Postmodern Spirituality (Robert Miller)

  (06 December 08)

Postmodern Spirituality



By Dr Robert Miller of RMIT University.



Synopsis of the basic idea

Postmodern spirituality is an aesthetic spirituality. It’s an approach where existential beauty and the kind of appreciation and free delight provided by our sense and experience of beauty is the key to our philosophical wellbeing eudemonia our self-empowerment or inner liberation. This aesthetic eudemonia may be called re-enchantment these days. It includes moods of aesthetic appreciation, peace of mind, existential joy, holistic love, and a kind of untroubled compassion.

The existential beauty comes in two different but linked forms:

1.  Free beauty (term borrowed from Kant[1]): this is best appreciated in and from meditative stillness and silence the emptying out of the temporal ego-mind hence it is a.k.a. emptiness a.k.a. sunyata in Buddhism[2]a.k.a. mu in Zen[3]. It is similar to the ancient philosophical epoche [4] ie, practice of a suspense of judgement a state of non-thought and non-clinging to thought. A pure contemplation. It best arises from deconstructing all theory and cutting through all assumptions, bringing thought to a standstill this resulting in a letting go (emptying out) of our so-called knowledge and belief - the conventional world of opinions. So it’s a state of letting go and letting be of what is a.k.a. gelassenheit in Meister Eckhart.[5] It results in a non-dualistic non-ontological awareness meaning it collapses our typical everyday divisive ontological dualism (our us-versus-them, self-versus-world, man-versus-god, freedom-versus-fate, mind-set or mentality). Its a transcending of our usual way of conceptualising what is, in other words, and so is a pure openness and receptivity to is-ness as such outside words, beyond logocentrism or outside logos or outside the scriptures - as they say in Zen.[6] It is the nothing outside the text (to adapt Derrida[7]). In this state a sense of free existential beauty arises spontaneously (but one must try it for oneself to really find out because it is experiential, not intellectual). In this way, free existential beauty may be accessed everywhere and in anything. You don’t need to go anywhere special to do it either a cave, a temple, a retreat, etc for you can do it wherever you are. The temple of free beauty is always already right where you stand: just con-template.

2. Interdependent beauty (modifying dependent beauty from Kant[8]): this is linked to the conceptualisation of reality and so turns on what our preferred conceptualisation is. If theory self-deconstructs (autodestructs) then thought is brought to a standstill in emptiness. Later, coming out of this emptiness, we can reconstruct as we aesthetically prefer. So-called postmodern guru, Jean Baudrillard, refers to this as a kind of seduction. He writes, To seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion.[9] We can seduce ourselves to our aesthetic preference with regard to realitythat is to say we play a preferred game with our view of it. Hence, this is a very postmodern ludic and ironic approach to metaphysics as an aesthetic game-preference a.k.a. pataphysics which Baudrillard defines as a science of imaginary solutions.[10] Actually, more precisely, we cant prove if our conceptualisation is illusion or truth, a true theory or merely fiction: it remains ambiguous between the two. And so we may follow Baudrillard and call it theory-fiction.[11] Anyway, the upshot is that we are now self-empowered to have a theory-fiction of aesthetic preference. For example, if we prefer existential beauty to be everywhere, we can play the aesthetic game of reconstituting reality as one and good and divine throughout paint a holistic picture of reality wherein there is ultimately no division no divisive ontological dualism applies. Every thing or event plays its crucial part in an overall beautiful and harmonious whole. In more familiar terms: life is a rich tapestry and everything is a necessary thread in it. As such, we can call every part interdependently beautiful, ie, beautiful in light of its interconnectedness with everything else in one good whole. Viewed this way, there is existential harmony a.k.a. wa in Zen.[12] So this is a maximally holistic and harmonious pataphysics. It could come in the form of a pataphysical pantheism, or better still, in the form of a pataphysical transcendental solipsism this being the vision that life is the ongoing creation of an absolute Self or a-temporal Spirit that we all are in our innermost selves (as distinct from being merely an isolated transitory ego in the apparent world of space-time and so-called matter). Choosing to identify more with this Self we can more easily let go of our identification with the temporal ego and thereby let go of our various egocentric hang-ups too. In this way we begin to reduce maybe even eliminate a load of unnecessary suffering and begin to delight in interdependent beauty everywhere. In Zen terms: wa is restored in and from mu. We learn to drink tea from an empty cup.[13]

