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Vol 40 No 2


John Rate MSC

Michael Fallon MSC

Martin Borg

Roy J O’Neill MSC
THE MINISTRY OF THE SKILLED STRANGER: Religion and Spirituality in Public Hospital Ministry

David Ranson
FROM FEAR TO LOVE: Building an Australian Culture of Hospitality

Kevin Mark



The challenge of postmodernism


AT THE RISK OF being a little simplistic, I want to suggest that the baby boomer generation, the 1960s generation—my generation—is the last generation to have grown up in what is called the Modern World, and that the world since the 1960s in which the generations after us have been growing up is what is called the Postmodern World.

We say that the Modern World began with the rise of modern science in the late sixteenth century and with the work of people like Galileo, Descartes and Newton in the seventeenth century. At that time there was a growing belief that science and human reason would bring enlightenment and progress to a world which many believed was still somewhat lost in medieval superstition and religious dogmatism. This ideological belief in the supreme value of science lasted right up until the great cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, even though cracks appeared in the system with the work of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche (who valued power and emotion over thought), physicists like Einstein (whose relativity theory revised Newton’s theories about how the universe worked), and events such as the First World War and the Great Depression (which chillingly reminded the world that Utopia was further away than ever).

The Modern World was a very ordered world. It had a strong belief in the universal laws of physics and mathematics and it was believed that these disciplines would eventually unlock the universal laws which governed everything, from the economy to the human psyche, to the course of history, to the genesis of the cosmos itself. The moderns also believed that, thanks to science, the world was getting to be a better place; certainly by the nineteenth century people were speaking more and more about progress in every sphere of life. We also believed that the human mind could discover absolute truth, truths which were valid concerning human nature irrespective of cultural differences. And different belief systems, different interpretations of life developed, from Materialism and Marxism through to Capitalism and Catholicism.

These magnificent and all-encompassing systems of thought are often called ‘ideologies’ these days, partly because we can now see their basic flaws. For much of the modern period there were impassioned conflicts between competing ideologies. Further, the modern world was generally quite stable, both socially and economically, and patterns of family life and work life didn’t change that much. Finally, we can say that our sense of identity, our sense of self, was easier to define in the old world. Life was simpler, and everyone accepted society’s norms, while our sense of purpose was strong, bolstered by religious faith, family and friends.

I want to look briefly at these five different areas of life and compare what it was like way back before the 1960s and 1970s with how it is today.
The Belief in Science and the Primacy of Scientific Knowledge.

When I was growing up everyone respected scientists. They were the brains in society, and we knew that their achievements had brought so many benefits to the human race. They had helped rid the world of so many diseases (they had just developed an inoculation against polio in the 1950s); they had revolutionized the methods of transport (I took my very first plane trip in 1963 when I joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart). Science was filling our homes and lives with so many ‘mod cons’ (I remember we got a washing machine and a TV in the 1950s); it had sent a sputnik into space in 1957. Scientists had been expanding human knowledge and improving the quality of human life for nearly three hundred years. My Dad often used to say things like: ‘When I was fifty I could buy a washing-machine for about a week’s wages, but when I was in my twenties it took several months of my pay packet to buy our first washing-machine’.

However, today—in our post-modern world—we don’t have a blind belief that science is the greatest boon to humankind. We have become suspicious of many scientific experiments—drug companies sometimes bias their results, for example, to sell their products, and some discoveries, in the wrong hands, could destroy the human race (think of biological or nuclear warfare).

More deeply, we’ve come to appreciate, these days, that scientific knowledge is only one form of knowledge. More information does not necessarily bring more wisdom. So, it’s not surprising that many people have begun to dip more into the wisdom of other cultures and religions (Buddhism, Zen, Aboriginal spirituality, the whole New Age phenomenon), and that they are searching for experiential knowledge and wisdom.

We all now understand that mysticism and poetry give us a unique form of knowledge and insight unknown to science. We want our lives to be more meaningful, and we trust our own personal experience of life more than what any scientists might tell us life is all about. (Few people believe these days that everything about us can be worked out by studying our genes). People are looking for a personal wisdom that can guide them through their ever-changing lives.

