January 18, 2012
A theory of man must account for the alienation of man. A theory of organisms in environments cannot account for it, for in fact organisms in environments are not alienated.
Judeo-Christianity did of course give an account of alienation, not as a peculiar evil of the twentieth century, but as the enduring symptom of man’s estrangement from God. Any cogent anthropology must address itself to both, to the possibility of the perennial estrangement of man as part of the human condition and to the undeniable fact of the cultural estrangement of Western man in the twentieth century.
By the very cogent anthropology of Judeo-Christianity, whether or not one agreed with it, human existence was by no means to be understood as the transaction of a higher organism satisfying this or that need from its environment, by being “creative” or enjoying “meaningful relationships,” but as the journey of a wayfarer along life’s way. The experience of alienation was thus not a symptom of maladaption (psychology) nor evidence of the absurdity of life (existentialism) nor an inevitable consequence of capitalism (Marx) nor the necessary dehumanization of technology (Ellul). Though the exacerbating influence of these forces was not denied, it was not to be forgotten that human alienation was first and last the homelessness of a man who is not in fact at home.
The Judeo-Christian anthropology was cogent and flexible enough, too, to accommodate the several topical alienations of the twentieth century. The difficulty was that in order to accept this anthropology of alienation one had also to to accept the notion of an aboriginal catastrophe or Fall, a stumbling block which to both the scientist and the humanist seems even more bizarre than a theology of God, the Jews, Christ, and the Church.
So the scientists and the humanists got rid of the Fall and reentered Eden, where scientists know like the angels, and laymen prosper in good environments, and ethical democracies progress through education. But in so doing they somehow deprived themselves of the means of understanding and averting the dread catastrophes which were to overtake Eden and of dealing with those perverse and ungrateful beneficiaries of science and ethics who preferred to eat lotus like the Laodiceans or roam the dark and violent world like Ishmael and Cain.
Then Eden turned into the twentieth century.
From Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle.