The most important thing I inherited from my parents was faith. Its substance made me, on average, a trusting person, and its content can be stated equally simply: We are in good hands, and in gratitude for that fact, we do well to bear one another's burdens.
On coming to America for college, I brought that faith with me, and the rest of my life has been a struggle to keep it intact in the face of modern winds of doctrine that assail it. If those winds were powered by truth, I would bow to them, but as I have not found them to be so, I must point that out.
The crisis that the world finds itself in as it swings on the hinge of a new millennium is located in something deeper than particular ways of organizing political systems and economies. In different ways, the East and the West are going through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss--the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence, with its larger horizons.
The nature of that loss is strange but ultimately quite logical. When, with the inauguration of the scientific worldview, human beings started considering themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity to diminish. The world lost its human dimension, and we began to lose control of it.
To grasp this point, we need not take the rhetoric of such movements literally. The sandwich man between placards announcing that the end is near is telling us something important, even though the end is not what he thinks it is. He is not just protesting our reigning culture. However falteringly, he is gesturing toward a heavenly city that offers an alternative to this earthly one, which is always deeply flawed.
This gives me a way to think about [what I] have written, for it does indeed look back at our ancestral roots in the hope that doing so can help us understand the confusions of our present period. Cultural critics have been taking this approach for a century or more, so I owe it to the reader to explain why I have taken it upon myself to add to the library. In short, what is new here?
In a word, what is new is simplification. The danger it risks, of course, is oversimplification, and I take that risk. If it be wondered where I get the courage to take on that risk, the answer is from the example of Irving Berlin. Do not laugh, for in philosophy I am he.
I will explain.
I happened to catch the Today show the morning after Irving Berlin died (at the age of 101, as I recall), and I was surprised to find that Today had invited a world-class musician, Isaac Stern, to reflect on the lifework of this tunesmith. The host of the show wanted to learn from Stern the secret of Irving Berlin's success.
Stern's answer was so direct that it was breathtaking. Berlin's philosophy of life (Stern proceeded to explain) was simple. He saw life as composed of a few basic elements: life and death, loneliness and love, hope and defeat--not many more. In making our way through these givens, affirmation is better than complaint, hope more viable than despair, kindness nobler than its opposite. That was about it. But because Berlin believed those platitudes implicitly, he helped people cut through the ambiguities and complexities of a confusing century.
So, piggybacking on Irving Berlin, what is obvious to me?
First, that the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a "more" that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air. Sunflowers bend in the direction of light because light exists, and people seek food because food exists. Individuals may starve, but bodies would not experience hunger if food did not exist to assuage it.
The reality that excites and fulfills the soul's longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God's nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke's suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.
To that metaphysical point that I find obvious, I add this historical one. Until modern science arrived, everyone lived with a worldview that conformed to the outline just mentioned. Science replaced that traditional worldview-manifold in its expressions, single in its geometrical outline-with the scientific worldview. The latest journalist to interview me remarked in the course of our conversation that I seem to be angry at science.I corrected him. I am angry at us--modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking, have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life's material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check. I am not talking about money here; I am talking about a blank check for science's claims concerning what constitutes knowledge and justified belief. The impressiveness of pure science enters the picture, but for the public at large the miracles of technology have generally been more important.
This is the cause of our spiritual crisis..
Because prediction is a hazardous enterprise, it yields diminishing returns. The best way to prepare for the future is to have in our possession a map that can orient us, wherever the future may bring.