The Spiritual Origins of the West: A Lack Perspective

Every time a society finds itself in crisis it instinctively turns its eyes towards its origins and looks there for a sign.

(Octavio Paz)

The more we learn about other civilizations, the more anomalous the West seems. If we resist the presumption that Western culture is the growing tip of social evolution, to be contrasted with the stagnation of non-Western ones, what becomes highlighted is its dynamism, for better and worse. Rather than trying to account for the “undevelopment” of non-Western societies — why they did not evolve further along our path — it is the apparently self-generated and future-driven “progress” of the West that needs to be explained. What caused it?

We cannot simply point to the Renaissance, for that “rebirth” is itself the effect to be explained. What caused the Renaissance? Intellectuals at the time were inspired by the rediscovery of ancient texts, but in no sense was the Renaissance a return to the classical period: it was a revolution which, like all revolutions, misunderstood itself to be restoring some pristine condition long lost in the past, yet in fact was creating something quite new. In most ways the pre-modern West was not very different from many other civilizations of its time, but we must find something within the Middle Ages themselves to account for how the modern West originated.

It turns out that answering this question will also shed light on another almost as important: the origins of Western law. The basic issue here is not only the development of legal codes but more the curious problem of the law’s authority. Today we take for granted the peaceful transfer of power which occurs whenever the ruling party of a democratic nation is defeated at the polls, yet this contrasts starkly with what still occurs in many parts of the non-Western world, where the powers-that-be lack respect for such a political process and often subvert it. We say that in such countries the rule of law is weak, which prompts us to wonder: From where does the law get its authority? Why do we respect it and yield to it? According to Harold Berman, “law — in all societies — derives its authority from something outside itself.”1 What is that something?

Amazingly, the answer to both questions turns out to be the same: the dynamism of the West and the authority of its law may both be traced back to the papal reformation which occurred in Europe in the late 11th century. This was not a reformation but a true revolution — in fact, the most important revolution that the West ever experienced. Significantly, this was not primarily a secular revolution, as we might expect, but a spiritual one: not only in the sense that it transformed the papacy and, hence, the whole structure of medieval society, but even more because it involved a radically new understanding of our human condition and its salvation. It was based upon a new theological doctrine about what sin is and how we can be redeemed — or, to use the categories which I shall soon offer, a new explanation of our human lack and how that is to be resolved. Berman concludes his massive study of the legal revolution which accompanied this by claiming: “Without the fear of purgatory and the hope of the Last Judgment, the Western legal tradition could not have come into being.”2 That extraordinary claim is still too modest, for much more was at stake. This spiritual revolution led to a bifurcation of the world into the sacred and the secular spheres, whose disengagement led to “a release of energy and creativity analogous to a process of nuclear fission.”3

The incredulity which this invites is due partly to our ignorance of historical fact but more to a misleading periodization that for most of us still divides Western history into ancient, medieval, and modern (and now postmodern?) eras. This way of understanding our past originated in the Renaissance, whose intellectuals were eager to distinguish their times from the dark ages that preceded. Historians today distinguish the low from the high middle ages (roughly, before and after c. 1050), due to the many extraordinary changes that began to occur late in the 11th century: a self-generated economic expansion, with the formation of craft guilds and a merchant class; the growth of cities and universities; and the development of vernacular languages and literatures, chivalry, and new styles of art and architecture. To these must be added the significant changes within the Church itself, some of them as consequential for the future: first and foremost, the papal reformation itself and the complementary secular disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire into rudimentary nation-states; the end of lay investiture and married clergy; the final split between the Eastern and Western Churches; growing emphasis on confession, introspection, and the Eucharist, along with the formalization of the other sacraments; the importance of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception; the development of purgatory; the crusades (which encouraged, among many other things, the growth of anti-Semitism and led to the first massacres of European Jews); and the inquisition and other methods of persecuting heresy.

As Berman summarizes it: “in the West, modern times — not only modern institutions and modern legal systems but also the modern state, the modern church, modern philosophy, the modern university, modern literature, and much else that is modern — have their origin in the period 1050-1150 and not before.” 4 This era opened the door for a new direction of human development, which would become our collective attempt to wrest control of our own fate on earth by aggressively restructuring human society and nature itself. The late 11th century was the crucial turning point that, for better and worse, shifted us from focusing on an other-worldly solution for the problem of life to constructing a worldly one.

For Berman, the most consequential of these transformations was the development of law and its authority. Although that is something which we now take for granted in democratic societies, it rests upon precarious historical roots, for it depends on accepting a type of transcendence that challenges the authority of temporal powers. According to S. C. Humphreys:

“Transcendence,” whether it takes the form of divine revelation or of theoretical cosmology, implies a search for authority outside the institutionalized offices and structures of the seeker’s society. Even its most concrete form, the law code, implies a transfer of authority from the holders of office to the written rule. Transcendental impulses therefore constitute, by definition, an implicit challenge to traditional authority and indicate some dissatisfaction with it….

New transcendental visions are … likely to be presented by persons in a precariously independent, interstitial — or at least exposed and somewhat solitary — position in society; they are therefore particularly likely to occur in societies sufficiently differentiated to have specialized social roles with distinct bases of authority, but not complex enough to have integrated these roles into functionally differentiated structures.5

Humphreys is thinking of the Greek sophists and the Hebrew prophets; but as it turned out, “precariously independent” applied as well to the pope, whose situation in the early middle ages was quite interstitial: although he was sometimes little more than the emperor’s chaplain, his role was not fully integrated, for he had his own base of (religious) authority. Suddenly, within a generation, the pope became the most powerful and important person in Europe because he was able to articulate a new vision of God’s transcendence and impose a new understanding of his own authority as God’s vicar. It was a turning point in our understanding of human lack and how to address it.

