Postmodern spirituality A dialogue in five parts Part I: The rise of a proto-spirituality in the late works of some leading postmodern thinkers Roland Benedikter integralworld.net
From 1979, the year of Jean-Francois Lyotard's book which gave the movement the name, “The postmodern condition”, until today -, almost everybody has practiced what those people, the likes of Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault or Jean Francois Lyotard, expressed in a very simple philosophical maxime: “Deconstruct yourself: See what you are not. You have to destroy your illusions. To reach progress in society, we have to forget about all essentials, and to see: Everything, including your self, is just a construct by socio-economic and cultural processes. Then we all will live better, and that means: more self-conscious and, eventually, more equal. Even if we will have to pay the price of having nothing 'objective' left on which we could build enduring truths and values, and even if man himself, following this path, must lose his 'essence' than.”
We can sum up that the main postmodern thinkers, in their common guiding intuition, tried to destroy all illusions by transforming everything into a construct – with the goal to realize fully the principle of equality as the guiding principle of a more open, pluralistic and progressive society. But they did not build anything positive as alternative to the illusions. They did not create a theory, an observation that could explain what your real I or your spirit is. They just tried to destroy your false I. And nothing more. Leaving nothing behind. Nothing in the strict sense of the word.
Deconstruction of the false “I”: exactly this was it, what almost everybody did in our European-Western hemisphere in the last decades, consciously or unconsciously. You can say that after 1989-91, and even more intensely after 9-11, you have the return of a very strong religious sense that tends to strengthen the traditional confessional forms of spirituality. This return is, at least in part and in our civilisation, a (regressive) answer to the “nothing” produced by (progressive) postmodernity. It is the desire for a “return of the objective” or the “return of essence” – but in a regressive form, which in many cases has to exchange rationality, equality and critical self-deconstruction with belief, “confidence” and the return of old hierarchies. It is in many cases militant and increasingly linked to a clash of cultures.
On the other hand, you have those “postmodern” people today that have practiced “universal deconstruction” for decades. At the treshold of the new millennium, and especially after 9-11, they stood in the world completely free of illusions, if you can say so, but also, at the same time, completely without any objective ground to build on to answer the new needs for orientation, for sense and meaning. What they had achieved, was a “productive void” (Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze). They led you into a realm of “negative” nothingness, like John Cage, into a realm of “deconstructed” I.
But they couldn't tell you who you really are, or what the world is. They couldn't give you a vision what to do after 9-11, how to answer 9-11 and how to re-order the world thereafter in a better way. Why? Because: If you do what postmodernism tells you in order to become a better citizen, and take it seriously, if you really practice it, then you go into a state of nothingness that, in the end, as an ontological experience, may seem to many of us already as something semi-spiritual. Please observe: It is not nothingness like in the eastern ways, like in buddhism, for example, but genuine European-Western nothingness. Western nothingness, where, for the first time, you really know that you don't know anything, where you just see everything as a construct and therefore, to a certain extend, as an illusion – even yourself.
But, secretely in their hearts, some practicing “Postmodernists”, especially those, who took all this seriously and underwent the process of deconstruction with their whole body, soul and spirit, began to wonder: Could there be some relation between this “negative” western nothingness of postmodernity and the “positive” eastern nothingness, like in Buddhism, for example? Could there be some relation – maybe not looking towards the past, but looking into the future? Even if they are methodologically very different and have completely different cultural backgrounds and histories, both experiences of “nothingness” seem to lead, at least at the beginning and to a certain extend, to similar experiences in making the first steps beyond the normal consciousness.
This is the reason why, if certain contemporary Indian thinkers, for example, look at our postmodern philosophy and culture today from the point of view of their traditions, they usually would say: “What this postmodern culture tries unconsciously to realize with deconstruction is to break through the veil of the Maya. It tries to destroy the illusion of the world and of the normal I. That is the avant-garde of this culture, but this avant-garde is deeply ambivalent. It tries to destroy all illusions; but it does it unconsciously. It does not know what it does. And therefore it knows not how to proceed after coming near the breakthrough.”
If Indian thinkers say that, they seem, from my point of view, to catch something very important, something deeply, deeply at work in the culture of the European-Western world. Positively speaking, it means: We are in the process of coming near a breakthrough that could take us beyond our normal ego, our illusionary self. But it means also: We are just at the point where we have recognized that nothing is, what is seems - but, at the same time, we have nothing essential left in our hands to build on a step further.