In the opening part of his essay, “Religion Challenged by Modern Thought,” which is included in Zen and Western Thought (1985), Masao Abe writes poignantly about what is lost in the secularization process:
I believe that this phenomenon [namely, secularization] has, in the last analysis, been caused by the fact that modern people have gradually become insensitive to their own hearts and souls, thus becoming spiritually impoverished. We modern people, I am afraid, are losing our ability to either rejoice or grieve with our whole hearts. Modern people are unable to cry or laugh in the depths of our being. (p. 232)
We must remember Jason’s betrayal of Medea as well as her overwhelming anger and pain; Job’s bereavement and his religious quest; the unspeakable yearning expressed when the second patriarch cuts off his arm and hands it to Bodhidharma, saying “I am not at peace!”; Romeo and Juliet’s profound, courtly, unrequited love; Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) in the presence of the incomprehensible God. How much must their souls have ached! What hunger must they have felt!
Contrast the grainy, rough literary sketches above with that of homo psychologicus. Today we are beholden to the therapeutic dispensation from which, almost daily, new idioms are born, then borne. “My mental health is suffering,” wrote one person a few days ago. And what is sought? Wellness and well-being. Physical health. Physical attractiveness. Esteem. And what is to be avoided? Any genuine relationship with hardship. And what is to be mollified? Any negative emotions. The therapeutic dispensation creates monotones, cools, dampens, drabs life into functional nihilism.
Today there are no quests, only various forms of “secular spirituality.” Secular spirituality ensures that there is no real religious quest; indeed that one cannot even get off the ground. It does so by intuiting that Flatland Secularism is too flat to bear yet by rejecting out of hand the possibility of transcendence. In this no man’s land, one is presented with various seductive fetishes:
—Insight Porn: some secular spiritualists get off on ‘having insights’ about themselves over and over again. As one insight fades, a novel one is grasped after.
—State Changes: others want to ‘have’ certain altered states, not realizing that all this is temporary and, in the end, futile. More grasping; more tanha.
—Experience Junkie-ism: others still need to ‘acquire’ or ‘have’ experiences. Bali today, Burning Man tomorrow, Wanderlust the week after. Then what?
—Growth Mindset: lastly, some speak nauseatingly of continuing to grow and grow and grow but without knowing why. Why grow? Evidently, to continue to grow. Why learn? To keep learning, apparently. In sum, for no genuine, telic reason.
Sensitivity in our hearts and souls begins with actually experiencing, rather than deflecting, minimizing, or avoiding, real human suffering. My own as well as others’. Suffering, like Johnny Cash’s singing voice, has a texture. Out of suffering my soul can expand into depth.
If we don’t develop this sensitivity of the kind that lets us rejoice and cry and laugh with our whole, and–yea too–our own, hearts, then, to be honest, I have no idea what human beings are here for. No idea. Biding our time–for what? For what? For what?