The Practice Of Beauty. The daily spiritual practice in this approach to spirituality or philosophical eudemonia, if you preferis to train oneself to be well-attuned to the existential beauty of reality every day, as often as possible, by way of both: a) the practice of silent emptiness (in moments of the non-conceptualisation of reality) and b) the practice of a pataphysics of transcendental solipsism (in moments of the reconstitution of reality). We can engage in an ongoing dynamic between the two between meditative silence and pataphysical communication and so we are either involved in passively accessing free beauty or else we are involved in actively creating interdependent beauty. In this way of life, existential beauty is everywhere, at any time, and there is much appreciation and free delight in this comic spirit too[14] (because communication becomes ludic-ironic). Its bound to be beneficial because it replaces divisive dualism with a unifying harmony. We are never out of wa for long. And wa is here and now not elsewhere or next week, next lifetime, etc.

For ten years I was in turmoil,

Seething and angry, but now my time has come!

The crow caws, a sage emerges from the filth:

And in the sunlight of Chao-yang, a jade beauty sings.

East & West. This aesthetic spirituality can be approached either in a Western fashion via postmodernism with the help of input from someone like Meister Eckhart or Eckhart Tolle[16]or in a more Eastern way with input from Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta; or better still, by using input from both East and West a synthesis. After all, Zen is well-known for stressing the emptiness mu while Vedanta is well-known for stressing the Self as Cosmic Player and Dreamer of the whole world of interconnected appearances (a.k.a. Maya): the overall existential harmony - wa.[17] They go together well in an interplay between emptiness (non-conceptualisation) and absolute unity (re-conceptualisation). But, of course, I am giving this Zen-Vedanta flavoured spirituality a Western-postmodern twist by, a) placing the emphasis on beauty rather than truth, and b) by advancing aesthetic creativity philosophy as an art form, in effect as the way forward. With this approach we can rescue spirituality from religion - that is, we can make spirituality into a set of aesthetic preferences a preferred creative game rather than basing it on old-style traditional religion, or set metaphysical creeds or truths or faiths, or pre-given structures, or handed-down dogmas, or established institutions, or authoritarian commandments, or supposedly objective moral laws.

To clarify further perhaps a little more detail

What is postmodernism anyway? This movement in philosophy may be said to have begun around 1968 approximately running up to the present time (with it being hard to see how anything could come after it). It represents a particularly sceptical turn in rational thinking, one characterised by an increasing relativism and nihilism wherein all so-called critical theory eventually self-deconstructs or autodestructs.[18] It goes up in smoke. It stymies itself. In effect, theory and thought itself is brought to a standstill. This results because of certain reflexivity problems inherent in the process of theorising deeply and warily about truth and reality.[19]

For instance, it can be noted that the modern rationalism associated with the so-called Age Of The Enlightenment likes to distinguish itself from pre-modern civilisations of religious faith and fanaticism by proclaiming that nothing henceforth shall be accepted as truth or knowledge unless it can be rationally proven in some way that is, either by rationally intuitive, self-evidential, deductive reasoning, or by inductive empirical reasoning based on an accumulation of past experiences or usually a mix of both. The trouble is, even the supposedly self-evidential can be doubted and questioned from an alternative standpoint, and what was seen as self-evidential at one time, or in one cultural context, may seem false at another time, or in another cultural context. But all truth-centred belief-systems in the world must start from some kind of first premises, something held to be self-evident, that forms the basic rules of the game from then on. If one accepts these basic rules of play, one can participate in the game, ie, communicate and share understandings with others who play in the same game. The game involves certain basic rules about what will count as good evidence, what will count as a good test case, what will count as relevant, what will count as valuable, what will count as admissible, and so on and so forth and therefore what will count as the truth of reality. But if the games vary in their basic rules, there is no rule to establish which basic rules are the right rules to base a game on in the first place. Thus, there is actually no rule by which it can be proved that we must seek knowledge or truth through modern science or empiricism that is, there is no rule by which it can be proved that the rule of science or empiricism is the correct or valid rule to live or play by. The world might be an empirical illusion or deception, after all as some cultures have thought. Worse still for rationalism as a whole: there is no rule by which one can prove that reason itself is the right basic rule or method.  Certainly one cannot appeal to rational reasons to try and establish this, as that would be merely arguing in a circle and begging the question, ie, assuming what you set out to prove, viz, that reason is the best rule or method to use. In short, rationalism in general cannot prove itself valid (non-deceived, etc) without circularity.[20] In that case, nothing is proved. In that case, there can be no proven knowledge. In that case, truth as such now appears outmoded.

