Frédéric Lenoir’s Dialogue with the Divine

In the wake of the week in which the world became obsessed with the eclipse, Frédéric Lenoir examines why humans seek meaning in the divine.

Our spirituality, religious beliefs and relationship to the sacred are changing. Frédéric Lenoir, a philosopher, writer and professor of the sociology of religion at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences), is the author of some 50 books, translated into about 20 languages. He has become one of the main French analysts of such questions, which are both personal and social.

Among his bestselling books on the great philosophical and religious figures are Socrate, Jésus, Bouddha (Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, published by Fayard) and Jung, un voyage vers soi (Jung: A Journey into the Self, Albin Michel). In Le Désir, une philosophie (Desire: A Philosophy, Flammarion, 2022), he explored this vital human impulse, driven in part by the quest for meaning. This search can also be found at the heart of the spiritual and religious dimensions of our lives. His 2023 book, L’Odyssée du sacré (The Odyssey of the Sacred, Albin Michel), summarizes more than 30 years of research on religious beliefs.

What do religions, religious beliefs and even superstitions say about our contemporary societies?

FL Human beings have a unique quality: they wonder about the mysteries of the world and the enigma of their existence. For tens of millennia, this has led them to develop forms of religious feeling that connect them with suprasensible forces. For a very long time, these forces were spirits of nature, but with sedentariness, they became gods and goddesses before becoming – at the end of a long process of rationalization – the “one god” we know today. We can speak about “homo spiritualis” or “homo religiosus.” I would differentiate the two. The spiritual dimension is the personal side of the universal search for meaning, while the religious dimension is collective. Both are part of a culture, but they take very different forms. Both have existed since time immemorial and have not disappeared with modern times. Basically, nowadays in the West, we are witnessing a form of “à la carte” spirituality. We might even speak of a Copernican reversal of the spiritual conscience of humanity. It’s no longer traditions that dictate the beliefs and practices of individuals, but individuals who pick and choose that which suits them from the traditions.

Human beings have a unique quality: they wonder about the mysteries of the world and the enigma of their existence. Frédéric Lenoir

What can we say today about the revival of esotericism in contemporary society?

FL Esotericism has existed since antiquity. In the West, we distinguish “exoteric,” meaning external, destined for the crowd, from “esoteric,” meaning internal and destined for the initiated, to give them access to inner transformation. The Greeks, for example, had the Eleusinian Mysteries; Plato was an initiate. Then, within the major religions, we used “esoteric” to designate spiritual movements that focus on the interior life and consider it necessary to have mystical experiences connecting us to the ineffable divine and inviting us to meet it with love. These are the great currents of apophatic Christian mystics, the Jewish Kabbalah and Muslim Sufism. It’s a rather global vision of the world that does not separate immanence from the transcendence of God. Then there are contemporary historical elements, a mystical esoteric nebula – called “New Age” in the United States. Also linked to the rise of personal development, it was born in the 1960s among the American counterculture, in Big Sur, California, where therapists created the Esalen Institute. They wanted to combine Eastern spirituality with Carl Jung’s depth psychology to lead to self-fulfillment, the awakening of consciousness.

It was always about making the world enchanting again and showing that the universe is a living organism we can connect to. People were meant to consider themselves as part of a whole. In this holistic vision of things, we no longer separate the human from nature, the body from the spirit. This global vision, if you look closely, inspires all alternative medicines, without exception, as well as a form of spiritual ecology in which we respect nature as a living organism. We respect all life and don’t consider it to be something we can use. This was a reaction against the commodification of the world, and also against Descartes’ mechanistic and rationalist vision.

And how does this relate to practices like astrology, for example?

FL Astrology usually involves a need to connect with the cosmos: I, a small atomized, isolated individual, am connected to the great whole. And I can read my destiny and my personality in the sky. It’s a holistic vision. It is used by linking depth psychology and astrology. Look at Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) in the United States and André Barbault (1921-2019) in France, who realized that an astrological chart could be deciphered using psychoanalytical symbolism. Psychology, the inner world of humans, was linked with the symbolic language of astrology.

What about the tarot and oracles? Have these practices become a capitalistic product? Or are they also part of this quest for spiritual introspection?

FL We have always tried to reassure ourselves through divination in an uncertain world. Divination gives meaning to our life; it tells us that things are preprogrammed, that we are not just little pieces of straw floating in the wind. It’s universal. Our whole culture is permeated with the codes of the consumer society, so we can indeed fall into spiritual materialism if the ongoing search for spirituality is experienced in a consumerist mode. I do a little bit of yoga, a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of meditation, a little bit of neo-shamanism, and this doesn’t transform me into anything. Yet the essence of spirituality is to leave the ego behind and to live more and more in the heart, in love, in an authentic link with others, with oneself and with the world. Any belief can be perverted, which does not mean that everyone is affected, but it is a danger.

How do you explain the current revival of beliefs linked to pagan celebrations?

FL I think it can be explained in two ways. One is the desire to find the origins of Christian religious festivals in pagan religious festivals. For example, Christmas is a celebration of the rebirth of the sun, during which we celebrate the winter solstice and the lengthening days. It’s a desire to rediscover natural religious feelings linked to nature through celebrations. They are based on a whole series of myths and stories that no longer necessarily appeal to people, whereas the sun is important to everyone.

I think we are rediscovering paganism because it connects us to nature. At the same time, we are also in a context of global warming, which poses major ecological questions. Ecology and the new spirituality cohabit very well because ecology incites us to respect nature, and these new spiritual currents incite us to consider it as a living organism.

In your book on desire, you mention the return of the “twin flame” myth, a New Age belief that borrows from Aristophanes. What’s that all about?

FL I think it’s a belief based on the desire to merge with another person, which probably stems from our time in the uterus, when we were in fusion with our mother. We then look for this kind of fusion again in our love life and find a rationalization to legitimize this desire. Aristophanes explained it very well in Plato’s Symposium: he recalls that we were originally beings that were divided in two and that we are constantly looking for our other half. Later, the Romantics developed this vision further and called it the “soulmate.” Today, it’s known as the “twin flame.” In fact, it’s the same desire, which takes on different faces and names depending on the times, the moment in history and the culture. It corresponds to a very deep human desire to merge with another human being.

Can we distinguish between beliefs and superstitions? Why have certain beliefs become what we call superstitions, like the fear of the number 13 or of black cats?

FL A religious belief is based on a thought-out, carefully constructed discourse, whereas superstition is a kind of culturally inherited popular instinct. It’s an unverified opinion that is transmitted from generation to generation. I would like to add that beliefs are not only religious or spiritual but are also linked to our secular life. The whole relationship of humans with the world and with society is based on beliefs.

For example, money is a belief. We believe that a piece of paper like a €100 bill has value. If you don’t believe it, and if no one else believes it, it has no value. Our economy is based on this collective belief. So, you see that all social life is based on beliefs. And among these beliefs, there are beliefs linked to a suprasensible level that are called religious beliefs.

This article was originally published in Mastermind 13. You can purchase the full issue here. 

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