While industrialization has brought material comfort in the form of technological gains, it is painfully clear that something spiritual is missing in life.
Cold, lifeless materialism reigns supreme. If one thing characterizes the modern world, it is its uncanny ability to reduce the highest spiritual reality to material or digital irrelevance.
In such a sterile environment, the human soul finds it increasingly difficult to survive or flourish.
The Great Divide
Indeed, the soul in its quest for God clamors for joys of the spirit. It looks for reflections of God in a world rich with life, color, sound, and fragrance. It seeks lofty flights of the intellect whereby it can know being, reality, and universal truth. Finally, it wills to love and serve the good it perceives.
With the rise of modern science, however, the soul finds only a “real” world that cannot entirely satisfy its desires. It is a cold, hard, silent, and dead world of quantity, a Cartesian world of computable motions and mechanical regularity.
This splintered perception of reality forms what French anthropologist Bruno Latour aptly dubbed the “great divide.”1 It fashions a radically dualistic world that separates within modern man the very things the soul desires whole: the sacred and the profane, the tangible and the intangible, the material and the spiritual, the physical and the metaphysical.
The modern attitude toward religion is a typical example of the mental havoc caused by this separation. It is the belief that God does not manifest Himself objectively in the “real world.” Thus, all religion is a subjective experience with no link to reality.
Dividing the Soul
The great divide spawned a materialistic culture that puts a wedge between the spiritual soul and living in the real world.
God endowed man with a soul having an intellectual aspect that towers over the body. Man, like the angels, has an intellect whereby he can know truth in all its forms. Likewise, the will drives man to love, desire, and accomplish this good when perceived by the intellect.
Logically, a culture should especially strive to develop these highly spiritual aspects of the soul. Indeed, most civilizations do reward intellectual pursuits and extol great deeds and efforts.
Yet, modern culture increasingly does the opposite. It caters to the lower, the sensitive, part of the soul, common to men and animals. It targets the external senses and the internal senses of imagination, sensible memory, and sensibility. It intensifies the role of passions, feelings, and emotions.
Purging the Spirit
It has been observed that one of the things the devil hates most about man is the fact that he has an immortal soul capable of eternal happiness. Such is his hatred that he would like to wrench the soul out of man and reduce him to the level of an animal.
Since this is impossible, the devil has often resorted to tempting man to be indifferent and insensitive to the goods of the soul. He tries to take away man’s intellectual desire to know not only God but anything beautiful and magnificent. He wants to take away man’s will to love not only God but anything worthy of affection.
To do this, he highlights the things that appeal only to the physical sensibility of man. Material reality becomes that which governs and rules.
In this sense, modern society is increasingly de-intellectualized. The works of the intellect are losing value. It is not college professors who make the multimillion-dollar salaries but athletes with their towering heights or linebacker brawn.
Today’s leaders are not products of great thoughts. Rather, they are the fruit of hype, spin, and five-second sound bytes. The very prerequisite for being a modern hero is not to provoke thought and reflection but to project image and feeling.
In today’s experience economy, modern advertising targets not the intellect but the sensibilities. Bright colors, bold contrasts, and attractive labeling sell products and trigger impulse buying.
Instant dot.com millionaires and Megabuck lotto winners overshadow the glorification of Herculean efforts of the will.
The aversion to intellectual pursuits and strength of will is leading to a slothful rejection of anything requiring thought and effort. This attitude filters down to every aspect of daily life.
A well-prepared meal, for example, is a modest exercise of the intellect that takes time and effort to plan, to prepare, and even to savor. This contrasts sharply with fast-food, which provides instance physical sensation and sustenance.
The art of dressing well takes thought and effort. And yet so much casual attire banishes the criteria of beauty, dignity, and modesty, replacing these with physical feel-cool, look-ugly comfort.
Even prayer cannot be reflective and pondered. Many modern liturgies fill souls with noise, feelings, and even “mystical” experiences. Very often, people seek after feel-good miracles that have become the most ordinary extraordinary experience around.
Assault on the Soul
There is constant pressure to just let go and cater to base instincts and feelings that pervade society. Nothing need be analyzed. Everything ought to be instant, inciting an impatience to have as many exterior sensations as possible. Instead of the soul reflecting upon itself, it feels inebriated with the bombardment of overwhelming external influences.
Such an assault is a particularly brutal aspect of modern society. It imposes irreflection and incoherence on those who could make the great effort to enjoy the goods of the soul.
In such a society, life tends to be monotonous. Amid the hustle and bustle, there is no solitude or silence for thinking. Jacques Ellul, in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, describes this busy modern man as a “victim of emptiness,” devoid of meaning, who struggles to “fill his inner void.”2
Reviving the Soul
A proper antidote to today’s plug-and-play culture can only be a reviving of the lost taste for the goods of the soul. It calls for filling the void by resisting the trend wherein all must be instant and unpondered.
Such souls perceive the pleasures of existence and are aware of being principally soul. For them, the pleasures of the soul surpass those of the body. They find tranquility and fulfillment in prayer, leisure, solitude, and conversation.
This is what came about when medieval man embraced a worldview that integrated both material and spiritual needs. His soul thrived on a highly logical realism blended with a metaphysical sense of the sacred, the intangible, and the organic found in the world of nature. Moreover, such a life prepared the soul for a life of grace and for eternal happiness in heaven.