The Effacing of Mystery

A decade ago, speaking in the Bundestag, Pope Benedict XVI went beyond doctrines and dogma to the most essential condition of Man: the attraction to the Mystery from which we are generated.

We don’t think much about the way we think. We just think. Or so we think. The idea that our thinking is not a free-flowing, organic process, but something constructed in us by the interaction of inherited beliefs, the surrounding culture, self interest and given ideology is not something we give much time to thinking about. Similarly the idea that there is here a ‘we’ — that there is a collective form of thought, in which most of us participate and are moulded by, and which forms much if not all of our thinking.  In our minds, we just think about things and the outcome always seems no more nor less than logical.

In an address to the German parliament, the Bundestag, in September 2011, Pope Benedict XVI touched on the fallacy that underlies such understandings, when he spoke about the ‘positivist’ basis of cultural understandings in the modern world. He had in mind the tendency of modern culture to grind everything down to things that can be weighed, measured and ultimately proved, a tendency which leaves almost everything of importance out of the picture, including the strangeness of being human to begin with. ‘In its self-proclaimed exclusivity,’ he said, ‘the positivist reason which recognises nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.’


Positivism is essentially an ideology that turns the function of knowing into a science. It insists that only things that can be measured, weighed, counted and proved can be said to be known, or to amount to knowledge, or to be regarded as true. Therefore, human society must be treated in the same way as the material world, as something that adheres to general laws and must be assessed and considered on the basis of scientific data. To see things positivistically is to see things ideologically. Instead of the word ‘ideology’, however, the adherents of positivism lay claim to a ‘philosophy’ or even a ‘science’, as in the Wikipedia definition: ‘Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that information derived from logical and mathematical treatments and reports of sensory experience is the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge, and that there is valid knowledge (truth) only in scientific knowledge’. Hence, just as the physical world obeys unseen absolute laws, such as those relating to gravity, convection and photosynthesis, so — claim the positivists — human society behaves according to universal principles that can be divined from observing human behaviour and reduced to scientific schemata. Under positivism, anything that is not harvested in this way cannot be called knowledge, or deemed to have any validity. Positivism in effect turns the arena of human knowing into a court of law. It elevates objectivity and rationalism, ruling out subjectivity and intuition in much the way that a judge might rule evidence inadmissible on the grounds that it is no higher than hearsay.

Although the positivist approach goes back to the Greeks, it has been a recurrent theme in the history of Western thought. The modern approach was developed by an early 19th century French Enlightenment philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1794-1859), who believed that human society had entered the third major stage of its self-understanding: Positivism had taken up the baton from metaphysics, which had earlier displaced theology. Comte, who was a major influence on 19th-century thought, and himself influenced many subsequent social thinkers, including Karl Marx, John Stuart and Emile Durkheim, believed that science had liberated mankind so that we would no longer be subject to the idea of a higher authority, but thrown back on our own rational capacities. The English noun positivism was derives from the French word positivisme, derived from positif in its philosophical meaning of 'imposed on the mind by experience'. The word ‘positivism’ asserts the capacity of things to yield up exactness, and the attendant ‘science’ seeks to identify criteria by which phenomena are capable of being precisely understood and described. The degree of exactness of such a theory — i.e. its ‘positivity quotient’ — is defined as the extent to which it can be subjected to mathematical demonstration. (Comte had even ranked the various sciences in order of their positivistic reliability: astronomy first, followed by physics, chemistry, biology and sociology.) In effect, positivism insinuates itself in opposition to metaphysics and philosophy, dividing the universe into things we can say clearly and things which remain unproven and therefore unreliable as evidence. Positivism discounts humanistic experience that remains impervious to scientistic reduction, and, while raising to on high the aspiration to absolute objective scientific knowledge, tends to dismiss any suggestion of an absolute schema of pre-existing ethics or moral value.

