A Headless God: The Structure of Metamodern Religion II

Guest post by the author of Octopusyarn.

In the previous part of this series, I have presented a broad definition of religion as the social fabric that orients culture through integration. I also made the case that in order to solve the Metacrisis and the Meaning Crisis, we will need to replace our deficient Western religion (a blend of consumerism, scientism, and humanism) with the emerging Metamodern Religion.   

This part focuses on the first of three sections of the tree, describing the philosophical framework for Metamodern Religion: bringing together science and post-structuralist insights while remaining flexible enough to hold multiple cultural interpretations, including traditional and indigenous ones.

  • The Ineffable, at the crown of the tree, at once enables and relativises the 2 following sefirot. 
  • A Post-Metaphysical God serves as a placeholder for the best possible integration of ultimate value and scientific understanding at any given time. 
  • Self-aware Narrativity allows this God to become antifragile through continuous deconstruction and hopefully prevents dogmatism and fundamentalism. 
  • Meta-rationality is the intellectual stance that can overcome relativist nihilism. It at once affirms rationality while acknowledging its limits, and aims to navigate between different modes of thinking. 


“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.“

Akin to the original kabbalistic scheme, we start with the ineffable i.e. REALITY beyond description. It seems like this fountain of mystery is shared by most of the world’s traditional religions. Just like the Tao can’t be named, God in the Abrahamic traditions cannot be pictured. Similarly in Hinduism: Brahman, the ultimate reality that underlies all of existence, is said to be beyond all name, form, or attributes – “neti neti” – not this, nor that. Also the (Mahayana) Buddhist concept of emptiness, Shunyata, points at an ultimate reality that lies behind the appearance of things, which don’t have inherent existence but arise dependent on one another. 

As perennialism asserts, this sort of non-dual mysticism seems shared by major religions. Any of the theistic traditions could insert their favourite term for God here as long as they concede that ultimate reality (God) can’t really be described and their name is as good as any other. Even though we may never hope to describe reality in its totality, we should not give into the temptation to cover up anything vaguely spiritual or complex with the veil of ineffability. We can become more precise in describing different states, stages, and aspects of reality, as argued by Layman

A key consequence of placing ineffable mystery at the crown sefira is that it allows for ingress of novelty into the system: as major breakthroughs are achieved, whether scientific, cultural, or spiritual, they come in from the top and percolate down to update the system appropriately. Just like in the original kabbalistic tree of life, the entire model below emanates from this point. The ineffable couples the system with reality, making sure the map never ceases to represent the territory accurately, and acting as a reminder not to mistake the former for the latter.  

Post-metaphysical God

What would religion be without a concept of God? Even though it’s arguable the term may carry too much historical baggage, it seems like an equivalent pointer of ultimate value is critical for the overall function of the system. Also for reasons of backwards-compatibility and inclusivity, it makes sense to call a spade a spade – and a God a God. 

However, it should be clear that we are not talking about an all-powerful personal God with agency, intentions, etc. The type of post-metaphysical God envisioned should be fully compatible with a rationalist/scientific worldview. Functionally, it provides a focal point for shared values as well as a container for the most parsimonious ontologies and cosmogony.

The values imbued should be maximally inclusive and universal. A plausible example are the “4L”, as described by Gregg Henriques:

  • Life – the living ecosystem and its continued increase in complexity
  • Love – the relational force between all of the parts; right relationship
  • Light – consciousness and the value of internal experience 
  • Logos – the patterning or order of the Cosmos, the ground of intelligibility 

It bears repeating that any post-metaphysical conception of God always grows from the unspeakable mystery (and can be shredded back into it). Any Metamodern God is always a God of the “in-between” – Deus Metaxy. God emerges from an ever-evolving, interconnected net of relations. In some instances, “God” as a concept may also be used to ground any axioms used, for example, fundamental physical forces or fields, time-space (or the place before/beyond it), or even consciousness. 

The post-metaphysical trinity   

In many religious systems of the past (e.g. Christianity or Hinduism) as well as more recent attempts from Wilber’s Religion of Tomorrow (which was influenced by Whitehead) and Bard’s Syntheism, God is split up in at least a triad of different aspects. It seems critical for a post-metaphysical God to be multi-dimensional to accommodate a spectrum of values and to ground different axioms. 

Forrest Landry’s Immanent Metaphysics is made for mapping abstract triples, so using its triplicate modular isomorphism to classify different ideas of holy trinities seems opportune. The table below includes the core values above, scientific axioms, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist concepts, as well as relevant post-metaphysical conceptions of God by Bard and Wilber.

