A Sondheim Song for Your Papal Mixtape

A Sondheim Song for Your Papal Mixtape September 15, 2015

My parish started its Adult Sunday School (taught by Dominican friars) this past weekend, and we kicked off the semester with a discussion of the Pope’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.  I’m not about to summarize the whole encyclical or even the whole class, but I am pleased to tell you that, if you’re building up a Laudato Si mixtape, I have a song to recommend.

One of the themes of our discussion was what Pope Francis terms “the technocratic paradigm” where we increase our power to shape the world, without our knowledge of the world or our wisdom in how to shape it keeping pace.  I liked this line:

Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.

One of the ends we adopt by default, says Francis, is profit.  That doesn’t mean that the pull toward stewardship is entirely attenuated, but it can wind up warped.  I think there’s a kind of care that remains in the technocratic paradigm — it isn’t all just future-blind thought of short term gains.  But it tends to be rooted in a faith that we can’t create problems that exceed our ability to undo, that we’ll wind up creating new equilibria, not paring anything back to return to an old one.

It’s the kind of thought process that leads Facebook and Apple to notice that their worklife makes it hard for its employees to have families, and so they try to be good stewards by covering the cost of egg freezing for their employees.

And the anthem of that mindset is probably “Next!” from Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures.

Pacific Overtures is a musical about Japan being forcibly opened to trade with the West by Commodore Perry, and “Next!” the final song, covers the entire period from the Meiji Restoration to the present day, as Japan becomes an adept actor within the technocratic paradigm.

Streams are flying,
Use the motion
Streams are drying,
Mix a potion.
Streams are dying,
Try the ocean
Brilliant notion

I tend to fall into this pattern of thinking when I assume I can invent my way out of constraints (relying on cleverness, or money, or social capital) and then live my life as though a solution already exists, just because I expect I’ll come up with one before the crisis.

I wind up needed to make the constraint explicit, as I did when I set a bedtime for Advent (and kept it afterward) so I don’t keep living profligately in the present, trusting in my future solutions.

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