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Life in the VIRTUAL CULTURE

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 12-18, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/12/98 at 2:00 AM

 

Following are excerpts from Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger's address at the March 26-28 conference in Denver on “The New Technologies and the Human Person.î

Our civilization produces fictional objects that only look real: tri-dimensional images, holograms, electronic stimulations of sight, hearing, and even touch and smell. As a result, the perception of time and space is no longer linked to the usual constraints, but it is also deprived of such support. Modern technologies turn space into an abstraction by making pictures simultaneously available everywhere in the universe. However, space itself can be measured only in terms of time, and in close connection with it. The emotional grasp of repetitive and omnipresent pictures then leads to a disorganized perception of the distinction between “here” and “there,” or “now” and “then,” and this can reach the virtual impossibility to conceive anything “after.’

Time and space thus tend to be punctually condensed into the here and now of each individual consumer of pictures. What we have here is a parody of eternity. Man pictures himself as eternal. He dreams of forgetting the human condition, with its mortality and finitude, his status of a creature. Moreover, the ideologies that aim at bringing down our consumer society only foster this mindless Promethean temptation, as they add a no less mindless will to power to the materialistic idolatry of the senses.

This is a serious danger for our mass culture. Of course, one can still hope that enough critical and wise minds, or open and generous hearts, will always be found among men. Whether it is duly acknowledged or scorned, powerful or marginalized—this is impossible to foretell—an elite will safeguard and augment the capital of knowledge and humanity which we have inherited, even if we can imagine regressions by comparison with the past.

But what is going to happen to mass culture? Popular culture is the battlefield where today's civilizations are clashing. What are— what will prove to be—the shortcomings of “the consumer society,"as we summarily call it? The allegedly virtuous policies of the total-itarian regimes have been found incapable of liberating man from that infernal circle of alienation and servitude. As for the ideological tool, it is a frightening idol, which corrupts spiritual liberty, not only by conditioning the senses but also by affecting reason itself.

Fantasies and Horrors

should point out some of the fantasies that have been aroused by the advancement of scientific research, especially in the field of biology. I use the term “fantasies” here, in the hope that all this will remain purely fictional and will never materialize in the future.

In this respect, we can mention the biological immortality that some have endeavored to turn into profitable businesses by freezing the bodies of people who are about to die and look forward to being revived, or to surviving their terminal illnesses.

Then there is the prospect of human procreation by the duplication or cloning of embryos, with the denial of generation that such procedures entail. At a less sophisticated level, we find all the eccentricities of invitro fertilization, in which the indefinite conservation of semen allows us to ignore both the life of the human couple and the structuring of the individual by his lineage.

And we can also think of the preservation of frozen embryos, with all the scientific experiments inflicted upon them.

Finally, the pictorial developments of science-fiction illustrate the fears and desires which haunt the human mind. Jurassic Park was a regression, as it attempted to revive some extinct species. On the other hand, in its four successive versions. Alien anticipated clonings, hybridations, and the production of new creatures across the barriers between the species. All of this suggests that men can only envision their future as some Chamber of Horrors, with merciless struggles ending in unspeakable destructions.

What can we make out of this mass culture, which weighs upon the elites themselves by picturing man as reduced to his bodily condition, soon to be disfigured and dehumanized?

As men are plunged into this pictorial culture, how can they—how can Christians—see and understand themselves, and bear witness to human dignity? Christian anthropology cannot be drawn from such inhuman distortions: it rather expresses the beauty and greatness of the “human phenomenon,” as the mystery of faith unassumingly enlightens it. This is the humble but productive Christian contribution to a civilization based on love. …

One question that is often asked is, “Can the Christian Faith be adapted to necessities of the present time?” This is self evident. Yet the next question is, how are we going to adapt the Christian rites, and even the faith itself, to the demands of modern civilization? Some may then wonder whether calling for the respect of the uniqueness of the human person while accusing our culture of promoting idolatry, might not simply amount to rejecting civilization. And this suspicion may well frighten many, who will think that a compromise with today's culture must be found at any cost.

At this stage of our spiritual discernment, we should strive to point out more accurately what distinguishes and opposes the cult of pictures for their own sake, and the respect which is due to each human person. Is Christian thinking inherently archaic, and should the Church therefore take to seeing things otherwise? Even if this led to some serious crises, she could then overcome all that prevents her from teaming up with the culture of this world. Or, conversely, should it be maintained that the revelation and the signs given to us in the history of salvation force us to criticize the course taken by our civilization and urge us to alter it so as to save man?

The question that must now be insisted on is the following one: Do the alienating pictures of desire merely reflect a technological drift that will automatically become more and more blatant? Or is this not also the result of free choices between good and evil—between what is good and what is bad for man? God wants what is good for man and gives it to him so that he may further it, whereas evil is what man does to himself and what God asks him to guard himself against. Yet, how much freedom does man enjoy when confronted with the requirements of his desires and his culture? Moral options remain possible. They are even indispensable to face the unavoidable constraints to which our rationality has allowed itself to be subjected.

Challenge forthe Millennium

This is a genuinely anthropological and moral challenge for the end of this millennium. The choice we have to make is vital, between desire without love, and love that does not rule out desire but the inconsistencies of desire. As everyone knows, the risk of such an endeavor is that it can be deemed obsolete or reactionary. The solution is to find the kind of conceptual tools that will help us to understand the world of images which is being built beyond our grasp according to the unforgiving logic of idolatry and death. Alienating pictures obey the law of the snowballing of desire under its proliferating forms, whereas desire should be dominated and its images should be sanctified through free choices made for the sake of love.

Already in the past, humankind has experienced similar obscurities and uncertainties, whenever some progress was being made. This is a point I would like to dwell upon, as we now have to think clearly and conscientiously if we are to move forward along a path where no less is at stake than the fate of the generations to come.

In a pictorial culture haunted by visions of a future where technology has gone awry, how can Christians see and understand themselves, and how can they bear witness to human dignity?

We may be paralyzed by guilty feelings, because in former times some Christians fought decisive changes that eventually proved to improve the human condition. We can now say that, as a rule, the reluctance of such Christians and of the Church Magisterium mainly pointed at losses or omissions which would turn out to harm those who suffered the consequences. Or faith urged to expose the Promethean temptation of pride and will to power that was being implicitly but irresistibly awakened by such advances. Even if people were generally unaware of it, they were being tempted to claim full credit for what in real fact was only given to them through God's Providence.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the rational distinction was not always made as it should between the beneficial breakthroughs that God had allowed, and the ambitiously selfish advantage that men wanted to take from these discoveries.

The tradition is our heritage. It teaches us to guard ourselves against committing against the same errors of judgment. But this cannot prevent us from denouncing the perversions of our culture, showing the alienations that it creates, and making sure we do not yield to their seductions. If we must keep on raising the issue of morals and anthropology, it is to fight for man's health, life, and salvation.

Is our liberty nothing more than the desires which haunt our limbs and our imagination? Or is it also and above all the freedom of the spirit whose presence in us is a gift?

The transfixing and illuminating spear-head of this key questioning is the presence of the one who loved us to the point of giving himself away for us, sacrificing his body and shedding his blood. …

Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger is the archbishop of Paris.