“I have ruled out … any possibility that the problem of evil can be solved in terms of developmental progress or evolution. If the world gradually gets better and better until it turns into a utopia—though we should in any case be appropriately cynical about such a possibility—that would still not solve the problem of all the evil that has happened up to that point.”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (Intervarsity Press, 2006) pp. 135-6.
“Never, never, never give up!” Winston Churchill, 1940.
Above are citations from two quite different Englishmen.
Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is a well-known Anglican Bishop and a pre-eminent New Testament scholar and Christian apologist of the Boomer generation. He has written prolifically at both the popular and highly academic levels, everything from profound investigation into the reliability and validity of the New Testament and the historical context of Jesus to Jesus’ own operative psychology. His scholarship on the Apostle Paul is enormous. He has a global reputation and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, and St. Andrews Universities. Only extreme liberals discount his work. They label him as too traditional, while fundamentalist-style conservatives label him as compromised because he maintains strong dialogue across the perspectival divide on the Bible and does not “toe the line” according to their rigid criteria for Biblical interpretation.
Winston Churchill’s resolution in 1940 is legendary. In June, France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg in six weeks and Britain stood alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany. Britain’s only allies were its Dominions, of which Canada was the largest and most important. With no slight to Canada, this did not generate much hope at the time. World opinion, including that of the USA and Soviet Union, was in agreement with the defeated French Army Commander, Maréchal Weygand, that Britain would not last three months and would “have her neck wrung like a chicken.”
Defiantly, Churchill waved off an unofficial German peace feeler via Sweden and declared that Britain would “fight on the beaches … in the fields and on the landing grounds … in the cities and in the hills” and even, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone. We shall never surrender …” Churchill called forth the deepest well of hope, determination, and courage in an entire people, inspiring other nations in the process, when everything suggested that it was all pretty much over. Britain and the Commonwealth stood defiant beneath the storm. Churchill took the long view, waving aside the defeatists even in his own country and government. He later said that he almost never doubted eventual victory, but became absolutely certain of it when the USA finally joined the fight.
A cliché says that the light is never lighter than when the darkness is nearly total, and “the darker it gets, the lighter the light shines.” The West is in quite a dark place. Most of us cannot see it, but that is a characteristic of darkness as it sets in. For a time, our vision begins to adjust to less light. By straining our eyes and focusing on points that remain more visible, we succeed in convincing ourselves that it is not, after all, so dark as all that.
At this moment, Wright is a point of light in our cultural darkness. A few generations ago, Churchill was a bright point of light in the darkest hours of modern history. Across three generations, these two giants join hands in diagnosing the West as having reached a time of crisis and that, at bottom, the crisis is moral and spiritual. Churchill was no religious zealot, but he identified the world struggle of WW2 as a war “to save Christian civilization” from “a new dark age”. (These are sentiments he publicly declared in his famous speeches of 1940-41.)
While the Grand Alliance won WW2 and Nazism was destroyed, along with Japanese Military Fascism in Asia, ‘Christian civilization’ (really the remnant of the old Christendom) was only given a reprieve. It was already quite far gone.
As Churchill rallied the nation, C.S. Lewis, a much quieter voice of the same era as Churchill (the two died within two years of each other), had been diagnosing the decline and demise of the West with immense perception and insight, even speaking dozens of times on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s to do so. Many of his talks were transformed into brilliant and easy-to-read treatises for ordinary people. Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man are a few titles along these lines. There are many more. His better known Narnia Chronicles are a series for children using the back door of fantasy to reintroduce the basic Christian message and worldview to many who would avoid church like the plague. In this, Lewis was a pioneer in a genre few would take seriously back then.
