all the time. Once we achieve the red, it doesn’t mean we will stay there forever. Hermes, the trickster, wouldn’t allow it! Each aspect of our life must metamorphose through this cycle of color shift. Life is too complex for a unified positivistic linear trajectory of consciousness “evolution”, as the Axial and modern ideologies champion. Life, in my opinion, moves in cycles, revolutions. From Primal to Axial to Modern to Post-Modern and back again to the beginning. From white to black to silver to yellow to red and back again to the beginning. This alchemical revolution explains so many of my personal flip-flops between enlightenment and immaturity, exaltation and depression. It’s all part of the work! And yet, it would be white of me to attach myself to the alchemical framework. I am not an alchemist, though I find alchemical ideas intriguing and helpful. So I will hold them lightly and use them only when they suits my purposes, resisting the temptation to take alchemy literally.
It is clear to me that the worst troubles of the world are modern troubles, white troubles, Western troubles, and if we are to come to resolution we must break out of all these imprisoning states of mind. It requires both personal psycho-spiritual work and political work. We cannot transform the world with only psycho-spiritual or only political work. Both are critically important and complementary. I wish also to write this article to explain my resistance to the white concept of “spiritual evolution”, a positivistic linear ascendancy to a supreme state of mind. I reject transcendence. I reject it because it feels like an abandonment of the world, a detachment from the unbelievable beauty and wisdom of Nature, and a forsaking of the suffering so many beings are now feeling. The Earth is where humanity’s destiny plays out and nowhere else. We are of this world! It is a dangerous delusion to think otherwise. The modern West has forgotten this truth, so let us take guidance from non-modern cultures to bring us back to reality.