Just Thinking

Permanent Things

This text is adapted from a message delivered recently at a conference on the theme “Permanent Things” and appears as a spoken presentation.

The first year of the new millennium is over, and we have seen an explosion of books and articles on the twentieth century, and its key thinkers and influencers. In a time of rapid and almost breathless change, how we need to listen to the words of Scripture.We can look back on a time when the idea that reality was fixed was non-negotiable, and the Scriptures certainly attest to this idea. John’s Gospel begins with the majestic words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We cannot begin to imagine how important this reality is until we explore the absence or rejection of these key truths as essential features of life. Similarly, Isaiah 40:6-8 reveals a tremendous contrast: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” The impermanence and temporality of all things is contrasted with the permanence and assuredness of God and His Word. The very notion of permanent things seems highly implausible in a world where obsolescence is built in as part of the planning and manufacturing process.In my frequent travels I have often visited the Greek city of Thessalonica. While there I was able to stay in St. Luke’s hospital (as a guest!) in an area called Panorama. From this vantage point the whole city and the bay can be viewed, revealing a tremendous vista. Likewise, as God’s people, I believe we have a “vantage point” in the history of ideas that permits us to weigh the possible and actual consequences of various ideas and then impels us to ask ourselves, “How must we then live?” (It should be noted that this question is being posed to a predominantly American audience of Christians, and hence the subsequent focus on the ideas of western culture in particular.)As I was preparing to speak on this subject a few months ago, I read various books that helped to sharpen my thinking.1 Three ideas in particular struck me with great force. First, the insight of Karl Marx as he spoke of a cultural condition and of a time “where all that is solid melts into air.” A friend of mine alluding to this phenomenon describes this as a process of “cultural vaporization.” Things that seemed so familiar, things that used to be a part of our cultural furnishings, just seem to disappear, and we are left with, if you will, the presence of an absence. Second, the postmodernists’ revulsion towards “logo-centrism,” or what Jacques Derrida describes as the “metaphysics of presence.” That is, the postmodernist disagrees with the very notion that language actually refers to something or signifies an actual existing thing. Instead, such thinkers believe that the act of speaking gives reality to things and ideas, and that language is not a pure description of reality. And third, the deepening sense of nihilism which is both being experienced and propagated in film, music, and popular culture. (The movies Fight Club and American Beauty, and sitcoms like Seinfeld and Titus are examples.)In his book Shows about Nothing, Thomas S. Hibbs comments on what he calls the “demonic anti-providence” so apparent in many contemporary movies and shows. When watching some of these productions you get the idea that there is a malevolent, impersonal force at work in life that is out to thwart us at every turn. Initiative, hope, and effort are all pointless because forces beyond our control stymie our dreams at every turn, leaving us to utter that great insight from teen culture: “Whatever.”Richard Weaver was right: Ideas do have consequences. In his excellent book From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun offers a definition of decadence that is very helpful as we reflect on our cultural moment: All that is meant by decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of possibility. The forms of art, as of life, seem exhausted; the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.” 2I think it was G. K. Chesterton who once said, “It is when the children are bored that they then begin to torture the cat.” Surely we would all agree that saturation, boredom, and fatigue are some of the deep concerns from our materialistically exhausted era. Barzun goes on to say, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.”Ten minutes watching the sitcom Friends or Seinfeld would be enough to confirm this vital insight. We see a restlessness bound by a deep sense of futility and boredom. What a recipe for frustration! The glorification of permanent adolescence is now a central cultural value.How did we get here? I’d like to pick up on some historic and contemporary themes that serve, I believe, to give birth to the very contradictions and challenges that lie at the heart of western culture. As Daniel Bell so ably pointed out in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, we often find that many of the goods we so deeply believe in and desire are subject to the law of unintended consequences. That is, the unqualified pursuit or acquisition of things—whether material goods or emotional fulfillment—often leads to unexpected outcomes.I can best illustrate this by identifying three core themes in western culture: the emphasis on enlightenment, the desire for emancipation, and the endless pursuit of entertainment. First, let us look at the theme of enlightenment. Ever since the days of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates, we have recognized a deep belief that knowledge was good, that education was essential, and that the pursuit of truth and virtue was the most noble of pursuits. Immanuel Kant captured this in his famous phrase, sapere aude, “dare to know.” We might say that the struggle with knowledge and ideas returns repeatedly to many of the same themes: the nature of reality, questions regarding epistemology, the nature of goals and morality, etc. