The Catholic Thing
Custodians of Our Own Humanity Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 17 June 2012

In Turing’s Cathedral, the author George Dyson concludes that, “Google sought to gauge what people were thinking and became what people were thinking. Facebook sought to map the social graph, and became the social graph. Algorithms developed to model fluctuations in financial markets gained control of those markets, leaving human traders behind.” (Emphasis added) Dyson and others have pointed to the wave of people ceding their world views (and in that their moral responsibility) to software-generated systems and doing this with the enthusiasm of lemmings running over a cliff.

To retain their authenticity and to act authentically, human beings need to know themselves and the real world – not what some engineers (who usually have no philosophy and worse still no theology) have aggregated through their algorithms. This applies to what people see on television as well. How many people get their only news from John Stewart’s Daily Show? What is his agenda in commenting on events and subtly framing how people receive information?

We are custodians of our own humanity. But who we are needs light from somewhere else – indeed, from Someone else. In the Preface to A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt says “we no longer have as past societies have had, any picture of individual man (stoic philosopher, Christian Religious, Rational Gentleman) by which to recognize ourselves and against which to measure ourselves.” True. Our humanity depends not least on the truth that we hold within ourselves, and this is only learned through relations to others in community.

As man develops, he has “an integral truth.” (John Paul II) Furthermore, this integral truth involves our “reason and free will [that] are linked with all the bodily and sense faculties. The person, including the body, is completely entrusted to himself, and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts.

We have been given this intricate integrity of body, mind, and spirit. But it is ours to lose in the events of life. It has to be nurtured daily or we will hand over our worldview, morals, self-image, and even our bodies to forces that are only too happy when we choose to be not individuals with integrity, but rather subscribers to their music, movies, clothes, politics, and even their concept of fun.

Sadly, and this is not politically correct of course, our intricate integrity is so marred by sin that we also have to recognize that only: “Truth enlightens man's intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.” (John Paul II) This is the bright light we desperately need.

Consider a business like Google. It has mapped the entire Internet on the presupposition that all the information we need can be mined in that way, but: “The development of science and technology, this splendid testimony of the human capacity for understanding and for perseverance, does not free humanity from the obligation to ask the ultimate religious questions.” (JPII) The ultimate religious questions drive us day in and day out to face Christ in the Church.

Christus Consolator by Ary Scheffer (1836) 

Now the encyclopedic organization of material has its uses, but it also has limitations. The history of the notorious Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert illustrates how entries composed with a particularly rationalistic agenda came to dominate the search for meaning all over France. Ceding one’s search for meaning to the purely man-made tools – without knowing about their limitations – is extremely risky.

Moreover, this surrender is not the limit of where our culture may go. There is the similar surrender of our very selves to the blind pre-occupation with this actor or that entertainer. Why does it matter that he has this type of luggage? He does not carry the luggage for us.

Yet associating with actors vicariously obviously attracts buyers or advertisers would not use it. A recent ad I saw says: “New Gadgets, New Gear, New Guy.” The gadgets and the gear will apparently produce a new guy! Who knew? What a sorry view of himself a guy has if he is taken in by ads like this.

“Man comes to a true and full humanity only through culture, that is through the cultivation of the goods and values of nature.” (Vatican II) But the culture has to actually develop the goods and values of human nature based on what happened to human nature in Christ not in this actor or that politician.

Despite the overwhelming careerism and individualism still manifest in the Church, there are many communities where individuals can meet Christ and learn from him who is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (John 14:6) There: “Through his dealings with others, through reciprocal duties, and through fraternal dialogue [man] develops all his gifts and is able to rise to his destiny.” (Vatican II)

This is the only community with “a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served.” (Vatican II)

Unlike the sad forfeits of our humanity in our popular culture, when we hand ourselves over to Christ, he hands us back ourselves, restored and, finally, who we truly are!

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Jon S., June 17, 2012
Father Bramwell's point in his last three paragraphs is a point that is almost never made in a Sunday homily, i.e., that we do not fully hand ourselves over to Christ unless we hand ourselves over to His Mystical Body, the Catholic Church. Every homily should give the congregation a reason - even briefly - to be Catholic, and not merely nice, or even merely Christian. And on Father Bramwell's topic of humanity, when will homilies communicate the riches of Catholic history (e.g., saints) and intellectual tradition on being human rather than the latest trend in pop culture or secular thinking?
written by Janice Belbey, June 17, 2012
Thank you, FATHER Bramwell on this Father's Day! Your writing uplifts the soul, pointing it to TRUTH itself.

