01-10-2011 - Traces, n. 9

the facts answer

The Pope invites us to broaden our reason, challenging the kind of knowledge that doesn’t allow room for such an expansion–As I tried to explain to a man I recently met.

Pope Benedict XVI spoke eloquently and comprehensively in his recent address to the German Bundestag about the reduction of reason imposed on our cultures by positivist thinking. “In its self-proclaimed exclusivity,” said the Pope in one crystal passage, “the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again; we must see the wide world, the sky, and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.”
The Pope spoke about “the ecology of man” as a way of understanding the basis of how we might begin, in an age dominated by positivist thinking, to see ourselves anew as we really are in the world. But there is a danger, as usual, that the Pope’s words may fall on the fallow ground that positivism/scientism has already prepared for them. Indeed, it seems that all such critiques of modernity uttered in a culture constructed according to the logic of positivism are doomed to be swallowed up, that every word uttered from the viewpoint of the heart seems instantly to be a sentimental reminiscence, like breath turning to ice in a sub-zero atmosphere.
It is easy in our culture to hear any criticism of the dominant modes of thought as mere pleas for some “spiritual” leavening to be added to the “rigor” of scientific understandings. The Pope’s line of thought at the Bundestag was threaded, as always, through the scientific, the political, the ecological, and the anthropological, but, in a way, it risked being defeated very close to its source by virtue of the literal reduction that it was bound to suffer as it was being reported.  How many people had the privilege of reading Pope Benedict’s full text, and how many depended on accounts of what he said that were composed with a view to presenting some form of reduction, if only–let us be charitable–in the interest of brevity?
This is something that is not often emphasized. Yes, we talk about the “soundbyte” culture that afflicts our public thought and discussion processes, just as we occasionally speak of the reduction of reason. But we do not often make a connection between the two that usefully alerts us to their true relationship.
The triumph of positivism owes much to processes whereby the receiver of information in our mass-media society is given a little information about everything but nothing to strengthen the framework by which to continue understanding how everything might be inter-related.
 Thus, he feels “informed” and can endlessly regurgitate isolated pieces of knowledge, and can even speak assuredly about scientific progress with a general sense that this is somehow creating a new understanding of the world while incrementally debunking the “old” views. Thus, each element seems to reinforce the idea that reason has been remade to exclude God, faith, religion, and so forth, and yet man himself remains immobilized before the questions that confronted his ancestors in their piety and supposed ignorance. His head feels that he is part of the great project of approaching human omniscience, but his heart feels excluded. However, since it is his head that is engaged by the culture–even if only intermittently and superficially–the misgivings of his heart are never communicated. At best, he feels that such doubts are his alone, and better kept to himself.
Recently, speaking to a group in Dublin about the Catholicism of the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, I was unexpectedly challenged by a dismissive question from a man in the front row: “Don’t you realize,” he asked, “that man has been to the Moon?” The implication was, obviously, that scientific progress had debunked the Christian view of humanity and reality. Without thinking, I found myself asking him: “Have you been to the Moon?” Everyone laughed. It seemed a smart, one-liner putdown, but I didn’t intend it in this way. Of course, I guessed he probably had not been to the Moon, but what I meant was: “How does this affect you, in your heart? Are your heart’s questions answered by the knowledge that a man–another man–has been to the Moon?”
Of course not. The idea that science and progress change anything is, for each of us, an illusion that comes to us by word-of-mouth, a rumor of approaching omnipotence that really adds nothing to what we truly know. We sense that there are men elsewhere for whom such developments mean something fundamental, and so we feel reassured.
But even these men–were we to seek them out–are likely to be fundamentally unchanged by the isolated “progress events” to which they have access. Neil Armstrong had to return to Earth and live a normal life. The Moon, even for him, remained hanging in the sky. How it got there, no one could really say.