A woman is walking down an urban street. She passes by an Indian restaurant, A Chinese restaurant, a vintage record store, and a bookstore. One building is gingerbread Victorian, another 1930s Art Deco. In the bookstore she is likely to find volumes that were originally published in 1400 as well as current bestsellers. The record store may contain music that someone composed for a royal court three hundred years ago. History is encoded into her very surroundings. She can move back and forth in time as her fashionable shoes click against pavement that was built on top of cobblestones.
We live in an era where the artifacts of nearly every past era are available to us. Some are accessible for free in the vast archives of the internet. Others must be purchased. Nearly everything can be purchased. This is the result of five hundred years of deliberate imperial expansion on the part of several Western powers. The irony is that the narratives which supported that expansion became less and less viable the more the conquerors became involved in the daily lives of those they conquered. Today we are not so much invaders as necrophiles, building a world from the ruins of the past.
It has been said that this world is one of great breadth but little depth. Our interaction with the artifacts of the past is quite superficial, a matter of style and consumer preference. To the extent that people bother with spirituality, this approach also tends to dominate.
While we can complain about this at length, the tendency toward pastiche and eclecticism is really an authentic expression of our spirit in this time. It grows organically out of the soil that was cultivated by wars and cultural exchange and the general pain and rebirth of something new from that mad cauldron of history. If a spirituality does not demonstrate a connection to the society it arises from, I question its life span, if not its relevance.
In order to infuse this confused mishmash of material with coherence, we need to focus on level up in abstraction. Ken Wilber’s “orienting generalizations” are one example of this sort of thing, although his taxonomy becomes tedious. This is because his categories are mere boxes developed out of individual study. There’s no power there, no egregore. It’s interesting from an intellectual point of view, but there’s no juice. No spirit in other words.
It is all well and good to have an intellectually satisfying map, but the intellect is, as Wilber himself would say “necessary but not sufficient.” We are thus driven back to the Perennial Philosophy that he draws from for the framework on which to hang our collections. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
The pastiche of our own time was handled quite well by the nineteenth century occultists that gave today’s magickal and pagan communities birth. What they had beyond the mishmash of influences was the depth that the Qabalah infused those collections with. The Golden Dawn, for example, is a conceptual mess. But when the pieces are put together, it hums.
Religions of the past relied on myths and the participation in Mysteries celebrating them to provide coherence to the culture they served. We have no such luxury. The splicing up of the world into competing narratives has only managed to serve the systems of exploitation and oppression that feed on division and the emphasis on difference. Micro-culture, both national and regional, is inimical to spiritual growth. For those who seek something beyond simple celebration of their tradition’s mythos, who look for personal enlightenment in order to contribute something that benefits everyone, this kind of myopia is deadly to both the quest and the one undertaking it.
It is structure, not story, not specific revelation, that will benefit us in the age of pastiche. When we find the common points of agreement between the world’s myriad systems, we can learn to craft new stories upon them, or adapt old ones.
Returning to that street. Our postmodern woman passes by all these diverse locales and times within a greater context: the city itself. The city is a pastiche in its own right, made up of different ethnic conclaves and neighborhoods that, while different from one another, all participate in and depend on the structures of urban life for their vitality and survival.
To be somewhat corny, “There are a thousand stories in the Naked City of God.” While diversity and open structures were certainly not what Augustine had in mind, this is what our postmodern circumstance has given birth to. It is easy to be dismissive of it, but the potential is there to transcend limited story lines, and find the infrastructure, the power lines, and the transit systems that can bring coherence back to our fragmented psyches.