How did this occur? Why did people accept it? This brings us back again to Harold Berman’s extraordinary book Law and Revolution. Although first published in 1983, it has important implications not yet generally noticed (as I hope to show later). Law and Revolution explains in detail the formation of the Western legal tradition and concludes by reflecting on the deterioration of that tradition today. At the same time that we need more from the law and its institutions — with the decline of religiously-based morality, it has to substitute as a minimalist public morality — the law has lost its transcendental mandate, for we no longer accept it as reflecting anything more than social agreement, and thus we regard it as something to be manipulated and evaded when possible. For Berman, the basic problem is that the law today has lost its spiritual foundations, something of which we are not even aware because we understand the law only in terms of its rational codification. Therefore “the West no longer has confidence in the law as a way of protecting spiritual and ethical values against corrupting social, economic, and political forces.”6 As we have become more contemptuous and cynical about the law, which itself has become more subjective and expedient, there has been a “massive loss of confidence in the West itself, as a civilization, a community, and in the legal tradition which for nine centuries has helped sustain it.”7 In this way too we suffer from the loss of a transcendental dimension.

Is it a coincidence that this social crisis is occurring at the very same time as a life-threatening ecological crisis, itself a direct consequence of the dynamism of the West? Today that dynamism — our pre-occupation with “progress” — has also become problematic: as technological and economic transformations have been accelerating into a state of permanent revolution, they seem to be less and less in our control, yet more and more a future-obsessed growth-only-for-growth’s-sake. If both crises are the result of closely related developments that began at the same time and are due to the same causes, it may be important for us at the close of the second millennium to take a close look at their origins, which also happen to be our origins.

Before doing that, however, a short excursus is necessary in order to establish a particular context for understanding the relationship between them. The argument that follows involves dissecting the spiritual roots of the distinction that we presume between sacred and secular. My point is that the secular pre-occupations which we take for granted today have a history, and this history reveals not only their spiritual origins but also the spiritual energies that still motivate them (largely unconsciously) today. There are many factors to be considered, and in order to see their relationship, it is important not to presuppose the distinction that we normally assume between the religious orientation of traditional societies and the secularity of the modern West. So, we need to begin by deconstructing that duality, employing for this purpose a category that can be derived from a psychoanalytic reading of Buddhism: our sense of lack.


Every civilization starts out with a new experience of death. (Oswald Spengler)

Hegel somewhere says much the same thing: history is a record of how we run away from death. From a Buddhist perspective, however, death is not our main problem. Fear of death is fear of something that will happen to me, yet that worry projects my life-problem into the future. There is a more basic problem that infects my existence right here and now.

The concept of anatta, “no-self,” is essential to Buddhist teachings, but to make sense of it we must relate it to another one: dukkha, usually translated as “suffering” but better understood more broadly as frustration or unhappiness. The four truths into which Sakyamuni often summarized his teachings focus on this: life as dukkha, the cause of that dukkha, the end of dukkha, and the path to end dukkha. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most important concept in Buddhism. On more than one occasion, the Buddha said that he taught only one thing: how to end dukkha.
I have argued elsewhere8 that we can use the psychoanalytic understanding of repression to help us understand anatta and dukkha. Anatta implies that our primary repression is not sexual wishes, nor even death fears, but awareness of nonself — the intuition that “I am not real” — of which we become conscious (the “return of the repressed”) as a sense of lack infecting our empty core. It is the deep sense which we all have that “something is wrong with me,” that something is missing. The death-repression emphasized by existential psychology transforms the Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project: the attempt to conquer death by becoming the father of oneself, i.e., the creator and sustainer of one’s own life. Buddhism merely shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is better understood as the attempt of the developing sense-of-self to attain autonomy. It is the quest to deny one’s groundlessness by becoming one’s own ground.

The Oedipal project, then, derives from our intuition that self-consciousness is not “self-existing” but something ungrounded–in fact, a mental construct. Consciousness is more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself, that is, to make itself real. If the sense-of-self is an always-insecure construct, its efforts to real-ize itself will be attempts to objectify itself in some fashion.

The consequence of its inevitable failure to do so is that the sense-of-self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense-of-lack, which it always tries to escape. The return of the repressed in the distorted form of a symptom shows us how to link this basic yet hopeless project with the symbolic ways in which we try to make ourselves real in the world. We experience this deep sense of lack as the persistent feeling that “there is something wrong with me,” but we understand that feeling, and respond to it, in many different ways.

The problem with our objectifications is that no object can ever satisfy if it is not really an object which we want. When we do not understand what is actually motivating us — because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, which is essentially a spiritual yearning) — we become compulsive. According to Nietzsche, someone who follows the Biblical admonition literally and plucks out his own eye does not kill his sensuality, for “it lives on in an uncanny vampire form and torments him in repulsive disguises.”9 But the opposite is also true: insofar as we think that we have escaped such a spiritual drive, we are deceiving ourselves, for that drive (to escape our lack and become real) still lives on in uncanny secular forms which obsess us because we do not understand what motivates them.

The point of this Buddhist approach, for us, is that such an understanding of lack straddles our usual distinction between sacred and secular. Their difference is reduced to where we look to resolve our sense of lack; but if that lack is a constant and if religion is defined as the way in which we try to resolve it, we can never escape a religious interpretation of the world. Our basic problem is spiritual inasmuch as the sense-of-self’s lack of being compels it to seek being one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, whether in religious ways or in “secular” ones. What today we understand as secular projects are just as symptomatic of this spiritual need. Our lack is a constant, but how we understand it and how we try to overcome it vary historically. Elsewhere I have argued that our desire for fame, love of romantic love, and pre-occupation with money, all of which we take for granted today, are examples of historically-conditioned ways in which we try to fill up our lack.10 We became obsessed with them during the Renaissance. When (by no coincidence) Christianity began to lose its hold in Europe, such individual attempts to real-ize ourselves were devised in order to fill its place.