Critical theory in postmodern times has reached this kind of devastating awareness. And so it is common to hear it said nowadays that everything is relative, or that we can know nothing, or that truth is dead.[21] However, if it is still being proclaimed as true that everything is relative, or that truth is dead, etc., then one has not yet reached the logical terminus of this critical process which indeed is the case with a good deal of writing that nevertheless still gets loosely called postmodern. For a further step is possible due to reflexivity problems that is, if everything is merely relative then the statement that everything is merely relative is itself merely relative; or if there is no knowledge then we cannot know there is no knowledge; or if truth is dead then we cannot say it is true that truth is dead. And so on. Because of these reflexivity problems it seems now that nothing can be said at least if it is intended to be said as the truth. For this reason, not only empiricism and rationalism, but also critical theory itself, goes up in smoke.[22] That is, all philosophy or theorising that attempts to represent seriously and non-ironically the real truth of reality, goes up in smoke. Things get very smoky all that was solid melts into the air, etc.

Western thought has reached emptiness in extreme postmodernism. And that is why the critical turn is often supplanted with an aesthetic turn. If nothing can be seriously entertained any more as the truth about reality, then everything is left to turn on our aesthetic preferences our personal tastes, which are not a matter of universal rational or objective truth at all, but of likes and dislikes to play in this or that game just as some people like to play soccer and others like to play tiddly-winks. Now, calling it all a matter of playing games may sound a little cynical at first. And some folk will no doubt view this negatively because they are in the habit of seeking the truth of things. They think in truth-centred terms and hold on to truth as their highest ideal and this, of course, includes our modern rationalists, scientific empiricists, atheists, and critical theorists too not just old-fashioned religious folk or New Age types. So, if one then shows these people that the very idea of truth has been debunked, naturally enough they get angry and dismayed, and they think postmodernism is negative and cynical and a big bad depressing thing. It’s a bit like when someone first persuades an adolescent who has hitherto been naively religious that God is dead well, naturally the person may initially regard that as very cynical, negative, and depressing. It goes against what one is used to, after all what one is attached to, what one thinks one must have to be happy or fulfilled such as a firm truth or conviction in something supposedly real and true and reliable, something really out there a firm structure, a centre that holds.

People seem conditioned to believe in structures: they want structure in their lives and here we are taking it away from them! No structure? oh dear, that seems a wonderful recipe for angst. Or anarchy. Well, properly speaking, it is anarchy in the etymological sense of the word anyway because there is no arche, ie, no pre-set principle or rule on which to establish a true structure.  Extreme postmodernism is a pure anarchism.[23]

This may seem alarming to begin with. But what one gradually finds as one acclimatises to this is that you don’t actually need what you once thought you needed truth, objective structure, a given reality, a universal reason, a fixed moral law just as you may have discovered, at a certain time in your life, that you were able to get along fine without the God of your childhood, or your family house, or that old lover you once had who dumped you for someone else. Actually, a loss like this can either be lamented endlessly or it can be turned around to become a new source of freedom and creativity. It all depends what you do with it. Some people moan about postmodernism and constantly fight a rearguard action against it; others resign themselves to it as inescapable, but feel stuck and don’t know what to do with it; while some others accept it and move on, seeing that it provides an opportunity to deal with life by way of aesthetic preferences and pataphysical creation or seduction, if you like. For even if it be the case that good old-fashioned truth is dead, beauty and wonder is all the more alive and well.

Anyway for spirituality, for eudemonia, we don’t need truth we just need beauty far better, after all, in that it is emotional and experiential, not merely cold and intellectual not merely a head-game. It is not so much a matter of getting hold of the true theory or logos adopting a creed as it is of enhancing the quality of our experience[24]which can actually be quite sensual in a way, rooted as it is in our sensory awareness of things (which is not to say that matter exists, but the semblance does). This is even quite sexy, you know and ultimately a form of love too except, of course, it’s about caressing reality itself as the body of the beloved rather than just any one particular person(which is only one small part of reality after all). Indeed, to be exclusively focussed on loving any one person or thing (like Gollum with his ring) is to fall into a kind of idolatry or fetishism[25]like being hooked on the fishnet stocking rather than loving the whole of the lover. So the kind of love that develops hereby way of the practice of existential beauty is better called holistic love (not merely love) to avoid confusion. The everyday experience of free and interdependent beauty seems to be the key to developing this holistic love in a spontaneous way.

