Crisis of the spiritual


In the second of three articles, a retired educationalist analyses the demise of the spiritual in modern culture.

In a recent article in Open House (May 2014) I attempted to account for the spiritual dimension of the human personality by identifying it in particular with two basic and conscious human orientations – our orientation to the truth and our orientation to the right, our intellectual and moral striving. And I linked the success of such striving with what I called the question of God, since the existence of an intelligible universe and of an objective moral order seems to me to require some kind of explanation. I might have added that the orientations I mentioned are not simply and inertly there; they have to be cultivated and supported, and that is why the places where intellectual development is promoted – schools and colleges – need also to be places where sound moral values are inculcated and nurtured. Intellectual development cannot take place in a moral vacuum but only occurs if qualities such as honesty, courage and perseverance are also encouraged and promoted. Children and young adults need to learn to respect evidence and to adjust their intellectual judgments to the range and quality of the evidence they put forward to support these judgments. Some judgments will be certain, others only probable and some may be less secure than this. You cannot talk about intellectual development while leaving moral qualities and habits – virtues, in old fashioned language – such as honesty and fair-mindedness out of account.

Now the notion of the spiritual which I have outlined is alien to much of modern culture. There are not a few philosophies today which regard women and men as no more than the sum total of their purely physical attributes. This form of Physicalism holds, for example, that human consciousness is nothing more than the firing of neurons in the brain, that the mind is simply a code word for certain operations of the central nervous system. Then again, since Darwin we have become accustomed to explanations of human behaviour entirely in terms of our huntergatherer forebears, as mere expressions of the struggle for physical survival, and so forth. In other words, many of our educated contemporaries see any explanation of human beings and of human behaviour in terms of spiritual categories as outdated, outmoded, as harking back to an antiquated explanatory framework which modern science has rendered obsolete. Much of modern science is preoccupied with our drive for survival and, with it, our biological drives and impulses, our purely physical orientations. The approach being advocated here has no wish to diminish or deny any of this. But I would suggest that modern society tends to go overboard in its preoccupation with biological and physical explanations of human conduct and has tended to neglect the other human drives, such as the drive for the truth and the drive for what is morally right; and, in the final analysis, our desire for God.

The effect of modern science on a people’s spiritual self-understanding and relationship with their environment is well illustrated in the case of the indigenous tribes of North America. All of these tribes had rich and complex mythologies, stories which purported to answer many of life’s great questions: of how the world came to be, of how the sun relates to the earth, of how the moon was born, of how man should relate to the gods, nature and the other animals, of the meaning of eclipses, of the correct relations between man and woman or between children and their parents, of their past victories over their enemies etc. The myths were stories that explained things and in so doing created a people’s mental landscape, provided them with an identity as a people, furnishing the young with a mental and emotional structure that bonded them with their ancestors and the other tribe members and also provided them with a map and compass to guide them when confronted by important life decisions. They were at once intellectual and emotional, explanatory and satisfying. But with the incursion of the white man that mental world was demolished.

Not only were the native Americans – the ‘Indians’ – a defeated people who suffered horrendously from the diseases imported by the white man; not only were many of them corrupted and seduced by bribes and false promises and ruined by alcohol, hitherto unknown among them; but their mental world, their conceptual systems, their explanations of the universe and everything in it, also lay in ruins. Science had put the old mythologies to the sword. New, rational explanations were now available about the sun and its relation to the earth, about the moon and the meaning of eclipses, for example. This new form of rationalism had little sympathy with stories, myths, that purported to tell us how the universe operated and at the same time attempted to guide and direct human behaviour; in this new, rationalist world the claims of these stories to have any cognitive value were called in question. And with the arrival of capitalism on the heels of technology a whole new set of values was imposed, old moral norms and categories were dismissed as outdated, and relationships came to be built on commercial trade and the cash nexus.

What I have described, however briefly and inadequately, is not only true of the Indians of North America but applies also to other regions of the world now feeling the full force of this harsh new rationalism accompanied by the imposition of new capitalist values. It is also true of Europe and the so-called ‘developed world’, albeit these parts of the globe have had longer to come to terms with the new realities. With the defeat of the old mythologies and their replacement by scientific rationalism, the mental landscapes of whole peoples have been hollowed out, their emotional structures, provided by the old sagas and stories, have been broken up, ground into powder and blown to the four corners of the earth. Science has destroyed the life sustaining myths, the stories people lived by, which gave structure and direction to their lives. At the same time, capitalist social organisation has destroyed the rhythms of traditional life, the liturgy of the seasons; it has destroyed the possibility of people living the myths in their own forms of social organisation and in the rhythms of their daily lives. Now there is no possibility of science going away, of the global market economy ceasing to operate, of things reverting to the way they once were. Nor should we get too sentimental about the old ways for there is no question that most of the third, ‘underdeveloped’ world wants to catch up with the ‘developed world’ and enjoy the benefits of science so far denied them. There is, it would appear, no going back. What I wish to call attention to here is the price – the spiritual price – which modern science has demanded of human beings, some of whom are eager, others reluctant, to be inducted into the new scientific culture. That there is such a price and that it takes the form I have sketched is the only thesis I wish to put forward. If that thesis can be accepted, then it follows that there is, indeed, a crisis in modern society, a spiritual void, which capitalism seeks to fill with the pursuit of ‘fun’, with drugs and pornography – surely much more an unbridled pursuit in our ‘advanced’ society than in many we regard as ‘primitive’ – with Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, haute couture, advertising and endless, endless consumerism. This is not meant as a diatribe against the modern but as an accurate diagnosis of what we encounter day in and day out in our modern culture. And the point I am stressing is that much of what people everywhere are doing when they engage in these ‘glamorous’ pursuits is trying to fill the void left by the destruction of the old myths.

So the thesis so far reads as follows: we are spiritual beings, who yearn for the truth, the good and, in the final analysis, for God. The stories that sustained us in this yearning, which guided our orientation and satisfied it, have in many cases been destroyed. While we can still read them we are no longer capable of deriving from the old sagas and stories the sustenance that people once did: that is our fate as ‘scientific people.’ What is more, there is no going back. Science is here to stay. We may attempt to fill the void, to answer the yearnings of our spirit, with the pursuit of ‘fun’, and so forth, but ultimately all such attempts are doomed to failure. They are simply not commensurate with the void, they are not adequate to satisfy the deep spiritual ache.

In a third and final article on this theme I shall attempt to demonstrate how and why modern culture’s spiritual crisis is Christianity’s opportunity.

Joe Fitzpatrick is a former inspector of schools and author of The Fall and Ascent of Man: How Genesis Supports Darwin, University Press of America, 2012.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.