“There is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life”

They could look up into the night sky and read it like a book.  Those ‘Magioi’ from the East looked and saw, not (just) tiny dots of light, but news; news of the birth of a child.  Seeking wisdom and knowledge, they looked up.  For these human souls the starry night sky was the first ever ‘gospel’.  Reading this ‘stellar-script’ led them to the child that was the hope of humanity.

In our time who can read the stars?  Who can open the pages of this great ‘book’, so long turned to for wisdom and knowledge by our ancestors? Who would even think to?!

Today, we look at a screen.  We “search” a vast network of uncountable electrical centers and “servers” – this little electrical ‘night sky’ on earth.  We talk at little rectangular slabs in our hands and ask them what we want to know.  And we get answers! Unprecedented amounts of data and information is literally at our fingertips.  Leon Wieseltier reflects on this situation, in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review, with insightful and sharp prose:

the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.) – [for the whole, article by Leon Wieseltier, go here.

But this is not an anti-technology rant or some kind of nostalgic longing for the ‘days of yore’.  This is (always) a call to wake up to the miracle of our humanity. For, really, our situation is not as different from that of the ‘kings’ as the outer contradiction may first appear.  With all the data that is available, we still only have something similar to knowing the quantity of the stars in the sky and when and where they appear at a given time.  With only these facts, we still won’t have constellations, astrology, cosmology and prophecy!  Whether we collect the data we can observe in the sky or facts we can gather on google we have nothing until we work to discover the meaning of these facts – to ‘read’ them, interpret them, to ‘connect the dots’.  Wisdom can never be replaced by data, for only the human spirit can discover the invisible threads of meaning that connect one piece of the world with another.

And that is a deep aspect of who we are: We are the meaning ‘unveilors’ of the universe.  Whether through telescope, microscope or stethoscope, it is the human mind that must find the truth and meaning behind the data.  The logos within us (“which enlightens every human being“) recognizes the Logos of the universe.  All the world is full of data – our screens, our skies and our lives – like a page is full of letters, but it is the inner Word within us that can read the Word of the World.

And this is sometimes brutal work.  Making sense of the events of our lives, making sense of our own behavior, making sense of the events in the news, in history…learning to ‘read’ in this way leads us into ever deeper questions and soul-struggles as we risk nearing the greatest questions on the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the significance of of our existence –  of human existence.

But this search is one of the deepest expressions of our true nature! To be seeking this meaning, to be seeking that which gives us purpose and meaning and hope – to do this is to be on the same journey as those Magioi long ago…

As Wieseltier says near the end of his article, “there is nothing soft about the quest for a significant life.”

Patrick Kennedy is a priest in the Christian Community in the Washington D.C. area.  You can find out more at our websites: http://www.thechristiancommunity.org or http://www.ccgwb.org

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