The Way It Is
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, colorful 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 and resort. 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 destination 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 people reeling in discomfort or injustice, the upset that is caused is largely conceptual, immaterial, abstract. Sure, I am momentarily both deeply saddened and humbled by the comforts and rights many of us take for granted in the West. I am aware again of the need to stay involved with humanitarian and relief efforts and perpetual 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 and finite 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 a desert without the infinite).
This is made especially clear in the biblical story where from the beginning we find a God who descends the heavens like a ladder to be among us. Many of the most stirring theological pronouncements Jesus would later make in person 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 quite different. With the prophets, with the Incarnate Christ, the God-Man among us, 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 inherently 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—possibilities Christ himself embodied and set in motion.
For anyone plagued by the signs of an inevitably despairing world, the story Jesus embodies affords us a language far beyond impotent coping mechanisms or naïve delusions that ‘we’ can save the world. Rather, we unite ourselves with one who has already set in motion the work of new creation. Here, it is 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 or goodness or 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, “Behold, I make all things new.”
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.
"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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