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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Cobb

Liberation and Apocalypse

Updated: Jan 11

As far back I can remember, I have always been a seeker. Whether it was animism or Wicca or Buddhism or Kabbalah, I was always in search of the sacred and mystical. In college, I began experimenting with psychedelics. Some of these experiences transformed me in ways I'd never imagined, and include some of the most significant events of my life. They opened doorways that I stepped through that led me to more disciplined spiritual practice and daily prayer, developing a deep relationship with the spiritual world. Looking back, I can see that I could always feel a certain providential unfolding in my life - that the events of my life are connected by a gradual unfolding of meaning and purpose. I could feel a sense of guidance from what I now think of as my guardian angel.

I became interested in mind-expansion in whatever form I could find. I read books on the occult and sought out esoteric communities. Some had shady cult vibes that still give me the creeps. Others were more New Age, and for a time I found something of a community in one of these organizations. I practiced meditation, ritual magick, and theurgy, striving for a deeper experience of the divine. I had many powerful mystical experiences in this way, but it was not in these peak experiences that I found the voice of divine guidance. Instead, I learned to pay attention to the signs around me and my inner voice. This voice could be especially strong in the voice of disillusionment, as befell me with each of these spiritual detours on my journey. It was in this synchronous harmony of inner and outer that I learned to discern spirit. I would later discover in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises a spiritual practice around precisely this kind of discernment.

At one point in my life, I am embarrassed to say, I was duped by the false promises of the "law of attraction," which stated by concentrating one's intentions, one can manifest the kind of life we truly want. Not coincidentally, this was part of my being duped into a multilevel marketing scheme. I would later realize that the law of attraction is the unofficial theology of these parasitic scams: a soteriology of Mammon in which those who will hard enough will manifest the life of their dreams and those who fail have likewise manifested the energy they put out. As embarrassing as it was for me to fall for such a scam ideology, but perhaps I needed to go through it to recognize it for what it truly is: black magick. This theology of willfulness, combined with a victim-blaming and scapegoating Just World Theory, is fundamentally demonic.

The more I tried to concentrate on manifesting this entrepreneurial dream that was never really mine to begin with, the more miserable I got. I made vision boards to envision the life I would have once that money started rolling in. But did I actually believe in these products they wanted me to sell? Hell no. The dream of an abundant life without a job or a boss was the salvific promise they proclaimed. It was to this idol that we were to pray. It was a bait-and-switch. We were to primed to seek this for ourselves individually instead of questioning a system in which we rent ourselves out for 40 hours a week of meaningless work in order to survive. If we truly paid attention to our desire to escape from that world, we might notice that this world of servitude is bad for all of us.

It took a year of eating through my life savings for this accursed hyper-capitalist cult before I finally broke down and surrendered to reality. I may very well have been able to manifest this dream they were selling me if I really believed in it, but it was never my path, and I was stupid to think it was. I abhor high-pressure sales tactics, and the way they were able to justify such predatory behavior was an instant red flag, but I fixed my gaze on the prize they dangled in front of me. Once this dream fell apart, I realized that all these attempt to manipulate reality to my will were the path of ruin.

The next step in my spiritual journey was in the Integral philosophy of Ken Wilber. Having become disillusioned with the more "woo" aspects of New Age spirituality, he seemed to present a more intellectually respectable spirituality. He built up his "Theory of Everything" from an impressive array of sources including Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Francisco Varela, and Jean Piaget. His great eschatology is one of "conscious evolution," in which we are all, individually and collectively, evolving toward higher stages of consciousness. The kind of woo I had been into before came from a "Green" level of consciousness plagued by relativism and anti-rationalism, but I had "evolved" to a "Teal" or "Integral" level consciousness in which I could take perspective on my perspectives and "transcend and include" lower-level truths into higher-level truths.

For Wilber, conscious evolution is something we are all doing at different rates, and those of us who were into Ken Wilber, he assured us, were for that very reason on the cutting edge of conscious evolution. Instead of the solipsistic greed of the Law of Attraction, here was a self-flattering soteriology of spiritual elitism. We, the highly evolved ones, can transcend and include your perspective within our own, and therefore are above your perspective. We Integral few were the vanguard of consciousness, who by our leadership would lift help raise the consciousness of others and transform the Noosphere. Here, once again, I needed to get over myself.

I would discover over time that my attempt to storm the gates of heaven was part of the problem. I was looking for the right trick to become closer to the divine and manifest my destiny, but the trick all along was to let go. This surrender, this kenosis, or self-emptying, means letting go and trusting. It means paying careful attention to the signs around you and the stirrings within your heart and discerning their message. In this discernment of spirits, one begins to notice deeper patterns: within oneself, the events of one's life, one's relationships, society and culture, and within the very structure of reality. In this way, the cosmic Logos reveals itself. It has a discernible pattern of unfolding, and by attentiveness to it, we can harmonize our actions with it, achieving what Daoists call wu wei, or effortless action.

I would learn the power of surrender more deeply than I could imagine under my Saturn return, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I watched as she made a project of her death, seeking to make peace with everyone in her life, leaving nothing unsaid, accepting what was, and dying well. In watching her go through this, I too had to let go and surrender to this process. As often happens with these things, she had periods of remission where things seemed to get better, and then would take a turn for the worst. This constant whiplash of hope and despair shook me to the core until I finally learned to surrender to a reality beyond my control. By the time she passed, we were both at peace with it.

