Meaning, understanding, and knowledge; we all seem to want them, but when we have them, their ephemeral nature causes them to fall through our hands. In our search for these ephemeral items, we engage in philosophical and scientific endeavors, sift through mountains of relevant data points, build theories, test models inherent to those theories, and then either find we have a working model or go back to the drawing board. This is the enlightenment paradigm so many Westerners find themselves encapsulated within. Ritualistically, we follow the science, we trust the experts, we fact-check a claim, we build models of events, and then structure our lives around those models, but as should be clear to most people living in 2023, none of this is sufficient for living a good life; in fact, one might argue that it makes life more meaningless, unbearable, and despair filled.
Some have argued that religion is an answer to these issues of meaninglessness or despair. People like Jordan Peterson argue for the psychological significance of the Bible. Others, like Johnathan Pageau, try to argue for the symbolic significance of the Bible. Still, others try to get into the weeds and build theories of evidence and fact to justify their beliefs. Of note, Johnathan Vervaeke argues for a dialectical mode of being; the Socratic mode of being. I think there are critiques to be made about all of these potential solutions to our paradigmatic cause of despair.
The use of the Bible by Peterson looks more like a justification of his psychological models rather than a justification of the Bible itself. I.e., for the Bible to be true for Peterson, his psychological theories must hold. Why then would I need the Bible if the psychological models and theories Peterson uses to support the Bible accurately describe the world, and can make predictions about the world? Because we need some narrative to live within? Isn’t this missing the point? For Peterson, his psychological mode of being is what provides him meaning and it is the Bible that he uses to justify his existential mode. Following his behavior to its logical conclusion, it is not the Bible that, by Peterson’s actions we should be drawn to; it is the psychological paradigm. The psychological paradigm as a mode of being becomes the narrative to live within, not the Biblical paradigm or narrative; the former will always precede the latter.
Johnathan Pageau’s work suffers from a similar problem. For Johnathan, the Bible’s true meaning is in its symbolic significance. Yet this too appears to be a justification of Johnathan’s symbolic interpretation of the Bible rather than a justification for the Bible itself. Why have the religion when you can simply use the theory of symbols Matthew Pageau provides to interpret various symbolic phenomena if that is what gives you meaning? Out of Johnathan’s work, once again, his theory takes center stage.
YouTube is also filled with those who seek to justify their interpretations of the Bible. They have various worldviews, models of belief, and opinions that they claim are drawn from the Bible, yet many of these contradict each other. When tasked with resolving these contradictions, these Biblical researchers, scholars, and amateur Biblical enthusiasts (none necessarily less than the other) get into the weeds; they lose themselves in a fine-grain analysis of the details that support their theory. To me, this is a self-aggrandizing act. Their personal theory of the Bible, no matter how incommunicable it may be to those who seek meaning from the Bible in their everyday lives, becomes the keystone of their faith; they become the keystone of their faith; they become their personal Jesus. It is astoundingly egocentric.
Out of Johnathan Vervaeke’s Socratic mode of being, we perhaps get to what is missing from all of the aforementioned cases and to what is essential: a living faith. From what I’ve gathered of Johnathan’s work, so much of his work is about the performance or modal way. Of course, this isn’t the only “P” that Johnathan will argue is important for his model, but without this ‘doing,’ how can we say that there is anything of meaning; anything that actually exists? Johnathan, too, I think will recognize the problem that an emphasis on theory and modeling has created for us.
Out of Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein’s work, we get a better understanding of this problem. They can build models, they can shoot an arrow down the shaft of another, but they can’t really tell you how they do it; it’s intuitive; they just do it. Of course, they’ve trained, like the archer does, and have learned to ask the appropriate questions, at the appropriate time, after analyzing the appropriate and relevant facts of a phenomenon, but they can’t quite tell you how to analyze those facts to assess their validity; i.e., to engage in hypothesis-making. Really, they can’t teach anyone how to be confident explorers; either you are or you aren’t.
For people looking for meaning from the scientific worldview, this obviously leaves much to be desired. “What does it take for me to have meaning in life,” the masses will ask, to which Bret and Heather will respond, “We can’t answer that for you; either you have it or you don’t.
Johnathan Vervaeke partially answers this issue: you can actually start performing, meditating, writing, reading the scholars, and dialoguing with them by asking questions about their work. The effect: you are able to acquire your own, inarticulable meaning. This is grand unless you want to build a community. If everyone has their own, inarticulable meaning in life, each with a separate goal that they are striving for, how can they cooperate? If they happen to, more frequently than not, discover the same goal, how would they even know; by its very nature, the meaning that they find is inarticulable, the transfiguring good that they’re striving for, perceivable but ineffable and incommunicable. How can this create focal points that genuinely generate meaning for anyone? Under these conditions, there can be no focal point for a community. In fact, I would say that such a community is a community in name only; their common goal: meaning, significance, and purpose, but that purpose, meaning, and significance are unintelligible.
Here’s where Peterson’s emphasis on the need for a common narrative or mythos comes into play. Yet, merely having the common mythos, the Bible, isn’t enough. What happens when I have the mythos, the narrative? I can have the stories of Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings, I can even have the Marvel Cinematic Universe at my fingertips, but what good do any of these do me in themselves? Paraphrasing Vervaeke’s perspective, the mythos we have will not be meaningful unless it can be performed. Yet even this falls short.
