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CROSSROADS/ Responding to “American Nihilism”

Lorenzo Albacete discussed an article by Curtis White, which defines a new nihilism, an American one, where “it’s all good”, any religion or spirituality goes. Webster Bull reports.

A Monk A Monk

Saturday afternoon in New York City, I was an invited observer at an advisory board meeting of Crossroads Cultural Center. In the auditorium of the American Bible Society at Broadway and 61st Street about fifty of us listened as Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete spoke, then responded to comments by members of the advisory board.

As a jumping-off point, Albacete used an article by Curtis White in the December 2007 Harper’s, entitled “Hot-Air Gods.” In the article, White describes a new nihilism—not the European form that denies God, but the American one, in which “it’s all good”. We have come to believe in the right of each individual to his own private conviction, no matter how ridiculous. White writes: "What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. . . . Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. . . . There is an obvious problem with this form of spirituality: it takes place in isolation. Each of us sits at our computer terminal tapping out our convictions". Albacete invited us to contemplate this situation and its most serious implication: a loss of community, through a lack of shared conviction.  How can we as Catholics respond to this cultural reality? How, indeed, should Crossroads respond as a Catholic cultural center?

One false response, Albacete insisted, is to reduce Christianity to an ethical system. Christianity as a form of moralism, he said, suggests that we are not broken sinners requiring salvation but just “decent folk who need instruction.” Christianity truly lived, he went on, begins with the experience of being saved, then seeking to live that experience in the surrounding culture. We usually reverse the equation, trying to heal the culture (ethically) in order to save it and ourselves. What saves us is not ethical conduct but the fact of Christ’s life.

Albacete noted that we need to express our perception of this fact in our very activities and interests. He suggested that there are two “symptoms” of the discovery of the presence of Christ: (1) a certain joy, “which is so often tied to suffering and pain and emotional disgust at injustices, even, especially natural disasters,” and (2) an expanding range of interests, an interest in the human and its varied expressions.