John Henry Cardinal Newman’s great theme, Cor ad cor loquitur, ‘Heart speaks unto heart’ — borrowed from St. Francis de Sales for his coat of arms — became one of Pope Benedict’s central themes during his eight-year pontificate between 2005 an 2013. The phrase asserts an idea of human communication that is counter to what might be called the ‘head to head’, mathematical or scientific model of discourse which increasingly defines our cultures and in particular characterises the adversarial, media-generated conversation nowadays accompanying us in our every waking moment. In this rational/positivist way of seeing, demonstrability is the constant watchword, but Newman insisted that the essence of the human being is not to be located in the rational mind, but at the core of the lived experience of total reality, which he believed to be centred on the heart. 

Again and again during his pontificate, Pope Benedict revisited this question of the necessity of restoring Western culture to such an integrated concept of reason, insisting that human intelligence must embrace more than rationalism, demonstrability and mathematical verifiability. In his speech to the Bundestag, he spoke about ‘the ecology of man’ as a way of understanding the basis of how we might begin, in an age dominated by positivist thinking, to see ourselves again as we really are.

The positivist understanding of nature and reason, Pope Benedict said, reduces nature to something that passively awaits man’s total triumph over it. In such a dispensation, ‘progress’ is possible in the material sense only. Man convinces himself that he is moving inexorably towards dominion over nature, and indeed appears, by the prevailing logic of progress, to be moving forward. But this is illusory, because his capacity for achieving moral coherence between himself and his environment does not benefit from the same quality of progress as appears to define his advances in knowledge of other kinds. Man’s freedom renews itself in every instant, and so calls upon him to confront every new moment in a demeanour of perpetual starting-over. Without this keeping-in-step with himself, man loses his ethical grip.

In the Bundestag, Pope Benedict elaborated: ‘The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist world view in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.’

In his pursuit of omnipotence, man has lost sight of what might allow him to comprehend the nature of his desires and cushion him against his own inability to satisfy them. He has, in other words, lost sight of his own structure, of the inbuilt disproportionality between what he truly seems to want and what his dreaming leads him towards. The dreams, as Pope Benedict intimated, are good — leading man to discover great things about the world — but the desire that propels man to pursue them is far greater than anything man himself can devise, and that desire is given, pre-existing. Thus, the more he seeks stewardship of his own destiny, the more dissatisfied man tends to become.

Man is not merely self-creating freedom, the Pope insisted, but self-evidently a part of something else. ‘Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.’

The bunker is a metaphor, of course, but also a concrete image of modern culture and its logics. We may not be able to see it, but this doesn’t mean that it is not in the room with us. The bunker is for the most part built of thoughts, which imprison us in particular ways of seeing, and also facilitates us in keeping other ways of thinking and perceiving at bay. The bunker exists in public attitudes, education, politics, media, popular culture, in modern myth and metaphor, propaganda, advertising, tweeting.  The bunker surrounds us and its logic pervades us.

We cannot see the bunker. We cannot even contemplate its power over us without first of all becoming aware of its context and nature, because it is constructed above all in the realm of our thoughts — its materials being words, ideas, images assumptions and dreams of the future, all calculated to seduce man into a version of his existence that excludes the idea of a creator, a setting out, a path towards the horizon of existence, or the possibility of an ultimate destiny.  The bunker is the false construct in which modern man has come to live, and in which he succeeds in hiding from the true facts of his existence.

Inside the bunker of our culture, we feel safe. We understand everything. We know the dimensions of every thing. We know what the temperature ought to be, and when it is too hot or too cold. We know the potential, the limits, weight and specific gravity of everything. Everything is familiar to us. When something is not quite as we imagine it should be, we detect this and are able to correct it straightaway. Nothing, or very little, fazes or surprises us — at least in our collective condition (the personal dimension can be more complex but only if we are conscious of the conditions engulfing us).

It is as if the aim of our endeavour in constructing the bunker has been to eliminate surprise. We have shut outside the inconvenient vagaries of existence and become convinced that we are the masters of our own destinies. In the bunker, man pretends that he is not a creature but his own master, creating the conditions for the life he leads. The bunker constructs itself all around me, and in me. It grows like an organism that expands by the logic of its own DNA. I help to build the bunker in myself and in others, just as my encountering with and brushing off others causes the bunker to be built in me.

