Navigating a World that Feels out of Control

Navigating a World that Feels out of Control September 28, 2022

I am not given to conspiracy theories or world-ending fantasies.

Between coincidence and widespread mendacity, it is easy to stitch together a series of events and suggest that there is some master design behind it all.  By and large, history suggests that the self-appointed masters of the universe are not that smart, not that powerful, and not that good at hiding their attempts at it.

As a student of apocalyptic literature with a degree in the stuff, I am also not all that impressed with predictions of mayhem, which – by the way – is not really the emphasis of apocalyptic literature.  For centuries – for millennia, in fact – the dark imaginings of those who predict the future have been stoking the fears of one generation after another.  And the hallmark of such predictions are typically people with more imagination than good data for the scenarios that they offer up.  Case in point, their ability to reinvent themselves and their dark scenarios: Hal Lindsay popularized the contemporary version of this thing with a potboiler that borrowed on the face-off between the US and USSR, the founding of Israel, and the nuclear bomb.  And when that permutation didn’t work out, he pivoted to the Gulf War.  But he is not the first and he (already) isn’t the last.

But religious people are not the only ones who traffic in world-ending scenarios and conspiracy theories.  On the secular front – just in living memory – the population explosion has been touted as the way in which the world ends.  Now the world-ending challenge might be “the birth-dearth”.  We have been threatened with the collapse of healthcare.  We are repeatedly told that we have a decade at most before the world burns up or drowns thanks to climate change.  And alongside of those threatening scenarios are others, focusing on the dark state and the end of democracy here in America.

“Apocalyptic scenarios” (again, not what apocalyptic literature is all about) abound in shared features:

  • urgency, stoked by impending doom
  • images that capitalize on cultural associations with crisis, conflict, and warfare
  • the threatened loss of well-being, security, and control
  • the demonization of those who don’t agree with the person who traffics in them
  • a solid association of those who are demonized with anyone who might dissent
  • and the claim that to disagree – even in part – aligns that person with malevolent forces

It is rare that the architects of these scenarios depart completely from reality.  There needs to be some kernel of truth, some point of contact with the experience of the audience, if it is to get a hearing.  But the scenarios are always all-encompassing.  They offer no hope of redemption to those who are judged unworthy, and they demand fealty that is unquestioning – none of which can be tempered by weighing variables, making complex calculations, engaging in divergent problem solving, or by accommodating other concerns and goals.

From a spiritual perspective, apocalyptic scenarios and polarizing speech of other kinds is a perverse approach to civil discourse.  It depends upon stoking fear and anxiety.  It engenders despair, instead of hope.  And it invites a zero-sum approach to life: “I can’t go to heaven, unless you go to hell.”

Scenarios of this kind are also inimical to effective decision-making.  Nothing about them allows for the complex analysis demanded by any of the moral, social, diplomatic, military, medical, or technological problems that we face.  It stampedes people into aligning themselves with one party or another in a dispute.  It will not tolerate subtlety, and it punishes attention to complexity.  Unsurprisingly, this leads to policies that are shaped more by political constituencies than they are by problem-solving, by rhetorical extremism than by fact.

Climate change, abortion, and immigration – all hot button topics – illustrate the challenge for Christians who might be tempted to address those issues by taking one side or the other of this zero-sum game:

Climate change: There are issues to be addressed, as has been obvious for decades.  So, “deniers” offer no constructive advice.  But there are real technological challenges to finding a solution, many of the solutions have negative implications for the environment, and neither the challenge of climate change nor the technological challenges climate change presents can be resolved by legislative fiat.  So, climate radicals are no more helpful than climate deniers.

Abortion: Those who would outlaw abortions entirely overlook the cases in which there is a moral argument to be made for exceptions.  (Those are so well known that they don’t need to be repeated here.)  But limitless recourse to abortion has its own profound moral problems, and – simply by the numbers – presents an even more frequent challenge.

Immigration: We are a nation of immigrants, and closed borders are impossible to reconcile with the character and history of our nation.  But, clearly, open borders present us with an unmanageable set of challenges; endanger immigrants themselves; and lead to a whole host of adjacent perils, including the drug trade and the influence of the drug cartels.

Add to these complexities the fact that – in all three cases – Christians face moral demands that cannot be adjudicated through legislation, and the problem with embracing the conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scenarios on both the right and the left are apparent.  So, what are the keys to navigating a world that feels out of control in which the solutions offered are so often extreme and unworkable?

For Christians, let me suggest some possible ways forward:

  • Even when choosing a political party, resist giving those parties wholesale support.
  • Focus on issues, rather than parties or individual politicians.
  • Support nuanced, solution-centered policies.
  • Name unacceptable extremism wherever it surfaces, without regard to partisan commitments.
  • Recognize that in a pluralistic society, no policy will adequately reflect Christian priorities or exhaust a Christian’s responsibilities.
  • Prioritize the demands of the Gospel and God’s vision for human flourishing over politics.
  • Nurture relationships and conversations with those with whom you disagree.

This approach will not eliminate differences of opinion, even among Christians.  It will not eliminate the destructive side effects of hate speech, and frequently Christians will stand alone, without clear allies in any political camp. But that cannot be the Christian’s goal.

Centered in a knowledge of God’s will, Jesus neither sought the approval of those around him nor depended on circumstances to confirm the choices that he made.  Ultimately, the same, God-centered approach to life is the only way in which his followers can navigate a world that feels out of control.

 

Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash

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