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Deadly Progress and the Shadows

by Rufus Ulrich Keller Sunday, Dec. 31, 2006 at 7:16 AM

The modern technical enlightened contem-porary acts as though all the destruction and suffering in this world doesn't concern him. We continually cause dreadful things but don't see what is dreadful in us.


By Rufus Ulrich Keller

[This essay by Rufus Ulrich Keller, a Dominican abbot whose works are published in Europe, is translated from the German in Wort und Antwort 31, Jan-Mar 1990.]


In his short novel, After the Ball, Leo Tolstoy tells of a young man who is invited to a feast. All night there was dancing and drinking. The young guest discovers a maiden in a white gown with whom he falls in love. After the ball ends, the love-sick one goes to his room but can't rest and in his enamored state walks through the streets lighted up by the morning dawn. Without realizing, he comes upon a barracks and involuntarily becomes a spectator of an unfolding execution. A soldier who deserted and was recaptured was tortured and cried out again and again: "Little brother, have mercy, little brother, have mercy!"

To his great surprise the young man recognizes the colonel ordering the torture as the father of the fair maiden who at the ball's close had danced the mazurka with his daughter. Now he was commanding extreme punishment while the back of the dreadfully mauled victim was already a single bloody mass. The young man runs away as fast as he can. Nevertheless the horrible experience remains in his interior. His feelings for the beautiful maiden disappear. The narrative ends with the remark that through this event the life of this person had turned in a very different direction.

With this story Leo Tolstoy reveals a deep truth that our reality is multilayered. There isn't only the reality that we normally experience every day. Rather there are several kinds of human reality, which are separated by a gulf but closely connected.

The front side shows the bright cheerful reality that allows history to appear as a ball and a feast. The back shows the dark side of reality seldom and not gladly seen where people are tortured and killed and where destruction and death prevail. The father of the beautiful maiden is a connecting link between the two indicating that the dark reality reaches into the bright reality.

If one transfers the truth of the story of Tolstoy to our world, one will discover these two realities, the bright and the dark. Both are there in our lives here in the affluent society of the West and worldwide.


One can imagine the International Auto show in Frankfurt, the ball- and feast side of the whole motor- and auto-world with the glittering cars and attractive women who advertise for them with their bodies. There are the ball-guests, mostly wealthy people, wandering about, admiring the latest wonders of technology and searching in their pockets for the money or the check to buy the car with the most horsepower.

The torture side occurs elsewhere, in the reality of the victims of the auto-world. 7500 people are killed and 426,000 injured every year. With the bare numbers we have to visualize the suffering and the pains, the affliction, the destroyed lives of these victims and the streams of blood that flow on our streets. Here is only one example: among the 426,000 injured are 25,000 persons with brain injuries. Many are no longer able to practice their occupations, young people for the most part who have to break off their training or their study, and then there are the families affected. Life plans and perspectives are destroyed; hopes are shattered. However nothing of this can be seen and heard at the auto-show.

At the same time there's a ski-circus somewhere in the Alps. Thousands of skiers race down the slopes and feel their nerves tingle. Thousands stand at the lifts to ride up again and begin the game anew. In the evening after the skiing there are the bars and hotels, the easy beautiful life, the ball-side.

The dark side is the continuous destruction of the Alps as living space. The infrastructure of lifts, slopes, ski runs, streets and hotels spreads greedily. Forests that protect the soil are cut down for ski runs. Bulldozers make the ground so hard for the skiers that no water can be absorbed any longer. Glaciers become waste-dumps so that people can indulge their delight in skiing even in the summer and so forth. The consequences already appear in a destroyed valley near Borneo in the Italian Alps. Slopes sweep into the valley and stone-wastelands are left behind which can't be re-cultivated anymore. One rests, dances again at the feast of the ski-circus and the Alps perish.

Let me give an example that demonstrates this phenomenon worldwide. Our affluent society is the ball-side. In his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, Pope John Paul calls this over-development, "an excess of all kinds of material goods exists in favor of several social classes" (Nr.28) at the expense of the poor countries. Opposing this wealth, the ball-side, is the dark side, the continuing impoverishment of millions of people in the Third World and the military dictatorships that pursue their interests, murder, torture and destroy in the service of the rich of both worlds.


