You are here

Marshall McLuhan and Tribalism

In Understanding Media, McLuhan commented, "...since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear." The idea, I believe, is that the immediacy of electronic media tends to collapse our distances in time and space, thrusting us ever closer together, much as a large family in a small apartment. In order to survive in this environment, the customs of people tend to become ever more ritualized. Certain individuals tend to assert themselves more, and the balance of relationships becomes more dynamic. Issues of tribal membership become that much more important, and when someone acts outside of the confines of these established relationships or ritual regulations, the reaction can be extremely swift and, perhaps, emotionally or even physically violent.

Since the above remarks are rather vague sounding, it may help to illustrate this. A long time ago, in a parish far, far away, I gave a homily on the passage in Luke, chapter 20, where Jesus responds to a thought experiment of the Sadducees about marriage and the resurrection. Jesus said, "The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die, for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise." I spoke about how this passage should help us to understand that human marriage is preparation, not the ultimate goal, of eternity, and how culture today utterly devalues marriage, reducing it to a contract for sexual intercourse, albeit with a not to love and partnership, etc.

Unbeknownst to me, however, several parishioners were deeply offended by my use of the term "sexual intercourse" during the homily. Since I had been operating for decades in a culture (or subculture or tribe) in which this expression was not considered controversial, insensitive, vulgar, etc., I had simply assumed that its usage would not be a problem for my parishioners. How wrong I was! The most vehement objections, of course, came from parishioners who felt that the Mass was a family event (which it most certainly should be, ideally), and any mention of adult subjects like sexual intercourse was, consequently, beyond the pale. One parishioner remarked with great passion that he did not wish to put his child in a situation where he might be expected (by his child) to explain such terms. Naturally, I didn't comprehend where he was coming from, because I never felt compelled to explain an adult term to any underage child.

Where I failed to understand the dynamic of this situation was in the extent of the mental framework that so many parishioners shared about the impropriety of using language, however technical or non-vulgar, that actually referred to sexual intercourse. None of the people who came to me objecting about this language left me with any wiggle room whatever. I was completely stymied in my attempts to negotiate an approach to bringing up critically important matters of sexual morality during a homily in that cultural milieu.

An interesting sidelight to this affair happened on the day I gave the homily. Several people came up to me after Mass and congratulated me on showing the courage required to address such a critically important issue. They commented that I could probably expect some angry responses, and I said that I fully expected some anger. What I didn't realize is that a great deal of this anger would come from the pastor, the business manager and a key person on the finance committee and the school board. The pastor and business manager told me in no uncertain terms that I was never to raise such issues again during a homily. Furthermore, they offered no alternative venue or mechanism for addressing the area, in spite of my quite pointed request for alternatives.

Naturally, the problem with this from my perspective is that I was being denied by the pillars of this community any opportunity to inform people about key aspects of Catholic teaching on morality. I would have no opportunity to discuss the meat of the issues raised by Humanae Vitae in that parish.

I have no reason to believe that the parishioners I talked to were violating the teaching of Humanae Vitae. There objections were based solely on cultural factors related to the propriety of raising such issues at Mass. The objections of the pastor and business manager, on the other hand, were based largely on their presumption that Humanae Vitae was either wrong, or ventured into an area that was simply none of the Pope's business. Any such considerations belonged entirely to the consenting adults (or other biologically capable individuals). It was, in short, a matter of conscience between them and their Creator. I was shocked by this, of course, because it displays an incredible ignorance of Catholic ecclesiology. Yet these were people who had lived many decades and who had achieved some reasonable status academically and rather high status professionally and socially. I readily assert they were quite capable of understanding their errors, if only they were willing to discuss the issues.

The problem was, they were not so willing. The power of the culture they were embedded in, a culture that emphasized individual conscience over every other Christian ecclesial principle, was protected by a powerful emotional and intellectual wall that simply could not be breached. Indeed it may well be that this is the ultimate outcome of the changes wrought in Western culture by the Reformation.

This phenomenon was referred to by Vatican II as "invincible ignorance." This was the first time I had seen something of the power of this ignorance. I don't mind telling you that it shook me up very deeply. It has given me much to chew on. McLuhan's ideas about tribalism have been the closest I have been able to come to an understanding of the dynamics.

