Manifesting Mass Metanoia
Doing Change in Trying Times
*This article was originally published as Chapter 10 in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds (June, 2021). It is duplicated here to make this pertinent theme more accessible and encourage wider interest in the book.
Repent (metanoia!), for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. — — Matthew 4:17.
A great change is upon our civilization and the self; a cultural conversion of biblical proportions. The operative word is metanoia; Greek for a profound ‘change of mind’, from the roots meta- (change, beyond, after) and nous (mind). Usually defined as “a transformative change of heart; especially: a spiritual conversion”, metanoia has deeper implications as a ‘turning’ towards the disclosure of a higher reality and more relevant truth. A profound change is needed not only in individuals hearts and minds but in the hivemind (collective intelligence), the noosphere (global consciousness), and our institutions.
Metanoia is an esoteric word but it is increasingly utilized across literatures of enlightenment, personal growth, business ethics, pedagogy, social justice, spirituality, poetics, metaphysics, politics, psychedelics, and more. Across these fields, this word speaks to a transformative idea and practice that the world greatly needs in this moment of turbulent transition. The unfolding meta-crisis and interest in a ‘paradigm shift’ are converging and metanoia is poised as a means for personal, social, and institutional transformation, to collectively undergo a deep shift and upgrade in values, identities, worldviews, and world.
Outlined below are seven major interrelated “turns” or domains of metanoia for the metamodern spirit. The first section starts with a background history of metanoia from the religious to secular connotations, and the reader is encouraged on a journey to practice metanoia. Second, the cognitive roots and rhizomes of metanoia are mapped by a speculative ontology and its social implications. Third, we go to the crux of the matter, using metanoia as leverage to intervene and overturn capitalism’s pathology itself.
Fourth, meta-theories and methods combine with the praxis of revolution, speaking to the need for an explicit metamodern turn in sociology and society. Fifth, discussion of post-war reflections and the role of religion and theology return in the post-secular age to round off a more absolute metanoia to confront evil. Sixth, some feminist and anecdotal insights help ground the metanoia thesis in practical ways. Seventh, the difficult choice of metanoia over paranoia is framed by the historic bifurcation of postmodernism into metamodern or hypermodern dominant trends.
The need for a political metanoia is an overarching theme here such that if religious, educational, and business institutions have any salvific power or purpose, they must transform themselves to support this mass metanoia as well. Metanoia is a most useful term for normatively instructing our journey in this time of major change and crisis, and galvanizing the metamodern zeitgeist to be the catalyst of necessary change.
1. The Call to Adventure
You must make up your mind, or it will be made up for you. The mystery traditions — ancient secret societies for esoteric knowledge — passed on down through Pythagoras, Plato, and others were instrumental in developing the transcendental thinking that would become central to the Christian worldview centuries later (La Freniere, 2012). Furthermore, metanoia has affinity with platonic paideia, a more monastic form of conversion, both of which are a “turning” toward or about a higher reality, making them two sides of the same coin (Bertucio, 2016).
The concrete origins of metanoia are seemingly inextricable from its religious connotations; the primary source being the gospels of the New Testament. The old Greek bibles used the word metanoia which became habitually mistranslated into “repentance” — which appears 100 times in various forms — rather than the more accurate “conversion”, thereby stripping much of its essential meaning. One aspect of the practice came to replace the whole, and the deeper truth was buried. That is where the written history of metanoia really begins, its gravity given by its poetic contexts and associated practices.
The Great Meaning of Metanoia, by Treadwell Walden (1896), is a charming little book from near the turn of the 20th century. It is an exegesis on the word metanoia itself, an exploration of its depth beyond the superficial meaning. Walden decries the mistranslation to “repentance,” promising that the word has a deeper revealed truth in Christianity, that is, a “transmutation” of consciousness. Walden is not the first to observe this — it goes back to Tertullian (c. 155 — c. 240 CE), on through Martin Luther (1483–1546) — and he’s certainly not the last. While repentance is still very necessary, many scholars lament the mistranslation, and urge for a renewal of the metanoietic practice.
Walden’s book has a certain metamodern ‘depthiness’ to it — what Timotheus Vermeulen (2015) analogizes to a “snorkeler intuiting depth, imagining it — perceiving it without encountering it”. Bounded up with a rapturous teleology towards spiritual salvation, Walden’s words, written over a century ago, capture this eternally recurrent zeitgeist of metanoia, a word that is a wormhole to an altered state of consciousness and a new world in a new time:
“For we are just on the verge of a great epoch. All this intellectual activity in the material world is surely working towards a moment of reaction when the same intensity of movement will turn the other way, and the universal demand will be for a knowledge of the Spiritual. The voice of material Science, crying in the wilderness, will be found to have been preparing the way for this. It will turn out to have been uttering a word which has roused the “expectation” of this age. Out of all this agnostic dust and ashes shall mount again the cry, “Metanoeite! for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Walden, 1896)
Walden couldn’t have predicted the nihilism that would be unleashed in the 20th century, but his message remains a harbinger of hope. From the ancient origins of metanoia to Walden’s disquisition on it over a century ago, our present narrative re-grounds a historicity that connects the past and future, resonating today as a process of unfolding and becoming. Walden frames metanoia as a subconscious emotion “shut up, awaiting its proper occasions,” enabled by the mind, but not achievable by the mind alone.
In Paganism, Metanoia is the name of the personified goddess of guilt and missed opportunity. The sorrowful female Metanoia follows the young male Kairos, the god of good timing and opportunity for action (while Kairos was also contrasted with Chronos, the god of sequential time). Together, Metanoia and Kairos are the guides and harbingers of a monumental shift. Kelly Myers (2011) writes that this mythical “partnership can take shape as a personal learning process, a pedagogical tool, and a rhetorical device.” Whereas symbolism was sometimes all the ancients had, today symbols have lost their referents and must be rediscovered.
