"The great tragedy of modern civilisation is to be found in the failure of material progress to satisfy human needs," wrote Christopher Dawson in 1939 as the Nazi threat was beginning to take shape in Germany. The world, he said, needed to recover a "spiritual vitality". Nearly 70 years later that need is even more urgent.
For many today something only exists if it can be immediately known and verified by the five senses. What cannot be examined under a microscope or observed through a telescope, does not exist. There is no such thing as the spiritual; the non-material has no existence, it is said.
There is, I suspect, a general consensus over what are the basic moral values; values such as kindness, honesty, faithfulness in relationships, respect for others, for the environment, for justice and for law. Recently the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority found an extensive agreement between people of different faiths and no faith, across social groups, on a range of moral values. But to the question "What is the good?", which addresses the source and authority of those values, it is common today is to assert that there is no true answer: morality is a matter of opinion.
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition the Ten Commandments, as the revelation of God, offer objective moral norms. They set out a framework of morality which not only defines our obligations to others, but at a deep level resonates with what we know to be required for human well-being and life in community. Far from being arbitrary external requirements of one tradition, they offer all peoples insights into the true nature of humanity. They disclose the fundamental duties, and therefore, indirectly, the inalienable rights of the human person. They apply to all of us because we share a common humanity. Indeed, it is from a deeper appreciation of our common humanity that we can more readily consider the ways we should behave towards each other.
Three consequences stand out. First, we need to respect and protect human life itself, from conception to its natural end. Secondly, our shared humanity requires us to acknowledge the rights of all to what is needed to live a fully human life - including food, clothing, shelter, education and employment. Thirdly, we have to recognise that we owe certain duties to others.
Yet our society has become, in some respects, morally desensitised, and is therefore ill-prepared to grapple with a looming issue which I have no doubt is fast becoming one of the major moral problems of our age, namely the implications of breathtaking developments in genetics and biotechnology. I heard last week of a distinguished scientist imagining, apparently with complete equanimity, a future in which children were the product of three different sets of parents: biological parents, gestational parents, and a third set who were bringing them up. If we separate these three relationships then we in some way undermine something which is specifically human.
There are undoubted benefits which gene therapy might bring. I do fear for the future, however, if the language of bodily human love is gradually replaced by an artificial process, if pro-creation becomes production, or even reproduction, and if the individual human being becomes valued as a product to be ordered rather than a gift to be received.
Our human nature is delicate and fragile. There are boundaries which we cannot cross without fundamentally altering the way we relate to others, and see ourselves. Furthermore, we have no experience of the potential lifelong consequences which could follow from bringing human life into the world in new artificial ways. We must act with extreme caution, for bringing new life into the world is the nearest human beings come to creation. We tread on holy ground.
Our society badly needs to recover a deeper knowledge of what it means to be human. Without more people who are fully alive, seized of their duties to others, committed to building a better world, the outlook for our society is bleak. This is why spiritual vitality is so urgent, and why schools should be committed to the cultivation of goodness before success.
`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul VallelyReuse content