Wednesday, December 12

Finding Meaning today in an increasingly secular world

The material to discuss this question covers such a wide range inevitably what to include becomes highly subjective. But I found an ideal commentary in ‘All Things Shining’ by Hubert Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly, whose sweeping history of Western Philosophy provides ample perspectives for meaningful discussions. 
Additionally I decided to first talk about how our first nation’s people found their meaning. From there I raise a few contemporary issues before reverting to Dreyfus and Kelly’s commentary. But one remains open to further ideas.      
The ancient search for meaning  

So, before I begin on these themes in the reference text I feel it is advantageous to examine the rich history of the first Australians, prior to colonisation, which spanned an uninterrupted period of possibly 60,000 years. We only have a glimpse of the Australian Aborigines, evidenced in their oral tradition, pictures carved on rock walls and caves, often showing long since extinct animals, combined with the more recent archaeological discoveries. What has been unearthed is evidence of stone settlements supporting eel farming and other agricultural pursuits. Of course most of this was not appreciated by the early settlers and has only become better understood in more recent times.         
What we can discern is that meaning for the first nations people resided in the idea that all living things were believed to be made co-dependent and reactive to one another in one inseparable land. Hence the land and all of nature was inextricably woven into their existence.   That thinking today is resplendent in the Morphogenetic fields talked about by Judy Cannato in Fields of Compassion.  They are the fields of thought created by everything in existence; it is the input and output of creation. The idea advanced by her and others is that every thought and action strengthens one of those fields. Given sufficient momentum, (as in collective consciousness) new ones can be created.  
Fields of Compassion – Judy Cannato. 
So, it was this idea (called the dreamtime) that dominated every facet of their rich life; in mythical creation stories, ceremonial art, music, ritualistic practice; initiation rites into adulthood; and in the repository of knowledge of the law handed down from one generation to another. Within the tribal system adolescents were isolated away from the rest of the tribe under the control of elders who provided tutelage on all matters of their law until they were sufficiently aware to make the positive transition to adulthood which carried with it the responsibility towards their tribe and the environment upon which they were dependent - Charles P Mountford – The Dawn of time.
These ideas are of interest to secular philosophers because of the strength of unity such a system has on members of the tribe and to the wider nations; to hold what things and ceremonies are sacred for life’s existence, to apportion responsibilities on attaining adulthood, to be seen fit and able to support a partner, to embrace life without a fear of death, to return to the creative dreamtime and to share in all things.
By all accounts their justice system operated on a payback system and penalties were decided by the so called circles of justice made up of tribal elders. Offenders must face the shame of the tribe and be confronted by their victims to answer for their unlawful actions.
Tribal territories depended on the type of country, semi-arid to desert country of course occupied a larger area compared to the wetter coastal areas which were more plentiful in providing sustenance.  
Fighting was not unknown, but never over land, as land is whence they came and is inextricably part of them, so that their spirits resided in those sacred waterhole landmarks and other sacred places. After death the spirit of the departed, upon resting in that sacred place, then entered the body of a pregnant woman and was reborn as a baby. 
Hence there was no record of serious wars between the nation tribes, thought to number about 500, prior to colonization.  Nations traded goods with one another and negotiated via a message stick. Scarce resources in one area might for instance be exchanged for water rights in another.      
Hence, in summary, one might say questions regarding their existence were answered and validated in every aspect of tribal life. Explanations for the land and existence were contained in the creation stories. Justice was served up to the extent that the punishment put an end to the matter so to speak, so that lingering hatreds between tribal nations by all accounts was largely absent. 
There are elements of their culture relevant for us today.
There is the idea that one must care for all of the land and its environment to ensure more sustainable farming, a far cry from the early settlers who denuded the landscape and employed European farming unsuitable to the fragile Australian landscape.    
Today farming is much more likely to share both knowledge and resources with neighbours, evidenced in the large number of Land Care groups. These moves give meaning to those on the land and add value to our resource by ensuring sustainability for future generations. This involves setting aside up to 10% of land by farmers which are joined in uninterrupted corridors. Land that has been set aside in this manner, has proven to be highly beneficial for farming outcomes with higher overall yields and at the same time preserved the environment for migratory species of wildlife.  
In our justice system there also have been improved outcomes for both victim and perpetrator alike in the prison system where the two parties meet face to face. The perpetrators express contrition to their victims. This might be described as a modern day version of circles of justice. The system provides meaning to those whose justifiable hatred might otherwise drive them crazy. Perpetrators are more likely to be rehabilitate and to seek atonement.   

