By Joshua Pippert, Benedictine College
The modern world is aching with things like rampant nihilism and blatant disregard for the moral implications of decisions. You’ll hear people, my fellow youth especially, ask questions such as “Why does life seem so meaningless?” or “Why can’t I just do what I want with whomever I want whenever I want to do it?” on a fairly regular basis. People are continually getting more cynical with each passing generation, and it’s no coincidence that the most recent generation is both the most cynical and the most tech-reliant. Pessimistic elders would say that those pesky phones are responsible for our frequently irreverent and disrespectful state. Yet for Heidegger, it’s not the phones themselves that are the cause of our holding nothing sacred, but the attitude that led to the development of those phones among many other inventions.
Mark Wrathall gave an impressive explanation of Heidegger’s view of the technological world, and considering that Heidegger only had the technological world of his time and before then to study, I wonder at what he would think of today. There’s a hope that at some point in history, we’ll be able to escape the many dangers of the technological world and rediscover the meanings of things once again, but the dangers seem to have only gotten worse. What I wish to argue, however, is that Heidegger’s hope has not diminished simply because the technological issue has been exacerbated. In fact, it may mean that we’re even closer to living in harmony with the fourfold.
Some may eagerly agree that the technological attitude is now stronger than ever seeing as how many new AI-enabled devices and hands-free virtual assistants exist on the market. The problem, though, goes far past the release of more capable and complicated technological devices. The dangers have gotten worse, but how have they gotten worse? Wrathall mentions how Nietzsche had talked about a loss of “weightiness” that followed after the death of God which is to be interpreted as a loss of meaning. A loss of the meaning of everything, to be exact. Things, places, and even ourselves.
I mentioned that my generation seems to be the most cynical out of all of them, and that’s because without any divinity to reveal significance of things to us, we’ve reached a point where many of us even lack a sense of “weightiness” from birth. It’s why you so often hear things like “I only popped out of the womb and there was nothing meant by it.” Church teaching would say that the mother is a holy figure, an incubator and nurturer of God’s sacred life, and that birth is a miracle that deserves the utmost reverence; but if God is dead, none of that holds any sway anymore and parenthood becomes mere reproduction.
Wrathall also points out that Heidegger defines a resource as something that’s removed from its initial significance so that we can reshape, repurpose, or revisualize it to be used however we please. Furthermore, when our own mothers’ birth canals are resources for the necessary act of reproduction, that’s how we know we’ve just about lost all sense of meaning. Yes, the technological attitude is not just one that we have toward objects, but it’s affected how we think of people as well.
If you consider a common topic pervading the general subject of theology now — the theology of the body — you’ll find that many scholars and speakers involved in that particular topic are quite fond of the phrase “intrinsic dignity of the human person.” Some of them can hardly go long without repeating it. Whether they know it or not, though, they’re touching on Heidegger’s concern about the technological world as being based on the idea that everything is, in itself, without significance. All of this supposed dignity, they often say, comes from God; but again, God is dead. With his death, then there’s no more dignity to be seen. The human body is no longer a temple and no longer sacred; it’s merely a thing existing for seemingly no reason. A thing that’s there for us to do with as we like: a resource.
Still, it doesn’t end there. Thinking about newer concepts of gender fluidity and identity adjustment, we haven’t only turned other people into resources, but ourselves as well. Where gender was once considered an integral part of who someone is, it’s now thought of as something entirely determined by the person and even sometimes jeered as a “social construct.” The idea is that we are failing to see the significance (or we have lost the weightiness) of who we are, and so now we are trying to purport our own selves into a seemingly endless variety of genders. We’re trying to master our own bodies, even if it’s only an attempt. We’re now taking a technological approach to our own bodies.
With the death of God and the loss of weightiness resulting in the way we see everything as meaningless; the technological attitude has been making resources of more and more things as history has progressed until finally, everyone and their mother is a resource. It should be clear now that we’ve dug the technological hole far too deep at this point and that it may now be much more difficult to see how we could possibly get out of it. If it was the death of God, a loss of divinity, that got us spiraling down this path, then we’ll need to return to divinity in order to find the inherent meanings of things once again. Wrathall discusses what divinity’s role in the fourfold is in relation to us, and how Heidegger says that God calls us to contemplate things in ways beyond how we’ve purported them. Not only that, but he acts as our only hope for making the meaning of things intelligible to us.
In order to grasp at any sort of intrinsic meaning of anything, however, we must first be in a position to do so. This position can be found in our achieving a sense of place. This, according to Wrathall and Heidegger, comes when we don’t try to master the land that we’re on or make it conform to our will in any way. Instead, we allow ourselves to be one with it, or to be “conditioned” by it. The land doesn’t conform to us. We conform to it. We’ll need to practices relevant to the fourfold as well in order to maintain our sense of existential importance as Wrathall describes it. When we’re living in an environment where we allow it to condition us without trying to change it, then we can start to wonder what it actually is and what it means.
In my hometown, there’s a statue of the man who owned that land before us still standing in a park downtown. He was the chief of the Shawnee tribe there, and I’d wager that his people had a stronger sense of place there than those who took it from them. The natives lived in the land, learned to be nourished by it, and let themselves be conditioned by it, opposed to the colonizers who wanted instead to claim the land, to conquer and control it. The chief’s statue itself looks like it’s only a statue until you let yourself be conditioned to the town and everything about it. Then the statue reminds you of the town’s history. It becomes a thing of meaning and importance to you. It makes demands of you to acknowledge the chief’s legacy and respect the land. Once that happens, you understand the land better and feel as if you have a place there.
Once we follow Wrathall and Heidegger’s advice to establish a sense of place in our environment, what should we do in order to regain divinity and restore meaning to our lives? There are two things that we should avoid. We should avoid looking to claim God for the purpose of hopefully escaping the technological world, since that would only be circling back to it. God should be something that comes to us, not a mere resource.
We should most certainly avoid another dangerous way of thinking popular in our world today, even if we realize it or not. You’ll hear lots of Catholics talk about moral relativism and how it’s too prevalent in our culture, but I don’t think it’s just moral relativism that we have to deal with. Yes, it’s certainly popular to think that we can all just make up our own truths through our opinions, but when we start to see those personal opinions as personal truths, then relativism evolves into a form of self-theism. We don’t see meaning anywhere, and so we decide to imagine ourselves as the sole determining factor for meaning. We think of ourselves as gods when we think of ourselves as giving all meaning to the meaningless in our own private “realities.” We attempt to fill the role of divinity.
We can’t order God to give us our meaning when we want it and we can’t become God either, even if we convince ourselves that we are. How then, do we really regain God? We think of him as our place. Essentially, we surround ourselves with items and artifacts that remind us of him (rather than showing everyone how dead God is by collecting dust in a museum) and dwell within our places by letting them condition us and to allow them to gather the concern of the fourfold without trying to subjugate them. We regain God just as we regain our place, by dwelling in him. Heidegger thought what aids us is hidden in the lie as well. Those phones, those pieces of technology, can certainly be used to find the right materials for a proper God-dwelling.
“Between the Earth and Sky: Heidegger on Life after the Death of God.” Religion after Metaphysics, by Mark A. Wrathall, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 69–87.