Limits of Transparency

God's grace, taken to heart, goes beyond words, signals, and images


Faith Philosophy

Transparency is important. Interested in the latest batch of election returns? In California, the Secretary of State posts them in real time. Concerned about what Rome’s doing with the yearly Peter’s Pence collection? An audit is in order, isn’t it? Wondering about what Corporate is concocting? Try lobbying for more transparency! In general, it seems, transparency plays an important part in our cooperative and shared enterprises.

Indeed, “transparency” is among the most loudly buzzing of buzz words. For a philosopher, though, that raises the reddest of red flags. (My neighbor’s yard is festooned with little red flags that mark the presence of a gas line!) So why should we worry, and more than just a bit, about transparency?

Think, first, of St. John Henry Newman’s episcopal motto: Cor ad cor loquitur, that is, “Heart speaks to heart.” Well, there’s no transcript of this speech to be had, is there? Instead there is a silent communicating of mystery. Or think of St. Augustine of Hippo. One of the greatest Doctors of the Church, he wrote prodigiously. And yet, in Christian iconography we see him  holding out a heart in his hand. What Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, wrote, especially in his Confessions, touched the hearts of his readers. But neither Augustine’s conversion, nor the many conversions to which it led, are transparent. Grace transcends ledgers and spread sheets.

The late Herbert McCabe, OP, underscores the limits of transparency. In a splendid essay on the teaching charism of the Dominicans, he celebrates the moment when his students “take to heart” the reality of God as the very source of being. In doing so, they go beyond words and signals and image to the Absolute Mystery of Love, a reality that is not one reality among others but the wellspring of that which is.

Recently the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has provocatively criticized the “society of transparency.” He writes that “Like all ideologies, it has a positive core that has been made…absolute.” Transparency, he says, “has no transcendence” and “instead of illuminating, it suffuses everything and makes it see-through…its effect is homogenizing and leveling.” His critique continues: “The society of transparency is the society of information…it amounts to positivized, operationalized language.”

For Han, transparency runs amok in the digital world. In this world “the capacity for analysis and vision of the future have been replaced by phantasmal interlocutors immersed in a continuous present that can always be viewed through a screen. This has given rise to a ‘digital swarm’ of anonymous and isolated individuals.”

Does Han exaggerate our woes? Philosophers sometimes rival the everyday hyper-dramatization of the established disorder. Yet it would be hard to thrash about, as we do, in the crazy currents of our time, without wanting to find a way forward. And that way might surprise us. As Miguel Cervantes observes in Don Quixote, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness.”

And where does that leave us with transparency? It surely has its practical uses, but let’s be alert for red flags.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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