Nouvelles Clés interviews sociologist Frédéric Lenoir about his remarkable historical, psychological and sociological portrait of religion, Les Métamorphoses de Dieu ou la nouvelle spiritualité occidentale (1).

A conversation with Frédéric Lenoir, interviewed by Marc de Smedt and Patrice van Eersel.

Nouvelles Clés: God is not dead, you say, he is merely in a state of metamorphosis. The sacred is taking on new forms and resurrecting some very old ones. In either case, you feel that we are currently experiencing ‘‘one of the greatest religious transformations ever known to man.’’  This transformation echoes one that occurred during the 16th century and the Renaissance − at the dawning of the modern world − which you carefully distinguish from its subsequent developments. Could there have been several beginnings of the modern world ?

Frédéric Lenoir: Who were the first modernists ? People like Pico della Mirandola, who believed that man must have total freedom of action and choice, including in religiousmatters. This was quite revolutionary at the time − to say that people ought to exercise their reason and critical faculties, yet not be cut off from the sacred. On the contrary, a free person, conscious of his incompleteness, was meant to be on a quest for something greater than himself. He was supposed to be passionately interested in the sciences, and all the different languages and traditions. He had to reread the Bible, dive into the Kabbalah, experiment with alchemy, astrology and all the symbolic languages explored in human culture, discovering them all to be marvellously at his disposal. This emerging freedom of conscience and great desire to experiment was accompanied by an enormous yearning for tolerance. This is where Montaigne comes in. He was able to combine deep Catholic convictions with an acceptance of the most diverse opinions, including those most opposed to his own.
I think we are experiencing a renewal of the spirit of that early modernity right now, but enhanced by the fantastic adventure of the past five centuries. Thus my idea of calling it ‘‘ultra-modernity.’’ It isn’t post-modernity, which would be a break from the ideals of the Renaissance. Quite to the contrary. The chief characteristic – individual autonomy – has not changed. The individual remains the most important reference. On the other hand, I do distinguish it from the second stage of modernity, which slowly emerged in the 17th century, became stronger in the 18th century and was the predominant influence in the19th century. With Descartes, the world was indeed cut in half. On one side was faith in God, the imagination and symbols, which became a private affair with no impact on the physical world. On the other side, science was on the rise and poised to take over, as it studied a disenchanted natural world inhabited by machine-like men endowed with reason. This second phase of modernity was systematized by the Enlightenment. Kant and Voltaire believed in God as firmly as Descartes, but their God was a cold and distant architect of the universe, and his influence over men was limited to ethical issues. Their main quest was guided by reason, was entirely overtaken by a secularisation of the Decalogue (Kantian law) and scientific research, and was no longer concerned with symbolism or the Kabbalah. A century later, scientism ruled. It was the driving force behind the great atheistic systems, and the logical outcome of the split between faith and reason. Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud all learned this lesson from the Enlightenment in their own particular way: if the “great architect” was no longer truly connected to the world and didn’t underpin your reasoning, then he wasn’t needed anymore because he was no more than an idol! This was the height of the myth of modernity – or a caricature of it. Man didn’t realize that he was cutting himself off from nature and his own body, and was turning into a mere brain that had an answer for everything and thought it could bring happiness to the entire world. The illusion of rational progress reached its zenith with Marxism and its “radiant tomorrows.” Then mankind was sledge-hammered by the most violent century in human history − from Auschwitz to cloning, Gulags and Hiroshima. So we are questioning ourselves now, at the dawn of the third millennium. Does it mean we are challenging the foundations of modernity, starting with individual freedom? Certainly not. But surely it does mean we are taking a new look at the break between man and nature, the mind and body, reason and emotion. Thus, the new modernity is modest and mature, adult and tolerant. It accepts the limits of rationality, science and technology, making the sacred possible again. This is why I believe that researchers who have worked on the imagination, myth and archetypes − Carl G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, Gilbert Durand and Edgar Morin − are the ones who have best grasped the essence of modernity, stripped of its own myths. They were able to give us back that dimension, from which we had been cut off.