The Belief in Progress
I’ve already said that my Dad strongly believed that the world was getting better and better. We are certainly materially far better off than we were a generation ago, and this material progress just continues. Material prosperity has always been the main way we have measured progress, and we have always taken great pride in our technological achievements as we move from the Industrial Age into the Age of Technology and Communications. We love our computers, our internet, our plasma screens, our mobile phones

However, our post-modern world has serious doubts about whether material gain is the best way to measure whether the world is getting better and better. In many ways life seems to be becoming more difficult for people, and the future of our planet, from a significant number of viewpoints (especially climate change), looks rather bleak. Here are just some examples from several commentators:

Oliver Bennett in the UK has recently published a book called ‘Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World’. He says that many in the West now believe our society is in irreversible decline. While we are richer, materially speaking, than previous generations, we aren’t nearly as happy or contented. Many postmoderns have lost their sense of wonder, joy and respect—look at the rising rates of depression and suicide, and the rather disturbing cultural fad of raunch culture. There’s growing violence in our cities (for instance, Cronulla last year, Redfern the year before, and Macquarie Fields before that). Our health care systems are going backwards. Africa is worse off than it was twenty years ago, and there is a frightening growth in fundamentalism and political extremism. (We should not think only of Islamic countries; we need to think also of the usually tolerant Netherlands, or the ‘neo-cons’ leading George W Bush’s Government.)

John Ralston Saul, the great Canadian philosopher, calls the first talk of his 1995 Massey Lectures (Canada’s equivalent of the Boyle Lectures) ‘The Great Leap Backwards’. Here are two quotations:

The official Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) figure for unemployment in the West is about 35 million—that is, about 10%. This has not moved down seriously for a decade. Over the past two decades, the term ‘unemployment’ has been redefined constantly—between 15 and 25 times in most Western countries—in order to eliminate certain categories or to create new categories. The purpose has been to keep the official statistics down. Rather than 35 million, the real unemployment figure is probably over 50 million.

The leader of the free world (the President of the USA) has 1.5 million people in jail. More than double what it was fifteen years ago. A rate second only to Russia. Put another way, 5.1 million Americans are in jail or under judicial supervision. Triple the figures of 1980. [Isn’t that significant for the country seen as the leader of democracy?] (p. 15-16)

In 1995 the Merck Family Fund in America, after a national survey and focus groups of US citizens’ perspectives on consumption, published their report, ‘Yearning for Balance’. Americans believe, firstly, that the value system which dominates their society is wrong: materialism, greed and selfishness are increasingly crowding out a more meaningful set of values centred on family, responsibility, and community. Secondly, Americans believe that materialism has overtaken society with dire consequences: that ‘lust’ for material things lies at the root of crime, family breakdown and drug addiction. Thirdly, Americans are ambivalent about the contradiction they face—they see that materialism is corroding society and themselves, but they are too fearful to change their behaviour in any significant way; they are wedded to ‘financial security’. Finally, Americans understand that rampant consumerism is destroying the natural environment. There is an overwhelming concern that the world left for their children will be less safe and less secure and will have the wrong value system. In stark contrast with the optimism of the post-war boom, there is a pervasive sense that things can only get worse, that the future is bleak.
Our post-modern world has lost the optimistic belief in progress and the absolute confidence in science which was so marked in preceding generations.

The Modern World Valued Truth
I grew up in a world which still believed passionately in ideas and in the search for absolute truth. The Catholic Church attracted many converts by its claim to teach the absolute truth about God, and books such as All roads lead to Rome were immensely popular. Many people around the world believed that their belief system could explain everything, whether they were Marxists or Materialists, Catholics or Calathumpians. There were highly-charged debates between Catholics and Protestants and between the ALP and the DLP. The world seemed more black and white, right and wrong, us and them, in those days.

However, in our postmodern world, we are more concerned with love than with truth. We have seen so many wars caused by different religions and ideologies that we don’t trust these over-arching explanations. The Beatles heralded a new way of life: ‘All you need is love; all you need is love; all you need is love sweet love; all you need is love’.

