There are consequences to every idea: some good and some bad. The belief that ideas do not matter and that only action is important is one of the intellectual pitfalls of modern times. This was not always the case. We may look askance at things like the Inquisition, but one of the reasons that intelligent people backed the Inquisition is that once an erroneous idea gains momentum and power it can have dangerous and even violent effects. Take, for instance, the heresy (a bad idea) that the body is evil and only the soul is good. The Cathars in the Middle Ages living in southern France believed this. They believed that the soul was imprisoned in the body. So what was the result of this idea? Some felt that the actions of the body, therefore, did not count morally. Only what the soul thought and felt mattered. So some of the Cathars let their bodies go and engaged in orgies! Some reacted to the idea by committing suicide to free the soul from the body. Some refused to have children, for they reasoned that it enabled even more souls to be imprisoned. Wars developed over this bad idea. St. Dominic and St. Anthony of Padua made it their chief aim to refute this bad theology and bring those people back to orthodox (good idea) thinking.
So it is clear that a good idea can have positive effects and a bad idea negative ones. An erroneous idea that has plagued the modern world is the one articulated by the philosopher Fredrick Nietzche when he proclaimed that God is dead. By that he meant that we should live our lives with no thought of the Divinity nor of the moral consequences of the decisions of our will. One has only to look at Hitler and the Nazi ideology to see the results of this very bad idea.
But this idea that God is no more a factor in life has also embedded itself here in America. For instance: the bad idea that the child in the womb is not a developing human person but a thing to be cherished or discarded based on the will of the adults affected. The implications and results of this bad idea have been responsible for the deaths of millions of developing human beings! While the moral implications of bad ideas are the most far-reaching and important results, we see the effects in other spheres as well. Take the cultural. It has been my sad observation that the films we are producing now and the plays being written, the art that is in our modern art museums, etc. has lost its way. There is a pervading sadness and nihilism to what we are producing. This slow erosion can be seen if we compare the moral and artistic content and execution of the plays on Broadway in the 50’s and what is being put on the boards now. Some of the plays in the 1950’s that won Tonys for best plays of the year were landmarks of our culture. The 50’s produced “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller and “Long Days Journey into Night” by Eugene O’Neill. Our present decade has on it’s Tony honor roll: “Red”, “Clynbourne Park” and “All the Way”. Will anyone remember these plays in 50 years?
The Oscars also show this. The 50’s produced: “From Here to Eternity”, “On the Waterfront” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”. The present best pictures? “The Artist”, “Argo” and “Birdman”. The lists speak for themselves.
When you banish God from reality, and transcendence loses its meaning then we are left with an empty hopelessness which even permeates children’s fare. It is in the very air we breathe. And like air it is invisible to the casual observer. But even an invisible poison gas can kill.
What happens when our universities and schools accept and endorse this nihilism (the bad idea that nothing has ultimate value and nothing makes ultimate sense) is truly tragic. Because of the key place education has in our nation’s consciousness, this nihilism then infects our politics and the way we live our lives. The material become the only important value and we adopt a cynical attitude to anyone who believes in the rightness or wrongness of things. Everything is relative and I am left to myself to decide how I live my life and what my life ultimately means. There is no overarching and understanding that frames and directs our intentions.
This may sound like an empty and abstract philosophical construct that has no real and practical importance. But anyone who believes that ideas have no practical consequences are in for a rude awakening. When our youth, who are well off and given all sorts of material advantage, commit suicide because of the hopelessness of life is that not a real and practical thing? Our young people are bored and turn to all kinds of negative behaviors because they see no hope in life, nothing that gives their lives ultimate meaning. What is all this striving for?
A civilization does not fall apart in one fell swoop. It is a slow degeneration. What I fear is that this has begun to happen to our American Modern Civilization. Believers in God and in Ultimate meaning, whether we be Christians, Jews or Muslims, must be faithful to their spiritual traditions because when all is said and done and we stand in the ruins of our cities, it is the people of faith that will rebuild and bring about the transformation of the antecedent disaster into that hope which will mean a new future. A bleak vision, yes, but also realistic.
Rev. Monsignor Fernando Ferrarese