Dossier, Volume 14 #2

Spirituality of Life--and Its Shadow

Today's spiritual innovators turn away from the transcendent

by Charles Taylor

For someone brought up in one of the mainline religious traditions, today's spirituality seems wild and varied beyond the widest stretches of imagination. It appears to find its sources in all the religions of the earth--and also in depth psychology, folk traditions, therapies of healing and much else besides. Old-timers are tempted to shake their heads and declare that the younger generation has quite lost its way.

And yet, today's spirituality reflects deep-seated trends in the modern world. I would like to take a brief look at some of the ways in which some of these trends are expressed in current spiritual manifestations. First, it is important to distinguish between today's spiritual emphasis on enhancing life and the quest of older spiritualities to affirm something that matters beyond life. Second, today's spirituality expresses the modern spiritual temper that places the centre of gravity of goodness in ordinary living rather than in "higher" activities. Finally, modern spirituality has a darker side, manifested in doctrines of void and death, that seems to be an integral part of the overall picture.

"Life" and "Beyond Life"

Outbreaks of spiritual energy have always been surprising and have always gone against the grain. A glance over Catholic history shows this again and again. St. Anthony in the desert must have appeared a very strange figure indeed, as did St. Francis of Assisi. Ignatius Loyola and St. Teresa had trouble with the Inquisition.

But looking over this history, as well as that of other religious traditions, something specific about today does emerge. Earlier movements of devotion and religious life came from spiritual entrepreneurs who broke with their time and milieu in a direction that our late twentieth-century spirituality, especially in North America, does not necessarily share.

Historically, spiritual innovators were looking for a more exigent spirituality, a more total devotion. Often, as in the case of St. Teresa and her "discalced" order, this took the form of a movement towards greater austerity and denial; sometimes, as with St. Ignatius, it took other forms. What all these movements shared, however, was the sense that a fuller devotion must take us beyond the self and even beyond life. This sense recurs in many of the great religious traditions, and preeminently in Buddhism: the transcendent is seen as something "beyond life."

One way of expressing this difficult idea might be that for these traditions, life isn't the whole story. This is not meant to be just a repudiation of egoism or the idea that my concern should be the fullness of my life. If we agree with John Stuart Mill that a full life must involve striving for the benefit of humanity, then acknowledging the transcendent means seeing a point beyond that. Nor does it mean only that life goes on after death, there is a continuation, our life doesn't totally end in our deaths. Rather, it suggests that the point of things isn't exhausted by life, the fullness of life, even the goodness of life.


St. Anthony in the desert must have appeared a very strange figure indeed, as did St. Francis of Assisi.


From this vantage point, suffering and death are not merely negation, the undoing of fullness and life. We can also find in suffering and death a place to affirm something that matters beyond life and on which life itself originally draws. Even within the purview of an exclusive humanism, one could accept suffering and death to give life to others. Acknowledging the transcendent, however, involves something more. What matters beyond life doesn't matter just because it sustains life; otherwise it wouldn't be "beyond life" in the meaning of the act. For Christians, God wills human flourishing, but "thy will be done" doesn't reduce to "let human beings flourish."

There are other ways of framing the relationship between "life" and what I'm calling "beyond life" that do not go quite so directly against the grain of contemporary western civilization. One that goes back to the very beginning of Christianity is a redefinition of the term "life" to incorporate "beyond life": for instance, the New Testament evocations of "eternal life," and Jesus' statement in John 10:10 that I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.

Or we could put it in a third way: acknowledging the transcendent means being called to a change of identity. In Buddhism, the change is quite radical, from self to "no-self" (anatta). Christian faith can be seen in the same terms: as calling for a radical decentring of the self in relation with God ("Thy will be done"). In the language of Abbé Henri Bremond in his magnificent study of seventeenth-century French spiritualities, we can speak of "theocentrism."[FN 1] Since most conceptions of a flourishing life (as opposed to conceptions of transcendence) assume a stable identity--the self for whom flourishing can be defined--this way of putting it again establishes a clear contrast between "life" and "beyond life."

Two Dimensions

Many present-day spiritualities continue in the transcendent vein: Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier and John Main are twentieth-century people. However, with these and other exceptions, what people define as spirituality today tends to be centrally and exclusively concerned with enhancing and empowering life. Many New Age spiritualities are intensely focused on the self, and meeting the individual's imminent needs (emotional, psychological and the like) is their supreme goal.

Spiritual Dimensions Chart

The gamut of today's spiritualities encompasses two dimensions. One is a lateral dimension, running from spiritualities with Christian sources to those that draw on Eastern religions, Native American traditions or witchcraft. The other is a vertical dimension, whose two poles are transcendence on one end and life-centredness on the other (see accompanying diagram).

