In Milan Kundera, I introduced his concept of subjective “lightness of Being,” citing his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I read that book probably 35 years ago, but it sprang to mind instantly upon reading an article by R.R. Reno. He is the editor-in-chief of First Things magazine, and his article published there in May, 2017 was Return of the Strong Gods.
There is much to glean from the article, so I’m not really trying to summarize it here. I do want to extract the part I think most significant. The article is prophetic for giving us a history and an extrapolated future for the consequences of disenchantment of the world. He cites Max Weber and Charles Taylor for their observations on the consequences of the loss of belief in supernatural reality, in favor of a rigid empiricism which implies a determinism to human experience. Nothing is significant to us because we have no agency – our next thought and our next action is purely the result of all the movements of matter by natural forces, from the beginning to this moment. What we do and what we think just doesn’t matter. There is no meaning to life.
The idea that there are forces at work beyond the clockworks of our being are described by Reno as the “strong gods,” which could include religious influence, in ages past, but more recently, well within the period of disenchantment since the Enlightenment, it means strong-arm ideologies and political regimes. Fascism is such a “strong god.” Reno links the rise of neo-fascists to the vacuum created by disenchantment.
Reno writes of the disenchanting imperative as being strongly manifested in the cultural shift of the 1960’s, in which we saw truth dethroned from its rightful place in the exercise of reason, and given a new and malleable countenance. Reno wisely goes on, however, to link those cultural shifts to the events of 1989, which we are pleased to consider as the end of communism. Communism was a “strong god,” too. When it seemed to expire, we became encouraged to think that history was impelling us away from authoritarian ways of thinking, and toward those which encourage personal freedom.
Reno employs a catchphrase: “weakening of Being,” borrowing it from philosopher Gianni Vattimo, to describe a sense in which our ontological self-perception shifts from substance to event. It is thought by some, like Vattimo, to be a positive move, one in which we are unburdening ourselves of unnecessary weight, and ushering in tolerance, peace, freedom; a “moderate and generous” approach to life.
Well what’s wrong with this lightness of Being? Tolerance, peace, freedom, generosity – these are all good trends, right? Those who would say “yes,” typically political liberals, would say this is a historical liberating trend which should be encouraged. But, as Reno points out, while this works well with the global elite,
ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasingly global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.
Public leaders who stand for something strong, like nationalism (think Trump and Brexit) or traditional morality or religious freedom of expression are described as authoritarian, and we’re constantly warned of the potential for the return of fascism. Reno describes this as a sign of how deeply invested cultural elites are in the program of disenchantment. We’re witnessing a redoubling of the drive to disenchantment designed to discredit growing populism, and a redoubling of populist urges to counter the unbearable lightness of being that is the product of disenchantment.
Reno encourages religious people to remain committed to the humanizing power of divine authority. “The imperative of weakening has made many thing fluid and uncertain, leaving us with little that is solid and trustworthy.” Borrowing from Russell Hittinger, he reminds of us three great covenants that “anchor life and provide us with a place to stand;” that is, that help us to avoid the unbearable lightness of being that cultural elites wish to impose upon us: marriage, civic engagement, and faith.
As much as we may be put off by Trumpian coarseness in reaction to political correctness, or alarmed by a resurgence of proto-fascists, we should be conscious that these trends did not come about in a vacuum. There is something worth loving and supporting. Our lives do have meaning. And we are social creatures, we cannot each of us burrow into our little enclaves of like-mindedness. The lightness of Being is indeed unbearable, and it is the result of the intentional disenchantment of the world. The disenchantment imperative must be resisted.