Naturally enough, when we find things beautiful we tend to love them, and when we love things we tend to feel compassionate toward them if they are seen to be suffering. So this is where a postmodern ethics can come in. Of course, this cannot be a theory-based ethics an ethics based on rulebooks or so-called objective moral truths since these are all now mortally questionable. Grasp the nettle: if God and truth are dead, moral law is dead with it (as Nietzsche saw). Let’s not prevaricate: no arche, no moral law. Outside logos, we are outside the law. We are outlaws. Again this may sound alarming at first but not so once you acclimatise. We find we don’t need the old morality and commandments. Where there is love, there is no need for law. Of course, as outlaws we are terrible: we don’t do as we ought, we just do as we please! And the moralistic can’t stand it!  But really, why is it a problem if we also happen to be peaceful, holistically loving, and compassionate? For then what it pleases us to do in any case may end up being pretty similar to what many moralistic folk (after checking their rulebook) would say we ought to be doing in such a case. In other words, what’s happening here is that moralism is being replaced by virtue ethics or more precisely, by an aesthetic ethics naturally arising from an aesthetic spirituality. The eudemonia does not only gives rise to being in good spirits to happiness it also gives rise to compassion and the usual ethical dispositions that go with it. The compassion is not piteous or angry, however a suffering over suffering but is untroubled. It is just a matter of helping if you can, as you please, for the sake of it not from anger or fear or for a reward, but from free affection and gratuitous goodwill overflowing into playful action.[26]

So let’s see drop the idea of there being an ontological separation between oneself and God the Dreamer, the Creator Self so you can say: I and God am one and drop the old moral law too, so you can say love is the real spirit of the law then, surprise surprise, we might actually find ourselves doing and saying what(arguably anyway)that dude Jesus himself was doing and saying. For on some reports he apparently did say things like, I and God am one (John 10.30) and found himself loving every neighbour as himself (see Matthew 22.34-40)which fulfilled the old law anyhow. Paradoxically then, maybe we get to spirituality when we get rid of religion, because religion is merely the dead outer form of spirituality, not the experiential spirit itself. Paradoxically also, if one really wants to be more like Jesus to imitate Christ, as they say which is presumably what the true Christian does or should want then to do that one will need to drop Christianity the religion. Interesting: to be a good Christian reject Christianity!

Moreover, unfortunately, most religions including Christianity, perhaps especially Christianity maintain the ontological dualism, the separation, the alienation of humanity from God and from Gods creation which is surely not the way to go if one wants to be more like the Jesus dude. For what results from this dualism? What results is that there arises a sense of divisive conflict and disharmony between oneself-as-is and God, between what is and what should be, between the so-called evil ones (eg, sinners and disbelievers, etc) and the so-called good ones (eg, saints and believers, etc)with the former being condemned and damned and self-righteously punished for their so-called evil. And thus hell is born in God’s creation. But it is not God who creates hell it is not the so-called evil ones who create it either it is the so-called saints and believers who create it. They create it in the mind just as they have created this whole dualistic metaphysical scenario of good and evil, saved and damned, those inside the fold and those outside the fold. Proceeding this way there can be no holistic inclusive love because there is always something excluded, that is hived off, that is the alienated other the accursed, the worthless, the imperfect and consequently the unlovable. And with this we will not be able to love every neighbour as ourselves, as Jesus apparently did or so they say. Because there will be some neighbours nay, a great many neighbours the vast majority of neighbours indeed whom we have created as sinful and unlovable and who will be condemned to hell and other such nice places for it. (It being only what they deserve, we say everything turning on desert in this dualistic scenario as if every man was a metaphysical island.) So very unlike Jesus it seems, the good shepherd, who was not content with leaving a single sheep out of the fold but went off to look for it to bring it in (Matthew 18.10-13)who was inclusive, in other words (arguably)we are to be exclusive and divisive, alienating ourselves from one another, from God our own Self, and from the whole of our Creation as it is.

