Another look at contemporary culture

Giuseppe M. Zanghi


In every epoch of great change, like our own, it’s easier to see what’s collapsing than to see the new synthesis that is emerging. The following article is the text of a talk given to young people offering rich perspectives on how to view the historical crisis we are living through today.

Today the word “post-modern” is often heard, generally referring to a ‘crisis’ in the “modern” world. When the word “modern” is used it refers to the cultural era that began in Europe with Humanism and the Rennaisance. It was the time that put the human being at the centre of everything, as an individual defined in terms of “otherness”, an otherness that often became understood as independence from God. While in the medieval era, the human being was understood totally in relation to God, in the modern era, the modern, renaissance man initially does not deny God but claims his autonomy before God.

The post-modern period can also be understood as a different cultural epoch with its own characteristics. However we can say very little about it.

One thing is certain, however, that this is a time of crisis. All the experts agree on this. It is the disappearance of a way of life with the set of values that were linked to it. For example, we can think of the move from a farming culture that was the dominant in Europe up to the second world war, to the worker culture which began as far back as the nineteenth century but which had only then become dominant. Following this we have the so called tertiary culture, the 'media' culture, the information culture, and the culture of virtuality etc.

What we notice is a succession of forms of life that have gradually declined together with the values linked to them. Above all, there has been a decline in reference to an absolute Reality: God, resulting in an atheism which is both theoretical and practical.

We need to recognise this decline clearly for what it is. Contemporary culture either does without God, considering him 'a useless hypothesis’ – as Laplace said to Napoleon – or it considers belief in God a private concern for those who believe. In the West today very few people build their lives explicitly on God.

This crisis was already glimpsed at its birth with great perception, by Dostoyevsky in his book, The Demons, a fundamental text to understand what Europe has been living through during these last years. Even earlier the crisis was recognised by a French political theorist, Alexis de Toqueville, who in his book, Democracy in America, had grasped that there was a spreading of atheism in the very structure of a certain way of understanding and running democracy in that country.

A crisis is the moment when the past and the future clash in the present. It is like the period of the morning twilight, when it is no longer night and the day hasn't yet arrived. This is typical of the culture of today.

It’s a crisis that continues to go beyond the frontiers of the West to become a world crisis. We need to reflect on this in order to understand the violent reaction to the West on the part of non-western cultures. Modern Islam today is an example. Certainly, many of its ways of doing things might be questionable, but fundamentally Islam feels attacked by a culture – ours that is the vehicle of crises that are extraneous to its own.

For this reason one can speak of a real epochal dark night. Pope Paul VI spoke of it, so too did Patriarch Athenagoras, and John Paul II spoke of it at the tomb of John of the Cross in Spain. Maria Zambrano, a great Spanish thinker of our times who died recently, also spoke of it. She writes: "we are facing 'one of the darkest nights the world has ever seen'".

And much earlier than these, F. Holderlin, a great and anguished poet of the 18th century, wrote in a prophetic way at the threshold of modernity: "But alas!, it goes (wanders) into the night, our generation wanders as if in hell without divinity."

What is a “night of the spirit”? It is a darkness and silence of God. It is the loss of the essential meaning of life, it is the shipwreck of the I and of the cosmos in a non-sense that’s all the more tragic the more we try to substitute it with consumerism. It’s an anthropological emptiness of humanity, and a cosmological emptiness of a universe emptied of sense. And before everything else it is tragically an emptiness of God.
And, if we analyse our culture carefully, is this not what we are living today? Some, the majority, seek to fill the emptiness with many 'things', for which they often sell their conscience. Others, a few, stand before the abyss and question, sorrowfully. I will quote three of them.

A great poet, Mario Luzi, writes: "Densest silence / between us men and heaven / dry / from the dryness of the mind/ or the disappearance of the angels / re-entered into the Word, mute, / to the fountain /asphyxiated also / O’ death of the prophets".

Another atheistic poet, A. Zinov'ew, laments and prays in the same way; "I plead with you, my God / try to exist, even for a short while, for me, / open your eyes, I beseech you! / you only have to do this, look after what is happening; that’s very little! / But, O Lord, make the effort to see, I ask this of you! / to live without witnesses, what an inferno! / For this I raise my voice, / I cry, I shout; / my Father, / I plead with you and cry; / exist!".
One should note that first he speaks of God, then speaks of the Father!

Norberto Bobbio, a non-believing philosopher, also expresses himself in the same way; "Why is there being and not nothing? (...) To deny that the question has meaning, as a certain analytical philosophy might do seems to me a play on words (...) There is within me a religious depth that assails me, disturbs me, torments me.".

Few texts express this cultural reality of the West as well as the renowned pages of the great philosopher of nihilism, F. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (n. 125). This is what he writes: Thi ‘Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lamp in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? Asked one, did he lose his way like a child? Asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Emigrated? Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him – you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backword, sideward, forward, in all directions? Are there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?"

Modern man has been emptied of himself, paradoxically in an attempt to be himself, but actually alienating himself. I think that the post-modern era is a disenchanted realisation that this is how modernity ends up. And if modern man suffers from this crisis, post-modern man is taking note of it in a disenchanted and, as it were, anaesthetised manner.