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were pivotal in western culture, not the least due to the influence of David Hume and Immanuel Kant among others. The desire to pursue knowledge that would enable us to order and hence control our destiny became a consuming passion.The legitimate and necessary longing for enlightenment, however, left many unsatisfied. Instead, we find the unintended consequence of this quest—an autonomous individual governed by scientific rationality in pursuit of control and order. And this hunger for knowledge continues unabated today, with a zeal that at times seems to swing between panic (we need answers) and hope (we’re sure we’ll find them).3At this point we may be led to ask, To what end? This raises the second theme, emancipation. The experience of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the terrible religious wars led to new ideas and a search for secular and “reasonable” alternatives to the scourge of religious enmity. The technological and industrial revolutions in the United Kingdom, the French and American revolutions, these were all, in their respective ways, movements of emancipation or liberation:From the tyranny of nature and the so-called limits of our humanity.From the tyranny of priests and kings to the rule of the people and representative government.From the tyranny of distant rulers insensitive to local needs and realities.From the tyranny of “metaphysics” and mythological illusions that kept humanity in a childish state.We all love stories of emancipation as can be seen by the success of movies like Braveheart or more recently, The Patriot. However, we must also see the deep longing for personal freedom from any and all restraints that inhibit free self-definition, self-expression, and movement. Aldous Huxley, in his book Ends and Means, sums it up clearly when he says, “For myself, no doubt, as for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation.”4 Again, whether in the writings of the utilitarians, in the movies or the advertising industry, the unqualified pursuit of freedom leads to unexpected outcomes.Another area that illustrates the same pursuit is the belief in primitivism. We see evidence of this in many western countries: the desire to return to the pre-Christian and supposed “pure” roots such as the Celts and Druids in the United Kingdom; the ancient spirit guides of Native Americans; or the goddess religions and rituals from various parts of the world. A friend in Greece recently commented on the massive effort to raise the ancient pagan mythologies for use in the 2004 Olympic games. Additionally, the fascination with Wicca on many university campuses is a growing trend.In the quest for such roots, western culture in general, and Christianity in particular, are seen to be guilty of stifling vitality and passion, and therefore must be overthrown or resisted at all costs. We must be free! But free for what? The answer surfaces in the third theme: entertainment. After all, is not amusement a right—the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness? With happiness as the goal and any and all means legitimized, we demand unlimited access to all that provides fulfillment. Hence, inhibitions and restraints are considered serious problems to be solved or barriers to be removed. Consider the perpetual war on standards, values, and morals; they are refuted because they are considered purely questions of someone’s taste or perspective, not questions of truth. In this context, relativism becomes less of a philosophical issue and more of an essential requirement for the effective running of the system.Consequently, questions of morality are answered by simple admonitions such as “Well, don’t watch,” or “Don’t go there,” or “Don’t buy those things.” It is all simply a question of choice. The public-private divide is deepened by the invocation “As long as it doesn’t hurt others,” which itself is subject to constant redefinition and change. The model for moral decision-making becomes “the market” or “consumer dynamics.” Books like Neal Gabler’s Life: The Movie, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and Ken Myers’ All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes speak powerfully of an entertainment-blinded life of perpetual distraction and seduction.As one perceptive commentator on contemporary affairs noted, we have elevated adolescence to a central value of our culture, and we are driven by the restless longing to escape boredom. Consider the irony of it all. At a time when we do see increasing access to the pleasures and provisions of the system, and with an ever increasing array of products, goods, and services to benefit from, we see people not more satisfied but less. 5 Where do we go from here? As God’s people, we must then consider these three themes—enlightenment, emancipation, and entertainment—in responding to the question raised earlier, “How must we then live?” What is clear is the enormous cost of these beliefs and values in every area of life. We see the law of unintended consequences, of unforeseen backlash and terrible fallout as the price for our “make-beliefs.” All of this is a stark reminder that we do live in a moral universe with a created order, and hence the need to conform to reality rather than attempting to redefine it. As my friend Clive Calver used to say, “This is God’s world, and we need to learn to live in it God’s way.” Two concerns have struck me in my interaction with Christians about many of the issues of our time. First, a sense of helplessness; we’re not sure what to do or where a solution lies, and the so the bulk of our discussion focuses on whom to blame or how to