Previously in this series, we noted that in the 10th Century BCE King Solomon diagnosed the essence of the human condition with uncanny accuracy. His analysis applies to every human society that has ever existed or is likely to exist. As he says, there are all kinds of ways for us to try to discover meaning for our existence as a species and as individuals. Solomon tried about all there is to try, clinically describing his results like a sociologist conducting experiments. His conclusion: “It is all meaningless …” Unless …
He states the “unless” succinctly: “Remember your Creator in the time of your youth.” His conclusion, born of so much misadventure and waste of energy, time, wealth, and genius, is the only valid point of departure possible in order to make any sense of the cosmos as we find it. He had tried everything else and ended up back at what he had long since abandoned.
Gandhi once said about finding the non-violence strategy to convince the British to leave India, “I have travelled such a long way, only to end up back home.” Now we of the West, or at least enough of us who identify with ‘the West,’ need to “find our way back home,” to the only point of departure that can bring us any true hope. If the West (not to be understood geographically) can find this road, something may begin to happen among us which may become a point of light for the rest of humanity.
But how can turning back to encounter, or re-encounter, our Creator as a community be a serious proposal in this time and culture? The West is now post-Christian, in practical terms Godless (except for the supreme god of ‘self’), officially and proudly secular—in effect, an atheistic society and culture, at least at the ‘applied’ level. How can it be in any way reasonable to propose we turn onto a different road, a Third Way? How can we find our way back to a point of departure our intellectual, social, economic, and political leaders have abandoned (or at least think they have abandoned) decades, if not centuries, ago?
Remember; we are speaking of the Post-Roman West, the supposedly “Christian” West. The truth is that this point of departure has never been abandoned because, in reality, it was never found, let alone accepted. As we said in Part 9, “When we begin a journey, we can never get anywhere if we never even find the departure point…. if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it we will arrive with brutal surprise at a destination we never wanted to reach.” That is exactly where we are!
The First Way of the old “Christendom” was never based on going back to the very first ground of departure. The simplicity of the original Christian “Good News” was swallowed by the imperial ideology and the face-to-face encounter with the living Creator obscured by new levels of mediation and hierarchization. Very simply, the AWOL staring point is the recognition that we can build nothing that will answer the real need of humanity unless we begin with an absolutely basic transaction between ourselves and our Creator.
Theology itself became a weapon, blocking the ordinary people from seeing the Creator with any clarity. The theological sword (and I use the term quite deliberately), has been stretched, violated, and abused for over 1500 years to justify and excuse enormous departures from what the first messengers of the revolutionary ‘good news’ brought. Theology is a fallible tool, too often quasi-deified as a substitute for the living Creator. Therefore, we must divest ourselves of the shackles of predetermined categories and limits and old quarrels and bitter recrimination. God will not sit quietly inside our favourite boxes. For too long Theology has arrogated a sort of Gnostic insight unto itself and thus shut out myriads of regular folks who only want to meet and know their Maker. Theology has too often rendered its adepts, pseudo-adepts, and self-proclaimed adepts at least partially and sometimes totally deaf, dumb, and blind to any voices but their own. We need theology like we need any other tool, as a help to understand and construct a workable framework within which to “live and move and have our being.” When we take it beyond that and use it to condemn and judge and exclude, even with hatred and enmity and rage, we have ourselves lost contact with the real Creator-God whose nature we purport to defend.
If we are to gain any traction in our present society and culture, we must start from the position of a suckling child, as individuals and groups, humbly and almost without preconceived conceptions of what this world of marvels is and who we are within it. We remind ourselves of the old funereal formula, “Naked we are born, and naked we die. Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.” Our theologies traditions and quirky habits will evaporate when we “no longer see through a glass darkly, but see face to face.” If we are to have any hope of inviting the human and greater cosmos to listen, we must once more learn to listen ourselves, and to see without pre-judging what we are seeing according to those old formulae.
We say there is a living Creator who has spoken. But He/She is still speaking, still creating. Our senses tell us this all the time as we watch life flow through its cycle, as we watch our children grow and become. He made us to both manage this creation and the creative process and co-create with Him, at least here on this tiny cosmic jewel we call Earth. As Jesus once said, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see; for those who have ears to hear, let them hear!” But the first to see and hear must be those who claim to know the Creator, or we stand in peril of hearing something else: “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.”