How are we to read what is happening today. The key is Jesus on the cross who cries in abandonment. And this key is important, otherwise the most obvious and coherent attitude would be a radical pessimism. He is the man who has touched the most profound and desolate roots of creatureliness, right to the point of abandonment of God. He is God who has reached us in the abyss without light in order to open us and lead us to the light.
For this reason, before Jesus Forsaken, the 'negative' is still certainly negative - one cannot deny that the darkness is darkness - but it is also true that it is the 'promise' of a newness of life - of a resurrection – as big as the crisis itself.

We place ourselves before Him, who has made all negativity his own. It is in him that we try to understand the crisis of Western culture, so that we can highlight both the nocturnal aspect and, inseparably, also the promise of newness, which, if it is made fruitful by Christianity, will have unheard of results. Because, in the darkness, God is communicating himself to us as He is in Himself beyond images that we can have of him. He is communicating what He is like, but to do this he must clear away all the images that we have made of Him in order to say: "This is how I am".

Here we mention very briefly some aspects of this crisis in their dual dimension of 'night' and of 'promise of day'.

Although the concept of democracy gave rise to the idea of “popular sovereignty” - which is a great achievement of modern times - it also left it orphaned, without a true head. It left it without that “one” which can give a "political sense" to the many and make the social body into a living reality. As a result, the fragmentation of the political reality into a thousand particular interests has occurred, incapable of achieving robust projects precisely because of the lack of a “one” that unites them together and goes beyond them in the common good. This is the "nocturnal" aspect.

But we mustn't forget - and here is the promise of what’s new - that democracy stripped the old socio-political “one” of a certain sacralization that put it beyond and outside other people, in this way emptying social reality of a real consistency because the social head, the “one” was "outside" the social. Democracy restored the social to man opening him up, within historical temporality, to very rich achievements.

Within ancient culture the aspiration of man for fulfilment was directed vertically. In India, for example, human fulfilment was to raise a family, study, work and then dedicate yourself to searching for God in solitude. Modern democracy has given us a temporal future, the possibility of developing within time, which is something very different.

It’s true that we cannot do without the “One”, but the “One” expected now is no longer a person, an individual. That would be to fall again into the sacralization of power. But neither must this “One” be a collectivity, whether this be a party or a regime which are always collectivities that are less than the reality of the individuals who make up these collectivities. A collectivity can never acquire the value of the persons who compose it.
The “One” must certainly be a person, but one who makes us persons while elevating and consuming us in One in himself. This can only be the Person of the Word. As Chiara Lubich puts it, “He who, in the heart of the Father restores to the Father – he himself being nothing out of love – the infinite tones of the Word love (God says word love in infinite tones and each of us, thought of by God, are these tones). He restores us all to the Father but each of us as himself. What the Word does from eternity in the Trinity, he does incarnate in the world. This is Jesus among us, made present by our reciprocal love. So I have no fear in affirming that the presence of Jesus in the midst of the human community is the key to a perfect democracy.”

Let us think about the strong emergence of the sense of individuality within Western culture. This notion itself, without the notion of personhood that God shows us, in other words, person in terms of love, gift, ended up putting up walls that distanced others as strangers to me, and often as an enemies.

Sartre, one of the greatest witnesses of this epochal dark night, said: “the other for me is hell”. The “I” ends up consumed within these walls as a prisoner in a thousand ways makes futile attempts to escape – either through drugs, frenetic consumerism, sex, and violence etc. This is the “nocturnal aspect”.

It is also true, of course, that individualism highlighted the unrepeatable uniqueness of each person as a bearer of a unique and unrepeatable plan of God. In ancient culture, including the Greco-Roman one, the individual had no value. While here the individual carries a value, a plan of God. It is necessary to protect the individual.

But how? By drawing him outside himself in the Person of Jesus, in whom he becomes himself by the total gift of himself and in communion with every other individual.

St Paul says in the letter to the Galatians that “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, neither man nor woman, because you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The pronoun that Paul adopts in Greek is not the neuter en (one thing) but eis (one person). That is, you are one person in Jesus, His person! So, we need to help the individual to understand that he or she is a person in Jesus. It is Jesus that personifies me.

Let us think again about the loss of the reality of nature; it is no longer experienced as an infinitely rich interior life of God externally communicated. God is infinite richness, that one-many richness that many orthodox theologies call Sophia. Now nature is nothing other than the communication ad extra of the infinite richness of God. It is that earthly paradise that sin can compromise but cannot destroy in us. Access to this earthly paradise has been re-opened up by Jesus, because in Him nature has discovered its immaculate nature. And this in order that we can then go beyond it and reach the “heavenly” paradise, because the earthly paradise is a place of passage to reach the heavenly one.

Today nature is no longer a living womb that generates and protects us. It’s not longer that secure place where each one of us can put down our roots (and what insecurity there is today!). It is no longer that earth-mother which guides everyone towards a safe destination. Technology as it is being used today is doing violence to nature, and through it we are being left orphaned, without our roots.
But – and this is another aspect – we cannot forget the potentiality of nature itself that has opened up precisely through the scientific revolution of modernity. Nature for the ancients was like a closed jewel box. Modern man has opened it and discovered its potentialities. If used correctly, these possibilities can in some way restore to the earth the image of the garden of Eden – and this is what Jesus wants – though with all the precariousness of existence that has not yet achieved full maturity.

