Friday, December 16, 2005

Post-Modernism, Depression, and the Gaze of Christ

Thoughts provoked by the poem, Gaze, by Elizabeth Lynn Rakphongphairoj, 18 years old.

But I was still sincere; I would have presented the problems to Him if it would have listened. And I reproached myself once so much, each time that it was annoyed against me for something, but I want only that it looks me in the white of the eyes and listens to me, includes/understands me.- online diary entry from Elizabeth Lynn Rakphongphairoj (crudely translated from French).

The deepest passion of the Western Mind has been to reunite with the ground of its own being. (Richard Tarnas).

On an abstract and philosophical level, I wonder if the reason that so many of us are depressed is that we were raised on traditional values but live in a post-modern world full of nihilism and relativistic morality. Moreover, I think that regardless of how we were raised, our depression is aggravated by the fact that nihilism—the dark side of post-modernism--permeates all of society and culture and attempts to deny our innate human need for meaning, for absolutes, for a sense of purpose, and to know our Destiny.

If you don’t think nihilism or relativistic morality is infecting all of society, just turn on the T.V. or radio or look at the magazines on any newsstand. The problem is that we Christians cannot be expected to live completely separate from society, like trolls living under a bridge. Nor could we, even if we wanted to.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete has proposed the following. “The question facing us who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ today is this one: ‘Does our faith interpret adequately the characteristic experiences of post-modern men and women, and if so, how? We really should not speak of facing a “crisis” of faith. Instead, we should be aware of having a task before us.” My question for Msgr. Albacete is who is this “we” you speak of? I am weak, broken and alone.

The institutional church has been no help. I always wanted to behave according to what the church teaches. However, when I was in my late teens and twenties, I recall feeling very disappointed, almost to the point of bitterness, that the church offered no support in how to deal with non-Christian society. Their answer was an naïve, assumed, unspoken, and ineffective, “Just say no.” They do not understood how difficult it can be for Christian young people to cope with our post-modern, post-Christian society. If you are looking for support or direction from the run-of-the-mill clergy or the mass of church attendees, forget about it!

“All the growing weakness of the Church in the modern world,” said Peguy, “derives from the fact that she has not remained what she was: a communion. This is one of the reasons why modern people do not understand anything about Christianity, the real, the true Christianity, the real history of Christianity: the church in the modern world is no longer a people, an immense people.” This is the battle. (Julian Carron quoting Charles Peguy) One could write a thick book on this subject.

Small communities and movements can be very supportive, but they are not everywhere or not available to everyone who wants them. Albacete’s solution for himself is to get involved with the Communion and Liberation movement, of which he is the North American head. Pope Benedict XVI advocates the same approach—to get involved in a smaller group or movement that is more radically committed to the gospel. Even he has very diplomatically said, “…dioceses, parishes and other church structures caring for all Catholics and trying to meet a variety of needs often lack the focus some Catholics want as an aid to living the Gospel in a radical way.” Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, I am well aware that the evangelicals have many thriving churches, colleges and youth groups that have true community. But circumstances do not always permit one to get involved in these movements.

When I brought my son to a psychologist this past summer, in a side conversation, he said that he thought every adolescent needed psychotherapy. It is no wonder to me. And one must wonder and think deeply, what is wrong with our society and family lives that so many adolescents have so many problems? Through no fault of their own, they are deeply confused, and most do not even know they are confused. Many have no sense of purpose, direction or meaning in their lives. The have been endlessly assaulted by the confusion, anomie, and evil generated by Nihilism. There are no norms for adolescents to grab hold of, at least not ones that the greater society supports. Society doesn’t support any values these days. Adolescents are launched into the world not only without rudder, compass, or maps, but without a purpose or Destination. You leave your parents traditional household in the morning and go out into the chaotic post-modern jungle of values and lifestyles. It is more than confusing. It is bewildering. Parents, pastors, teachers – the one’s who should be mentoring young people -- are the ones least able to do it, the ones who have the least amount of answers and the least understanding on how to deal with the world. So what happens, as what happened to me, is that this doesn’t get resolved as an adolescent. I went through early adulthood and through my thirties, depressed, tied up in emotional knots and without feeling like I was able to fit in anywhere.

