Earlier this year, when I began writing about the “eclipse of God” in the modern world, I knew the problem would be hard to discuss. Our civilization is in a metaphysical and existential crisis, a crisis of meaning and purpose. Yet this is not easy to see or talk about, due to the problem’s immense scope.
God, after all, is not an “object” among objects, or even a “being” among beings. Forgetting God is not like losing a piece of information or neglecting some particular task. The eclipse of God is the obscuring of an infinite horizon by finite things, the overshadowing of the Absolute by what is temporal and limited.
The disappearance of God from the human horizon was described by Benedict XVI as “the real problem at this moment of our history” – more serious and urgent than any other particular moral or social crisis. But how do we address such a pervasive, seemingly abstract problem?
It is often said that we must begin in our own lives. This is true, but incomplete: though we must start by clarifying our own vision, the “eclipse of the sense of God” is more than an individual problem. It is a cultural and social phenomenon that must be addressed on a larger level.
Christians should pioneer an integral way of life that counters the eclipse of God. But we cannot merely fall back on conventional routes: upping our explicitly “religious” activities, fighting for public morality, strengthening the institutional Church. These things will no longer suffice; the problem runs too deep.
Modern Western culture has many problems, but the most fundamental problem – and the root cause of so many others – is a lack of openness to God.
Thus, our first task today is not moral reform, or solidifying the Church institutionally. Those goals have their place; but our first task is to help others become open to God and his grace, from which the rest must flow.
A culture of greater openness to God is not exactly the same as a “Christian culture.” But, frankly, it is hard to say what a “Christian culture” should even look like in today’s world. The more productive questions to ask are: What would a culture of increased openness to God be like? How can we attain it?
I have no comprehensive answer to that question. But I can discern three elements that must become present in modern culture, if any return to God is to take place on the social level. These are: material simplification; a retreat from the spectacle of media; and the choice of appreciation over cynicism.
These tasks are more urgent than they seem. There can be no spiritual reawakening of our society without them.
I am convinced that spiritual renewal will require a material simplification of our lives, at least in a great many cases. But I must say straightaway that I do not accept a simplistic calculus that would define “more” as bad, and “less” as good, in the area of material possessions. It is not quite that simple.
Complaints against materialism, in the quantitative sense, are often misplaced. Certainly there are some outlying cases of scandalous or absurd opulence; but in general, our problem does not consist simply in owning “too much” by some absolute numerical standard.
The more pertinent question is whether our use of material possessions increases or diminishes our openness to life’s transcendent dimension: the realm of love, wisdom, and spiritual freedom. It is here that we fail the test – not by overabundance per se, but by pointless acquisition of things and misuse of them.
Most of us own more things than we can use well. And by “well,” I mean using them in the service of the above criteria: love, wisdom, spiritual freedom – to name a few of the most basic capacities in which we are meant to advance over the course of our lives.
Matter is basically good; yet our possessions easily distract us from life’s true, infinite horizon. “Enclosed in the narrow horizon of his physical nature,” John Paul II wrote, “[man] is somehow reduced to being ‘a thing,’ and no longer grasps the transcendent character of his existence as man.”
This is not just a “religious” issue. Both believers and non-believers have the experience of feeling dehumanized and alienated in the modern consumer-world – “Lost in the Supermarket,” as The Clash put it. We sense on some level that we have lost ourselves in the world of “things.”
Material simplification cannot automatically produce a greater openness to God. Yet I believe it is a cultural prerequisite for any spiritual reawakening. Otherwise, we will remain focused on the “narrow horizon of our physical nature,” fixated on the world of objects which resemble it in their materiality.
We must choose: there is the path of material simplification, regained wisdom, and spiritual awareness; or there is our present course of “practical materialism,” in which “man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being.” (Evangelium Vitae, 22).
While material overabundance remains a problem for us, perhaps the greater problem today is informational overabundance. The spectacle of media dominates culture, both in its older mass-produced versions and in the increasingly customizable forms enabled by the Internet.
The French social critic Guy Debord spoke of a “society of the spectacle”: a world consumed by the many forms of modern media, in which appearances become more important – even “more real,” in a sense – than reality itself. The truth of life is overshadowed by commodified representations and images.
Debord’s secular Marxism notwithstanding, his critique of “the spectacle” has value. It accords in some ways with the earlier Christian critique made by Kierkegaard, who quipped that there was a “greater need for total abstaining societies which would not read newspapers, than for ones which do not drink alcohol.”
While Debord saw “the spectacle” in political terms, Kierkegaard understood it as an obstacle between mankind and God. In a spectacle-driven culture, God’s voice is drowned-out – or, perhaps worse, it is distorted:
“The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased … The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noises, then it would no longer be the Word of God.”
In the same passage, Kierkegaard prescribes a remedy as simple as it is unpopular: to cultivate contemplative silence, both individually and culturally. “If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice I should reply: Create silence! Bring men to silence.”
Here, as in the matter of material simplicity, we have a choice: we can put distance between ourselves and “the spectacle,” using the media mindfully and moderately; or we can allow the many forms of spectacle to rule our consciousness and social relations, even to the point of obscuring the ultimate spiritual reality.
We justify our media-addiction by claiming that it makes us better-informed and more connected. Yet this is a superficial kind of connection and learning. We are estranged from the permanent and eternal things, caught up in a constant news cycle and drawn into the quicksand of endless information-availability.
Addicted to an artificial group-consciousness, and to the set of quasi-objective narratives we call “news,” we do not even see the world through our own eyes – let alone through the eyes of Christ.
“Create silence.” Kierkegaard’s remedy may be bitter medicine at first. But we must take it, or progress in our disease.
All of this, however, is perhaps only a prelude to the most important cultural change which must take place if we are to overcome the eclipse of God. That is the choice of appreciation and joy over cynicism and restless frustration.
Like the two other changes I have mentioned – material simplification and backing-away from “the spectacle” – this change is possible for both believers and non-believers. But Christians are uniquely poised to pioneer such changes, and create a broader cultural climate of openness to God by these means.
I believe that appreciation – a humble gratitude, not just for particular good fortunes but for the fundamental goodness of being – is at the heart of authentic human existence and the spiritual life. But I have learned this the hard way, by frequently lacking this attitude and suffering the consequences.
As a form of pride, cynicism tempts all of us in one way or another. I once thought that becoming a Christian had freed me from my relentless cynicism; but I now see that old habits die hard: I am often misled into seeing redemption and resurrection only as distant future events, not present realities.
More broadly, I believe that contemporary Western culture – despite its bursts of apparent enthusiasm or optimism – is plagued, deep down, by a gnawing cynicism and a radical ingratitude.
Perhaps our society, in its desperate quest for satisfaction and pleasure, has lost its deeper capacity for joy and appreciation. Joy is something much deeper than mere natural happiness, which is fleeting. And appreciation is not a mood attached to particular outcomes, but an attitude that embraces the whole of life.
“Life has many sides to it,” the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen reflected. “There are always sorrowful and joyful sides to the reality we live, and so we always have a choice to live the moment as a cause for resentment or as a cause for joy.” Each moment offers “the chance to choose between cynicism and joy.”
Without appreciation, there is no true openness to God. A supposedly “spiritual” life without gratitude is a life of delusion. And the non-believer with a grateful heart may be closer to God than he realizes: as Fr. Alexander Schmemann said, “everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”
Our culture can be salvaged, and the eclipse of God overcome. But it will require a turn away from cynicism, toward appreciation. For in the end, only the eyes that are open in gratitude will see God.