Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 17, 2008
Our quest for the reality on the ‘other side’ of language
Fall of public idols leads us to look beyond words, images
By JOE McMORROW
The resulting state of public disillusionment is now so longstanding, so profound and so common that it is no longer experienced as a ‘dis-illusion.’
The public does not experience her fall from grace as an isolated event. It is one of many near identical stories and is so common as to almost constitute a genre.
The stories of Eliot Spitzer, Conrad Black, Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Michael Vick, O.J. Simpson, a number of TV evangelists and pedophile priests, along with plagiarizing journalists, and dishonest scientists all follow the same general outline: a supposed hero is subjected to public scrutiny, lies, is exposed, and suffers humiliation and ridicule.
This story has been running uninterrupted now for almost 50 years. It began in the late 1950s when television quiz shows were scrutinized. A popular contestant, Charles Van Doren, was exposed, humiliated and as a result vanished from public life.
The event was so unusual that congressional hearings were held and politicians wondered aloud about the meaning of such an outrageous event. Journalists asked, "Who is the real Charles Van Doren?"
Today, the fraudulence of public figures and celebrities is so commonplace that no one would seriously pose the question: "Who is the real Marion Jones?"
The larger story now is that we take it for granted that we don't know what is real about public events or personalities and by extension about life in general. Reality is assumed to be beyond our understanding.
We cynically realize that with enough time and money, the spin doctors can create a plausible narrative that will allow Marion Jones, or whomever, to regain their icon status. With enough time and money anything can be made believable. Public figures are simply fictitious creations embodying no truth and having no normative status.
The resulting state of public disillusionment is now so longstanding, so profound and so common that it is no longer experienced as a "dis-illusion." Rather one is suffering from an illusion today if they are naive enough to be surprised by the fall of a media icon. Anyone admitting surprise is sure to be asked: "What were you expecting?"
This social environment has profound effects on religious faith. People, especially young people, no longer have faith in words and images. It is extremely difficult to get them to turn out to vote and it takes coercion or bribery to bring them to worship. All public forums for them ring false and are observed with great suspicion and emotional distance.
Our world is saturated with the words and images of 500 channel TV, satellite radio, MP3 players, and DVDs. It is accurately said that "we live in words and images like fish in the sea."
Reality feels like nothing so much as a social construction floating upon and constantly being refigured by a shifting public consensus.
As a result, when people today seek God they search on the other side of language beyond words and images. People listen to a homily not for the words but rather they strain to hear where the words come from. They strain to hear the silence from which the words emerge to intuit if they are authentic.
Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, said that what modern people want today are not religious words but Christians whose actions witness to the truth.
It is not surprising in this environment to see a rising interest in negative theology, the type associated with Dionysius, with John of the Cross, with the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, with silence, with pilgrimage, with wordless adoration, with simple presence to the poor.
People are conscious today that most everything presented to them in the public realm including religious faith is framed and packaged for effect. They now intuitively sense that if something is "real" it will be non-commercial, de-institutionalized, numinous and beyond language.
Karl Rahner wrote "Christians of the future will be mystics or they will not exist at all." His words seem increasingly prophetic as we watch another icon fall.
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