In the opening pages of the Epilogue to his monumental theological trilogy, Hans Urs von Balthasar considers modern man as an anima technica vacua. He notes the contemporary desire for the Church to try to meet modern man “where he is,” cites several reports about the excessive television watching of American and European children, and then wonders:
So severe is this situation that most teachers of religion ask, with equal justice, just who these ruins are whom we should try to “meet” (against their will!) “where they are”. A missionary toiling in the savannas of Africa or on the atolls of the Pacific has it relatively easy: he encounters a perhaps primitive anima naturaliter christiana. What might come across to the native as pure theological Chinese he can easily translate into the simplest of languages. But where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? I for one certainly do not know. Some table-rapping. A séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough (10-11).
That question – where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? – floated through my head recently while watching a minor league baseball game in Brooklyn. There are few slices of Americana thicker than watching minor league baseball on a gorgeous summer evening with beer and hot dog (ok, maybe peanuts and crackerjack) in hand. It would seem that watching baseball in Brooklyn should be particularly uplifting, for the very fact that there is professional baseball (even if it is single-A) being played in that borough provides some evidence for the theological truths of forgiveness and redemption. For while the Bible may claim blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgiveable sin, Brooklyn baseball fans know that there is one more: Walter O’Malley’s decision to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. (Incidentally, should the Dodgers ever return to Brooklyn, the Church might have to reconsider Origen’s theory of apokatastasis.)
But I did not leave the ballpark that night thinking about the restoration of all things, redemption, or even nostalgically about boyhood or America, but instead about the anima techinca vacua. For while that night did feature baseball in Brooklyn, perfect weather, and yes, even beer and hot dogs, those things were trumped by a different spirit which dominated the ballpark: one of unyielding noise. I have come to expect T-shirt tosses and Frisbee throws and all kinds of other promotional gimmicks at minor league parks – after all, I grew up in a state whose minor league team features “The Bratzooka,” an air-powered cannon which fires foil-wrapped bratwursts into the stands (see picture above). I was ready for these. I was not ready for the hip-hop, rap, and pop music that pulsated out of the stadium’s speakers at excruciating decibels. Forget about enjoying those nostalgic sounds of the ball hitting the bat or mitt. Even carrying on a conversation with the person next to you was impossible. At one point, the friend with whom I was watching the game turned to me and yelled in my ear, “I used to like baseball because it was a contemplative game!”
But a contemplative game it no longer is. As the nation’s pastime, baseball serves as a mirror reflecting larger movements in American culture: think of the struggles to integrate the game which preceded the civil rights movement, the zany uniforms and hairstyles which surfaced after the unrest of the late ’60s, or the amped-up patriotism baseball manifested after 9/11. The changed atmosphere in ballparks from places of relative quiet punctuated by occasional cheering and organ music to coliseums containing frenzied maelstroms of electronically produced sound evidences the diffusion of the spirit of the anima technica vacua throughout our culture.
Balthasar was concerned about the amount of television watching in the ’80s. We can only imagine what he would say about the lives of many young people today who bounce frenetically from their iPods to texting to Facebook. The Swiss theologian quotes Hans Meier asking, “Whether, in this age of the media, we are handing on a cultural legacy (and a religious faith)” and if not, “whether we will not finally lose, with the lost language, our very ability to hear and see anything at all.” Recent studies showing how the brain’s neural circuits are rewired in response to the choppy-type of information received from technological input illustrate that Meier’s claim about a lost ability to hear and see might not only be sociological, but physiological as well. It is that lost ability to hear and see – that lost ability to contemplate – which makes the contemporary situation of the anima techinca vacua dangerous for the Christian.
But my point is not just to lament our current situation or declare that all technology is evil. Rather, I am interested in considering seriously Balthasar’s question, “Where is the ‘point of contact’ with the anima technica vacua?” How do we evangelize and catechize in such a world? It seems to me that the question is one of inculturation. As the Church has had to wrestle with how to inculturate the Gospel in every new culture that she has encountered, so too does our new technological world possess some qualities of a new “culture” which the Church is encountering.
Some advocate a radical degree of inculturation, saying that the Church must fully adopt all of the new forms of media and technology in order to meet people “where they’re at.” They say we should even be setting up Catholic “parishes” in virtual online-worlds like Second Life. Others argue that as in all situations of inculturation, some elements of the former culture must be relinquished in order to follow Christ; in this case, it might be a conscious decision to “unplug” for several hours a day.
Presenting the Gospel in a world of animae technicae vacuae takes on a further level of complexity because of the question of the relationship of form to content. One must consider not only if certain content of the new technological culture is at odds with the Gospel, but also whether or not the forms themselves are. Philosophers debate the level to which form and content are bound. Where one comes down on that question will likely decide his position about whether or not certain forms of the new technological culture can bear the weight of the content of the mystery of the Gospel which they are trying to transmit.
Balthasar asked the question, “Where is the famous ‘point of contact’ with the anima technica vacua?” a bit sarcastically. We must consider it seriously if we wish to pass on the faith effectively in the new technological culture.
© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.