If correctly used, the maternity of nature could be exalted by scientific knowledge.

It is Jesus’ wish that we would live again in an earthly paradise, even though there will be no shortage of trials in this life. But this is possible if we have Jesus among us, truly loving each other as he has loved and still loves us. This is the secret to bring the perfume of the earthly paradise into the world, without confusing it with the heavenly one, nor without annulling it.

Let us look at the fragmentation of knowledge into a multiplicity of languages that don’t communicate with one another. Philosophy and physics don’t understand one another; within philosophy itself, metaphysics and analytic philosophy don’t understand each other. In this multiplicity of languages, humanity in its oneness ends up ruined. Psychic illness is disassociation, it is the fragmentation of the person as one. If we are presented with dissociated levels of knowledge, we feel this dissociation within us. We cannot but tend desperately towards the one. From this interior malaise develops.

Man loses himself in the labyrinth of forms assumed by the various fields of knowledge.

But it is also true that knowledge has increased, it has opened up and matured in many fields that give us an understanding of reality which would have been unthinkable before.

Who today can give a synthesis of levels of knowledge that was once entrusted to those with the greatest intelligence?

Only Jesus among us can offer a synthesis of the many fields of knowledge into a new knowledge, that Wisdom which is mother of every area of knowledge, their foundation that brings them into a unity that makes them be themselves while also opening them to the whole truth. This Wisdom is Jesus among us. Jesus is each one of us. The different “Jesus-es” in the one Jesus. Here I will quote a phrase of Chiara Lubich: “it is Jesus who resolves every problem, but not the historical Jesus, or him insofar as he is now head of the mystical body in paradise. It is done by Jesus-us, Jesus-I, Jesus-you”.

We recall, finally, today’s acute sense of freedom (Pico della Mirandola), seen as a possibility offered to us to become-what-he-wants-to-be (Sartre). The notion of sin, understood as a denial of freedom, is rejected. From this also arises the terrible conflict with the “reality” that opposes my freedom: the natural “reality”, the social “reality”, the “reality” of God. At this point freedom implodes in the destruction of man.

But can we not also glimpse how, precisely in freedom, we can open to the discovery of God love and the discovery of humanity as love, because the two don’t exist in opposition but are one in the other, transcending that “outside-ness” which corrodes freedom.

We have underlined some of the darkness and light and we have glimpsed signs of a great light. Therefore, this epochal event of the death of God (and of man), seen in the light of Jesus Forsaken and Jesus Risen and living among us, does not conclude in a cold desperation nor, much less, in the pseudo-exaltation of man. It opens to an immense hope as great as the crisis itself.

S. Bulgakov, a great orthodox theologian, wrote in 1919 “Let’s admit that the contemporary spiritual being is weighed down by problems and festering doubts, but faith is not extinguished from his heart, hope is resplendent. Perhaps this disturbing complexity hides a religious possibility, perhaps it has a very particular task (…) and our whole predicament (…) is no more than the shadow of Him who comes”.

The dawn of Easter follows the night of God's silence in our civilization (cf. The pastoral letter of Card. Martini: “Our Lady of Holy Saturday”). The meeting with the living God follows the death of God.
Is the dawn of Easter not already here?

I would say yes. On the horizon, over and beyond the many images we already have been able to make of it, God is presented today in his most true image: that is as Father of infinite love. This gives rise to the possibility of an immense fraternity, of a civil society at a world level, and of a political society also at a world level.

We need then – and this is the decisive task that the church feels is hers today but doesn’t always know how to carry out – to know how to help the world in crisis come into contact with the Risen One and his culture
The charisms, which the Spirit is inspiring today, are they not the angels who are announcing that Jesus is no longer in the tomb and are urging us to encounter him in the world?

In this context the charism of the Work of Mary, in its own particular way, is also leading us out of the crisis. In the culture that it generates with the presence of Christ in the community, the culture of the future is already there.
The eschaton, is not just an horizon that is ever more distant and deferred, nor is it an imaginary dream in the depth of the heart. It is already present in a certain measure, because Jesus among us, the Risen One, is the eschaton realized, here and now. On condition that the here and now is lived in the heart of the Father! — the place into which he has introduced us. That is the condition.

This unity of individuals in the heart of the Father, where each one is Jesus and all are collectively Jesus, is already a new culture. It is the sun that is rising. And the more we are this reality, the more the sun – I use here an image of Chiara’s – will be the noonday sun, high and brilliant without shadow.

If we are “one soul”, if we are Church therefore in the most authentic sense, we are already in the heart of the light. And from our hearts, fused in one, light radiates upon everything that surrounds us, immersing everything in the waters of Wisdom. The dark clouds that still exist and that still are thickening will brighten to the degree in which we know how to irrigate all reality with this light.

To radiate this light with the beauty of our life — because unity is beautiful — with the love of our hearts, with the wisdom of our intelligence.

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