"Elegy for the Thousands About to Die for the Dow" is the title of an Op Ed article in a recent issue of a major American newspaper. Of course, it refers to the recent decision of the federal government to bring back business and economic life to their normal status in spite of the serious warnings and reservations by the CDC and the scientific community of the country that to do so at this time and under the current prevailing conditions will cause a resurgence of the Covid-19 epidemic which will result in thousands of hospitalizations and deaths.
The article is a double condemnation of the current federal administration for its willingness to, first, place economic considerations above the value of human life and, second, to do so for political gain in the coming general elections.
The Covid-19 pandemic probably will come to be seen as the most impacting event not only of the year 2020, but of the last few decades as well. This huge phenomenon can be, is, and will be, analyzed many times over the coming years and from many angles, health, economic, political, social, etc., but its most profound and yet, paradoxically, its most easily ignored angle is the spiritual angle.
By "spiritual" I don't mean simply the formally religious aspect, but the more encompassing reality of the human condition. Human beings are not spiritual because they are religious, rather they are religious because they are spiritual. Human beings are spiritual because of their very mode of being, that is, they are the only beings for whom their very being, is at issue. They are the only beings that are always already faced with the question, who am I? Gertrude Stein famously wrote, "A rose is a rose, is a rose, is a rose…" she could have equally written, "A chicken is a chicken, is a chicken, is a chicken…" The nature of each, their behavior, is set and determined by nature. Not so for human beings. They obviously also have a nature that affects their behavior and pushes them hither and thither, but their unavoidable and always already experienced question, Who am I? sets them aside. It is a question which is not theoretical and that is not answered theoretically, rather it is answered with our every decision, our every choice; it is answered existentially. As Victor Frankl expressed it, “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance. "
Our spirituality, our spiritual life, is bound up with that question which holds open the broad horizon against which we live our lives. It is the answer to that question that articulates the meaning of our life and religion is an answer to that question.
As Christians we answer our radical human question, our "Who am I" question, by embracing the history of salvation as our history, embracing the kerygma (the Second person of the Trinity became flesh, was crucified, died and resurrected as an expression of God's love for us) as the central mystery that gives meaning to our lives and, therefore, embracing love as the ultimate arbiter of all our choices, all our actions and embracing the Beatitudes, as well as the entire New Testament, as our way of being human.
Modernity, that cultural stage that spans three centuries, well-motivated and reacting to complex issues that are beyond the scope of this article, limited the pathways to truth that had been accepted up to then and thus, barred the most fruitful passageways to human meaning and self-understanding: religion, poetry, literature, music and the arts in general. This unintended aberration of western culture reached its climax in the 19th century's emergence of three great ideologies; Marxism, Fascism and Capitalism. The first two consumed themselves in a terrible holocaust and wars, hot and cold. The third one mutated itself into consumerism and technocracy and has managed to structure postmodern society.
Described by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter as "…creative destruction…", capitalism, in its postmodern transformation has a way of absorbing, processing and rendering inert all values, all understandings, all relationships that cannot be translated into currency and purchasing power in the all-encompassing market into which the world is transformed. The human person, the family, society become tools and means at the service of the market and of the invisible hand of the nameless capital that hides behind it. This is not to be confused with the free enterprise system which is a constructive expression of human freedom and creativity. This is a vast and systemic array of attitudes, technologies, media, economic interests, and interlocking centers of power. Globalization has placed it beyond the control of any one nation and beyond the control of any legal structure that could oversee it or regulate it. The great political advances that emerged after the two great wars of the 20th century and which started the process of attempting to create international political and legal structures capable of bringing the phenomenon under some legal and political control have been thwarted. The United Nations and similar organizations that were begun with great optimism in the capacity of mankind to build institutions that could bridge national, racial and cultural differences have come to naught.
There have been voices in the last 100 years that have warned us; truly voices in the wilderness. Several Popes have expressed their concern on this matter starting with Leo the 13th and continuing on during the 20th century while progressively gaining depth and range in the analysis of the problem. Populorum Progressio in 1967 marks a new awareness of the complexity and gravity of the problem, the apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens in 1971 continues the process and John Paul II in Laborem Exercens in 1981 offers a profound analysis of the developing situation. It is St. John Paul II that begins to use the term "consumerism" in his documents with growing awareness and alarm. Pope Francis in all his pronouncements has reached a new level of awareness and alarm consistent with the growing gravity of the situation and, for the first time, has reached out to encompass the totality of the challenge as it touches the very environment in which we all live and the quality of our social and personal lives.