We also see more clearly that all the grand narratives, the grand explanations of life, all the great ‘–isms’ (Materialism, Catholicism, etc), are conditioned by the time and culture which gave them birth, and are therefore limited, flawed, and incomplete. In fact, everything is relative! One of the most influential moral philosophers of our day, Alasdair MacIntyre, would say that most people have an emotive understanding of moral truth; he defines emotivism as ‘the doctrine that all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, attitude or feeling’ (‘If you feel like it, do it’ sort of philosophy—‘as long as nobody gets hurt’).

We are very suspicious of people who claim to know and speak the whole truth, and we call them fundamentalists today, and we sense how close to fanaticism they are.

We have become aware that so much of reality has been defined by white, middle-class, males, who have dominated history-writing and Church life and so many other areas of life for generations. The classic stories of life have now been modified by the voices of women, the oppressed classes, the indigenous peoples, and homosexual persons, to name but a few. We are now conscious of living in a pluralistic society and world today, and we can find snatches of truth everywhere. We just don’t believe that any one group has a monopoly of truth anymore. We can so easily believe that everything is relative! So, it’s quite natural for a young person to turn to anything which might help in the spiritual journey—from Buddhist meditation through Hillsong and crystals to the Catholic rosary.

The Modern World was Stable
The world of the 1950s in Australia was a very stable world, and life in Australia, despite the wars and depressions, had a certain stability about it for quite some time. We knew who we were; we trusted our religious and political leaders (having a deep respect for authority); and we knew what it meant to be Australian. There was near full employment (except in the depression times); the staid, changeless social framework meant that our roles and expectations in life didn’t change all that much. Most people got married in their early twenties and then purchased their home (paying for it over many years), and enjoyed the rising material prosperity. We all had a strong sense of family life, and the roles of men and women in both the family and social life was pretty-well defined.

However, the postmodern world is such a different place from the stable world of the 1950s. Everything is in a state of change. We don’t know who to trust anymore; everything has a spin on it and the great moulders of public opinion and ethical thought are now the newspapers and mass media (and while we all admire the integrity of many investigative journalists we also know the media thrives on sensationalism and half-truth). The whole social framework and fabric has changed, as these few snippets show us:

When it comes to the institutions of society, which have traditionally been the framework of our lives—institutions such as the police, the judiciary, the clergy, and the other professions—we have simply lost a lot of faith in them. We’ve come to see just how human and fallible they are, and sometimes it’s been quite a shock to us all (think of the sexual scandals in the church and corruption in certain sections of the police force).

When it comes to the family we find many types of family today—intact families, broken families, blended families, solo-parent families, single-sex parents. People prefer the word ‘partner’ to husband/wife as we fast approach the time when the ratio of marrieds to never-marrieds is fifty-fifty; partnerships are now moving out of the public domain where they are formally recognized and registered, into the more private domain where freedom and flexibility become new virtues, to be added to the list that includes loyalty and commitment.

Then there’s our business culture. Richard Sennett in The Culture of the New Capitalism speaks of the growing difficulty people have in today’s business culture in finding meaning in life and a sense that they are making a contribution to society. Companies have to re-engineer themselves in the quest for a short-term profit to please a floating group of shareholders. They are on the look-out for the kind of person who, at the drop of a hat, will repudiate the past ways of doing things and embrace the short-term opportunity. In a universe of permanent flux, we are no longer valuable for what we have accomplished; we’re valuable for what we might be able to do in the future. (Cf. Will Hutton, The Guardian Weekly, vol. 174, 2006, no. 13, p. 14.)

In the field of employment we know that people no longer expect to stay in the same job all through life. Loyalty to the company is no longer a value, and job insecurity is a fact of life. Many in full-time employment are over-stressed, while many can only find part-time employment.
One final comment. Hugh Mackay writes in his 1999 work Turning Point. Australians choosing their future: ‘Growing up in a period of accelerating change, the main lesson learned by the rising generation of young Australians has been to expect change. Because they expect tomorrow to be different from today, they are inclined to postpone commitments, to wait and see, and to ‘hang loose’. Whether it’s a set of religious beliefs, a political party, a sexual partner, a commercial brand, a course of study or a job, this is a generation that is saying, ‘let’s keep our options open’.’ (p. 117.)

