No Map to the Post-Enlightenment

February 22, 2021 at 9:09 am (By Amba) (, )

A friend who lives in Israel (though US-born) wrote to me worried about how the ultra-Orthodox may be taking over Israel, even as some Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics here seem to be angling to turn the US into a theocracy. I wrote back to him that they seem to be “out to repeal the Enlightenment.” He asked if I had any thoughts about how to counter that. These were the thoughts that came up in response to that question. Some of them surprised me.

I don’t have any very good ideas about what to do about the fundies of all stripes. I suspect we’re at a fork in our evolution where the ability to tolerate uncertainty is the next step, and we may not take it. We’re a very fearful animal, and we’ve learned just enough to begin to realize how tiny we are, how little we really understand, and how little control we have carved out, though it is much more than we’ve ever had before (to our own detriment as well as benefit). The solution, for a sizable chunk of the human population, is to just junk the whole enterprise and go back to absolute authorities and simple stories. The solution for another chunk is to put a quasi-religious faith in science and scientists—in both cases, driven by the longing for authority to keep us safe. The idea that we have to take our fate into our own hands at precisely the moment when we realize we don’t know shit is pretty overwhelming, but it’s the next step and if we refuse it, as we well may, we won’t survive. I guess it’s Existentialism as well as the Enlightenment, except the Existentialists thought life and the universe were meaningless. It’s probably saturated with meaning and potential meaning, and we have allies, one of whom you would call God—not an authority but the guarantor that this isn’t Hell and that it can be navigated and is brimming with promise, not just pain. The part of us that is made in this Great Spirit’s or Holy Ghost’s image is intuition. Although intuition may be more easily fooled by our hopes and fears than reason (or maybe not—reason can easily be pressed into service as rationalization), it’s also a direct way of knowing the score without knowing how you know. Trust is involved, and not the trust of a child who needs the illusion of being safe.

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