Vedanta, Metamodernism, and the Future of Western Spirituality

Many students of the Western humanities are familiar with modernism and its historical response, postmodernism. But what comes after postmodernism? Some cultural theorists have proposed a synthesis of modernism and postmodernism that includes both but simultaneously transcends them. This transcendental-synthetic project is called metamodernism. In this essay, I will argue that the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta in the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda is the rational meta-philosophy needed to underpin the logical developments of metamodernism as a spiritual solution to the nihilism and cynicism of the Western materialistic worldview.

This statement needs a lot of unpacking, so let me start with metamodernism.

One cannot understand postmodernism without understanding what it is a response to: modernism. Simplifying quite a bit, modernism is a worldview developed in the West, kicked off by thinkers like Rene Descartes, and culminating in a Grand Narrative that positions the Classical, Christian, Western, Scientific, Materialistic worldview as the pinnacle of human achievement and the grand, objective truth by which all other worldviews are measured and evaluated.

According to the Grand Narrative of modernism, the worldview culminating from Western logico-empiricism and Christian imperialism is the ultimate epistemology by which to judge all other epistemologies, and the metaphysics derived from Western science is the ultimate ontology by which all other ontologies are judged as merely superstitious or mythological.

This Modernity project was going great until the 20th century when many thinkers began questioning the validity of the Modern narrative and indeed, questioning the validity of all Grand Narratives.

Postmodernism is essentially a project of deconstruction, showing that the purported “objectivity” of the Modern worldview of the West is chock full of subjectivity and contextualism, situated firmly within the particular-local biases of Eurocentrism, white supremacy, imperialism, patriarchy, and colonialism.

In the wake of postmodernism, the intellectual elite became skeptical of not just the Western Grand Narrative but all Grand Narratives, which led to a kind of deconstructive cynicism that became anti-foundationalism, anti-realist and skeptical about any attempt to find objectivity or ultimate truth in any narrative.

This cynicism made it impossible to take religion and spirituality sincerely, or indeed, to take anything seriously, as all epistemology and ontology collapsed into an endless hall of mirrors without a foundation.

According to metamodern theorists, this attitude of postmodernism seeped into popular culture and led to a pervasive sense of nihilism, irony, and a sense that everything bottoms out in contingency and mere pragmatism. In turn, this nihilism has led to an enormous crisis in the West which theorists call the “Crisis of Meaning.”

With Grand Modern narratives of traditional religion collapsing, and the scientific worldview entailing an austere ontology of dead, insentient matter with no room for consciousness or any sense of the sacred, the only sense of meaning left in the world is that of money, career, consumerism, entertainment, sensory pleasure, and aesthetics.

But as a culture, the crisis of meaning goes hand in hand with the environmental crisis and the crisis of capitalism and the prevailing postmodern ethos seems incapable of providing a deeper sense of meaning capable of generating motivation and purpose to tackle these crises.

Naturally, people living in such a nihilistic society still feel called to do good and feel a strong affinity to solidarity networks, mutual aid, and communitarianism.

But neither the Scientific Worldview or postmodernism have the theoretical resources to sufficiently ground the ontological foundations of why community is sacred. Western Science has no room for ontological mysteries like “meaning” or “value.” These things cannot be operationalized and measured, and by the logic of the West, what cannot be measured with a measuring device does not “really” exist but is a mere social “construction.”

As far as science is concerned, we are meat machines made of insentient matter propagating our genetic material and our love for others is just an evolutionary survival strategy.

And the postmodern project is too cynical about value, purpose, and meaning to make room for an attitude of sincerity for its intellectual prerogative is deconstructive and localizing in nature, incapable of universalizing a love for all living beings grounded in an ethics of ontological truth.

Ethics becomes just a rational calculation of utility maximization but when asked why we should ultimately care about happiness, we are simply given the answer, “well, it makes evolutionary sense.”

Enter the metamodern theorist. Metamodernism is meant to synthesize the genuine sincerity of grand narratives in Modernism and the justifiable deconstructive skepticism of postmodernism into a greater whole that includes both but importantly goes beyond them.

