The Great Muddle: Four Demotivating Replies (II)

In these posts, I explore what I’m calling the Great Muddle with the aim of making more sense of what it is and of what it means for us.

Setting the Stage for the Great Muddle

In the last post, I argued that we’re living in Unsettled Time, which can be understood as a moment in history when our current way of life is (or ways of life are) passing out of existence and when no viable, new way of life is yet on the scene. When it is seen for what it is, Unsettled Time thereby gives rise to an enigma. Our enigma then is: how shall we live?

Understanding the Great Muddle

The Great Muddle represents our woefully inadequate response to the enormity of the enigma. I think that woefully inadequate response can be outlined in terms of four claims:

1.) There is the arising of a certain collective historical consciousness: little by little, individual persons are able to see that the enigma is not a first-personal question only (“how shall live?”) but a third-person question (“how shall we live?”)

2.) No reasonable, compelling answer concerning how we shall live has yet come forth.

3.) The common answers come almost as shocks in terms of their underwhelmingness.

4.) There’s a sense of “in the meantime” just muddling through as best (or inaptly, that is) as one can. People are just getting by, scraping by, treading water, keeping their heads above water, etc.

Four Common, Demotivating Replies

I want to look a bit further at the third claim above, especially as it concerns the underwhelming way that these replies demotivate people. With each and all, one is inclined to ask, “Is this the best we’ve got? Are these the only (or best) games in town?”

1.) Secularism. The most compelling and perhaps succinctest way of putting secularism’s answer to the question concerning how we shall all live is to say that we should seek, as best we can, to improve ordinary human lives while making the world a better place. What could be said to be demotivating is the flatness puzzle: is there anything more than, other than, or beyond the perpetual search to improve, say, the housing conditions of individuals living in a particular neighborhood? That secular project may prove, as it has sometimes proven, futile or even its success may sound a deeply unfulfilling existential note. As the author if Ecclesiastes asks, Is there anything above the sun?

2.) Theism. If the question is, “How shall we all live during Unsettled Time?,” the answer could be, “We shall live in such a way that our wills accord with divine will.” What is demotivating is, at least in one respect, the sense in which the institutions in which such answers are given are rarely in step with the actual lives of human beings today. For many in the West living in secularity, the Abrahamic faiths have not learned how to meet people where they are. Part of this speaks to (e.g.) Christianity’s inability to cultivate in its lay practitioners a daily practice that connects them with the rest of their lives. For them, it’s hard to fathom how, as created beings, they can have, and live out, a coherent vision of well-led lives.

3.) Bourgeois Life. Meanwhile, always meanwhile, the bourgeoisie goes on with business as usual, affirming the affections of family life and the supreme, excessive value of work. Strikingly, the bourgeois person remains blind either to the unsettled nature of our time or to the enigma that has been almost “coercively” pressed upon us. Remaining pre-reflective, he doesn’t grasp the way in which the enigma is also addressed to him. He goes on with working long hours, believing that “You’ve just got to work” or “You should love working” while fetishizing family life as the only place where our affections and higher pleasures dwell.

4.) Spirituality. Spirituality (in the stipulative sense I will use the term here) involves rejecting secularism for its flatness, theism due to its failure to speak to their hearts, and the bourgeois life on account of its blindness. Yet soon the well runneth dry. Regarding the question of how we shall live, spirituality says, “Don’t live conventionally, as the bourgeoisie do, while connecting to some higher, all-pervasive source of energy, life, and vitality.” While the intuition that secularism, theism, and the bourgeois life may be inadequate is correct, the answer is about as muddy as could be.

As we recognize the inadequacy of these four replies, we feel that, as we go along with our daily lives, how much we are in a muddle, a great one, and how “lethargy” (accumulative demotivation) settles in. Fighting that sense of lethargy, resisting it, refusing to give in to its comforting futility, we must again ask without knowing the answer: “How can the enigma of Unsettled Time be vitally, energetically answered?”