A Sign of the Way Things Are

It’s certainly a sign of the times that zuntier has ceased being only the in-between space between “church” and “pjazza” and has become… yet another dot.com. Yet in this remarkable cultural transition—that is even more astonishing, because we take it for granted!—one thing has not changed. Zuntier continues to be a space of encounter; a ground for conversation, gossip and debate; the ripe in-between “reality” that bridges two realms.

Our grandparents’ zuntier bridged “holy ground” with everyday life. Fifty years ago, “secular” was hardly a category that would have crossed the average Maltese villager’s mind. In our own times, where most of us are not only skeptical about such notions as “sacred”, but also increasingly disenchanted by categories like “secular”, zuntier is bridging mediated (digital) presence with the “mundane” existence of embodied everyday life. Nevertheless, just like the zuntier of yester-year, the defining characteristic of the digital zuntier is that it brings together a “spiritual” and “fleshly” realm; extraordinary reality and its ordinary equivalent.

The novelty—and perhaps, irony—of our times is that the “spiritual” and “extraordinary” have become not only “second nature”, but are themselves self-created. I don’t need church or religion to give me a sense of connectedness to a greater universe, to the vastness of time, to an almost “telepathic” communion with men and women I’ve never even met before. All I need is a smart phone in my pocket and I am Master and Mistress of the world. All I need is a profile on a social networking site, where I preach and proclaim my own good news. I make myself the centre of “my” universe.

On the other hand, the mundane-ness of everyday reality is a rude awakening from the dream of connected, disembodied existence where, on my own terms and no one else’s, I am everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Waking up is hard to do; caffeine is never sufficient; traffic a nightmare; (school) work drudgery; family a nuisance.  As the cult movieMatrix put it, give me the “blue pill” so I rest in the bliss of virtual reality forever.  Embodied life is too hard. Embodied life is too messy.

Who really wants to return to yester-year’s zuntier and its division of the world between the “religious” and the “secular”? After all, just like “religion”, true secularism is hardly for the faint-hearted, and certainly not for the many of us who prefer the “blue pill” to a hard reality check. Secularity demands an ordered political system grounded on equal rights and duties, irrespective of who one is. It demands obedience to civil laws, irrespective of whether we like them or not. It rests upon clear distinctions between the private and the public, with the understanding that while one can entertain private idiosyncrasies, only issues of public significance that affect the smooth running of the state need to be paid attention to if publicly discussed. After all freedom of speech does not guarantee an audience.

In fact, secularity is hardly unlike the clichéd accusations against modern organized religion—the very clichés that still attract some to “religion” as the foolproof way of knowing “truth” in confusing times and “rightness” in perplexing quandaries. Secularity tells us what is expected of the good citizen and how to behave. It gives us an identity without necessarily making us adults who commit to life in a community. It treats us as one among many, often merely paying lip-service to our individuality.

In contrast, emerging digital culture seems to imply that self-expression is limitless, that individuality can be constantly constructed, that each personal interest and idiosyncrasy can be entertained. One can be actor and audience any time one’s heart craves five minutes of fame. One can wear as many hats as one desires, play different roles and discard them, be king and jester simultaneously. We can all create our personal Disneyworld and, we would hardly be honest if we did not also admit that we love the free ride.

Yet the question that begs to be asked is: can illusions last forever, or will “blue pills” turn sour in our mouth? Even in the emerging digital culture, can we afford to play games forever? Or will we need to become “adults” who are accountable to each other? In the great task of rebuilding “a brave new world”, will I be a person of integrity who can pick up the pieces and lead by example? How can I become that person?

Perhaps, to fulfill the tasks for tomorrow, it would be wise to return to the zuntier of yester-year, to stay in the in-between-ness of “sacred” and “profane”, “religion” and secularity”, to learn how to be a bridge between realms, seeking to discern and appropriate the wisdom of both. Then perhaps, even in our times, we will be able to see beyond the immediate veil, to swim in waters that take us beyond our contracted (digital and embodied) world. There is, after all, a vast universe out there.

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