Finding meaning to life by way of showing reverence to the country and all there is in it, seems to me to far preferable than the patriotic westernised idea to love ones country. Such an idea I think provides ample scope for discussion. For championing the importance that one should love one’s country can have unintended consequences. We see evidence where rampant patriotism causes groups to have inflated views on the superiority of one’s country over others. Waves of populism, rooted in a patriotic fervour, can end up in tears once the stark reality of the lack of any defining principles or values becomes realised. Could we in lieu discuss what a national pride would look like and what values it would constitute?        
Contemporary Nihilism 
To begin on a negative note, just as does the authors of ‘All Things Shining’ I will now introduce discussion points about Nihilism. But firstly to define Contemporary Nihilism; one can say its underlying premise is pessimism or scepticism about attributing any meaning to life at all. In other words there is no inherent value in anything apart from what we can create by way of our freedom. A counter measure to contemporary Nihilism can be the theistic belief systems (GOD) or in deities (GODS) which attempt to provide that existential meaning.
Finding meaning could also be inherent in any unconditional commitment we might make to some cause; as in we place our faith in that something, which in itself provides us with our meaning. In this respect there is growing number of people who call themselves secular humanists. They embrace a cause of free enquiry based on reasoned ethics and democracy,  
The counter argument given by the Contemporary Nihilists has been there must be something in our human condition that prevents us from ascertaining that meaning. In other words as humans we are inherently dissatisfied, which in turns prompts us to seek satisfaction and respond to life challenges to attain a meaningful life. That in turn is what makes life worthwhile.  Put another way there is an ultimate reality, but one cannot grasp that in any meaningful way, so humanity is left collectively groping in the dark, necessitating we find our own meaning and fulfilment in existence. But this idea there is a reality we cannot grasp leads one circuitously back to the question what is it then that can give one that meaning? Possibly Richard Rorty has some ideas on this which may prompt discussions.             

