Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Responding to “American Nihilism”

Saturday afternoon in New York City, I was an invited observer at an advisory board meeting of Crossroads, the cultural arm of Communion and Liberation. In the auditorium of the American Bible Society at Broadway and 61st Street about fifty of us listened as Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete spoke, then responded to comments by members of the advisory board. In the photo at left, Albacete is to the left of the woman in the foreground.

As a jumping-off point, Albacete used an article by Curtis White in the December 2007 Harper’s, entitled “Hot-Air Gods.” In the article, White describes a new nihilism—not the European form that denies God, but the American one, in which “it’s all good.” We have come to believe in the right of each individual to his own private conviction, no matter how ridiculous. White writes:
What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. . . . Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. . . . There is an obvious problem with this form of spirituality: it takes place in isolation. Each of us sits at our computer terminal tapping out our convictions. . . .
Albacete invited us to contemplate this situation and its most serious implication: a loss of community, through a lack of shared conviction.  How can we as Catholics respond to this cultural reality? How, indeed, should Crossroads respond as a Catholic cultural center?

One false response, Albacete insisted, is to reduce Christianity to an ethical system. Christianity as a form of moralism, he said, suggests that we are not broken sinners requiring salvation but just “decent folk who need instruction.” Christianity truly lived, he went on, begins with the experience of being saved, then seeking to live that experience in the surrounding culture. We usually reverse the equation, trying to heal the culture (ethically) in order to save it and ourselves. What saves us is not ethical conduct but the fact of Christ’s life.

Albacete noted that we need to express our perception of this fact in our very activities and interests. He suggested that there are two “symptoms” of the discovery of the presence of Christ: (1) a certain joy, “which is so often tied to suffering and pain and emotional disgust at injustices, even, especially natural disasters,” and (2) an expanding range of interests, an interest in the human and its varied expressions.

While agreeing with White’s analysis of the new “American nihilism,” Albacete noted that White fails to provide an answer to this situation. White’s criticism, he said, is intellectually brilliant, but gives us no “power to respond.” What is missing is the experience of Jesus as a saving event here and now, in my life, in this moment, at this place. If he is not present, Jesus remains “a museum figure,” in the past.

Albacete asked, “Can we find a surer word that reminds us of Christ here and now? That word is sacrament.” What is missing, he said, is a sacramental view of the Church and Christianity.

Counterintuitively, Albacete ended by citing monasticism as a response to the relativism of culture. Are monastics merely seeking to withdraw from culture? No, he said. They come together in communities to look for God, to find what is essential. We have all been put to sleep, Albacete noted. Monks in search of God seek to reawaken themselves. They have no “cultural agenda,” he said. They only want to find what is essential and witness to that.

This is our “educational” task: to find and witness to what is essential to our humanity. Finally, he said, we witness through our work. The old Benedictine motto orare et laborare—to pray and to work—applies to us, to Crossroads too, as well as to monastic communities.

Responding to comments, Albacete offered a final striking provocation. “We must not avoid the problem,” he said. “How dare we stand up in 2011 and say it is all about a man who died 2000 years ago? Are we up to that? If so, no worries.”

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