The bunker is constructed on foundations of illusion. Ultimately, all man can create of and for himself are false hopes that sustain him for an instant and then dissolve, leaving him grasping for the next and facing, ultimately, a hole in the ground. Properly initiated, his true life might become different but in the bunker he is unable to find words to access it. The essential ‘mechanism’ of man, properly understood and ordered, depends on a relationship with the Mystery from which he derives, but, in the bunker, cut off from this Mystery, he is required to settle for something that cannot do other than frustrate him. He grasps for baubles and illusions in the vain hope of satisfaction.

The history of human society reveals that human life needs more to sustain it than mankind is capable of imagining or generating.  The necessity to maintain a focus on the ‘Beyond’, on the Infinite and Eternal, appears to be hard-wired into mankind, and intrinsic to the imaginations that sustain and propel us. The human person cannot do more than subsist in the environment he builds for himself, because there’s nothing there to surprise him and man depends on surprise for the life of his spirit. By eliminating surprise, modern man has embarked on a process of throttling himself: To achieve dominion over reality, he has unwittingly set about smothering his own spirit. This is counter-productive for man’s scheming, because only to the extent that he can replicate in his schemes and edifices the mysterious promise he intuits — often in spite of himself — to reside in pre-existing reality, have his plans any chance of success. If his own longing for transcendence is not taken into account, his projects lurch towards disaster.

The process that occurs in the bunker I call ‘de-absolutisation’ — among the symptoms of which is the reduction of the human imagination to suppress its fundamental questions about origin and destination. Whether the de-absolutisation of humanity is a deliberate strategy of powerful interests to subdue and control populations may make for an interesting question, but it is not the most urgent one. More important is seeing how all this works in our cultures, and finding ways of reversing it.

A possibility of Hell might be the idea of human life without the expectation of the infinite. We do not tend to think about this, in the day-to-day cut and thrust, but this doesn’t mean that the implications of the question do not penetrate us, suffusing the human consciousness with hope or despair, or some intermediate variant between these two.

It is in the nature of the human apparatus to be in constant anticipation. Of what? Mostly, it’s unclear. Sometimes it appears to be an expectation of something trivial, even banal — a game of golf at the weekend, a night out with the lads, a cup of coffee at the café on the corner after taking a walk. Pope Benedict calls them ‘the false infinities’, insinuating that these may all be pretexts, portending the manifestation of something that is actually unrelated to anything instant or imminent. They are things on to which we have fixed our desire as an alternative to examining it. The desire seems to exist of itself, constantly seeking a correspondence in reality, but we persistently take our short-circuiting of it as the totality of its nature, measuring our sense of its nature against the satisfaction we achieve.

The idea of having something to ‘look forward to’ is somehow related in human culture to finding a correspondence for this desire. Between us and the horizon, we interpose treats, motivations, ambitions, by which we seek to manage our desiring.  We move towards these with a more hopeful step than if they were not there. But the desire exists of itself. We do not appear to generate it. The treats, motivations, sensations and ambitions of themselves become jaded and uninteresting by virtue of repeated encountering, leading to growing disappointment.  Sometimes we move towards them as though by force of habit, without enthusiasm or much in the way of optimism. Sometimes we gorge ourselves on the objects of our desiring and grow fat, wet-brained or exhausted while failing to understand what is happening.

And yet, in spite of all, there remains the certainty that, one day, something ordinary will again fill me with a surge of expectation, excitement, possibility. It may erupt in me on an early spring day, when I detect the slightest hint of a new warmth, a different light, the scent of something that casts me back through the years to my childhood, before the weights and cares of the world heaped themselves upon me. In an instant, all fear and pessimism has fallen away. All immediacy has receded. I am in some timeless zone of hope and pleasure. It is not a foretaste but an actual experience of something I might call Paradise. Sometimes, I enter it but momentarily, and pass through it in an instant. It has been one moment only, like a deep physical memory. Immediately, it is gone and I cannot recapture it by will. But I have recognised it from someplace I have been before —perhaps, I think, during my childhood before I became burdened, but very possibly before that, because I cannot really recollect the source of the feeling, which has about it an exhilarating freedom, a sense of weightlessness, a thirst for the wondrousness of reality.  Soon, almost instantly, these sensations will disappear, returning me to the three-dimensional reality I can name and spell and measure. But I am already changed, because I know again that these phenomena exist to be rediscovered.

