I am a man preoccupied by philosophy – but not in the typical, modern academic sense of the word.
When I call myself an “incurable philosopher,” I mean that I am compelled to examine the world around me, and to ask insistently: “Does this make sense? Is it right? And then, what is to be done?” In other words: “Are we living in accordance with Wisdom? And how are we to live by that standard?”
This, I believe, is the true and original meaning of philosophy: not to comprehend the universe with pure concepts (as if that were possible), but to discover our place in reality and live accordingly.
Philosophy, in this sense, is inseparable from life. It forces us to examine ourselves, and the situations in which we find ourselves. Thus, one of the main philosophical problems with which I have struggled is the current state of Western civilization.
I have spent years – first as a Buddhist-leaning atheist, then as a Christian – considering the paradoxes and problems of modern society: such as its obsession with the physical sciences; its dismissal of traditional morality; its combinations of hedonism and despair, information-saturation and ignorance.
There are many perils, both intellectual and personal, involved in studying the crisis of the modern world. One intellectual risk is to become lost in particular phenomena, and consequently, mistake the part for the whole – missing the forest for the trees, as it were.
For instance, it has taken me a long time to realize that the crisis of contemporary Western culture is not primarily a moral crisis.
This is counterintuitive, and not easy to see – in part, because so many new or enhanced forms of evil have arisen in modern times. To some extent, we have seen a deliberate turn against traditional moral wisdom: a process stretching back centuries, but which accelerated dramatically in the last hundred years.
Yet even this turn, I believe, is merely a symptom of a deeper sickness. The same is true of our technological, intellectual, and other problems: however much havoc they cause, they are more symptoms than causes.
If these are the symptoms, then what is the underlying disease?
Fundamentally, our civilization is in a metaphysical and existential crisis: that is to say, a crisis in regard to the nature and meaning of life.
That is a philosophical way to put it – bearing in mind that I see “philosophy” not as an academic field, but as the pursuit and practice of wisdom. Philosophically speaking, our modern sickness is the loss of metaphysical and existential truth – the wisdom bearing on life’s nature and meaning.
It is possible – and indeed, ultimately necessary – to express the same truth in religious terms. From a religious standpoint, we can understand the same crisis in a more profound and comprehensive way.
Understood from the religious standpoint, the crisis of the modern world is the “eclipse of God” – the disappearance of God from man’s sense of life.
During his pontificate, and especially in its second half, Benedict XVI used the imagery of an “eclipse” – or variations on it – to describe what he saw as the single most serious and urgent problem of our time.
This “eclipse of God” is not just a loss of traditional religious faith (though it includes that trend), but a more profound loss of man’s whole sense of transcendence, his consciousness of the Absolute. It is a growing blindness and deafness to the Eternal, a loss of insight into what lies beyond the finite horizon.
The two descriptions I have given, apply to the same single problem: the “eclipse of God” is the modern metaphysical and existential crisis, and vice versa. They are the same thing, seen from different angles.
The “eclipse of God” is the most succinct description of the modern crisis from the religious standpoint, and Pope Benedict used the phrase on several occasions.
He used slightly different language, but with the same meaning, in what I regard as his most important statement on this subject – made in a 2009 letter.
In that document, the Pope spoke directly about the crisis of the modern world, making it clear that he saw the “eclipse of God” as its root cause:
“The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
He also made it clear that the Church’s primary task is not to fight the “symptoms” of this problem – whether moral, intellectual, technological, or otherwise. While the Church should also address these “symptomatic” problems, her main task is something greater:
“In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”
Pope Benedict did not coin the image of God’s “eclipse “ or “disappearance.” For instance, the philosopher Martin Buber – whose work influenced both John Paul II and Benedict XVI – published a book entitled Eclipse of God in 1952.
Pope John Paul II, in turn, discussed this “eclipse” in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In that work, the Pope observes that that many modern moral evils stem from a metaphysical, existential, and religious crisis – in which a sense of life’s true nature and meaning are lost, along with the sense of God.
John Paul II speaks of an “eclipse of the sense of God and of man” as “the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man.” The human subject tragically limits himself to the horizon of this finite world, such that he “no longer grasps the ‘transcendent’ character of his ‘existence as man.’”
The depth of this diagnosis, however, has been somewhat lost in the subsequent reception of Evangelium Vitae – which is now probably best remembered for its frank language about the “culture of death,” and for reaffirming perennial truths about abortion and other crimes against human life.
Benedict XVI has revived and even sharpened the language of “eclipse”: first, by speaking simply and directly about the “eclipse of God,” full stop; secondly, by raising the issue on its own rather than in a discussion of moral issues in which it could be lost or downplayed.
Another major theme of Pope Benedict’s pontificate was the harmony of faith and reason. It is precisely because of that harmony, that we can speak of the “eclipse of God,” and the metaphysical-existential crisis of the modern world, as one single reality seen under two aspects.
It is important to understand both aspects. The philosophical perspective, in particular, helps us see that the disappearance of God is not simply the vanishing of one “object” from the human scene. The fading of God from man’s consciousness is catastrophic, moreso than is generally realized.
To understand why this is so, we must recall some fundamental – though perhaps too-little pondered – truths about God.
God is not, as some atheists imagine, the “top member” of a hierarchy of finite beings within time and space. He is the Eternal and Infinite, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
He is – in the words of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy – “inexpressible, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible.” God is, in a word, the Absolute.
Thus, when man forgets or neglects God, it is not as though he were forgetting or neglecting some particular thing within his world of experience, or some particular fact about what happens to be the case.
God is transcendent; and He is simultaneously the source, the proper guide, and the true goal of what is transcendent in us: such as our freedom, our capacity for knowledge, and our insight into meaning. These capacities have a unique, direct relationship to God, and are meant to be exercised in union with Him.
Of course, we can exercise these higher capacities without acknowledging God, and even while rejecting Him. But, as a text of the Second Vatican Council reminds us, such ignorance has consequences: “When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible.”
God’s eclipse means the loss of an infinite horizon, and its replacement with a purely finite sphere: in which our freedom has no higher goal or reference point, principled values are indistinct from mere preferences, and technical ability becomes the criterion of truth.
Man was never meant to live in such a world; he cannot make sense of it, or make sense of himself within it. Yet this – despite the persistent personal faith of a great many individuals – is the kind of world in which we increasingly live our common life.
The crisis of the modern world is not primarily its moral disorientation – which is serious, but largely symptomatic. Nor is it the loss of specific, traditional religious faith – which is also alarming, but is really one part of a greater whole. The crisis of the modern world is the “eclipse of God.”
In some of my future columns, I hope to address some key questions about the “eclipse of God” – most especially the question, “What is to be done?” For I agree with Benedict XVI: our greatest challenge, and top priority, is “to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God.”