Everyone around seems to be so upbeat in the way they talk, and at the same time suicide and crime and pollution of the earth (to mention only those) seem to be growing exponentially. To me the upbeat talk sounds desperate, like whistling in the dark. All the hooey about the millennium left me cold. My daughter and two sons, two of whom are at university, don't seem to be interested in ideas or arguments as we were when we were their age; instead they go for gimmicks, they never tire of talking about their mobiles and computers. They don't seem to have the slightest interest in religion either; they are neither for nor against it, just neutral. I don't want to be preaching to them, I'm just worried for them as human beings. What are we turning into? Are we on the eve of something terrible? Obviously I don't expect answers to these questions! But anything at all would be welcome. - J.K. Soames
Thank you for your letter, a cri du coeur not only for your family but for our times. It's right to look at terrible things, otherwise our faith hope and love are all false. Real faith hope and love send us into the world, not out of it. That has something to do with the Word becoming flesh.
Yes, the millennium…. It took a thousand years to get here, but it was gone in a minute. I think most people were sick of hearing about it. It was mostly a celebration of gimmickry and gadgetry; there was little reflection around it. At the turn of a century there is usually a lot of effort to assess the times in the light of the past, and to visualise the future: a lot of reflection; but this time there was very little, except of the science-fiction sort. That is odd enough at the turn of a century, but at the turn of a millennium it is ten times more odd. The future has become not only unpredictable but unthinkable. Look at what happened last time around. The 'Futurist' movement at the beginning of the 20th century began in Italy in the art world and spread rapidly to other areas. It was a rejection of all traditions, and it attempted instead to glorify contemporary life, mainly by emphasising its two dominant themes: the machine and motion. It celebrated change and innovation, and it glorified the dynamism, speed and power of the machine, and the vitality and restlessness of modern life in general. (The car had recently been invented.) Its influence travelled in every direction: it is 'credited' with direct input into Fascist doctrine, and the early development of the Soviet Union.
Turn up the volume, speed up the cars, move from Kitty Hawk to Cape Canaveral, and you have ourselves! Futurism is remembered today as a kind of adolescence, and like adolescence it didn't last long, fizzling out about 1916. It may be that our new version of those obsessions will fizzle out too - about 2016!
But today we still worship the machine, especially the car, and again we repudiate the past, and we are even more restless than those early 20th-century 'futurists'. Their cult of modernity looks comical beside ours, so far have we outdone it. Though we should have learnt something from that experiment, when we try to visualise our future we don't see a world filled with goodness, justice and love; instead we imagine a world filled with computers and robots - which are morally neutral.
Are we on the eve of something terrible? you ask. W.B. Yeats, who was deeply worried by the Soviet Revolution, spoke of "a vast image" that "troubles my sight." With the prescience that great poets have, he wrote of something with "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," an approaching beast "moving its slow thighs…"
What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Pray that we are not giving birth to some great beast. Pray that our obsession with machines and with speed, coupled with our ambiguity about moral values, will not have the terrible carry-over that futurism had. Pray that there aren't ferocious beasts towering over us invisibly - invisible to us, but plainly visible to posterity.
But we have to look for signs of hope. We have to rake over the Christian tradition - because we know we haven't gathered it all: no age ever does that. There are luminous things there, words spoken in the crucible of suffering, words that come straight from the heart. And we also have to look for signs of God's work in our own times. We can apply the words of Jesus to our times, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working" (John 5:17).
God is able to appear anywhere, even in a desert - and perhaps especially there. You described the spiritual desert that many young people are living in. Jung said it bluntly: if young people have no experience of God in their lives they will become neurotic. He also said that no one over thirty-five recovered from a neurosis without an experience of God.
You mentioned indifference to large ideas and to religion. It is visible in very many ways: there is boredom, listlessness, detachment and loss of will. Many people like to say, "We were never bored when we were young," but I'm not sure that it is such a new thing. There is evidence that it has been known in every age. The earliest Christian monks in the Egyptian desert called it 'accidie', from a Greek word, akedia, meaning 'not caring', and they included it in a broad categorisation of 'logismoi' or thought-types. Such lists, no longer seen as analyses, became in later times the 'seven deadly sins'. And there at the end of the list is accidie, or sloth as we call it. It is more widespread today, of course - and we have the means of knowing the extent of it. But it was always there in different forms. However, popular culture today does nothing to help us through it but plunges us more deeply into it.
Beside it, however, there are strong signs of hope: there is Taizé, for example, where thousands of young people gather in fairly austere conditions to pray and seek God. There are the L'Arche and Sant'Egidio movements, extraordinary for the dedicated service freely given by young people; and many other groups.
There is also a widespread interest in meditation. It is the mind-numbing popular culture of today that is fuelling this interest - in part, at least. I heard a wise person say once, "Everything destroys itself by its own excess." If so, then the worse things become, the better! We are already imagining alternatives to a consumerist self-indulgent culture. It has often been proved that the human spirit is hard to crush. In our times (we may hope) it will be proved that it is also hard to smother.