What a wonderful gift you have been given. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.
written by debby, June 17, 2012
Dear Fr.,
This is a really good article. Really good. Every paragraph is true and telling. "We are custodians of our own humanity....intricate integrity of body, mind, spirit..." St. Catherine of Siena: "Oh gentlest love Jesus, You have given us the strongest, most gracious gardener could have: our free will and reason." Yes, and we must work and not quit the work of daily crosses and striving to love in humility. Our Holy Father JP2 was and is so right when he spoke of the basic need for rightly formed anthropology of who God is, so we can begin to know ourselves.
In the Magnificat, 6/18's Meditation of the Day is critical and I think continues your article. St. Wendy Beckett speaks of the great need to learn to forgive one another in order to know God more. Daring to add to the Sr.'s thoughts, I need to forgive myself. Humble myself and stop thinking I should be so much better than I am. I already think I am "so much better than...playing the Pharisee, yet failing to see how miserably weak and influenced by the so-called culture (lack of culture!) around me. And how He is the ONLY one worthy to break open the scroll of my heart-who I really am. If I but BE with Him and listen to Him and dwell at His feet, believing Him and not what is all around me, how free will my heart be to love those around me? My neighbor? even myself? Yes! He hands me back, restored and free! Amazing Grace! Amazing Love.
Thank you, dear father.
written by debby, June 17, 2012
sorry for the typos in my comment. i meant "sr. wendy beckett" and wrote St. (she's still alive...)
and st. cath's quote is off also! "...most gracious gardener WE could have...."

sorry! i will re-read next time.
written by Fr. Bramwell, June 17, 2012
Wow! Thank you I really appreciate the responses. Human beings are too precious not to challenged to something greater.
written by Jim O'Connor, June 17, 2012
Yes, the Truth is that Jesus is Lord and is the Way, the Truth and the Life. However, I think it is beyond comprehension Father Bramwell that you should make the parenthetIcal statement that engineers have "no philosophy or worse no theology". What is the basis for this claim? Do you have personal knowledge to substantiate such a broad condemnation of a group of creative individuals who add great value to society and help many millions lead better lives through their labors? As a faithful Catholic who is an engineer, always working to be productive in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Church and relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I object to your assertion. I personally know many engineers who have a philosophy and theology that is founded on the TRUTH, JESUS HIMSELF!!!
If you want to know about engineers, ask someone who is married to one or someone who is the child of an engineer.
written by debby, June 18, 2012
Dear Jim,
Please re-read paragraph 2. "...not what SOME engineers (who USUALLY have...." I don't see any broad condemnation here.
It is obvious that you are an engineer who loves God and therefore works for His glory and the building up of His kingdom. However, just as moms & teachers & women & men who work in the world can be salt and light (and a dash of hot pepper!), they can also be the ones tearing down their own households and destroying society. Every profession needs more sold-out, self-less Christians! Thank you for being one of them in the world. In Fr.'s defense, I don't read him as you have. We have all (I think) encountered the general population as self-serving, self-oriented, SELF first. I know I do when I look in the mirror and have to beg for the purification of my own intentions. "I must decrease, He must increase."
God bless you in your work.
written by WSquared, June 18, 2012
Jon S.: agreed, but you need to go further-- all of what you've pointed out is centered in and on the Eucharist. The Sacramental life of the Church is conformed to the life of Christ, which is the life of the Cross. Way too many of us Catholics do not know, or have known what it is like not to know from past experience, what the Eucharist *is*.

Furthermore, we cannot have orthodoxy without orthopraxis, which means that there needs to be steady (and in some cases swift) implementation of the "reform of the reform" of our liturgy: a liturgy that is not centered on the Eucharist, which is both vertical and horizontal, because God is, and the Cross is, is not authentically Catholic, period. This is not a matter of personal "taste" or how it "makes us feel," but about the nature of prayer, and the nature of worship, all centered on who and what we profess to worship. What we pray is what we believe, and the reason why we have set prayers in the Catholic Church is that it teaches us to pray. The Mass-- the public prayer of the Church-- falls into this category.
written by Fr. Bramwell, June 18, 2012
Thank you Debby but just to add something more to the response to Jim. In Ken Auletta's book Googled, the two founders of Google do not appear to have any philosophy or theology. Yes most engineers that I know do not have philosophy or theology either.
written by Graham, June 18, 2012
Another warning flare from Google: If want to get a sense of just how creepy it's getting, read an interview with Google engineer Sebastian Thrun on page A11 of this past weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It's titled "What's Next for Silicon Valley?" The techno-hubris is stunning. And Mr. Thrun -- who works directly for Google CEO Larry Page -- sounds like a typical product of postwar Europe. Unchurched, progressive, and heedless. A techno-social engineer who like his boss has no sense of who Americans are and what they might actually need or want. Google operates on the assumption that Google knows best. No sense of the human dimension. GM in its heyday of "what's good for GM is good for America" was never so arrogant or intrusive about social and cultural America. End quote: "I asked why he always takes on these quantum changes instead of trying something incremental. 'That's what Google taught me. [Thrun replies] Aim higher...radically experiment and find out. I've seen the light." As I say, heedless. And bloody scarry.
written by Fr. Bramwell, June 19, 2012
I think that we have to appreciate that many major features of our world are made by people who at least politely can be called unintegrated. At the very least they are agnostic. We all pay for that. The other side of the coin is that the Church should be promoting integrated engineers and artists and composers and mathematicians but the Church seems to have given up on that.

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