The period between 1050 and 1150 was even more crucial because that was when our collective religious solution to lack first began to shift from an other-worldly to a this-worldly dimension, an approach which no longer looked up to the heavens but forward to what could appear on earth in the future. The shift was gradual, of course: in the beginning the emphasis was on creating the spiritual and social conditions which could hasten the return of Christ and the new millennium that he would inaugurate. Eventually we became more confident about our ability to reshape society and the material conditions of our existence. This implied new understandings of temporality, rationality, and technology itself — understandings now commonsensical and therefore oblivious to the spiritual motivations that formed them. Our new pre-occupation with progress involved redefining time, in effect, as “a schema for the expiation of guilt,”11 which in my Buddhist terms becomes: time originates from our sense of lack and our attempts to resolve that lack.

Today, in a time of imminent ecological collapse, we no longer understand why future-oriented growth still obsesses us. The answer is that contemporary secular society, having lost faith in any spiritual solution, remains trapped in the future because the future provides the only solution that we can envision for our sense of lack. Nevertheless, the global threats of nuclear catastrophe, overpopulation, and social and ecological breakdown make it increasingly difficult for us at the end of the second millennium to believe in progress. The future is collapsing, which means that our collective sense of lack is disinvesting from the economic and technological projects whereby it hoped to become real. But before considering the possibility of new lack-projects in the new millennium, we need more understanding of the last one. How did we come to pursue secular solutions to what is essentially a spiritual problem? The answer is that those solutions were originally not secular at all.


The Papal Revolution was the most general and intensive social earthquake Europe has ever seen. (LR 530)

In 1075 Pope Gregory VII declared the political and legal supremacy of the papacy over the whole Church and indirectly over the whole of Christendom. Independence of the clergy was unacceptable to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who responded with military force. A civil war raged intermittently through Europe until 1122, when the Concordat of Worms agreed to distinguish the two spheres of power: there would be a difference between the allegiance owed to spiritual authorities and that owed to temporal authorities. This was not the obvious solution that it appears to be in retrospect, for such a stalemate was sought by neither party; the unity of Christendom was generally believed to be of the highest value both religiously and politically. Such, however, was the origin of our distinction between sacred and secular and, arguably, between value and fact.

A few years earlier, when the Normans of Sicily paid homage to the pope in 1060, their act of fealty changed the Holy See in Rome from an adjunct of the imperial palace into an independent papal court. This court invented a new form of central government when it granted the free right of appeal to every Christian soul. Prior to this, no one could denounce the corruption of a bishop or carry grievances outside that diocese. Right of appeal led to the rapid systematization of canon law — with law courts and a legal profession as well as legislation and a legal literature. This initiated what soon became a “science of law.” In response, temporal rulers felt compelled to do the same, and the nation-state was born.

Prior to this revolution, the emperor or king was considered to be the head of the Church and the Vicar of Christ. Charlemagne viewed the pope as his chaplain and admonished Hadrian: “Your part is to aid our effort with your prayers.”12 Emperors often nominated (i.e., imposed) popes and required an oath of fealty from them. Of the 25 popes who held office in the 100 years prior to 1059 (when a Church synod first prohibited lay investiture of clergy), 21 were nominated by emperors and 5 were forcibly retired by emperors.13 Kings often appointed the archbishops and bishops in their realms, including even Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury as late as 1093 (despite his innovative theology, Anselm was largely ignorant of the new development of canon law). The justification for this practice was that temporal rulers were consecrated and therefore were sacral rulers as well: after all, God gave them the power to rule.

This implied a legal order but not a legal system: “Law was not consciously systematized. It had not yet been “disembedded from the whole social matrix of which it was a part.”14 Until the 11th century the basic social unit remained the tribe, and within that the household, a community of trust based partly on kinship and partly on oaths of mutual protection and service. Violations by outsiders led to blood feuds which the king’s law attempted to subvert, but it was not easy to bring wrongdoers to trial or to make witnesses testify or to enforce a judgment. Later, fixed monetary sanctions payable by the wrongdoer’s kin to the victim’s kin worked to forestall vendettas. This solution did not need much of a state administrative system to regulate justice — which was fortunate since there was not much of a system. The king ruled by holding court. His collections of law were less legislation than exhortations to keep the peace and to desist from crime: “the king had to beg and pray … for he could not command and punish.” Nor were the dooms of the Germanic folk assembly (for example) legislation in the modern sense; they were divinely inspired affirmations of ancient folk law, reflecting the will of the gods (after the introduction of Christianity, the will of God). “Men did not think of a ruler as the giver but rather the guardian of law.” People expected a ruler to protect and to be generous to them, not to administer efficiently; from the other side, he had the right to demand their loyal support (LR 53, 68, 62, 69). “What bound this society together was not a sense of obligation to a common weal, but the personal oaths of individual men to individual lords.”15

In sum, early medieval law was not a body of rules imposed from above but a natural part of the collective consciousness: the bonds of kinship, lordship, and community were the law. These made it a mediating process for dealing with relationships, rather than a matter of rule-making and rule-enforcing. This bears comparison with the type of social control found in the Confucian and Buddhist societies of Asia, which emphasized not allocating rights and duties through a system of general norms but maintaining right relationships among family and community members.16. The similar stress on restoring harmonious relationships supports the view that pre-modern Europe was not very different from much of the non-Western world at that time.

The folklaw emphasis on honor and harmony was complemented by the Church’s penitential law emphasis on repentance and forgiveness to preserve the spiritual welfare of the community. This involved no social program to reform society, for that was impossible. The hopelessness of life in the decaying “terrestrial city” was taken for granted. Christianity was an apocalyptic faith: one must patiently await the return of the Messiah, for that was how the world would be redeemed — in my Buddhist terms, the only way in which our personal and collective lack could be resolved. Events involving sin and justice were earthly manifestations of an ongoing cosmic struggle between God and the Devil for our souls, a struggle which would eventually end when Christ re-appeared to vanquish his nemesis once and for all. Sin was not objectified; it indicated a state of alienation between us and God, just as an earthly crime created a disharmony in the relationship between two kinship groups.

