Thursday, November 19, 2009

Withdrawal Symptoms: Is God Giving Us What We Deserve?

Gene Davenport, professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, TN and theologian in residence at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jackson, offers some rather grim thoughts on the state of our world:

In reality, the three areas ... [of the economy, health care, and U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan] are simply part of the chaos that engulfs contemporary Western society. Other manifestations of that chaos include the widespread breakdown of authority and personal responsibility, the increase in violence, the loss of respect for others and of a personal sense of decency and restraint, the political hysteria in radio and TV talk shows from both the right and the left – and on the list could go.

Twenty years ago, I wrote that Western society at that time exhibited characteristics commonly associated with insanity, including obliviousness to reality, absorption in a self-contained world of one's own invention, obsession with trivia and domination by paranoia. It was motivated by the contradictory drives of self-love and self-hatred and driven impulsively toward self-destruction. In other words, society, I said, was clinically insane. I see no reason to modify that observation today.

From a biblical perspective, we have been handed over to what English versions of the New Testament translate as "the wrath of God." For the apostle Paul, however, the wrath of God is not God's angry attack upon the world, but is God's withdrawal from the world, God's handing the world over to its own desires.

Some will say that since Paul also saw Jesus as the one in whom God reclaimed the world, God no longer acts the way I have described – that, instead, God so completely loves the world that he will never give up on it. Ultimately, that is correct. But that does not change the fact that there still are times when God abandons the world to its own devices. The work of God in Christ does not eliminate the wrath of God. It simply reveals it more clearly. And we experience the working out of that wrath as social and personal chaos.

Consequently, megachurches, mainline churches, independent churches, TV evangelists, church growth engineers, advocates of "bringing the church into the modern world," advocates of a return to Christian domination of the society – all, failing to recognize the reality of our plight, are simply tilting at windmills.

Although there have been religious thinkers with prophetic insight into the nature of our age – for example, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton and Ivan Illich (Catholic), Jacques Ellul and William Stringfellow (Protestant) and Martin Buber (Jewish) – there also have been secular prophets who saw the world more clearly than did most religious leaders – for example, George Orwell ("1984"), Aldous Huxley ("Brave New World") and Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein").

They warned that a world controlled by technology and good intentions would wind up with control in the hands of a few and with all those things that truly make us human having been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

Read it all.

Interesting as Davenport's thoughts are, I wonder if it's really fair to single out our time as so utterly unique or so hopelessly turned in upon itself. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if we could find thoughtful persons in every age of human history who have embraced a piety of pessimism about their world. Perhaps, in different ways and contexts, things have always been askew and chaotic (those of us who still believe in original sin wouldn't be surprised by that). But it's tempting to take comfort in the exceptional character of our own time.


Christopher said...

I think we face some challenges unprecedented in human history to-date. But I also think to make of our age somehow singularly the most terrible is itself symptom of the very thing the author bemoans. Facing up to what is, and there are some ugly what is'es in our time, need not mean we fall to pessimism. The hope of the cross is that God is with us even in the midst of the most terrible. Let's look to that hope and still work for a the vision of the world given us in Christ the Consummation of All Things (Maurice/Ramsey).

Just Me said...

I don't know; I think there is some truth to it. A "turning over to our sins" perhaps?

It is within the human character to wait until the bottom falls out before we look up. I suppose another way of viewing things is to have high expectations of what God will bring forth from the ruins once His people turn their hearts towards Him.

Bryan Owen said...

I think there's some truth in Davenport's perspective, too, Just Me. But I also agree with Christopher that, as Christians, we must embrace the hope of the cross as the basis for addressing the ills of our time, even if we do so in the knowledge that human effort alone will not solve everything, much less usher in the Kingdom.

Matt Gunter said...

A small correction: T. S Eliot was an Anglican.

Bryan Owen said...

Correction duly noted, Matt. And actually, Eliot was an Anglo-Catholic.

Joe Rawls said...

I think a lot of the perception that these are the "worst of times" is due simply to media and internet overload. Though we are also facing genuine environmental degradation, which never helps matters.