New Year Same Old Magical Thinking

New Year Same Old Magical Thinking January 1, 2024

Every year I am so tempted to make a heap of resolutions, sure that the mere fact of a year will alter my personality and inclinations for the better. This really will be the year of the New Me, the one where I become “productive” and cease to be plagued by frailty and even sin. I will have the strength of mind and character only to add work and projects to my calendar without ever having to take anything away. I will respond to texts and email in a timely fashion. I won’t forget to do things I said I would. I will balance “work” with “life” in a meaningful fashion and also my house will be clean. Best of all, I will be a good Christian.

The trouble is, as everyone knows, the dawning of a new day isn’t magic. You can’t become a different person just because you want to. If you don’t like how you are, the only way out is either hard work, or a mute, or, more likely, a hysterical appeal for supernatural aid. I’ve tried both, and there is something deeply dissatisfying about the latter and the former. If you transform yourself through hard work, you are still forced to deal with the uncomfortable reality that you are, in fact, still you though a thinner version not given to bouts of uncontrolled wrath. If you are transformed by divine aid, you are still forced to deal with the uncomfortable reality that you couldn’t do it on your own, that you had to ask for help in the form of forgiveness, mercy, and strength from someone else who hadn’t sinned and doesn’t have a hard time waking up in the morning. God is an ever-present help in times of trouble, but it’s embarrassing to have to admit that you got yourself into trouble. It would be so much nicer if he would help without being asked, and better still if you didn’t need the help at all.

These are just some of the thoughts I had as I tucked into Jacques Ellul’s The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, what proves to be a provocative look at human helplessness and divine action. This long bit in the first chapter is most unnerving–writing about Namaan, Ellul says:

The text teaches us that everything does not have to have a political signification and that everything is not necessarily a concern of political powers. At all events we see clearly tht is not by their mediation tht God is going to act. The intervetion of institutional power is of no interest to God. We have here human actions and reactions that are of no significance. But there is still another character who comes within the sector of powers. This is Naaman himself. He is a mighty man in his own rank from the world’s standpoint. He is obeyed and respected. He thinks the prophet will be honored by his visit. Again, he has his own conception of what magicians are like. He has seen them at work in his own land and he expects the same kind of operation. As a man of the world Naaman can allow that the power of one magician may be quantitively different form that of another. But he can see no qualitative difference. It is alwys thus in the presence of God. We can grant that he is more powerful, more merciful, etc. But we cannot think of him as quite other than the gods of the world to which we are accustomed. Naaman, then, is angry because he is not shown due respect, because he is mocked, because he has not been politely treated, and because the man of God has not acted as every proper magician ought to act. Naaman belongs to the secular order. He doubts, and he has reason to doubt, since what is asked of him is in effect absurd. according to his situation, according to his intelligence, and according to his experience, the saying of Elisha is worthless. It is always thus when the Word of God comes to us. A priori it necessarily seems to be absurd, for it is of a different order. And our conversion does not consist in assimilting this Word so that it becomes reasonble. The absurd element persists, but from this moment what becomes absurd is the world, its wisdom, its intelligence, its power, its politics, its experience. For the foolisness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men.

If I were going to make any resolution, mulling over the sure and certain asburdity of this year into which I have so gingerly dipped my toe, it would be to try very hard–and of course therefore to fail–not to think of the coming political machinations as magical, nor God either. I will wake up every day and let him do whatever it was he planned to do anyway, without the usual fussing. Too bad on day one my resolve is already crushed.

In the push and pull of worldly solutions to human-made problems, what sort of resolution can a person make that allows one to stay above the frey? To not get caught in the swirling eddies of reactionary politics? To be able to go to sleep at night without intollerable anxiety? There aren’t any resolutions for that sort of thing. The human family will have to live with itself for the whole of 2024 and, barring national or even world wide appeals to God for help on his terms, I think it will be just as uncomfortable a year as the last three.

Happy New Year!

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