After Pandemic, After Modernity: The Relational Revolution 
By Giulio Maspero.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.
Paperback, 90 pages, $12.

Reviewed by Robert Grant Price.

With the COVID-19 pandemic behind us, what the world needs to heal itself is Trinitarian spirituality.

This is the argument at the center of After Pandemic, After Modernity: The Relational Revolution, a work by Giulio Maspero, a Catholic priest with a PhD in physics and theology and a professorship at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. 

A priest arguing that Christ can save the world seems like a routine event, one that’s easily ignored, but Maspero gives his readers more than a hymn. His book, complete with close readings of scripture and heavy helpings of theological and sociological insight, dives deep into the mystery of what it means to be human and how to heal after a trauma like lockdowns.  

Maspero situates his discussion in the post-pandemic world in which we find ourselves. From this vantage point, we see the world differently than we did before pandemic. Modernity and post-modernity, Maspero argues, exhausted their utility as the basis for a culture. The pandemic delivered a much-needed apocalypse, an unveiling, to reveal the spiritual crisis of the post-modern West to those who hadn’t already noticed. 

Maspero uses the image of the desert to describe the pandemic. Quarantine drove us into the desert and cut us off from the distractions that allowed us to live for so long without abiding relationships. The pandemic taught us what loneliness really is: oppression. Now that we have been living among the dunes of ephemera and consumerism, all good people should aim to rebuild the world as it was meant to be: lush with life and built in full acknowledgement of our relational nature. 

“Perhaps in this lock-down we have experienced, through deprivation, that freedom is relationship,” Maspero says. 

Post-pandemic, we see the brokenness in our ways of living. The modern and the post-modern ways of defining ourselves—by what is like us or by what is not like us, what Maspero calls “tag-like” and “vs-like”—have failed. Eventually, inevitably, these corrupt understandings of humanity isolate each person and force conformity on groups. 

We are living through such a moment. Despite aggressive public evangelization of diversity and inclusion, a movement that its progenitors promised would lead to a new era of egalitarianism and freedom, differences inherent in groups prove themselves to be irreconcilable, and so, as we’ve seen of late, efforts mount to flatten differences between groups. Activists police language. Social media companies censor fringe politics and conspiratorial gossip. Peer review journals unpublish unhelpful facts. Advocates of absolute inclusion call for the elimination of barriers, borders, and laws. Groups let go of hard beliefs that cause friction with other groups to save themselves from attacks from without and from within. Individuals shut up. Art dies. 

The effort to remove the threat of difference only supercharges difference. Everything becomes political, as third wave feminists always said it would. The all-inclusive society eventually retribalizes. Families dissolve. The crazy uncle is disinvited to Thanksgiving. 

Maspero argues that Trinitarian spirituality provides a meaningful path to escape the spiritual desolation brought by modes of life that cannot tolerate difference. Trinitarianism comes naturally to us humans: it is hardwired into the human mind. The triune god—Being itself—is Relation. Made in His image, we incline toward the goodness found through relations. 

“Without differences there are no relationships which at the same time unite and distinguish,” Maspero writes. Rather than eliminate differences, Trinitarianism amplifies differences, while at the same time seeking to resolve these differences through relation. Since relations are not defined through the negation of forms but through the relation of forms, differences become reconcilable and must be reconciled. “In this way the constant disposition of seeking relation, accompanied by the ‘faith’ in giving oneself to such an emerging phenomenon, can be the foundation of dialogue,” Maspero says.  

A discussion of Trinitarian spirituality takes up a significant portion of the book. At one point, Maspero argues that religious discourse must be brought back “into the sphere of political and economic debate, because otherwise idols will impose themselves, with their dehumanizing, manipulative force.” That’s surely a controversial statement, but not half as controversial as when Maspero argues that universities are a natural platform for evangelizing Trinitarian spirituality (a.k.a., Christianity). 

Now that seems nuts. Universities are about as far away from Trinitarian spirituality and Trinitarian ways of thinking as any institution on the planet. A quick scroll through the social media feeds of university student associations, faculty unions, and professional societies show an aversion to anything even remotely Christian. In fact, now that so many are “decolonizing” and embracing indigenous ways of knowing, you’ll probably find more references to pagan religions than to Christ.

If spiritual renewal through Trinitarian spirituality seems improbable, given the general disdain many non-Christians have for Christianity, you can blame the Church. In the book’s fiercest moment Maspero scolds his fellow preachers for their failure to communicate the Christian message with any force or interest. Christianity, he says, has forgotten its metaphysics and its understanding of God as Relation itself and in the Trinity as the telos of all human understanding. Not only has the Church forgotten its metaphysics, it has forgotten—or abandoned—what the Church can offer the spiritually sick. 

“Salvation has gone out of the semantic horizon of preaching, as if a doctor would no longer talk about diseases,” writes Maspero, “because ‘it looks bad’, or a plumber would be ashamed to communicate that he can repair broken toilets.” 

It’s hard language that Maspero makes harder: “A scathing metaphor might liken today’s believers to hostesses or stewards on airplanes who explain safety rules before takeoff, without being heard by anyone.”

A reader comes across lines like these and wonders what the culture of a Vatican-sponsored university in Rome, like the one Maspero calls home, must be like. Are there still Christians in the Catholic Church? 

My problem with this book is that I read it alone. 

I read this book to try to understand life after the pandemic. Maspero helped me. An unexpected and much appreciated close reading of the Book of Hosea taught me something new, as did the lectures on Trinitarian spirituality and other fascinating nuggets. (This book is filled with fascinating nuggets.)

Still, if I had read it with a friend, I might have found answers to my objections and misunderstandings. Maspero, for instance, says the lockdowns made “loneliness less lonely.” You have to strain yourself to believe that lockdowns somehow made “loneliness less lonely.” True, lots of us found a way to be alone with ourselves by learning to relate with others over screens and socially distanced meetings at the park. Too many suicides and deaths by overdose, marital breakdowns and flare ups of mental illness, not to mention reprehensible delays in child development, can make such a claim palatable or true. 

Maspero’s economic critiques also carry a peculiar scent. Here, a friend might have been able to tell me what I’m smelling, since it smells to me a bit like the champagne that carries on the breath of people who have a heavy skepticism of capitalism. Maspero says, at one point, that “The pandemic has accelerated a process that was already underway, undermining the consumerist and globalist illusion of being able to avoid all limits.” If the pandemic undermined consumerist and globalist illusions it did so by destroying supply chains, creating scarcity, and devastating employment and retirement incomes, not by breeding enlightenment in the minds of the poor souls who gave themselves over to the consumerist, globalist blight. 

At another point, Maspero echoes a line used to bludgeon critics of lockdowns—who have since been proven correct: “Is the economy or the human being first? Which is the end and which the means?” This line of question presents a false equivalency and pretends the economy isn’t a reflection of human effort. It’s hard to hear such black-and-white thinking from a man who has pledged himself to poverty, and has no business to keep afloat, no employees to pay, no children to feed. 

As I say, I wish I hadn’t read this provocative book about relationships alone, because there were many times I wanted to turn to a friend and point out a striking thought or ask where this insightful, rambling, optimistic book is taking us.

Robert Grant Price is a university teacher and communications consultant.

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