Thomas Friedman put it well. "The world is flat."
And, as a friend of mine put it, now it's shaky. Friedman's new focus is on oil consumption. But flat and shaky poses other challenges too. And not a few of those challenges are spiritual. The most important ones are, in fact.
Life is lived on plateaus. We strike a bargain with certainties—economic, social, political, intellectual, and spiritual—and we live with those bargains, for a while. And then something upsets all the established understandings.
The world is flat. "Okay, I can live with that. We are shoulder to shoulder. Someone in Bahrain knows what I am doing and I know what the people in Bahrain are doing. I can make peace with the newest of the new world orders. God is in his heaven (or hers) and I am at peace."
But then people crowd the streets and the flat world becomes shaky. "I am shoulder to shoulder with you. Tripoli knows what I am doing and I know what Tripoli is doing; and what Tripoli is doing is falling apart. Oil prices spike. The stock market falls. The world comes apart." We begin to look for new certainties, a new plateau to live on.
Part of the spiritual malaise that bedevils and unsettles us and has now for almost a decade is that there are not enough plateaus. Round or flat, the world has been shaking.
An old friend of mine sent me a timeline of 9/11 with moving graphics and notes recently. I wrote back, observing, "Thanks for posting those images; they are a disturbing, but important reminder. What are the lessons you have derived from them?" (It was late and I was not sure how to respond.)
In reaction, he said,
Fred, 9/11 was a very sad day for America. Our nation's military response in Afghanistan was and is appropriate. But fighting wars, however justified, touch so many lives in ways that can be very destructive. And that saddens me. I am also afraid that we have entered what will be a long period of global instability. Terrorism will be but one artifact of this time. Widespread famine, dislocation of millions, the collapse of governments, and a dramatic and violent reshaping of the political landscape will also occur. I believe that my grandchildren's grandchildren will probably learn in their schools that 9/11 was the opening act of a "100 Year War," a period of conflict that will have reshaped much of the world as we know it.
I hope he is not right, but he could be. I wrote back to him, observing,
I led a retreat not long after 9/11 and a man in his late 60s (not as far off as it once felt), looked at me and said, "You know, I thought that I was leaving a world to my grandchildren that was safer and more secure. I don't feel that way anymore. I'm afraid that it is more dangerous and less secure." Security and danger are in the eye of the beholder and people will differ in their assessment. But I think that he is right and so are you. For all the cruelty and oppression that the USSR, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and countless others exercised, they also constricted the blood flow to a long history of ethnic strife and violence that crystallized and focused the global tensions. They are gone and on their way out; a younger generation has uncorked powers and potentialities that they resented, but don't control; and asymmetrical, unnamed, and unaccountable powers are at work in the world."
The journey of faith is a journey into immediate and complete dependence upon God, but truth be told, most of us live there only in fits and starts. In our personal, as well as national lives, we depend much more upon the stability of plateaus—the certainties of life that underline the certainty of God's care.
As became clear in recent weeks, even the problematic certainties in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, and Iran gave us a plateau with predictable boundaries on which we rested as a nation and as a world. But those "plateau-like" certainties are never more than temporary; and, worse yet, some of them can be harmful to us or illusory. Ironically, but not surprisingly, even the people who lived most immediately with those problematic certainties depended upon them.
In ways large and small we are all now part of a world that is, at once, both flat and shaky. On a global, national, and individual level, the roiling changes will require souls that are sustained by values shaped by something beyond the terrain of our lives, be it plateau, mountain, or valley.