The Meghan and Harry show is a window into our spiritual predicament — in Britain, America and beyond. Through breaking free from royal life, amid much unhappiness, they have acquired a powerful story of self-realization. This is our culture’s new idea of the spiritual life.
What exactly is this new idea? How does it relate to what came before? Is it replacing the old or is its appeal limited to certain sectors of society?
The rise of the new spirituality has been gradual. We can neatly chart its rise with reference to Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. First we might pause to ask: why is the British royal family such an important showcase for this shift? It is a place of intense psychological pressure and of spiritual significance. The public wants to find spiritual significance in these people’s lives, and some of these people experience such acute difficulties that they need some version of spiritual solace. It’s an observation laboratory of the soul.
Diana was an insider, bred to respect the stuffy ways of the monarchy, including their understated old-fashioned Christianity. But through her marital unhappiness she felt the need for a more vital spirituality. She could in theory have found it in evangelicalism, for example. Instead she was drawn to soft spirituality, therapeutic individualism. But it’s a broad church, and she was drawn to it in a particular way. For example she did not become a mild hippy. She was drawn to the angry wing of therapeutic individualism, which overlapped with the emergent cult of identity victimhood. This was a new pointed version of soft spirituality, highly influenced by the rhetoric of gay liberation. She spoke a new language of spirituality that was not entirely soft: it entailed deploying one’s claim to victimhood like a weapon.
Of course this shift was not explicit. She did not say that she rejected the official religious tradition that the monarchy is tied to. But in effect she rejected that old idea of religion in favor of something else.
The cultic response to her death was a strange moment; no one could quite explain it. Now it is perhaps clear: this was the birth of a new religious energy, a fusion of soft spirituality and victim-centered identity politics. Of course this has not become a coherent new religion. But it has become the vague amorphous site of spiritual authenticity, and has transformed our culture.
On one level this creed is a harmless softening of religion — a gospel of holistic wellbeing, of ‘everyone’s special’. But it also dramatizes victimhood in way that is less harmless. It subtly moves away from the egalitarianism of traditional religion, which says that all humans have intrinsic spiritual worth, or ‘immortal souls’. It says, implicitly of course, that spiritual worth resides more in one type of person than another. It resides in the underdog, the person who has suffered historic injustice, or who belongs to a group that has suffered. It politicizes the soul.
But surely this politicization of spirituality is a marginal thing, you might say; it might exist within identity politics, as an understandable response to a sense of injury, but it’s fairly irrelevant to mainstream culture. No! Mainstream culture, especially liberal arts culture, is hugely attracted to this new creed. Why? Because it is a strong narrative. You could say that liberal culture needs a core myth, in the sense of a core meaningful narrative. It has found it in the story of the victim-of-history-turned-master-of-his-or-her-destiny. To say that it has put this figure on a pedestal is an understatement. It has located spiritual significance here, only here. For example it has become a sort of truism that a gay love story is more capable of spiritual resonance than a straight one. And that an ethnic minority writer has more right to speak of his or her spiritual struggles than a white one.
At first, one could see all this as the redressing of the balance, the refreshing advent of new perspectives. But there comes a point when you have to see it as a new positive belief, a cultural myth. This is how we make meaning, by assigning spiritual significance to people with victim status. Cultural critics choose not to see this — it sounds like bigotry to question the endless reign of the once-marginalized, to notice that artistic value has become secondary.
So our culture has not abolished the spiritual realm. It has declared it the rightful inheritance of those who have some sort of status as underdogs or victims. These are the people whose spiritual significance will be publicly acknowledged and celebrated. Our culture says that all psyches are of equal worth, but some are of more equal worth than others. This means that a woman has more spiritual significance than a man. It means that a homosexual has more spiritual significance than a heterosexual. It means that a black person has more spiritual significance than a white person.
What do I mean by saying that, in our culture, a woman has more spiritual significance than a man? I mean that she has more right to speak of her inner life, her psychological struggles. She will be taken more seriously when she employs the rhetoric of psychological depth, vulnerability, the quest for meaning. Of course there is no law against a straight white man speaking in the same sort of way, but there are plenty of unwritten rules in the minds of our cultural gatekeepers. It’s not their fault — it has become literally unthinkable that someone without a claim to victim status should be allowed to speak of his inner life on equal terms. For the soul has been redefined. It is now the aura surrounding a person who is politically righteous.
A neat illustration of the phenomenon is the vitriol that liberals feel toward Jordan Peterson. The Canadian psychologist has said some mildly politically incorrect things. But his real crime, that cannot be honestly articulated, is that he affirms the language of spiritual struggle in an old-fashioned way, daring to suggest that — shock, horror — it can legitimately be used by young white men as much as anyone else. This angers the average liberal, who wants the spiritual realm to stay in its new box, annexed to identity politics.
Back to Meghan. She is Diana with knobs on, or rather with more confidence that the wind of history is in her sails. She is more fluent in soft spirituality than Diana was — she is a native speaker, whereas Diana had to learn on the job. And of course she is more favored by the gods of identity politics. When she got married, she was aware of herself as an embodiment of the new spirituality. She assumed that she was valued for this, that the royal family wanted a new-spiritual shot in the arm. Why wouldn’t a tired old institution welcome such a clear incarnation of the new faith? Does it not want to affirm the new religion, and so renew itself, and reconnect with the British people?
Well no. The clear majority of the nation is glad to see the back of her, even if that meant losing her husband too. There is hope, then, that society is not entirely sold on the new faith. Maybe, underneath our liberal orthodoxy, we confusedly sense that the wisdom of old-fashioned religion might be worth holding on to. The old belief in the sacred worth of all human souls is not flashy but tough. Politicized spirituality promises to modernize and intensify this belief, but it weakens it. Only old-fashioned religion knows how to say, and mean it: all souls matter.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.