What I most lack is?

In Western Europe in the eleventh century, I might have answered 'assurance of salvation'. The world had not ended in 1000 and so corporate salvation was postponed.  Thus, the focus shifted from this corporate transformation (though it always remained a possibility) to personal achievement.

How is my lack, my sinfulness to be addressed? By developing a juridical system whereby Jesus has liberated us from past debt - St Anselm's penal substitution theory of the atonement - and, going forward, the Church will catalogue sins and develop ways of penance - private confession, or a pilgrimage and that gold star of penitential acts - a Crusade. It will 'invent' purgatory, so even death will not present an insuperable obstacle if 'you have n't made it' yet. Lack is addressed by a living system full of present act and future promise.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, what do I most lack? I might still answer 'assurance of salvation' though even if I did, its grip as an answer might be less sure and might compete with other absences. I lack an 'adequate' pension fund, I lack someone to love (or, more ideally, to love me) and will anyone remember me after I am dead for where is my renown? Even if I have a 'Trump Tower' will that carry any significance to anyone in a hundred years from now? (In this instance, you kind of hope not)!

You may notice in this shift two things - that in the first instance 'lack' is an existential and ontological reality that must be wrestled with and addressed and it is so addressed: a system is in place that offers the possibility of closure on lack. In the second instance, there is less consciousness of that which is missing being 'mine' - an existential crisis for me - rather more the absence of the world's conforming to my desires - and there is no system in place that can guarantee closure - how much money is enough? Even if I find the right person, I might lose them? Trump who?

A conscious 'religious' process for addressing what I lack has been replaced with an unconscious 'secularised' process (with strikingly insistent spiritual undertones - money, for example, as the sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out in his monumental, 'The Philosophy of Money' carries many similarities to God. It is, after all, a source of value that is pursued as an end in itself. One that can create things out of its 'nothingness')!

But what is this 'lack' really? This pervasive sense of there being something missing. Ernest Becker, the anthropologist, suggested it was death and its denial. We are all going to die. We are all finite. But how many (and in what complexity) are the masks we wear to disguise this fact from ourselves. Masks that change over time with the historical and sociological contexts we find ourselves in but masks nonetheless.

David R Loy is his 'The Buddhist History of the West' agrees with Becker on the second point - how we address lack changes over time and indeed can be more or less successful in doing so - but disagrees on the first. Our fundamental 'lack' is of a stable, grounded self and seeking this stability drives us, through time, to multiple 'solutions' - only to find ourselves trapped in an ego continually in need of reassurance of its existence. Why not, suggests Loy, explore the Buddhist suggestion that such a self is in truth 'void' 'non-existent' and in forgetting this self dissolve the fundamental dualism between self and an other that creates 'lack' in the first place? Dissolving self births the realisation of interdependence and unleashes a more compassionate world.

Loy's book's brilliance is to take this lens of 'lack' and explore fundamental shifts in the history of West and see if it helps illuminate what happened and why. Critically too, he wants to argue that our 'liberation' from lack depends on us developing structural as well as personal solutions to lack. Liberation becomes a reality the more deeply embedded in social systems and well as individual hearts. There is no trade off between personal and social transformation. It is a call, developed  elsewhere, by Loy into an engaged Buddhism.

Loy picks five crucial 'turning points' in the history of the West - the development of freedom in Ancient Greece, of a legal system in the eleventh century, of the Renaissance, of modernity and of the market - and explores what a 'lack' lens would look like. Each phase is seen as a different way of accommodating to shifts in society that require new forms of addressing lack. This is not to reduce 'lack' to an explanation of everything - the complex dynamics of each period is fully recognised - but as an invitation to see each period in this new, and potentially, renewing perspective.

Certain things stand out as a result.

First that many projects that we think of as 'secularising' are helpfully seen as being driven by religious motivations - Weber's account of the Protestant origins of capitalism being an obvious reference point - and even when those momentums expire consciously, many of their characteristics continue unconsciously. We may no longer be Puritans but we may reassure ourselves of our 'election' through the accumulation of goods and social standing. Second that increasingly ends have vanished leaving us only with means (and thus with little critical apparatus to course correct). We accumulate wealth for what precisely? Economies grow beyond enough for the sake of their growth etc. Third that raising our motivations to consciousness, both as individuals and in society, is the start of a road to freedom.

This only scratches the surface of an extraordinarily rich text. Who would have imagined, for example, that the move from corporate confession in Church to private confession to a priest and the accompanying move from the act itself to the intention behind the act was a trigger to the (re)birth of interiority and a significant step on the road to Reformation? The book is a treasure trove of insight and can be seen as a history of our anxieties and how they become encoded in our social structures - and that some codes are decidedly better than others. That we need new codes is a truism which is a driver for much of Loy's other works.


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