April 29, 2007

"The present is vitally important, as the instant that will never come again..."

Archbishop Chaput of Denver has a great essay in First Things, Religion and the Common Good...

....Two themes dominate these last essays by Bernanos. The first is man’s eagerness to abolish, forget, or rewrite his own history in favor of determinisms like liberal capitalism, which makes society nothing more than a market system, and Marxism. For Bernanos, the attack on human memory and history is a primary mark of the Antichrist.

As Bernanos explains it, big ideological systems “mechanize” history with high-sounding language like progress and dialectics. But in doing so, they wipe out the importance of both the past—which they describe as primitive, unenlightened, or counterrevolutionary—and the present, which is not yet the paradise of tomorrow. The future is where salvation is to be found for every ideology that tries to eliminate God, whether it’s explicitly atheistic or pays lip service to religious values. Of course, this future never arrives, because progress never stops and the dialectic never ends.

Christianity and Judaism see life very differently. For both of them, history is a place of human decision. At every moment of our lives, we’re asked to choose for good or for evil. Therefore, time has weight. It has meaning. The present is vitally important as the instant that will never come again; the moment where we are not determined by outside forces but self-determined by our free will. Our past actions make us who we are today. But each “today” also offers us another chance to change our developing history. The future is the fruit of our past and present choices, but it’s always unknown, because each successive moment presents us with a new possibility.

Time and freedom are the raw material of life because time is the realm of human choice. Bernanos reminds us that the Antichrist wants us to think that freedom really doesn’t exist, because when we fail to choose, when we slide through life, we in effect choose for him...

I may look like a know-it-all, but really I have more questions than answers. But that's OK, my first intellectual mentor was Peter Drucker, and he always taught that what is most important is discovering what question it is that you are actually asking. Or should be asking. (I rarely mention Drucker, but his way of looking at things I long ago absorbed. If you ever read him, by the way, don't read for facts. He sometimes just made them up, to illustrate his parables! He was really teaching how to look at problems.)

"...At every moment of our lives, we’re asked to choose for good or for evil. Therefore, time has weight. It has meaning. The present is vitally important..."

That's what it's like to be a Christian. (Which I really wasn't until recently—just nominally Christian, like so many people.) One nagging question (which underlies a lot of my other questions) is, why would anyone wish to live where time lacks "weight and meaning?" I've been there, I can understand how it happens. But I can't understand being content with it, as so many seem to be. Don't other people have the restlessness I had? Don't they want to be part of the Story? Part of the Great Game? Part of The Tale? It's kind of mysterious to me.

In fact it's hugely mysterious. I can understand not believing; our whole zeitgeist preaches unbelief. (Newman, clearest of all thinkers, might say, "It's not hard to believe such-and-such, it is hard to imagine it." That's often true.) It's the supine sleepiness that many people seem to have that bewilders me. I can just imagine certain people I know looking at me with puzzlement and saying "Why do you care about this?"

I've been guilty myself, by the way,of thinking that progress gives meaning to things, and that the past and present can be dis-valued in favor of the better future that's coming sooner or later. That has nothing to do with whether the progress is itself good or bad. But it's a kind of first cousin to totalitarian thinking, and it is definitely a way of trying to have meaning and purpose without God.

Posted by John Weidner at April 29, 2007 6:27 AM
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