The frequency and intensity of metanoia are somewhat debatable, and naturally subjective and relative too. In the fundamentally transformative context in which scholars Armen Avenessian and Anke Hennig (2018) use it, they write “[m]etanoia rarely occurs more than once a decade, and it tends to come with significant relocations, radical epochal changes, or the collapse of personal worlds.” This is certainly agreeable in the sense of revelation of cosmic consciousness. It is akin to coming of age, or a rite of passage; a rare opportunity to gain insight and become a whole new person.
At the other end of the spectrum, in a TEDx talk educator Aimee Zadak (2017) jokes that she’s had 148,000 in her lifetime, adding that they occur “much more than once a year.” She stresses that metanoia is a continuous process. This makes it sound frivolous, but there is something to be said for many small changes, contributing to the big ones. Evidently then, metanoia could be best understood as both an ongoing process and a rare and singular event, as well as having mild and strong forms. As Myers put it “[t]he experience of metanoia involves a transformation that can range from a minor change of mind to a dramatic spiritual conversion.” What is important is to notice the unique quality of the change, and integrate it with a larger pattern of conversion.
As in the biblical examples, metanoia can be commanded, but of course only the individual can truly generate and accept the full implications of such a conversion. As we plumb the depths of metanoia together, do you feel in the process? Have you had a distinct metanoia lately? Is one due? Is one calling to you? Maybe you change your mind often, or perhaps you find stability in a static identity and fixed beliefs. Suppose it’s others who need to change their mind, and you who must remain steadfast. People need to learn the common answers to these problems and change together.
Change is inevitable and ongoing, and there are opportune moments to embrace the process. Consider the following examples that could be part of a serious metanoia; breaking out of a false consciousness or ideology, atonement for war or transgressing someone, quitting a vicious habit or addiction, resolving a childhood trauma, leaving an abusive relationship, committing to a noble cause or movement, renouncing a cult or gang, evolving religious or political values, changing your identity, abdicating wealth or power, or confessing to a crime. And still, these are but aspects of a larger shift in worldview, precipitated by reflexive thinking and feeling processes themselves.
To practice metanoia is a difficult choice with profound implications; ‘to put away childish things’ (1 Corinthians 13:11), to follow your heart and mind not just where it wants to go, but to where it should go. Metanoia compels us to the precipice of moral virtue and self-realization and beyond, where at once everything changes. Consider this call to adventure as you read about the nature of and need for a metamodern metanoia.
2. Speculative Metanoia and Psychoactive Philosophy
Metanoia is more than a deep spiritual practice, it’s the essence of poiesis itself. Poiesis is the creative capacity of language for “thinking the world” at “recursive stages on a higher level of totality” according to Avanessian and Hennig (2018). They wrote a compendious book on the subject, Metanoia: A Speculative Ontology of Language, Thinking, and the Brain. They abstract metanoia from history and place it at “the core of thought and language” as a transformative and retroactive procedure, to then reinsert into history. They drill down into metanoia as the act of thinking itself, a special mode of (meta-)cognition, often employing a rare form of logic called abduction (and even rarer, meta-abduction).
Metanoia entails a great reshuffling and reordering of the contents of one’s mind, such that everything changes, a “triple shift of subject, thought, and world”. The authors contend that “metanoia is the most radical form of poiesis”, the act of creation, what Aristotle called the feedback loop between craftsman and craft, or an ecstatic moment of metamorphosis (such as a flower blooming or butterfly emerging). Language and the brain co-evolved in reciprocal fashion, particularly by experimenting on itself, and thus metanoia represents a recursive re-entry into subjectivity and thought. Coincidentally, as they point out, metanoia is an anagram for anatomie.
Though it is said that much communication is nonverbal, it is of course primarily through human language that conceptual clarity is made, thoughts relate to themselves, and expansion of the mind is possible. Avanessian and Hennig are attending to the complex processes not immediately obvious in metanoia, weaving a discussion through “speculative realism, new materialism, neurology, structural linguistics, and Peircian semiotics”. They occasionally allude to an ultimate practice of metanoia, suggesting that “[t]o reflect on metanoia is to repeat the gestures of a first philosophizing” and “[t]hrough metanoia, we become intellectuals; metanoia makes philosophers philosophers.”
We must all become philosophers to some extent. This metanoietic journey speaks to it being a constant process of learning, gaining intellectual and moral depth. Given the entanglement of metanoia with language and reality, such a process depends largely on reading, writing, thinking, and re-creating the world. For example, Avanessian and Hennig describe how Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze open “a universe, however, that one can only enter by “thinking one’s way into it””. Theirs are “theories full of metanoietic appeal and potential” guiding the reader’s thought into “text’s vortex: a mere reader becomes the subject of theory.” The horizon of the text and the reader become one. A good text (and writer) has this transformative and psychoactive effect, that invites the reader behind the curtain of their own understanding.
Foucault also noted how the spiritual metanoia common in the 19th century was necessarily tied to revolutionary practice. But there was always a complicated potential to go towards a psychotic break or religious awakening. Knowing the difference is difficult, and the 20th century saw many horrors and dramatic reversals on account of that. Metanoia’s intersubjective ‘third’ term mediation — the other — beyond subject and object is what enables a “praxis of political metanoia” (Davis and Riches, 2005) to see the big picture and have solidarity in common struggle and peace.
Spiritual and political activity is meaningful because it compels us to make the world better. To do so, the metanoiac process moves us through an individual to a general perspective, to a “meta-position”, thereby bringing a collective subject into being and time (ie. Christendom, the proletariat, the precariat, etc.). Importantly, metanoia denotes a shift in temporality (and historicity); given by the common expression ‘afterward, what comes before is different’. Granted that we are truly in unprecedented times, and time is running out, it’s all the more important we synchronously achieve mass metanoia and in a convergent manner.
Similarly, in All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly (2011) advocate for a “meta-poetic” mindset as the best way to find meaning in our secular (disenchanted) and sometimes nihilistic age. They note that poesis alone was not enough to stop German workers from being carried away by Hitler’s fascism. Conversely, it takes great courage to join the crowds when its rightful to do so, such as Martin Luther King’s great speech on the National Mall. For Dreyfus and Kelly, meta-poeisis is the (required) “higher-order skill of recognizing when to rise up as one with the ecstatic crowd and when to turn heel and walk rapidly away.” This is a necessary meta-skill for our current world historic moment, to know the difference between a genuine leader and a puppet or demagogue.
