022 Philosophy, Technopoly

(ERRATUM: Two perceptive readers (Don Hughes and David Whitelaw), who read my “reedings” better than I proof-read them, called my attention to a grievous error in last month’s “Reedings.” Concluding my discussion of Mark Noll’s fine history of American Christianity, I wrote I would “not” use it in my classes! Now I intended to say “now”–and now and then a letter makes a major difference! In my judgment, Noll’s work is the finest available and I would “now” use it enthusiastically.)

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Having apologized for the slip, let me play on the word and turn to a couple of “apologies” for philosophy, defenses of the art of thinking as wisely and well as possible, which I’ve recently read. Philosophy as a discipline surely needs some defending these days, given that Karl Jaspers (hardly a lightweight intellectual) declared, in 1960, that philosophy “has become an embarrassment for everybody” (Wahrheit und Wissenshaft, p.20). Too many of my students, I fear, tend to share Jaspers’ despair!

Providing a healthy antidote, Josef Pieper, one of this century’s Christian philosophers, has a slim treatise (all of his works tend to be brief) entitled In Defense of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands up to Modern Challenges (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1992; German original c. 1966). Right away Pieper gives us his thesis: “to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons; and philosophy, thus understood, is a meaningful, even necessary endeavor, with which man, the spiritual being, cannot dispense” (p. 12). Or, in the words of Whitehead, philosophy seeks to discover “What is it all about?” (Some of you may remember Freddy Prinz, a gifted Latino comic who starred on a TV series years ago. He committed suicide, while at the height of his career, leaving a simple note: “What’s it all about?”) Good question! Hard to answer!

Doing so involves philosophizing, an activity we don’t necessarily relish or especially enjoy. Like great poetry and art, philosophy cares little for “entertaining” its practitioners, seems indifferent to what’s up-to-date or fashionable. Philosophizing is not the same as studying philosophy, such as we do (rightly, to some degree, in college classes) when we learn what Plato and Aristotle thought about education and ethics, epistemology and esthetics. And it’s not the same as figuring out how to accomplish practical ends, as did the Sophist in Plato’s Protagoras who proclaimed himself wise and thus capable of “teaching others how to deal successfully with the world.”

All too man sophists artfully talk “philosophy,” and are thus called philosophers. Certainly they know how to play the role, ceaselessly striving to be “creative” and “original,” polishing their wares to suit the current “party line”–all, I might add, amply illustrated by the trendy “deconstructionists” in today’s universities. But they’re not philosophers! For, as Pieper says, “the true philosopher, thoroughly oblivious of his own importance, and ‘totally discarding all pretentiousness’, approaches his unfathomable object unselfishly and with an open mind” (p. 39).

Thus, in some ways, Heidegger was right to say “philosophy is of no use.” It’s truly one of the “liberal arts,” practiced by those who are free enough to think theoretically, without concern for any “bottom line” rationale. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, says the word “free” means the same as “nonpractical.” Rightly practiced, then, philosophy seeks to know Truth, to understand Reality, to deal with issues too sublime for TV commercials (or even documentaries).

As Pieper explains it: “Theoria and ‘theoretical’ are words that, in the understanding of the ancients, mean precisely this: a relationship to the world, an orientation toward reality characterized entirely by the desire that this same reality may reveal itself in its true being. This, and nothing else, is the meaning of truth; nothing else but the self-revelation of reality” (p. 45). Truth and Reality are disclosed to those who “listen in silence” (p. 47), to those who, as Jesus said, have good eyes, to those who see things as they are.

Too frequently, in our pervasively pragmatic culture, folks fix the label “theoretical” on whatever’s irrelevant to them, but in fact it’s what’s most eternally important. For “philosophy (as contemplation of reality as such and as the highest possible actualization of theoria) means: to listen so perfectly and intensely that such receptive silence is not disturbed and interrupted by anything, not even by a question” (p. 47).

Like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet–unlike Martha bustling about doing “practical” things–real philosophers relish attentive silences. Such is the nature of contemplative thought. One might almost say that false philosophers stress communicating while true philosophers stress contemptating.

The Greek “theoria” was translated into Latin as “contemplatio,” from whence comes the English word contemplation. Rightly understood, Piper says, contemplation “means a loving gaze, the beholding of the beloved” (p. 53). Consequently, “For the true philosopher . . . the challenge seems to be this: to acknowledge, before any consideration of specifics and without regard to usefulness, that reality is good in itself–all things, the world, ‘being’ as such; yes, all that exists, and existence itself” (p. 54). Such was “Anaxagoras’ answer to the question posed to him, ‘Why are you here on earth?’ His reply: to behold in contemplation, eis theorian, the sky and the order of the universe” (p. 59).

To us who think with words, which includes all of us, I think, things are truly knowable only if they have been created, spoken into existence, and only if there is a discernable order to the universe. All too many modern thinkers, such as Sartre, discard the doctrine of creation without realizing they thereby discard the possibility of knowing things with any certainty.

