Much of my work on my website, blog, and other media is inspired by an attempt to offer positive, uplifting media that is grounded in a deeply embedded spirituality of contemplation and compassion. The contemplative dimension of the Christian tradition – and of all contemplative traditions – has always walked a fine line between offering a transcendent, hopeful vision of courageous human love and a need to prophetically call out the violence and hatred in culture and in the human heart. Reading Cornel West’s comments in the Guardian on the 25th anniversary of his seminal book on Race Matters, I’m inclined to agree with his assessment of American spirituality as bankrupt:
We live in one of the darkest moments in American history – a bleak time of spiritual blackout and imperial meltdown…The undeniable collapse of integrity, honesty and decency in our public and private life has fueled even more racial hatred and contempt.
Personally, I am disinclined to embrace meta-historical narratives of cultural decline and depravity. I tend to think that every age of human history is marked by both the dark and the light. But I would have to be willfully negligent not to recognize that we are in a new low of spiritual and moral bankruptcy in America – in the neo-liberal economic order that holds us in its grips. I wholeheartedly agree with West that Trump is not the cause, but rather merely a symptom, of our inability to honor anything truthful beyond empty symbols of power. It appears that Nihilism is having its day, and that no place in the world is safe from being labeled a shit-hole, no powerless, socially excluded group safe from scapegoated in order to hold up a façade of fading power. The hardest part for me to stomach is to witness religious leaders – in particular those of my own Christian church – not only unwilling to denounce the current state of affairs, but even willing to bless it with a veneer of Christian goodwill.
I have been thinking for a while that the best case scenario is that we’re living through what I would call an “apophatic age.” This is of course a play on the title of Charles Taylor’s massive historical tome, A Secular Age. “Apophatic” is not a term we use in everyday language, but in the tradition of contemplative prayer, the term apophatic refers to a way of approaching God beyond words, beyond images, recognizing that at its root, all of reality is mysterious and that God is ultimately unknowable – though not unlovable. The apophatic age of the spiritual life is marked by a sense of unknowing and doubt that is captured best by what St. John of the Cross referred to as the “dark night of the soul.”
The dark night of the soul is experienced as a plunge into darkness in which all our previous ways of knowing, of praying, and of living cease to make sense. When engaged as a spiritual practice and an invitation to surrender even more deeply to the divine presence, the dark night of the soul can be embraced as a grace, a necessary time of purification so that a deeper kind of prophetic love can emerge. Is there a way for us to engage our spiritual and moral bankruptcy in an apophatic way? Or are we living at the dawn of a new millennium of nihilism and cynicism?
The twentieth century began with two wars that were to end all wars, but they also brought forth a mid-century hope in universal human rights and attempts to establish a relatively just world order based on mutual recognition of those rights. It spawned a civil rights movement that continues today in Black Lives Matter.
The moral courage of the people has overthrown dictators all over the world, from the fall of Communism to the Arab Spring and beyond. If Reagan vs. Gorbachev represented the final clash between the neo-liberal, democratic order and the Communist order, today’s stand-off between Western democracy and Putin (Trump’s fetish notwithstanding) is simply two raw wills battling it out in a race to the bottom. This is nihilism at its purest – no truth, just self-assertive power.
The twenty-first century has begun with low-grade, but interminable warfare, deepening economic and racial divides, and the ascendency of nihilism embodied in our leaders. The most difficult part of living in an apophatic age – if that is truly where we are living today – is that by definition we can’t see the outcome. But the dark night brings us to the ultimate gut-check: where do we place our hope? Do we believe in, and can we resurrect, any kind of shared moral vision, solidarity, or sense of the common good? Can the rule of law check our own worst projections of narcissism and self-will to save us from ourselves? If we want to do the hard work of rediscovering some kind of spiritual and moral ground, then we’ll have to become something like what West calls “love warriors” or compassionate warriors:
This focus locates and situates us in a long tradition of love warriors—not just polished professionals or glitzy celebrities – but courageous truth tellers who fell in love with the quest for justice, freedom, and beauty.
It’s time for us to search our souls and fall in love again with something like justice, freedom, and beauty. Without these the outcome of our apophatic age inevitably tips toward nihilism, but hope is always waiting to be resurrected.