Optimistic? Pessimistic? Realistic?
According to Newsweek, we may be well be witnessing "The End of Christian America" as we have known it. Instead of transforming culture, the culture may in fact have transformed the church.
Yet the key, going forward, is realism. The good creation is very fallen; the fallen creation is very good. In what spirit will you press on?
"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails."
—William A. Ward
"Hollywood always wanted me to be pretty, but I fought for realism."
"Realism: The tendency to view or represent things as they really are."
Last fall, I was climbing "Good Luck Mountain" in the Adirondacks with a group of college-age students who were part of the L.I.F.T. programme at Camp-of-the-Woods near Speculator, New York. During the ascent, a student right behind me blurted out what seemed to be a rather random question: "Dr. Naugle, are you an optimist or a pessimist?"
At that particular "Matterhorn moment," with sweaty face, doing my best not to stumble on the rocks and to keep up with this twenty-something crowd (only my pride was enabling me to keep up!), I was tempted to shout out: Pessimist! "Good Luck . . . Mountain"—yep, I needed it!
However, since I had already given some thought to his question, I managed to respond while fighting for breath by saying: "Well, neither actually—I strive to be a realist."
Nope, I am not an optimist, at least not sentimentally so. Neither am I a pessimist, certainly not in the nihilistic sense of the word. Biblical faith will not afford me either option. Instead I strive to embody a realistic disposition on the state of human affairs, generally speaking. Given the consistency of human nature and the human condition over the years, it seems to me that something of an Aristotelian mean between the extremes of optimism and pessimism is the most sensible position to hold. And, in the end, it is a genuinely biblical perspective to embrace when it comes to things going on around us, regardless of time or place. Optimistic? Pessimistic? Realistic? Well, when it comes to these three possible frames of mind, I opt for the third of this triad!
To be sure, we see a lot of good people doing good things in the world, giving us hope and a reason to be optimistic. Take, for example, Blake Mycoski's creative enterprise TOMS Shoesâ„¢, based on the very simple premise that for every pair of shoes someone purchases, TOMS will give a pair of shoes to a child in need. So far, TOMS has given away over 140,000 pairs of shoes, and their goal is to give away over 300,000 pairs of shoes to needy children by the end of 2009. Or think of the group Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, which is on a mission to provide excellent coffee, support sustainable economic development, and to be a catalyst for reconciliation in Rwanda—a movement in which you can participate by drinking great cups of coffee and do good simultaneously each day.
At the same time, there's a lot of bad stuff happening in the world. Sometimes the hopelessness seems overwhelming. Recently I went to a Zac Brown Band concert at the Dallas chapter of the House of Blues. As I circumnavigated the crowd, feeling more like a sociologist than a concert-goer, I couldn't help but observe what appeared to me to be lots of beautiful but empty people with holes in their hearts, trying desperately to fit in, make a love connection, or just experience a little bit of happiness. During my observations of the crowd that night, this line from Switchfoot's song "Stars" kept coming to mind:
I've been thinking 'bout everyone,
Everyone, you look so lonely.
Jesus' illuminating words also captured my mindset that evening as well: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.'"
Furthermore, if we think about the increasingly diminished state of Christianity in America, we have another reason to pause and reflect. According to an April 4, 2009, Newsweek story, we may very well be witnessing "The End of Christian America" as we have known it. The polls cited in this article show that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has fallen ten points in the past two decades from eighty-six to seventy-six percent. Corroboratively, the number of U.S. citizens claiming no religious affiliation at all has almost doubled from eight to fifteen percent during this same time period. The same trajectories are probably true in Canada as well.
Is North America in trouble . . . big trouble? Where's the Church in all this? What about all the talk about Christ and Christians as the transformers of culture? The verbiage about cultural change oftentimes appears hollow, more theoretical than practical. In fact, the reverse may come closer to the truth: the culture has, in fact, transformed the church and Christians! When all is said and done with regard to the social influence of the Christian church, it appears that more is said than is actually done—to invoke the words of Aesop.
In any case, these few examples show that today, as in any day, there are reasons to be optimistic, and there are reasons to be pessimistic. The reasons for optimism, I believe, are rooted in the biblical story of a very good creation (as well as what the Bible teaches about common grace). On the other hand, pessimism has its roots in the account of the fall of humanity into sin. The trouble comes if we emphasize one story and its parallel outlook at the expense of the other. A creation-based optimism can easily become rather naÃ¯ve and schmaltzy, if it is not tempered by the doctrines of original and personal sin; to emphasize original and personal sin and its pessimistic offspring apart from recognizing the residual traces of genuine goodness in things and people can also put us over the cliff.
The good creation is very fallen; the fallen creation is very good. Hence, a balanced, or better, integrated perspective must unite both the optimism of creation and the pessimism of the fall into a mediating realistic perspective on life in this very good but tragically fallen world. And as far as human beings are concerned, we are both beauty and beast. The fault line separating good and evil, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it in The Gulag Archipelago, runs right down the center of each and every human heart.
The Christian view of redemption also adds support to a realist view of the human condition. Jesus Christ has salvaged a sin-wrecked creation through his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit. But his saving work is not yet complete. The mystery of redemption consists in that Jesus has already inaugurated the new age of the kingdom of God with all of its matching blessings, yet without entirely doing away with the present evil age. So we have an overlapping of the ages, and a battle to wage against the lingering power of sin, death and Satan, even though these are, in principle, already-defeated foes.
In other words, we are restored in Christ to the original blessings of creation in new creation, and yet we will still struggle with the consequences of the fall until the final day when God will make all things new once again. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again! As George Ladd explains in his A Theology of the New Testament, "The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history [already], and consummation at the end of history [not yet]."
Since this is the theological framework of the New Testament, we must continue to renew our minds in truth, reorder our hearts in love, and reorient our lives in hope and faith. This truth, this love, these virtues keep us on the road of realism in our pilgrimage to the new, better, and lasting city. Consequently, then, as in every generation, we can expect progress, but not perfection. There will be things that give us hope and things that cause us despair. The good and the bad will intermingle; the wheat and the tares will grow together. And that's the way it is, today and everyday, as we continue to "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Optimistic? Pessimistic? Realistic? What about you?