Could we have come full circle? Certainly, in the past thirty years, it has often seemed like we were experiencing a Renaissance, with its good and bad sides: an open-minded attitude to exploration, a cross-disciplinary approach, the blending of cultures, but also religious wars and the enslavement of entire peoples.

The three vectors of modernity in the 16th century – individualism, critical reasoning and globalization – are more present than ever today. In fact, they are regenerating everywhere. Why? Because we have forsaken the myth of triumphant modernity. Scientism, whether liberalist or Marxist, is collapsing. It was a utopia. As a result, our critical faculties have been awakened and we are becoming more aware of the extreme complexity of reality. We have rediscovered the distinction made by Thomist scholars between ratio and intellectus. The former is pure mathematical logic, whereas the latter encompasses sensibility, emotion and contemplation, in a more Eastern way. Today the idea is reaching us from all sides − from scientific research to the corporate world − that cold, cortical intelligence must be replaced by a more lively and emotional mind. Neuro-psychologists even say we have several brains, linked to our bellies and hearts! And we have begun to realize that we can continue to freely exercise our critical faculties while pursuing our search for meaning rooted in an experience of the body. Through all these qualities, we are closely akin to that early phase of modernity in the Renaissance.
A man like Pico della Mirandola would feel perfectly at home today!
On the subject of the new religious wars, most of the media have got it all upside down. They say: “Fundamentalism, fanaticism and violence are what predominate in religion today.” Not at all! If you open your eyes, you’ll see that what predominates, beyond the inflammatory evidence, is just the opposite! Inevitably, people in cultures everywhere practice religion in their own way, including in Islam. From Morocco to Indonesia and Iran, young people want to practice their religion freely, sometimes without even realizing it. In all religions, this is what ultimately infuriates a tiny minority of fundamentalists willing to commit acts of incredible violence rather than accept the evolution towards freedom. That the latter might lead to a reaction against Western cultural domination − or against their elders − is another story. Some girls might claim the right to wear a head scarf in order to defy their parents, such as the two sisters in Aubervilliers, whose father was a Jewish atheist and whose mother is a Catholic from Kabylia (North Africa) !

Haven’t the fundamentalists themselves invented some very unusual forms of their own, which are no more faithful to original Islam than the Nazis were to prehistoric Germanic culture ?

Naturally, there has been a lot of reconstructing. It’s no accident that the first Algerian “barbus” (“bearded ones”) came more from science universities and technological institutes than from theological or philosophical schools. Their “return to the origins” was often autodidactic, ignorant and full of fantasies. In any case, in the very long term the evolution of religion in our era will be remembered for this: the passage from large cultural traditions dependent on ethnic groups and nations to more personalized practice with individuals searching for their own meanings. They may remain Catholics, Jews or Muslims in terms of their cultural identity. But each will experience that Catholicism, Judaism or Islam in his own way. It is a colossal revolution, and a considerable crisis for the Churches. Two-thirds of Europeans and three-quarters of Americans declare themselves to be believers, but they practice less and less. And that trend seems irrevocable.

If everyone invents his own tailor-made “religious kit,” won’t that create total syncretistic confusion ?

To begin with, no religion has ever escaped syncretism. Buddhism is a form of syncretism. And Christianity is an amazing mix of Jewish faith, Roman law and Greek philosophy! Not to mention Islam, an extraordinary blend of ancient Arabic beliefs and borrowings from Judaism and Christianity. All religions are syncretistic. But there are two types of syncretism. The first kind develops a new coherence out of the contradictions and accelerations triggered by its particular combination. The second kind remains an ill-defined and undigested collage − unintelligent, inorganic and lacking a backbone. Thus the tremendous challenge of modernity, because each individual must work out his own coherent system in a world with a glut of “religious supply” and an increasing risk of creating a confusing collage.