Take for example a play. Without making our hypothetical too detailed, to put on a play we need a script, actors, the requisite props, a stage and set, costume pieces, and lighting. We also need an audience capable of interpreting our work to assess whether we’ve actually succeeded at putting on a performance. Yet, in the midst of this performance, one of two things may happen: the actor can lose themselves in the performance and enter a flow state or they can feel detached from their performance, as if they are going through the motions and observing their performance from outside themselves. The first scenario is possible but rare; it is like being in a dream. The second scenario is far more common and, from what I’ve gathered, sounds like the postmodern conundrum.
The aim, then, is to achieve this flow state wherein one loses themselves in the performative act of meaning-making and cooperation. Something like a script for this is required, a mythos or narrative, that mythos has to be performable, all the requisite resources to perform that mythos have to be available, and there has to be someone there to adjudicate whether the performance was good. This latter variable seems to be defined by the mythos itself; either it leads to a good life according to the mythos, or virtue narrative, or it does not. The good life, then, is defined within and through the mythos.
I think this is where the mythos is insufficient. We can look to the Bible as a mythos to live out, to perform, yet the critique that “It’s not for us” appears to be correct. Can we really live the life of Paul, Peter, John, or even Christ? Can we perform that? Can we genuinely uphold the Laws of God? Has anyone even considered what that looks like contemporarily? What does it mean to really love your enemy? Can we scorn those we see kissing the boots of their abusers? I find this act repugnant and I dare not speak what I, in my heart of hearts, wish I could do to them.
Thus, perhaps a radical move towards autopoiesis or auto-mythopoesis is necessary. If we do not accept this, in some sense, we are living a lie. This certainly doesn’t mean we pick our own values – that idea is just nonsense. However, this does require us to be able to tell our own stories and to live them out, not as a lie, but in a way that reflects our nature. Does this mean a group should come together, create a myth for themselves, act out that myth, and then be judged by it, in that order? No, I think this bears too many of the artificial tropes that make the exhortations of Peterson so hollow. A society of ideas is not a society for a people. Vervaeke, on the other hand, is right when he says these people are moving towards a cooperative endeavor. However, he seems to be missing the essential aspect of any performative act: the audience. Are we to let others judge our ascendency towards the Good and meaningful by our standards; how can we even communicate those standards to them? And if we can’t, how can we be judged by them? Whose Good life is it anyway? Ours and ours alone? then how is it good?
I guess, if we are truly going down the autopoietic route, our standards emerge from the interactions of the group members. This suggests something vital about the good life. People define the Good life, the meaningful life, for themselves through their successes, understanding of each other, and place in the world. Over time, this should form a common narrative, a culture, and a social structure if it is truly capable of generating something that builds a community and preserves that community. If their way of life cannot generate a common, observable narrative, culture, or social structure, then perhaps the community’s way of life is unsustainable; it isn’t a good life.
But it is specifically this process that will cause them to feel as if they’re living a lie eventually; it will alienate them; their descendants will justly feel as if they’re not living a life for them. I cannot be a Fisherman of Galilee, why should I act like one? Because this is seemingly inevitable, perhaps we should not wrestle with this problem; maybe it is best to emphasize for our descendants the meta-principles that allow the mythic life and culture to form, bind, and leaven.
However, our previous problem of the inarticulable and incommunicable transfiguring good appears to be resolved by forming a body of interwoven and expressed modes of meaningful living. The scientific paradigm is either one of these meaningful modes of being or encapsulated within a larger one. Thus, the emphasis on this existential paradigm misappropriates it as the modal way rather than a modal way or a modal way dependent on another mode.
This means that our fate is in our collective hands. For many, this is too terrible a realization to accept. In response, people seek their mother culture. But it is this matrix that has abandoned them, or feeds from them; the culture of their ancestors has become a parasite, like Chronos, that consumes its descendants; as a machine, it has been captured by those who use it for their personal gain. These people seek the patterns of the past because there is wisdom in it, but it doesn’t appear as if they’re capable of living that past life as it was. If they are, when they return to the remnants of the body that used to house their ancestors, they may feel a sense of anomie, for their Mother is now nothing more than an imposter wearing a skinsuit. Then they may live according to the wisdom of their fathers, not as their fathers lived but with respect to the context they find themselves within. Here are hints of the auto-mythopoetic process, unrealized by the myth’s generators. But here too is the cause of their suffering; they’re living within and through a paradigm that they know alienates and destroys them; their path is self-annihilating. It is this knowledge of their self-alienation and destruction that causes them to fall out of the dream, to see themselves from outside themselves. Their unwillingness to accept their own agency in the process of collective meaning-making perpetuates their despair.
In the end, we get caught up in the details of past myths and use them to justify how we act. Yet, it is not the details of the myth that matter; it is the act itself that is relevant. It is both breaking the paradigm that parasitically consumes us and the solution that follows that establish the new paradigm. The myth and narrative are in the doing, the doing is not in the myth and narrative. Only when we look back at what was done do we begin to see the narrative, already played out. The Egyptians built pyramids, worshiped the dead, and prayed for eternal life, but did they understand the myth they were playing out; did they know they were living a mythic life? The Babylonians and the Romans built empires, but did they understand their part on the world stage as one act within a series? Jesus was killed by the Romans and Jews, but did they know the story of which they were a part? We truly know the quality of a tree by the fruit it bears.