Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Only a god can save us"

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

This phrase doesn't come from any pope. It's from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the deepest German philosophers of the twentieth century, in an interview granted to the weekly Der Spiegel on September 23, 1966, but only published on May 31, 1976, a week after his death. Heidegger has always been a close observer of the threatening destinies of our technological civilization. For him, technology as an intervention in the natural dynamics of the world for human benefit has so permeated our way of being that it has become a second nature.

Today we can not imagine ourselves without the vast scientific and technical apparatus on which our civilization is established, but it is dominated by an opportunistic compulsion that translates to the formula: if we can do it, we're also allowed to do it without any other ethical consideration. Weapons of mass destruction emerged from this attitude. If they exist, why not use them?

For the philosopher, such a technique, without consciousness, is the clearest expression of our paradigm and our mentality, born at the dawn of modernity in the 16th century, but whose roots are already found in classical Greek metaphysics. This mentality is driven by exploitation, calculation, mechanization and efficiency applied in all areas, but mainly with regard to nature. This understanding has so penetrated us that we consider technology to be the panacea for all our problems. Unconsciously we define ourselves against nature which is to be dominated and exploited. We make ourselves the object of science, by manipulating our organs and even our genes.

A divorce has been established between man and nature that is revealed by the increasing environmental and social degradation. The maintenance and acceleration of this technological process, according to the philosopher, could lead us to eventual destruction. The death machine was build decades ago.

To get out of this situation ethical and religious appeals are not enough, much less simple good will. It's a metaphysical problem, that is, a way of seeing and thinking about reality. We are on a train that is running fast on two rails. It's going to meet an abyss that lies further ahead and we don't know how to stop it. What to do? That is the question.

If we wanted, we could find a different mentality in our cultural tradition, in the Presocratics such as Heraclitus among others, who still saw the organic connection between man and nature, between the divine and the earthly, and nourished a sense of belonging to a greater whole. Knowledge wasn't at the service of power but of life and the contemplation of the mystery of being. Or in any contemporary reflection on the new eco-cosmological paradigm, which sees the unity and complexity of the one great process of evolution, from which all beings emerge and are interdependent. But this path is forbidden to us by the excess of technoscience, calculative rationality and the huge economic interests of big consortiums that live on this status quo.

Where are we going? It was in this context of inquiry that Heidegger famously uttered this prophetic statement: "Philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. (Nur noch ein Gott Retten kann uns). The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline (Untergrund), insofar as we, in view of the absent god, are going to disappear."

What Heidegger stated is also being shouted by notable thinkers, scientists and ecologists. Either we change course or our civilization puts its future at risk. Our attitude is one of openness to a coming of God, that powerful and loving Energy that sustains each being and the whole universe. He can save us. This attitude is well represented by the free nature of poetry and free thought. And as God, according to Scripture, is "the supreme lover of life" (Wisdom 11:24), we hope that He will not allow a tragic end for human beings. The latter exist to shine, to live together, and be happy.

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