It is a commonplace in the Fathers to describe despair or sadness as the result of failing to get what we want. It sounds quite simple, but it cuts to the very heart of our sadness. There is a melancholy of our age that is born from the expectations of modernity. The mantra of progress and our belief that no matter the problems confronting us, there is always a solution, are an ideal breeding ground for modern despair.
My experience within social media is that any observed problem within our culture that is presented will attract an immediate flood of proposed solutions. The belief in the solvability of all things is a foundation of the modern world. We are nurtured with an expectation of progress and solutions. When this turns out not to be the case, despair is a natural result.
That same despair is a primary engine for modern anger. We want solutions. We believe that solutions are possible. When solutions fail to be enacted, we get angry. We blame. The world becomes divided into those who, like ourselves, advocate the right solutions, and those who are standing in the way of that progress we believe is always possible.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Bumper Sticker from the 60’s
But, of course, modernity is a false dream. It does not solve problems, on the whole. We chip away at one thing and another and marvel at our technological toys. People still die – all of them. People still suffer, it’s an inevitable part of life in this world. There are vast dislocations and injustices that are as much a product of modernity as they are of their own intractability. The narrative we are taught to believe, viz. progress and solvability, is simply not true. It is only “true enough” in very isolated examples to keep us believing that it can be true always and everywhere.
The Christian teachings on the spiritual life do not teach us how to live a life based on false narratives. To make the gospel “work” in the modern world, the gospel must be changed. But, of course, that means choosing to believe that Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about, or that He was limited by His culture…. “We now know better.” This is heresy, but it is probably the most commonly practiced heresy of our time.
The general means of practicing this “new” gospel is to isolate preferred quotes and systematize a new paradigm. To a certain extent, this took place in the Reformation and has been a constant drive within a Protestantism that morphs to fit the culture (often justified by “evangelizing the culture”). This is not a practice restricted to Protestantism. In a variety of forms, all Christians in the modern world engage in this restructuring of the gospel.
The assumptions of modernity are not a product of the century we live in (they are not ideas that “evolved”). They are specific assumptions put forward by a particular philosophy at a particular time and have been adopted and employed to such an extent that they now seem like “common sense.” They simply become part of our worldview. As such, they are a lens through which we read the Scriptures and become an unconscious filter. We take what seems helpful, and ignore those things that do not. But the “helpful” that we unconsciously intend, is “help me live in a modern way, in a modern world, towards a modern salvation.”
I think we are often disappointed that God refuses to behave as the god of modernity. The extremes of the “prosperity” preachers are only the most egregious examples of modernity’s god. There are others, more subtle. For example, we expect God to cooperate with our political projects (both Left and Right). As the problem-solvers of progress, we assume that God is interested in the same goals as we. He is not.
There are times in our lives when the modern project seems like pristine prophecy. Its promise of a better world feels as though it is being fulfilled before our eyes. People are occasionally nostalgic for one period or another when they think this was true. When these times change and become times of frustration, we begin to wonder why God allows such evil to exist. We do not realize that we are asking why it is that God refuses to go along with the modern project.
Some of the assumptions of the modern world include God’s “place” within it. The modern ideal of a “better world” is not built on communion with God. Indeed, it revels in its own independence. God has been demoted to the patron saint of lost causes: “All we can do is pray.” The ideal in the modern life is self-sufficiency. We want enough for now (at least) and a good nest-egg for the rest. To a certain extent, we pray, “O God, help me not to need you.”
However, we serve a good God who loves mankind, and He understands our unrecognized need for failure. He is at “cross-purposes” with the modern project, working towards our complete transformation in Him rather than a better world. For all the prayers of all humanity through all the ages, His answer was going to the Cross. He is waiting there to meet us.