The examples above (and even the triplicate structure itself) are merely placeholders. A metamodern theology could be imagined as the continuous deconstruction and reconstruction of the post-metaphysical God. In order to truly reflect the best scaffolding possible at any time, this would require an ongoing interdisciplinary dialogue of scientists, mystics, and philosophers.


Grand narratives return in a mycelial form  

In addition to the God concept, we also need compelling and accurate stories about topics generally addressed naively by religions or unintelligibly by philosophers: 

  • The origin and teleology of the Cosmos, and our role in it as a species. 
  • The nature of the sacred, the good life, and their ethical implications. 
  • Kant’s 4 questions: “What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for? What is man?” 

Importantly, we’re not looking for a single theory of everything, but a mycelial structure of coherent yet branching stories. We’d expect Bard’s categories of logical, mythical, and pathic narrative (as described in this short piece) to be present in many permutations: These stories need to resonate in different cultural environments and potentially even tie into previous religious traditions. We want stories so good that they’ll be declared as a lost Gospel or a new buddhist Terma by traditional religions.  

Traditionally religious speculations have already been coming back as hypotheses wrapped in “science-y” language for the past decades already (see the demarcation problem). The simulation hypothesis is just tech bro gnosticism. The Omega point and the singularity are Silicon Valley eschatology. Cosmological inflation, complexification, quantum entanglement, many worlds. Many words. And all of them have religious implications and offer competing grand narratives, whether their pundits admit it or not. Many of them tie in with great religious traditions and philosophers alike (Hegel, Whitehead, Bergson, de Chardin). A re-integration therefore does not seem out of reach, and we will continue to see more convincing attempts. The prototypical example is Wilber’s Integralism, and more recently, Metamodernism. Interesting attempts that focus even more on the narrative aspects continue to show up, e.g. Dempsy’s “Emergentism” or Azarian’s “The Romance of Reality”. 

While the vanguard of science is still undecided on major questions (e.g. interpretations of quantum mechanics or the nature of consciousness) and different narrative strands will end up with quite different interpretations, some common elements seem clear. First and foremost, a development through time with distinct phase changes of emergence with increasing complexity seems like a common denominator.

Gregg Henriques’ Tree of Knowledge system pictured above is a recent version of this general pattern. Humanity is at the cusp of this development toward higher complexity. We are the universe waking up to itself, or something like that.

Self-aware narrativity

Now that we’ve created God, it’s time to kill her again. We do that by realising that all concepts and stories are ultimately constructed and empty of inherent meaning, grounded in the principle of the ineffability of reality. The sefira of self-aware narrativity balances the creation of a post-metaphysical God with its deconstruction. However, this negation of Ultimate Truth does not mean that we are forever condemned to a relativistic nihilism of ever-fragmenting, incompatible narratives. Ihab Hassan intuits a via negativa opening up through the void of deconstruction. We will get back to “truth”, “trust”, and “spirit” through nihilism – “For only through nihilism is nihilism overcome.” (read Brendan Graham Dempsey’s analysis of Hassan’s essay here). 

Recognizing that all language games are constructed and result in different topologies of meaning and power protects against the pitfalls of dogmatism and universalism. However, just because we can never articulate the Ultimate Truth doesn’t mean we need to remain silent. We can move ever closer to the shifting of reality with more refined, coherent, and parsimonious narratives. Once we accept that, the task becomes affirming our shared humanity in the best story we can come up with at the time.

An anti-fragile God and made-up prophets

Being self-aware of its constructedness, a metamodern God needs to be able to sustain critique. Daniel Görtz describes this concept of a headless God as follows: “It is a God whose altar can be pissed upon, (who) is insulted again and again, yet remains sacred, and is resurrected. (…)” A metamodern God is “always on his way to the guillotine.” 

This dynamic creates antifragility: Whatever belief structures are left standing after repeated ferocious critique can be believed in with much more conviction. Critique also acts as a pruning function to get rid of structures no longer needed. There should be no hesitation in tearing down any narratives that are disproven by our scientific advances in order to reconstruct ones that better reflect reality. 