Laudato Si' is not just a papal pronouncement that touches on the particular problem of global warming and the environment, it is a far reaching and broadly encompassing document that brings together the traditional concerns with social justice and ties them to the threat to creation itself and to the quality of personal and social human life.
The current situation of the world is one of profound and increasing socio-economic inequalities: lack of proper medical care, of housing, of nutrition, of the kind of employment which properly respects the dignity of the human person, the exploitation of children, the abominable conditions that force the migration of large populations seeking relief for their plight and the mistreatment of those very migrant populations. These are all symptoms of the same illness, the transformation of the human person into an object at the disposal of forces that transcend any particular nation. These are the forces of postmodern capitalism transmuted into impersonal technocratic consumerism.
All arguments, all debates are bound by the consideration of economic feasibility and efficiency. Economic factors trump all other considerations and the "laws" of the marketplace are treated as laws of nature that can never be contradicted or modified. Economics has replaced politics understood in its true sense as the understanding, reasoning and guidance of the "polis" as the locus of human life and wellbeing, that is, the intelligent seeking of the common good. Economic decisions, the economy, should be at the service of the "polis" and not the other way around. When this inversion takes hold, sight of the common good is lost at the service of an impersonal, overarching capital.
The divide between rich nations and poor nations is mirrored within each nation where the "one percent" govern at the expense of the majority.
The paradoxical fact that is sometimes difficult to see in this situation is that the harm is done to all. The exploited and the exploiters, the haves and the have-nots are, in the ultimate analysis, victims of the same dehumanizing game that seems to be played with the coercive and blind force of an uncontrollable vice.
There seems to be at play a sort of gospel of loss and forgetfulness that leads away from everything that gives true meaning to human life, a gospel with its own set of beatitudes:
Blessed are the rich for everything shall be theirs;
Blessed are the strong and powerful for they shall get everyone's attention;
Blessed are those who have fun for they shall not need to be consoled;
Blessed are the beautiful and attractive for they shall be popular;
Blessed are the vain and proud for they shall be celebrities;
Blessed are the tough for they shall not have to tolerate others.
Blessed are all of the above for they shall be winners.
The young are seduced by this gospel and distracted by gadgets, gizmos, video games, and the social media. They are engulfed in a cloud of existential noise that keeps them from their own precious humanity, from asking their "who am I?" and from hearing a voice that beckons from the depths of their own hearts, the voice of Him who is the way, the truth and the life. And, all of this so that they can fall in line and become earnest and dutiful consumers who by the age of 25 are loaded with student loan debt and credit card debts.
The common thread of this gospel is the belief in power/money as that which opens the gates of invulnerable happiness, but that is only so, in the words of T.S. Elliot, "…till human voices wake us and we drown…"
The Corona Virus crisis has come as a possibility to shake us out of this trance. If the lonely time, the quarantine, the relative absence of external noise, the realization of our inherent vulnerability and indigence, the refreshed realization of the true importance of friendship, of the eyes of the other, of human encounter and human touch, of intimacy, of family life, and of human solidarity could bring us to open our eyes, this could be a new beginning, a rebirth of our realization of the true wealth that lies in the exercise of love. It could be a reawakening of the realization that life is not about power, it is about love. It is not about having, but about giving, about service. It is love that unveils the meaning of human life.
The deeper sense of the Corona Virus crisis comes from the opportunity that it gives us to step into our humility and rediscover God's love in our life, rekindle our gratitude which can only be manifested by leaving behind the gospel of power/money and its false beatitudes and can only be fully expressed by demanding and working for justice in the world, and for respect for the dignity of every human being regardless of race, gender, nationality, creed or sexual orientation.
There is no authentic spirituality that does not ultimately express itself in a genuine concern for social justice. There is no real concern for social justice that is not grounded in the profound spirituality of love. Pope Francis calls us to both when he calls us to a revolution of tenderness and of ecological conversion. May we dare and respond to the deeper sense of the Corona Virus crisis!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
José Antonio Solís-Silva, PhD, is Professor Emeritus and Chair, Philosophy Department, St. John Vianney College Seminary. Adjunct Professor, Philosophy Department, University of Miami. Editor, Postmodern Notes, 1990—2003. Editor, El Ignaciano 2018-Present.