As creatures, created in God’s image, however, we’re endowed with a spirituality, a mind, which enables us to transcend our bodily limitations. We have an apparently unlimited ability to know. Given our standing, “oriented toward the world of everything that is real,” the “totality of all being” becomes subject to philosophy. Thus “To philosophize means nothing else but to reflect on the whole of all reality” (p. 64). That’s no small task! But it does indicate the grandeur of man’s calling!

Though some modern thinkers seem more anxious to disclaim than to claim certainty in any area, true philosophers must insist that whatever has being is potentially knowable. That’s because, as Pieper says: “all existing things originated in the creative and inventive mind of God, and consequently, when they were conceived and then also ‘spoken’, they received in themselves, as their essence, the quality of ‘spoken word’, the character, therefore, to be in principle understandable and intelligible. ‘We see all things [Augustine wrote] because they exist; yet they exist because you {O God} see them'” (p. 75).

While this little book applies most directly to philosophy, I think it has important implications for those of us who teach and preach. Too often we reduce Revelation, reduce the Gospel to purely pragmatic, therapeutic concerns. We assume that folks really need how-to-do-it messages, tricks of the trade useful in the marketplace.

But in fact, if we’re fundamentally spiritual beings, we deeply hunger to know . . . to know the Truth about Reality. So we really need to hear about God, about heavenly things, about the health and holiness which transcend concerns for diet and sobriety. We need to know what’s really good, not just how to “feel good.” We need to learn how to contemplate, to theorize, to listen to the Word.

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In a similar vein, Thomas Dubay wrote, nearly a decade ago, an outstanding work, Faith and Certitude (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1985). I earlier applauded Dubay’s The Fire Within (in “Reedings #15), and I’m equally impressed with Faith and Certitude, though it’s a work of apologetics rather than spiritual formation and addresses quite different issues.

Dubay begins his discussion by noting that lots of people are “bored” with life. Folks in love, however, are never bored. So we face a world wherein far too many persons lack any love for life. They’ve lost their spiritual sensitivity, their openness to the beauty and truth of reality. Though unsuspected by most of them, at the heart of their boredom lies the loss of certainty, the conviction (or even hope) that they can know anything about anything for sure.

It’s clear, I think, that “No man can worship. love or trust in a probable God” (John Henry Newman). To the extent we forfeit the certainty of God’s existence and presence, we lose the capacity to love Him. It’s hard to love nothingness! Skepticism and disbelief may be fashionable in university classrooms, but they poison any love for life. Nietzsche’s atheistic aphorisms may be clever and quotable, but his “hermeneutic of suspicion,” his continual criticisms, wilt like tulips when exposed to the fires of existence.

So “The Church’s centuries-old conviction that she abides in a secure certitude was expressed recently by Pope John II when he wrote that our teaching of religion should ‘continually separate itself from the surrounding atmosphere of hesitation, uncertainty and insipidity. . . .’ We are to affirm calmly our identity and adhere ‘firmly to the absoluteness of God'” (p. 34).

One of the obstacles to ascertaining absolutes is simply “the prevailing atmosphere” surrounding us. Modernity, like an osteoporosis-ravaged bone, stands riddled with widespread subjectivism, a disbelief in objective truth, goodness and beauty. Imprisoned within our own consciousness, many of us can say only that we “feel” or “believe” certain things, providing commentary on what’s going on in our own heads.

Such subjectivism easily slides into moral relativism, so what’s right for me may not necessarily be right for you. It’s pretty much every man for himself. Thus John Mackie, an Oxford professor, can title his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. You invent your right and I’ll invent my wrong, I guess. And we’ll hope we don’t collide on the freeway of life!

Another obstacle is simply “ourselves.” As Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, “Sin obscures sight.” The thinking which leads to certitude requires hard work, which eliminates those who want simple answers or personal opinions. Refusing to reason, we easily entertain contradictory opinions, demand little evidence for our opinions, and continually resort to repeating jargon rather than constructing arguments. As Newman said, “Men go by their sympathies, not by argument.” Still more: our sinfulness nourishes such things as a disposition to doubt, an attitude of “chronological snobbery,” unfair selectivity, and bigotry.

Following his analysis of the reasons for our lack of certitude, Dubay turns his attention to critical issues such as naturalistic evolutionism and biblical criticism. While open to truths in such scholarly fields, he rightly diagnoses the general disarray, the lack of genuine consensus, which leave most folks groping for answers. Every “expert” trumpets forth his own set of answers! Dubay’s answer, especially in biblical studies (as you might expect from a Roman Catholic), lies in the teaching authority of the Church. With her assistance, Dubay argues, we may find certitude.

