Here we are -- like deer on a road, transfixed by the headlights of 2019 bearing down on us. I don’t know anyone who’s looking forward to the new year.
Is it just me? Or is this a pervasive view in North America?
Climate change, hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, tidal waves, crashing stock markets, meaningless mass murders, price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, trade wars, toxic chemicals, crumbling infrastructures, refugees, terrorists, nuclear re-armament, computer hackers -- the news is as bleak as a winter day. And I haven’t even mentioned the White House yet…
The world, it would seem, is going to hell in a handcart.
Nor is there solace in the smaller acts of love and kindness.
A cup of coffee doesn’t solve homelessness, not even for that one person. A kind word can’t undo a lifetime of abuse.
My friends are all aging. Ailments that we once shrugged off demand our attention. Even if no one actually dies this coming year, we will all be one year closer to death.
A mood dies
What I am feeling, I think, is the death of optimism.
Back in the 1960s, a small band of theologians talked about the “death of God.” They didn’t really mean that God had died, and no longer existed. Or even that God could die. They referred to the death of traditional concepts of God -- a supernatural being out there somewhere, who had created everything, knew everything, and controlled everything.
That kind of God simply didn’t fit into a modern scientific worldview.
Perhaps the “death of optimism” means something similar.
Perhaps it means divesting ourselves of the notion that we can get ourselves out of the hole we’re in by digging harder. The notion that growth is always positive, for example. The unquestioned conviction that the earth was created for our benefit -- for human consumption, for human exploitation, for human domination. The belief that economics offers the only measure of prosperity, let alone of happiness.
A quotation often attributed to Einstein defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Increasing numbers of people realize that those traditional assumptions don’t work. Perhaps they never did -- but we humans were few enough that our activities didn’t matter as much.
The human effect
At 7.5 billion, we are now the dominant force shaping -- and re-shaping -- this planet. Our cities, our roads, our parking lots, our fields and mines and waste dumps, have changed the earth more than any natural force short of continental drift. No volcano, landslide, or flood -- not even Noah’s, if it ever actually happened -- has affected the planet as much as humans have.
It’s sometimes said that the only human structure visible from space is the Great Wall of China. That’s not true. EVERY large city is visible from space. Especially at night.
And don’t quote the Bible at me. Even if God did tell the first humans to “have dominion over” fish and birds and wild animals and creeping things -- a self-serving instruction if I ever heard one -- there were fewer than a million humans on the whole planet to do it.
Most calculations suggest that we already have about three times as many people as the earth can sustain. Maybe so; maybe not. But not even the most optimistic futurist will claim that we can double our population, and double it again, and again…
Endless growth is a myth, a lie, a falsehood.
Healing, not endless growth
The death of optimism doesn’t mean that we can’t be hopeful. Or that that we can’t celebrate acts of kindness and compassion.
Not does it imply that we should emulate the late Jim Jones and drink poisoned Kool-Aid to commit global suicide. (Although the world as a whole might be better off without humans -- the region surrounding Chernobyl has shown that the earth can recover amazingly well without us.)
My friend Bob Thompson contends that the essence of the earth is healing. As soon as a landslide scars a valley, as soon as a fire scorches a hill, the earth starts growing new life on it. As soon as a breached dam pollutes a river, the river starts purifying itself. As soon as an endangered species is left alone, it starts rebuilding itself.
Healing may also be the essence of humanity. When disasters strike, goodness emerges. People drag each other to safety. They risk their own lives to save others. Those who have little share what they have.
The death of optimism may be the opportunity we need. To set aside long-held assumptions. To stop making things worse.
And to let the natural process of healing begin. For us, for all living things, and for the earth as a whole.
Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
To send comments, to subscribe, or to unsubscribe, write firstname.lastname@example.org
The responses to last week’s column – an attempt to put the ancient nativity story into a modern context – were generally favourable.
Dawne Taylor called it, a “wonderful take on the Christmas story.”
And Anne McRae told me, “You are a Christmas present every week.”
Jim Henderschedt called the retelling “a masterpiece! In the liturgy of my denomination there is a sacramental, credal statement before the administration of the Eucharist that goes, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Recently in my own mind I have changed it to, ‘Jesus has died, Christ is risen, Christ has come again and again….’ If only we had the wisdom to see and recognize the presence of the Holy and the Sacred shining in our midst.”
Sharron Simpson called it “a timely column with a profound message. A thought-provoking story as we move into another year of turmoil and uncertainty -- perhaps it was ever thus?”
Warren Harbeck turned my own story into a wish: “Powerfully said, Jim. Thanks! A Merry Christmas to you, in the spirit of the One wrapped in Miriam’s cloak and lying on the sand.”
John Shaffer, in Auburn, WN, had a recommendation: “I have just read and appreciated Philip Gulley's latest book: ‘Unlearning God: How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe’. Should be helpful to anyone who is struggling with some ‘traditional’ belief systems.
James Russell was “so enthusiastic about your Christmas story that I sent it out to my list.”
I think that at least one member of his “list” has since become a regular subscriber. I’m always looking for new subscribers, so if you think any of your friends would appreciate receiving these columns regularly, please recommend me to them.
Along the same line, William Ball asked for permission to re-post the updated nativity story to his Facebook page. As a general rule, you’re ALWAYS welcome to re-post or forward these columns – unless you’re doing for commercial gain. I request only two things:
That you acknowledge the source (me), and
That you inform people how to subscribe for themselves, should they wish to.
Laurna Tallman wrote a long letter, which began this way: “Your retelling of the Christmas story was wonderful -- until it wasn't. You threw the whole thing away in the last line [which said that the guards went away and didn’t tell anyone about their experience]. When people truly see the Christ, they are changed by the revelation so that they want to spread the good news. That truth about human nature is how the handful of followers of Jesus grew to become a world religion.”
JT: I telescoped ahead (it’s the writer’s privilege) to the original ending of Mark’s gospel: “They fled from the tomb… and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” It seems to me that people, when they have their preconceptions upset, generally try not to draw attention to themselves -- especially if it might expose them to discipline or ridicule.
If you want to comment on something, write me at email@example.com. Or just hit the ‘Reply’ button.
To subscribe or unsubscribe, send me an e-mail message at the address above. Or subscribe electronically by sending a blank e-mail (no message) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Similarly, you can un-subscribe at email@example.com.
You can now access current columns and seven years of archives at http://quixotic.ca
I write a second column each Wednesday, called Soft Edges, which deals somewhat more gently with issues of life and faith. To sign up for Soft Edges, write to me directly at the address above, or send a blank e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at email@example.com, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail (no message) to firstname.lastname@example.org(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)
To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)
Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet