Saturday, June 29, 2013

"...bruised, broken masterpieces...." (Eschatological Vision, Part I)

"Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us. We hope for light, but behold darkness; for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes. We stumble at noon as in the twilight. Among those in full vigor, we are like dead men. We all growl like bears, and moan and moan like doves. We hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before You, and our sins testify against us. Our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities...." Is. 59:9-12

"We are bruised, / broken masterpieces. / We did not make ourselves." -John Foreman

The first element you find in the Christian eschatological vision is the inevitable corruption, which means it assumes the Fall, and thus assumes that every human effort, no matter how noble or well-planned, will fail. We cannot bring about the ideals that we all have or hope in. Our utopias are just that: utopia, i.e., no place, nowhere, non-existent. Now, this does not mean that humanity is worthless. On the contrary, we are made in the image of God, and on that ground we are full of worth, and in that image we create in the likeness of our Creator. Thus, all the works of our hands (whether great or small, noble or vile) point to our Creator. Even the basest act of rebellion is an act of unintended worship to the God who gave you power to rebel and a God to rebel against. In the end, everything that has breath praises the Lord. Therefore, the Fall does not mean that humanity is worthless, only that it cannot be trusted. Our efforts and works can be incredible in their terror and beauty, but in regard to our salvation they are all futile failures.

Make no mistake: all of our actions are about our salvation, whether or not we think in those exact terms. Every man who has ever drowned himself in his career, every woman who has used and abused herself to a thousand men, every murderer seeking revenge, every rapist seeking satisfaction, every philanthropist exhausting themselves and their resources in good works, every tyrant seeking conquest and control, every artist seeking beauty, every child seeking acceptance, everyone seeking peace and relaxation on any given Saturday, every action of every person is about salvation. We are seeking the place of peace, of rest, of meaning and identity, of happiness and wholeness forevermore. We seek it in every place that we can: in places and people and things, in this man or that woman, in this project or that plan, in causes and crusades, in plots and schemes, in movements and agendas, in journeys and destinations. Everything we do revolves around this one goal of salvation, and thus everything we do is simultaneously significant and futile: our actions speak to our true identity, but nothing we do can ever bring us home. That is the truth and tragedy of the Fall.

That is the balanced view, a view that neither the pure optimist nor pure pessimist can stand or understand. For the optimist, everyone is full of potential, capable of achieving their own private paradise if they would just believe in that potential. People are fundamentally good; it is outer oppression and/or stimuli that make them go bad, and if we could only construct an environment conducive to goodness, then everyone would find happiness. It is a beautifully naive position, thwarted almost daily by every newspaper on the planet. We are not fundamentally good; we are fundamentally fallen, sinners, inclined towards sin. Whatever good we have is corrupted every time, and all of our "private paradises" (which is a contradiction in terms) either fail to materialize or fail to satisfy. In the end, we are incapable of producing our own happiness. We cannot save ourselves.

For the pessimist, the Fall is (ironically) their only reality. Everyone is either basically selfish or weak or (what is most likely) both. All of our acts, even the most altruistic, are self-centered, meant to pad our egos or line our pocketbooks or else quench some psychological wound or sense of guilt. Whatever the case, we are all narcissists out for our own, and if the chips were down we would eat each other alive. Now, there is something bracing about such cynicism, but also something adolescent. It has a healthy dose of realism about our tragic condition, but it does so without any sense of mourning or (what's better) repentance. Rather, its realism is smeared with a sneer of superiority. As there is something childishly naive about the optimist's outlook, so there is something childishly arrogant about the pessimist's outlook: it holds everyone in contempt as inevitable failures and blind idiots. It is a "boys' philosophy," as Lewis would say; it is simplistic and immature. It rightly assumes man's fallen state but goes no further. At best, it sits down in its arrogant angst; at worst, it falls deeper and deeper into a darkening despair that can only give way to stoicism or suicide. They are arrested at the tragic, because they have nowhere else to go.

The Christian, however, has somewhere else to go, because it has the balanced view. It maintains the depravity of man without dismissing all humanity as a lost cause. It believes in the tragic nature of existence without despairing. It allows for the harsh realism of the pessimist, as bracing and awakening as a cold wind; but it also allows for the hopefulness and joy of the optimist. How it does is a subject for the next few posts, but for now understand this: Christianity is true because the truth is always a shock and Christianity is a shock. Anyone can be an idealist; anyone can be dreamy-eyed over what ought to be. Anyone can be a nihilist; anyone can dismiss all significance in a horror and great darkness. But to somehow find a place for both, to take all the glories of idealistic optimism and all the daggers of nihilistic pessimism and say, "Here you may dance and there you may mourn," asserting a beautifully broken, preciously corrupt world, that was to discover a strange need in human nature. It touches the very fabric of our reality, for we need hope because we know our world is mad.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2013

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