On other occasions the feeling lasts longer — maybe the length of a walk along a beach in the early summer morning. I feel the cleanness of the air, the lightness of the shirt upon my back and am gradually overcome by the privilege of my existence.  The fact that this lasts longer can render it less convincing, because I am given too much time to arrive at a rationalisation. I focus on the externalities rather than the desire itself.  I put it down to the weather or the scenery or other superficial facts, and am returned to the bunker. I explain the Mystery away.

The other, briefer moments are more compelling, perhaps because they seem to be associated less with external triggers than with a kind of falling away of certain encrustations from my self, or perhaps, more correctly, a cracking that happens in the shell I have constructed around myself, and I am opened up to what appears to be a comparison — with something sublime of beauty or innocence that I seem to remember without being able to recall its nature or substance. The most overwhelming element of this feeling is that I do not care about anything. Yet, it is nothing like a nihilism, but the opposite, a ‘quihilism’. I do not care because everything is going to be alright. I don’t know how, but I am certain of it.

The unspoken, wordless memory of such moments, I am convinced, is what sustains me through the darker days. For in them I have re-experienced something in myself that goes beyond sensation or sentiment or stimulant — something that is actually natural to me. From the manner in which it has erupted suddenly in me, I divine again that it is most of the time blocked, suppressed and dormant. But I know it is there, and that there is the possibility of finding it, in spite of everything.

A question then: Could this feeling — of nostalgia or longing — be replicated in a consciousness imbued with a different idea of destination to, for example, a religious proposition such as the one our culture has posited for 1,500 or 2,000 years? If, instead of a sketchy notion of Paradise, we set ourselves the end-point of nothingness, or even the endless repetition of the banalities of everyday existence — how many sunrises could we face with equanimity? If the ultimate question of existence were no longer to be open — if the ultimate possibility of existence were signposted only as leading to the abyss or to endless repetition of the same quotidian functions, followed by the horizontal journey to the cemetery — could there seem any point, or any purpose, to getting out of bed in the morning?

The bunker seeks to insist that we can go on without the alleged nonsense offered by religion. In place, for example, of any notional sense of what in religious terms is defined as eternity, the bunker mentality proposes a utopia that is never achieved or caught up with — tomorrow, next week, the year after next — urging its pursuers always to thrust forward as though to escape the limitations of the present, and yet offering no point of ultimate destination, no definition of the journey.  This deludes the human person into constantly moving forward, while becoming more and more unsettled by virtue of being unable to avoid the sense of going nowhere.  This is where the ideal of collective ‘realism’ comes unstuck in the private longing of the person, for it is impossible to avoid the knowledge that the limitations of the present will be present in the future as well, that ‘ultimately’ all days will become indistinguishably pointless — despite the frenetic attempts of our bunker culture to distract us from this.

Is it possible for human beings to go on at all without some level of acknowledgement of the necessity for coherence between external reality and the inner desiring that seems to persist of itself and seeks something external to affirm and vivify it, like a heat-seeking missile aimed at seductive or beautiful or tasty objects, substances or persons of longing? If we had merely the treats, motivations and ambitions, and nothing to impel us from within, how long could we remain animated by the prospect of friendship, food, sex, even human relationships in their everyday form? How long could we tolerate one another in our selfishness and desperation? How far could we walk on the beach that goes on forever, never changing or becoming any more surprising, or on a beach that leads only to engulfment in the ocean of nothingness? To put it more prosaically: How many times could we walk towards the same corner of the same public house without losing hope? How long would the effects of ethyl alcohol or Prozac be sufficient to suppress the despair that built up within?

