It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us….A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

This is an apt description of the time in which we live.

As a cultural phenomenon, isolation and loneliness are on the rise as are suicides even among celebrities who have “made” it in terms of material success and fulfillment.

We know more about the universe-from black holes to quantum fields-and about the human mind as cognitive and neuroscience leap forward into new frontiers, but we are still naively shocked by evil: violence perpetrated by gang members, or the casual disregard for the dignity of persons demonstrated by those of any age or socioeconomic class.

We live in an age of “what is true for you might not be true for me” and “Who are you to judge?”. We are warned to be “tolerant”, but who even pretends that this means to be tolerant of a religious perspective or traditional morality?

Where does this leave us? Consider this remark made by Pope Benedict XVI:

We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

The sad reality is that this dictatorship can destroy a culture and fracture the connectedness for which we are hardwired.

We Really are Hardwired for Connection

The neurological connections which contribute to our social behaviors can be seen as the foundation for building culture. In an informative panel discussion at the World Science Festival in 2017, active research into the “social synapse” was discussed but not until a very general definition of “culture” was agreed upon by the participating scientists which included anthropologists, a biologist, a neuroscientist, and a Paleolithic archaeologist. The loose definition was ‘knowledge and skills learned from others and the ability to build on this shared knowledge.’

Cars as Nutcrackers

Research shows that animals display this kind of sharing and even demonstrate a kind of creativity. One example given was of Japanese crows who have “learned” that cars can be used as tools to crack open their nuts. In another amusing anecdote, it was related how one of Jane Goodall’s chimps had learned to bang two kerosene cans to make a terrific racket. Incorporating this into his dominance display contributed to his meteoric rise as alpha male of the group.

Apparently, however, advances in research have demonstrated quite convincingly that the human species has the capacity to build culture in spades compared to other animals. One difference that contributes to this “ratcheted up” ability is the capacity to use verbal instructions (teaching)-even in very young children who were given a puzzle to solve and who shared insights with others in the group.

Additional Complexity in Humans

Although the capacity for acquiring new behaviors from others appears across species, humans give meaning and symbolism to certain behaviors which are also passed on.

It seems then that we should look for another more complete definition of culture and its attributes. John Paul II observed in Centissimus annus:

Man is understood in a more complete way when he is situated within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work, and death.

He continues;

At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence. When this question is eliminated, the culture and moral life of nations are corrupted.

For Fr. Spitzer’s explanation of the need for the transcendent to complete the picture of human happiness, you can start here.

And stay tuned for the second part in this series, which will focus on the meaning of truth in a relativistic world.

Maggie Ciskanik is a regular contributor to the Magis Center blog.

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