Such certitude “is not a bolt out of the blue, a result of a high intelligence quotient or a sheer stoke of illumination. It happens in a context and with previous preparation” (p. 177). It takes careful study and reasoned deliberation, the path of philosophical realism, plus an authentic love for the truth. “They attain truth who love it. One of the chief immoralities is an indifference to truth” (p. 189). Thus, sanctity includes a commitment to truth which is manifestly evident in men such as Augustine and Aquinas and Newman.

There’s lots to chew on in this treatise. Dubay’s learning roots him in the ancient Fathers as well as keeps him in touch is modernity. He provides striking illustrations and quotations while developing his own presentation. Like The Fire Within, it rewards careful reading and rumination.

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You who know me well know how much my thinking has been shaped by Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society and Lewis Mumford’s two volume study, The Myth of the Machine. Many of the things which most concern us, much of what we tend to lament– whether in the schools or churches or environment–results from our naively enthusiastic embrace of technology during the past two centuries. Then, ignoring the past, we often want to solve today’s problems without addressing their root cause–technology–because we enjoy its comforts.

With Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, c. 1992), Neil Postman joins Ellul and Mumford by adding insight to the indictment of contemporary culture he initiated a decade ago with Amusing Ourselves to Death (reviewed in “Reedings” #1).

“Stated in the most dramatic terms, the accusation can be made,” Postman writes in his Introduction, “that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy” (p. xii). And that’s what makes the issue so difficult, for usually friends are friends and enemies are enemies.

As a friend, technology obviously makes life easier in many ways. Yet, as an enemy, it tends to sever us from those traditions which make life truly worthwhile. So while it eases our bodies it empties our hearts! The Brave New World Aldous Huxley imagined half-a-century ago seems to have actually emerged, a world controlled by a “Technopoly” which redefines what we traditionally understood “by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by truth, by privacy, by intelligence” (p. 48).

If, incidentally, you’ve never read Brave New World, or if you’ve not read it in a number of years, it’s well worth reading. Few fictional works have worn as well, and few have proved so hauntingly prophetic. Huxley’s world, which he feared might come to pass in 300 years or so, has been realized, in sobering ways, within my lifetime.

Postman pursues his theme through such diverse realms as medical care, computers, statistics, opinion polls and politics, education, advertising. Everywhere, he finds, the deadening hand of Technopoly, sustained by the ideology of “Scientism,” is at work destroying traditional culture.

As a professor of education, Postman performs best when discussing his own province. “In Technopoly,” he says, “we improve the education by improving what are called ‘learning technologies'” (p. 171). Thus the latest computers are always judged necessary, though one would be hard pressed to prove they help students read or write or think better than they did 100 years ago. Computers are purchased (while library book budgets go unfunded) because they’ve become an unquestioned necessity. That’s because they do some things more “efficiently,” more rapidly, in more volume. Should we ask “what is learning for,” the computer compulsive can only answer in terms of means, not ends.

“Modern secular education is failing,” Postman says, in a probing analysis, “not because it doesn’t teach who Ginger Rogers, Norman Mailer, and a thousand other people are but because it has no moral, social, or intellectual center. There is no set of ideas or attitudes that permeates all parts of the curriculum. The curriculum is not, in fact, a ‘course of study’ at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person, unless it is a person who possesses ‘skills.’ In other words, a technocrat’s ideal–a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills” (p. 186).

This, of course, brushes aside thousands of years of philosophical reflection on the reasons, the whys of education. Plato and Cicero, Augustine and Jefferson, all knew what to aim at in educating our young. Thus they focused on great texts, which told stories, which gave learners a sense of place and history, of value and values. Our technically-oriented modern education, singularly concerned with producing functionaries for the economic system, lacks such.

Religious educators, especially, struggle with Technopoly. In the traditional approach, “learning is done for the greater glory of God and, more particularly, to prepare the young to embrace intelligently and gracefully the moral directives of the church” (p. 178). Such an agenda is so unlike modernity’s mainstream “education” that religious educators generally ease away from traditional disciplines to join their more respected secular counterparts, reducing “education” to specialized competencies of some sort.

Given Postman’s doleful discussion, one wonders what then we should do! In response, he concludes: “No one is an expert on how to live a life. I can, however, offer a Talmudic-like principle that seems to me an effective guide for those who wish to defend themselves against the worst effects of the American Technopoly. It is this: You must try to be a loving resistance fighter” (p. 182). To do this, he says, you must constantly remember and reflect upon the energizing symbols, re-telling the formative stories which undergird our nation.

Religiously, resistance fighters “take the great narratives of religion seriously and do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth” (p. 184). We who live by The Book should find nothing new about this, of course, for the incessant refrain of Deuteronomy, and other sections as well, is the injunction to remember. Remember who God is, remember who we are, remember what God has done for us! And don’t stop telling the story!

Postman’s work is readable, contemporary, full of helpful illustrations and data. While Ellul and Mumford remain the best analysts of our technological society and its predicaments, Postman is accessible and stimulating.


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