Atheist rationalisation tells us that it is possible to proceed in the sober realism of accepting that life ends at death, that the meaning and purpose is merely immersion in the experience of living, enjoying life while it lasts. But where are the examples of human societies that managed to sustain themselves through multiple generations without the possibility of a benign transcendence, or some objectively identifiable correspondence for the occasional surges of joy that animate the human breast? Perhaps, indeed, many of these ‘rationalist’ atheists, being defiant sceptics in societies of deluded believers, are breathing in something of the degraded oxygen of other people’s residual beliefs? What if this oxygen supply were to run out? What if the others all joined them in their ‘rationalism’? History is not encouraging on this question.

What could possibly be the meaning or worth of time without an eternal possibility? How, without such an eternal possibility, could we become really convinced that life was worth living, for ourselves or those we love, if it did not have about it some higher value or significance, if it did not lead someplace, which led to someplace else, which led to someplace else, without a threat of termination? How could we bear a love that had nothing at its end but a separate hole in the ground? Everything in our lives, in human life, seems to be predicated on a possibility of eternalising, even if at the level of metaphor. Our imaginations are fired up with what were once called religious ideas, and even our secular projects depend upon these for their realisation. Revolution, by its very nature, is religious — even socialist revolution: a rising up in the name of Utopia. Sex stands in for the transcendent, but without some promise outside itself, it soon palls or degenerates into perversion. We know this, but cannot face the implications.  Without the possibility of transcendence, we are condemned to live our paltry years in cul-de-sacs of pointlessness, waiting for obliteration. Perhaps none of us could breathe easily for a single day if we really believed, deep in the most wordless part of ourselves, that we were indeed headed towards an abyss, and had nothing within sight or hearing to contradict this idea. Even the darkest human spirit on its darkest day, retains some recollection of what it is we compare everything with. Even at the extremes of what we call despair, even to the point of self-obliteration, there is an acknowledgment of an incongruity between what our positivist reason is capable of harvesting — from the world’s seductions and blandishments and the desire that speaks continually from within — to the hayshed of the heart.  This disproportionality haunts us and cannot be suppressed.

It is as though what assails even the most desperate is not unhope, but a surfeit of hoping for which it seems impossible, in a given moment, to locate a correspondence in reality. The disproportionality becomes too great to handle, and everything becomes futile and absurd. And what, then, if self-murder is not an act of despair but one of rational maturity in the bunker situation — a decision to gamble a life that has grown stale by choosing to move towards either the intuited target of the desire, having discovered the treats, motivations and ambitions to be false friends — as though to call the bluff of the implicit ‘promises’ of the heart? Unless we know the bunker for what it is, and why it is as it is, it becomes a kind of gas chamber.

Man is trapped in his bunker by the very hubris that caused him to believe that, in building it, he was transcending all his previous ‘antiquated’, ‘unreasonable’ notions of being dependent on something beyond himself. Becoming too clever for God, man convinced himself to remove the only hypothesis for his existence that served in any way to quiet his puzzlement about himself.  In the name of rationalism, he allowed himself to believe not merely that he had evolved from something that amounted to next-to-nothing (overlooking the vast chasm that must surely exist between next-to-nothing and nothing) but also that he had evolved too far to take seriously the idea that something he had become unable to imagine could possibly have had anything to do with his existence. His self-constructed logic, not surprisingly, made it impossible for him to consider this a failure of imagination, and instead to see it as a triumph of reasoning. Thus, man rendered himself as though originless, without any reasonable basis for understanding his own total journey.

In his Bundestag speech, Pope Benedict focused on the problem of man’s collapsing reason, seeking to persuade us that, far from becoming ‘cleverer’, we humans were actually reducing our capacity for thought.  Our supposed sophisticated forms of ‘reasoning’ succeed only in shutting out anything that might alert us to the mysteries that define us. The bunker, then, can only exhaust itself in seeking to replicate the conditions required by our desiring. It cannot supply ultimate answers. Fundamentally, the explanation for all our disappointments is that we have been seeking in earthly reality things that, by their nature, are to be found only in the infinite, however defined.