If you want to be a disciple of Christ, you are on your own. It’s depressing. If you are a teenager, it will be confusing, overly daunting at times, and even occasionally terrifying.

“The first thing we have to be aware of is that we are no different than anyone else. We live, we are called to live the faith in the same circumstances as everyone else, and for us too, the struggle is against nothingness. We are not safe and sound, we are spared nothing. So if Christianity does not happen as an event once again among us, and for all those who meet us, then sooner or later we will lose interest in belonging to Christ, and nihilism will win.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“You are here because you are, Fascinated by Christ. Now unless this happens continually, unless each of us is fascinated by Christ, it is impossible for nothingness not to prevail even in us. We have not solved the problem; the drama goes on living in each one of us. The struggle is fought out in our hearts every day, in the personal, mysterious dialogue between the “I” of each of us and the fascination that is Christ. Without the victory of this fascination, we are finished, from the youngest to the oldest, to the one who is here for the first time today and the one who has been here since the beginning. And tomorrow, as soon as we open our eyes, the same drama is proposed.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“I don’t wish to reduce, even by a single gram, the drama of the relationship each one of you has with Christ. We are not here in order to spare ourselves the drama, but to arouse it continually, and so we want to help each other in this sense by changing the very way we stay together in this gesture.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“…let’s propose a journey together towards destiny.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“We find it difficult, as true children of our time—that is as “moderns”—to recognize “Something within something else.” That is to say, we reduce reality to appearances and so we live a relationship with reality that has done away with the Mystery, the ‘Something that is within every something.’ This is what we can call dualism: on the one hand we have the real and, on the other hand, the Mystery. We can all see how true this is, by simply asking ourselves what happened this morning. How many of us, as we looked at reality today, said, “You” to the Mystery that makes reality and that makes the “I” that woke up this morning? Who was moved with gratitude this morning because He is there, because the Mystery is there, because my “I” with all its limitations is already embraced by His presence (and is therefore glad and thankful)? When we take note of this, we all realize how little the Mystery is familiar in our immediate relationship with reality, and on the other side, an “I” already constituted, to which we then add something.”
(Carron / La Thuile)

“This dualism, that can begin an instant after our first relationship with reality, is already the beginning that will lead to the victory of nihilism, because the appearance will not be able to draw along the “I” and therefore to hold its interest for long; after a while the interest will vanish. But if there is no relationship with reality, the “I” is not awakened, it remains closed up in itself. So much so, as I was told, one of you asked, “What if there is no desire?” There we have an “I” in which there is no desire anymore. This is the nihilism Augusto Del Noce spoke about: “The nihilism abroad today is that gay nihilism, gay in the sense that it feels no restlessness. Perhaps we could even define it as the suppression of what Augustine called inquietudine core meum. That restlessness of desire is lacking in the “I” – this is the sign of the nihilism we are talking about.”
(Carron / La Thuile)

“Hope is possible. It is possible for dualism—and therefore nihilism—not to win only if this event goes on in the present as a companionship, a companionship in which Christ, the Mystery , goes on being present, as John and Andrew experienced Him.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“This is what Fr. Giussani narrates about the first moment of John and Andrew’s first meeting with Jesus. From the first moment, they went home with a certainty: ‘We have found the Messiah.’ In other words, they didn’t reduce the encounter from the beginning; they discovered from the first moment that Something inside that thing. There is an apparent disproportion between the simple way it happened and the certainty those two had. An apparent disproportion: a human encounter and a certainty.”
(Carron / La Thuile)

“’They accepted Him at once. Why was it easy to recognize Him? Because he was exceptional beyond compare. They had before their eyes something exceptional beyond compare; they had come in contact with an exceptional man, absolutely out of the ordinary, irreducible to any analysis.’”. And in this they had grasped that there was Something within that something. ‘He is the Messiah!” What does ‘exceptional’ mean? When it corresponds adequately to the original expectations of the heart, however confused and hazy may be our awareness of it.” (Carron / La Thuile)