Although it never became officially adopted by the Church, Anselm’s theory of atonement offered a new perspective on how we are redeemed, which, in combination with the new authority of the papacy, changed the course of history. By leading to a new understanding of how our human lack should be addressed, it opened up novel possibilities which would create the modern West.


More than anything else, it was the new vision of his own ultimate destiny that first led Western man to have faith in legal science. (LR 164)

The Papal Reformation declared not only the independence of the Church but also its ultimate authority over temporal rulers. Lacking an army of its own, how could it hope to make these claims effective? In dealing with the new claimants whom its centralizing government encouraged, the Church discovered a new source of authority in its new means of control: the rule of law. The canon law which its scholars devised to supplement natural law theory was the first modern legal system.

The Church therefore set out to reform both itself and the world by law; but where did that new sense of law come from? Certainly there was a power struggle — Gregory VII was willful and proud — but the new role of law was based upon a revolutionary understanding of what redemption is: how Christ saves us, and what we must do to be saved.

Today we think of law as a rationally ordered system. But canon law was primarily a response to new attitudes toward death, sin, punishment, and forgiveness, and this made its criteria as much spiritual and moral as rational. Berman concludes that “Western legal science is a secular theology, which often makes no sense because its theological presuppositions are no longer accepted.”17 But this does not mean that we have escaped them.

Prior to this revolution, sin had been understood as a condition of alienation from God, a condition which implied a diminution of one’s being. The development of canon law led to a new understanding of sin, now defined in legalistic terms as specific wrongful acts, desires, or thoughts, for which painful penalties must be paid either in this life or in the next. This tended to reduce the importance of the Last Judgment and led to the “legalization,” so to speak, of life after death in purgatory, an intermediate realm where all one’s remaining debts must be repaid. This was an important shift from the earlier meaning of penance — acts of contrition symbolizing a turning away from sin and back to God and neighbor — into a more objectified sense of sin as an entity which, as the Church soon discovered, could be commodified. In my Buddhist terms, this was a novel way to understand that of which our lack consists and how it is to be resolved: the elaborate system of penances for debts enabled a new type of grip on one’s ultimate destiny: “The route to resolve lack was charted by a system of punishments and rewards that extended from this world through the next, until the final goal was reached.”18

The theological turning point was Anselm’s theory of atonement in Cur Deus Homo, which outlined a theology of law. God is bound by his own justice, for mercy is the daughter of justice and does not work against her father. God cannot treat the disobedient will in the same way as the obedient one, for that would destroy justice and thus the order and beauty of the universe. Although this never became an official dogma of the Church, Anselm’s extraordinary fame and influence contributed to establishing this revised conception of God as primarily a judge. This went against the earlier approach which emphasized, at least as much, God’s mercy and grace in saving us from the power of the Devil.

In the Eastern Church sin continued to be understood mainly as the fallen state of one’s soul, a disharmony in one’s relationship with God rather than an act violating a divine legal code. For the Western Church, which came to accept Anselm’s perspective, redemption became essentially a legal transaction. Christ’s sacrifice paid for our original sin, but we must suffer for all the sins which we have committed since then — justice requires that all such violations be repaid with a penalty suitable to the violation.19 Inevitably, the nature and source of mercy also came to be understood in a new way: as God became more of a stern judge, Mary’s role as a compassionate intercessor became more important.

By no coincidence, this was also when the split between the Eastern and Western churches became final. The Eastern Church continued to follow the earlier view that emphasized the resurrection of Christ: Christians die and rise again with Christ, who is the conqueror of death. In contrast, Western theology of the 11th and 12th centuries identified redemption with the crucifixion: Christ as the conqueror of sin. This changed the emphasis from God the Father to God the Son (hence, the filioque clause), the incarnation of God and the redeemer of this world. In place of a transcendental solution to our lack — awaiting an apocalyptic irruption of the sacred, with the return of Christ — the focus shifted to the process whereby the transcendent becomes immanent in this world. “This released an enormous energy for the redemption of the world; yet it split the legal from the spiritual, the political from the ideological.” The legalistic theological metaphors gave birth to a new conception of society: one that was able to transform itself over time by continuously infusing divine and natural law into legal institutions both ecclesiastical and secular. “The sacred was used as a standard by which to measure the secular order.”20

This doctrine of atonement gave a new and universalizable significance to human justice by linking together the penalty imposed by a court for violating a law with “the nature and destiny of man, his search for salvation, his moral freedom, and his mission to create on earth a society that would reflect the divine will”21 In my Buddhist vocabulary, this understanding of our lack gave us a different handle on it, one which plugged nicely into the reform of this world. “Progress” was born.

The most important consequence of the Papal Revolution was that it introduced into Western history the experience of revolution itself. In contrast to the older view of secular history as a process of decay, there was introduced a dynamic quality, a sense of progress in time, a belief in the reformation of the world. No longer was it assumed that “temporal life” must inevitably deteriorate until the Last Judgment. On the contrary, it was now assumed — for the first time — that progress could be made in this world toward achieving some of the preconditions for salvation in the next.22

Anselm himself was hardly a humanist, for his belief in the decline of this world (and in the superiority of monastic life) was deeply conservative. Like many other monks ever since Augustine, he waited for a sufficient number of the saved to accumulate, which would then portend the Second Coming. Yet the future lay with minds of a different type, minds which would emphasize efficient administration as the way to duplicate on earth the pattern of things laid up in heaven.23

“God himself is law, and therefore law is dear to him,” wrote the author of the first German lawbook in about 1220. Before 1075 no one in the West would have said it, but after 1122 it became a commonplace. “Law was seen as a way of fulfilling the mission of Western Christendom to begin to achieve the kingdom of God on earth” (LR 521). The assumption underlying Anselm’s argument — and canon law — was the belief that, as a God of justice, God operates a lawful universe, rewarding and punishing us proportionately, although the latter is mercifully mitigated in special cases. Today state governors do the same when they mercifully (if rarely) commute a sentence, but the political parallel goes much deeper. Just as sins became offenses against God, the supreme lawgiver and judge, so secular crimes were no longer against other people but against the king’s law — against the state. “The Gregorian concept of the Church almost demanded the invention of the concept of the State.”24

The notion that God operates a lawful universe would be just as important for the development of modern science and technology, for it encouraged the early scientists to search for those physical laws. The necessary insight was provided by Galileo, who realized that “the Book of Nature is written in mathematical symbols” by “the great Geometer,” so the key to its “hidden laws” is to be found by discovering the mathematical structure of the cosmos. This was part of a new understanding of the relationship between God and nature: God functions through his laws. But this was a slippery slope: the more important those laws became, the less important became God, who began to disappear high up into the distant heavens.