But, although, time and time again, mankind's plans for itself come to nothing or to disaster, those who repudiate God in the running of the public realm are able still to rely on the continued existence of a deep and inextinguishable desiring in the human heart, which continues to tell each one of us that, up ahead, there is something momentous. Sometimes even in spite of our societies’ collectively stated beliefs, we continue to believe in a mysterious possibility for a future that the objective circumstances do not seem to support. Even when things are getting worse, human beings have this capacity to believe that, eventually, they will get better. Secular society is unable to offer us the destination we intuit in this way, but somehow it manages to maintain the promise that it tacitly denies, in spite of disaster after disaster. Why? Perhaps because the very religious impulses that secular society seeks to undermine remain perversely strong and available to the project that ultimately pursues their obliteration. Thus, we see that, when Pope Benedict spoke of using God’s materials in the bunker, he wasn’t thinking of bricks and mortar.

Even if the dreams of men for dominion over reality were to cease leading to disaster, the best we could hope for is that we might discover for certain that even the attainment of total human dominion would fall far short of delivering what we truly desire. Indeed, perhaps the only thing that stands between us and terminal disappointment is the monotonous regularity with which disaster intervenes. This is interesting: that these occasional ‘minor’ crises, such as prolonged turbulences in the economic context, may serve to protect the human quest for omnipotence from the ultimate exposure that ‘success’ would bring. Because success and failures are cyclical and intermittent, the tendency that is man in search of omnipotence continues to usurp the innate human tendency to believe in the ultimate realization of our most fundamental desires — and yet, repeated failures cast us back on our given desiring for something other or beyond, keeping it alive. The secular and the sacred, despite their apparent incompatibility, feed off one another to keep us — or most of us — hanging on. We may use differing words to describe our longings or understandings of them, but the desire remains, beneath and beyond words.

But a project of human progress that is founded purely in the secular world, and which, whether knowingly or not, aspires to a de-absolutised state, can only fail in the end to achieve its desired ends. Human desire can become perverted, but only up to a point. Ultimately, the human being is left dissatisfied, and each attempt to break through this structural intractability results in a further perversion. Thus, man's ambitions will always fail — and sometimes fail catastrophically — unless they are directed at an authentic intuition of the human destination.

This is, culturally speaking, the importance of Christ in European culture. Leaving aside for now questions relating to historical veracity or plausibility, it remains the case that unless Europe takes steps to replace the Christ it is seemingly determined to obliterate from its culture, it is heading for disaster, and its human societies are doomed to failure, catastrophe, boredom and what is called depression, which is really the most immediate human symptom of a doomed attempting to live a human life outside of the natural transcendental dynamic.

The common mentality, driven by media treatment of reality and the popular sentiment it generates, appears to hold that what is happening to religious faith in modern society is a process that is rendered inevitable by the chronological march of time and that it has consequences for ‘the church’ only. But this is delusional, if only for the reason that the nature and structure of European society depends on its Christian inheritance, and its roots in a pre-Christian and Pagan past, for many of its most vital structures, resources and understandings. The obliteration of ‘religion’ is much more serious than the destruction of cultural identities or the moral framework of society; it amounts to the loss of a capacity to live with equanimity alongside mysteriousness, to look upon the world with wonder, but most of all to maintain the outlook that enables the human person to live fully, to hope for and crave the total human destiny without knowing in concrete terms what it might be.

The culture that we live in nowadays is one that makes it very difficult for us to think deeply, because we are constantly being told the ‘facts’ of what is happening and what everything means. We are given not just immediate facts but also immediate meanings for these facts. We are constantly bombarded with a version of reality that we really do not have the time — and perhaps no longer the reflective and analytical skills — to question, or to check out against our own experience. The positivistic forms of rationality used to distill the truth from reality in the bunker are therefore cutting us off from our own identities, our own structures, our own natures, even our own senses, and consequently from the hope that each of us needs to face and endure the journeys we have been gifted with and blessed to embark upon.