Of course, the relation between enhancing life and going beyond life has been complex and far from uniform in our religious histories. Historic religions have in fact combined concern for flourishing and transcendence in their normal practice.

The supreme achievements of those who went beyond life have even served to nourish the fullness of life for those who remain on this side of the barrier. Thus, prayers at the tombs of Christian martyrs or Muslim saints brought long life, health and a whole host of good things for the faithful. And in Theravada Buddhism, the dedication of monks is turned through blessings, amulets and the like to all the ordinary purposes of flourishing among the laity. This stance of "complementary symbiosis" reflects an instrumentalization of transcendence for the purposes of life-centredness. On the vertical continuum, it would appear somewhere between the two poles.

All religions have had "reformers" who have considered this symbiotic, complementary relation between renunciation and flourishing a travesty. Insisting on returning religion to its "purity," they posit the goals of renunciation on their own, as goals for everyone, separate from the pursuit of flourishing. Some are even moved to denigrate the pursuit of flourishing altogether, declaring it unimportant or an obstacle to sanctity. This is the stance of purity, which falls at the transcendent end of the vertical continuum.

But this extreme stance runs athwart a very central thrust in some religions, notably Christianity and Buddhism. For these religions, renouncing or aiming beyond life not only takes you away but also brings you back to flourishing. In Christian terms, renunciation involves submitting to God's will, but God's will is in part the flourishing of human beings, biblically called agapê. In Buddhist terms, Enlightenment doesn't just turn you from the world but also opens the floodgates of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion). This stance of agapê/karun differs both from the stance of purity and from the instrumental stance that accepts a complementary symbiosis of renunciation and flourishing.

Many life-centred spiritualities in our contemporary culture place themselves centrally in the Christian tradition, while others place themselves in the Buddhist tradition. The continuity with these traditions is real, but there is also a very important break here. For the traditional forms, life-enhancement follows a turn to the transcendent for its own sake, and transcendence is not instrumentalized. By contrast, in many of today's New Age, life-centred spiritualities, the transcendent either is absent or is ultimately instrumentalized to life.

The Affirmation of Ordinary Life

Spirituality today straddles this boundary between the transcendent and the life-centred. Indeed, the boundary itself frequently dissolves in the ambivalence of a twilight zone, occluded by the continuities. This development reflects one of the most prominent components of modern culture, which I have called elsewhere "the affirmation of ordinary life."[FN 2]

The cultural revolution of the early modern period put the centre of gravity of goodness in ordinary living, production and the family, dethroning the supposedly higher activities of the "good life": contemplation and the citizen life. In this spiritual outlook, a primary concern for the "good life" smacks of pride and self-absorption and is inherently inegalitarian, since the alleged "higher" activities could only be carried out by an elite minority. Our major concern must be our dealings with others, in justice and benevolence and on a level of equality: to increase life, relieve suffering and foster prosperity. To lead one's ordinary life rightly in this way is open to everyone.

This affirmation, which constitutes a major component of our modern ethical outlook, was originally inspired by a mode of Christian piety. It exalted practical agapê and was polemically directed against the pride, elitism and self-absorption of those who believed in "higher" activities or spiritualities.

Consider the Reformers' attack on the supposedly "higher" vocations of the monastic life, which were meant to mark out elite paths of superior dedication. In the Reformers' view, they were in fact deviations into pride and self-delusion. The really holy life for the Christian was within ordinary life itself, living in work and household in a Christian and worshipful manner.

There was an earthly--one might say earthy--critique of the allegedly "higher" here that was then transposed and used as a secular critique of Christianity, and indeed religion in general. Something of the same rhetorical stance adopted by Reformers against monks and nuns is taken up by secularists and unbelievers against Christian faith itself. Christianity, according to the secularists, allegedly scorns the real, sensual, earthly human good for some purely imaginary higher end, the pursuit of which can only lead to the frustration of the real good and to suffering and repression. The motivations of those who espouse this "higher" path are thus suspect.

This critique identifies religion with the purist stance above, or else with a combination of this stance and the stance of complementary symbiosis. The third stance, the stance of agapê/karuna, becomes invisible. That is because the secularist critic has in fact assumed a transformed variant of it.

So we live in the aftermath of a double revolution: first the affirmation of ordinary life, and then its secularized transposition. Our present vertical continuum of spiritualities corresponds to this world, but not just as a reflection. It is also a reaction. Exclusively life-centred spiritualities reflect the eclipse of the transcendent in this world. At the same time, however, they express a dissatisfaction with this world, with its perceived flatness and narrowness and its all-invasive concerns of utility and instrumental reason.