The immediate earthly consequence of this new doctrine was to increase the authority of the papacy immeasurably. As the Vicar of Christ, His temporal agent, the pope became not only the ultimate spiritual authority but the arbiter of our salvation, the one who could resolve our lack.

In November 1095 Urban II addressed a great crowd in Clermont, calling on men all over Christendom to come to the rescue of their fellow Christians in the East: “Undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, assured of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.” A great cry went up from the assembly: “It is God’s will!” Those who participated were promised remission of the temporal penalties for their sins; those who perished in battle were promised remission of all penalties for all sins and, presumably, went straight to heaven. In other words, dying on the Crusade was guaranteed to end your lack! Four years later the Crusaders entered Jerusalem. The Roman pontiff had succeeded as the leader of all Christendom in a great military endeavor to save the Holy Land. The organizational efforts that such a vast project required also marked a milestone in the development of the papacy as a state.

The merit that Christ’s sacrifice had gained was incalculable; the power of the papacy, as earthly dispenser of that merit, was theoretically immeasurable as well. But is spiritual power immune to the rule that power corrupts, and absolute power absolutely? The long-term consequences of such authority were predictable, due less to the incompetence or corruption of certain individuals than to the fact that, however much the papacy might represent Christ on earth, the pope and curia were also human. Such a vast storehouse of spiritual treasure tempted the pontiff to largesse, but that encouraged an inflation of the religious currency. Innocent III’s bull of 1209 gave an expedition against the Cathars of France the full legal and spiritual status of a crusade: the same remission of sins was promised to those who would serve for 40 days in Languedoc. Later, papal wars against the Hohenstaufen and the Aragonese also rated as crusades. Large sums were raised by selling indulgences, originally as expedients to pay for the crusades but later relied upon as a regular source of income.25

In his great poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante records the consequences of the Church’s temporal entanglements by reserving a place for Boniface VIII in the simoniacs’ pit of hell. By Dante’s time the papacy had become so caught up in politics and ridden with vested interests that it was widely viewed as no longer able to promote either spiritual life or terrestrial peace. In lack terms, the authority of the papacy as the arbiter of our lack had become dubitable.

According to Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy: “The great Revolutions break out whenever the power which has governed heaven and earth dries up at the fountain-head. The great Revolutions seem to destroy an existing order; but that is not true. They do not break out until the old state of affairs is already ended, until the old order of things has died and is no longer believed in by its own beneficiaries.”26 By Martin Luther’s time, the gap between the Church and the life of the spirit had become viewed as irreparable, and the time was ripe for a new conception of our lack and what to do about it. Luther “de-legalized” the Church; he burned its books of canon law, denying that it could have a legal character. His church was invisible, apolitical as well as alegal — which freed the state to develop a new theory of its own justice as morally neutral, as only a means to manifest the policy of the sovereign. Luther may have denied the legality of the Church, but he believed strongly in the secular law of the ruler — assumed to be a Christian, of course. God was still a God of justice, but now that justice operated through a secular ruler. This was another slippery slope. The new emphasis on the individual, on nature as property, and on economic relations as contract led to the secularization of the state and the sanctification of property and contract.27

Much the same happened with rationality itself. Anselm did not exalt reason at the expense of faith: reason was a supplement to faith, to help us understand better what we believe. But his belief that theology can be studied apart from revelation led to a conception of reason as functioning by itself, the sole guarantor of truth (Descartes, etc.). In a parallel fashion modern law as a product of rationality has become disconnected from the ultimate values and purposes which motivated its development, thus alienating itself from its original spiritual foundations. Eventually, not only religious belief but all deeply-held convictions came to be understood as private affairs. “Thus not only legal thought but also the very structure of Western legal institutions have been removed from their spiritual foundations, and those foundations, in turn, are left devoid of the structure that once stood upon them” (LR 198). The result has been a legal system that focuses on precedent and procedure because in its “neutrality” it is unaware that it relies upon or embodies any values at all.

Today, of course, we no longer look at the law as a solution to lack. This is so because we have in the meantime devised other ways to address our lack.


It is by the meaning that it intuitively attaches to time that one culture is differentiated from another. (Oswald Spengler)

In traditional societies, including the pre-modern West, time’s structure was basically religious. Instead of being some neutral, Cartesian-like grid for mapping the affairs that happen in this world, a temporal schema provided the sacred pattern that gave meaning to the affairs of this world: “the supernatural and the passage of time as represented by the yearly cycle were so closely linked that they were virtually indistinguishable.”28 According to this approach, our lack is due to disharmony, and the solution is not to understand time as an empty continuum but rather as a pattern to be renewed or re-enacted. In contrast to our linear succession of cause-and-effect events, in this associative temporality history and cosmology are inseparable, for time and what happens in time are not to be distinguished. Rituals such as purification sacrifices are performed according to cyclic natural phenomena because they are needed at those times — which is to say, they do not occur in those periods but as a part of those periods. While we create history by choosing to distinguish our actions from past events, traditional societies deny this duality by reliving the past. For them history is not the burden it is for us since the past is not a weight to be overcome nor is the future a set of novel possibilities to be realized.29