Something astonishing now happens. We remember that the young man in Tolstoy's short novel was so shaken by the experience that led him into the dark part of reality that he changed his life or, to speak biblically, was converted. Nothing like that happens to us or with us! We see the dark side of reality but aren't affected or aren't so deeply aroused that we turn around or change our life. Therefore the question can be raised whether we really see this side like the young man or whether we remain spectators. The whole happening remains on the surface, doesn't go under the skin and ultimately remains information, inconsequential and lifeless.

With all the discussions of the consequences of deadly progress, a host of facts, analyses and arguments are compiled but the focus and the analysis are never directed to the one who calls all this, the person. The modern technical, enlightened contemporary acts as though all the destruction and suffering in this world doesn’t concern him. We continually cause dreadful things but don't see what is dreadful in us.

The synod resolution "Our Hope" which diagnoses a "secret delusion of innocence" that always looks for the guilt and failure in our society only in the other, "with enemies and adversaries, with the past, with nature, with dispositions and milieu" confirms our conclusions. The paper speaks of a "secret excuse mechanism" that divides history in two. We calculate the results, successes and triumphs of our actions. The side of night and disaster is repressed, our competence is denied and new alibis are constantly sought.

In addition there's a grotesque inversion and reversal. Juxtaposed to this blindness towards our own competence and guilt in the whole calamity is a much sharper view of the guilt and mistakes of the past. Whether it concerns the dark sides of church history (witch trials, inquisition) or profane (conquest and exploitation of Latin America) - this always evokes more abhorrence, perplexity, excitement and condemnation, oddly enough, than the destruction of our living conditions or the exploitation of the Third World. In the witch trials or the conquest of Latin America, the perpetrators and the evil ones are clearly identifiable: the church or the conquistadors. They can be arrested and condemned.

Toward ourselves we are more gracious and blinder. The others or the trials and so forth but never we ourselves are the ones who push forward and make this whole history.


At this point we can reflect on what C.G. Jung called the shadows and the shadow-problematic of people. In every person as an heir of the collective unconscious there are the shadows, the dark side of our reality, the unconscious that isn't gladly seen. Our secret desires and passions, all that society forbids and makes taboo, in short the "criminal" in us, are planted there. However there's also the secret knowledge of the finiteness of human life, our vulnerability and the possibility of becoming guilty. In the latter there can also be evil, the urge to destroy and kill.

This consciousness of the reality and power of the shadows is lost to us today. In other words, the multi-dimensionality of reality is no longer perceived. The positivistic understanding of reality of modern times which only allows as real what is measurable, computable, weighable and rationally graspable has lost the connection with this reality.

The dark side of the ego and of consciousness remains hidden and life and consciousness become shallow. A deep knowledge of our own abysses is also lost to us along with the possibility of seeing them and learning to live with them. Only when the destructive forces in the soul are seen and accepted, can they be turned into good. The shadow that is split off and repressed isn't lost but comes in the return of the repressed. Thus the separated shadow, the torture side of our soul, penetrates our whole life, destroys nature and demands tombs of victims on our streets and exploitation in the Third World. Progress becomes deadly progress.

Because reality is only perceived with the consciousness, because our own shadow fades out, our own competence or trustworthiness remains secret. We can see a similar phenomenon in the relations of the contemporary world with grief and death. Never have the death and transitoriness of humanity - even the experience of the shadows - been so repressed!


The human image and the message of the Bible can be useful here since the Bible sees realistically the brokenness of people, the secret and uncanny abysses of the soul. The Bible is convinced that a change can't ignore consciousness, that there can't be any reform of the human condition with moral appeals and that evil can't be overcome with analyses but only with God's engagement in our lives. God must be the first to set out and turn to us so that we can be turned around from our inverted lives. Only God can take from us the dreadful fear of one another and of life that is the cause of many sins. Only God can enlighten and fill the abysses of our souls. The presupposition again and again is that we see and accept our shadows, Christianly expressed, our need for redemption.

God's gracious love in Jesus who begins his kingdom here and who calls us out of our "shadows of death" to new life is the reason that we can set out with God in this world for a new life for all people. The message and the impulse of the conciliar process also start from here. God's gracious gift to us, God's Novum in creating salvation in our world and for our world of death, is our motive for acting with God.

The Christian perspective on things of the world is clearer because it sees more deeply that it is our competence, our freedom, and thus our guilt, that makes God's good creation what it's become today. Only when people see and integrate this in their lives and face their own shadows and the torture side can there be an awakening and exodus out of this world of death.

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