get power to sort things out. The Gospel is seldom invoked as an answer or solution. Secondly and related, a sense of hopelessness that leads to a creeping disillusionment. Consequently we simply resign ourselves to the way things are and wait for the end. And yet, often what resides underneath these feelings is a deep anger as we witness precious things being discarded or trampled in the public square, and the endless moralizing that does little to effect transformation. The ability to think clearly, compassionately, and critically is waning within Christian circles.So where do we go from here? Once again we must plumb the depths of Scripture in order to first, recover and fix our focus. What we need now is the same as has been needed in other places and at other times: a transcendent perspective and reminder that the Good News is still good news. When we turn to the prophetic literature such the Book of Isaiah, we see seasons of hope—and we see seasons of disillusionment—a time of obedience, and a time of corruption. Indeed, the prophets are often sent with messages that seem to mix hope with judgment. For those committed to rebellious living and rejection of God’s will, there is judgment. For those with ears to hear the divine voice, a blessed hope (see Isaiah 51: 4-8). But please here me: It is important that the priorities, values, and agendas that occupy us as God’s people are those in Scripture and not nostalgia for some golden age. God is still on the throne and very much in control. History is moving to its climax and His purposes will stand. In Isaiah 51:4-8 we observe that in the midst of all that is going on, God speaks. He reminds His people of where their focus should be, and that His will is determinative of what really counts in life. In the midst of the invasive power of secularization, of the saturation of idols and images, a voice calls out with resounding clarity showing the way. We are reminded elsewhere by Isaiah, “Thou will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed (fixed) on Thee” (26:3). In times of persecution, oppression, and vast corruption, the clarion call of the prophets and teachers has been “remember.” It is a call to fix our focus beyond the appearance, the circumstances, and the immediate, and to be gripped by the ultimately real, the transcendent, and the eternal. Peter Berger, the sociologist, studied the effects of modernity on consciousness and coined the phrase “the homeless mind.” As the Church, we do not have a homeless mind, but rather a centered mind—the mind of Christ. Ravi describes this as “a point of reference.” We must exert conscious and intentional discipline to set our focus where it truly belongs: “to love the Lord your God…and neighbor”(Matthew 22:36-40). Love is not simple a vague set of feelings nor a generalized religious orientation; it is rather a deep stirring of the affections of the heart and of our will actively and intentionally pursuing the object of our longings. To love God supremely and others compassionately means a practical and thorough refocusing of our lives and goals with concerns that are relational and moral, and not simply material. Time is moving on, yet it heads toward a fixed and sure terminus at the redemption of the world. Until then, courage, patience, and vision must keep us steadfastly on track.Secondly and related, we must cultivate living in truth. The tendency to focus on beliefs and principles—to the exclusion of practice—is all too common among evangelicals. Postmodern times demand not simply a declaration of truth but its demonstration. To commit to living in truth is to consciously reject the tendency to separate what we know or believe from what we do. We must give definitive expression to our deepest beliefs through obedience and acts of love. Os Guinness cites a California bumper sticker that says, “There is no such thing as right or wrong, only fun or boring.” He suggests, therefore, in such a culture our overarching task must be to “seek the truth, speak the truth, and live the truth.” Alexander Solzhenytsin, in his Nobel Prize address a number of years ago, said, “Let the lie come into the world, even dominate the world, but not through me.” The life of Vaclav Havel, the one-time dissident prisoner and then President of the Czech Republic, is a vibrant testimony to the commitment to live in truth.To seek the Truth, speak the Truth, and live the Truth requires some careful reflection and reorientation on our part. Nietzsche said, “It is our preference that decides against Christianity, not arguments.” To which we can respond, “It is our preference, informed by reality and shaped by good arguments, that decides for Christianity, not nihilism.” Seeking, then, involves effort in reading and study so that we continue to wrestle with issues and to explore all that is involved in cultivating a life of wisdom and virtue. Speaking requires the development of skill, courage, and clarity, as we desire to communicate essential truths about life and God that truly influence others. Living means resolving to cultivate integrity and habits of the heart that model the very truths we hold so dearly.Third, as God-centered people we embrace hope, model being hopeful, and sow seeds of hope. The God of permanent things speaks to His people who are tempted to fix their eyes on all that is happening around them. The powerful reminder from Isaiah is this: that which seems so real, so imminent, so sure will ultimately give place to what can never pass away and which is of greatest value and ultimate significance (see Isaiah 51:7-8). In contrast to the powerful words of the prophet are the words of the playwright Bernard Shaw: “No, no, no, my child; do not pray. If you do, you will throw away the main advantage of this place. Written over the gate here are the words, ‘Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.’ Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently, no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to by lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.” 6The Christian life rests on the three pillars of faith, hope, and love, and I believe hope has been sadly neglected in the armory of Christian truth. Lesslie Newbigin speaks of where our confidence as Christians should lie, “The locus of confidence… is not so much in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known.” 7 Hence, while we embrace the truth, we must moreover be embraced by the Truth. Until the coming of Christ, we live in hope. This hope is vital to Christian living and testimony. It manifests itself in a confident expectation. It is ethically robust and future-oriented yet anchored in a deep desire to impact the present. My colleague Ravi often models this concept as he listens carefully and sensitively to those of opposing views. Francis Schaeffer also used to spend many hours in deep discussions and ongoing reflection with those who were seriously committed to beliefs that had tragic and difficult consequences. Ravi, Schaeffer and others have shown us how one can respect the person, hold clearly to the Truth, and present hope—to show a “way out”—that no other religion or philosophy provides. A lot of time and energy is required to study the ideas of others, to explore their trajectory, and to compare their claims with that of the Gospel. The effort and study are well worth it when we see the power of God’s Word contrasted with the limited and short term hopes of this world. Our hope is grounded in the character of God and in His constant Presence. He is merciful and has the power to help, heal, and change us. We see a tremendous picture of this in Jeremiah 32. The prophet is told by the Lord to redeem some property despite its apparent uselessness in the face of imminent Babylonian captivity. This seemingly senseless command is, in fact, a sign of permanent things and the assurance of hope. The day of renewal is coming, and Jeremiah’s symbolic act is a reminder of what is to come (and what indeed came).A few years ago a friend and I stood in Nuremberg where Hitler had proclaimed his “Thousand Year Reich.” A little later on the same trip, we stood by a dilapidated building in which many years earlier I had been interrogated by the Communist East German border guards. Tears ran down my face, for I was struck by the seeming power of these systems and how quickly they came to an end. God gripped me with the assurance of His created order and a permanence that will not pass away.In conclusion, it is vital that we remind ourselves to recover and fix our focus, cultivate living in truth, and embrace hope. Hope is rooted in our confidence that God is sovereign over history, and despite our human errors and plans His purpose will stand. Setting and keeping our focus is crucial (Col 3:1-3), as is cultivating a life lived in Truth. The uncertainties of life and the constant flux of change are countered by the Living God who is both transcendent and imminent, and who by His precious Spirit guides and steers life to its good conclusion. The promise is sure, the difference it makes is real, and the perspective that follows is a tremendous antidote to the culture of despair we often encounter daily. The seeds of hope are ever present as the Word of God is sure. May we learn to place our confidence where it is truly secure and sustained, for behind the constantly changing bustle of modern culture lies the assurance of permanent things.1 For example, From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun provides a tremendous overview of western civilization in the last 500 years. The Power of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin charts the impact and trajectory of many of the radical thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. God’s Funeral by A. N. Wilson explores the advance of atheism, and the existential loss and despair that have increased with theism’s withdrawal. In Time for Truth, Os Guinness issues a call for faithfulness and fidelity to truth. 2 Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to Present: Five Hundred Years of Western Cultural Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), xvi.3 As an example of the continuous quest for enlightenment, we should consider the work of the “Frankfurt School” of social thinkers. Individuals like Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse have done more to influence radical thinking and cultural critique than many more widely known names. Their efforts in pursuit of “enlightenment” focused on the need to locate the focal points of tension in a culture, which should then be explored, brought to light, and used as means of fostering ever greater liberty. Radical gender politics would be an example, and its goal (as one advocate has suggested) is “unremitting cultural terrorism.”4 Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (London: Chatto& Windus, 1946), 273.5 See, for example, books such as Kenneth Gergen’s Saturated Self, and David Shenk’s Data Smog, which examine our inundated and weary moment.6 Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, Act 3.7 For a meaningful discussion on this aspect of hope, see Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1995). Quote appears on page 67 (italics mine). Readers of the Just Thinking article Metaphors We Live By should note that Curtis Chang draws from Newbigin’s study as well in discussing the banning of Aristotle’s works at the University of Paris.Stuart McAllister is director of international ministries at RZIM

 

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