Just When You Thought You Understood

The American lust for knowledge in the age of Mc-nihilism
By Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C.
Originally Posted On: February 5, 2008
Westchester Institute e-Column

Today is Super Tuesday.

After reading the morning newspapers, it strikes me that the current run for the White House has generated near-constant uncertainty about what voters think or want. Six months ago, it was inconceivable that this election would not be about Iraq. Six months hence, turns out the number-one issue is the economy.

Or was that just last week’s take on public opinion? According to a front page spread in today’s Wall Street Journal, the issue is now “character.” And—I am tempted to ask—what will it be next week?

The uncertainty about American public opinion on everything from what Americans want from a president, to what they want from Hollywood, to what they want from Microsoft is only one instance of our growing knowledge deficit. If you haven’t noticed, America is struggling with the growing awareness of just how little we know.

Is our economy in a nose dive or is it really just fine? Is America in decline as a superpower or are we still on top of our game? Is Iran building an a-bomb or not? Is global warming for real or is it ideology masquerading as science? Is the universe bounded or unbounded, expanding or collapsing? These are all valid questions, and we must certainly pursue answers; but it’s our groping in the dark and continuing uncertainty that we find more and more intolerable. As a result, our passion to be in the know, to possess the inside story, to have our finger on what’s really going on, to have the factoid at our fingertips, is an ever more prevalent, to not say dominant, psychological state.

This all unfolds, of course, in a cultural and academic milieu that treats agnosticism as enlightened and atheistic reductive materialism as sexy. The prophets of Mc-nihilism, like the late Richard Rorty, taught that we would do best to stop treating truth as something “out there” that we can grasp; that we should stop being so foolish as to believe that there is some over-arching and meaningful context in which to correctly understand our situation in the cosmos.

In such a milieu, and having absorbed these ideas since kindergarten, I would suggest that most Americans find something mildly therapeutic in their lust for factoids.

The problem is that, bereft of an overarching and meaningful account of ‘what-it’s-all-about’, such lusting after knowledge-chunks, the latest data, and the inside track, can be the very dynamic that perpetuates and aggravates the Mc-nihilism that is eating away the very core of our culture, and even our mental health.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that 1 in 10 American women are on an anti-depressant because they are uncertain whether the universe is expanding or collapsing. I am suggesting, however, that the lack of an over-arching and personally profoundly meaningful narrative into which we can fit both our abundance of knowledge-chunks and our lingering uncertainties can certainly be the root cause of everything from anxiety disorders to our growing dependence on anti-depressants. Knowledge—with its fits and starts, certainties and surprises, and open-ended-ness—lest it be the cause of growing unrest, agnosticism, and end in Mc-nihilism, needs the framework of an over-arching account of what it’s all about—an account which we deem to be true.

Enter here the role of religion in public life. Religion can provide that much needed narrative. Religion can offer us entry into another kind of knowing that surpasses the limitations and inherent uncertainty of all things empirical, and opens onto a grasp of broader realities.

In light of which, I find it much more than coincidental that Super Tuesday is followed, tomorrow, by Ash Wednesday—a welcome reminder of our need to transcend the world of factoids and pursue the bigger picture of what it’s all about.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.