The problem of faith in modern culture does not arise from any scarcity of reasonable evidence, but from the inability to use the available facts to invigorate human reason to the full. Faith is no more than honesty before reality. What is it that I see? Where did I come from? Where did what I see come from? What or who made me? What makes me now, in this moment, since I do not make myself?

If, in building his bunker, man had eliminated God, the whole quandary thus created might be easier to diagnose. But man chose instead to retain God, with a certain reduced status, within his bunker. God became a gracing aspect of the bunker, an optional extra, a sentimental residue, a repository of moral values still in the process of being redrafted and recast. Man was reborn in a different way: as a potentially autonomous actor, capable of total self-realisation, no longer thinking himself dependent on a ‘creator’ or defined in any way by a point of origin or the idea of an eternal destination. What mattered was not some ‘total’ idea of the human journey but what a man made of himself here, in the man-created world, the bunker. Hence, the rules defining man’s limits and freedoms could be re-written to suit this new understanding. Man was no longer to be constrained by facts of nature, biology or absolute truth, but could remake the moral order to allow him maximize his own ambitions. Driven by his own instinct, man was in control of his own plans and the source of the energy necessary to complete them. His ethical framework was given to him not on tablets of stone but by the imperatives of achieving his objectives.  God remained vaguely part of the picture, but would not be allowed to offer impediments, and eventually became a peripheral figure with little or nothing to say to mankind. He was not completely denied, but treated as though his remit could be confined to stewardship of an optional moral order, and the dominance of those elements of the universe or of reality that man had not yet set his eye upon. In a sense, what the mocking neo-atheists say is true: God — in human culture — became a kind of tooth-fairy, part of the rituals and traditions that for various social and utilitarian purposes were still observed.

Gradually, this new way of seeing things became absorbed into the cultures and education systems of modern societies. This suggested itself as progress, because one consequence of the process was to reduce the idea of ‘God’ to the level of superstition. Forgotten was the idea of a common sense of meaning, a shared font of order and morality. These things, which persisted precisely because the cultural power of the God idea had not yet been eliminated, remained in residual form in these societies. But, gradually, as man’s self-confidence and certainty increased, and the idea of God became accordingly diluted and diminished, the power of the shared ideas waned also.  Man did not think much about this, because to do so might force him to rethink the direction he had embarked upon, and perhaps necessitate a different approach, perhaps even the abandonment of his project of self-realisation. Any difficulties arising from the diminution of the God hypothesis were put down to teething problems in the process of construction of the bunker.  God came to be seen as a somewhat shaming crutch, a consolation of the weak, at best a functional code by which inherited ethics and moralities might continue to be transmitted on a mass basis while man built his new edifice. Otherwise, God held man back from his ambitions, slowed him down, cramped his style. The idea of a man defined by the power of a single generative presence — once evidence of intelligence — became the target of derision and condescension, and not because the idea had been disproved or revealed as objectively ridiculous, but because its continuance posed an obstacle to man’s project of total self-governance. This new context generated a babble of apparently conflicting but actually mutually accommodating responses: God existed but was extraneous, neither here nor there; God was useless; God gets in the way; God is feeble; God is a residue of a less enlightened age; God is malevolent and evil; God is the opiate of the stupid; and, additionally or in the alternative, God does not exist.

