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The Crisis of Spirituality in the Western World PDF Print E-mail

Jorge Boaventura, O Estado de Sao Paulo

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

t is my opinion that the culture of the Western world is suffering some kind of phenomena that I call interference. It is the same when we have a radio set and this radio set is receiving strange waves so you receive interference. Our world is falling apart and this is because of this kind of interference that we can already feel.

When you look at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, all the roads were very dangerous. Not as dangerous as the roads and the streets here in Sao Paulo, however. This happened because before the Roman Empire had fallen apart there were Roman soldiers in all of these avenues and they guaranteed a certain kind of protection. But when the soldiers were not there anymore, it was dangerous there.

At almost the same time, from the northern part of Europe some people were coming down, the German tribes. And these people had nothing to replace what the Roman culture had before them. At the same time as these tribes were coming down from the north, to the south some Christian missionaries were coming the opposite way toward them. Naturally these Christian missionaries were the ones that had the good news. There were the ones that were bringing a new philosophy to the north. These people were really wise and intelligent, and the thought they could convert these German tribes into Christians in a very lovely way. They were not only wise, but they were good people. These Christian missionaries wisely took from these German tribes their capacity, and even their desire, to use arms.

So these German soldiers were now new Christians. They started communities and within these communities there was now some security on the roads. This happened because Christian ethics forbids robbery. In the places where these new Christians were living, new communities were being formed. People tended to stay close by these communities in order to receive their protection.

These people were themselves descendants of the people from the former Roman Empire. These people, who were merchants, used to follow behind the Roman army in order to receive protection while they conducted business. These same people began to gather now around the new Christians. Their only interest was business. They didn’t care who won the war or who lost. These people only thought about monetary profit; that was their only purpose. The people who based their lives on the Christian faith with Christian ethics sometimes made life more difficult for those who only wanted to make money. So whatever they could use to weaken the faith of the Christians, they would use. Whatever they could use to weaken the Christianity would be good for them, because these people were the ones that accused them that they used money to make too much profit and that kind of thing.

In the medieval period in Europe we find many famous controversies in the universities, especially between the idealists, nominalists and conceptualists. At this point we are basically at the end of medieval era, the 15th century. So science developed very much because they were looking only to the material world. It also became increasingly specialized and a challenge to previous view that centered on the faith rather than reason. So the way of thinking of our civilization lost its sense of unity. We come more and more full of the angst that results from attaining the success only in specific areas. Many became very enthusiastic and proud of what they did. They came to be self-sufficient, so proud of what man was achieving.

Now we get to the point of Enlightenment, Renaissance. Man became increasinly proud of what he was achieving, finally reaching the point of pure reason. Man came to be seen as self-sufficient, not even needing God. A little bit later we get to the 18th century, we find the writing of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. This affirmation was originally based on an "undeniable and sacred truth." But immediately one of the people that was there, Benjamin Franklin, said some may not be pleased by that because some people don’t believe in what is sacred. So it would be much better to change this "undeniable and sacred" to "self-evident truth." I am talking about that so we can see how men were deviated from their original intent.

Because of the shortness of time, let us skip now to the 20th century, where we find, in same geographical area that we began, a man called Mussolini. He was spreading the idea that the only things that exist are the things that we can touch and the things that are outside of man. Anything else he called "empty thoughts." Here is the ultimate result of the process I have been describing.

We remember what Dr. Lina Boff said yesterday. She was talking about the necessity of what we call spirituality. It also could be called religiosity.

I personally think that to renew this spirit now is very difficult. Because we have many pragmatic persons. We have many scientific people. These kinds of people emphasize pure matter, pure reason, and nature. In conclusion, I just want to state that within the situation we are in now, society is collapsing because the family is being destroyed. In that way the one who is working on the family, works towards religiosity, is planting the seeds of the new civilization that is very close to us.