The idea is to find a sense of Grand Narrative and sincerity that overcomes the cynicism and nihilism of postmodernism without collapsing into Western Modernism’s reifying and imperialistic tendencies.

The goal is to find meaning and purpose in a nihilistic world, keep our insights from the methodologies of science, maintain skepticism of colonial Eurocentrism, and simultaneously construct a Grand Narrative capable of generating a new attitude of sincerity capable of overcoming cynicism.

It is a tall order. But I believe it is important. And I think the general thrust of metamodernism is behind the surging popularity of the “spiritual but not religious” movement in the West.

We want to reject the Modernity of traditional religion while retaining the sincerity of spirituality that postmodernism is incapable of providing.

Enter Vedanta.

I won’t go into details in this essay (see this post) but essentially Vedanta is the spiritual philosophy of the Upanishads, the philosophical superstructure of the Hindu Vedic Scriptures.

In a nutshell, the Vedanta in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition says the Self is potentially divine, that we all have a spark of divinity inside of us and the true goal of religion and spirituality is to manifest this divinity through one or more of the following yogas:

  • Karma Yoga (service to all living beings by seeing all living beings as divine)
  • Bhakti Yoga (devotion to God through love, worship, ritual, symbolism, culture, etc.; seeing divinity in the whole manifest, pluralistic universe)
  • Raja Yoga (psychic control, meditation, Self-realization; manifesting our inner divinity through self-control by means of meditation)
  • Jhana Yoga (philosophical and intellectual reasoning; manifesting our inner divinity through reason by means philosophical reflection on the Ultimate principles of Reality)

Vedanta says:

  • The Ultimate Reality is Pure Consciousness, Pure Being, Absolute and Eternal. Traditionally this Ultimate Reality is called Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, or Brahman
  • Your True Self (Atman) is Perfectly Divine
  • Your True Self is identical to Brahman
  • Brahman is pure Oneness, and since your Inner Self is identical with Brahman, so too your True Self is One with everything and everything is One with your True Self
  • All of manifest reality is a divine manifestation of Brahman, just as waves are manifestations of a unitary ocean
  • Salvation, liberation, or enlightenment is possible by overcoming ignorance of our True Nature, which is Brahman, and manifesting our inner divinity through Self-Realization, which is the same as God-realization

That’s a quick, summary statement of Vedanta. Obviously there are many complexities and thousands of years of tradition, spiritual practice, and philosophical argument, but in summary Vedanta can be stated simply.

Crucially, in the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition Vedanta is not understood as “just another religious sect” but rather a “non-sectarian sect” which is more akin to a philosophical superstructure that provides the logical foundation for all religions.

In other words, Vedanta is not necessarily a religion but a rational philosophical system that makes religion possible.

The goal is not to replace religion but to provide a rational basis for religion, to make it possible for us to sincerely believe religion is true in the wake of postmodern cynicism. As Swami Medhananda says, Vedanta is a kind of “meta-spirituality” or “meta-religion” that is compatible with all religions.

And in this respect, as a “meta-spirituality,” I believe Vedanta is the perfect Grand Narrative for the metamodern project of making it possible to be sincerely spiritual in a world of scientific nihilism and postmodern cynicism about Grand Narratives.

It has all the intellectual rigors of modern philosophical argumentation and all the openness of postmodern contextualism without collapsing into merely localized sectarianism or dogmatic modernity masquerading as “objectivity” that destroys the fundamental importance of subjective consciousness in giving us purpose and meaning.

The grandeur of Vedanta’s philosophical concept of the Absolute provides the necessary transcendental ground upon which we build a foundation of meaning and purpose in the materialistic and nihilistic West.

I want to end this essay with a quote from Vivekananda that I feel is quite prophetic:

“The salvation of Europe depends on a rationalistic religion, and Advaita — the non-duality, the Oneness, the idea of the Impersonal God — is the only religion that can have any hold on any intellectual people.”

Related Links

Advaita Vedanta, Thomas Merton, and the Future of Religion

Advaita Vedanta: the One and the Many

Advaita and Christianity: Towards a Cosmopolitan Spirituality

Advaita Vedanta and Christianity: the Kingdom of God is Within

Leave a Reply