To avoid the schizophrenic pull of our psychotic society, it’s worth noting the psychedelic turn and its relation to metanoia. In Metanoia: Some Experiences at Kingsley Hall, writing of his experiences there in the late 60s, R.D. Laing (1967) speculates that the experience of psychedelics is similar to that of metanoia. “LSD-25 was originally regarded as a psychoticomimetic substance. I propose that this biochemically induced 6–12 hour trip has its natural analogue in what I suggest be called a metanoiac voyage.” Not only that, he argues that LSD can be used for therapy by controlling the set and setting (terms coined by Timothy Leary). Moreover, the typical pathologizing setting of the mental hospital actual induces a bad mind-set in the patient, thereby encouraging negative reactions, a failed metanoietic journey.
In short, Laing’s radical thesis is that psychedelics might cure schizophrenia; whereas the medical gaze can actually create it. Traditionally schizophrenia is considered within the body, whereas Laing inverts that assumption and locates it partly in social processes that generate it. Laing laments that cultural taboos prevent such theories from being tested (and proven), but thankfully he persisted and others have validated the field of psychedelic potential. In 1996, the NY Times (Meisel, 1996) wrote of Laing’s work; “Metanoia, especially in its schizophrenic form, is an existential journey, Laing argued; with safe surroundings, it can actually be a route toward recovery based on choice.”
Levi Bryant speculates that Plato and Epicurus would probably not have advocated MDMA. He claims this to make a point about different language games, in how Plato and Epicurus may reject the drug for different philosophical yet game-oriented reasons; Plato for the sake of purity and avoiding bodily temptations and passions, and Epicurus for wanting to avoid the risk of pain or anxiety (a utilitarian pleasure principle). But perhaps they might take the drug for the sake of inducing metanoia. Bryant comments that the golden thread through Avanessian and Hennig’s book (which he calls a work of meta-philosophy) poses the question: how it might be possible to make moves that break out of the (language) game itself, beyond “its grammar, its pieces, its field”? The book provides an answer in cognitive/ linguistic terms, yet the psychedelic dimension to metanoia is left out.
Psychoactive philosopher Peter Sjostedt-H (2016) traces the history of psychedelic use through 13 famous philosophers, from Plato on through to Foucault. In his article, The Hidden Psychedelic History of Philosophy, he writes that philosophy itself can be psychoactive, but that the role of psychedelics is not obvious or well studied despite its ubiquity in the history of higher thought. The prohibition of psychedelics are in part maintained as resistance to and taboo against metanoia, both individually and culturally. It is not so much that transformative experience is ‘not for everyone’, but rather that it is actively denied to most.
Furthermore, the denial of this potential catalyst (ie. tripping) of Western philosophy undermines its own premises and hampers its emancipatory mission; if philosophy is truly aimed at truth, it will not be dissuaded by the politics of the day. In his book Noumenautics (2015), an exploration of psychedelic phenomenology and the implications for philosophy and metaphysics, Sjostedt-H writes that such prohibitions are “an affront to human dignity and an affront to reason itself.” Thus, the field of philosophy owes it to itself to recognize this legacy, and to affirm the mutually constitutive relationship between altered states of consciousness and the development of thought.
One does not have to take psychedelics to stimulate metanoia, but overcoming the taboo is key. Christian pastor Wick Anderson (2019) recounts his experience of metanoia simply by reading Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelics. When he heard the title on NPR, “How to Change Your Mind,” it recalled his biblical greek knowledge of the word “metanoia”. Skeptical of psychedelics, as one would expect a religiously conservative person to be, Anderson nevertheless pushed ahead and was surprised and transformed by Pollan’s book. Subsequently, he was able to relate to psychedelic experiences as legitimate mystical or religious experiences, as well as a transformative therapy tool for reflection and healing.
3. The Conversion of Capitalism
Capitalism is in major crisis, (dis)affecting all its subsystems and the superstructure of our society. A multifaceted metanoia is needed to converge towards solving what John Milbank and Adrian Pabst (2015) call “the meta-crisis of secular capitalism”. The meta-crisis devalues human productivity and fetishizes materiality, cutting out the commons and relational goods. Financialization increases the appearance of profits but masks the deepening crisis. The excessive “abstract” growth of capitalism spreads systemic risk while being unaccountable; the abstraction needs to be continually re-anchored in the concrete and collective. Capitalism will undergo a conversion to post-capitalism and cosmopolitan socialism, and business must help.
In a dense paper by Andrew Targowski (2010) analyzes the role of business in civilizational development and posits two paths; paranoia and metanoia. The choice is set up by the fact that hyper-consumptive civilization is unequivocally accelerating towards limits and collapse. The impending collapse is made clear through the historical trajectory and convergence of capitalist “Western Civilization” from pre-capitalist forms to mercantilism (1500s-), to various others including commercial, state, regulated, crony, managed, and social capitalism up until the 1990s. In the 90s authoritarian, managerial, and global capitalism colluded and competed, merging into “Super Capitalism” (undemocratic) in the 2000s-.
Life between 1000–1820 is characterized by the “Malthusian Trap”, where populations were relatively stable (birth rates equaled death rates), and living conditions were poor. During this time, global GDP grew just 153%. It was a trap because without major productivity gains, growing birth rates decreased real income, so paradoxically war, disease, and disorder increased material standards for those living. From 1820- onward, modern capitalism began Accelerated Growth, where the industrial revolution “broke the Darwinian law” and enabled exponential population growth and increased the standard of living.
Since 1820 global GDP has grown over 900%. Targowski cites the 1972 Club of Rome report Limits to Growth as the major predictor of collapse, which was mostly ignored. As such, on our current trajectory, he anticipates a “Death Triangle of Civilization” from 2050–2500, distilling three main threats to civilization: a Population Bomb and Ecological Bomb, which converge (2050–2150) on a Resource Bomb (2300–2500); that is, as population and consumption peak, so are resources strained until there is none left. This is one prophetic scenario of many, but it stands out for its contrasting a pattern and choice between paranoia and metanoia, a recurrent theme.
