Enlightenment and the Meaning Crisis

Enlightenment is for those who ask. If you don’t knock, it will not be opened unto you. Who to ask though? Where to knock? You could ask Buddha or Jesus, or you could ask God directly. Failing that, you could ask a priest or a monk or a spiritual teacher. But spiritual teachers are no good to you unless they actually know what enlightenment is. And knowing what enlightenment is actually means not knowing. If they think they know, they definitely don’t. So good luck with that!

There is paradox here, but paradox is good. It points to something deeper than mere logic. Spiritual enlightenment is one of those things that our mind cannot grasp[i]. It is invariably (and paradoxically) accompanied by an absolute conviction that, after possibly hundreds or thousands of lifetimes wondering about it, you now know, at last, finally and incontrovertibly, what reality is, what existence is, what God is, but that an essential part of that knowing is the certain knowledge that you don’t know and can never know.


“Be silent, therefore, and do not chatter about God, for by chattering about him, you tell lies and commit a sin. If you wish to be perfect and without sin, then do not prattle about God. Also you should not wish to understand anything about God, for God is beyond all understanding. A Master says: If I had a God I could understand, I would not regard him as God.”[ii]


God is a mystery. Existence is a mystery. When religion claims to know what God is, it lies. When science and philosophy claim to know what existence is, they lie. All religion can do is point to the mystery that is God. All science and philosophy can do is point to the mystery that is existence. Ultimately, the mystery at the heart of religion and science is one and the same. But out of the mystery comes understanding:


“Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.”[iii]


There is no pistis without gnosis and there is no gnosis without kenosis. In other words, there is no understanding without experience and there is no experience without the openness that comes from emptiness.

Faith in religion is misplaced if you think that religion has all the answers. This was the error of the Medieval Scholastics and of modern day literalists and fundamentalists. But equally, faith in science and philosophy are misplaced, if you think they hold the keys to the secrets of existence. The central fantasy of the Enlightenment, that through the intelligent application of Reason and Science, humanity could illuminate the darkness and demystify the mystery of existence, has failed.

Where are the Comtean Positivists now? The Utilitarians? The Social Darwinists? The Logical Positivists? The Behaviourists? The Eliminative Materialists? Perhaps it is unfair to say that they are already in the dustbin of history, but it is certainly debatable whether they are on the right side of it. Be that as it may, the practical success or otherwise of theories based on a scientific materialist paradigm say nothing about the underlying metaphysical questions of existence or reality as such.

Nevertheless, the project to construct a scientific morality has failed.[iv] The project to create a scientific psychology has failed.[v] The projects to develop a scientific philosophy and a scientific religion have failed.[vi] The project to explain existence itself along purely naturalistic, scientific lines has failed.[vii] So far. A committed naturalist will say we just need more time. Give us a couple of hundred years, or a couple of thousand – science will work it out eventually. This is of course a confession of blind faith, which in many cases has no basis in reality.

Early modernity in the Western world is to a great extent defined by loss of faith in religion. With the Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the publication of the Origin of Species, faith in religion and revealed truth was in tatters. So thinking people shifted their allegiance and put their money on science to tell them what reality was, and to give their lives meaning. But now, at the tail end of modernity, we have lost patience and lost faith in science, just as we lost faith in religion at the beginning.

The Faustian fantasy of scientism is essentially over, except for a few diehards. Science cannot explain everything. It goes without saying that the natural sciences as well as the social sciences are good for a lot of things, and have improved our lives immeasurably. Science and technology have transformed the world. However, although they are very good at answering the “how” of things, they are utterly useless at answering the “why”, which is why we now find ourselves, in the Western world, in the middle of a “Meaning Crisis”[viii].

Science cannot provide us with ultimate meaning. Neither can politics (the Marxist-Leninist church, for example, has long since been converted into fashionable apartments). Neither can philosophy, psychology, or religion. Neither can fame, fortune, power, influence, drugs, sex or rock and roll. We cannot put our faith in any of these things, because they are all unstable, and it’s never a good idea to build a house on sand.

Man’s search for meaning[ix] leads finally to a dark nothingness, to the great mystery at the heart of all things. This is where true enlightenment is found: not in the harsh glare of scientific observation or the promise of unlimited technological progress, but in the deepest depths of the unfathomable mystery of existence. The solution to the Meaning Crisis will not be found in any of the answers offered us by science or religion or anything else, but in a cloud of unknowing, in a re-discovery of mystery. Paradoxical as it sounds, that’s the rock you should build your house on.

[i] Einstein, A., 2011. The world as I see it. Open Road Media.

[ii] Eckhart, M.J., 1994. Selected Writings, edited and translated by Oliver Davies.

[iii] Mitchell, S., 1988. Tao te ching (lao tzu). New York: HarperPerennial.

[iv] see Hunter, J.D. and Nedelisky, P., 2018. Science and the good: The tragic quest for the foundations of morality. Foundational Questions in Scie.

[v] see Mackenzie, B.D., 1977. Behaviourism and the limits of scientific method. Taylor & Francis.

[vi] see Stenmark, M., 2017. Scientism: Science, ethics and religion. Routledge.

[vii] see Nagel, T., 2012. Mind and cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press.

[viii] Vervaeke, J., Mastropietro, C. and Miscevic, F., 2017. Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis. Open Book Publishers.

[ix] Frankl, V.E., 1985. Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.