Normal Man

Here is some imagery suggested by Roberto Calasso in his book The Unnamable Present. He speaks of secularists, modern people who oppose religion in public but more importantly feel for themselves no religious orientation. The type of person is not new, Calasso says, but has always existed as a “perpetual shadow” to another type of person, one who

“always believes there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in the world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.”

This is a quote of sociologist Mircea Eliade, and it seems as good a terse summary of religious sensibility as I have read.

This is a helpful image: those with a religious orientation at the center of historical developments, but with a background buzz, or “shadow” of those with irreligious sentiment. But that broad-brush reality about history changed, in modern times; perhaps coinciding with the post-Enlightenment era. Calasso believes that in recent centuries,

“the shadow has been transformed into normal man, who finds himself a solitary, hapless protagonist at the center of the stage.”

Reading this description by Calasso almost brings me to tears. It captures in a sentence the loneliness of modern people without God. They are trapped between competing impulses for significance, which leads to God, and insignificance, which seems to lead to freedom but trails off into pointlessness.  They repudiate God but eventually arrive at a vague sense that there is then no point to living, if they don’t cultivate a blinkered existentialist conviction that there is only Now.  They reject religion as mindless groupthink, but adopt other collectivisms in its place, as with radical political activism, or racialist solidarity-seeking, or campaigns to change human nature to advance some utopian vision. They might turn to intoxication to obscure the hard reality of their condition. They may lose themselves in contrived complexities of mind: academic or vocational hyper-specialization, for examples. They may pursue substitutes for perceiving themselves alone in cosmic space by relentless pursuit of celebrity, or prestige, or by wide social acceptance, or by idolizing relationships to family or co-workers or even mankind in the abstract. More likely, a combination of these things.

We have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of coping mechanisms, but apart from pursuit of God, they’re all just coping mechanisms. What an unhappy existence: a universe comprised only of unbounded Me.

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