If we can acknowledge that our God is ultimately fictional, we can also extend that principle to our prophets. We don’t need historically accurate or even living mouthpieces of God, fictional prophets will do just as well. Arguably, made-up prophets are even better: It absolves any popularisers of Metamodern Religion from the need to live up to people’s expectations. Any human will invariably disappoint when perfection is projected on her. On the other hand, a fictional character can effortlessly fill the most heroic shoes. With fictional prophets, we neither have to wait for our saviour nor be devastated about the inevitable fall from grace of our priesthood. 

By shifting the focal point of imitation to fictional characters, we are also protecting against  gurus who soak up projections to become psychopaths drunk on power. It also invites others into co-creation: Since there is no need for historic accuracy or priestly authority, anyone can add to the mythos of our made-up prophets. The invitation even extends to putting on the mask of the prophet themselves, without ever identifying with it. In this way, the prophet stops being a person and becomes a mode of being.   

The great Hanzi Freinacht is a prime example: The persona of the Nietzschean philosopher with captivating jawbones and imposing beard allows the authors to enter a prophetic mode they might otherwise be too modest for, without taking themselves too seriously. 

Stealing the Culture

This ain’t no fun as a single-player game; Metamodern Religion only comes to life with a collective of believers. We need to “steal the culture”, as Vervaeke says. Metamodern Religion has structural advantages in the memetic landscape and could convert increasing numbers from both the “spiritual but not religious” crowd as well as traditional religions.    

The dialectic between the creation of a Post-metaphysical God and the deconstruction of Self-aware narrativity could produce ever more compelling narratives. As time progresses, the petrified dogmas of traditional religions will appear more and more inconsistent. All the while, the population on average develops further and Metamodern Religion will exert an inexorable pull on adherents of traditional religions. 

At the same time, more scientific minded people would notice that the stories are in agreement with their worldview but provide much more personal and collective meaningfulness, so they too would be tempted to join in. Filling the God-shaped hole in their hearts in a way that doesn’t compromise on rationality could seem like a no-brainer.  

Metamodern religion will only feel intersubjectively real once a critical mass of “believers” subscribe to it. Just because we know that it’s just a story we made up doesn’t make it feel any less real. To the contrary, many metamodernists will only believe a story because they know they made it up. There is a certain bootstrapping principle at play here that reminds the concept of Hyperstition. Like a collective placebo effect, we might be surprised how real our headless God will feel once enough of us have agreed on a version we could believe in. 

Meta-rationality: Crossing the abyss

Camus juxtaposed the seemingly inherent need for meaning with the “unreasonable silence of nature”, a condition he titled the Absurd. If all truth is socially constructed, and it’s all really just power games deep down, why do anything at all? This feeling of absurdity, and the relativistic nihilism implied by the postmodern metameme is the abyss we need to cross. 

Meta-rationality, as described by David Chapman, is the stance that can overcome this nihilistic attitude without losing any insights of the postmodern critique. It affirms that rational systems and truth seeking makes sense to a certain extent and in certain contexts. By distinguishing between different methods of rationality and explaining their applicability and limitations, we can have our cake and eat it too. Yes, there are real patterns out there. We can reason about them, and we can be closer or further away to describing them accurately. And no, most of reality can’t be formalised well enough to apply strictly rational methods to. A lot of things we care about are socially constructed and too nebulous and interactive to capture in formal systems. Sometimes we can still reason about them, but only with fuzzy logic, or as Layman Pascal suggests, using the operators “somewhat”, “kind of”, and “almost”. 

In the context of Metamodern Religion, Meta-rationality allows us to distinguish between areas where we can formally strive for a better solution (e.g. the degree to which narratives map onto scientific theory, the game theory involved in global governance, or the empirical effectiveness of psycho-technologies), and areas where multiple solutions are called for.  This meta-rational understanding allows us to hold both relativism/narrativity and the aspiration towards truth in parallax. What David Chapman calls the “complete stance” or the “fluid mode” is also in line with the Metamodern principle of sincere irony: We are ironic because we know it’s all just language games on some level and sincere because we also know that there are better or worse games we could play, and because there is profound value at stake. 

So we indeed each need to shape our personal meanings (as we’ll see in the final sefira), but those should connect to a larger narrative that affords social cohesion around shared values (getting us out of the Meaning Crisis). This collective narrative should also *almost* map to real patterns in “objective” reality.

The author is a technology entrepreneur and investor who prefers to remain pseudonymous. 

On his blog, he expresses his long-standing interest in philosophy, psychology, and psycho-technologies. As a technologist, serious meditator, and denizen of the liminal web, he likes writing at the intersections of different fields.