If the temporality of pre-modern cultures is so different, then how did ours originate? By no coincidence, we find the turning point in the 12th century, for previously Europe had the same associative temporality which understands time as a meaning-providing pattern to be re-enacted. “To understand our time is to chart the course of Western Judeo-Christendom.”30 Our week has seven days because that repeats the pattern of creation at the beginning of Genesis; Jews worship and rest on the Sabbath because on that day the Lord rested, although early Christians changed that to the sun’s day because on that day Christ arose from the dead to become the light of the world. The yearly religious cycle of Church commemorations still reveals its associative origins. As Erich Auerbach put it, “the here and now is no longer a mere link in an earthly chain of events; it is simultaneously something which has always been, and will be fulfilled in the future; and, strictly, in the eyes of God, it is something eternal, something omnitemporal, something already consummated in the realm of fragmentary earthly event.”31 Far from being our commodified resource, medieval time was God’s and should glorify Him (which is why earning interest was immoral: it profited from using something — time — that belonged only to God).

In sum, medieval time largely retained the non-duality between cosmology and history — with one important difference. For traditional peoples such as the Maya and the Aztecs, the end of time — which they feared might occur if they did not offer continual sacrifices to maintain the sun-deity on his course — would have been the greatest possible catastrophe. For Christians, the second coming of Christ, which most still believed to be imminent, was a salvation devoutly to be wished for. That turned out to be a crucial difference.

Apocalyptic millenarianism can be characterized as belief that the tension between this world and the supernatural will be finally resolved in the (near) future when the transcendent manifests itself so completely that this world is purified and transformed. The crucial step toward modern time was the notion of a future golden age not outside history but within it, a step which seems to have been taken by Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), the influential Calabrian abbot and hermit who had visions of complex patterns that drew together all the different threads of revelation and history. Berman, focusing on the influence of canon law, makes only one short reference to him, but Joachim visited three popes (who encouraged his radical exegesis) and spoke before the curia; kings sought him out, including Richard I of England, Philip Augustus of France, and even Emperor Henry VI; and Dante places him in the same circle of paradise as St. Bonaventure and St. Francis.32 Joachim retained the traditional belief that events on earth correspond to what is happening in another dimension, but he envisioned a Christian utopia on earth in the future, a perfected society which would include the creation of new social structures. According to his exegesis, the Old Testament corresponded to the Age of the Father and the New Testament to that of the Son; the final Age of the Spirit, which would arrive by about 1260, would be a supremely happy era during which a renewed Church would regulate all aspects of life. “Without necessarily meaning to, Joachim had made the crucial connection between apocalyptic change and political reconstruction.

From the 13th century onwards, the two could never be entirely separated.”33 The trajectory that would culminate in our cherished faith in progress was set, having grown out of “the Christian belief that all things are made expressly for the end they fulfill… Faith in the Second Coming pulls the true believer forward through the good life toward the ultimate judgment that gives reason to it all. In modern times, this notion of advancement along a time line still prevails, except that technology has replaced religion as the force that propels events to succeed one another; nonetheless, the doctrine remains teleological.”34 Again we see that, far from being rational alternatives to religious apocalypticism, “many of the ideas we consider to be the very opposite of medieval, such as faith in progress and the promise of utopia, have roots in the religious beliefs of the middle ages — and End-time beliefs at that.”35

If technology today has replaced religion for many of us, it may be so because our technology retains similar religious roots. David Noble’s book The Religion of Technology makes a point parallel to the one that Berman makes about Western law: our contemporary enchantment with modern technology — the very measure of our supposedly hard-headed rationalism — is in fact rooted in religious myth and the quest for spiritual salvation: “Although today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set society’s standard for rationality, they are driven also by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption … their true inspiration lies … in an enduring, other-worldly quest for transcendence and salvation.”36 Again, we may have forgotten what originally motivated us, but we have not escaped it.

In the medieval period, “for reasons that remain obscure”37, significant changes began to occur in the Christian attitude toward technology. Medieval society believed that part of its fallenness was that it had lost knowledge of the ancient arts and sciences which their predecessors had perfected; what was new was the belief that those mechanical arts could and should be resurrected — initially, not so much to improve our worldly condition as to help create the temporal conditions that would hasten the return of Christ. “Over time, technology came to be identified more closely with both lost perfection and the possibility of renewed perfection, and the advance of the arts took on a new significance, not only as evidence of grace but as a means of preparation for, and a sure sign of, imminent salvation.” The influential Augustinian canon Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) emphasized that “the work of restoration included the repair of man’s physical life,” which had been damaged by sin and forfeited with the Fall.38 “An elite revitalization and re-interpretation of early Christian belief … situated the process of recovery in the context of human history and redefined it as an active and conscious pursuit rather than a merely passive and blind expectation… The recovery of mankind’s divine likeness, the transcendent trajectory of Christianity, thus now became at the same time an immanent historical project… Technology now became at the same time eschatology.”39

Noble describes Joachim’s interpretation of Revelation as the “most influential prophetic system known to Europe until Marxism.” It “ignited the greatest spiritual revolution of the Middle Ages,” for it revealed the millenarian meaning of history, God’s plan for humanity. All wise men, wrote Roger Bacon, believe that the time of the Antichrist is nigh, and he urged his fellow churchmen to study Joachim’s prophecies in order to be forewarned about the final events of history. According to both biblical and Joachimite prophecy, the gospel preached worldwide was a necessary precondition for, as well as an unmistakable indication of, the approach of the millennium. This encouraged both exploration and those arts which promoted such exploration. Our prejudice in favor of economic explanations emphasizes the lust for gold, but if Christopher Columbus’s unfinished Book of Prophecy can be trusted, he (like many others) viewed the colonization and conversion of the New World as necessary to fulfill Joachimite prophecy and to help bring about the end of history. Understanding himself to be divinely inspired, he urged his Portuguese patrons to use New World riches to finance a new crusade to recover Jerusalem — another precondition for the new millennium.40

Later, even Francis Bacon, the greatest prophet of modern science, sought “a return to the state of Adam before the Fall, a state of pure and sinless contact with nature and knowledge of her powers … a progress back towards Adam.”41 Both Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were fervent millenarians, and the latter spent much of his time on the interpretation of prophecy; for them, as for many other early scientists, the scientific quest was a devout effort to come closer to their Creator. “Armed with such foreknowledge, which included an anticipation of their own appointed role, the elect needed no longer to just passively await the millennium; they could now actively work to bring it about” (RT 64, 24-25). We are still working to do that, but in the meantime we have forgotten exactly what it is we are supposed to be bringing about.