You said that a man like Pico della Mirandola would feel perfectly at home today. Given his eclecticism and love of wonderment, he would probably be involved in the New Age movement, about which you have written a key chapter.

Except that Pico della Mirandola and the great Renaissance humanists had an intellectual rigor that is not shared by most of those included − often condescendingly − in the term “New Age,” a particularly ill-defined syncretism, especially in the United States. Mental confusion seems to be one of the main flaws in this movement. The other two are egotism (the world reduced to my happiness) and relativism (the lazy idea that all beliefs are equal throughout time and space). That said, I think the intention of the New Age is a very good one. It consists in searching through all the various traditions for whatever might speak to us and enable us to have an experience of awakening. But I think the expression New Age is past its prime. I prefer “re-enchanting the world,” which expresses the best in this vast impulse that has indeed played a crucial role in spiritual ultra-modernity.
What exactly does it involve?
Max Weber was the first to have spoken about the “disenchantment of the world.” For him, it was a very ancient process that had begun with the Bible and the Jews’ inclination to rationalize the divine. I don’t agree, but one thing is sure. In the “second phase of modernity” mentioned earlier −and the Enlightenment philosophers’ “Great Clockmaker” God  − the world gradually lost its great magical aura, contributing to the extinction of all kinds of correspondences between people and nature, everyday experience and their bodies. This disenchantment reached its height in the 20th century, to a sickening point in consumer society, where everything is observable, controllable, decipherable, able to be rationalized and turned into merchandise. May 1968 can be interpreted as a need for re-enchantment. But before that, there was the entire Romantic movement! Indeed, as early as the 18th century, some minds refused the “coldness” of Cartesian or Kantian modernity. Goethe, for instance, had a clear intuition about the dangers of the modern scientific world. Later on, so did Lamartine, and Victor Hugo. But the Great German Romantics, from Novalis to the Grimm Brothers, are without a doubt the ones who tried hardest to reintroduce a sense of myth, imagination and the sacred, and to rehabilitate that part of man negated by the Enlightenment. Yet the industrial revolution was only beginning, and the Romantics − including the early American ecologists Thoreau, Emerson, et al. − were relegated to the rank of harmless poets. As a result, their philosophical message was passed on to other actors in society such as the esoteric circles in the late 19th century, of which the Theosophist Society was one of the most accomplished expressions, along with its continuation through Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy.

[Philosopher and sociologist of religion Frederic Lenoir has written numerous books, including Mal de Terre with Hubert Reeves.]

You have even compared Steiner to Pico della Mirandola.

He is indeed an amazing character, whose eclectic spirit is reminiscent of the Renaissance! So the New Age − the Re-enchantment of the world − didn’t appear out of nowhere. It is part of a specific historical trend. That trend is re-emerging in many places nowadays. In my opinion, it cannot be analyzed within the framework of general religious sociology, and should be seen within a psycho-sociological framework that remains to be invented. Indeed I feel that the old categories − Catholicism, Judaism, free-thinkers, atheism or New Age −
are over-simplified and don’t capture the essence. In analyzing our real-life experiences, contemporary religious phenomenology has shown that there are ultimately two kinds of religious conviction present in all these categories. The first is open and the second closed. The latter encompasses all those who feel a vital need for certainties and absolute truths. This includes the fundamentalists and orthodox groups in absolutely all religions, and naturally it also includes a host of sects, as well as militant atheists. The first category, however, concerns individuals who, while having a deep relationship to the sacred, can embrace the uncertainties of the mature stage of modernity. This implies doubts and a constant quest. They have convictions, but grasp that they may be temporary and that other convictions may also be legitimate; this category therefore includes many agnostics who are still searching. One thing you may observe is that all people with open-minded religious beliefs get along very well together, whatever their traditions. The same is true for those with close-minded religious convictions, even though their way of “getting along well” may consist in hating and waging war against each other, like the Bush-style Protestant fundamentalists and the Bin Laden-style Muslim ones.

I assume that you place yourself in the open-minded category. Could you tell us a bit about your own path?

