Pope Benedict XVI has claimed that the most salient feature of the crisis in contemporary Western civilization is our collective forgetfulness of God. Predictably, this claim has met with widespread ridicule and dismissal — often from within the Catholic household — as the typically cranky reactionary fulminations of a bitter old traditionalist whose time has passed.
Several of Benedict’s critics read his words as a condemnation of values they associate with formally democratic Liberalism — values Benedict seems to view suspiciously, as a form of nihilism, hence as atheism thinly veiled — and they are largely correct in their assessment. The thing is: Benedict is right.
The contemporary Western socio-economic-political system is largely predicated on a profound and tragic falsehood, a false first principle, which stands in total contradiction to the Christian faith: God is irrelevant to the construction of government and our public life together.
That is to say: God does not “exist” in any relevant sense; nothing spiritual or supernatural exists; we are all purely material beings with no purpose or goal or end beyond the satisfaction of our individual desires, hence that pleasure (the satisfaction of our base desires) is more rooted in reality than happiness (the joy and peace that come from pursuing the higher spiritual realities like the moral good).
Indeed, according to this false principle, the spiritual dimension of life and the moral good are, at best, “noble lies” (Nietzsche) and at worst repressive illusions — repressive since their pursuit often inhibits the attainment of pleasure.
Building on this same insight, Augusto del Noce argued that our culture’s ruling philosophy is basically scientism: the belief that only the hard, empirical sciences give us access to truth, and that everything else is an illusion. Therefore, when it comes to our common life together, there is only one form of reason that is “allowed in” as proper public discourse, and that is the language of science — a creeping idea against which Benedict has argued as well.
Given our reduction of life to economics, what the elevation of science really means is the ascendency of “applied science” (technology) to pride of place. Every aspect of our social life thus comes under the purview of scientific control, in which the government carries the water for our scientific betters and all culture and every form of reason becomes a function of politics thusly construed and conducted.
This final step, the submission of culture to politics, is the very heart of nihilistic totalitarianism.
Only, in this case, it is not the totalitarianism of the Nazis or the Stalinists or the Maoists, but the much more seductive totalitarianism of techno-nihilism, in which our base desires form what I call a “Collective of Concupiscence” that the government regulates and the economy inflames.
[W]hen you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way — and then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes.
Our future is thus most likely to be a dystopian, but mostly of Huxley’s Brave New World sort, with a Disneyland aesthetic. Because, family values.
It is just scientism carried to its logical conclusion, no matter what our elites might say about our bold new future. Because, despite what scientism’s popularizers (such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins) might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the beauty of the cosmos and of science, the fact is, if I am just an ape with a big brain, and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t give a rat’s petard about a chunk of space rock, let alone billions and billions of space rocks orbiting gaseous blobs ten million light years away; or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats; or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles.
In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence, then guess what? You actually start to think that way — and then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes.
We cannot have it both ways.
There’s no bleaching divinity and transcendence out of the cosmos, no telling everyone the whole affair is just an aimless and pointless accident, only to turn around and talk to people about the “moral necessity” of this or that aspect of the democratic, Liberal order of merely stipulative and procedural “rights” — not if you expect anyone to understand you, let alone believe you.
Some form of a hard and right-wing Catholic integralism is not the answer either, but that’s a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that, if such integralisms are bad, then so too is our current integralist regime of scientism and formally agnostic Liberalism. Benedict was not wrong — but what are we to do with that?
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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