But the more fundamental problem one might seek to articulate does not begin with ‘God’, however this being or entity might be understood, but with the human person. The problem is not ‘out there’, but ‘in here’.  The problem is with the stymied dynamism of the human person in a world where the idea of ‘God’ has become reduced to the point where it no longer inspires or even convinces. Men in this world tell themselves that the loss is a small one, or even a gain — of awareness or self-rule  — that it can be accommodated or even capitalised upon. And so, objectively speaking, it seems. But a man in this world begins to die inside from the moment he is born. He dies in something like the way a flower might begin to die without the sun, if the darkness closed over one evening and refused to open again over the Earth. He begins to die because he misses something he did not realise he needed: a destination, a meaning for his journeying.  Since human beings became conscious of their consciousness, aware, sensate, they have sought some such sense of destiny and meaning — not out of some abstract curiosity but as a reason for putting one foot in front of the other. Because we have lived in a world where such meanings have persisted, even in the face of our own growing scepticism, we have taken for granted that our dynamism is something automatic and gratuitous, that it comes with the job, that its source does not require investigation because it is part of the hardwired fixtures of the human structure. We think, then, of ‘God’ as something added, something invented, something increasingly anomalous and therefore dispensable. It does not occur to us that ‘God’, being part of the imaginative apprehension of the human person in time and culture, is actually, in a certain sense, part of the human structure itself.  To know, even in some deep part of ourselves, the nature of our destiny, is perhaps the greatest of all the human needs — to know it even contingently, conceptually, abstractly, but still to know it.  To know our place in the total picture, to know there is a place for us in this total picture, to know there is a total picture — these are the preoccupations that nag wordlessly away at our souls. Only by deadening himself can a man avoid them. Only by pretending they have ceased to matter can Man conduct the flimsiest of pretences of being his own master.

And this, by its very essence, means that Man has ceased to be himself. Man has started to unbecome, to unravel in his very essence, because his essence is a relationship with the infinite and eternal. Because he has denied the very central fact of his existence — that life is given to him by Another  — he lacks a plan, a moral framework, a purpose or a destination. Man has become powerless to be Man. He lacks faith in a god, but even more so in himself, because he remains unconvinced of the virtue and stability of an order that is rooted only in his own selfishness. And this causes him to hate himself all the more, which in turn generates a further wave of doubting. His strategic scepticism about the possibility of a generative presence has backfired badly: He finds he is even less capable of believing in himself. He has become an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. Man’s false optimism collapses into its antithesis. This is what lies at the core of the unravelling of the modern world: the more Man progresses, as T.S. Elliot observed, the more he slides backwards.

Yet, all the while, man remains himself at the core of himself. Though outwardly reinvented by the recast culture, his heart cannot be changed. This is the part of himself that he cannot access, that cannot be accessed by the culture other men have generated around him. Unmoored from his person and even his being, this heart continues to beat within, but becomes more and more adrift and remote from the everyday life being lived. It seems to offer to the person no possibility of enhancement, no relevant purpose, no redemptive connectivity. This heart is what is left of ‘God’, but now it weighs its bearer down with a lost hope. To banish this intuition, the man pursues with renewed vigour the false gods outside himself, postponing for as long as possible the day of reckoning with himself.  But in this pursuit, the inner voice of his heavy heart continues to plague him. The more he pursues life, the more he loses his taste for living. But nothing any longer seems to have a flavour or substance, because if Man has made everything, the meaning must already be present and known, and yet this does not seem to be so. Everything turns to disappointment and disgust. Everything becomes mean and low. He seeks to escape himself, by investing in ideologies and systems, but these merely replicate his own growing incoherence. Thus he loses himself even more, becoming more and more adrift from human relationships and from the idea of human society in every context except the constructed, ideological dimension. ‘Society’ becomes the inner life of the bunker rather than an intimate engagement with others. Each man is thrown back into himself, into a deep loneliness that increasingly loses the possibility of being reached by any human contact because the drift of other men’s existential condition is of the same inward characteristic. 

The creature of this culture is a sorry sight indeed. At its extremes, the condition reduces a man to a husk of a human entity, sucking from him everything that is hopeful, every longing, every joy, every human response. Unless distracted by sensation or anaesthetised by chemicals, such a man is not capable of putting one foot in front of the other. He lies prone before the coming moment, unable to grasp it, lost as to what it might signify for him. But every man, every woman, is really in the grip of the same process, because it is merely the distractions of sensations and chemicals that stave off the despair. The obliteration of the idea of a single generative presence has insinuated a nothingness at the heart of reality. The false gods accumulate in ever increasing forms and numbers, but none is sufficient to do more than postpone the realisation that lies waiting for each human person: Imagining himself alone, Man is lonely and lost. He is not meant to be alone, and is not so, in spite of himself. His tragedy, then, is that he is not alone, but merely insists that it is so.

Support My Work