About the only people who do not find this frightening when they encounter it is people, like Blessed John Henry Newman, who have already suffered through the pain of ejection from their tribe and grown beyond it. When you realize that even your family and best friends, as well as all of your professional associates, can turn against you in this conflict, and the leaders of the tribe you're trying to join initially view you as an invading cancer (as Newman documented so well in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua this went on for decades!), you begin to realize just how serious all of this is. What's interesting for us about Newman's experience is that tribalism was already powerful in his time, when electronic media didn't exist. Today, I contend, tribalism is much more deeply embedded in the human psyche, and it will only grow in strength as electronic media become faster, more powerful and more tightly integrated in culture.

Of course there is another area of study that is also quite beneficial in understanding these dynamics. That area is family systems. Family systems study is an area of psychology that applies, naturally, to families and to any other cohesive group. It borrows ideas, like homeostasis, from general systems theory, while building on previous ideas from family therapy. This study helps to understand the psychological dynamics in greater detail, but it fails to give an overall sociological context, as might be supplied by McLuhan's insight on the impact of electronic media. A marriage of these two areas might prove extremely fruitful when considering various cultural gestalts.

It's important to recognize here that noone is completely beyond the reach of the grace of conversion until they're dead. It is always possible that a priest may, guided by the Holy Spirit, be able to find a way to discuss these taboo areas with adults who desperately need to consider them if they are to avoid damnation. It is also important to recognize that we cannot judge any given individual who lives a mortally sinful lifestyle because, among other reasons, we do not fully know the context of how they came to adopt it. We don't know the mental process that led up to it, etc. Only God knows such things. This is the plus side.

The negative side, of course, is this. A lifestyle that contradicts the teaching of Humanae Vitae inevitably robs a person of opportunities for grace and spiritual growth that would otherwise be given the practicioner of a conformant lifestyle. Among other things, this lifestyle distorts a person's understanding and appreciation of family, faith community, Church, Incarnation, Trinity, Eucharist, indwelling, love, grace, self-gift, sacrament — virtually everything distinctive about Catholic faith.

This hit home to me when I witnessed a priest preaching a pre-Nicene, heretical understanding of the Trinity to a group of 8th graders preparing for Confirmation. He told them that the three persons of the Trinity were simply three different perspectives of the same God, three proserpae in the Eastern understanding. In other words, the Holy Spirit was simply a "mask" of the one God! This is obviously not what he was taught in the seminary. It was clearly the result of his personal reflection on an area that he decided had been misunderstood by the Church. He thought he was doing the kids a favor by enlightening them on the correct view.

Such distortions are the inevitable result of deifying individual conscience. It is my personal belief that the deification of conscience is the foundation of all the divergence from Church authority in the area of sexual morality.

Obviously there is an important technical issue here. As Newman pointed out, conscience is indeed the final arbiter of unresolved conflicts in the human psyche. The problem in our culture is not whether conscience has been enthroned, but where it has been enthroned. Consience is the final and supreme arbiter only when all other available sources for resolving an issue have been exhausted. In other words, conscience is the arbiter when we have no other source to learn from. In our culture, however, conscience has often become the first and only resort. All other means of hearing from the will of God have been shoved aside. If conscience were known to be infallible, of course, this would not be a problem. The problem is that conscience, especially uninformed conscience, is hardly infallible. This is so obvious that it's hard to imagine God having much patience with people who act as if their conscience were infallible. "Test the spirit" applies to conscience as well as to voices in the head.

It is because of this singular elevation of conscience to universal, exclusive and unassailable status that I have referred to it as "the deification of conscience".

An interesting sociological question is this: if everyone lives by deifying their own conscience, then what holds people together? Part of the answer, I believe, can be found in the deification of inclusiveness, which is, in turn, supported by the deification of relativism. Relativism is found to be required by inclusivity. Inclusivity is required to support the radical individualization, or deification, of conscience. In such a world, where everyone is permitted to treasure their own illusions, undisturbed by contradiction, real dialog is impossible. In such a world, cultural elements conspire to reinforce moral isolationism. Thus we have the reigning triumvirate: radical individual conscience, radical inclusiveness and relativism.

All three of these elements can be found in the dissenting Church, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or whatever. One can even find these elements operating in putatively non-religious spheres, such as politics and education.

What's important for us to realize here is the depth of integration of these myths in our highly tribalized culture.

