How a 20th century theologian became a quiet prophet for our distracted age
I saw machines invading the land that had previously been the home of culture.
—Romano Guardini Letters From Lake Como
A curious thing can happen when a person leaves a place for years—or decades. The mind retains a snapshot of that place exactly as it was the last time one saw it. The rest of the world may move along, but the snapshot stays there, stubbornly pinned to a specific but increasingly distant date. And if one ever happens to return to that place, this fixed image can throw into relief changes one might not have grasped otherwise.
I experienced this firsthand in 2011 when I made a return visit to Minneapolis—the city where I was raised—after an absence of 17 years. My own mental time capsule was of the pre-internet era: the sidewalks, creeks, lakes and interconnected bike paths of South Minneapolis filled with people actively engaged with nature and with each other. But now a shift had occurred—subtle, perhaps, but psychologically jarring. The introduction of smartphones to that environment had disrupted the harmony. Amid the runners, cyclists and walkers there now emerged a new type: not fully present, neither gazing inward nor outward but down into their devices. They sat on benches. They wandered. Their lack of spatial awareness hovered about them like a hazy mist.
The technological changes Guardini witnessed during his lifetime were far more dramatic and violent than anything we are likely to see in our own era.
This type—let’s call it the “phone zombie”—was not really new to me. I had been that person on occasion. But the introduction of this element into a much-cherished and much-missed place brought home its foreignness, its not-quite-rightness. And this feeling has only grown in me since then. I can’t help thinking that we have said yes to something that is throwing us out of balance with nature and with each other even as it purports to liberate us.
The 20th-century theologian Romano Guardini had a similar—albeit more dramatic—epiphany on a return visit to his family home of Lake Como, Italy, in the early 1920s. He spent the rest of his life wrestling with its implications. Lake Como, unlike Guardini’s adopted home of Berlin, had been slow to industrialize, and so the sight of smokestacks making a belated intrusion into its pristine landscape took the young priest by surprise.
“All at once...on the singing lines of a small town, I saw the great box of a factory,” he writes in Letters From Lake Como.
Look how in a landscape in which all the risings and fallings and measures and proportions came together in one clear melody, along with the lofty bell tower there was suddenly a smokestack, and everything fell apart. You must take some pains to understand this. It was truly terrible. We are used to it in [Germany]. We have even learned to see something valuable in what is unavoidable. Our eyes are beginning to open to the greatness of this new world, and we are finding the ability to contemplate it and the hands to mold it. But see, here it was totally different. Here was form closer to humanity. Here was nature indwelt by humanity. And now I saw it breaking apart.
The technological changes Guardini witnessed during his lifetime (1885-1968) were far more dramatic, jarring and violent than anything we are likely to see in our own era. Yet the deeper I go into his writings, the more convinced I become of their urgency and relevance in the here and now.
The Essence of Things
A soft-spoken, short-statured man who in his one-on-one interactions was polite and friendly to a fault, Guardini in his prose had the ability to zero in on the essence of things. His writing retained the gentleness of his personal demeanor, but it also displayed a firmness of purpose—a willingness to shake the reader from complacency. Most crucially, he had the patience to wait for answers to emerge. Letters From Lake Como, which is a collection of letters Guar-dini wrote to his friend Josef Weiger, concerns itself almost exclusively with an analysis of the problems posed by encroaching technology.
It is not until the ninth and final letter, written three years into the correspondence, that a recommended course of action begins to surface. Even then, Guardini refused to rush it. He would devote two more volumes—The End of the Modern World (1956) and Power and Responsibility (1961)—to refining and expanding his vision. By that time a second world war, two atomic bombs, an emerging Cold War and the rise of the consumer society had made a grim case for the validity of his arguments.
Guardini’s writing retained the gentleness of his personal demeanor, but it also displayed a firmness of purpose.
Guardini’s critique of technology consists of three main points, all of which remain relevant in our current age of distraction. First, in the machine age we have lost the sense of immersion with nature that we once enjoyed. Guardini describes how earlier technologies such as the sailing vessel, the open hearth and the plow functioned in a direct, tactile collaboration with the natural world. These technologies were “[works] of the mind and spirit [but] also fully integrated into nature.” Subsequent innovations, such as the gasoline engine, electrical heating and the tractor, created a distance with the natural world, making it seem as if it were something to be conquered. We have yet to fully assess the psychological damage this shift has caused, but the environmental effects have been all too apparent.
The second point, which is closely related to the first, is that technology has given human beings tremendous power, yet our ethical standards have not kept pace with this rapid development; we are just as inclined to use this new power for ill as for good. Given the cataclysmic events of his lifetime, Guardini suspected that our worst instincts might have the upper hand.
Lastly, the mechanization (and, in our current era, the digitization) of society has created a mechanized mind, leaving little room for an appreciation of, or even a tolerance for, the transcendent. This phenomenon has only increased since Guardini’s time.
The mechanization of society has created a mechanized mind, leaving little room for an appreciation of, or even a tolerance for, the transcendent.
