Disappointment and Modernity

Image by Gary Meulemans from UnsplashImage by Gary Meulemans from Unsplash

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes about the modern condition in a way that resonates with me and what I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

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.

It’s obviously a trait of humanity to view God in very personal ways and to believe that there are shared goals. In fact, it’s difficult to escape this mentality (I certainly can’t most of the time).

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.

I often find myself wondering, and speculating about, why those on the progressive end of the political spectrum seem to have higher rates of depression and anxiety. The answer that most easily comes is that there appears to be an expectation of a sort of time-condensed version of what the Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker conceptualized — which was later paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr. into, The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” People, in the West, at least, have viewed the last few decades as a steady and rapid march in this direction. More rights, more recognition of the struggles of those who maybe aren’t the dominant group in society. When something is perceived as a setback to this principle in action, it evokes a reaction that is almost like a crisis of faith. The reality doesn’t match with the vision, and that may produce some cognitive dissonance. The most common reaction to the dissonance seems to be one of despair and doubt.

We don’t typically have the self-awareness and humility to step back and assess things in a way that Fr. Freeman describes them — that God may not share our goals, or may not have the same timetable that we do. Those who view the various projects of modernity as essentially bringing the Kingdom of God into the world, in a sort of participatory eschatology, in the end, may reap disappointment. When the projects don’t appear to improve things or have divine sanction, it can be deflating.

One of Fr. Stephen’s responses to a commenter on the article sums things up nicely.

I have written frequently that we are not in charge of the outcome of history. Management” is among the great myths of the modern mind. Humility is the path of Christ.

I wrote previously about striving for humility, and I think that it is in the letting go of the belief that we can be causative agents for macro-level changes that we can gain a certain measure of that elusive virtue. That is not to imply that we abandon doing good works or living out the Gospel as truly good news. However, we can do so without the expectation that our efforts will achieve some grand goal, but hopefully in the belief that they will bring a bit of Christ’s goodness into the lives of others.

As a manager, this is hard for me to swallow! I want to tweak processes in the stubborn expectation that goals will be achieved and the path to those goals be made smooth. I guess I’m at a point where I’m open to the message from Fr. Stephen because I’ve watched so many projects of man-made design fail, despite the best of intentions.