The Culture We Deserve: November 2003 Archives

Electronic Knowledge

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In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote:

"It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions, and these are nowhere to be seen nowhere (sic) more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world."

While it is arguable that we have come a long way since the invention of the printing press, it remains a good thing "to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions", even today. I was reminded of this as I read about the new search engine being launched by Amazon.com. This new search engine allows customers to search approximately 120,000 books in a database for a particular word or phrase. In the click of a mouse all references to the search topic found in any of the 120,000 books will appear on the customer's screen. I am quite sure that all appropriate information on acquiring the books containing the desired references will also be made readily available.

To a guy born in Detroit nearly 60 years ago, before computers were anything but an exotic, and expensive, plaything for engineers, this seems wondrous indeed. Anyone who has spent days in a library searching through endless stacks of books, magazines, and papers for a research project can easily see the possibilities. But a guy like me also has to ask, "Is this an entirely good thing?"

The reason for my question is that I wonder how this will affect the way we think about knowledge and truth?

We live in an age in which truth is viewed as relative, even ephemeral. At least part of the reason for this is that we live in a world in which "knowledge" changes quickly. My father, who was 50 years old when I was born, was 6 years old when the Wright brothers first took to the air. In his early years, horses and wagons were the common mode of transportation. My grandfather was born before the Civil War ended and as I was growing up, I knew some elderly folks who were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president. I was 10 when the Russians put the first satellite into earth orbit. I was 21 when the first man walked on the moon. The internet as we know it is only 10 to 15 years old. It was only about 30 years ago that electronic calculators were a marvel. Greater changes in technology, and in the way we live, have taken place in my life time than took place in, at least, the 500 years before I was born. We take for granted the fact that the technology we use today will be obsolete in less than 5 years. The point here is not that I am really old, but to remind those of you who are less than 40 years of age that the world we live in is a very recent invention.

One of the greatest changes taking place in the last 20 years or so has been in the fields of publishing and communications. Prior to the internet, with its blogs, email, and other novelties, publishing was not something open to the average Joe's participation. Publishing nearly any piece of writing required at least a modicum of capital in order to pay writers, buy or hire printing and binding equipment and have access to distribution channels. Publishers of books and magazines were, and are, of course, careful to protect their investments with copyrights and by-lines. Something published the old-fashioned way was not and is not now easy to plagiarize. Publishers also serve as arbiters of what gets published; and, in most cases, as guarantors of the accuracy and quality of the material they publish. Once published in book or magazine form it is not easy for the author or publisher to deny responsibility for it, nor is it always easy to correct errors in such material. Printed material is not, at least to a tradition minded guy like me, ephemeral and subject to manipulation. It carries a certain air of credibility; it can easily be found and referred to again and again, it does not change.

The internet has changed the business of publishing. Now any idiot (including yours truly) can set up a blog or a web-site and be in the publishing business with little or no investment. The web has provided a vehicle for anyone with access to a computer to express himself to the world with the greatest of ease. There are two problems that I see, however, with publishing on the internet -- first, there is no publisher to serve as a protector of quality and accuracy. Another problem is that, because it is so easy and cheap to gain access the internet, there are many folks who think that material appearing there is in the public domain, their own private plaything; for many people, whatever appears on the internet is fair game to do with as they please.

This was brought home to me with the posting of obscene material and ads for items, the marketing of which I certainly have to wish to be associated with, in comments on my blog. I guess the thing I find so upsetting is that, first of all, whoever did that seems to think they have the right to do so without asking my permission. They have no such right, anymore than they would have the right to hi-jack a television signal to broadcast such material. The second thing is that, if they believe they have the right to do what they did, sooner or later some clever hacker is going to figure out that he (or she) has the right to prepare his own posts for my blog or alter posts that I have published here. What is I post on this blog is hardly impervious to being pirated for someone else's purposes, and I might have a hard time proving that the authorship was not my own, or that I published something that is no longer here.

Now, if this is true in my own little world, how true will it be when information that is now in libraries, on paper, is only available electronically? Will we be able to believe anything published on the web is what the author intended to write, and that the facts can be relied upon, if we cannot be sure it has not been tampered with? In future years, will we have confidence that we know the truth of any historical event if the record is solely available in electronic format? It might become incredibly difficult to preserve any original records inviolate from the tampering of those who do not view truth with the same regard as we do. We will have to rely on the integrity of those maintaining the records, and to be honest, I don't have a great deal of confidence that truth is widely thought of as something that must be guarded and preserved.

I don't know if the situation will develop as I see it might. I know we have already seen such a venerable institution as The New York Times fall prey to reporters and editors with little regard for the facts. I don't know what there is to prevent this becoming much more widespread, but then I guess, in the end, this is in God's hands. However, you might see why I am not completely convinced that the coming age of electronic libraries is an unmitigated blessing.

A Crisis of Rabbis

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Fr. Neuhaus, in the last issue of First Things, points out that there is a vocation crisis among Jewish clergy. It seems there are several factors contributing to the impending shortage of young people entering the Rabbinical field, but primary among them is the loss of respect among Jews for Rabbis. Quoting an article by Jack Wertheimer in Commentary magazine, Fr. Neuhaus points out that Rabbis themselves are to blame for this.

