In a comment, I recently described three dominant concepts in our modern culture. They are so dominant that questioning them can actually be disconcerting. I have questioned them before and been hammered more than once as a result. But I am sure of my ground and offer these thoughts for however they may be of use.
- We define ourselves and our world by the choices we make.
- We have the power to correct things that are wrong or broken.
- Progress is the purpose of our existence.
These ideas are not self-evident – nor are they old. They are hallmarks of what makes the modern world modern. And though these ideas may seem fitting to many situations and people, they are by no means universal. They are largely an artifact of American middle-class prosperity and are at the very root of the American life-style. As the middle-class shrinks, an increasing number of people find themselves shut out of the modern world – their choices are limited, their power ineffective and they are likely to finish life less prosperous than the previous generation. The social and economic conditions that have contributed to this are of no interest in this article. What is of interest are the false assumptions of the world-view represented in the three ideas.
At their foundation is a myth about human power and control. There is a classical myth from the Greeks. It is the story of Prometheus who was said to have stolen fire from Mt. Olympus for the benefit of humanity (and paid a terrible and eternal price). The story has, in recent times, been something of a primary model for the modern human being. The gods (representing everything that is seemingly unchangeable and arrayed against us) are resisted in the name of humanity. No matter the price, man asserts himself against the gods and his fate.
Prometheus is a model of the modern hero. The gods, fate, the givenness of our existence, everything that seems to conspire against the human will is opposed. There are any number of Promethean heroes/heroines in the pantheon of our modern myth. Even Milton’s Lucifer who would “rather reign in hell and serve in heaven,” can sound brave and idealistic to the modern ear [it would all depend on who played him in the movie]. Of course, most of us will not have to fetch fire from Mt. Olympus, or steal happiness from the gods. But we imagine ourselves in such stories, and imagine such stories to be the stuff of the good life.
And so we make our choices. “You can be anything you want to be,” parents whisper to their children. “You can make the world a better place.” We teach progress as the measure of what is good. Our schools frequently labor under the need for progress with constant testing and increasing goals (with the fundamental causes of poor education being largely ignored). The future is the repository of all of our dreams as well as the postponed payments for our present luxuries.
These same central ideas (and they are not the only ones) are carried over into almost every area of our lives. The self-help section of a bookstore is a library built on these assumptions. Contemporary Christianity shares these same assumptions and has raised them to the place of theological prominence. A recent trip to a “Christian” bookstore revealed a self-help section that overwhelmed both history and theology. It is a testament to the better Christian for a better world.
But these assumptions are not true. They can be made to seem true, if the data are carefully sifted and arranged to create a pattern. Our lives, however, are just lives. They begin and end and have time in between. Our lives have value because they are the gift of God, not because they have cultural, economic or social benefit. We do not have to justify our existence to anyone. Existence is a gift.
Before we ever make even one choice in our lives, we already have infinite worth. As life goes along, we will make “good” choices and “bad” choices. No one but God is omniscient. We never have enough information to make a perfect choice. Those who pride themselves on their success ignore one of Aristotle’s most important categories: luck. It is not a Christian term (God is in charge of the outcome of all things). But even Aristotle was wise enough to recognize that true success in life (what he termed becoming a “great soul”) was not something we could simply choose and achieve. It remains true.
One of the first and major flaws of relying on the power of choice is our inability to know how and what to choose. We may obviously make plans, but things almost never turn out exactly as we plan. It is a rare life that has a straight trajectory. This does not mean that we make no plans, only that they will serve miserably as a purpose for our lives.
The same is true of our ability to fix what is broken or wrong. Life is not a machine. The more people are involved in any given phenomenon, the less is it susceptible to “fixing.” Imagine a machine where all the parts have free will.
The myths of modernity and the grammar of American culture make us very susceptible to every appeal to fix or remake. America can rightly be described as the culture of “can-do.” Almost every scenario of suffering draws the response, “Somebody needs to do something!” And while it is true that “doing something” is often quite appropriate (cf. Matt. 25), what we can do will not fix ourselves or the world around us.
This is where I believe it is important to consider “where we live.” We do not live in the fix, or the plan, or in the choice. We live in the present moment. It is a commandment of the Lord: “Take no thought for the morrow.” The immediate objections that arise in our minds when we hear this commandment are simply testimony to how deeply the grammar of progress and planning is engrained in our consciousness. There is an abyss of anxiety that confronts us at the thought of not planning.
At its very root, our drive towards progress is idolatry. St. James addresses this with wisdom:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (Jam 4:13-16)
Now the one who says, “If the Lord wills,” may still go to the city, buy and sell, but the center of his life has changed and shifted. What we find difficult is to live our lives, recognizing that they are only a “vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” But this is, in fact, what it means to live with Christ Himself as the purpose of our existence.
The “evil” of which St. James warns is manifested in the inherently violent nature of an existence grounded in progress. The desire to plan, to fix and progress, always requires control and management, both of which entail temptations to violence. It is little wonder that modernity has also been the locus of almost continual warfare, on a level never imagined in antiquity. And it has fixed nothing. Prometheus keeps fetching fire, but the fire keeps going out.