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Douglas W Bryant Lecture: A World Without A Father
posted on 12 June 2001
Catholic Diocese of Westminster
Diocese of Westminster
Many years ago, I read Thornton Wilder's novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey which some of you may remember. It tells of the collapse of the finest bridge in Peru in 1714, and of the lives of five people who were thrown to their death in the river below. Just before the bridge collapses, a Brother Juniper is travelling past and sees the victims hurtle to their death. He says to himself:

Why did this happen to those five? If there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, surely it could be discovered mysteriously latent in those lives so suddenly cut off. Either we live by accident and we die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.(1)
What a stark choice Brother Juniper sees before him: are our lives and our deaths simply random accidents, or are they set in a plan, a framework of meaning? This has always been a hard question, but I think it's even harder today for people in our culture to know how to face it at the moment, and I want to reflect with you this evening on the absence of meaning in our culture and how we might begin to restore it. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, distinguishes between 'epochs of habitation' and 'epochs of homelessness'. He writes:
In the former, man lives in the world as in a house, as in a home. In the latter, man lives in the world as in an open field and at times does not even have four pegs with which to set up a tent.(2)
In many ways, we're living through one of those 'epochs of homelessness'. In spite of the massive achievements of the past century, there are signs that people have lost the feeling of being 'at home' in a world that makes sense. We're 'lost in the cosmos' whose wonders we're beginning to understand. During the last fifty years: there has been more scientific and technological progress in those years than in all the millenia since humankind first walked on the earth. Ours has been the age of the computer, the laser beam, medical breakthroughs; we've sent rockets into space, photographed the birth of galaxies and charted the genetic code of human life.
'The best of times,' as Dickens puts it? Yes, undoubtedly, in many ways. But maybe also 'the worst of times' as the spiritual and moral values that underpin our human community have been shaken. A small example: in 1940, teachers were asked what were the most serious problems they faced in schools. They replied: 'talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noise, running in corridors, not wearing school uniform, dropping litter.' A few years ago, in answer to the same question, teachers answered: drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, depression among young people, stress and disorientation. I like the story of the Russian politician who began his speech with the words, 'Friends, yesterday we stood on the edge of the abyss, but today we have taken a giant step forward.'

Let me quote again from a Jewish writer, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. (It is a sign of the good relations between Jews and Christians in this country that I should quote the Chief Rabbi.)

There's a lovely old Jewish story of a sage who, stroking his beard and looking up from his volume of Talmud, says, 'Thank God, things are good.' Then he pauses and adds, 'But tell me... If things are so good, how come they're so bad?' That, surely, is the question of our time. The Jewish answer is that in achieving material abundance we have lost our moral and spiritual bearings. In achieving technical mastery, we have lost sight of the question, To what end? Valuing science at the expense of ethics, we have unparalleled knowledge of what is, and unprecedented doubts about what ought to be.(3)
A Christian can only agree. There seems to me to be a deep unease lying at the heart of our Western civilisation today. Twenty-five years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of the 'spiritual exhaustion' of the West, and he attributed this to the fact that we have placed human beings at the centre and pinnacle of reality. When he received the Templeton Prize, he put it like this:
The great crisis of humanity today is that it has lost its sense of the invisible. We have become experts in the visible, particularly in the West. If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th Century, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat again and again, 'Men have forgotten God'. The failings of a human consciousness deprived of its divine dimensions have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.
Solzhenitsyn puts it very starkly; I would rather put it more gently by pointing to a practice in Orthodox monasteries. There is a lovely custom that at the end of each day there is Compline, Night Prayer, and when that is over, the Abbot sits in his chair and, one by one, each of the monks approaches him and kneels before him. And he kisses each one on the head: a sign of acceptance, a sign of forgiveness, a sign of love. This ritual places the members of the community in a particular relation to an Abbot, an 'Abba', a Father, who symbolically accepts and blesses each of them in their weakness. By contrast, in the 'epoch of homelessness' that we're living through, we have 'a world without a Father', with no one to tell us what is right and what is wrong, no one to tell us that we matter, that we are forgiven and cherished, no one to tell us that we are loved. If we are homeless, it is because we are 'Fatherless' and because there is no God who speaks to us about who we are, how we are to live and who can receive and accept our lives lovingly. That is what I mean by 'a world without a Father'.
Over the past three centuries, the West has enabled the human race to take astonishing scientific and technological leaps, but in doing so, it has brushed aside the question of God as something that stood in the way of human progress. Humankind was to be freed from its nave belief in God. But suddenly, in the space of a generation in the West, questions that were deemed to have been solved by modernity have now surfaced more strongly than ever as the project of atheistic modernity has begun to unravel into post-modern relativism. (You know the difference between the Mafia and postmodernism? The Mafia makes you an offer you can't refuse; postmodernism makes you an offer you can't understand.) As the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, puts it:

It appears as if we suddenly woke up to perceive things which the humble and not necessarily highly educated, priests have been seeing - and warning us about - for three centuries... They kept telling their flocks that a world that has forgotten God has forgotten the very distinction between good and evil and has made human life meaningless, sunk into nihilism. Now, proudly stuffed with our sociological, historical, anthropological and philosophical knowledge, we discover the same wisdom which we try to express in a slightly more sophisticated idiom.(4) Whoever says there is no God and all is well deceives himself.(5)
Let me explain. We have begun to see that the industrial and economic progress begun in the 19th Century demands a heavy price in terms of our relationship to the natural world. Could it be that in the course of constructing this 'brave new world', we will destroy the very conditions which make life possible? We are all 'green' now, because suddenly we realise that the world is not ours to be plundered and ravaged, but is to be tended responsibly. We've begun to understand that the natural order is not a resource to be exploited but a living matrix on which our existence depends and which we must respect. We can no longer think of ourselves as the undisputed masters of the universe, but need to come to think of ourselves as humble participants in the blessings of life. My first point is that the condition of genuine humanity is that we recognise that there is an order of
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(1) Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Penguin, 1941), p.8.
(2) Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Beacon Press, 1947), p.126.
(3) Jonathan Sacks, Radical Then, Radical Now: the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion (HarperCollins, 2001), p.168.
(4) Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial (The University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.7-8.
(5) Leszek Kolakowski, Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal: Essays on Everyday Life (Penguin, 1999), p.117.
(6) Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth (Faber & Faber, 1989), p.54.
(7) Wilder, Op.Cit., p.95.

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