I was lucky to grow up in a very open-minded Catholic family who were not church-goers but had strong ethics. My father is close to Jacques Delors and the Personalist movement. I owe a lot to him. When I was thirteen, he gave me a copy of Plato’s Symposium. I was fascinated with philosophy right from the start. Until the age of seventeen, my existential questions found wonderful answers in the pre-Socratics, Epicurus, the Stoics and Aristotle. Then I felt the need to turn to the East. It was again an extraordinary journey (thanks to Arnaud Desjardins) through which I discovered Chogyam Trungpa and the Tibetan Buddhists, as well as mystics such as Maharishi, Shankara, and others. At this stage, I felt it was unreasonable not to know anything about Jung. Reading his works led me to plunge into astrology − which has developed a tremendous symbolic discourse about mankind − and into the fantastic world of mythology and the laws of synchronicity that govern it. I was nineteen and passionate about all religions, except Catholicism. It was truly the least interesting of all the traditions to me! I saw it as puritanical, repressed and useless − in short, dyed-in-the-wool Catholic. Then something completely unpredictable happened to me. I had agreed to the idea of spending a few days in a Cistercian monastery in Brittany, to experience writing in a silent environment. It was a superb place where I immediately felt right at home among the monks and nuns, who seemed extremely healthy and intelligent. After I had begun working, a strange feeling suddenly overcame me. My malaise grew until I began to feel an urgent need to leave. I was about to do so when my conscience challenged me to find an explanation for what was occurring. Thus, my love of challenges and a certain pride convinced me to stay.
What was it I had to face? There was an old dusty copy of the Bible lying around. I opened it at random, to the Prologue of St. John. I had barely begun to read it when I felt the sky falling down on me. Sobbing uncontrollably, I felt an amazing feeling of love welling up inside me. I felt like embracing the whole world! I was twenty years old, and I had just encountered the cosmic Christ referred to by St. John. Twenty years later, I can attest that the experience I had that day has remained indelible.

Yet you are mainly known for your work on Buddhism !

That’s because my intellectual journey has continued in philosophy and sociology. My thesis on “Buddhism and the West” was a way of triggering a confrontation between my areas of interest. Indeed, Buddhism and Christianity couldn’t be further from each other on a conceptual level. It was perfect. I always go towards the opposite of what I believe, in order to put my convictions to the test. So I explored these two worlds, which were alien to each other and had nurtured me on different levels. But my deep convictions had not changed. I pray to Christ every day.

A Christ who is rather abstract ?

Not at all! It is the Jesus of the Gospels, whom I also believe is the Christ that goes beyond all religions − including the Christian revelation. He is the Logos that illuminates all of mankind and was incarnated at a given moment in this form. That’s why I call myself a Christian. Otherwise I would be agnostic. That said, I also practice Zen meditation, quite simply because it helps me disconnect from worries and mental agitation. For twenty years I have been sitting in meditation and practising a certain type of breathing − which is rather Indian in fact! Then I sit in the presence of Christ, open the Gospel, read a passage, and then I pray in front of a small icon. For me, religious faith is basically defined by practice and through experiencing several levels of reality…

…whose central point is within us, yet always escapes us ?

Our concept of the “center,” that is to say God, has evolved considerably over a few generations. For a growing number of our contemporaries, the divine is now seen much more through a kind of immanence or extreme intimacy. Paradoxically, at the same time we have looked to the East for philosophical categories such as “emptiness” or “getting beyond duality,’” which have enabled us to look at monotheism in a more relevant − but also more impersonal − way. Moreover, we have reconnected with alternative Western religious faith through the East − with Meister Eckhart and the neo-Flemish mystics, for whom God was above all inexpressible and could only be defined negatively, through all that he is not.
This brings us back to a distinctive feature of ultra-modernity, which involves accepting uncertainty – with enough maturity not to panic when faced with the idea of the Unkowable.

(1)  Published by Editions Fayard.