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Infinite Commodities and the Spiritual Life

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In his 1869 book Culture and Anarchythe British cultural critic and poet Matthew Arnold expressed his fear that his contemporary Capitalist society that was — on the positive side — capable of creating “infinite commodities” was also creating — in the minus column — “incomplete and mutilated” human beings. “Stunted and enfeebled,” as Matthew Arnold saw the situation.

Many thinkers and artists in the nineteenth century realized that the church was on the wane. Often, it was not the decline of public religion that was their concern but rather the decline in public art. The church had long been the repository for art in Europe, and the only place most people experienced art.

Where would the art reside when people stopped attending churches? How would people find art? How would artists share their work?

Were Europeans doomed to “incomplete and mutilated, stunted and enfeebled” existences as they drowned in “infinite commodities”? Isn’t the logic of Capitalism merely to create more stuff? In this new paradigm, how would people care for their souls?

What the cultural critics of the nineteenth century did not see coming was a nearly complete secularization of art in the form of inexpensive copies of visual art, inexpensive editions of books, ubiquitous museums and concert halls, and then the explosion of electronic media that only keeps exploding in our own time.

Art no longer exists as a captive to the churches. But, interestingly enough, that “thing” that we somehow know we should not sell for the sake of infinite commodities . . . that soul, spirit, essence, center . . . that is still considered in the realm of religion and spirituality.

All these years later.

The nineteenth century artists and critics asked: What is missing in our Capitalist, secular age? They answered: the poetry of life . . . the deeper meanings.

Where would the poetry of life be found if not in churches?

The ways to avoid being “incomplete and mutilated, stunted and enfeebled” are nowadays classified under the heading “spiritual,” and, all these year later, we have those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

That didn’t come from nowhere. It is a folk answer to the either/or thinking of both religion and science. As I see it, “spiritual but not religious” is a shot at a both/and expression of openness to both the scientific and the mystical. The spiritual but not religious ask: Why exclude? Why be a hater?

The dialectic itself is what is being mistrusted — the spiritual but not religious ask , why compare and contrast? “Spiritual but not religious” looks at both the Nobel Laureate scientist and the Pope in Rome and says to both, “you’re not the boss of me.”

This is what Protestants have been doing for a long time now. The logic of Protestantism is schism and splintering. Because the doubt built into the idea of Protestantism is a destructive acid that eats though every idea eventually.

Some cultural critics are even wondering if the old idea of a true self may be one of the targets of the spiritual but not religious ethos, as many people are discovering in our information-saturated reality “fluid identity narratives” that change all the time.

In this new reality, an authority will in one instance be a scientist, in another instance, perhaps a shaman. Sure, these are different categories of expertise. Yet, in more and more contemporary minds, one does not preclude the other.

This acceptance of categories while dismissing the relevance of categories appears to me to be the future of what we call “the spiritual.” It is a cultural force born out of the continuing search for deeper meaning that for many people religion no longer provides. The Victorians saw it coming. Now, it’s here. But in a much different way than the Victorians feared.

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