Our Sense of Self
When I was growing up I had a reasonably strong sense of self. I was created by God as a unique human being with an immortal soul that would last forever. I was born into post-war Australia, and I could describe myself adequately—I belonged to a lower middle class family of English-Irish background; I was Catholic, a Melbournian, a Collingwood supporter, a DLP follower, and a lover of literature and philosophy. I wanted to become a priest who was also a school teacher.

However, the post-modern person is less sure of him/her self. It was Sigmund Freud who uncovered a whole level of self beneath the level of consciousness; he saw consciousness as the tip of the iceberg, and a whole world of drives, feelings and energy existed in our unconscious and influenced us in ways we did not understand. He believed the self was a formless, silent, chaotic sea of desires that needed to be tamed by the censorious ego. Freud’s pupil, Carl Jung, believed the unconscious was more purposeful and positive, driving the individual towards integration and inner peace as life progressed. Michel Foucault believed that the self was a fiction, a construct that evolves and shifts, and which can be reinvented and rewritten (little wonder we sometimes hear of people re-inventing themselves). As people doubt more and more the religious dimension of life, they doubt more and more who they are.

Further, as we lose our sense of belonging to a community, and within a particular religious and civic tradition, and as we focus more and more on our individual freedom and choices, we become rather anxious and lonely individuals. We imagine we have to create our own meaning in a universe which seems so unfriendly. It’s almost everyone for him/her self. So, we sometimes take our identity from what everyone else thinks is chic, or if we become bored with what we are doing we might feel the urge to re-invent ourselves as some new persona with a whole new identity (don’t we love make-overs?). Our contemporary world is fascinated by individual human stories (look at the popularity of Australian Story), but we often focus on the bizarre and petty (Oprah, Jerry Springer, Desperate Housewives). If the only thing that really matters is my own private life than, as Richard Rohr says,
those issues that make me special, inferior, superior, right, wrong, handicapped or gifted … are the reference point for everything.

He continues:
Many people live their whole lives at this level of anecdote and nurtured self-image, without ever connecting with the deeper/larger levels of meaning. They are what they have done and what has been done to them. Nothing more. You can see how fragile and unprotected, and therefore constantly striving this self will be. It is very easily offended, fearful, and therefore often posturing and pretentious. (Hope Against Darkness (2000) p.84.)

However, isn’t it true that most people, especially the young, need clear boundaries, crave for ideals to follow, and grow in maturity, humanity, and generosity, through becoming part of a community which values time for reflection and some action in the area of social justice?

To conclude I’d like to refer to a recent survey of young Australians conducted by the Christian Research Association; a report of this study appeared in the April 3rd edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Chief researcher, Philip Hughes, said:
What surprised me was the high proportion of people who just don’t know what to believe. Well over a third say ‘We are just unsure’. Most young people think there’s something out there, some sort of greater force. Accompanying that is the sense that it doesn’t matter much anyway, what I call ‘whateverism’. Whether you believe or you don’t believe is no big deal either way, and you can change your mind from one minute to the next, whatever.

He also said:
There’s been a decline in clarity about belief in God, linked to a postmodern loss of confidence in the idea of truth. These beliefs do affect how people live, the way they deal with crises. To the extent that there’s a great deal of vagueness and uncertainty, it doesn’t give people much to stand on when life is difficult.

He also made a final point which I found a little worrying, namely that Australians are more likely than Americans to accept other paranormal beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology, psychics and communication with the dead.
It would seem that there are a lot of people who are a bit lost our there in this postmodern world. We know that many are tempted to try the secure haven of fundamentalism, but isn’t the challenge for us who are steeped in the wisdom of Catholic life to show how our faith and practice can make an extraordinary difference to people—if only we can make the right connections with them?

Fr John Rate MSC has spent most of his active life in parish work, with special interests in Marriage Encounter and similar Chuck Gallagher-style renewal movements in the Church. He is currently Parish Priest of Randwick, Sydney.