Early / Late and the Next Big Religion
“We are too late for the gods and too early for Being” said the German philosopher Martin Heidegger.
“Too late for the gods and too early for Being.”
By “gods” Heidegger meant the god of what was once called Christendom. The one that had provided the structures and strictures that so many nineteenth and twentieth century artists and thinkers had rebelled against. But what in 1901 appeared to be a great battle had actually been only a rear-guard action, cover for a vast retreat. A retreat still happening today.
Allow me to propose answers to some questions that have appeared baffling over time:
Why did Christianity spread so fast across the Mediterranean basin? Because there was a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that the local religions were not filling.
Why did Protestantism spread so fast across Northern Europe? Because there was a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that the Roman Catholic tradition was not filling.
Why did Islam spread so fast across North Africa? Because there was a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that Christianity and local religions were not filling.
Why did secularism spread so fast across Northern Europe after the Second World War? Because there was a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that European Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were not filling.
Why did Buddhism and New Age thought spread so fast across North America after the Second World War? Because there was a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that European Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were not filling.
You see, I suspect that our view of how one religious tradition replaces another is incorrect. A new tradition doesn’t act like an invasive species, spreading rapidly and driving out a native one. Rather, a new tradition takes root only after the soil is clear of the past tradition. Fertile ground.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a bit premature in declaring the death of god when he did that in 1882. But, to quickly mix metaphors, Nietzsche was a canary in a coal mine.
Martin Heidegger was only a little premature in declaring “We are too late for the gods and too early for Being” back in 1927. He was a canary in a coal mine.
But what they foresaw, we are now seeing.
Now, note: I am not saying that everyone is becoming an atheist. What I am saying is that Christianity has split into two warring camps in the United States — and increasingly in the Global South — because there is a vacuum to fill. A vacuum of meaning and purpose that Euro-Protestantism and traditional Roman Catholicism are not filling for a large number of people.
My own tradition, Humanism, was a conscious effort in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to fill the vacuum.
American Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism was an unconscious effort to fill the vacuum that became with time quite conscious.
The religious landscape of our time is not as baffling as it is often portrayed to be. Today, as always, the question is individuality or interconnectedness — is all this about the individual or is the individual all about it all?
This gets to the crux of the question. A question that any religion or philosophy either does or does not answer: Is it about me or is it about us?
The philosopher Albert Camus put it fairly simply in “The Myth of Sisyphus:”
One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.
A challenge for you: go to your nearest bookstore and ask a clerk: “Where is your section on happiness?” I promise: there’s a big section. Filled with mostly individualistic nonsense.
Heidegger spent his life considering the question of being exactly because he couldn’t figure out what that meant after the cultural scaffolding of the gods was removed.
Unfortunately, Heidegger took the easy answer for his time and place: he became a Nazi.
Question: Is it always wrong to seize upon the culturally comfortable labels of your own time? Good question.
Nowadays, in the United States, the culturally comfortable label is “Christian.” The fact that, as I mentioned earlier, American Christianity has broken into warring camps, proves inconvenient.
We happen to live in one of those times of vacuum. The social power of the old American god — the Euro-god — is waning. Many ideas are pouring into the vacuum left by that vacating set of certainties.
Beats me. But one thing I know: a century from now, the answer that today eludes us will look inevitable.
Oh, and another thing: still, today, and everyday, we have to choose: Is it about me? Or is it about us?
#Humanism #Unitarian #Spirituality