24 June, 2010

Culture Wars in Perspective.

As part of another article, John Allen provides a long quote from the February 21st "encyclical" of Bartholomew, the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the Patriarchal document there is a positive, but careful, view of the modern world. He speaks often about the need for Orthodoxy to encounter the "modern world" and dialogue with other religious communities and other forces existing at this time in the world.

In a sense, Bartholomew's view and words are similar to those of Pope John XXIII who wanted to open the windows of the Church to dialogue with the modern world for the benefit of the Church and the world. Although aware of the defects and, yes, evil in contemporary culture, the Holy Father looked upon culture, at the very least, as a "glass half-full." The Holy Father then called the Vatican II Council which, by-and-large, succeeded.

The election of Pope John Paul II signaled a change in papal views of the Church and the World and their interrelationship. Under John Paul II, modern culture was seen more negatively. He viewed modern culture as primarily antagonistic to the Church. The Holy Father, in fact, called modern culture a "culture of death." He did not apply that phrase only to abortion, but to all of culture, so to speak, seeing modern culture as a "glass half-empty." What began with John Paul, is being implemented by Pope Benedict. This can be seen in the current emphasis on "the reform of the reform" in Liturgy, the reassertion of papal authority/control, and the almost extreme emphasis on "Secularism" and need to "re-Christianize" Europe.

Another view of modernization and modernity.

Some time ago a sociologist, Peter Berger and his colleagues wrote,  Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (1974). Some points they made, I believe, are relevant to the apparent impasse we face today:

  1. Technological change and concomitant economic development are the primary (though not sole) engines that account for changes in other aspects of society. For example, it was the development of the factory system that brought about the existence and spread of modern cities and the modern nuclear family (While we focus on our values, technology creates the parameters which constrain and limit our choice of values).
  2. The secondary "carriers" of modernization and modern consciousness are the mass media and modern mass education (Not the family and the church)
  3. In modern societies there is no longer an over-arching "meaning system" (E.g. Religion) that acts as a "glue" to hold society together.  (Religion loses it's "sacred" character).
  4. The fundamental institutions of society (E.g. Economy, Politics, Religion, and Family) become separate and compete with each other; they create their own institutional "meaning systems and each competes for our loyalty."  We begin to wear "different hats;" We love our neighbor on Sunday. On Monday we follow the "dog eat dog" norms of business. At home we struggle to develop and maintain our "own" private family meaning systems.
  5. Increasingly, individuals are free to create private meaning systems in the spaces, or interstices, not dominated by one or another institution. This, becomes what we call the private sphere.
  6. All of these sociocultural changes create and foster "modern consciousness," an approach to understanding and acting in the world that sees reality as composed of inter-changeable parts among other things drawn from the economic system and human relationships based on the impersonal pigeon holes of political bureaucracy.
Modernization is an ambiguous process.

Modernization is a blessing because it has given humans greater freedom from the "vagaries" of nature. It has also give us "freedom" in the sense of greater options.

Modernization has been a curse because it has led to high levels of alienation ( a feeling of powerlessness and feeling separated from others and from the social fabric) and anomie (a sense of "normlessnes,"  loss of meaning, and aloneness, confusion and impermanence.

Most people have become disenchanted with modernity, if not with all of modernization. Creating the "private sphere" to deal with the ambiguities of the modern situation has not worked.

Berger, et. al. suggest that there have been three responses to this disenchantment:
  1. To work ever harder and harder to increase modernization and modernity, carrying it to its logical conclusion (the conservative approach).
  2. To actually accept that modernization and modernity are here to stay and to selectively accept, reject or modify those aspects of them that will prove most helpful to ensure continued existence of human social and cultural life with a greater development of peace, justice and community. (The moderate and liberal approach).
  3. To retreat from modernity as much as possible through new nationalisms, cult-like movements and communities, or, at the extreme, to sabotage and destroy existing social arrangements and material resources (The retreatist, nativest, approach).
Many observers and commentators  claim that we already exist in a "Post-Industrial," or "Post-Modern" world and society. I disagree. Certainly the creation of the computer, many new digital devices, sophisticated software and rapid and instantaneous communication, and the rapid transfer of goods and services across the globe are inevitably pushing us further and further in the direction of a post industrial / modern society, sometimes called the "Digital Society." But we are not there yet; we are still in the process of transitioning. We must continue to construct the Post-Modern society and culture, especially in a humane form. Personally, I hope that whatever form of society that we construct will be in harmony with Christian principles.

The culture wars that we constantly hear about in the Catholic community are a prime example of the transitional state of the world and the Church. How things will settle down if they ever do, is still open. So many of the currently discussed "conflicts" in the Church are symptoms of a much deeper divide among Catholics based on fundamentally different views of the world, society and the Church. Notice how many of these issues are cast into "us verses them" terms. Or "either-or" rather than "both-and" terms. All of the differences arise from the transition period within which we live. If we place what is happening in the Church within the context of the larger world, it should highlight the importance of the process and whether the "battles" can be resolved through common dialogue or if this is a zero-sum game.

So do you think modern culture is a glass half-full or a glass half-empty?

Do you think we are already in a post-modern society or still in transition?

If these ideas resonate with you, what's next?

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