“’For John and Andrew, that man corresponded in an unimaginable way to the irresistible and undeniable needs of their hearts.” There was no one else like that man.” This is why we cannot reduce Him. There is no one like that man. “Who is He?” (Carron / La Thuile)

“Hope is possible if an event like this goes on among us. An organization is not enough; what is needed is an event, an event that goes on happening, with the powerful attractive force. We discover if this event goes on not by developing the logic of theological argument; we discover it above all if it produces the same thing that we saw happening in John and Andrew, if it happens again as an event and therefore awakens the whole of our “I”, and draws us along the point of awakening this liking that glues us together, and thus opens us up continually. (Carron / La Thuile)

What has come into life with Jesus is a passion for man, a tenderness for man for you and for me. (Julian Carron quoting Luigi Giussasni)

Try to imagine the gaze of parents on their newborn child, and you will understand immediately what vibration, what emotion they feel in front of that little being, in front of the destiny – they can even be indifferent to their own destiny—but they cannot help taking an interest in the destiny of their child. (Carron)

I know the vibration of my being in the encounter with Christ. (Carron)

On reaching the tree, Jesus stopped, fixed his gaze upon him and cried Zacchaeus! (Luigi Giussani quoting the Bible) Christ’s gaze, His words, touched the humanity of Zacchaeus, so that the perspective of Destiny was introduced in to the closed perimeter of his life… Quite simply, he had been captured and penetrated by a gaze that recognized and loved him for what he was. (Carron)

It is hard to find a person who is powerful, and yet truly good. In Jesus, by contrast, his witnesses were able to see that gaze which was not only powerful, but prodigious, intelligent and captivating, but also good. (Giussani)

He lets them talk, training that penetrating gaze on them which made men feel that the depths of their hearts were being laid bare. (Giussani)

The gospel notes that he “healed them all” – turned His gaze upon them, understood them, he took all of them seriously. (Giussani)

The greatest miracle of all was that truly human gaze which revealed man to himself and was impossible to evade. (Giussani)

Looking past Christ, failing to see him is something that can occur in various ways, but all these ways have this in common—that the gaze cannot withstand looking at the form of Christ himself. (Giussani)

Do we have the courage to meet His gaze?


The above quotes are not contiguous or always in the same sequence as in the original. The Quotes are taken from:

The Passion of the Western Mind, by Tarnas

At the Origin of the Christian Claim, by Giussani

The Destiny of Man, Exercise of the Fraternity of Community and Liberation. Rimini 2004. A pamphlet.

Something Within Something. International Assembly of the Responsibles of Communion and Liberation. La Thuile. August 2005. A Pamphlet.

Shadows – online diary entry of Elizabeth Lynn Rakphongphairoj.

The Albacete quote can also be found in, “To Build the Church,” in the Christmas 2005 issues of the magazine Traces, the monthly magazine of the Communion and Liberation movement.


Blogger Geoffrey "Gurf" Adams said...

I don't think it is a stretch to say that Christian ideals are wholly unrealistic in their goals considering the level of sophistication that society has reached.

Christianity works best on small scales, it serves better as a tool for cultural cohession for small communities. Think about it. The Church was the center of communities. Cultures revolved around it. The proper functioning of a community depended on the fact that every person knew each other personally. This way there was a support system between every member of The Church. A problem at the individual level could realistically be addressed by an entire community. But now, evangelism has reached a point where it would be unrealistic and even impractical for each member of a church to know each other. I have been to churches where I couldn't even throw a baseball from one side to the other. How in the world is a church of this size supposed to cope with each persons individual needs??

Isn't the problem you just highlighted an issue of culture, and not some bizzare concept? If there was cultural cohession on the community level throughout society, would there not be support structures in place to help guide youth?

The problem I see is that society and communities are becoming more and more fragmented, not because of moral relativism, but as the result of the social conditions which led to moral relativism.

Communities are breaking apart because people are loosing touch with the cultural bonds which keep them together. Technological conveniences such as air conditioning, cars, THE INTERNET, cell phones, television, etc. create conditions such that people no longer need to be in direct cultural contact with each other (this is replaced by the aforementioned surrogates). This creates individuation of society on a massive scale, and everything becomes more subjective or relative as a direct consequence! To put it simply, modernity drives people apart!!!!!!

The irony is that moral absolutism was the very thing that enabled the scientific and technological leaps that have led to modernity! And all because of what? People want to be the Kings and Queens of their own kingdoms. They see what was good in the past and the try to recreate it at their own level. They want the huge castle with every modern furnishing (sucess/wealth/good). They want walls and FENCES (order/good) to protect them from the unknown (chaos/evil). Do you see where I'm going?

The more walls we put up (that is, the more we try to recreate so-called absolute ideals on the individual level), the more we drive every other person away into moral relativity.

11:35 PM  
Anonymous Jeff in the Desert said...

Thank you for this honest writing, Mr. Bauer. I share your confusion. I have been asked by two Catholic organizations to write about this very topic, and I have yet to produce anything I think is helpful. I also agree the core problem is the lack of community among Catholics. I don't think the moral/ethical values of the Church are unrealistic. God knows we are all going to violate them, time & again. We are all trespassers, and we have trespassed on each other's lawns. I think Catholicism is realistic about what it is to be human. But I respond strongly to your statement that when we leave Mass, we enter a crazed and florid reality where being Catholic makes one feel like a total dork. Total disconnect. Atomized. I think our affluent post/modern techno hyper- virtual-society is pulling us apart, the speed of life, the stress, the insanity of daily life. We have been duped by bourgeois individualism, once again. Perhaps the antidote to all this lies in the offbeat, technicolor, fairy tale vision of G.K. Chesterton? I don't know. All I know is Hillaire Belloc walked across Europe before WWI and saw a world vibrant with Catholic community and beauty. We know what that happened after that. How to rebuild that community--that is the question. I wish I had an answer. Hans Urs Von Balthasar said beauty. John Paul kept saying human dignity, among other things. Perhaps we have to find that part of Catholic community that we love and commit to keeping it alive. Affirm something against the cheerful nihilism of our post/modern world, and believe that good will win out over indifference. It is hard to follow the "right and wrong" of the Church; we are expected to fail. We fall down; we get up. We admit our failures. But what is worse is to live in a society where massive numbers of people don't even care about the difference between right and wrong.I have lived that way myself in the past and encountered many who live in that blank state recently. Believe me, I'd rather have ideals and fail to reach them than to not care at all. Even though as Catholics we are troglydytes, simpletons, and reactionaries, I still think our personalism, our commitment to human dignity, really is a fine thing, and all those anti-essentialist, anti-realist, anti-foundationalist postmodern philosophers are just a bunch of hyper-intellectual nerds lost in the play of language and weirdass Ontology. I'd rather be a troglydyte personalist than a postmodernist anyday. Their vocabulary and intellectual legerdermain are breathtaking, but it doesn't matter to the lost adolescents who need to know that, yes, they matter, and, yes, they have value, and all their human concerns deeply matter. So we can't write cool stuff like the postmodernists do, but our record of caring and service to the poor, the sick, and the dying is something to be proud of. Dorothy Day. St Francis. Oscar Romero. Mother Teresa. THe nun who was just murdered in the Amazon rain forest. Catholics care for the world--show me a French postmodernist who has served the poor. What's the standard for "validity"? WE even got a Catholic postmodernist philosopher whose name escapes me but he's mixing it up. You can't find a more real foundation for thought & action than the absolute value of human dignity. The world is screwed-up, lost in surfaces. We know that every individual person matters. So don't wait to be anointed as intellectually worthy by a bunch of guys who can't find any foundation to human life. To hell with them. Listen to good music, dress well, drink good wine, sit at cafes, smoke cigarettes and read abstruse books. Catholic intellectuals rock. John Paul rocked the worlds of philozophy and theology, and you can find a picture of him in a black beret and sun glasses. Bono rocks. And U2 got very postmodern there in the '90s. Decide you are cooler than everyone else. Whose permission do you need?

10:26 PM  

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