Through winding, trash-strewn roads and poverty-lined streets we made our way to another world. Clotheslines hung from every imaginable protrusion, a symbol of the teeming life that fought to survive there, and a contrast to the empty, darkened world of night. The only light in otherwise pitch-black alleys came from the glow of cigarettes and drug pipes, which for split seconds illumined faces that lived here. It was late and I was sick, discovering after a long flight that I had not escaped the office stomach flu after all. Our van was full of tourists, their resort brochures a troubling contrast to the streets that would bring them there. Strangers who only moments before wore the expressions of anticipation of vacation now rode in expressionless silence. One man broke that silence, just as the taxi turned the corner seemingly into an entirely new realm. With pain and poverty now literally behind him, he said quietly, “Well… It is what it is.”
These words rung in my ears all weekend, most of which was spent crumpled on the bathroom floor, unable to participate in the wedding we had come to “paradise” to enjoy. In the end, it seemed a metaphor for thoughts I wanted to remember physically and not in mere abstractions. You see, typically, when the drowsy, comfortable world I have come to expect is jarred awake by visions of the way the majority of the world actually lives, the upset that is caused is largely conceptual, immaterial, abstract. Sure, I am momentarily both deeply saddened and humbled by the wealth of resources and rights many of us take for granted in the West. I am aware again of the need to stay involved and vocal about relief efforts and global injustices that take place daily right under our noses. But for the most part, my angst, my theology, my reactions are all abstract, observed mentally, not physically. That is, they remain deeply felt issues, but not concrete matters of life.
Of course, I am not suggesting that abstract, philosophical ideas are the problem—clearly my vocation is dedicated to the notion that ideas carry consequences, that reflection on questions of truth, beauty, hope, and love are indeed matters vital to the development of fulfilled human beings. What I am suggesting is that the abstract is both hopeless and of no use without the concrete (inasmuch as the concrete is meaningless without the abstract). Many of the most stirring theological pronouncements Jesus made were in fact not statements at all—but a life, a death, a meal shared, a daily, physical reality changed, a new possibility realized.
And this is precisely why those simple words “It is what it is” are a coping mechanism that should sicken us every bit as thoroughly as the scenes that make us want to utter them in the first place. Far from a mere collection of abstractions about another world, the Christian life is an active declaration that all is not as it appears. While other worldviews and religions offer an explanation for why and how this world “is what it is,” Christianity offers something different. With the prophets, with Christ, every story and parable and interaction declares: “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!”
Professor of theology William Cavanaugh notes that this vital difference in perspective takes form from the very beginning, starting with the way the book of Genesis tells the origins of the world. Instead of telling a creation story like the Babylonians, for instance, where the circumstances of creation are awry from the start, the Hebrews tell a story where all is good from the beginning, but then something goes terribly wrong. What this tells every hearer of the story thereafter is that things are not the way they are supposed to be. As Cavanaugh notes, “There is a revolutionary principle right there in the Scriptures which allows us to unthink the inevitability of sin, to unthink the inevitability of violence, and so on.”(1) The very first story God tells provides a framework for walking through a world enslaved by poverty and violence, sin and deception—a framework that provides both profound meaning (this is not the way it’s supposed to be!) and a concrete call to live daily into other, redemptive possibilities.
It is thus an inherently Christian task to actively work at unthinking the inevitability of the way things are and to labor accordingly at changing them. Any reflection of truth and beauty, however abstract, if truly lived out by those who believe them, will ultimately address the concrete matters of life as well. For the Christian, this is a world where nothing merely unfortunately is what it is. Imagining other possibilities, working to unthink the divisions, deceptions, and frameworks that keep us bound to creation’s fall and not its redemption, we join the work of Father and Spirit. We join the Son who takes the abstractions of truth and beauty and declares concretely, “I am the way, the truth, the life.”
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) William Cavanaugh with Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 95, Jan/Feb 2009.