Br Fr Joseph Tham, LC
Recently, Edvard Munch’s emblematic painting “The Scream” was sold for $119.9 million, and became the most expensive artwork ever sold at an auction. This painting is one of four similar works by the Norwegian expressionist artist and is also the only one to include a poem on the frame. He explained the inspiration behind this composition:
I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
What Munch described can be seen as an anguish of modernity. We have on the one hand conquered nature with our technological powers. We live relatively comfortable and healthy lives compared to our ancestors, with air conditioning, high-speed trains, cell phones and internet. On the other hand, the modern person is uneasy with what he has gained by means of technology, which can often be a double-edged sword. High-speed trains or airplanes can sometimes crash, internet can be used very wrongly, nuclear energy can become disastrous and cell-phones, Facebook and twitting do not necessarily make us better communicators. This paradox of technological conquest is all the more evident in the field of biomedicine.
While we have overcome many diseases, we have created other new dilemmas. Longer lives makes people wonder about brain death and euthanasia, the burden to care for aged or the demented, and all this impacting the spiral of rising healthcare budgets. Reproductive technologies now allow us to choose to have a child or not, to choose the gender and even eliminate all disabilities. More worrisome is the prospect to clone another human being, to extract tissues or organs from these clones, or to transform the human race by means of the latest technologies—a process termed transhumanism—by creating someone “perfect”.
When we look at “the Scream”, something resonates within us. We all feel this strange sensation that something is amiss, but we find ourselves trapped. Nature is screaming at us, perhaps as a warning, if not foreboding an imminent revenge.
On the day the painting was sold, Pope Benedict XVI offered a possible solution to this impasse in a speech. He explains that Love alone guarantees the humanity of research, and that we need to recuperate the question of meaning and transcendence in our technological mindset:
Ours is a time in which the experimental sciences have transformed the vision of the world and the very self-understanding of man. The many discoveries, the innovative technologies that succeed one another at a feverish rhythm, are reasons for motivated pride, but often they are not lacking in disquieting implications. In fact, projected on the background of the widespread optimism of scientific learning, is the shadow of a crisis of thought.
In fact, scientific research and the question of meaning… spring from only one source, the Logos that presides over the work of creation and guides the intelligence of history. An essential techno-practical mentality generates a risky imbalance between what is technically possible and what is morally good, with unforeseeable consequences. Hence it is important that culture rediscover the meaning and dynamism of transcendence, in a word, that it open with determination the horizon of the quaerere Deum [seeking God].
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