NauMai September 2021
An image has been occurring to me of boats that have become unmoored. They end up on the rocks, or colliding with one another. There are features of our Western world’s culture that seem to fit the image. Important aspects of our lives seem to have become disconnected from what gives them meaning. If this is true, it is hardly healthy. I offer the following six examples – presented in WelCom in two parts.
1. ‘Me’ disconnected from ‘we’; and ‘my’ from ‘our’.
To say modern culture suffers from acute individualism is by now a truism. Clamours for ‘my rights’ often involve little or no sense of ‘my responsibilities’. It seems incredible that some would regard public-health requirements as infringements of their rights – it’s as silly as regarding the road rules as violations of their freedom. During the pandemic, some have been willing to put other people’s lives at risk for no better reason than to enjoy themselves. Obviously, legal restrictions are no substitute for moral formation.
But all is not lost: catastrophes can still bring out the best in people. It is still easy to admire individuals who are generous, even risking their own lives for others. It is still easy to dislike gross forms of self-centredness and self-aggrandisement. People still give generously to charitable causes. And it is still easy to pity individuals caught up in over-anxious self-concern.
But there are also subtler forms of disconnect that we can become used to; they become ‘normalised’. For example, in most if not all cultures, marriage has been a moment of celebration for whole communities. Now, ‘what we do is nobody else’s business’. Within an individualist culture, it isn’t easy to see anything wrong with this. It’s the culture that has become reductionist.
Work used to be regarded as an expression one’s person and relationships with others. Now, within the culture we are regarding as ‘normal’, it is reduced to a commodity and business transaction. Commercial value attaches to the work, not the person doing it, so work becomes unmoored from its own deepest meaning.
The common denominator to all forms of self-centredness is failure to realise that we can become our own true selves only through being ‘for others’. This paradox is at the centre of Jesus’ teaching. The drift away from his Gospel has become a drift away from what we need to become our own true selves. This will show up in the uglier kinds of self-centredness.
2. ‘Facts’ unmoored from truth.
When truth is reduced to whatever we say, to get whatever we want – whether it is true or not – we are targets for manipulation. We become vulnerable to every kind of spin – commercial spin, political spin, and agenda-driven ideologies.
Scientists work hard to establish facts. They know we need to act on what is objectively true. Solving crimes, the judicial system, and research in every field are all based on the premise that truth matters. All these, and most of life, would be turned upside down if it were enough to say: ‘truth is whatever the individual thinks it is – it is true for her/him’ and ‘right is whatever the individual chooses – it is right for him/her’. How could we even say rape or sexual abuse are wrong if it might be ‘right’ for the person doing it? So, we cannot escape the need to acknowledge an objective difference between true and false, and right and wrong.
Conspiracy theories during the pandemic have duped some people into believing claims that were far more bizarre than anything the sciences ever present us with. What kind of culture is it when they are so gullibly believed?
Parroting cliches is a lazy alternative to serious thinking. For example: lazy thinkers don’t distinguish between judging a person’s actions (which we may do, and sometimes must), and judging their conscience (which we may not – because we cannot know whether or how much they are guilty before God.) That is the meaning of the saying: ‘who am I to judge?’. It doesn’t mean we can’t judge their actions!
But even when we rightly judge that another’s actions are wrong, it is often necessary to look further. Their offending can have deep roots in early experience of abuse or deprivation or cultural alienation. If we are personally attached to truth, we will look more deeply, and avoid superficial judgments and demonising.
Lazy thinking also buys the slogan used to justify abortion: ‘it’s my body’, even though the sciences leave no doubt that the embryo is actually someone else’s body.
3. Politics unmoored from the common good.
Politics unmoored from the common good is politics unmoored from its own purpose. The purpose of political involvement is to create a social and economic environment in which everyone has the opportunity to progress towards achieving their own potential and a fulfilling life. In a true democracy, political parties differ over how to do this, while being united in a common pursuit of the common good.
Partisan self-interest placed above the common good is a throw-back to tribalism, and like ancient forms of tribalism, it undermines the unity that is needed for achieving the common good. The alternative to the common good is mere partisan power. This gives rise to all kinds of inequalities and absurdities – for example, being duped by misinformation and lies that have been discredited by the courts; basing decisions about masks and social distancing not on science but on which political party you belong to!
We might be surprised at such fickleness, though perhaps less surprised that it happens in a country where states can still pass anti-democratic laws, and that does not yet a proper separation of powers. But the lesson for ourselves is how foolish and self-destructive we too could become through unmooring rights from responsibilities, ‘facts’ from truth, and politics from pursuit of the common good.
Bishop Emeritus Peter Cullinane CNZM was the first Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Palmerston North. He was appointed as Bishop of Palmerston North by St Pope John Paul II on 6 March 1980 and was consecrated on 23 April 1980. He established the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit (built in 1925, rededicated 1980 and refurbished in 1988). He retired on 22 February 2012 and resides in Palmerston North. Bishop Peter did theological studies in Rome and a Master of Theology at Otago University.
The second part of Bishop Peter Cullinane’s ‘Unmoored’ article will be presented in next the edition of WelCom, October 2021.