Human alienation may be the growing pathology of our age
Feeling and fundamentalism seem to be displacing love and faith in our lives
The Christmas paradigm of love and faith is evaporating. Photograph: Getty Images
If gift-giving is a sign of love, then Christmas qualifies as a season of loving. As the word indicates, Christmas also has a connection to Christian faith. However, this Christmas paradigm of love and faith is evaporating.
Because people are always influenced by the culture they live in, both the experience of loving, and certainly the Christian experience have undergone a cultural tsunami in the lifetime of most of us.
For better or for worse we have moved from a culture of authority to a culture of choice, and since loving and believing are clearly matters of choice, this massive cultural change gives questions about relationships and love, about faith and transcendence a new importance for reflective people.
In 2000, Robert D Putman’s book Bowling Alone pointed to an increase of aloneness and loneliness in society. Eight years later a book by Bill Bishop noted the growth of groups with narrow cultural, political or religious views. He said these groups were not motivated by anything like love but rather by aggressive opposition to other groups. They certainly have no connection with an inclusive and flexible faith in a loving God.
It could be said that love in the form of selfless other-directed concern and healthy faith – however we define it – are gradually being pushed to the edge of the human experience. Loving is being equated with enjoying, and faith with a naive belief in the immediacy of God.
Feeling and fundamentalism seem to be displacing love and faith.
If, for believers, the first Christmas was the self-emptying of a loving God, then for the same believers Christmas must surely be accompanied by a personal self-emptying for others – for the marginalised, the materially poor, the homeless, migrants everywhere and also for our endangered environment.
Today’s cultural flux, the pressurised demands of the workplace and the increased awareness of personal rights combine to make people put increased emphasis on personal interests and to discourage the sharing of free time with others.
Despite an abundance of love still around us, relationships and commitments that in the past were built on mutual trust are changing to become cold calculations of risk and reward – what’s in it for me?
Loving is in danger of becoming a self-interested commercial enterprise where the Christmas paradigm of trust and love are being replaced by the transactional model. The presence of fewer life-long marriages and the massive decrease of priestly and religious vocations seem to confirm this.
The increase of fractured friendships and the loss of any sense of the transcendent may remain surface private experiences and unnoticed social trends, but they can also cause deep and permanent personal harm and lead to significant social problems. They can become profound human issues.
First, the personal. From the moment of conception the human person is hardwired to receive love and later to give it. To be fully human we need to have loving relationships in our lives.
We are not self-made or self-sustained. Loving and being loved are always enriching, but alienation may be the growing pathology of our age. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote: “Existence will remain meaningless for you if you do not permeate it with active love.”
We all need love. Deep within each of us is the question, “Will someone cry when I die?”
The social fabric also depends on co-operation built on some degree of love. Laws alone are inadequate to hold any society together. The Soviet system could not be held together by the bricks of the Berlin Wall; the Arab Spring dismantled many dictatorships.
Are some modern democracies heading in this direction as they emphasise selfishness, celebrity and screen time? In recent years, churches too are discovering that laws will not keep people attending religious services. Some level of free loving commitment for transcendent reasons is necessary for the pursuit of personal wellbeing, for living together and for achieving common goals.
The poet Robert Browning put this deep truth starkly: “Take away love, and the earth becomes a tomb.” This is true of countries, homes and all groupings. All human interaction now faces a radical challenge.
Most of us support the drive to save our planet. Perhaps there is need for a movement to save our humanity.
Fr Desmond O’Donnell is an Oblate priest , psychologist and author of To Love and to be Loved, published by Dominican Publications.