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18.10.2008

October 06, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Konstantin Cheremnykh

THE POST-SECULAR AGE AGENDA

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone issues a message both to the religious and laic audience

A GLANCE FROM THE PRESENT

Priests and politicians differ in the way they approach humans. While a politician, interested in an immediate result, tends to manipulate the people's yearnings, often by playing on their primordial, instinctive impulses, a priest, when speaking to masses of people, is addressing the best and highest in each of them. The clergy, bearing responsibility before the Lord and not before a political party or business association, perceives, analyzes and interprets the signs of a global disaster in a specific way, being open also to those who had never confessed or asked for counsel.

The global scale of the challenge requires a response on an inter-civilizational level, and the clergy identifies its essence and origin more precisely than anyone else. In September, when the wave of the financial crisis had not yet struck the core of the global markets, an international symposium, involving top figures of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches, coined the definition of a "post-secular civilization". It is noteworthy that the event in the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), entitled The 5th Convent "Global Politics: A Glance from the Future", was held in an atmosphere of spiritual openness, without any reference to civic authorities, thus marking a new emerging quality of a dialogue on essential issues the mankind is facing today.

The newly-published book of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of Vatican, presented at the symposium, impressed the audience with soberness and definitude of assessments of the implicit essence of current global challenges. The book, issued in Italian and Russian and supplied with a preface written by the Head of Department of External Church Relations of Moscow Patriarchy Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, is entitled "Ethics of Common Good in the Church's Social Doctrine"*. For a Russian intellectual, the most striking is the initial reference point: the Cardinal identifies the period of late 1960s as the time when the current disaster was taking shape.

In late 1960s, intellectuals "believed that everything is politics". This assumption, according to Bertone, generated a kind of universalism that predetermined "a global expansion of one culture, for the sake of which local cultures were victimized". The Cardinal reminds that globalization permeates not only the political sphere but all the hypostases of life, and that the faultiness of the relevant system of global relations arises not from miscalculations but from a moral deficiency. Meanwhile, the attempts to assess this reality by means of various versions of the same liberal individualism are helpless, as all of these approaches are characterized, according to the Cardinal, with the flaw of reductionism, i.e. downgrading the human principality.

Card. Bertone quotes the words of Aristotle who indicated that "common life of people is not equal to the coexistence of animals, grazing on the same meadow. In wild nature, every creature is concerned of itself, using any possibility to steal food from the neighbor. In human life, the good of everyone is available only through cooperation, and moreover, a human can make use of the common benefit only in case the same benefit is used by others".

Is it so essential to remind the audience, mostly comprised of Christian believers, of these elementaries of philosophy? In fact, the quote from Aristotle is used by the Cardinal only a pretext for the further discussion in which he insists that human coexistence per se cannot serve as a source of permanent well-being, and that the Church, never being satisfied with this (always temporary) balance of human exchange, tries to elevate the people to a higher level of relationship – the Brotherhood. Moreover, even economic activity in a narrow sense is not limited to the purpose of equivalent exchange but serves to the principle of mutuality that involves responsibility before dependent sides. Meanwhile, donation as an act, inherent exceptionally in the human community, is destined not for equalizing of possibilities but for underpinning the donator's affiliation to the society.

A Christian, longing for a society based on the principles of brotherhood "is not a passive ballot-caster: he has to be able to demonstrate that the principle of brotherly coexistence can bring about particular political decisions. This is the evidence of faith which even a laic would like to hear from the Church. The fact is that faith expresses itself through the possibility to perform something that exceeds the horizons, given to us".

This thesis of the Cardinal outdares the whole system of assumptions, generally accepted in the Western community in the so-called post-industrial era. The period of late 1960s that Bertone identifies as the starting point of the misleading ideological transformation, was indeed marked with a specific revival of the early XX-century atheism, evoked not with a real breakthrough in human science on the background of human craving for a more decent existence but with particular invention of cybernetics, particular kind of superficially pacifist anarchism developing (or rather instrumentalized to develop) into what was later called "rock-drug-sex revolution", and particular obsessions of the global establishment expressed in the so-called "limits of growth" concept.

