Right now I’m in Lowestoft, almost at the most eastward part of England. I’m here to speak at ‘Lowestoft Living Word’ on the topic of ‘The End’ — which is to say, the ‘last things’, the ‘end times’, ‘Second Coming’ or, to use a more biblical expression, ‘the Day of the Lord’.
This is a particular favourite of mine due to my conviction that ‘missiology follows eschatology’. That is to say, the mission of the Church will be determined by its understanding of and expectation about the future.
This is, of course, true about societies and individuals as well. I have noticed amongst teenagers a lack of expectation that they can change the future for the better. The result is not (as one might expect) despair, but a ‘live for today’ outlook. The problem is, of course, that today becomes tomorrow, and tomorrow brings eventual decline, decay and death. Therefore, without any way of making sense of this, one must also live with a ‘dissonance’ between practice and reality.
In society, meanwhile, one can only speculate how long it will be before there is a general realization that things are not likely to get substantially better — that we have reached the point, in the West, of ‘what goes around comes around’, with the only dramatic changes likely to be for the worse. At very least, this realization is likely to result in a general ennui, but it surely also has much to do with our present political environment.
There is much excitement about the American presidential election because it is believed by many that ‘getting rid of George Bush’ will ‘make the world a better place’. To my mind, this is the same as the belief in the 1980s that the collapse of Communism would ‘make the world a better place’.
Even at the time, I was quite convinced, simply on the basis of history, that it wouldn’t. It would certainly make the world a different place, and it would relieve many millions of people from the problems Communism caused, but it would be only a matter of time before fresh problems would emerge — problems would couldn’t occur under Communism and Soviet domination, but which could once those factors disappeared. And so it has proved to be.
Similarly, we may recall the euphoria which greeted Tony Blair’s triumphant election. Again, my reaction was, ‘Give it time ...’ And here we are.
This is not to be cynical, but rather realistic. Nor is it to suggest that things can’t get better. They can. But to get better, you must have a conceptual basis from which to develop the improvements which itself corresponds to reality. In other words, you’ve got to understand how the world really is, before you can hope to improve it.
Secular Liberalism does not understand the world, any more than Communism did. What will be interesting, then, is to see whether there will eventually be a similar collapse of the former system as once affected the latter. (‘Interesting’ in the sense of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”) What we have in the UK at the moment is an abundance of ‘secular liberal’ manipulation of social structures to try to produce the ‘utopian’ vision. But it is an impossibility that will always end in failure.
Equally, scientific materialism does not understand the world. Yet many advocates of that viewpoint similarly want to change the world, and believe that they have the tools to do it. We must hope that their inevitable failures will be less drastic than those of the secular liberals.
And again, Islam wants to change the world, Russian nationalism wants to change the world (or at least, Russia), as does Chinese communism, and so on, and so on.
However, the utopian vision for the world is, arguably, a derivation of Christian eschatology — the doctrine of the end. And without that theology, one must not only find another set of criteria by which to define ‘progress’, but one must also admit that permanent improvement is impossible. Even if the world can be made a better place, it cannot be kept that way, because ultimately, and finally, the world and everything in it faces inevitable extinction.
Like the death of the individual, this is the great ‘unmentionable’ that confronts all the schemes and dreams of our politicians. And it is, I would suggest, why the American co-mingling of religion and politics is less pernicious than our own tendency to divorce the two.
The ultimate reality is this: “God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31).
The world, in other words, is heading to a decisive end point entailing a moral judgement. And for many centuries, that understanding of reality has been part of Western consciousness. Sometimes, during times of revival, it has been at the forefront. Sometimes it has been submerged almost out of sight. Sometimes it has been transmuted into an alternative form, such as during the French or Russian Revolutions, or even, arguably, under Fascism and Nazism. Indeed, the post-war vision of Britain reflected this viewpoint.
And of course it is true, and so even attempts at utopianism which deny religious belief and ignore cosmic reality will appeal to the human heart and find their adherents.
The challenge to the Church is to keep on target with the original vision, losing neither heart nor confidence.
To live for the future is the only way to change the present, but you have to get your future right.
3 September 2008