Here’s the rub: business plays a central role in mass metanoia, perhaps even more so than educators, politicians, and citizens do. Targowski critiques the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for not addressing the role of business, the key driver pushing us “to the brink of disaster.” His succinct meta-analysis of our long term civilizational trajectory brings us to a distinct fork in the road today. Option A, the “Metanoic Path” is one of sustainable growth through renewable resources that foster shared values and a “Universal Civilization.” Option B, the “Paranoic Path” is staying in the growth trap, depleting strategic resources leading to collapse and a “post-Civilization Epoque.”
Systems scientist Peter Senge (1990), author of The Fifth Discipline, was largely inspired by metanoia to become an expert on “metanoiac organizations”. Looking back from 2015, he elaborates on the concept, metanoia as learning, and from this he developed the concept of a learning organization. His book received acclaim in its day, but it is now that Senge speaks with a fresh sense of metanoia, that it is a time for great change. He laments that nothing will change without mass metanoia and that it will be likely induced by climate and social collapse, but he also sees what he calls “heartening developments” in social consciousness, that some people are catching on:
“We really are on a path to nowhere in the mainstream. And outside the mainstream all these amazing things are happening, so I think one, it becomes more and more necessary, and two, it becomes more and more possible.” Peter Senge (Sarder, 2015)
Mirroring Senge’s valorous business ethic beyond conscious capitalism, a consultant named Chris Houston (2015) writes that “(m)etanoia is the gateway to the hallowed grounds of corporate integrity.” He reflected on his suspicion, which eventually became a conviction, that the “profit-only model” in business was not as noble and generative as widely believed. On the contrary, capitalist realism — the belief there is no alternative — is destroying the planet. This experience of realization led Houston to develop a lucid anatomy of the metanoia process, which he summarizes as follows:
“metanoia has occurred when something (1) boundless and unexpected, (2) beyond reason, and (3) mysteriously compelling (4) sparks non-conformity borne of conviction, a (5) deeper connection to others, and (6) deeper knowledge of our own story and identity (7) toward broadened horizons or a new world.”
According to this sequence, to achieve metanoia we must (1) go outside our comfort zone and become a part of a larger reality that imbues purpose and meaning. With our minds intellectually engaged, we must then (2) open our hearts and be moved by something on a deeply personal level; perhaps an injustice, personal failing, or an epistemic contradiction. We then cross another threshold and (3) let the momentum of that shift carry us into a new perspective or disposition. At this point we are likely rebelling against norms and so (4) a deeper commitment and action is required. To remain in the same patterns of behaviour once the shift has been embraced becomes unbearable.
Eventually the mounting changes leads back to (5) a deepening of relationships with others. Self and world are transformed, but with it comes the realization of deep connection and interdependence with others and/or nature, reminiscent of John Donne’s famous line of poetry, that “no man is an island entire of itself”. By now one’s journey is a story unfolding, so (6) we must reflect on our personal narrative and reconstruct our identity to meet new demands and accept the surprising consequences that comes with this new knowledge. Finally, having survived the harrowing transition, (7) we are faced with a new horizon of choice and responsibility. We are bigger people part of a larger world, with the ability and duty to be positive agents of change.
Similarly, Joan Marques (2011) proposes a metanoia-focused MBA that fosters eight strategies for inducing metanoia: “conscious dialogue rounds, confrontation with human-focused companies, instilling the idea of humility, considering yourself as a brand, looking into social entrepreneurship, awakening passion, conducting self-reflection, and rethinking decision-making.” Houston’s consulting blog and Marques’ MBA plan seem unlikely places to find such compelling, rigorous, and poetic metanoia instruction guides, but such is the divine mystery of metanoia and the need for it in (meta-)crisis capitalism.
These techniques confront major negative tendencies of corporate culture, such as extreme inequality and long-term unintended consequences of self-interested and short-term decision making. Marques stresses that metanoia is never an overnight success, and is not even guaranteed by these methods, but rather is sustained through outward practice and exposure. The applications of these ideas in corporate structures may have very limited impact, but they make sense especially if pursued as part of a broader Truth and Reconciliation process, begetting the need for a deeper sociological turn.
4. Diving into Depth Sociology
In his sweeping book Gaia, Psyche and Deep Ecology Andrew Fellows (2019) makes the call to action explicitly one about metanoia. Like many sources invoked here, his book has a certain metamodern sensibility and urgency in its themes and prescriptions, citing the anthropocene as both a cause and catalyst of dramatic change. Through the titular concepts, he melds the ideas of a living planet, infinite consciousness, and the complex ecological systems that bind them together and mediate our species relationship to earth.
Along with deep ecology, Fellows advocates for depth psychology as being integral to the project, though he is cautious of how it is a two-edged sword (ie. hypercapitalism exploits it). He refers to “denial of the really big picture” as one of many key defence mechanisms that limit our ability to change for the better, “and the need for metanoia” to address said denial. He urges that civilization has become collectively neurotic, as speculated by Jung and Freud, and that metanoia is precisely the psychological break that is needed. Realizing the crisis “demands nothing less than a metanoia — a revolution in the way we understand our being in the world.”
Fellows’ imperative may seem like a fantasy, for when do large groups ever spontaneously changed their minds at will? History crawls and progress precipitates into a slow drip, but change does happen, usually prompted by pivotal events. Part of the pattern emerging is one converging towards this needed mass metanoia. There exists a lot of collective guilt and shame for climate change and systemic oppression to process, and we are running out of time as the evidence against our denial is mounting.