A propensity in modernity to reject prior philosophical underpinnings. 
Richard Rorty rejects the ideas of virtually all prior philosophical enquiry inherent in his idea of epistemic nihilism.
Epistemic Nihilism is based on the idea there are no epistemic (relating to knowledge or knowing) facts. I don’t propose to go down the track too far of the post modernists idea of the relativity of truth with a capital T so can we suspend that for the sake of this narrative and explore Rorty’s ideas related to nature.     
This foundation for his ideas came from Rorty’s earlier work entitled ‘Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this work he rejects claims of our privileged mental power that assumes direct access to things in themselves.
Rather, he opts for an alternative narrative, based on Darwinian evolutionary principles applied to the philosophy of language. Hence our philosophy will evolve and adapt to new information and knowledge just as evolution shapes existence in the natural world. Richard Rorty (1931—2007) by Edward Grippe, Professor of Philosophy at Norwalk Community College
Rorty’s philosophy might be best described as secular humanism, based on tolerance and freedom. He asserts if one is to find meaning and the way ahead for us what is essential is an ongoing updated well informed narrative. Of course the idea of one who is well informed is highly subjective and will vary according to our individual’s life experience plus the changing existential conditions. That conceivably would involve evolving community standards, to be an integral feature of such a narrative, along with the advancement in knowledge. 
Whilst accepting the idea of a narrative one might ask the question, ‘Is there more to finding a meaning to life than just this’? For instance do our moods play a part in reinforcing our sense of meaning to tell us what to do or prompting us to take a different course? Are there other factors that can cast a shining light on our existence?
Later I will talk about how Dreyfus explores the idea of our moods which influence meaning as applied to the ancient Greek thinking, circa 700 BC. Dreyfus contends this type of thinking can best be understood in terms of the phenomenology of the body as applied to our moods. But more on this later under the heading of Homers Polytheism. Further on I will additionally take up the idea of Christianity as expressed in the personage of Jesus; more from the perspective of a joyful exuberant existence and union, largely free from moralising that is more in keeping with the gospels promise that henceforth God will not consider humanity as a servant but as a friend.
Ethical Standards
But firstly a question arises in any narrative, which is: surely it is helpful to refer to guiding principles that we have come to expect in community values? But what are these values and how do you determine them? Do they change according to one’s culture? 
Are they no more than what a well-informed person would expect, given a lack of knowledge of the law is no defence to one who has committed an offence? 
Whilst it is true you cannot legislate morality and we do not need judges to tell us what is right and wrong, modern day technological advances dictate consideration that human oversight becomes increasingly important to correct and mitigate against unintended consequences.  Does the activity of creating ethical standards of behaviours and improved governance with safeguards provide a meaningful existence? Can such an unconditional commitment to maintain community standards provide us with our meaning to life? 
Are we living in an age where we struggle to find a moral compass and if so what is the underlying reason for this?  
Whilst these questions offer ample opportunities for discussion a more pressing issue, in my view, concerns ‘going with the flow’  to the extent such things are never debated. For instance a principal economic aim is to ensure efficiency, but in isolation that risks a society becoming slaves to that one dimensional value. Automation and autonomy suggested in modernity poses questions to which there are no easy answers, but simply going with the flow seems to me to increasingly pose one of our greatest current risks.        
Having only the goal of efficiency sounds insultingly simplistic but it was the justification given by a CEO at the recent Royal Commission when asked how such a systematic lack of ethical standards could arise in the organisation he represented. The operations fell woefully short of very basic community standards but the warning bells were ignored under a single efficiency principle. The answer given was as things on an overall basis looked great with excellent overall results, any cracks were overlooked and concerns voiced overridden or even ignored. 
In the land of technology with its algorithmic outcomes do we need more analysis of its outcomes and involvement by regulators to ensure societal values are maintained?
But why it is that such basic ideals are increasingly ignored in modernity? 
Going with the flow to avoid the burden of critical debate and research.
One can readily identify the super confident person leading us in his or her direction on the basis there is only one best way forward to shape the world. This is evidenced by a propensity for bluster and arrogance or even fanaticism. Such people demand total loyalty and subservience to their way of thinking. Winning may be the only motivation and attack the only answer to those who offer any other alternative valid perspectives. Any opposition is branded as disloyal.   
Another way of opting out is to become so highly addicted to the modern day media platforms (where choices are made for you or dictated by technology) so you largely opt out of making decisions. 
At the risk of veering off track it seems to me going with the flow is part of a wider malaise in republics like the US where democracy is crumbling. 
Indeed, one might ask was such a system ever really intended as a democracy given the sweeping powers under its constitution to Presidents who are allowed to choose their own executive and even close down government spending by refusing to sign off on funding bills or to issue pardons to criminals at the end of their   tenure etc.  Of course, there are also robust institutions committed to freedom and community standards, but many have been weakened by powerful vested self-interest lobbyists with their singular agenda’s. 
Record numbers turned out to vote the last time around in the midterm elections, but it was still less than 50% of those eligible. It seem to me many media outlets reinforce a worsening political culture which is eroding democratic traditions. Such moves are indicative of an unhealthy trend to authoritarianism over democracy and loyalty over everything else.
But this is taking me a bit off course into politics which is way outside of the thrust of this discussion paper. Nor do I wish to single out just one country, but rather I merely raise the issue to talk about the heightened risks of simply going with the flow.
That is to risk allowing unhealthy trends to continue, to undermine democracy, or to fail to update oneself or one’s country to a continuing meaningful narrative.  For is this just another modern day reflection of those same recurring dark rays of westernised history, to the likes of King Ahab of the Old Testament: to become a soliloquy in Melville’s Moby Dick as Captain Ahab’s fanaticism is metaphorically compared to an out of control locomotive, captive to the iron rails that he is chained to meet his inglorious end. More on this later.      

