Custodians of Our Own Humanity Print
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.
 
 
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