Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Christian Optimist?


I recently was reading a review of David Stockman’s book, The Great Deformation. The reviewer made a statement that jumped off the page and smacked me in the mouth. It was this, “Once you stop believing in the future, you probably should stop talking about politics.”

Pick up any newspaper in the country, any day of the week, and spend 15 minutes skimming its contents and it is extraordinarily easy to fall into despair, no matter which side of the political spectrum you come from. The intractability of our problems seems permanent, governments at all levels a comedy of errors. The rate at which we are murdering each other in our cities is staggering. The mountains of debt we incur every day with no end in sight make it difficult to view the glass as half full.

But the story of civilization does have an arc, a narrative of progress that is undeniable. Every generation tends to view the past as the “good old days”, each generation’s elders hold the young in contempt. However, mankind has advanced in almost every measurable way over the past 4000 years. Who among us would prefer to live in the Middle Ages where a bout of diarrhea would result in death? Who would prefer the life of a working class tradesman in the London of Charles Dickens?  Abundant and clean drinking water, indoor plumbing and the warmth and cooling brought by electricity have only been around universally for roughly 2% of recorded history. Aren’t you glad and eternally grateful that you live in such a time? Shouldn’t we be grateful that we live in an age where dysentery isn’t the number one cause of death, where the average man and the average woman lived to the ripe old age of 35?

Most of the things I complain about in life, things like taxes, incompetent government, declining morality and the designated hitter are all things that must be judged in the context of history. Until 250 years ago “taxes” were called “tribute” and were extracted from you at the point of a spear or sword by marauding bands of Huns. Talk about incompetent government; try Communist China on for size during the Cultural Revolution or the Soviet Union in the 1930’s under Stalin? At least we get a watered down chance to vote our incompetents out every so often. As far as declining morality goes, it’s hard to find a people more morally bankrupt that Nero’s Romans, or the conquering armies of Alexander the Great.

As a Christian, I have a worldview that views history and its many twists and turns as a product of the Fall. This view presupposes that man is born sinful, not pure. We as a people are naturally rebellious, in need of redemption, heirs of our sinful and rebellious forefathers. Any progress that we make away from barbarism then is a result of the work of regeneration brought on by faith. A good argument can be made that the fruits of our faith have paid handsome dividends on this planet since many of the most successful engines of human improvement have their origins in Christianity, such as education, hospitals, benevolent and philanthropic organizations. It is also unfortunately true that Christian faith has also produced its share of darkness and death throughout history. The Crusades and the Inquisition were not exactly Christianity’s finest hours.

Still, I'll take this moment in history over 98% of what has preceeded it...and you should too. Chin up.

But just because I view the world from a Christian perspective does not mean I can respond to evil in the world by chalking it up to Satan and sit around waiting for the Second Coming. In other words I can’t withdraw from the mess in frustration and stop believing in the future. For all we know there’s some kid in a garage in Buffalo right now putting the finishing touches on a perpetual motion machine or some new form of energy that will transform the future, and provide the revenues to balance our budgets and pay off our debt with ease. Don’t believe me? The horse and buggy big shots never counted on Henry Ford. The kerosene lamp tycoons never saw Thomas Edison coming. The typewriter kings were sipping margaritas in Tahiti about the time that Bill Gates was horsing around with his personal computer pipe dream.

So, here’s to that rarest of human qualities, here’s to optimism.