Time to find some inspiration by re reading the classics.  Homers polytheism    
Hubert Dreyfus talks about the ancient Greek ideas and how they were influenced by their belief in GODs which became part of their everyday life.  Dreyfus points us to Homer who is famous for his epic poems, The Iliad and the Odyssey, which have had an enormous effect on western culture.  Homer’s work offers an introduction to the ethics and heroics of that time. The ethics of the Greek immortal GODs were to principally shine a light on honour and glory. Their ancient religion incorporated poems sung to princes, hymns, dances, rituals, festivals and sacrifices offered to the GODs.  
But to understand Homer, according to Dreyfus, one must understand his phenomenology.  

By way of explanation, phenomenology was developed largely by Edmund Husserl and expanded upon by Martin Heidegger. The principal idea posits reality is made up of objects and events which is called phenomena as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not in relation to anything independent of human consciousness.
According to Dreyfus, Homer’s phenomenology of the body incorporates the idea our various moods keep us continually in tune with ourselves and give rise to a meaningful life; a reflection of, or as arising from the various GODs, so that there is sacred nature to our existence.  
In other words our consciousness depends upon personalities at a higher level than our own, an input from the GODS.  
Homer may appear irreligious at times but it should be remembered the Greek Gods he portrayed were in the image of humanity with the same foibles except they were immensely powerful and eternal. In other words we are made in the image of the GODS who also compete with one another just as we do.  
At that time it gave meaning to existence as one could imagine  the belief that it is only the GODS that send us back feedback in the form of the feel good emotional signals or a rush of joy or heightened emotional rewards. That in turn reinforced in the memory of the emotional satisfaction, attributed to the GOD’s. But Dreyfus suggests Homers ideas are closer to our natural mode of existence than what was to come long after him in the autonomy and self-determination of the enlightenment. Homers idea is we are respectful in our engagement of others and objects according to that mood upon which he attaches a link to the GODS.
An example is at the start of Melville’s MOBY DICK and also in his letter to his friend Hawthorne, although Dreyfus contends Melville probably means to say the Greek Gods and not those of old Rome's Pantheon.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 

Ineffable socialites are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon”.
Hence, we have the idea of a fluid existential meaning in contrast to nihilism and relativism.

A point of discussion might be to what extent do our moods give rise to our experiences and do they validate or enhance our lives in terms of providing emotional satisfaction.  Do they tell us the truth about ourselves but not necessarily the truth as in that which is external to our self?     Monotheism on the Rise.
Aeschylus (524-456 B.C.) was a Greek playwright whose works have been preserved and depict the relationship between mankind and the GODS.

He was considered a theologian who attempted to shed light on theodicy, which is the defense of the GOD's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.
He explained this by introducing Zeus, as a supreme deity and goes on present the concept of henotheism which is adherence to just one GOD from a family or group of other GODS. So there is conflict in the heavenly spheres but also a supreme deity who has the ultimate overarching power. It is not hard to see how such remnants in ideas find their way into aspects of the monotheistic religions of the world.

Interestingly enough we find Herman Melville’s idea of healing (he asserts we are all cracked) through the narrator Ishmael, calls into question Zeus as a kind of head of polytheism as a way of advancing harmonious meaning and healing throughout the world.  
The seeds for momentous change such as from polytheism to monotheism, or for any radical departure in beliefs, faces high barriers as it is the equivalent of an entirely new existential world.

What Dreyfus suggests to us such a monumental change represents the reconfiguration of a culture and can only be accomplished by a genius who appears to be a madman or a GOD. To be successful the revision must be sufficiently attractive to that culture and overcome the inevitable headwinds from conservative forces who fight to retain the status quo.
Dreyfus lists 3 requirements for success: 1- a background in practices commensurate with the likelihood of acceptance of the changes that can be successfully integrated over successive generations, 2- new transformational practices that enhance one’s understanding of oneself to propose a new radical way of life and finally 3- an articular able to explain what it means to ensure its continuity. 
Dreyfus advocates the personage of Jesus, as one who meets those 3 demanding criteria’s, since he transforms what constitutes a life worth living, as contained in the parables. They invite imagination, are largely non-prescriptive and represent a radical departure from the entrenched culture of that period and possibly in some respects even today. Stepping back into time they must have seemed revolutionary to those in power who were in charge of the Temple and whose authority was recognised by the Romans. For the Jewish leaders had formed an uneasy truce with Rome and were able to continue to practice their religion