Ananta Kumar Giri (2018) has called for new approaches in Beyond Sociology with a “new sociological imagination and new ways of being alive”. John Clammer co-developed these ideas and coined the concept of deep sociology that goes beyond critique to be “reconstructive”. Anchored in things like deep ecology, a critique of eurocentrism, and an explicit move beyond postmodernism, to question the foundations of modern sociology itself. Deep sociology foregrounds the philosophy of sociology, processes of globalization, indigenous knowledge, as well as “feminism, the ecological movement, art, the new social movements”. It goes so beyond as to take some special responsibility for the paradigm shift:
“The essential role of critical sociology — the exposure of our endless capacity for self-delusion and self-justification — needs at this juncture in time to be extended into the anticipation and management of the very future.” John Clammer (Giri, 2018)
In a similar spirit, in Postmodernism and Public Policy, John B. Cobb Jr. (2002) opens the preface with the observation of an emergent movement David Ray Griffin calls “constructive postmodernism”, in part influenced by Whitehead’s process philosophy/ theology. Griffin even spells out that it is “perhaps best — reconstructive”. At the time, Cobb predicts that this approach may be “a strong, even dominant, force” in the 21st century. As they draw on theology, Cobb writes, “[t]he Christian life is entered through metanoia and continues as one of repeated metanoia.” Thus, metanoia plays a central role as an ongoing process of “creative transformation” that changes throughout time, from the first possibility via Jesus (Christ), to contemporary preachers calling for it in our presently tense age.
Cobb also reflects on his own metanoia regarding race and class, explaining that the way forward is “acknowledging the ugly history of whiteness and repenting”, while also “freeing myself from disempowering guilt and shame.” In our current moment, racial tensions are high proportional to ignorance on the topic and the lack of logistical solutions for migration, refugee, and incarceration crises. Conservative antipathy to ‘social justice’ continues to rise and while Cobb’s repentance would be castigated as “virtue signalling” by reactionaries in today’s political climate, it is a vital step in metanoia.
Dovetailing with what Peter Dale Scott (1996) calls “deep politics”, Griffin and Cobb take a complex view of 9/11 terrorist attacks. It would be a categorical mistake to lump them with “conspiracy theorists” or “truthers” as they are both acclaimed scholars, and their pragmatic skepticism of the official version of 9/11 is shared by even the late historian Howard Zinn. Zinn is not particularly interested in dwelling on (the truth of) the event, as most serious skeptics aren’t. Rather, they are concerned with the consequences either way, the endless and dubious “war on terror”, neoconservative geopolitics normalized into the erosion of civil rights and economic justice, and the neglect of more real concerns — not least climate change.
At root, Griffin and Cobb’s speculations are grounded in the rational assertion that governments lie, and some truths are too big to believe. In his book Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, theories aside, Griffin’s (2006) reasonable religious prescription calls for churches to, as one reviewer summarized, “dissociate themselves from America’s imperial project” (Jenson, 2007), which is largely uncontroversial amongst political and religious progressives. Evangelizing for and crossing such divestment tipping points is a benchmark for a mass metanoia.
9/11 was certainly formative in my own life, for the millennial generation at large, and for a negative paradigm shift which is still creating fallout. The broader problem is that of the globally imposed pax Americana, and how to mobilize our metanoia to actually achieve it at scale — to end war in all forms. No doubt for conspiracy theorists, as well as those who abandon conspiricism, metanoia plays a decisive role in objection to militarist premises and agendas. Metanoia becomes an anti-war project on spiritual grounds. Scholars like Baudrillard and Zizek have commented on the surreality of 9/11, and Alison Gibbons (2017) has described the idea of metamodern affective autofiction in novels that attempts to save us from the event, by being attentive to a new temporality and intersubjectivity.
In American Psychosis, journalist and activist Chris Hedges (Zackem, 2017) speaks of collapse, and our avoidance/denial of it, saying of religion that the “real form […] has to do with our neighbour.” Acting as a seminarian as well, he adds “a life of commitment is picking up a cross, it’s not a pleasant experience. It’s one that gives one a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose.” The collapse of empire breeds retreat and polarization, but also calls for acts of conscience and rebellion against draconian policies. Hedges’ metanoia is a constant affirmation of the deep transformation needed away from of our denial and destructive ways of life.
5. Metanoetics and Liberation Theologies
Building on the previous section, we plunge deeper into the fusion of philosophy, sociology, religion, and praxis. After World War 2, Japanese philosopher Hajimi Tanabe wrote about metanoia (“zange”) as absolute critique in his titular book Philosophy as Metanoetics. Zange is a way to navigate the ongoing crisis of reason due to its absolute limits and to overcome the pervasiveness of evil in the world. As metanoetics, philosophy is not only a ‘life of mind’, but rather a life of constantly changing and evolving one’s mind. As such, Tanabe is concerned not just with metanoia as a concept and process, but metanoetics as the entire field of philosophical practice.
With this daunting task, Tanabe realizes that he is incapable, and so must concede the battle before it has begun by admitting inadequacy. Tanabe realizes the parallels with Socratic irony — knowledge of one’s ignorance — but considers metanoetics different by being rooted in “Other-power” rather than self-power. Its source is not contemplation and reason, but a “breaking-through” not possible by discursive reflection alone. It requires not just intellectual courage but existential surrender, the true source of wisdom coming from nothingness itself. Thomas P. Kasulis writes of Tanabe;
“Because no intellectual system can ever be universal or absolute, he argued, every responsible philosophy contains a metanoetic dynamic that serves to undermine any tendency to treat it as such.” (Kasulis, 1998)
Tanabe’s project starts from a place of guilt for Japan’s role in World War 2, as well as an atmosphere of denial by authorities after the gruesome fact. He was of course not personally responsible, but as a philosopher he bares the sin of it in full, leading him to take an absolute stance against Kant’s notion of “radical evil” within all of us. Tanabe recognizes the certain risk of this autocritical philosophy making him a pariah amongst others loyal to ill-fated reason, yet proceeds anyway. Not only is it autocritical, Tanabe’s metanoetics invites critique so that it may reform itself.
To perform “zange” is his purpose and joy, as painful as it is, which reminds me of Nietzsche’s amor fati and Albert Borgmann’s (Crook, 2020) “good burdens”. Metanoetics involves not just a change of mind, but a resignation to the fallibility and weakness that comes with the path of philosophy, epitomized by the failure of reason to avert world wars. It is metanoia in the sense of “thinking-afterward” with repentance but more anticipatory. One has not only accepted (and disallowed) the possibility of evil in themselves, but accepted the inevitable destiny of life and “[a]s such, zange means simply following a disciplined way toward one’s own death.” For these reasons, Tanabe’s metanoetics is a zero-tolerance stance against violence.
