This post begins a new chapter, one of pulling together various strands into a unified whole. Specifically, my background in both Religious Studies and in Anthropology applied to the question – the burning question – of what would the best thing be to do in this new era – both of the “Anthropocene” and in Trump’s domination of this moment. While I am loathed to give 45 the “credit” of dominating this moment, since domination is clearly something to which he would like to become addicted, nevertheless his scandals and his policies are making an undeniable and unwanted impact on the issues of our day, issues that were and are existentially pressing in their own right. It is no exaggeration to state that between the antagonism to action on the climate, the determination to wring the last drop of “resources” from a plundered and poisoned landscape, greenlighting corporations whose products are lethal – and the threat of nuclear war, we teeter on the brink of having let annihilation become our fate.
You might question, with some justification, why the explorations of a spiritual anthropology would be at all germane at a time like this. The answer lies in the understandings such explorations might yield in helping us to navigate the dangerous waters in which we now swim. To use another trop, we have been at these cross roads before, all of them, but never at the edge of a final cliff. We are beset by climate change, by ecological collapse, by economic collapse, by social chaos: the four horsemen of the apocalypse (famine, pestilence, plague and war) – and they seem to have brought an army with them. By will or luck we survived to get this far. Perhaps in understanding how we got into those previous disasters and what helped a few or many walk out of them, we can glean some idea of how to survive now.
Many will seek answers in a different economics, and with this I concur: capitalism is ravaging the world. Many would seek answers in changing the political system – say to proportional representation, so that fake majorities cannot commandeer 100 percent of legislative power. I would vote for that. Some will say we must return to a robust public and civic education so that the appalling ignorance of voters will not condemn democracy to a failed experiment. Some will say that the development of our economy, in its historic trajectory had consequences that were not (entirely) intended: the disintegration of our communities and thus a severely diminished capacity to resist the political, economic and ecological forces that precipitated the calamities we now face. And that would also be true.
But some would ask, why do people go for greed and power, in the first place? What compels some people to engage in dominance behaviours to a pathological and sociopathic degree. What has severed them from fundamental values of compassion and justice – and the ability to extend those beyond immediate kith and kin. Where are the checks and balances that would prevent such extremism, at once both tragically narrow and brazenly overreaching, at the level of an individual and at the level of a society, such that the enabling a dictator is both an historic and a present spectacle portending civilizational collapse, this time, worldwide.
Some would answer that the information we seek lies in the realms of both individual psychology and in social psychology, and in the feedback loops between those registers.
Yet more than one psychologist has said that there is a “beyond” to psychology which might best be described as “spiritual”. We are a species with a faculty for imagination that washes our ability to reason in ways that lead to the sublime, for good or for ill. The anthropologist’s span, in both time and space, and religious studies attention to meaning embodiment can help situate our current dilemma in the context of our cultural histories and their spiritual predicates. The search begins.