The unhappy marriage of two different cultures.    
But the underlying tension between the Hebrew way of thinking with the specified covenants to GOD and the more free spirits interpretation proved a stumbling block to the early communities.  
The attempted cross fertilisation of the two distinct cultures and their underlying ideas underwent a very slow transformation that did not emerge in any synthesis until over a thousand years later. Along the way various splits occurred in Christianity with the eastern movement more comfortable with ideas that allow humans to be deified in the Greek tradition. The West maintained that gap to the new heavenly Jerusalem under Augustine (354-430).
To reiterate the confusion arises once you attempt to merge the individual experience of the Jewish GOD with the universal truth espoused in Greek rationalism as in the Aristotelian categories.  
Aquinas {1224-74) provided some material progress in his majestic philosophical work to define how one ought to live; a mixture of revelation and rational reflection. 
Enlightenment from the enlightenment period.
But notwithstanding these tentative moves and the reformation, it was not until Descartes established the idea of human knowledge, supported by the authority of Greek philosophy that any degree of synthesis was developed. 
Descartes, contributed enormously to societal ideas and is known as the modern Father of western philosophy. He was both an analytical philosopher and one that relied also on the idea of synthesis. Possibly his best known work is contained in the Meditations. These began with his scepticism before laying the foundation for his thinking embodied in the famous statement; I think, therefore I am. One might say his rational reasoning rested on the materialist premise that there has to be one who is a thinker or doubter and so this provided his foundation.   
Descartes radical sense of freedom needed an articular, which was Kant, whose idea was the subject replaced GOD as the orderer of the world so that from that time onwards that idea took hold more convincingly; that we need to take personal responsibility for our actions. His ideas remain interwoven into the modern world.

Hence the enlightenment offered a new way of thinking based on a scientific and more rational approach that was to dispel the myths of the past. But there was also the propensity to replace the passions associated with our existence with rationality as in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  
According to Kant, the critical question is how the world comes to be understood by us. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason aims to show how reason determines conditions under which our experience and knowledge are possible.
Williams, Garrath, "Kant's Account of Reason", The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
However the philosophical problem of such constructs is we are already in the world so to speak as in being in the world. This was the conclusion posited by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). So that the idea we can come to an understanding of the world risks beginning any philosophical enquiry from that flawed perspective.  For one cannot view the world we exist in as if we are unattached and independent to it: that we might otherwise observe from another dimension in space and time.  It may be worth entertaining discussion on this point.

However, it was earlier on that Soren Kierkegaard in (1813- 55) provided a more comprehensive synthesis that underpinned the subsequent existentialists movement. 
According to Dreyfus, it was his synthesis that helped more so than any previous philosopher, in resolving the existential Judeo Christian tension. 
In ‘Sickness unto Death’ Kierkegaard, in his dense narrative, talks about his synthesis. His synthesis is existential as it implies a freedom and an individual’s responsibility to one’s self and how that works as in an unconditional commitment to a cause or GOD. The synthesis is defined by him as the factors of being in: freedom and necessity, the finite and infinite, the temporal and eternal. Kierkegaard introduced the idea of each of these categories as pointers in regard to how to live.

Where they are not in sync this leads to anxiety or despair which Kierkegaard describes as a sickness. So that he talked about the various negatives as in (1) not acknowledging any existential despair (unconscious in a manner of speaking, as in so caught up in worldly affairs so as to obliterated or unconscious so to speak) (2) of acknowledgment but being despairing in the form of seeking an escape (take drugs or some form of escapism) and finally (3) to find a way through it as in an unconditional commitment. 
So that the finite factor of being refers to necessity, or if you will, the concrete here and now to one’s reality, as a definite something in the world. But the infinite, by virtue of an unconditional commitment to GOD (or to substitute CAUSE for an agnostic interpretation) is infinite. In other words the infinite allows us to explore the potentiality or capacity to incorporate new ideas or creations, or revise ones thoughts and so on. This provides our meaning to life. 
 It is a more enlightened view of existence in my view since it accepts we are already in the world as in being. So we need to find our own meaning by accepting the sacred as in an unconditional commitment to GOD or a CAUSE. A question for discussion might be how does this work in practice in helping us lead a more meaningful life? 
Melville’s evil art, polytheism and fanaticism. It is difficult to summarise any insightful commentary on theme as there are so many books and analysis on Melville and MOBY DICK that provide ample opportunity way beyond the scope of this paper. Rather what I aim to do is to provide a plot summary, a background on Melville and elaborate on some overarching themes for discussion.  
Plot Summary