Jonathan Ray Villacorta (2011) revives Tanabe’s ethos in Metanoia as a Response to Philosophy’s Death, where he laments how often “the evils of dogmatic institutions and uncreative policies” have prevailed, committed atrocities, and swept dark histories under the rug in following the “letter of the law instead of its spirit.” As an “absolute critique,” metanoetics is the only way out, not just for individuals but groups, as Villacorta argues: “Our institutions too need to take the path of zange!” While true, a footnote provides a commentary from Ricoeur who reminds us that institutions are but the sum of their parts, not autonomous evil agents. It is the whole of people who must metanoia.
This paradox — that we must change ourselves and institutions at the same time — would seem to only be possible in a metamodern paradigm where paradexity (paradoxical complexity) can be confronted and addressed through consensus building (Cooper, 2020). Our egos and identities must continually die and be reborn, and with them our philosophies and institutions. In my view, Villacorta and Tanabe’s metanoetic insights contribute to a metamodern turn, which is precisely why its time has come (again). We must commit to the metanoiac path, lest the paranoid mind hold sway.
Similarly, in holocaust theology, Stephen Haynes (1994) asks how this extreme hell could occur, given enlightenment values and reason? How could such an advanced society commit such blatant evil? More to the point, does it not definitively prove that there is no “God,” and hence no theology, only us? That is the irony, because in some ways the nightmares of the 20th century renews and affirms the religious spirit, but in a new mode, as described:
‘Many use the dramatic terminology of “endpoint,” “interruption,” “crisis,” “break,” “rupture,” “paradigm shift,” and “metanoia” to describe the Holocaust’s monumental impact on the Christian faith.’ (Haynes, 1994)
Haynes argues that two millennia of Christian anti-semitism (culminating in the Holocaust) is an obvious sign of the church’s hypocrisy and “apostasy from authentic Christianity.” The holocaust was a death knell for not just millions of people, but philosophy as well as religion. It is in large part the catalyst of postmodernism, which would emerge as an explicit paradigm a couple of decades after World War 2.
These issues remain unresolved in any conclusive sense. Here we are in the 21st century still struggling with the same paradoxes as history urges repetition in the most banal and horrific ways, hence a need for a normative metamodernism. A new ongoing, and perhaps in some ways final, process of metanoia is needed to subvert the spirals of violence and fulfill the prophecies of peace. The cry for metanoia is found across the board, it just has to be heeded collectively.
Postcolonial theory and liberation theology enfold into a metamodern turn as well, via the work of Justo L. González (1996), who used the term. He describes latinos in the US as “metamodern aliens in postmodern Jerusalem”, who embody and live through both hope and despair, under oppressive conditions ignored by the postmodern critique, which neglected the geopolitical subjugation of the subaltern. Liberation theology integrates social justice with religion, as Martin Luther King did, whereas postmodern secularism rejects the latter. As such, black and liberation theologies offers a truer and more emancipatory reading of the bible (and Christ), and a more universal notion of spirituality.
This sentiment is also expressed in terms of metanoia by Paul S. Chung (2019) in his book Critical Theory and Political Theology, which issues a “call for theological metanoia and parrhesia in our postcolonial context”; parrhesia meaning to candidly, freely, and boldly speak truth to power. Citing “Why Black Theology?” (1975), Chung writes that against the Christian church’s colonial sanction of slavery, “[we must affirm] Gollwitzer’s call for white dominant theology to commit the metanoia toward the liberating message of the Gospel.”
Chung describes the alternative to postmodernism as “trans-modernity” aligned with postcolonial theory and liberation theology, converging with the metamodernism of González. Given that the church abandoned the version of Jesus as “the divine delinquent” (cf. Horkheimer), the authentic imitation of which has been “lost since the time of Constantine”, these are appropriate (re-)turns. Chung takes it a step further and proposes that “[c]ritical theory may as well become an implicit form of political theology.” Chung’s programmatic metanoia is a “peace movement” that serves none other than the god of political responsibility to stand in solidarity with the innocent victims of injustice.
6. Feminist Soul-Making and Reconstructing Relationship
It took a long time for the world to recognize that women are people too, and many men still resist this truth. Rosemary Radford Ruether (1995) reconceptualizes the Christian notions of sin, alienation, and conversion through a feminist lens in Feminist Metanoia and Soul-Making. This feminism calls on both men and women to involve themselves in the individual and collective processes of metanoia and transformation needed to undo “women’s subjugation by patriarchal social and cultural systems”. Ruether rejects the Christian idea of innate evil, but agrees that “our tendency to evil has been biased by historical systems of evil.”
Historical evil suggests that we must not only address our own pathologies, but those of institutions that will abandon us to the extent we revolt against them; ie. “family, school, church, and country”. These normative social structures ostensibly take care of us, but often only if we let them control us and others. Ruether reconceives “sin” as “distorted relationship” (male over female) and stresses it needs to be confronted along three dimensions — personal-interpersonal, social-historical, and ideological-cultural — whereas self-help/therapy discourse has typically dwelled on the first.
Ruether exposes a correlation between male insecurity and cycles of violence. She suggests masculinity is rooted in fear of, and desire to overthrow, the “great mother.” Furthermore, Ruether finds this dynamic in all types of domination; white racists are afraid of having their power displaced by black culture; right-wing Christians and Jews are bound in an unholy alliance for the strategic geopolitical advantage of Israel, both complicit in oppressing Palestinians to feel more secure themselves. “The militarist needs enemies” writes Ruether, and “[t]his became evident with the recent end of the cold war, where we saw the scramble of the U.S. government military-industrial complex to identify new enemies to justify their arsenals.”