 

THE FAULTY CONVERGENCE

The principal difference between the powerful movement for a social change in the early XX century and the "revolution" of 1968 is obvious from the fact that the latter emerged in a well-to-do social class, and was driven not by the core needs of a worker, revolting against brutal treatment from employers, but by an irrational, subcortical impulse of immature souls, not emburdened with any kind of responsibility before other humans. The desire of the "angry young men" of 1968 to entertain themselves while the work is performed by a "thinking machine" is qualitatively different from the desire for "free labor" Ц the international motto of 1920s.

In Soviet Russia, where the "revolution of hippies" generated indirect and delayed though also very strong effects, the second phase of atheistic revolution took place on the level of the establishment, emerging from Nikita Khrushchev's personal fascination with Lord Bertrand Russell's idea of science as a positive substitute for religion. The description of the British nobleman as a great humanistic thinker, almost on the level of Karl Marx, coincided then with the theory of "convergence of capitalism and socialism", developed in a narrow circle of intellectuals under the auspices of the Club of Rome.

The real convergence was actually taking place on the lever of movers and shakers, representing the self-described gray eminence of both sides of the Iron Curtain, whose perfect mutual understanding surfaced after the 1991 collapse of the USSR when the former disciples of the Institute of Applied Systems Analysis entered the stage in a political role. The person, broadly described as the author of Soviet "perestroika", Acad. Alexander N. Yakovlev, was a devoted neophyte of informational theory which he sincerely believed to be the highest achievement of social philosophy.

The painful social shift of that time, victimizing the proponents of productive labor, was subsequently replaced with a kind of "new thinking", not invented by Mikhail Gorbachov but associated with the obvious improvement of living standards derived from the advantageous conjuncture of oil prices.

The new convergence of Russia, now a G-8 member and a WTO candidate, with the Western community, now encompassed a far broader level of the society that has got implicitly convinced that after a decade of hardships, the Russian [consumer] society has "deserved" a better life and a higher role in the world Ц with no insight in its origin; with no empathy in the needs of other nations, not so generously endowed by Mother Nature; with no regard for the desperate envy experienced by poorer nations towards Russia as well as the West; with no slightest idea that this luck may be temporary.

At the same time, curiously, globalization is perceived by Russians as a negative phenomenon, an external force associated with military threats to the nation. At the same time, a turner or assembler, getting a job at a neat, air-conditioned facility of a foreign corporation that is making use of cheapness of Russian labor force, does not perceive himself as a direct participant of the same globalization process. Federal and (especially) local functionaries convince him that the "progressive" China owes its success to the same pattern. These officials forget to mention that partnership with Western business is viewed in China as a tactical and not strategic task; that the problem of employment in China is directly proportional to the number of population and reversely proportional to the scarcity of natural resources; that beyond this practice, China continues to patronize poorer countries, abandoned by USSR's succession, not only for geopolitical reasons but for averment of veracity of the chosen model of development.

 

BEYOND MUNDANE CALCULATIONS

The careless misinterpretation of global reality in the Russian society has taken shape of a specific cultural autism, phenomenologically similar to the careless irresponsibility of a citizen of the Western post-industrial civilization. This similarity exposes itself as the reality is breaking in.

When the decline of US imports suppresses European production, which, in its turn, reduces imports of Russian fuel; when "black gold turns black evil for the stable ruble and balanced budget", according to the recent headline in a major Russian business paper; when massive layoffs in construction and retail trade, resulting from contraction of bank liquidity, strikes European and Russian households, the two sister civilizations come to realize that something crucial in the way they lived had been essentially wrong. The explanation they demand from politicians can hardly be derived by means of simple calculation, as the monetary processes of the last three decades were based on rational thinking but rather on the careless belief in the postindustrial miracle.

When the inevitable effect of an even more desperate impoverishment in most nations of the Third World echo in Europe and Russia with social tensions and eruptions of ethnic hate, the powers will have to respond not just with pointing at particular scapegoats among the financial class but with a search for ideas explaining what had happened and what has to be done. However, a similar task also faces the majority of Europeans that greeted the use of agro-industrial capacities for "alternative energy" cultures, forcing the poorest nations to tighten their belts to their skeletons, and the majority of Russians, indifferent to the problems of their former sister peoples of the common Soviet fatherland.

