Friday, October 21, 2011

If Saint Francis of Assisi Had an Atom Bomb...

Again, we find ourselves facing the question: what may we hope? A self-critique of modernity is needed in dialogue with Christianity and its concept of hope. In this dialogue Christians too, in the context of their knowledge and experience, must learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots. On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.

Spe Salvi 22

Reflection – Well, this paragraph is a bit heavy, isn’t it! A bit cumbersome, a bit dense, and I’m afraid the next few posts will have this quality – it’s a dense part of the encyclical. But it’s vital – in this current era we seem to be moving into when people are so discontented and there is such a sense of crisis, of looming disaster, we need to clarify our thinking about questions of progress and hope and the Christian view of these matters.
Really, what Pope Benedict is saying here is quite simple. Catherine Doherty, in her inimitable way used to say the same thing all the time. Whenever the subject of nuclear weapons came up, Catherine had one basic thing to say: “If St. Francis of Assisi was in charge of the atom bomb, nobody would worry!”
This may sound simplistic, silly even (what a great picture, though: the Poverello entrusted with the nuclear football, the launch codes that only the president holds!). But actually what she is saying is exactly what Pope Benedict is saying: “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation… then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”
The Pope is clearly not anti-progress here. The Church throughout its history has been a great engine of human progress: so much of the Scientific Revolution can be traced back to the sponsorship of the Church, and indeed from the rational world view that springs from Christian theology, properly understood.
But he is criticizing the ideology of progress – the view that a simple expansion in technical capacity is an unambiguous and sufficient good for mankind. That the hope of the world lies in expanding our human powers, our human control of the forces of nature.
This needs to be critiqued, and he does a masterful job of it here.
The truth is that we have to be something before we can know what to do with whatever power we have accrued to ourselves. And this being is by necessity a question of personal choice, freedom, the decision of the individual to seek the path of righteousness and love.
Pope Benedict is going to proceed to develop this thought, so I will stop here. But I will return to what I’ve been saying, one way or another, in post after post lately. If we want to change the world for the better, if we do say we want a revolution, if we do want a more just and free and charitable society, we have to look to… well, to St. Francis for starters, perhaps. To the saints. To the ones who allowed Christ in to their inmost hearts, allowed him to take them and break them and refashion them according to his own heart. This is what changes the world, this and nothing else.

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