Wednesday, August 17, 2005


"Our technological civilization has cushioned life on all sides, yet more than ever before, people helplessly succumb to the blows of life. This is very simply because a merely technological culture cannot give any help in the face of life’s eternal tragedy; here only an inward foundation can help. Externalized as they are, too many people today have no ideas, no strength, nothing that might enable them to master their restlessness and dividedness. They do not know what to make of trials, obstacles, or suffering—how to make something constructive of them—and perceive them only as things that oppress and irritate them and interfere with life."

Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster (courtesy of The Daily Dig)

Foerster was an eminent German astronomer, Christian philosopher and pacifist (1869 - 1966). His work was ostracized and banned during the Nazi era. The agony of which he wrote was not just others', but his. And bizarre though it may seem, his is precisely the quotation that came to mind for me during the denouement of the latest Channel 4 Big Brother 'reality' series.

Yup, I know, 'enlightened' people are supposed to sneer at BB, or at least recoil in horror at the cruel, facile and venal nature of it all. It can indeed be sad, depressing, boring and annoying, as well as exhilerating and astonishing. It connects with the emotional lives of a huge number of people, and to understand nothing about why this may be is simply to choose one kind of padded cell over another.

Besides, people-watching is endlessly fascinating and illuminating. And as Germaine Greer famously commented, the point about the show isn't that it's "the end of civilization", but that it is civilization -- or a sizeable chunk of it.

In which case, you can't help noticing that the kind of reflectiveness and interiority that helps people to know themselves in relation to others, and as part of a larger pattern, is substantially absent. Not just in the BB house, but in our culture... perhaps even in ourselves, if we are courageous enough to consider it. (Much easier to condemn the BB housemates as 'vacuous', huh?)

On the positive side, even in this televised human jungle people can still recognise innate decency (Eugene) in the face of someone deemed 'criminally uncool' by the lifestyle police. On the negative side, there is no identifiable basis for forming community, little to sustain the see-saw of feelings or the bottomless quest for 'recognition', no way out of the hall of mirrors. Welcome to modern western culture, 2005.

But is the average church much better? More 'worthy', perhaps. Rooted in a (contested) tradition, for sure -- though not one that is much understood or explored, in many cases. Less frank about its own reservoir of darkness, pain, pride and passion, almost certainly...

And more of a zone of prayer? I wonder. Not prayer as in the superficial attempt to wrestle favour or meaning from a tribal god; but prayer as in "living life as gifted", abandoning the struggle for manipulation that finds its apotheosis in technological mediation and its nadir in the debasement of ourselves and fellow human beings.

For as Rowan Williams has suggested, prayer is the antithesis of grasping. It is a radical reordering which does not depend on performance, status, success or failure. And in that sense it addresses precisely the restlessness and dividedness which Foerster sees eating away at us, personally and collectively.

RW: "What a lot of the literature talks about is a sort of gathering in of awareness into yourself, which sounds a strange way of putting it but it simply means our thoughts and fantasies are usually all over the place and running off after this, that and the other, and part of the process that is going on is the sort of steady and quiet drawing in and settling of all these tentacles that are wriggling out to lay hold of the world - you gather them back in and that's a gathering into the heart which the Orthodox writers talk about, and what Western writers mean by the simplification of the heart in prayer. By this we simply become what we are and just sit there being a creature in the hand of God."

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