The narrator Ishmael, (Melville begins by saying ‘call me Ishmael’), is to undertake a maiden voyage on a whaler. He meets up with a Polynesian man at an inn, as both are on route to find a berth on a whaling ship.  
At first repelled by Queequeg’s strange habits and shocking appearance (Queequeg is covered head to toe with tattoos), Ishmael does come to appreciate his generosity and kind spirit, as the two decide to seek work on a whaling vessel together. They take the ferry to Nantucket, a capital of the whaling industry.
There they both secure berths on the Pequod, a ship adorned with the bones and teeth of sperm whales. Both Peleg and Bildad, the Pequod’s Quaker owners, extract a hard bargain in terms of salary. They also reveal the ship’s captain is the mysterious Ahab, who is still recovering from losing his leg to MOBY DICK in an encounter with the whale on his last voyage.
But before departing Ishmael and Queequeg attend a service at the Whaleman’s Chapel. Father Maple offers the story of Jonah and the Whale as a means of ensuring the whalers connect their craft to the Biblical record of their faith. Here we see the exact opposites as Maple’s torments at sea has led him to a life of service whilst Captain Ahab only seeks revenge.
Whilst at sea Ahab nails a gold doubloon to the mast as a reward for the first crew member to sight Moby Dick. The Pequod is initially unsuccessful in a number of whale hunts. During this time Ahab introduces his crew to his smuggled- in band of harpoonists, a move in defiance of the express wishes of the Quaker owners. Their leader is called Fedallah and it was his prophecies that impressed Ahab, who feels his presence will help in his quest to harpoon the whale.  
As the Pequot rounds Africa to the Indian Ocean they are successful with a number of hunts. They encounter other whalers, so Ahab seeks information on the whereabouts of Moby Dick. Captain Gabriel of the ship called Jeroboam prophesies that harm will come to anyone who threatens that whale.   
The next successful hunt brings misfortune aboard the Pequot as Tashlego falls into a whale’s head whilst they are extracting oil. (Principally all of the oil is in the head of a whale). He is ripped free from the ship and hurled into the sea. Queequeg saves Tashlego by diving into the ocean and cutting away the sinking head. During another hunt Pip, the black cabin boy jumps from a whaleboat to thereafter drift aimlessly in the seas and becomes crazy. He becomes symbolically the jesting prophetic companion of the Pequod. 
The next encounter is with Samuel Enderby, a Captain minus an arm, by courtesy of an encounter with Moby Dick, who again warns Ahab not to persue the whale. Samuel is grateful for his escape but perplexed by Ahab’s vengeance.
The finale is an interesting anticlimax as Ahab never gets a chance to face Moby Dick and harpoon the great white whale to fulfil his fanatical mission. Instead there is a series of events:  Fedallah is trapped in the harpoon line and hurled into the sea, and the crew all perish as they are dragged into the vortex of the sinking Pequod after being rammed by Moby Dick. 
Ismael, who was thrown outside of the vortex earlier on in the chase is the sole survivor.
He finds refuge in the coffin that was initially constructed for Queequeg, constructed for him earlier on when he became ill and it was thought he would die, but recovered.  
Ishmael is eventually rescued by one of the whalers still searching for survivors after their prior encounter with Moby Dick. 
Herman Melville
Herman Melville was the 19th century author of this epic classic - Moby-Dick (1851). His other works include Type (1846), Omro (1847), Redburn (1849) and Billy Budd (published posthumously in 1924). However. It was not until the 20th Century did he achieve the fame and stature that was largely absent during his life. 
His first 3 novels Type (1846), Omro (1847), Redburn (1849) were best sellers in the style of adventure books based on his sea journeys. But Melville was more interested in social critiques and philosophical speculation. So that MOBY DICK and other short stories, such as Bartley the Scrivener (1853) reflected this change in emphasis using metaphors. They were not popular and folk did not know what to make of them.