In the midst of this profound process of surrender, I had one of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life: I became radicalized. It was in the fall of 2011. A world away, the Arab spring was raging across the Middle East. Anti-austerity protests were happening across Europe. And in my own country, a movement was erupting around the call to Occupy Wall Street. I had always been political in some form or another. My parents were typical West Coast liberals and politics were a frequent topic around the dinner table. In college I went through a rather embarrassing libertarian phase, but it did spark my interest in economics, which led me to explore heterodox ideas like Georgism and different theories of monetary reform. I developed a very niche wonkish understanding of politics that I worked to refine over the years. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis intensified my search to understand the inner workings of our systems and how to reform them to work better for everyone.

Yet with these uprisings, something shifted in me. This wasn't about the kind of technocratic market reforms I was studying. It wasn't a political platform to pass this or that legislation. It wasn't even the people demanding to be heard. It was a referendum against an entire system that had failed millions. It was a declaration that another world was possible. The protests themselves demonstrated an alternative form of social organization. They were experiments in radical democracy, operating by consensus and reclaiming public space for the people. An overwhelming sense of excitement came over me as suddenly anything seemed possible. I could feel the horizon of human possibility expand before my eyes. I had a taste of the World to Come.

I naively thought this wave could keep going, but it eventually fizzled out. It lived on, however, in other social justice movements that sprung up over the next decade, such as Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. We still inhabit an era of upheaval totally alien to the post-historical world I grew up with in the 1990s. A couple decades after Francis Fukuyama had declared the End of History, it seems that history has come back with a vengeance. Neoliberalism continues to its material hegemony, but the ideological consensus behind has fractured and the spell has been broken. I was forever changed by the mass awakening I witnessed. I could feel the heartbeat of history. The hope of liberation beat strong in my heart.

I have always lived my life in pursuit of liberation. In my mystical wandering, I yearned to touch the divine. In one my most foolish errors, I was swayed by false promises of liberation from work. In becoming politically radicalized, I began to seek liberation for all. My spirituality and my politics today are tightly interwoven. The path of kenosis that my guardian angel has taught me through these life lessons is also the path of our collective liberation. Degrowth, subsidiarity, confederation, and the commons are all kenotic ways that the world must learn to break free from the Luciferian megamachine of capital accumulation. The path of kenosis, of emptying ourselves of our willful and controlling ways and seeking instead to align ourselves with the Logos, can guide us toward a better world.

I have been repeatedly confronted with the fact that people seeking spiritual liberation are rarely interested in political liberation. Whether it's the solipsistic narcissism of the Law of Attraction, the divinized willfulness of occult magick, or the more subtle and sophisticated self-aggrandizing of the Integral movement, a reactionary ethos runs through these spiritual movements, Nor is this particularly recent. Theosophy laid the groundwork for what we now call the New Age movement while also developing a mythology around the Aryan race that would go on to influence Nazi race theory. Aleister Crowley was a terrible antisemite. Timothy Leary became a libertarian later in life. Joseph Campbell was a misgynist antisemite whose work would go on to influence the Men's Rights Movement. Today his heir is Jordan Peterson, who tells boys the key to conquer chaos while also identifying women with chaos. A self-help spirituality has sprung up in our neoliberal world. Corporations hold wellness seminars and teach mindfulness. Many of the New Age people I used to hang out with have fallen down the Qanon rabbithole.

I steer clear of the woo New Age stuff today, but I still tend to converse with intellectuals of a more spiritual orientation. They're the kind of people in the same intellectual orb as Ken Wilber - process philosophy, transpersonal psychology, conscious evolution, metamodernism. There's still a lot of interesting thought being generated in that intellectual corner, and it's one I still broadly feel at home in. Yet it's also alienating to see how bourgeois their views so often are. They tend to see the problem of the world as the disenchanted mechanistic cosmos. This is a concern I share, but rarely do I see them connect the dots to the capitalist megamachine that causes so much suffering on the world stage. Instead, there is so much fretting about "consciousness." From panpsychism to conscious evolution, this crowd can't talk enough about consciousness. Yet what rarely seems to enter their consciousness is the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, the subaltern.

This brand of spirituality fits well with what has been called the "California ideology." This is the prevailing ideology of Silicon Valley, mixing hippie counterculture with Randian libertarianism. This is the ideology of the tech bro, utterly convinced of his genius. A god among men, he of course counts himself among the most evolved humans on the planet. He travels to Burning Man, flies to the Amazon to take ayahuasca, microdoses at work, practices meditation every day with his mindfulness app, and goes to conferences with other "thought leaders" and "innovators" who are changing the world. What the world needs most, in their eyes, is "visionaries" like themselves.

I propose, instead, that our salvation lies in our solidarity with the least of these, in whom Christ proclaimed his presence. We must indeed evolve our consciousness, not by climbing its rungs above others, but in lifting each other up. The Noosphere that Silicon Valley is selling us is an oceanic digital existence of commodified information and compulsive overstimulation, We must construct an alternative Noosphere by building up the commons. We must learn the spiritual value of solidarity, of mutual aid, of sharing our common home.

A liberatory spirituality must be an apocalyptic faith - a fidelity to the World to Come. This does not mean passively waiting for this coming world, nor storming the gates of heaven to immanentize the eschaton, but a recognition that this fallen world is not the world as it should be, and an attentiveness to the signs of the times. We must participate with grace in co-creating this World to Come. In doing so, we encounter what Ernst Bloch called the "Principle of Hope." Through kenosis, we participate in the liberation of matter and consciousness, self and world. We must practice the great work of healing the world as we heal ourselves. Therein lies our liberation.

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