Last year I posted a series on the top ten trends that would shape the new decade and introduced it with a piece on the core reality driving events in our time: the accelerating pace of change. Driven by forces hardwired into science and capitalism, history is speeding up, societies around the world are being shaken to their core, and the economic environment is going to continue to reflect both the opportunities and the dangers of this tempest-tossed time in world history.
With a series of tornadoes sweeping across the country and the world reeling from a combination of the Japanese tsunami, Arab revolutions and wars, US budget battles, Chinese overheating and the continuing crisis over the European currency and financial system, the words of William Cowper‘s poem sprang to mind this Palm Sunday weekend:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Unforgettably set to music in the great gospel hymn “By and By” (which blends Cowper’s lyrics with another poem by Charles Albert Tinley) as recorded by the extraordinary E. H. Harris and the Soul Stirrers in 1950, the poem reminds us that we do not live in a tame world.
Life comes at us faster than we like. In the international arena, one crisis after another tests our capacity to deal. That’s the story of the modern world. The Renaissance had barely peaked when the Reformation came storming in, convulsing Europe in almost 200 years of bitter religious wars before Europeans found ways of living with religious differences. After a brief pause, though, came the Enlightenment to challenge old certainties, and then the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution.
The pace inexorably quickened; millions of peasants were forced off the land into teeming cities or across the Atlantic to the US. Ideologies like socialism and nationalism sprang up and clashed. The technology of business and war leaped ahead: railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electricity; the armies and navies that clashed in World War One were scales of magnitude more destructive and powerful than anybody had ever seen.
The twentieth century was more of the same: change came at us faster and faster as we struggled to give up. Communism, fascism, air power, radio, TV, nuclear weapons, ICBMs: the nature of national economies, national politics and the international system changed shape with bewildering speed. New dangers appeared faster than old ones could be grasped.
Things seemed to settle down for a generation or so after World War Two. The USSR-US competition, terrifying as that was at moments, imposed a kind of order on world politics. In the advanced industrial economies the blue social model cooled the class war and tantalized us with the illusion that both national and personal prosperity could be guaranteed and planned.
Many thought that the end of the Cold War would prolong the age of tranquility, the west’s holiday from history. No such luck: the stable environment of the Cold War era is a fading memory. Today we live with recurring financial crises, the transformation of our basic institutions, the disappearance of social programs and stable economic patterns our parents took for granted, and a bewildering array of changing international conditions and threats.
God hates the quiet life, I think. He wants us to break a sweat on our passage through this vale of tears.
It’s not just world history that comes at us too fast. In our personal lives it is the same thing. We’ve barely learned how to manage the childhood thing (either as children or the second time around as parents) when puberty hits and adolescence is upon us. Adulthood, midlife and old age all crowd in on us before we are quite ready. Personal crises and decision points don’t come when they are convenient or when we have scheduled some down time to be able to take them calmly and in order.
We’d like to manage life elegantly and smoothly. We’d like the time to consider every challenge and decision carefully, weigh the odds, and then act calmly and deliberately. God doesn’t seem to want that to happen. He keeps throwing us into the deep end of the pool when we still aren’t sure we can swim without water wings; he wants us out in the Tour de France when we still miss our training wheels.
God seems to believe in keeping it real. He wants us to face challenges that are bigger than anything we know, more complicated than we can figure out, and so dangerous and all encompassing that we are forced to develop our gifts and our characters to the highest possible degree. He wants us to ‘be all that we can be’, and he won’t take anything less.
That’s not how we want it. Human beings want to tame the wild uncertainty that surrounds us on every side. We want that raging sea to calm itself, now. We want predictable returns on our stock investments, and we want steady economic growth. We want to build institutions that can carry on just as they are until the end of time; uncertainty is the dish humans hate most — and it’s the one thing we can count on God to serve.
The quest for certainty, for knowledge about the future, is a powerful force in human affairs. It makes sense; if your livelihood depends on the crops coming up, you want to know what the weather will be. A fisherman wants to know where the fish are. Fighting for certainty is hardwired into our nature — by the same God who then plunked us down in a world where certainty is the one thing we cannot ever have.