We have forgotten because our understanding of our lack has been displaced, and therefore our approach to resolving it: instead of being the crux of creation and history, where the Christian story places it, our lack today has been marginalized, and so its problematic has shifted. We no longer appeal to the structure of the cosmos for our salvation but try to work it out by ourselves. The new space-time of Descartes and Newton was homogenized, yet from this perspective it is somewhat misleading to call it secular. Rather, it provided us with a different kind of grid on which to work out our lack. In place of an intricate spiritual obstacle-course to be followed according to fixed rules, we began to live in a boundless universe where we had to set up the goals and decide which way to go. We decided to run into the future, and we called the new game progress.


And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. (Revelation 21:4-5)
Apocalypticism is “merely” the most explosive of forms that hope takes, and it resides at a very deep level of our cultural psyche. (Richard Landes)

Norman Cohn’s ground-breaking study, The Pursuit of the Millennium, and the work of many other scholars since have amply documented the role of apocalyptic millenarianism in the history of the West. It may seem very peculiar to us growth-junkies today, but its influence has been immense — and from a lack perspective some such social tendency is not only natural but perhaps ineradicable. Cohn sums up his work by offering what is, in effect, a lack hypothesis about the cause of millenarian movements:

It seems that there is in many, perhaps in all, human psyches a latent yearning for total salvation from suffering; that yearning appears to be greatly intensified by any frustration or anxiety or humiliation that is unaccustomed and that cannot be tackled either by taking thought or by any institutionalized routine. Where a particular frustration or anxiety or humiliation of this nature is experienced at the same time and in the same area by a number of individuals, the result is a collective emotional agitation that is peculiar not only in its intensity, but also in the boundlessness of its aims.42

Cohn shows how belief in the Last Days took on a revolutionary meaning and often led to explosive unrest in areas experiencing social and economic crisis, especially among those (such as new urban casual workers) unsupported by traditional networks of social relationships. In my Buddhist terms, our lack is usually contained in and structured by such social relationships, which provide traditional ways to exorcise it; those unsupported by such a context are much more likely to seek an apocalyptic resolution to their lack. The main argument of this paper has been that the West which we know was created when our lack became channeled into creating the future, but the persistence of apocalyptic movements after the 11th century, together with the chiliastic influence of Joachim and others, shows that progress did not simply replace apocalypse as our social solution to lack. The idea of progress grew out of millenarianism and retains the traces of its origins. The relationship between them remains uncomfortably close.

Early Christianity was apocalyptic, yet this soon received a non-chiliastic interpretation. For Origen, the Kingdom of God was an event not in space or time but one which occurred in the souls of believers. When Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the 4th century, millenarianism began to be strongly discouraged.43 For Tychonius (died c. 400 AD), the New Jerusalem was not a historical event but the present-day Church; Revelation describes in symbolic terms the diabolical attacks upon it. Augustine built on this allegorical approach by developing a great-week chronology that understood humanity to be already living in the new dispensation, although this would decline until the Second Advent, when history would end. Joachim’s addition to this vision was to restore certain primitive and still popular chiliastic beliefs about a new world order which would prevail on earth for 1,000 years before the Second Advent.44 This was not easily reconciled with Augustine’s position; some of Joachim’s later disciples got into trouble with Church authorities although Joachim himself was never condemned. His approach resonated with the new collective consciousness of his time, and I conclude with some reflections on why that may have been so — on why, in other words, people in the 11th century may have been ready for the new understanding of our lack that the Papal Revolution initiated or enunciated.

As we ourselves await the advent of another millennium, we are inclined to wonder: What was the advent of the previous one like? The popular importance of apocalyptic expectations in medieval Christianity suggests that many people must have expected the world to end in 1000 AD. How did they cope with their disappointment?

Apparently with no difficulty at all, according to the received view, for there is little record of any such mass millennialism at that time. Some contemporary historians, most notably Richard Landes, have challenged this conclusion, arguing that our historical sources were controlled by Augustinian monks who would naturally have downplayed the significance of such popular movements — especially apocalyptic ones that failed. According to Landes, lack of evidence in this case is not evidence of lack: far from being insignificant, the mutation in apocalyptic expectations that I have described in this paper was caused by what occurred (and did not occur) in 1000 AD. How?

The approach of the Apocalypse calls for all sinners, in this final moment, to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If large numbers collectively feel this imminence, if a plague or an earthquake or a sign in the heavens shakes the confidence of even the most determined and powerful members of a society, if people gather in vast assemblies and engage in penitential activity, reaching unimaginable heights of confession and renunciation, then the fear can and will pass, not only because the end fails to come but because the collective penance can produce a massive change of “atmosphere” in which people embrace their enemies in tears of mutual forgiveness. Thus the delay of the end might be viewed not merely as a reprieve but as the salvation of god, bestowed on his chastened people; not the continuation of the world as we know it but the inauguration of a new age in which the peace of men, the peace of iron, gives way to the Pax Dei.

