Get Out of the Cave and Enter the Real World

If we could sum up the problem with the so-called modern age, it would be that we suffer from a break with reality.

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I have a confession to make. I hate the modern world.

Now, I understand this claim is a bit juvenile; and of course, if I was asked to forfeit all my modern conveniences and amenities, I would struggle greatly. But when I speak of the “modern world,” I do not refer in a general sense to this or that technological advance. In fact, during all ages of history, there have been advances at times that have greatly helped people do things that previous generations could only do with prohibitive difficulty, if at all.

Also, I recognize that if we use the term “modern” to refer to whatever time comes after the “past,” then the term loses all meaning, as every age is modern compared to the time that came before it.

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So, perhaps calling our world modern is not the right use of terms. At any rate, I hate it.

I should add, this does not mean I think the whole thing to be rotten, just that there is something off in our day that is particularly repulsive.

Of course, I am not the only one who looks around at the general goings-on in the world and the Church and comes away with nausea. The funny thing is, that whether a liberal or a conservative, a traditionalist or a modernist—which is to say a Catholic or a heretic – we all think there is something gravely wrong.

For those whom Pope Francis so lovingly said suffer from a sort of “backwardism,” the Church and the world went to pot in the ’60s with Woodstock and its conciliar counterpart. For the liturgical sadomasochists who hate Tradition, the Church has not gone nearly far enough and will not be truly Catholic until it is fully Lutheran.

Republicans will tell you that it is the Democrats who will bring the apocalypse as Biden insists on having his strokes while giving interviews. And Democrats will tell you while tweeting from first class—or a private jet—that if one more MAGA maniac buys a diesel truck, Gaia will bring the end of days as AOC mourns the captivity of migrant children who wait in cages that Obama built. 

But why are we so insane?

Why are we so unstable?

Why is virtually every ecclesial and civil institution on the seeming brink of collapse?

Well, there are a thousand ways to answer these questions, but I think the root of the problem boils down to a very particular reality.

In fact, not only is it a particular reality that must be considered but reality itself.

If we could sum up the problem with the so-called modern age, it would be that we suffer from a break with reality. Things in our day are increasingly unreal. 

I think we can all acknowledge the insanity of the AI craze, which is the epitome of unreality; but the proliferation of automated reality is merely the logical conclusion or ultimate symptom of a trend that has plagued us for so long.

What is reality?

Simply put, reality is that which actually exists, which is to say that which is real. Admittedly, this is a bit of a circular definition, and ironically it would be necessary to accept definitions as real in order to accept a definition of reality as being, well, real.

In forgone ages, man did not have major issues accepting the self-evident existence of reality because he lived in the real world. He did not live in a virtual reality, or an artificial reality, but in a real reality.

He woke up each morning and had to contend with the real weather and real animals, real pain, and real joy. He was tethered to the nature of real things because he could not escape them.

If he wanted to learn something, he had to consult a real teacher with a real voice and hear real words with his real ears. If he wanted to eat, he had to eat real food, cooked with real fire. If he wanted to enjoy himself by listening to some music, the music would be played by real men on real instruments made by real human hands out of real resources that came from nature.

He was tethered to reality because he could not escape, and this kept him sane.

Is it any wonder that even the pagans in the past seemed to have a greater grasp of reason and truth than the majority of so-called educated people today?

Without reducing the Eucharist to a mere symbol, it is helpful to consider the symbolism of Holy Communion. Our Real God is really present in the real bread and wine consecrated by the real priest and then consumed in our real mouths. We should not be surprised that as we have ventured further and further from the real world, Catholics increasingly believe less and less in the Real Presence.

Reality can be understood by analogy if we think of the concentric circles in rippling water. At the heart is God, and from there reality branches out in wider circles until, finally, the ripples end. The closer we are to the center, the closer we are to God and, by extension, to Him who is most Real.

C.S. Lewis understood this well and presented an imaginative picture of it in The Great Divorce. In that book, the main character has a sojourn in the foothills of Heaven and remarks that there is something “solider” about everything in that country. The grass is more “real” and his feet have a hard time walking on it. The water is more “real” and it feels heavier. The message is that the closer we are to the Source, the more real or “solid” things become.

Contrast that with our world, where we digitize more and more of our experiences to the point where lifeless AI voices greet us when we call the bank to work out an issue with our money that exists as a mere expression of ones and zeros in a computer system.

Even sin was more real in the past. If a man wanted to commit adultery or fornicate, he had to do so with a real woman; but today, he can do so with a moving image of a woman on a screen that receives information through ethereal frequencies from a satellite tower. He does not even know if the woman is dead or alive, or, with AI imaging, if she is even real to begin with. Even sin was more real in the past. If a man wanted to commit adultery or fornicate, he had to do so with a real woman; but today he can do so with moving images of women on a screen that receives information through ethereal frequencies. Tweet This

This is but one example, but the result has been that sin itself has become unreal to people—which means that even guilt and shame are unreal to the point where people do not know what to do with the prompting of their conscience, which they don’t regard as really real to begin with. 

At the risk of being called a Platonist, I cannot think of a better allegory than Plato’s Cave. For the unaware, Plato’s Cave depicts a man who escapes the shackles of unreality, which he experiences by watching shadows of imitations of things, which are created by artificial light, parade across his line of sight. He escapes this conceptual subterranean prison and enters into the real world where he can see real things illuminated by the real light of the sun.

He suffers a lot of pain to do this, and his experience of reality is almost too painful to bear in the beginning; but he perseveres until he can contemplate the illuminating source of the real world, which in this allegory is the sun.

In some ways, we are all like this man trapped in the cave, and we must escape.

I understand that our world has become extremely technological, and from a practical perspective there is no way we will all unplug, which I am not suggesting we all do in a radical fashion.

But, we must each find a way to do so to some degree if we hope to set ourselves apart from this age of unreality.

One thing that I know we could all do is to take a real gun and use real bullets and blow to bits our televisions. In addition, a real hammer would do well in order to really smash to bits a video game console, which is really the archetypical mechanism that transports men away from reality and into a juvenile world of escapism.

Go for a walk and get real blisters. Play real games with your children. Smoke real cigars and not those ridiculous vape things that send battery-charred pseudo-smoke wafting through a room with a sickly-sweet aroma of cheap perfume.


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