05 July 2013

Massive Amnesia, or the Pernicious Ideology of Nihilism

from Pope Francis' new encyclical, Lumen fidei:

25. Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age. In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings. Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good. But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion. Surely this kind of truth — we hear it said — is what was claimed by the great totalitarian movements of the last century, a truth that imposed its own world view in order to crush the actual lives of individuals. In the end, what we are left with is relativism, in which the question of universal truth — and ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant. It would be logical, from this point of view, to attempt to sever the bond between religion and truth, because it seems to lie at the root of fanaticism, which proves oppressive for anyone who does not share the same beliefs. In this regard, though, we can speak of a massive amnesia in our contemporary world. The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness. It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path

I'm working on an outline for an elective Spring course at Notre Dame Seminary tentatively titled, "Preaching & Nihilism." We'll look at the historical, philosophical, and theological roots of postmodern nihilism and how a Catholic preacher can address this pernicious ideology from the pulpit. 
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  1. Collective, perhaps intentional perhaps not, cultural amnesia. We don't read the same stories any more. We no longer have a basis on which to collectively discuss ideas, debate, etc... How many have read Plato? Herodotus? Plutarch? Aristophanes? Homer? It is going to be, my opinion, exceedingly difficult to discuss certain topics from the pulpit if the congregation does not have the cultural, literary, background to either understand or absorb the teachings. How many of the seminarians have read the "Great Books?" Maybe I'm wrong, but my experience has been that of frustration in attempting to discuss such lofty topics as "truth" with people who have no cultural/literary basis in the great works which at one time "everyone" read.

  2. Shelly, I understand your concern. We really don't have a 'frame of reference' anymore to have a discussion on an intellectual level. The classics are not read, philosophies are distorted and most ideology and even morality is derived from movies, television and games (the electronic kind). Theology itself is even harder to convey if the person has been poorly catechized and already influenced by all of the worldly distractions.

    The task of a homilist is a difficult one, but one that needs to be approached with care and concern for those who hear. That is why I sometimes try to look at movies, TV and the current news to bring some type of meaning to the Gospels. When you bring up Captain Jack Sparrow and relate him to a person's quest for freedom at the expense of others and even to the point of selling his soul, people tend to listen. Then you can draw them into the Truth and possibly bring a spark of curiosity to delve into the lives of the Saints (I like to reference Aquinas and Augustine often).

    However, to accomplish that task, one must have knowledge of both sides of the coin. That is what I think some seminaries are trying to build upon by focusing on philosophy, yet allowing the seminarians to still live life outside the monastery. I applaud Fr. Philip and pray that he can instill that 'sharp mind' in the upcoming clergy. I wish I could sit in on those classes and glean some nuggets for myself!

    God bless!

    1. Dcn. Jimmy,
      I agree with you wholeheartedly. And I hope Fr. P knows I, too, applaud his efforts - if not, he does now! It was not my intent to speak negatively of the role of the homilist or downplay the difficult challenges he faces. Indeed, I have the utmost respect for those priests and deacons who preach regularly, or irregularly, knowing the difficulty first in coming up with something relevant and then arranging, or crafting, it in such a way as to impact the majority of those listening.

      Out here in the unchurched Pacific NorthWest, I have been disappointed with homilies. Rarely are they challenging. Rarely is there much intellectual content. I remember well visiting a parish, and the priest who was filling in that weekend for the parish priest, giving a 30 minute homily on the story of Jonah...it ranged from science to philosophy to literature. I was enthralled, but I think he lost most of the congregation.

      Leading an adult faith formation group has jaded me somewhat. But I say to Father - go for it! We have to start somewhere. I'm starting with my older son who is excited (really, he is) to be reading the Iliad and the Odyssey, Greek Tragedies, some Plato, the Pelloponesian War, Plutarch . . . . for his freshman HS year. This should be standard fare for high school students, but what passes for "literature" in so many schools is so "dumbed down" that it is no wonder the ideology of Nihilism, among others, is so easily promulgated. We as a country need to get back to basics, and a strong foundation in the classics is a good start.

      Thanks! God bless.

    2. My central claim is that modern philosophy set us up in the West with a false notion of reason and then set about discrediting any other notion of reason as irrational. This led to the advent of sensationalism/emotionalism in religion; Nietzschean nihilism in politics; Heidegger's destruction of metaphysics; Freud's ridiculous psychoanalytic gibberish; Hegel's Absolute Spirit and Marx's materialist Hegelian heresy. . .and, eventually, our very own postmodern version of nominalism/anti-realism:
      Language creates reality, therefore. . .political correctness.

    3. Yeah....Well....OK....If you put it that way! That is so far beyond anything my brain could come up with. I'll just stick to my simple little theory and do what I can on the homefront. Maybe Drew will be able to soak up enough that when he's in his lucrative career as a Dominican Friar, he can astonish us all with HIS brilliance. ;-)