Postmodernism and Spirituality: Where is Religion?

Michael York
Bath Spa University College

Postmodernism and Spirituality Conference
University of Central Lancashire
23-24 march 2002

What was most interesting and, indeed, even surprising in the call for papers by
the University of Central Lancashire for the Postmodernism and Spirituality Conference,
was that contributions were asked from the fields of Literary and Cultural Criticism,
Philosophy, Film Studies and History, but, despite the conference theme of Spirituality,
there was in the original call no mention made of Religious Studies. Indeed, much of the
forum of postmodern exchange in the twentieth century has been found within English
Studies and Philosophy departments as well as in the fields of Anthropology and
Sociology, though once again the areas of Behavioural Studies seem also to have been
forgotten – at least initially – by the conference organisers. Such omissions, however, at
least as I have come to understand it, lie at the heart of the postmodern concept, namely,
the hegemony of the text and the hidden other buried within, beneath or behind it.
Certainly, the non-inclusion of Religious Studies among the recipients of the original call
to look at the interface between postmodernism and spirituality is illustrative of the
invisibility of the obvious.

`Postmodernism' and `postmodernity' are terms I first encountered in Eileen
Barker's Sociology of Religion seminars at the London School of Economics during the
late 1980s. They were terms with which I resonated immediately, for, until I heard them,
the idea that there could be something `after' the modern was not something I had ever
countenanced. Invariably and out of my intrigue I would ask the speaker of the day what
these terms meant, and just as invariably, the response I would receive was the statement:
"I had been hoping that no one would ask me that question."

The gnawing and growing interest in this conceptual area came to a head for me
when I received a call for papers to the "Postmodernity and Religion" conference to be
sponsored by the Sociology of Religion Study Group of the British Sociological
Association. The conference was to be held March/April of 1993 at the University of
Bristol, and I received the call during the previous summer while involved with a family
reunion in the south of France. As I had already been intrigued by the innovative
possibilities that I perceived to be inherent in the notion of postmodernity, I welcomed
the opportunity to formulate my thoughts and understanding in this area. The background
to this endeavour, however, was one in which my assembled family found fault with me
if I wished to remain in my study to work but equally found fault whenever I descended
to the social gathering itself. In such a `no-win' situation, I quickly learned that my
personal-emotional equilibrium was not going to change wherever I was, so I eventually
opted to pursue the postmodern chimera come-what-may. The major disadvantage,
however, was that this was largely still only the advent to the emergence of the
worldwide web, and about the most recent book I had on hand was a 1960 cultural
anthology (An Outline of Man's Knowledge of the Modern World, edited by Lyman
Bryson) that included Margaret Mead and her contemporaries. The local Provençal
villagers were of little help as well despite my incessant questions concerning
deconstructionism, Foucault and Lyotard. But in the ensuing tug-of-war and the necessity
to comb through every possible resource I could lay my hands upon, I slowly discovered
the world of Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard, Daniel Bell, Jürgen Habermas, Ihab
Hassan, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty and countless others. In my initial pursuit, I
had been steered in the direction of architecture by Mark Davenport, an Ohio-based art
historian, whose parents had a home in an adjacent Midi village. It was only a matter of
time that among the constantly expanding treasure trove of postmodern analyses I was
discovering that I also discovered the works of Charles Jencks, the architect who firmly
cast the modern-postmodern dialectic into the language of an architectural revolution.

Consequently following the arguments of Jencks and Hassan as well as Margaret
Rose and Charlene Spretnak, I have come to accept that there are two distinguishable and
in some ways rival schools of postmodernism: the more commonly understood
postmodernists comprising Jameson and the French deconstructionists – those whom
Jencks claims are really `late modernists' – and his own `school' of `reconstructionists'.
The debate continues to revolve around the question of whether postmodernism
represents the spent exhaustion of modernity, or its rejection, or its complement and
augmentation. As Spretnak explained during a King's College London talk, the spiritual
goal of deconstructionism would amount to a nihilistic form of liberation akin to that of
Zen Buddhism. Deconstruction becomes the end in itself. But for Jencks, Spretnak and
others belonging to the `second school of postmodernism', one deconstructs down to the
essentials but does not stop here. Instead, one re-constructs then from the deconstructed
components to create a new and more dynamic understanding. As Jencks has expressed
this as a `double-coding', the postmodern is not a resounding `no' to the modern, it is
more a `yes, but' response. I would now take this further and rephrase the postmodern as
an `and also' rejoinder to the modern. Once the cool, rational light of modernity has
shown upon any situation, even once that light has subsequently been extinguished, the
fact that that illumination has occurred remains. The postmodern, whatever else it may
be, is the post-Babel and pluralistic condition of many voices that follows the duration of
the single, monolithic and monological enterprise of the modern project.

In Bill Martin's reading of Derrida, Matrix and Line, the postmodern becomes a
rejection of Hegel's attempt to reduce all to the `logic of the same'. Driven by its needs
for utilitarian efficiency, the modern seeks to eliminate difference for an effective
uniformity. Unfortunately, the great riches for us all that had been the modernist dream
have not materialised. Instead, we see increasingly a world increasingly divided by huge
differences of wealth and opportunity. The universal liberation from disease and poverty
that we once expected through technological advance has not been forthcoming. But even
more, on top of this disillusionment or disappointment, a more prevailing cue has been
articulated by Mikhail Bakhtin who hailed an emerging celebration of difference rather
than its elimination. Or as Jencks would put it in hailing the birth of postmodernity with
the televised dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis, Missouri on the
15th of July, 1972, namely, the public recognition that pragmatic rationalism alone does
not, at the end of the day, fulfil the emotional and spiritual needs of humanity.

