Saturday, October 15, 2005

What's Wrong With The World?

Clearly I am an ill fit with the “blogosphere”, if that is the proper word. It has been weeks since my last post, but there has been nothing to do about it. I have been preoccupied with parish and other activities, not to mention family and job responsibilities. This has been the earliest I’ve been able to get back here. Hopefully the lag until the next post won’t be so long, but no guarantees!

One of the things about this web logging is that one gets a chance to answer questions that would never be asked - pontification without invitation, so to speak! This post, I’m going to take advantage of that, with the reassurance that any readers who get bored can stop reading.

I’ve often pondered what I might say if someone were to ask me, “In your opinion, what is wrong with the world?” I realize that many heavyweights like il maestro Chesterton himself have taken on this question, and a wise man would hesitate to follow in such prodigious footsteps. I, however, have done some thinking on the topic, and would have an answer ready. “Why”, I would respond, “it’s very simple. What’s wrong with the world is…”

{drum roll please}


{cymbal crash}

{suspicious silence}

That’s right, folks – in my humble opinion, man’s problem is that he thinks too much about himself. He also thinks too much of himself – a cause-and-effect relationship, it would seem. Modern – one might say post-Western – man is obsessed with the works of his own hands, besotted with his own wisdom, and engaged in a totally preoccupying conversation with himself. What matters to modern Man is what modern Man says and does, and everything is interpreted through that lens.

Years ago, I noticed something interesting about men – when they drop their eyes from Christ, they will focus on the greatest thing less than Christ that falls into their vision. Sometimes this greater thing is some aspect of the natural order, which explains everything from the ancient idolatries of nature worship and astrology to the more recent manifestations of the almost rabid obsession with ecology (eco-olatry?) This is not good, but at least the focus is still on something external. But history tells us that it is more common for man to focus on himself – either an idealized image of himself, or something he’s done.

Those familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures will recognize the phenomena. I remember when I was younger being mystified by the Tower of Babel story in Genesis. After all, why should God feel threatened? Even if the silly men thought their tower could reach heaven, God surely knew better. Why not just let them exhaust themselves in futility? They couldn’t reach, much less harm, God. But as I learned more, I realized that God wasn’t threatened at all – He was concerned for His people. The massive civil works project, center of a growing civilization in Mesopotamia, was neither a site of true worship nor a heavenly assault tower, but a monument to the work and power of men. In other words, men were forgetting the good world that God had for them (albeit cleansed by the waters of the Flood), and beginning to once again become obsessed with the work of their own hands. They were building cities, conducting trade, getting busy with their own affairs – in other words, getting distracted by all their makings and doings from the knowledge and worship of the true God. This shift in focus was having an immediate bad effect – according to rabbinic legend, the Tower was the first instance of slavery, of men forcing their brethren to work against their will – but it was the long-term effect that was most poisonous. The less men thought of God, the more they would focus on their own activities, which in turn would push God further from their minds – a vicious cycle.

This also explains something else that used to mystify me. At points in the Hebrew prophetic and wisdom books the authors would jet off on tirades against idols – that is, the physical images themselves. Isaiah 44 is an example – a moving and poetic section of prophecy is almost interrupted by a brutal satire on the efforts of an artisan to create an idol. The prophet heaps almost excessive abuse on the folly of the idol-makers. “All right, Isaiah”, I thought upon my first few readings, “I get the picture. Making idols is foolish – why are you beating this dead horse?” But eventually I began to get it – here was man, made in the image of God, the greatest thing on the face of the earth, bowing to a much lesser thing: something he himself had made. (This leaves aside the question of demonic activity behind idols, which is a legitimate consideration but not germane to this topic.)

If the phrase “bowing down to the works of our own hands” doesn’t typify modern culture, I don’t know what does. We may not be forging and carving like the artisans in Isaiah 44, but that’s only because our current mindset doesn’t run along those channels. We bow down to ideas and ideologies, and to almost anything about ourselves – our careers, our plans, our opinions, our everything. In our minds, it truly is all about us. Even our patterns of learning reflect this. Once the study of the Word of God (Theo-logos) and friendship with wisdom (philo-sophia) were considered the highest studies because they were concerned with the greatest things. Now they are ignored and scorned (“What you gonna do with a philosophy degree?”) The focus of philosophy and theology are things greater than man, and therefore cannot be accepted by the modern mind. Instead our studies focus on man and his works: sociology, psychology, economics, and (of course) politics. Our eyes are steadily wrenched downward, off of anything greater than us that might give us perspective on ourselves, until we spend days and weeks and years without ever looking beyond the world of man and his works. Let me ask any readers something: when was the last time you went out on a clear night and just looked up at the stars for a good long while?

This post is already far too long, so I’ll refrain from further discussion of the symptoms of anthropocentrism and its destructive effects on our lives. I’d welcome thoughts: do you think anthropocentrism is a good description of the root of the problems we face? If so, what solution(s) would you suggest? I’ve got a thought or two, but that will have to wait until a later post.


Arwen said...

Unfortunately, I've never been too good at ideas about how to solve the big problems in the world, and this one stumps me as usual, especially because I believe you're right in naming it as the problem of mankind.

I guess my one idea about something we can do is to keep turning our eyes heavenward - to study theology and philosophy in spite of the comments, to immerse ourselves in the things of God so that we might forget ourselves.

Of course, it's easier said than done, but at the same time, I've noticed that - just as He promised to give holiness to those who seek it - He is always willing to draw me out of myself when I ask him to. And although my experience is admittedly limited, I've already learned that being drawn out of myself makes ripples in the world around me, drawing others out of themselves as well.

As I've been growing from a girl to a woman, I've felt strongly a vocation to take care of the little things in life - as Mother Teresa said, small things with great love. So my idea for a solution to this problem is, perhaps, in accord with that vocation. Little, but it's all I can think of.

SarahD said...

For my part, my husband and I stopped to look at the stars only a few nights ago. Star-viewing used to be a favored pastime of my rural youth, but living in the urban setting we do now, the lights, buildings and trees largely preclude it. We also stop outside to enjoy (rare) truly quiet moments at night.

As for the problems of the world, I agree one of the biggest currently is anthropocentrism. Any approach to correcting this would have to be multi-pronged, because some people are too far gone down that path to respond to the appeals of philosophers and theologians. I agree with Arwen's post in many ways. On a more secular level, I think that increased familiarity with nature and the natural world may help to drive men to see themselves as less significant than they had previously thought.

I have lived in parts of the country where there was really no doubt about who was in charge: nature was boss, and the men who lived thereabouts respected the forces of nature because disrespect or an overestimation of one's own abilities generally meant death. For all our technology and knowledge, it doesn't take much to end up on the wrong end of an avalanche/bear attack/blizzard/weather-related accident/etc. It's a shallow way of becoming less centered on one's own importance, but it can be effective. It has been my experience that people who have contact with the natural world forced upon them daily rarely develop into raving ecological extremists. Typically, they include man as a part of the natural order, and see a kind of balance therein. More would need to be done to get man out of his own head (thanks a lot, Descartes), but it might be a good starting point for people with no religious interest.