Ruether’s paper astutely anticipated the war on terror, but the feminist metanoia was denied. We inherit this mess of (psychological) projecting power-relations, and such is the “historical dimension of sin.” The continuity of oppressive relations is not just reified but over-determined through the institutions of family, school, religion, and mainstream media. Our inner struggles are mirrored by cultural clashes, and we must foster our good tendencies through “soul-making” and metanoia:
“Soul-making happens through transformative metanoia, which is both sudden insight and also slow maturation of a grounded self in relationship or community, able to be both self-affirming and other affirming in life-enhancing mutuality. It is both a gift and a task, grace and work […] Such transformative metanoia is both personal and social.” (Ruether, 1995)
Feminist movements have in large part made it possible for women to articulate their own exploitation and to have the support network to act on their new consciousness. The metanoiac struggle intensifies with the recognition of historical context. Thus, Ruether argues that women of privilege should also be aware of their own capacity to victimize others. In parallel, men need to embark on their own journey, noting that “[m]uch of what is passing for ‘the men’s movement’ at the moment does not yet seem to me to qualify for such a mature movement of men against patriarchy, but has many features of reduplication…”
Ruether’s insights anticipated our current times with many white male pseudo-intellectuals bemoaning the ‘crisis of masculinity’ (including a denial that patriarchy exists) and the #MeToo movement of de-normalizing abusive male behaviour. Ruether concludes that ‘soul-making’ is only complete when it transforms the whole, but because it is eschatological and teleological — more theological ideals, less historical possibilities — we must persevere in the face of constant defeat. We must have faith and resolve to sustain the struggle with others, hoping that an end is finally near. We’re still not quite there yet.
Mahatma Gandhi was no feminist; his controversial views and practices around women and sexual behaviour undermined his cause and disrupted feminism. Outside of these blindspots, Gandhi had many distinct metanoias in his life that led him to his path of unshakeable convictions and acts of defiance. The plain injustice of British occupation and rule motivated him to theatrically break the most banal of laws, taking salt from the beach, which prompted his imprisonment, brutal crackdowns, and a widespread uprising that eventually achieved independence. Committed to satyagraha, or truth force, Gandhi’s swaraj (self-governance) was not just a critique of British imperialism, it was a critique of modernity, not from the postmodern critical perspective, but from a metanoietic instinct.
Gandhi’s project was an alternative to liberal democracy and Marxism in a way, aiming for transformation beyond the means of those programs, according to A. K. Saran (1969). “Gandhism calls for a radical revolution, for a complete transformation of man’s thinking and way of life, social as well as individual. In a word, it aims at metanoia.” Swaraj is not just a rebuke of modernity, writes Rudolf C. Heredia (1999), but rather an attempted integration of modernity with a renewed liberatory tradition. In this sense it has a metamodern character of a high synthesis that is almost unrealistic, but imperative. To deny Gandhi’s vision, in Heredia’s words, is;
“to claim that human beings are not capable of metanoia, a radical change of heart, that can open up new perspectives, not just for individuals and groups, but for entire societies and whole cultures as well. We need organic intellectuals and transformative activists who can articulate and precipitate such a social movement.” (Heredia, 1999)
National Geographic (O’Neill, 2015) reports that Gandhi’s legacy is rife with paradox given where India is today, a crowded geography with a seemingly impassable gap between high technology and poverty. Not to mention, his ‘friendly’ letters to Hitler never did quite work (Suhrud, 2019). More to the point, contemporary India under Narendra Modi has become so fundamentalist and chauvinist that Gandhi’s assassin is revered. Though many worship Gandhi, his revolutionary discipline and socialist praxis has all but evaporated under the sweltering conditions of life and politics in the 21st century, and of course still lacking a feminist metanoia.
Heredia argues that to find “a new synthesis for a counter-culture” today, Gandhi must be reinterpreted and seen as a dialogue partner, not an icon and saint, so we can “re-examine and reconstruct ourselves as well.” We must achieve our own metanoia, not Gandhi’s; his and others are instructive but not exhaustive. Half the world’s population is women — not to mention people who are non-binary or transgender — and they have been largely excluded from historical progress and discourse since time immemorial. The feminist cause is obviously imperative and yet constantly neglected or under attack, calling into question every metanoia that preceded it.
7. The Metanoid Style
In the 1960s, historian Richard Hoftstadter coined “the paranoid style” to describe the pervasive reactionary behaviours and discourses intrinsic to American politics. This paranoia seems to define the world today just as much as his other famous thesis about anti-intellectualism (Cooper, 2020). The metanoid style would be the opposite of paranoia, its salvation. On this path, we are getting closer to the possibility of a mass metanoia. The contrast between paranoia and metanoia has been noted in the sections on capitalism and liberation theology, and now its juxtaposition comes into focus.
Anthony Judge is a prolific thinker and writer for the Union of International Associations and mastermind behind The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. In one of his 1600+ articles he writes about metanoia and paranoia, along with a few other ‘noias’. He defines paranoia as a protective cognition, part of threat detection and survival instincts, whereas metanoia is about “coherent reframing in a larger, subtler context.” Understanding this distinction enables fostering the latter habit.
Following the end of the Cold War, Albert Borgmann’s bifurcation of postmodernism into hypermodernism and metamodernism (see Cooper, 2020) would seem to mirror the choice between paranoia and metanoia. In futurist aesthetics, this also calls up the contrast between cyberpunk vs solarpunk. Politically, it also reflects polarized cultures that are reactionary/ regressive vs. progressive. Functionally this maps to the expressions ‘barbarism or socialism’, extinction or relative utopia. These are the ultimate questions for our civilization, and yet quite simple when framed this way. Will you choose paranoia (fear) or metanoia (love)? Our personal lives rarely present such stark contrasting choices, but here we face a global moment, an opportunity for mass metanoia.
A Christian priest named Ron Rolheiser (2016) wrote of the difference between paranoia and metanoia as clenched fists versus open hands, borrowing the phrasing from the theologian Henri Nouwen’s book With Open Hands. In contrast to paranoia (fear and suspicion), metanoia is openness and trust, the “posture” of which is most graphically symbolized by Jesus on the cross, “exposed and vulnerable, his arms spread in a gesture of embrace, and his hands open, with nails through them.”