When a colored street beggar smashes the windows of a middle-class European, and the underpaid police doesn't intervene, the victim, already unable to pay rent and sustain the family, is likely to finally ask himself about the way he had lived for the last thirty post-industrial years. When a team of once illegally hired and now illegally dismissed Tajik workers kidnaps the only child of a Russian construction manager, he will have to think, better late then never, about the frailty of his hunt for super profit. The response both will seek for lies not in the sphere of rationalistic calculation: the term "retribution" belongs to a different sphere.

This sphere is addressed by Cardinal Bertone who reminds that the horizons of Brotherhood are not aerial fancies: in fact, they are exemplified with a tangible earthly equivalent that differentiates a human from inferior beings: a human is capable for relations of friendship which, in its essence, is "not addiction to material benefits but the desire to share them with others, the interior readiness to meet the requirements of another person".

Is this message destined only for the Catholic parish? Contemplating over the Cardinal's statements, a Russian or European could ask himself why the term "friendship" is so rarely used in today's language of journalism and political analysis, being most commonly replaced with definitions of "strategic partnership", or "Verflechtung" which are in essence the same equivalent exchange that does not create a new quality. Both Europeans and Russians could ask themselves why the term "friendship" is not applied to their closest ethnic and cultural neighbors, the relations with them being greedily reduced to a sapless tariff calculation.

 

IN SEARCH OF THE NEW IDEAL

Media reports, as well as personal evidence, plausibly reveal that both Europe and Russia were caught napping with the avalanche of financial crisis, despite numerous warnings of economists, experts and even persons with a reputation of top speculators. The fact that the most serious warnings had been ignored, and their authors marginalized and ridiculed, is an additional evidence of profound moral deficiency of the system that is now falling apart. In human history, redemption in a civilizational dimension is taking place not for the first time.

The reference to St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Cardinal Bertone's book is addressed not only to Catholic minds. St. Bernard's concerns of the monastery lands should not be used for "non-productive accumulation", expressed in the XI century, sound perfectly relevant a millennium later, when the former industrial territories in the United States, Europe, and very frequently also in Russia, especially in metropolises, are abandoned and/or replaced by non-productive casinos, entertainment centers and the super-fashionable kind of real estates, known as lofts. Like a millennium before, the land that could bring fruit to the people who invest their everyday labor, are used for surrogate means in a way determined by the Cardinal as "a zero-sum game". This process cannot happen without consequences for the souls of persons deprived from the very possibility of contributing to the common good, and getting obsessed with individual happiness Ц like, just for one example, those millions of Americans who signed mortgage contracts, being pretty aware of not having earned for a real estate.

Though the term "crisis" was not used in the Cardinal's book, the issue was raised by all the participants of the discussion. The problem of the crisis, exceeding its merely economic aspect, was raised independently by such different persons as Dr. Sc. (Polit.) Victor Sergeyev, University of Bologna professor Stefano Zamagni, MGIMO professor, philosopher Alexei Shestopal, Vice President of the Christian Entrepreneurs Union (Unione Cristiana Imprenditiori Dirigenti) Renzo Bozzetti, retired diplomat and now professor Yevgeny Astakhov, and Moscow State University associate professor, First Deputy Chairman of Russian Entrepreneur Foundation, economist Andrey Kobyakov. The phenomenon of the "bubble" was viewed by the speakers as an inevitable implication of fictitious "postindustrial economy", displaying, in the process of its decomposition, not only the faultiness of the reductionist theories but the underlying immorality of the once selected choice.

What to do about all this? Can this question be reduced only to measures of soothing the "consumer being" with billions of repaying bank debts? Should a human be reminded of his responsibility before the rest of the individuals across the globe? Can the destructive impulses of frustration be transformed into an impetus of hope Ц not a Barack Obama-style surrogate but real energy, inspiring and uplifting the nature of a human? This is the agenda of the new post-secular era, the age of new ethics that Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone only touched Ц delicately but precisely grasping the ontological essence. The Orthodox community is expected to respond, and this response should represent not a mere exchange but a contribution based upon this civilization's own ethical experience Ц its own essential and indispensable endowment into the global solution, required by the era when the so-called "eternal issues" are becoming practical.

 

* Card. Tarcisio Bertone. L'etica del bene comune nella dottrina sociale della Chiesa. //A cura di Pierluca Azzaro, Libreria editrice Vaticana, 2008.


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