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Questions we didn’t ask will shape the soul of new millennium


We are in crisis, the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski said, “when questions arise that can’t be answered.” Oh, oh.

The end of the 20th century, the end of the Western world’s second millennium, leaves a beguiling trail of astounding human innovations and social insights -- the dawn of universal education, the consciousness of human rights, the invention of nuclear weaponry, the advent of global communications and the technology it takes, in the poet’s words, to “slip the surly bounds of earth.”

But it leaves us with a good many unanswered -- and, perhaps worse, unasked -- questions as well. All of these developments were hard won and painfully slow in coming. At the same time, all of them led to even more questions writ large and uneven across the human landscape for all to see.

We learned, for instance, that dictators can be elected despite the most democratic of processes, that education privileges and that the underprivileged don’t get much of it, that weapons don’t deter barbarity, that war is obsolete, that science is not god, that poverty is a political policy rather than a condition of life, that the planet is fragile, that patriarchy is insufficient to the full humanity of either women or men. We learned it is not what we have that makes for the good life, it is the kind of people we become.

The millennium just ended (or, by another count, the one that will on Dec. 31, 2000) has answers to bequeath to the next one, which, we can reasonably conclude, will form the foundation for whole new ways of being human, of being alive, of being community.

The troublesome truth, however, is that it may not be the answers we leave to the new millennium that will shape its soul. It may well be the questions. In fact, it may be the questions we did not bother to ask, let alone answer in our time, that may well be the real stuff of the next millennium.

The problem with the questions is that, at first glance, they are disarmingly simple. Their resolution, however, challenges everything we have come to know and exposes everything we don’t. “This time, like all times,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “is a very good one -- if we but know what to do with it.”

I offer a representative set of questions with some embarrassment, knowing that though we ignored them in our own time, they will certainly determine the ultimate value of this age:

1. Are women fully human, human beings or not? In most parts of the world to this day, women have few legal rights, are not free partners in marriage, have little or no economic independence and are defined as the helpmates of the human race, rather than its leaders, its visionaries, its thinkers. In the church they are, officially, only invisible consumers of the faith. As a result, the world stands on one leg, sees with one eye and thinks with one half the human mind. And it shows. The question is whether or not humankind can endure such myopia.

2. Has technology left us with a culture of isolates? Business is done now by one computer in conversation with another. Businesses use answering machines, not people, to route people from one digital voice to another. People work at home alone or in cubicles next to people who communicate only with screens, as they do themselves. Soldiers sit in nuclear silos waiting for computer signals to tell them to press the nuclear button. And yet, these very machines also link the world and make the local global. What happens to the human bond and the ability to create community in social systems such as these?

3. What is life? With the advent of cloning, does anyone really know how to define when it begins as well as when it really ends? And what does that imply for the constructs we now call theology, morality, humanity, marriage and birth?

4. Can we really raise peaceful children in a violent society? How shall we tell them one thing and subsidize another? How will we convince them that our violence is good violence but their violence is bad?

5. What does it mean to be a good Catholic? Does faith demand conformity in the name of unity? Is the increasing centralization of the church not simply the death of collegiality but the death of Pentecost as well? And when, if ever, will the insights of the faithful be allowed to have anything to do with the faith?

The poet Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “War,” said in the early years of this century, “If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied.” May the next century find for the human race more truthful answers than we have to the questions that measure our humanity, our Christianity, or the crises this time may be more than either the church or the planet can survive.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister writes from Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000