To read world history — as I’ve been doing this semester in the grand strategy seminar at Bard — is to see just how strong the quest for certainty is, and to what strange lengths it drives the finest minds. Queen Elizabeth I of England consulted Dr. Dee; everyone in Europe was trying to unpick puzzles as vexing as those of Nostradamus. Astrologers were in high demand; kings and emperors would not stir without an astrological OK.
Going back farther in time, we see the same desire to know the future. The ancient Greeks consulted the oracles; the Romans inspected the entrails of sheep and the flight patterns of the birds to understand what the fates held in store.
We laugh at their absurd superstitions, but try going on television sometime as a political analyst. Try fielding questions after a speech. The one question everyone insists on asking you is the one question they must know that you cannot possibly answer: what comes next? Who will win the election in 2012? What will the stock market do this quarter? Will the allied intervention in Libya succeed? Will the Fukushima reactors come under control? There are entire shows devoted to stock picks; if the Roman Empire had only had cable TV I am sure that the augurs would have given daily market and political forecasts based on their entrail readings.
You could make a case that the mismatch between the human drive to predict and control the future and the radically unknowable nature of the chaos in which we live proves that God is a sadist. He deliberately created a race of square pegs and put us in a world of round holes.
The question cuts deeper than our discomfort with the rapid pace of life. After all, when the financial system is changing so rapidly that neither market participants nor regulators really know how to assess and price risks, the bubbles that result devastate millions of lives. When world leaders fail to figure out how to deal with the Hitlers and Lenins and the conditions that cause them to rise, tens of millions die horrible deaths. The social and political breakdowns in developing countries whose educational and social systems cannot cope with exploding populations and rapid change plunge hundreds of millions of people into miserable want.
It is Holy Week for Christians who follow the liturgical calendar of the western Roman empire (we can’t call them ‘western’ Christians when more than a billion of them live in China, the Philippines, Korea and throughout the global south). It’s the week that came at Jesus too fast: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday ended days later in humiliation, torture and death.
The answer that Christianity gives to the ancient problem of why a good God allows evil to exist really comes down to three things. The first is that God plays for keeps. He creates for real. When he chose to make beings with free will he accepted this meant he would let their choices stand. For better or worse, we are co-creators of the world with God and what we do and what we choose counts. Our acts have real consequences.
Second: God wants us to grow. God throws us into deep rivers with swift currents because he wants us to learn to swim. He hasn’t created humanity to be a troupe of harmless lambs gamboling across sunny pastures. We are made in God’s image and intended to grow into beings greater, more capable, more far seeing, more loving and more true than we can imagine today. He pits us against real challenges with real consequences, natural and historical — the wrath of volcanoes and the upheavals in the economy — to bring us closer to the fulness of being he intends us to reach.
And finally, says the Holy Week story, God shares. He rides Hell’s roller coaster of personal, political and economic uncertainty with us. He knows the failure and the pain that comes with real life in a real world. He does not answer our questions about evil and suffering with a series of propositions. He answers us with a presence, his, in the middle of it all.
The US is fighting three wars now. Our budget deficits are out of control. The country is divided and uncertain; nobody knows how to fix the educational system, the pension system or the health system. Nobody knows what will happen, or should happen, in the Arab spring. Will China continue to rise into a challenging superpower until the whole world is caught up in a Chinese-American contest to be number one? Will the living standards of the American middle class decline from year to year? Will I, or will you, dear reader, get terrible news from the doctors next week — about ourselves or about someone we love?
There is no guarantee that any of these questions will be answered in ways that we like. Those who expect doctors or politicians or scientists or economists or theologians to make the uncertainty go away are doomed to frustration.
We are not just living in interesting times; increasingly, these times look adventurous. Prepare yourselves, friends. God loves us with a fierce and terrible love, and he really, really thinks it’s time for us to grow.