The Times We Live in- The Challenges We Face

Here is an excerpt from an article in Jewish Magazine on five cultural forces that challenge us today. It was written by Stephen Bertman a professor at the University of Windsor.

Dr. Stephen Bertman is Professor Emeritus of Classics at Canada’s University of Windsor. His books include Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed, Cultural Amnesia: America’s Future and the Crisis of Memory, and Climbing Olympus: What You Can Learn from Greek Myth and Wisdom. This essay is adapted from a talk he presented at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield, Michigan, on September 11, 2004. It was published in the November 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine.


At least five major cultural forces can be identified that conspire to challenge our souls today: the influence of materialism, the power of technology, the impact of speed, the increase of artificiality, and the decline of historical memory.

The first of these, the influence of materialism, has already been alluded to. But why should we speak of it as something new? After all, materialism has been around for a long time, for Jews most notably in the era of the Hebrew prophets, who railed in their day against the moral obtuseness of the rich. Materialism deserves our special attention today because America’s standard of living and the distribution of wealth has energized materialistic thinking as never before in history. In short, in no previous age have so many people had it so good, if by “good” we mean possessing not only the necessities of life but its luxuries as well. In fact, what most people around the globe would regard as luxuries most Americans would call simple necessities. Yet when the acquisition and use of costly objects becomes the central focus of people’s existence, they become blind to those non-material things that are so desperately required if life is to have its deepest significance.

The second force that threatens our spirituality is the power of technology. Never before in history have the complexities of technology played such an intrusive role in people’s private lives. Alas, when God wanted to get Moses’ attention in the land of Midian, He had to resort to a low-tech burning bush instead of a pager or cell phone. Today, electronic technology has connected people as never before, but it has simultaneously robbed us of the solitude we need for peace of mind and spiritual reflection. In similar fashion, the computer has delivered an abundance of data but deluded us into thinking that information at our fingertips is as valuable as wisdom in our hearts. And so, like Biblical Esau, we have traded our spiritual birthright for a mess of instant pottage.

The third force is caused by technology. It is the impact of speed. Electronic devices operate at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second. The problem physiologically and psychologically, of course, is that we do not. Yet because we must keep pace with our inventions, our culture has turned into a “hyperculture,” a society pathologically addicted to speed. Ruled by a mindless surge of electrons that do not sleep, our lives are oppressed by a ceaseless urgency that demands our instantaneous response. The result is stress, stress that warps our daily existence, depriving us of patience and the time to enjoy our days under the sun. As our individual lives spin out of control, the centrifugal pull simultaneously tears at the structure of the Jewish family, fracturing the unity it once possessed.

Another product of technology is the increase of artificiality in our lives. Relying on technological surrogates, we have become less and less authentically human by substituting their presence for our own. Though we may be inclined to tell those we love “I’ll be there for you,” we’re never really there at all, or in fact anywhere, with the wholeness of our being. Instead, we multitask and listen with half an ear, grudgingly offering only a part of our selves. Faceless avatars, we electronically interact with the avatars of others, while the TV screen amuses us with a counterfeit reality.

The fifth and last force is more subtle but no less damaging in its effects. It is the loss of historical memory, of our vital connection with a remembered past. Like the receding image in the rear-view mirror of a fast-moving car, the portrait of bygone times shrinks as our secular culture accelerates. As a consequence of rapid social change, we have lost touch with age-old traditions that could spiritually sustain us, and have become victims of “cultural amnesia,” the social equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease. As a result, the distant events and personalities of Jewish history fade from our minds. Mel Brooks we know; Maimonides and Micah lie forgotten, along with the guidance they could provide.

The combined effect all these forces is to erode not only our memory but our conscience. They succeed because they address not our brains but our nerve-endings, seducing us with pleasure at the price of our souls.

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