Saturday, October 15, 2005

Denying that Actions and Ideas have Consequences

Today I received the November-December issue of The Futurist magazine, a journal to which I have subscribed for many a long year. The lead article is an analysis of what it calls "The Superlongevity Revolution." In other words, how all the advances now taking place in medical science are going to give us lives that will be considerably extended, and that within this century it will be possible for human beings to live for 300-400 years.

Firstly, we have to wonder whether this will ever be possible, and secondly, whether it would be wise to pursue this course of action even if it is possible. But having said that, the author really minimizes, ignores, or skates over the surface of some of the blacker consequences such advances might have. His emphasis is thoroughly postmodern, focusing on the possibilities and not on the other side of this conundrum. This is merely an illustration of an issue that I want to explore because it has been pressing itself home on me wherever I have looked of late.

It is that the contemporary mindset has managed to loosen its hold on the fundamental notion that actions and ideas have consequences. The article about superlongevity that I read this afternoon was a fine example of this, not stopping to either explore or examine the veracity of some of the base assumptions behind the points it was making. I don't know whether it is possible for someone to live almost indefinitely, I rather hope not, but I suspect that if the natural order were so badly disrupted by a cadre of almost ageless people, the consequences would be catastrophic in ways the author does not point up.

As a Christian whose thinking and believe is, I hope, shaped and formed by Holy Scripture plainly understood, I have the conviction that there is a God-given moral order that undergirds the universe, and that it is an act both of foolishness and idolatry to fly in the face of that moral order. In its various shapes and forms postmodernity sits light to such a moral order. It is a self-vaunting gnosticism. The high priests and priestesses of this rapidly maturing culture have deliberately separated North American and European culture from not only its Judeo-Christian roots, but also to the debt it owes to some of the undergirding principles of classical philosophy, logic, and reason.

We now live in a world where, as Daniel Boorstin put it, fantasy is more real than reality. "We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them." This quote comes early on in Neal Gabler's book, Life, The Movie, a work whose thesis is that entertainment no longer interprets our society and its ways to us, but is the template through which we must now understand our world and its environment.

The Welsh observer, Meic Pearse, builds on this notion in his book, Why The Rest Hates the West, by saying that "The unprecedented comfort of our lives allows us, if we are not careful -- and we have not been careful -- to lose hold of the fundamental realities that underpin human existence. We can, after all, use our wealth to cocoon ourselves from those unpleasant realities -- at least for a while" (page 25). But, he goes on to point out. We are naive in our obliviousness, and we are setting ourselves up for a horrible fall when reality finally snaps back into place.

Thus I return to my thesis that our culture's approach to understanding life is strangely surreal, so that now we act as if there are no consequences to the actions we are taking. We can point our finger in countless directions to illustrate this point. I can do what I like if it makes me happy, we think to ourselves. The government spending billions of dollars that it does not have and will not raise, counting on the rest of the world indefinitely to carry the debt Americans are accumulating. We burn fossil fuels with blithe abandon, and even now are ignoring the danger signs of glaciers, the the icecaps, the heating of the oceans, and the intensification of hurricanes that are giving us warning that we can't go on as we have been.

The other day I was in an elevator as this woman was complaining to her friend that it was now costing her more than $70 a week to commute to work. It wasn't fair, she asserted. I had watched her manouver her grossly oversized behemoth into the parking lot. She had bought the thing, she knew it guzzled gallons per mile when she signed on the dotted line, and now she was whining about the consequence of having bought such a beast. She was, at the everday level, a wonderful example of someone not prepared to recognize that actions and ideas have consequences.

During the last few weeks my ministry has given me the opportunity to talk at length with a whole lot of interesting people, Christian leaders of various differing flavors, and I have learned a tremendous amount from almost all of them. However, I have found my ear pricking up and asking questions whenever someone has said, "But at heart I'm an optimist," after having attempted to address a question dealing with something difficult or demanding.

As I have prodded, coaxed, and listened some more, I have concluded that what this person is actually saying is that while the facts seem to point in one particular direction, I am going to ignore the facts and go with what my gut tells me I want things to be like. While I have no problems at trying to look at the positive side of circumstances, cheerful denial is neither a wise nor a healthy way of carrying on. It is the entertainment-driven hedoninsm of postmodernity that encourages such cheerful denial of reality.

Near the end of Life, The Movie, Neal Gabler writes, "The great cultural debate that loomed at the end of the twentieth century and promised to dominate the twenty-first, then, was one between realists who believed that a clear-eyed appreciation of the human condition was necessary to be human, and the postrealists who believed that glossing reality and even transforming it into a movie were perfectly acceptable strategies if these maked us happier -- a debate, one might say, between humanness and happiness" (page 244).

Many of our debates, therefore, boil down to this kind of trade off. The debate about sexuality and human choice that is at present tearing the church apart is just one component of this. I could list many others because such denial of reality is the motif of our age and our culture. Realism does not mean living under a black cloud all the time, but it does mean facing up to the fact that we cannot do what we like and expect we will be able to get away with it indefinitely.

I do not see our culture changing any time soon, so we must continue to live with this appalling shortsightedness until a crisis does occur, and some perhaps, are then able to hear. But we Christians should not be living as postmoderns in this environment, our task is to live as biblical men and women, and be learning how to present our worldview in ways that people will eventually be able to hear and see.

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