Concurrent with this loss of what Guardini calls “natural religious experience” has been a move toward mass conformity—what we might call the “hive mind.” “Mass man has no desire for independence or originality in either the management or the conduct of his life,” Guardini writes in The End of the Modern World. “Nor does he seek to create an environment belonging only to himself, reflecting only his self. The gadgets and technics forced upon him by the patterns of machine production and of abstract planning mass man accepts quite simply; they are the forms of life itself.”
At first glance this argument would appear to have lost its validity in the current era. We have, superficially at least, moved beyond the visibly conformist culture of the 1950s. If anything, the myriad platforms now available for individual expression have taken us too far in the opposite direction and ushered in a culture of dislocated narcissism. But if we look closely at how various ideological camps have sealed themselves off into “bubbles” on social media; if we observe the resulting tribalism and groupthink; if we reflect on how public discourse has been replaced seemingly overnight by a sound and fury more appropriate to a sporting event, with one mob attempting to shout down another—we can see that narcissism and true “freedom of internal judgment” are not the same thing.
Beyond Our Imaginations
It is hard to deny that we live in an exhilarating age. New technologies have facilitated an explosion of entrepreneurship and creativity that could scarcely have been imagined a generation ago. The opportunities now available to each of us at the click of a button are practically limitless. Yet it is becoming clear that we are also in the midst of a crisis, much of it playing out in our internal lives. We have never been so connected, yet we have never felt so separated. Consider the recent reports that have linked new tech to upticks in attention deficit disorder, depression and anxiety disorders, sleep disruption, traffic fatalities, pornography addiction, identity theft, bullying, political polarization and even suicide. We have freedom, yes. We have power. But we don’t always know what to do with our freedom and power.
Unique among writers of a tech-wary bent, Guardini urged his readers to embrace the present fully and without reservation.
Unique among writers of a tech-wary bent, Guardini urged his readers to embrace the present fully and without reservation. But he also stressed that they do so with intention. And here we arrive at the aspect of his work that cries out most loudly for a modern audience: Guardini’s advocacy for a new attitude of technology mindfulness, to be exercised at the individual level.
As with his critique, the recommendation has three major components.
First, we must reclaim the interior lives that technology has wrested from us. “Man’s depths must be reawakened,” Guardini writes in Power and Responsibility.
His life must again include times, his day moments of stillness in which he collects himself, spreads out before his heart the problems which have stirred him during the day. In a word, man must learn again to meditate and to pray.... He must step aside from the general hustle and bustle; must become tranquil and really “there,” opening his mind and heart wide to some word of piety or wisdom or ethical honor, whether he takes it from Scripture or Plato, from Goethe or Jeremias Gotthelf.
A direct result of this recommitment to contemplation should be a greater sense of self-control. Guardini uses the somewhat loaded term asceticism but defines it in a manner that ought to have broad appeal. “Man must fight for inner health and freedom,” he writes, “against the machinations of advertising, the flood of loud sensationalism, against noise in all its forms.... Asceticism is the refusal to capitulate, the determination to fight them, there at the key bastion—namely, in ourselves.” If I may adapt this for the here and now: We must create space between ourselves and our devices.
Guardini: We must reclaim our common, eternal values and make these the impetus for all our decisions.
Guardini’s final point is the most difficult to grasp and enact: We must reclaim our common, eternal values and make these the impetus for all our decisions—the big decisions like how we raise our children and care for our ailing parents as well as the “small” decisions like how we interact with our devices. “By this I do not mean to follow a program of any kind,” Guardini writes, “but to make the simple responses that always were and always will be right.”
Guardini was aware that these suggestions were merely a starting point, “an attempt to set a course.” And he seemed conflicted at times as to whether to frame these musings in explicitly Christian terms—as he did much of the time—or aim for a more universalist tone, as he did quite effectively in the closing chapter of Power and Responsibility (quoted above) and in a 1959 address to the Munich College of Technology. Touching on faith and the “innermost part” of the human spirit, but not specifying its contours, Guardini urged the future leaders and innovators in attendance to “imagine an intellectual council of nations in which the very best among us would discuss these matters irrespective of all politics.”
Human existence has advanced so far, humans have taken so big a grip of themselves, the possibilities of achievement and destruction have become so incalculable that the time has come for a new virtue, a new skill in intellectual government in which, made serious by so much experience, we can break free from entanglement in departmentalized spheres of thinking and life.
Guardini was one of the more outward-looking Catholic figures of his day, repeatedly urging the faithful to engage in open dialogue with the modern world. For this and other reasons he is now considered to have been a “precursor to Vatican II.” Even so, certain aspects of his writing might come across as conservative and exclusivist to modern readers of a non-Christian background. He states, in The End of the Modern World, that “the knowledge of what it means to be a person is inexplicably bound up with the Faith of Christianity. An affirmation and a cultivation of the personal can endure for a time perhaps after Faith has been extinguished, but gradually they too will be lost.” That was not an especially controversial statement for a Catholic theologian to make in 1956, but it does make Guardini a harder sell for contemporary readers who stand outside the Christian faith. In any case, all would do well to engage with him, for here was a writer of tremendous sensitivity and grace, taking on a problem that concerned the entire world—then and now.
He had a fixed image in his mind. He saw that image altered by exterior forces. He thought about what he might do about it. And so, all these years later, the kind, quiet man continues to speak.