Opposed to this we can find two distinct alternatives: the authoritarian based and what I will presumptively term the tribe (or kingdom) of God. In connection with the second of these, it may be enlightening to review salvation history from the perspective of God working to develop larger and larger faith communities, beginning with an individual (Abraham), a family (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac), a tribe (the clan of Abraham), a community (the tribes of the children of Jacob/Israel), the nation of Israel, Christendom, and (we hope) ultimately the world. We may be seeing in our day a temporary collapse of Christendom to a nation or tribal level, but a nation or tribe whose cohesion is assisted globally by electronic communications. This may be another way to see the "faithful remnant" much current literature speaks of.

The authoritarian based perspective is characterized by a circle the wagons mentality that closes off discussion at a time when discussion is the only thing that might help in spreading the Gospel. Its practicioners are exemplified by the Integralists of the 20th century and the ultra-montanes of prior centuries. (There is evidence that their ranks have, albeit unwittingly, provided deep cover for an insidious cancer in the Church, the culture of sexual perverts who abuse children and adolescents.) They are closely allied to the fundamentalists of the Christian and Islamic groups who deny much of 19th, 20th and 21st century scientific progress in anthropology, geology and cosmology. Like the deification of conscience, the deification of authority does not spring from an appreciation of the importance of authority, but from its universal, exclusive and unassailable use. This elevation of authority beyond both its natural and divinely assisted competence is the source of many of the abuses of the Inquisition, though, obviously not all. Threatened political hegemony has always resorted to violence when that hegemony has been elevated to a divine right in the minds of its chief beneficiaries, and most of the abuses of the Inquisition amount to little more than the efforts of politicians to protect their authority or their backsides.

I should mention here that I have no desire to be associated with those who regard contemporary efforts to come to the aid of the Magisterium as Integralism. The Integralists were known to resort to censorship, repression and excommunication, with little or no prior effort at open dialog. The only thing I'm aware of that fits that description in Western developed countries today is the culture of political correctness.

What I am calling the tribe of God is most closely identified with the Magisterium, at least since the repudiation of the Integralists. In the Catholic Magisterium today, there has been a remarkable, yet deeply prudent and hardly polyanish, openness to the discovers of science of the last few centuries and to the ideas of philosophers of this period. The engagement has been broad and deep. It is clearly guided by divine inspiration. It is fully consistant with 2000 years of Church tradition, exemplified in so many ways by the teachings of the Church's greatest teachers, the Apostles and the Doctors of the Church (including, in my humble opinion, Pope John Paul II and other great popes who would normally have received the title of Doctor, such as Gregory I and Leo I). Yet it has also been beautifully connected with movements originated by the many saints whose lives inspired them, such as Sts. Francis, Dominic, Ignatius, and, more recently John Henry Newman and Mother Teresa. All of this has been thoroughly articulated by the work of Sts. Augustine (the City of God) and Thomas Aquinas (the Summa Theologica).

Obviously the spiritual patriarch of this tribe is Jesus, in total union with the Father and Holy Spirit. He is the vine and we are the branches. If we see our affiliation here as tribal, we can begin to approximate what Jesus had in mind in founding his Church. Naturally I am speaking here of an ideal tribe, a tribe where dysfunction is either not present or is mitigated by the guidance and care of the Holy Spirit. I speak of a tribe with a powerful sense of its own identity in Christ, a tribe with an openness to other without sacrificing that identity which is truly rooted in Christ, the Word of God who designed and created the universe and who has redeemed it by his blood. I speak of that tribe which is most fully in communion with the Holy Spirit, neither rejecting the graces that come from the Spirit and flow throughout society (McLuhan's "global village") nor remaining darkened by the distortions of the fearful or those who feed on hate. I speak of the tribe whose sense of identity is informed by a desire for inclusiveness but not mastered by it in a sterile way.

I know of no better way to describe this tribe from a practical perspective than by its connection to the Magisterium, which I believe is, at least in this day, well united to God. I have called it the tribe of God, but I could equally refer to it as the tribe of the Magisterium. Its salvation lies, however, not directly in this current, rather well developed and largely stable, sense of tribal cohesion. It's salvation lies in the hands of Christ. For this tribe to remain in Christ, it may be necessary for it to fully understand the tribal nature of much of its sense of identity and cohesion so that it may cooperate fully with the Holy Spirit in its ongoing purification (or conversion).

May the Spirit of God always remain in this Church and care for it as a master gardener cares for his garden, and as God intended Adam and Eve to care for theirs.

Share