MOBY DICK may seem excessively burdensome to read today but it is also majestic in its literary excellence to emerge as an enduring classic. 
Melville’s’ prior life story is analogous to its narrator Ishmael   who begins as ‘Call me Ishmael’, a name from the Old Testament belonging to the illegitimate son of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah casts out Ishmael once she miraculously (aged 90) gives birth to   Isaac. Hence Ishmael became an outcast and a wanderer, with no identity or world of his own.
Melville’s earlier life was similarly rootless. His Father’s bankruptcy and death in 1832 deprived him of higher education, but he is superbly self-educated, principally inspired by the works of Shakespeare and Emerson, whose style is evident in his writing. His ecology is evidenced by a stated fear that whaling will decimate its population.
The work has applications and plenty of discussion points today given his ideas on tolerance and the need to show respect to all cultures but not to become fanatical on a singular level. In MOBY DICK he advances the idea of polytheism as the healing answer to an intolerant materialistic world. But there is no reason why the monotheistic religions of today can’t be more tolerant and bring with that the prospect of peace. 
He first taught school, then sailed to Liverpool and back, shipped on a whaler, deserted to the Marquesas Islands, lived amongst the cannibals, boarded an Australian whaler to Tahiti to be subsequently gaoled for mutiny, escaped, became a beach comer until another whaler took him to Hawaii. He finally returns home to become a writer.
Talk about someone who is rootless and a wanderer. Here we have the perfect example!
Melville’s Polytheism
Immediately we see evidence of Melville’s polytheism in his way of thinking since his moods dictate how he chooses to live. Notice at the beginning - Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
Hence, he does not freely decide when to go to sea but rather it is his moods that dictate that choice.  So we are reminded of Homer and his moods, to attune those to their situations which prompts one what to do.
His polytheistic leanings are also illustrated in one of his letters to Hawthorne. Melville had formed a friendship with the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated Moby-Dick.  An extract of his long letter to Hawthorne was, I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialites are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. It is a strange feeling -- no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content -- that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling. 
The reference to a wicked book illustrates his intended critique of Christianity to reject the underpinnings of his strict Calvinistic upbringing. His disposition to polytheism is clearly seen from “Ineffable socialites are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon”. Herein one notices an affinity to the ancient polytheistic Gods although perhaps he meant the Greek Gods rather than those of the Roman Pantheon.  
Subsequently we get the impression he feels perfectly content with the views he expresses as a polytheist. But his views are more than just anti-Christian, for he is against any religion that asserts there can be only one Supreme Being. 
His view is any culture that asserts it has a view of the meaning of the universe is false, as everything is a matter of interpretation from the way down. To the Christians at that time, this would represent a wicked book, although he is entirely comfortable with it.    
Accepting as sacred on all other religions. 
Ishmael has a blood bonding with the heathen harpooner Queequeg, to accept his GOD, YO YO as sacred. "I'll try a pagan friend since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy."
So that the underlying theology espoused by Ishmael is he wants to be at home in all religions. This does not mean he agrees with any of them, for he may even regard some as childish. 
But rather to hold them all sacred. He is happy to worship with them by participating in their customs and beliefs to hold that cultural aspect as sacred      
Melville expertly filters out his animosity to Christianity, lest it render his work unpopular, by attributing his biting invective to Ishmael, who in turn identifies Ahab as a kind of irredeemable lunatic: "Human madness is often a cunning and feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into a subtler form. Ahab's lunacy subsided not, but deafeningly Contracted".  
MOBY DICK  His characters and main subject MOBY DICK then take on an alternative meaning as a metaphor for a vengeful GOD. MOBY DICK represents symbolically that which is unfathomable as in GOD or an ultimate reality which is beyond ones grasp. The vengeful GOD of the Old Testament. 
MOBY DICK is ubiquitous, but immortal, invulnerable to any form of assault, "Though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he will still swim away unharmed." He is beyond understanding: "The great Leviathan (any huge marine animal, as in a whale) is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. One portrait may hit the mark nearer than another, but none can hit it with any considerable degree of accuracy."

