Nature is not always “natural.” We “naturally” recognize a standard above nature. For example, nuclear weapons are made from the very stuff of nature (atoms, etc.) but strike as distinctly unnatural in their effect. We understand that technology in warfare has progressed over time. We can process at least some of these changes as a kind of natural progression of what has always been. So, a rifle is akin to a bow and arrow, artillery has its origins in the catapult, and so on. But nuclear weapons turns nature itself against us. Watching nuclear weapons detonate can transfix us with a kind of horrifying beauty. We know that we have encountered something on a different plane . . .
Historians and others have many explanations for our current cultural moment, and I will try my hand in what follows.
I recently heard a priest online state that, “We are still fighting World War I.” Obviously he wasn’t referring to the physical fighting, or the geopolitical situation. Germany, England and France are friends now, more or less. I suspect that he meant that we still fight the war in cultural or religious sense, that we have not understood or solved the central question of the war, which I think runs like so:
How is it that a culture brimming with confidence and optimism (in general), possessing an overwhelming share of global GDP, and controlling in a direct or indirect way perhaps as much as 50% of the globe, throw it all away in a mind-numbingly horrific 30 stretch (1914-45)? Again, while western civilization ca. 1900 had real flaws, we can envy their confident, secure identity and purpose. We have never as a culture come to terms with why western civilization tumbled down the hill, and we still have not learned the basic lessons that period can teach us.
In the biblical narrative, mankind begins by living in Eden, a garden on a mountain. After their exile from Eden, they come down from the mountain, closer, in a sense, to Earth, farther from communion with God. Immediately, Cain’s descendents go further into the earth, using what dig up to build cities and other implements of iron (Gen. 4:22). With this knowledge they tame animals. They gain the power to manipulate nature. But this power makes them uneasy and thin-skinned. It brings them no security–in fact, one could argue that Lamech’s speech (Gen. 4:23-24) comes either from fear, hubris, or both. The Scriptural pattern then is*
Increase of Power=Increase of Vulnerability=Violence, Destabilization, and Dislocation
This sense of “dislocation” struck Cain with full force just after demonstrating his possession of power over the life of his brother (Gen. 4:14).
Of course western civilization has significantly increased its power by using raw materials of the earth in the Industrial Revolution. Our physical power increased exponentially, but not via new machines only. We should also see the preceding political movements towards more democracy as a movement “down the mountain.” Monarchy is a “top of the mountain” form of governance. It concentrates identity into a single point. This concentration, however, limits possibility and potential, which in turn limits power. Moving “down the mountain” gives more possibilities, more “weight,” to political actions (the bottom of the mountain is obviously heavier than the top). Thus, we can see our Constitution as a kind of technological development, one that increased our power vis a vis the rest of the world. If the pattern holds, it should have also made us more “touchy” and prone to violence.
Most shake their heads in disbelief when they see what triggered W.W. I. The various chains of causation–the German navy, Russian interest in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary’s weakness, etc. have a logic to them. But I wouldn’t buy any argument that said that all this was worth war. It seems to me that we see every major power an with advanced case of touchiness and paranoia, a grave sense of insecurity. World War I has a parallel in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. By 431 B.C. Athens had grown wealthy and extended its territorial reach throughout the Aegean Sea. But rather than have all of this make them more secure, it seemed to open them up to great fear about it being taken away. As with Lamech and Germany, Athens went to war in the end over the Sparta’s reaction to the Megaran decree–an insult only in the barest sense of the word. To those that say, “If it wasn’t the Megaran decree it would have been something else,” I agree. But this proves my point. Touchy people will get mad at just about anything.
If the Industrial Revolution represented a movement down the mountain to what lies underneath it, so nuclear weapons means traveling even further down into the physical structure of matter itself. What could be more “natural?” This of course granted us enormous destructive power. But surely, it is not natural that handful of people scattered throughout the world should have the ability wipe out billions of people in under 30 minutes. Wielding a knife gives one power, but it is very difficult to accidentally hurt or kill someone else with a knife. A gun gives more power, and hence, it is easier to accidentally–or intentionally–kill someone with a gun.
With nuclear weapons, a small accident, malfunction, or misunderstanding–let alone an actual act of malice–could kill millions.
We need not restrict our purview to weapons only. Cars, for example, give us great power to move quickly. But to enable this, we had to construct roads, a massive traffic apparatus, etc. that leaves us vulnerable to serious injury and death. We could drive well, and our car could work perfectly. But many things are outside of our control. If someone else makes a mistake, or if someone’s else truck blows a tire, it could endanger us easily.
Other digital technology, such as the internet, continues our journey down the mountain. We can manipulate atoms now to vastly increase our communicative ability. We can gain information from anywhere, know anything from any time, and so on. We all know the satisfaction that comes from shopping online, watching a funny youtube, and so on. But virtually every commentator on our current cultural situation acknowledges that internet often hurts more than it helps. With Twitter perhaps especially, we experience the destabilization that comes with chaos. Twitter gives us a sea of information with no editing, structure, or system to guide us. We talk of the “Internet of Things” as it relates to connecting our appliances and other tools to the worldwide web. The moniker is ironic–what the internet gives us is a plethora of “things” with no coherence.
If we mistrust each other it is not because of our weakness but because of the outsized power we possess. At the top of the mountain we can orient ourselves, we can locate ourselves vis a vis our surroundings. At the bottom, however, we have only multiplicity and no unity. This in turn has led to an acute sense of dislocation, which in turn feeds a tendency towards all the wrong kinds of identity, as we have seen recently.**
Fixing western civilization–we all want to see the day, in theory at least. But coming to a solution will mean lightening our load to climb back up the mountain.
*We see this not just in Genesis 4. The Tower of Babel could be another example of Increase of Power=Dislocation–quite literally in that case. In 1 Samuel 24, King David takes a census, something for which he is punished. It seems incomprehensible to us that taking a census should be a sin. Yet, in the narrative even the amoral Abner warns David against taking this action. If we see the pattern, a census increases ones knowledge of “particulars” dramatically. It is a journey “down the mountain” that makes David quite vulnerable. Abner’s reaction should clue us into the innate understanding they had of this pattern, the danger of David “trying to throw his arms around the world.”
It should not surprise us, then, to see a repeat of this pattern as the New Testament begins. It is not a coincidence that the birth of Christ, the King who would in time destroy the Roman Empire, is preceded by a census (Luke 2).
**In terms of sexual identity, we no longer seek even to mine the minutiae of nature. Instead we wish to transcend it entirely. We have accumulated such power over nature that we feel we can discard it at our leisure. Obviously there is a link here between our current sexual identities and our environmental issues. Here exists a possible link-up between social conservatives and environmentalists.