Something that Sam Harris said in his "Four Horsemen" conversation with Hitchens, Dennett and Dawkins (see Monday's post) struck me.
Near the end of their two hour talk about the future of religion, Harris urged nonbelievers to admit that there is something not quite right with our free-wheeling contemporary culture: it's all about money-making, tawdriness, celebrity-worshiping -- you know the litany of complaints.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
Harris' larger point was that those of us who stand outside of religious traditions should work to develop a "spiritual" language of our own (except with "no bullshit," as the soft-spoken Harris surprisingly said). Harris hopes that such a language could express our longings for experiences which are distinct from the daily effluvia of our lives.
With that point I agree. We need to talk about the profound experiences we have which give us new perspectives and sometimes overwhelm us with emotion, our visions and inspirations, what is sometimes called the "oceanic feeling." These are important experiences to us, and they will continue to be -- with or without religion. They reach beyond the everyday.
But Harris' casual dismissal of contemporary culture (and the ready assent of the other three to this dismissal) struck me.
The more I thought about it, I realized that many of us have a conflicted view of contemporary culture. In any given moment we may consider it to be: a) the most dazzling display of symbol-generating, meme-producing, endlessly morphing, gloriously nobrow, creative flourishing that the world has ever known; or b) an ever-shifting representation of the broken lives and misplaced hopes of countless lonely, lost human beings, cynically repackaged by some of those same in order to make a buck.
Well, which is it?
This, it occurs to me, is a threshold question for those of us who would urge our fellow-citizens to free themselves from the grip of the ancient texts of religions and the creaky belief-systems of centuries past. It is also a threhold question for parents as they introduce their children to the larger culture around them.
Do we like contemporary culture? If not, then what are we doing immersed in it?
Or to put it more directly: Can we all come together now and celebrate Paris Hilton?
Whatever you think of her personally (in my case, I pretty much draw a blank), I say we can and should.
That doesn't mean you need to read about her in the supermarket tabloids or watch her on TV. It doesn't even mean you need ever to mention her name to your spouse or your children. The great thing about being alive today is: You can pick and choose which parts of the culture you want to enage.
But make no mistake. I am saying it without apologies. I am saying it with pride: The effluvia is the culture. There is no sacred truth buried underneath. There are experiences which stand apart from the effluvia, but they are profoundly personal and do not point to some metaphysical realm which we could reach if only we were more pure of mind.
Yes, you have to do some navigating through the morass of other people's interests and hang-ups and diversions, but what is the alternative? Do you want someone else to screen out the Paris Hiltons of the world for you?
In that case, you might never be able to enjoy the gifts of another "it girl" of her day, who was discovered on the streets of New York for her looks alone but turned out to be immensely talented: Chloe Sevigny. It takes work this way, but you get the rewards of diversity and feedback loops and rare discoveries.
And the world would be a more barren place without the Chloe Sevignys and the Paris Hiltons.