"With particular reference to the rabbinate, Wertheimer notes trends contributing to the diminished appeal of the religious calling: 'Several other developments contributed to the erosion of the rabbis' status. One was the society-wide assault on authority, of which many rabbis were simultaneously victims and initiators. Catering to the newly modish disdain for formality, rabbis refashioned themselves, trading in their suits for leisure wear, abandoning the title 'Rabbi Cohen and dropping formal sermons in favor of free-flowing discussion that might include an exchange of views with congregants.'" There was, however, another, larger, problem. Fr. Neuhaus quotes Wertheimer, "More critically still, many relinquished their roles as authorities in matters of Jewish religious law; to quote Daniel Jeremy Silver . . . by the mid-1980s, rabbis were making 'a virtue of being nonjudgmental.'"

One hardly needs to point out the two primary trends for the loss of the respect one given Rabbis by Jewish people, loss of formality and fear of being "judgmental" are a problem not only among Rabbis but in society at large. For example, I happened to be at church one day when one of the kids, an 8 or 9 year old boy, walked into the room. I was standing with a gentleman who is perhaps 10 years my senior (he's old, man) and the boy greeted him with "Hi, Joe." When I was a boy, that greeting would have gotten the young man a cuff on the ears because of the disrespect implied. Yet no one thought anything of it, nor paid any attention. This exemplifies a trend today of not only a loss of respect for one's elders, but also of a loss of respect for ourselves. We no longer want to be taken seriously and as a result, we do not take anything or anyone seriously. Nothing is worthy of our respect, and traditions that are centuries old can be discarded at the drop of a hat.

I think part of the reason that we do not want to take ourselves seriously is that we do not want to accept the responsibility that inevitably accompanies such an outlook. If we take ourselves seriously, it means we must accept that our actions have consequences and that we must take responsibility for those consequences. It means that it makes a difference if our actions are good or evil. It means there is such a thing as, dare I say it, sin! It means that we cannot determine the moral quality of our actions solely on the basis of whether or not they please us or make us feel good. It also means that there is a need for forgiveness and redemption from Someone external to ourselves, Someone who is able to mitigate the effects of our sin.

The second factor, the fear of being judgmental is another relatively recent and troubling trend. Being judgmental, making judgments, is a fact of human life. There is good and evil. There are things and ideas and philosophies that are good and those that are bad. The bad ones generally are harmful and should either be avoided or condemned. But today, no one it is not fashionable to believe in absolutes, truth, or good or evil, is relative and it is "mean-spirited" to believe otherwise. This attitude has become pervasive, even among those who might generally be thought to be religiously orthodox and socially conservative. For example, in the November 10 issue of Newsweek even George Will falls into this trap. After giving a brilliant analysis of the problems the ECUSA is facing with their new, avowedly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire and, in the process showing why the magisterium of the Church is important, he concludes with a remarkable statement.

"This is not to say that homosexual behavior is inherently wrong, let alone that it is a great intrinsic evil like slavery. The analogy with the popular-sovereignty argument is intended to underscore the fact that although tolerance is a virtue, it is never sufficient as a nation's, or institutions, animating principle. If a nation or institution is limitlessly inclusive, then citizenship or membership is meaningless."

One might counter that if homosexuality is not, in itself, inherently evil, then there is no reason why Gene Robinson should not be bishop of New Hampshire. Yet Will seems to believe it necessary to add this caveat in order to avoid the appearance of being mean spirited.

It should be pointed out that this is not the traditional Christian view of things in two ways. One, in judging the propriety of an act you are not judging the person themselves, only the moral rightness or wrongness of the act itself. Second, the judgment is made out of love, to try to help the person improve the moral rightness of their lives -- help them see the right way, and also to help ourselves in avoiding similar difficulties in our own lives. There are times when properly judging an act can be a matter of life and death, as in the case of mortal sin, and not making a judgment about such acts is foolish and indeed, is the unloving course of action.

FR. Neuhaus quotes Werthiemer’s solution to the problem of the shortage of vocations to the rabbinate:

"Rejecting defeatist advice from among their own colleagues, they would need to gird themselves to combat the present solipsistic moment in American Judaism, reeducating their congregants to think beyond their immediate personal need, their inchoate yearnings for 'spirituality,' and their consumerist notion of religious life. They would need to insist on synagogue ritual focused on communal rather than privatized concerns, and they would need to reorient the synagogue itself as an institution focused on the transcendent needs of the Jewish people. Above all, they would need to take their own role seriously, accepting the burden and the challenge of their calling as individuals who speak with authority not only for themselves but for the Jewish tradition, the Jewish people, and God."

In short, it will take a dramatic shift in "worldview" for the rabbi problem to be solved. People will to return to an understanding that this world is not all there is and that there are things that we do not completely understand that should be taken seriously.

I believe there are lessons here for the Church. While it is true that Jewish clergy can marry, they are still experiencing a “vocation” crisis, just as the Catholic Church is (at least, in some places). The crisis is not brought on by an excessively stringent code of celibacy, rather it seems to have occurred because of a loss of meaning. No one pays any attention to rabbis anymore, so who wants to be a rabbi? In the Church, many folks think they can function in exactly the same way a priest can, so who needs priests? The nuns in certain orders started wearing street clothes and living in apartments 30 years ago – no one wants a vocation in those orders today, as a result, they are rapidly dying off. In this environment, no one wants to be a priest, and make the sacrifices entailed, unless it makes a difference. The crisis in vocations has resulted, I think, not because priests are deprived of the right to marry and have sacrifices, rather it is because those who might have vocations do not understand that there is a real reason to make the sacrifice.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the The Culture We Deserve category from November 2003.

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