… Here one finds some of the most pregnant activity — the first and vigorous stirrings of a popular Christian culture of vast movements, of radical dissent and reform, of widespread pilgrimage, of collective actions… It is in the transformation of penitence to joy that new social bonds are made; that vendettas are abandoned, that feuding enemies embrace, that weapons are laid aside.45

From many other examples we know that the extravagant hopes of apocalyptic expectations do not usually disappear with failure. “Disappointment triggers not discouragement but renewed efforts to re-ignite the apocalyptic flames that had made the movement possible.”46

Is this how it happened? Certainly, the timing is curious. The extraordinary developments of the high middle ages began more or less in the middle of the 11th century, which gave time for such a change of consciousness to spread and develop. Of course, I cannot pretend to adjudicate such a controversy. From my Buddhist perspective, however, it is interesting to interpret Landes’s speculative scenario in terms of the influence that it might have on our collective sense of lack. Waiting for an End both welcomed and dreaded, one which would destroy the world but could bring about everything one hoped for, would encourage those who were sincere to face their greatest fears more consciously than ever before — that is, it would prompt them to confront their sense of lack more directly, cutting through the repressions behind which we usually hide. We know that to de-repress death-denial is not only to experience the terror of death more consciously but also — for those able to endure that — to become more alive. The same should be true for our lack: to face one’s sense of lack more consciously, and to endure it, is to become more spiritually alive; and to experience that with many others would create a special sense of community with them. To face one’s lack so immediately, to let go of everything in this world and acknowledge one’s nothingness before the mystery and majesty of the cosmos, might be to be transformed and vivified — in Christian terms, perhaps nothing less than to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Even if this happened only for a minority, and incompletely, it could have become a powerful influence on how people lived and how they wanted to live — that is, on how they understood their lack.

Such an imminent experience of grace may have encouraged them not to wait for a salvation to descend upon them from heaven but to work for their salvation here and now, by infusing what they had experienced of the sacred into the world and its institutions:

Perhaps the single most enduring effect of this millennial generation was the development of a process of apocalyptic reform, in which movements like Pax Christi, which were launched at times of intense apocalyptic expectation, become, upon “re-entry” into normal time, institutionalized as “reform” movements. Thus, the entire 11th century is known as a time of fervent reform, beginning with the monastic orders (Cluny) and moving into the secular clergy with the reform of the canonical houses, finally becoming a full-fledged church reform in the second half of the century under the tutelage of the popes… Reform is the postapocalyptic form of the spiritual renewal that the advent of the millennium brought.47

Is that how the West was created, by a dramatic irruption of grace into the souls of believers, transformed by facing their lack more directly and thereby inspired to transform the world around them? This can only be a supposition, but if it were so, our origins are spiritual indeed.

Historians have noticed the importance of 500-year intervals in our history. If a new millennium created the West, another set of revolutions that began about 1500 created the modern West. What does that mean for us today, on the edge of another interval?

Is it a coincidence that the end of the millennium occurs just as we are losing faith in economic and technological progress as our collective way to resolve lack? To say the least, it is a time to evaluate our situation and to consider what new lack projects are possible. A thousand years of progress have given us unimaginable material benefits but also have created new apocalyptic threats. Our mistakes can have immense consequences not only for us but for many millennia to come.

In one way all religions worth the name are millennial: they critique our present condition and offer a vision of what could be. Today we need new lack projects that address our lack more directly and consciously — as, perhaps, our forebears did 1,000 years ago. Although there is no space left here to elaborate on what that might involve,48 I think that it is becoming clear that such projects must be more self-consciously spiritual. Our lack presents us with a fundamentally spiritual problem that can be resolved only in a spiritual way. Today it has become too dangerous to pretend otherwise.

No people can live without faith in the ultimate victory of something. (Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy).

This article was originally published by International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 2 (June 2000), pp. 215-233.

  1.  Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 16; hereafter LR.
  2. LR 558
  3. LR 88
  4. LR 4, his italics.
  5.  S. C. Humphreys, “Transcendence and Intellectual Roles: The Ancient Greek Case,” Daedalus 104 (1975), 92, 112; my italics.
  6. LR 83
  7. LR 40
  8. David Loy, Lack and Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism and Buddhism (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1996).
  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Wanderer and his Shadow” in Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 331.
  10. David Loy, “Trying to Become Real: A Buddhist Critique of Some Secular Heresies,” International Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1992), 403-25.
  11. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (New York: Vintage, 1961), p. 277.
  12. Maurice Keen, A History of Medieval Europe (London: Routledge, 1968), p. 32.
  13. LR 91
  14. LR 50
  15. Ibid., p. 57.
  16. LR 77-78
  17. LR 165
  18. LR 171
  19. LR 180-81
  20. LR 177-79, 197, 28
  21. LR 184
  22. LR 118
  23. R. W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 441 and 345.
  24. Joseph Strayer, quoted in LR 404.
  25. Keen, pp. 141, 208, and 279.
  26. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Out of Revolution (Providence: Berg, 1993), p. 471.
  27. LR 29-30, 197
  28. Damian Thompson, The End of Time (London: Minerva, 1996), p. 2.
  29. Anthony Aveni, Empires of Time (New York: Kodansha, 1995), p. 65.
  30. Ibid., p. 12.
  31. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), p. 64.
  32. Delno C. West and Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, Joachim of Fiore (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1983), p. 5.
  33. Thompson, p. 128.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid., p. 57.
  36. David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 3; hereafter RT.
  37. RT 12
  38. RT 12, 19-20
  39. RT 22
  40. RT 27-31; West and Zimdars-Swartz, p. 108.
  41. Francis Yates, quoted in RT 50.
  42. Norman Cohn, “Medieval Millenarianism: Its Bearing on the Comparative Study of Millenarian Movements” in Charles B. Strozier and Michael Flynn, eds., The Year 2000: Essays on the End (New York: New York University Press, 1997), p. 40.
  43. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, rev. edn. (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 29.
  44. West and Zimdars-Swartz, pp. 10-12.
  45. Richard Landes, “The Apocalyptic Year 1000: Then and Now” in Strozier and Flynn, p. 6.
  46. Ibid., p. 7.
  47. Ibid., p. 21.
  48. See note 3 above; also David Loy, Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1988).