The Russian critic Bakhtin, in describing the literary interaction of dialogue
between different points of view or languages, has set the tone for postmodernism's
heteroglossia and pluralism. In fact, Jacques Derrida argues that the social agenda of
postmodernity is `to hear the voice of the other', that is, those who are disenfranchised,
marginalised and socially invisible. And, now, from among the ranks of the dispossessed,
the forgotton and ignored voice of the Study of Religions proclaims its rightful place at
any round table discussion of spirituality. Certainly, within the halls of academia, those
who study and teach religion, religions, comparative religion and/or theology are keenly
aware of the lack of administrative support as well as the recent closure of religious
studies faculties in Gloucester and Derby. In our modern, secularised world of unending
economic expansion and commercial exchange, religion has become an endangered
species that, from a more established and now traditional perspective, is an unnecessary
obstacle to progress. To the degree that it is recognised in contemporary society, it
becomes an embarrassment and something to be eliminated. The `success' of this
prevailing attitude can be witnessed in the invisibility of Religious Studies when it comes
to issuing a call for papers based in part on the theme of spirituality.

In my own studies of New Religious Movements – particularly New Age and
Neo-paganism, the usual feedback received through surveys and interviews is that people
today claim to be spiritual rather than religious. The question, of course, is what is the
difference? The answer here is not made any the easier for want of an agreed upon
definition of what religion is by scholars of religious studies. But be that as it may, the
vernacular understanding of the difference usually has to do with a perception of religion
as institutional and organised whereas spirituality, by contrast, is personal and private.
What the sociologist of religion does indeed detect is a growing popular rejection of
authority – of being told what to believe and how to practice. Religion or, if you will,
spirituality is becoming democratised – especially in such quasi-movements known today
as New Age, contemporary Western paganism, Human Potential, Goddess Spirituality
and Creation Spirituality. Individual exegesis is becoming increasingly the norm in the
West, and much of this development I would attribute to our `age of information' in
which one's spirituality is becoming less something that is determined by birth and
acculturated conditioning and more a product of consumeristic choice. Sociologists refer
to the contemporary religious supermarket in which the individual `picks and mixes' his
or her own spiritual package from among a colourful and diverse array of products. This
situation, of course, does not lessen allegations of greater superficiality and
commodification in this realm – indeed the very criticism of modern-postmodern times.

But if the democratisation of spirituality and/or religion is a product of spiritual
choice and dissemination of information, both electronically and otherwise, I think there
may be another factor at work behind this development as well. This last may derive
precisely from the fact that religion is becoming increasingly incidental and invisible in a
world that has other priorities, agendas and hegemonies. In short, I am increasingly
wondering if the democratisation of religion is not a popular counter-response to a
growing perception of the lack of political and economic freedom. The protests against
the G7 or G5 or WTO, etc. that we have seen in Montreal, Genoa, Seattle, New York,
Barcelona and elsewhere are protests against a closed and private multicorporate club that
has no ingrained provisions for decision-making based on ethical responsibility rather
than profit calculations. The election fiasco in the United States and the administrative
government's subsequent seizure of legitimacy in the wake of the September 11th
catastrophe let alone the breaking of international treaties as they cease to be suitable or
convenient and the maverick do-it-alone pursuit of agenda regardless of the thought of
others, whether friend or foe, have all contributed to a real loss of public democracy. In
such a situation, the invisible bastion of religion and spirituality may be one of the few
fronts left where people feel empowered enough to make their own decisions.

No one can doubt that we live today in a times of profound and accelerated
change. Our world proliferates and becomes increasingly more complex. The certainties
and even securities of a simpler state of affairs evaporate and become ever more elusive.
And if this change is attributed to technological innovations as well as rapid global trade
and exchange, they are matched by a corollary development in theoretical science. The
Santa Fe Institute of New Mexico has come to argue that our cosmos is more non-linear
than linear. While we can possibly `retrodict' how and why an event occurs, as the
universe is understood to be more complex than the original foundations of science have
assumed, the traditional basis of scientific prediction is undermined. Nevertheless, the
Santa Fe Institute's development of Complexity Theory has emerged as an understanding
that focuses on how things become something more than merely the sum of their
individual components. As a leading theoretical construct behind postmodernism,
Complexity Theory also opens the door, however unintended, to religion and spirituality
as perhaps the primus inter pares examples of complexity mechanics. In the postmodern
arena, the supernatural as well as a divinely immanent and holistically alive nature are
both `voices' that have tended to disappear as and within the silent and invisible Other. In
a postmodern reawakening or restructuring of perception, animistic nature and spiritual
metaphor may instead become dynamic factors rather than forgotten operatives. And if
our cosmos is as non-linear as Complexity Theory contends, a postmodern and pluralistic
theological dialogue may spontaneously self-organise and become something other than
simply the sum of its constituent parts.


Raymond A. Eve, Sara Horsfall and Mary E. Lee (eds.), Chaos, Complexity, and
Sociology: Myths, Models, and Theories
(Thousand Oaks/London/New Delhi:
Sage, 1997).

Kieran Flanagan and Peter C. Jupp (eds.), Postmodernity, Sociology and Religion
(London: Macmillan/New York: St. Martin's, 1996).

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London:
Verso, 1991).

Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions,

........... " ..... The Post-modern Reader (London: Academy Editions, 1992).

Bill Martin, Matrix and Line: Derrida and the Possibilities of Postmodern Social Theory
(Albany: SUNY, 1992).

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and
(New York: Touchstone, 1992).

Michael York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan
(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).

.......... " ..... "New Age and the Late Twentieth Century," Journal of Contemporary
12.3 (1997:401-419).

.......... " ..... "Emergentism and Some Post-Big Bang Perspectives," Journal of
Contemporary Religion
14.2 (1999:291-297).