If the crucifixion is too graphic an example, it is meant to be, for though it is actually a technology of oppression the symbol itself represents the “antithesis of paranoia”. In a culture of paranoia the threat always seems to be there, where our inner doors instinctively “slam shut” when we perceive a threat, requiring a much deeper faith and vulnerability to overcome it; “Metanoia, the meta mind, the bigger heart, never closes those doors.” We wage an inner war over which hand gesture prevails in a given situation, but we must always concede to metanoia.
Paranoia is pervasive through a “politics of fear,” recalling the Adam Curtis (2004) documentary The Power of Nightmares, where politicians exploit insecurity to increase power and control. Fear goes both ways, as it is not just about people afraid of their governments, but governments paranoid about their people and all potential threats, even vital dissent or just plain science (ie. climate change). Conversely, a “politics of love” and metanoia is espoused by people like Marianne Williamson (2019), Cornel West (2019), and the Bernie Sanders movement.
Social philosopher and cultural critic William Irwin Thomspon also juxtaposes metanoia and paranoia in an interview with Richard Leviton (2007). Thompson explains that the current politics is bankrupt and our own imagination falls short of coping with the planetary crisis, adding “[p]aranoia is the inability to deal with synchronous topologies, but metanoia is when you surf-ride the chaotic topologies into health. It really takes science fiction to deal with the politics we’re up against today.”
Thompson has been widely influential as a mythmaker of Gaian cosmology, but retreated from the pathologies of new ageism, lest he be co-opted as a guru. Thompson is the founder of the Lindisfarne Association (1972–2012), dedicated to fostering a “new planetary culture.” In his memoir, Thompson (2016) describes how through the community the “personal sense of transfiguration was the metanoia of our noetic polity.” In a book published by Lindisfarne Books, Theosophia, by Arthur Versluis (1994), the chapter on metanoia opens with “ALL TRUE METAPHYSICS BEGINS WITH a metanoia — that is, with a “turning” toward the truth of a revelation that transcends the rational and the temporo-physical.” Theosophy is a mystical blending of theology and philosophy; a love of god.
Versluis reminds us that the concept of “born again” has been bastardized by Protestant literalism turned mass evangelism, mostly erasing the original meaning of metanoia. The true metanoiac path begins with a yearning (eros) to be transfigured, a love of truth and will to change, what Plato calls periagoge, which Cornel West (2017) invokes alongside metanoia. This makes metanoia an affirmative act, rather than one of negations; it is a courtship with knowledge herself, Sophia, goddess of divine wisdom.
In The Dialogue of Cultures: From Paranoia to Metanoia, Heredia (2007)situates the culture of paranoia in the discourse of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” which essentializes the “other”. This clash has intensified in the time since as a result of such essentialization and otherizing, rather than overcoming. Dialogue is a way to overcome the tension between difference and division, between plurality and ethno-nationalism. For example, we must become more “sensitive to the delicate distinction between ethnicity as a uniting “myth” and ethnicity as a dividing “ideology”.
Heredia explains that there is a conflict between myth and ideology, where ideology develops out of the (mis-)translation of myth. Paradoxically, ideologies are functional up until a certain point where they begin to exclude anomalies, so ideologies must remain open yet grounded. Heredia argues that “[w]hat we need, then, is a metanoia of our myths to escape and be liberated from the paranoia of our ideologies, whether religious, political or otherwise.” Quite simply, we need a “dialogue of religions” rather than a “clash of civilizations”, but before that is even possible we need a “dialogue of culture”: “Only then can we experience a metanoia in ourselves that will free us from the paranoia we have of each other.”
Pope Francis (2020) has said about the COVID-19 pandemic that “[w]hat we are living now is a place of ‘metanoia’ (conversion), and we have the chance to begin”. We have neglected the poor, the environment, and the unsung heroes of the struggle. In Pope Francis’ terms, he urges people to “pass from the hyper-virtual, fleshless world to the suffering flesh of the poor. This is the conversion we have to undergo.” The metanoiac journey herein began with religion so it is fitting it closes with it, but every other element has been just as important to bind together a definitive ethos.
This chapter has traced the activity of metanoia through its religious, cognitive, (post-)capitalist, sociological, politico-philosophical, feminist, and psychohistorical forms. Metanoia should come out of obscure literature and into our institutional arrangements. It needs to develop and move from our private lives into public discourse, and vice versa. It will largely remain a unique and personal struggle, but one need not be alone, and the stakes of metamodernism are too high, and the evidence too great, for it to not be explicitly normative.
Metanoia is no mere mind hack for the savvy seeker or weekend warrior; it is an injunction to all of humanity. This exegesis of metanoia has been but an overview of a habit of the heart and mind that needs to become normalized in the metamodern shift, changing everything that came before. Excavated from its ancient and exclusive origins, it must be made available for the sacred spark in all. It is not a reversion to religious orthodoxy, but a post-secular move into a spiritual commonwealth and fair society.
A metanoia for religion means jettisoning the pretence of being the arbiters or intermediaries of divine knowledge and will, and submitting to the needs of disenfranchised masses all over the world. Organized religions must divest from all war and politics, as all economic sectors must, and adherents should engage in monastic metanoia and embody higher truths rather than worship dogma.
A metanoia for capitalism involves overcoming market fundamentalist ideology and transforming its systems while embodying the guilt and shame of its externalities, built-in limits, and pathologies that have produced global monopolies and hyper inequality and polarization. This will be accomplished by inverting the military-industrial complex into a robust civil society and public sector called a “peace-industrial complex”, an enantiodromiac conversion.
We may (nay, we must!) think of the metamodern move for mass metanoia — a social transformation, paradigm shift, systems change, etc. — as a necessary possibility. One that Andrew Fellows says is necessary, but not sufficient. It is no small step to take, for metanoia carries with it the weight of religious prophecy and salvation. Whether one believes the end times are coming via a conspiracy of men or by God’s wrath (or climate change), humanity is being tested, and the choice is clear: we must fulfill our destinies individually and collectively by changing our minds, our systems, our ways of living, to be in line with the justice and divinity history aspires to. What are you waiting for, the Owl of Minerva?
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