In short, they express awareness of disenchantment as loss, one of the dominant themes of western culture since the eighteenth century. Since the Romantic period, there has been recurrent rebellion against a world in which everything is supposedly to be instrumentalized to life and prosperity. In the context of this broad movement of rebellion in the name of something fuller, deeper or higher, life-centred and transcendent spiritualities can and often do feel their kinship with one another. And that is why the range of spirituality is so different today from any other time in human history.

The Darker Side

But there is also another facet of modern spiritual life, a necessary complement to the above: a darker side, if I might use this term without pejorative connotation. Analogously to the way that the matter we know seems to be shadowed by antimatter, the spiritualities of life and transcendence seem to be counterpoised by doctrines of void and death. This is the revolt from within unbelief against the primacy of life--not in the name of something beyond, but more from a sense of being confined and diminished by this primacy.

This view represents an important stream in our culture, woven into the inspiration of poets and writers. Its most influential proponent is undoubtedly Friedrich Nietzsche. And it is significant that the most important antihumanist thinkers of our time, such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (and Georges Bataille behind them), all draw heavily on Nietzsche. Both metaphysically and practically, Nietzsche rebelled against the idea that our highest goal is to preserve and increase life and to prevent suffering, and he rejected the egalitarianism underlying the affirmation of ordinary life.

But his rebellion was in a sense also internal. Life itself can push to cruelty, to domination, to exclusion, and indeed does so in its moments of most exuberant affirmation. So this move remains within the modern affirmation of life, since it sees nothing higher than the movement of life itself--the Will to Power. But it chafes at the benevolence, the universalism, the harmony, the order. It wants to rehabilitate destruction and chaos, the infliction of suffering and exploitation, as part of the life to be affirmed. Life properly understood also affirms death and destruction. To pretend otherwise is to try to restrict it, tame it, hem it in and deprive it of its highest manifestations, precisely those manifestations that make it something you can say "yes" to.

A religion of life that would proscribe death-dealing and the infliction of suffering is confining and demeaning. Nietzsche thought of himself as having taken up some of the legacy of pre-Platonic and pre-Christian warrior ethics: their exaltation of courage, greatness, elite excellence. The accusation that modern life-affirming humanism breeds pusillanimity recurs frequently in counter-Enlightenment culture.

Of course, one of the fruits of this counterculture was fascism--to which Nietzsche's influence was not entirely foreign, however true and valid is Walter Kaufmann's refutation of the simple myth that he was a proto-Nazi. But despite this association, the fascination with death and violence recurs, notably in the interest in Bataille, shared by Derrida and Foucault. James Miller's book on Foucault shows the depths of their rebellion against a "humanism" that is a stifling, confining space one has to break out of.[FN 3] So this is an antilife stance that we might place diagrammatically on a second line that diverges at an angle from our vertical continuum.

The Nietzschean understanding of life that can fully affirm itself also in a sense takes us beyond life, and in this it is analogous with other, religious, notions of enhanced life (like the New Testament's "eternal life"). But it takes us beyond by incorporating a fascination with the negation of life, with death and suffering. It doesn't acknowledge some supreme good beyond life, and in that sense rightly sees itself as utterly antithetical to religion.


Perhaps the only way fully to accept the draw towards violence lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life


I am tempted to speculate here that the perennial human susceptibility to be fascinated by death and violence is at base a manifestation of our nature as homo religiosus. Most historical religion has been deeply intricated with violence, from human sacrifice down to intercommunal massacres, because most historical religion remains only very imperfectly oriented to the beyond. The religious affinities of the cult of violence in its different forms are indeed palpable. From the point of view of someone who acknowledges transcendence, the antilife stance is one of the places our aspiration to transcend most easily goes when religion fails to take us there. Perhaps the only way fully to escape the draw towards violence lies somewhere in the turn to transcendence, through the full-hearted love of some good beyond life.

In any event, with all the continuities, spiritual life in our secular, life-affirming age has taken on an unprecedented shape. On one hand, it is broad, as that of no other age has been; on the other, it has a flip side, which in a sense is its denial but which accompanies it like its shadow.


[FN1] Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu'à nos jours (Paris: A. Collin, 1967-68).
[FN2] See Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), chapter 13. See also "Our Therapeutic Age," Compass, November 1990, pp. 6-9.
[FN3] James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).



Charles Taylor is professor of philosophy at McGill University in Montreal and a contributing editor of Compass. His books include Sources of the Self (1989).



Top of File | Previous | Next | Contents | Home Page | The Archives | Write Us | Order Desk

© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld