…Whether they know it or not.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the modern age is that as modern people we imagine ourselves to be these neutral, rational observers of truth.
We think we understand everything because we have mastered nature to a hitherto unknown degree. We imagine ourselves to have stripped away the filters and falsities of mythology and superstition.
This is what we mean by the word ‘secular’. In a secular world, any religious or even metaphysical thought must always be seen as some kind of optional extra, a lifestyle choice, which certainly has no bearing on our common life together, like an irrational desire to collect stamps or coins.
Our lives today generally don’t follow a grand narrative. Very few of us imagine ourselves as having a destiny or a fate. Nor do we understand our lives as part of something bigger than ourselves. For most people, nations, churches, and big organisations have lost their credibility.
Intellectuals perform for us the valuable task of demonstrating the sacred pointlessness of human existence. As Thomas Aquinas once wrote: ‘It is necessary for the perfection of human society that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation.’
I did pretty well at school. I got good marks. My teachers told me to be a lawyer, an engineer, or a film director (!). Instead, here I find myself a chronically underpaid (considering I studied successfully at varsity for seven years) teacher and writer.
This can make for some awkward conversation at school reunions. If you did well at a private school, you are meant to study Business Science and/or take over your dad’s business. Otherwise, aren’t you wasting all those school fees?
It’s interesting to trace this logic a bit further.
Basically, such logic says you need to make money, so your progeny can make more money, in order for the cycle to continue. Clear?
Now, by no means am I suggesting making money or doing well at business is bad. It is obviously good. And we need lots and lots of people doing just that.
But making money for the sake of making money is bad (especially when you consider that social scientists tell us once your needs are met, more money does not add to happiness) and it comes with a whole lot of stress, worry, and temptation.
The reason Christmas is still our culture’s most celebrated day is because at some level we subconsciously remember the revolution of that night a few thousand years ago in the Middle East.
“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.” GK Chesterton, ‘The God in the Cave’
Why you will live forever. (Or, are we human, or are we dancer?)
It is a sign of backwardness that so many of us, unbelievably, affirm that human beings are only random collections of quantum particles.
Thus, when we die, nothing really changes – random and minute quarks just do a different dance. There is, apparently, no soul. Which ultimately leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is no me, there is no you, there is no love, there is no beauty, there is nothing after death – because no thing, and no person, really ever existed.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”
Strange words – and from Jesus himself (in Matthew 12).
A while ago, a forgotten F Scott Fitzgerald (of Great Gatsby fame) short story was re-discovered. The story, entitled ‘Thank you for the light’, follows below, as originally published in the New Yorker magazine.
In the midst of so much turmoil around the world, this little story is a gem of a read.
One of the strange things about the modern world is our combination of rationalism and chaos.
In the same century we had the Holocaust and the human rights movement. We had the Communist gulags and the civil rights movements.
Today we have more democracy than ever before, but also terrorism.
Perhaps the best symbol for our time is the nuclear bomb – a perfect combination of archaic terror and modern reason and science.