Mr. Brian Jones
The political philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once observed that the contemporary breakdown of communal and familial life in the West is frequently attributed to the wrong cause. Many commentators have argued that the disintegration of our culture, and its rapidly increased secularizing power, has been the result of the loss of religion. In order to help bring about a true and vital cultural restoration, according to such line of thinking, some type of religious renewal must take place. Now, in the grand scheme of things, such a statement is not entirely without merit. The Latin root of “culture” (cultus) is undeniably linked with worship and leisure, wherein we discover the full truth about ourselves and the purpose of this life. However, according to MacIntyre, the more accurate chain of causality is in the reverse direction: it is not the loss of religion that has destroyed contemporary family and social life, but the breakdown of the family and community that has led to the decline of religion.
MacIntyre has consistently argued that many of the principles of modernity are, in fact, contrary to the Catholic faith. While the Church affirms whatever is good, true, and beautiful, no matter its source, there is something rather insidious about the modern age. Speaking of contemporary Catholic social and cultural reflections, a radical shift has taken place. The Church’s greatest threat and temptation in the modern age has been to sound almost identical to the rest of the secular world. In other words, it has become more frequent that what the Church says through the hierarchy and the laity is not all that different from what anybody else says in secular society. One reason for this is the almost complete destruction of the perennial tradition of classical political philosophy and metaphysics; we have forgotten how such disciplines are related to Divine revelation and theology. Social and political activism has replaced this perennial tradition. It is an activism that seeks, as its primary goal, to transform the world and make it better. As alluded to already, such a worldview has ferociously effected the way many Catholics think and live as well. Questions about dogma, truth, and salvation have been usurped by questions of social justice, tolerance, and diversity.
These three principles just listed have not only become ingrained in the very life of secular universities, but in many Catholic universities as well. And more than this, like their secular “peers,” a number of Catholic universities see such principles as unquestionable and undeniable. If one seeks to provide an analysis of them in light of both classical philosophy and Catholic teaching, you will be judged a “racist, xenophobe, homophobe, and a religious chauvinist.” For a great Catholic perspective on this, all of us should read the following letter co-authored by Notre Dame professors Patrick Deneen and Francesca Ana Murphy regarding what has been going on at Providence College with professor Anthony Esolen
My concern here, though, is more in line with MacIntyre’s insights that opened this essay. I want to briefly call to mind here two dominant cultural trends that have been given too little substantial attention, especially within the context of Catholicism. These trends are such a part of our contemporary way of thinking and living that I am afraid we no longer even notice them. In fact, to call attention to them and their divisive effects is both painful and confusing. Although brief and needing further development, the two interrelated trends I want to focus on here concern technology and the contemporary home.
When reflecting on modern technology, it is rather common to view it from a perspective of “use.” As long as we are using technology in the right ways and for good ends, then technology’s goodness is manifest. This can most clearly be seen in the good advancements in modern medicine. However, this analysis fails to consider technology as an ontology. In other words, there is infrequent analysis given to the way in which technology transforms the way we view ourselves, the world, and social and communal relations. Our age has been rightly characterized by Neil Postman as a “technopoly.” Perhaps the simplest way to see this “technopoly” transformation is to look at others the next time you are in a public place. Whether you are at a stop light, a sporting event, or a restaurant, it seems that almost everyone is on their phone. Whenever there is a break in the day, a free moment, our inclinations have become mutated to think we must look at our phones. What is typically before our eyes for a significant number of hours during the day is a screen. Michael Hanby similarly argues that “technology is not merely an instrument that we use. It is the all-pervasive ontology in which we moderns live and have our being.”
This perspective on modern technology is not disconnected from the way in which we understand our familial and home lives. Instead of seeing the home as a place of robust humane activity, imbedded in the context of family, neighborhood, work, and leisure, a different picture has emerged. In one respect, most of our homes for most of the day are empty. Children are away at school for 10-12 hours, five days a week, just like dad and mom. When we walk through our towns and neighborhoods during the daylight hours, the absence of persons is deafening. Jane Jacobs wrote in her groundbreaking work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that the foundation for good neighborhoods and cities is safety. And, more than anything else, safety presupposes not only watchfulness, but presence. People have to be there and be so regularly. Homes have been transformed to be more like hotels, placeless geographic lodgings where we eat, sleep, and watch TV. The phenomenon just described has been rightly labeled by Joanna Roughton as the “empty home syndrome.”
Following our Lord’s command, we are to be first seekers of the Kingdom of God. This truth does not deny that we are earthly inhabitants as well, hoping to foster cities and communities rooted in the full truth of who we are. If we are going to live in accord with the truth, it is essential that we become more astute in our judgments about the modern age. The dominant social and cultural practices concerning technology and domestic life are rooted in a deeper philosophical and theological worldview that is neither true, beautiful, nor good. It is only when we seriously attend to such principles that we can begin to discern what we can do. The state of this contemporary situation is painful, and perhaps saddening. Yet, it is only in seeing the truth of things, the fullness that ultimately resides in the person of Jesus Christ, the Logos, that a path can be paved that’s worth following.