The Coming Age of Thresholding: The Renewal of Mystery within Secular Culture

By Erickson, Stephen A. | Philosophy Today, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Coming Age of Thresholding: The Renewal of Mystery within Secular Culture


Erickson, Stephen A., Philosophy Today


Pomona College, where I teach, is located in the greater Los Angeles area. As such I see myself as a messenger of sorts, for in its semantic meaning "angel"-in the Greek, angelos-means messenger. For some time now the understanding of "angel" as messenger has been glossed in a quite different manner, however, and this, ironically, has also been associated with Los Angeles. The notion of "angel" has been prettified and sentimentalized. It has become the surface beneficiary, but in its depths a victim of cosmetics and saccharine good feeling-the recipient of forms of presentation in advertising which spin it into something it is not, something glamorous, though not thereby necessarily enlightening, something adorable, though not necessarily wise. Some of this is caught by the recurrently dismissive phrase "Madison Avenue and Hollywood."

If we view history closely, however, we note that messengers, quite apart from their appearance, do not always bring good news. They may-but as often as not this falls outside of their particular historical calling. Sometimes in fact their messages are bleak or alarming. The Hebrew prophets often conveyed discomforting, even terrifying information. In any prettified sense they were by no means angelic. But if their message was nonetheless a genuine one and came from a dimension of reality currently being ignored, they functioned as angels in the proper, more fundamental meaning of that term. And "angelic" behavior in this sense may still be possible and even necessary today.

If only through metaphor, I have spoken somewhat disparagingly of Los Angeles and its blatant message which now circles the world. An historical analogy should redeem this circumstance. A decisive break occurred when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Some would say that this new way of conveying information not only engendered countless billions of messages, but that in its own right it itself has been a message of sorts: a message regarding new and emergent dimensions of human possibility and the forms of human self-experience which such dimensions have made not only possible but readily available-in the Gutenberg instance some few hundred years ago. Quite similarly, we are now still in the early stages of a new revolution, a technologically breathtaking successor to the Gutenberg revolution. It might better be labeled by place names such as Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, rather than a person's name such as Gutenberg's. If Los Angeles is associated with cultural cosmetics in the popular imagination, it should also and more deeply and significantly be linked to this latest revolution, to new modes of experiencing and understanding ourselves and our possibilities in the dawning "age of electronic information." We are moving rapidly into new and uncharted territory, and all who would travel with confidence and insight into this emerging domain will need messages of sorts-and thus messengers-reporting what to expect.

But there is something far more important and fundamental to consider, and it regards the locus and future of the spiritual in human life. One of the major problems of our time is the place of spirit and its accompanying spiritualities in a technologically awesome and at times overpowering environment. Does technology not just enhance, but also endanger some dimensions of our human existence? Leaving aside issues of space exploration, we cannot but note that technology ties us very much to the world. It opens the world to us, but at the same time binds us almost excessively to that world. Technology does this by providing us with more and more successful ways of exploring the world, controlling it and bending it to our desires. Technology is able, thus, to make the world both less threatening and more entertaining, even intoxicating, especially if the technology is in our own hands and not in those of some rival or enemy. Generally assumed, of course, is that we have the resources to own and further develop technology and that the days of large-scale enemies are largely over. …

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