Who are we and what are we here for?
These most ancient of human questions about our identity and purpose lie at the heart of the cultural conflicts we currently experience. The way in which a society answers these questions or refuses to answer them reveals a people’s cultural ethos. Western culture as a whole seems to have lost the ability to answer these questions of identity and purpose.
This identity crisis extends from the most basic sense of who we are as human beings to the purpose of our cultural institutions, from a definition of humanity as such to the social values that our schools and courts are to implement. Honesty requires us to admit that our unmooring from religious sources of human dignity is largely to blame for this problem and that science, for all its innovative genius, is of little help in addressing it.
In his book On the Human Condition, the French philosopher Dominique Janicaud argues, for example, that in the absence of traditional religious definitions of our humanity and with increasing bio-technical advances in human engineering, Western culture is currently marked by an ‘unprecedented uncertainty about human identity.’
This loss of human identity is compounded by a loss of cultural identity.
Terry Eagleton’s voice is representative of other cultural critics, intellectuals, and politicians in his assessment that political pressures force the West ‘more and more to reflect on the foundations of its own civilization’ at a time when we have lost the ability to think deeply. According to Eagleton, postmodernity has rightly criticized naïve and oppressive notions of universal reason, but it has also left us without any common ground for a universal sense of human dignity.
Yet world events require that we discuss human nature in terms of universal purpose and ask once again, in all seriousness, ‘What is the function of human beings? What are human beings for?’ We are forced to think deeply about who we are at a time when postmodern culture has accustomed us to shallow thinking, assured by many of our intellectual elites that thinking in universal terms is neither possible nor necessary.
This loss of common ground has also impacted Western educational ideals and institutions.
The postmodern cultural critic Jean Baudrillard writes in his book Simulacra and Simulation about the loss of purpose in university education and the consequent fragmentation of disciplines. Designating the contemporary culture of knowledge as a ‘spiraling cadaver,’ he concludes that ‘the university is in ruins; nonfunctional in the social arenas of the market and employment, lacking cultural substance or an end purpose of knowledge.’
The historian John Sommerville agrees in his book The Decline of the Secular University, and attributes this loss of substance and purpose to the neglect of the religious dimension in favour of naturalism: ‘If the point of the secular university was to eliminate the religious dimension, it will eventually find that it has eliminated the human distinction as well, and be unable to make sense of any of its intellectual and professional disciplines.’
Sommerville aptly terms this inability ‘the exhaustion of secular reason,’ which he claims lies at the heart of Western culture’s malaise and the ongoing crisis of higher education, a crisis that began when the lack of metaphysical reasons left universities unable to defend liberal arts education against utilitarian challenges from the corporate world.