But anyway some of that is perhaps a bit old hat by now and there is no need to be much agitated about it. For it doesn’t really matter what Jesus said or did or whether he even existed or not or for that matter, the Buddha, or Socrates, or anybody else in the past. For surely what counts is to start from ourselves in the present and what we are feeling and being and creating right here, right now, by our own lights something divisive and disenchanting perhaps? Or something holistically harmonious and beautiful? Well postmodernism allows us to see how the ball is in our court in regard to this. It is up to us how we play it. We can enhance the quality of our experience of the game all across the board if we like. Without religion, without institutions, without belonging to anything, without special experiences, without drugs, without going anywhere rather, setting aside all such prevarications and if only right here, right now, we can re-enchant the world.

I pray that we learn to restore wa from mu. Amen!


[1] Kant, Critique Of Judgement, trans., by J. C. Meredith, OUP., 1980, pg 72.

[2] Eg, see Frederick Streng, Emptiness: a study in religious meaning, Abingdon Press, N.Y., 1967.

[3] Eg, see William Johnston, The Inner Eye Of Love, Fount Paperbacks, 1978, pg 106, 109.

[4] Eg, see, Sextus Empiricus, Selections, ed. By Philip P. Hallie, Hackett Pubs., 1985, pg 14-19.

[5] Eg, see Mathew Fox, Breakthrough: Meister Eckharts Creation Spirituality in a new translation, the Introduction, Doubleday/Image, 1991.

[6] Eg, see Eric Chaline, The Book Of Zen, Quarto Pubs., 2003., pg 64.

[7] Eg, see Walter Truett Anderson, The Truth About The Truth, Tarcher/Putnam, 1995, pg 86ff.

[8] Kant, ibid., pg 72.

[9] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, St Martins Press, 1990, pg 69.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, Baudrillard, Jean, The Illusion Of The End, trans., Chris Turner, Standfor Uni. Press, California, 1994b, pg 18. Baudrillard, Jean, Fatal Strategies, trans., P.Beitchman & W.G.J. Niesluchowski, Semiotext(e), N.Y., 1990a, pg 85.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, Baudrillard Live: selected interviews, edited by Mike Gane, Routledge, London, 1993a., pg 202.

[12] Eg, see James Clavell, Shogun, Hodder & Stouhgton, 1976, pg 836.

[13] Clavell, ibid., pg 836.

[14] See M. Conrad Hyers, Zen And The Comic Spirit, Rider, 1980.

[15] Chaline, ibid., pg 54.

[16] See Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks, Hodder, 2003.

[17] See, eg, R.H.Blythe, Games Zen Masters Play, Mentor Books, 1976, pg 5.

[18] Baudrillards term, see eg, Jean Baudrillard, Baudrillard Live: selected interviews, edited by Mike Gane, Routledge, London, 1993a., pg 202.

[19] See Hilary Lawson, Reflexivity, Open Court Paperbacks, 1985.

[20] Descartes fell into this circle right at the beginning of modern philosophy. See John Cottingham, Rationalism, Paladin Books, 1984, pg 42ff.

[21] See eg, The Death Of Truth, Dennis McCallum, Betany House Pubs., 1996.

[22] See Lawson, ibid., pg 9-22.

[23] For perhaps the most consistent form of anarchism see Max Stirner, The Ego And His Own, Rebel Press, 1993.

[24] See Robert M. Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Corgi Books, 1976.

[25] See Allison Millbank, My Precious: Tolkeins Fetishized Ring, in The Lord Of The Rings And Philosophy, ed. G. Bassham & E. Bronson, Open Court, 2003.

[26] See, eg, Tarthang Tulku, Gesture Of Balance, Dharma Pubs., 1977, pg 42ff.


Hi, thanks for the beautiful and inspiring essay. I loved the way you combined Postmodernism (which I'd always dismissed as sterile) with Eastern mysticism in a way that had never occurred to me. On the rare occasions when I've caught a glimpse of the Buddhist "emptiness" or Vedanta "total unity" it has seemed as a gift rather than an intellectual process. Can you really think yourself into it? Also I'd like to discover more about how to create "Interdependent beauty" - is it a matter of consciousness and thought processes? For example if I have the thought that "I will neither cause nor accept sorrow" a way to create beauty? Or can it be more practical or mundane - like playing music or cooking? Does Eckhart Tolle speak about this?

Lots of other questions - if we cannot establish truth by logic and reason, does that mean it doesn't exist? If truth exists, is it outside ourselves or do we participate in it?

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