Monday, June 7, 2021

Can We Build a "Plastic Paradise"?

We are passing through the end of an epoch, a time in history which has for several hundred years self-consciously called itself "the modern world." By this was meant not simply the "most recent" period of history, but in fact the decisive period of history, the period by which all events of prior history were to be measured and valued. The modern epoch saw history as a progression that was fulfilled in itself, in particular, in the rationalist, self-sufficient human being of the post-Enlightenment Western world.

Here, it seemed, humans had finally become conscious of themselves in a fully adult way, at the center of a world divested of all mystery, penetrated by human knowledge and rendered malleable to the benevolent energy of human creativity. We appeared destined to create a thoroughly "anthropocentric" milieu, a world entirely subject to our power to master its resources and shape them in the service of our ideas about humanity's advancement and our conception of what it takes to satisfy human needs and desires. We were prepared to construct a "plastic paradise" from the raw material of an otherwise meaningless reality. We considered it our responsibility to organize the stuff of the material universe in a rational, meaningful, and satisfying way.

Hmm, well... it's becoming clear to everyone that things are a bit more complicated than all that.

In these days, we have lived through the sudden chaotic spread of COVID-19 and the only partially successful, tenuous efforts to stop it. We also see the continual uncovering of political and social tensions that modernity naively thought had been resolved: the persistence of racism, militant forms of nationalism and other versions of partisan divisiveness, brutal wars, genocides, millions of refugees in desperate conditions, human trafficking on an enormous scale, and - among the affluent and "comfortable" - an ongoing dissatifaction with life in general, increasing isolation, and an ever-more-complicated obscurity regarding what it means to be human, and what constitutes the uniqueness of human personal identity. 

These have only been some of the more recent circumstances indicating that the "modern" project (which is in the irreversible process of falling apart) has lacked something essential for an adequate relationship between the human being and reality as a whole. Nevertheless the ideological narrative of modernity, with its promises of inevitable and benevolent "progress," has been enacting the drama of its final death scenes on an epic scale. For more than a century, the dominant pretentions of the modern West have spread throughout the world and have been generalized into a global mentality even as their apparent coherence has been imploding. 

We can recognize all of this without being reactionaries. We must affirm the many wonderful, unprecidented positive achievements of the modern epoch, and their unique contribution to human history. The ideals of human dignity, freedom, and progress - as well as the hope for a better future and a more fraternal, peaceful world - must continue to inspire us. But realism comes first.

We must face the fact that human life as a whole - lived out within the context of a greater reality - is much more profound than our manipulations and our ideological schemes. We have acquired vast amounts of information about the world and learned to subject things to human needs in a way that has genuinely improved life (in certain respects) for countless people. Yet we find that solving problems inevitably creates a new context that contains possibilities for new problems. These new problems rapidly rise up to confront us. Presuming our own mastery over reality, we change some things (for better and for worse), but mostly we rearrange the elements of our environment in a way that is beneficial in some respects but that cannot resolve or eliminate all problems, much less the dramatic, challenging, and arduous nature of human existence. Sometimes we presume to "fix" small problems but in the process we unwittingly create monstrous new problems. Thus we live in a world of technological enhancement thanks to the processes of harnessing energy from the earth's resources. We also live in a world of enhanced warfare, of weapons of mass destruction, of nuclear arsenals - as well as a rapidly corrupting and dangerously damaged natural environment.

We must realize that reality is not simply "plastic," but has an essential givenness and opens up to signify an ever greater Mystery, which we are invited to contemplate and collaborate with. We are called not to the absolute mastery of rationalist domination, but to intelligent, wise, discerning service to the truth, goodness, and beauty in the world.

How are we to carry out this service in the emerging new epoch, in the midst of people (including ourselves) with enormous ambitions wielding all the vast power that has been unleashed? There are no prepackaged solutions or easy answers to this question. We need to grow in our humanity, in an authentic awareness of our being human persons called to live in communion, and as caretakers and collaborators in the development of the rich potential and manifold fruitfulness of the material universe that has been entrusted to us. We certainly need human reason's practicality and ingenuity - now more than ever - but these must be more fully integrated within the whole scope of our intelligence, with its capacity for wonder, attentiveness to signs of meaning and value, and humility and patience as we journey over the mysterious paths of life. We need to seek wisdom, not as a conquest of the world by our own power and our urge to dominate and control reality, but as integrated personal insight for which we work with discipline and sacrifice, acquiring what we can while also hoping to receive the deeper wisdom that we need for the fulfillment of our lives - to receive it as a gift. 

This is an arduous task, especially for those of us who are accustomed to the illusion of unrestricted dominance over things by the power of our material wealth and our access to what we expect to be easy and infallible technological means to construct our fantasies and solve our problems. Have we ever really trusted this false sense of control? Look at the deep anxiety that gnaws away our insides even as we desperately distract ourselves from it with displays of vanity and false celebrations of our own power and apparent outward success. COVID has given many of us a taste (a reminder) of our own fragility. Perhaps we can set off on a new path.

Let us make a new beginning in the search for a truly adequate wisdom, and if necessary let us begin again and again each day without becoming discouraged. Though we must never give up, we should not be surprised if we are required to endure new difficulties and fresh setbacks in the years ahead.

Indeed, this world that is not "plastic" is also not Paradise. It is a world where the line between good and evil passes through every human heart, which will therefore never be perfected entirely by any human technical activity. It is a world in need of something it cannot give itself. Indeed, we are people in need of something we cannot engender within ourselves by any power we possess or knowledge we acquire.

After all, Paradise has been lost, and in any case was never meant to be the definitive fulfillment of creation. But in the face of mounting dangers and uncertainty, and all the cumulative wreckage of the past, we can still maintain a most firm hope. We know that the way forward passes through great trials and obscurity, but also abundant gifts which bring healing and transformation. We know that our path is the path of redemption.