Spirituality/Medicine Interface Project

Catastrophes: A Theological/Spiritual Reflection

Authors: James Hanvey, SJ, DPhil


Our Western culture is constantly engaged in the production of anxiety. We can see this in the competition for ever more lurid headlines in the newspapers, the unceasing flow of information about deadly diseases, the risks of eating this or that food, taking this or that drug, living in this or that area or taking this or that mode of transportation. The world is a hostile place, culture is a hostile place, and there is virtually no refuge. Of course, even with the cultural production of anxiety–which is also about attention grabbing–there are very real threats. Recent events make terrorism only too immediate and devastating, as does the uncontrolled spread of disease. Domestic issues also heighten the level of anxiety. Another example is the question of environment and environmental change: If it rains, we are going to have floods; if it does not, there will be droughts. If the sun comes out, we are all under the threat of skin cancer—and so on, and so forth.

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1. Piercy M. The Art of Blessing the Day, Poems on Jewish Themes. Nottingham, Five Leaves Publications, 1998.

*Although “high-alert” can increase the sense of social cohesion under threat, when it introduces the dynamic of suspicion into everyday life, it begins to corrode the social fabric of human relations. This generates a sense of vulnerability and loneliness which leaves society prey to pathological distortions. Cf. Hannah Arendt, Ideology and Terror: A Novel for of Government, The Review of Politics, vol 15, no 3, 1953, pp 303–327, especially pp 321 ff.

†Cf. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, edited by Mark Poster, Blackwells, Polity Press, 1988, especially pp166 ff. Also The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, London, Verso, translated by Chris Turner. A good example of the “simulacrum” is the phenomenon of Princess Diana, and the endless production of programs and books purporting to introduce us to the “real” Diana. Equally, the phenomenon of her “resurrection” in the media, who refuse to let her die, so that her death itself becomes the “simulacrum” which no longer marks the mortality of all finite things but becomes her apotheosis into the pantheon of the “image.” We may notice, too, that the loss of the ability to distinguish and maintain an operating separation of the public and private world people also lose freedom and become more vulnerable to manipulation, political as well as economic.

‡Cf. http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/statistics/WVSQuestRoot.pdf Cf. Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross-Cultural Sourcebook based on the 1999–2002 values Surveys. Ronald Ingelhart, coedited with Miguel Basanez, Jaime Deiz-Medrano, Loek Halman and Ruud Luijkx. Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2004. Also useful, Ronald Ingelhart and Christian Welzel, Modernisation, Cultural and Democracy, Change and The Human Development Sequence. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

§The dynamics of “forgiveness” and “promise” in these situations are extremely delicate. Forgiveness is always a gift and cannot be required or coerced. For a seminal discussion of these two elements and the problem of “irreversibility” cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition Chicago, University of Chicago, 1958, pp 236–247.

¶‘amare est velle alicui bonum' ST.I.II. q26. a4.