Ahab as metaphor    

Ahab, as a runaway locomotive.
The path of my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush. Nought’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!
Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical.
Ahab defies GOD, and questions God’s claims to be “unbegun”, suggesting that even for God there is “some unsuffusing thing beyond thee,” for “all thy creativeness (is) mechanical.”
Ahab has become an empty shell of a man, his passions are so consumed against MOBY DICK, all kindness and reason for living disappear apart from his fanaticism to hunt and kill MOBY DICK.  In that respect he has an unconditional commitment to that cause, so in effect it is a form of worship by hating.
Is this then that same force that drives some to violence and terror today, except it is to those enemies of a different faith?  

The anticlimactic ending.
Notice in my plot summary Ahab never gets to face MOBY DICK as the subsequent vortex from the sinking Pequod sends the crew except Ismael to their grave, which is almost incidental to the narrator and MOBY DICK.
This is in keeping with the idea of the GOD which I think Melville wants to project, as ONE who cannot be attached or known in the manner that Ahab attempts to characterise. That is, in hating as in Ahab wanting to confront GOD (MOBY DICK) face to face. For that GOD, and those others of the various cultures according to Melville, as in Ismael’s narrative, must remain sacred but also a reality beyond one’s grasp, as sought by a fanatically inspired Ahab.
I think there is ample room here for discussion and to introduce significant other parts of the work that may be of interest.  
The authors of All Things Shining turn to modernity to draw inspiration from sporting heroes, events and the everyday, to discuss those ‘whooshing’ feelings that capture heightened feelings of joy. This is evident in the communities of like-minded souls experiencing common feelings of celebration of a particular event.   
But the authors lasting legacy must be in provoking many questions about how we might find meaning in the everyday rooted in the continuing freedom of choice, regardless of our physical constraints, as to what we choose to think or celebrate in life. There are many discussion points that can be explored from our ancient first people and along the sweeping western philosophical journey.  But what strikes me is that even given the phenomenal progress in information and discovery, we remain so to speak (as far as our existence is concerned) as beings in the world so inextricably part of that reality that its ultimate reality remains outside of our grasp.
Notwithstanding the elegant human constructs we examine of those giants of philosophy they remain just logical progressions, or what in effect may end up reasonable potentialities. In this respect it is like looking through the cracks of an otherwise  opaque window, that allow us only to see what is necessary for our existence. But because we can’t be absolutely certain of the nature of that existence in relation to everything else (as we are in the world and not looking at the world from outside) it must always entail a certain amount of mystery.  
I think our freedom is innate to thereby have an ongoing hand in creation, expressed as free will. The way that might be viewed is the cosmos signals back feel good emotional signals or as a rush of joy or heightened emotional rewards to reinforce in the memory of that emotional satisfaction. It is may be an experience of recurring themes of encouragement that give meaning to existence. Put another way, the mind, (assuming it is not subject to temporary restraint from the emotions) mirrors that same gift of life received at birth. So we have the intuitive desire or capacity if you like to entertain random acts of kindness, acts of heroism, or to revert to auto pilot to just go with the flow or turn to terrible destructive forces.
But whatever mindful revelations or thought processes we entertain there is no escaping in my view the subsequent need to develop a narrative of some substance as a means at arriving at rationally based decision.
The extent this is necessary is subjective, for me to circuitously return to discussions points under the heading of contemporary nihilism. Therein one needs to be properly informed, so that the quest continues, analogous to the evolved tree of life suggested in his mirror of nature by Richard Rorty. (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature- by Ricard Rorty).  Along the way we can continue to find meaning from a re-reading of the classics, in the poetical, theological or philosophical works and in relation to the culture and practices of the first Australians. Finally I think the key for philosophers is to retain an open mind and a sense of humility. For it is not as if one can view the world we exist in as if we are unattached and independent to it : that we might otherwise observe from another dimension in space and time.