15 June 2010

Out of Control

I'm not a complete pessimist when it comes to Man's earthly prospects - any more than I'd worry over the future harmfulness of an intelligent, resourceful, and comprehensively nasty pit-bull in the hands of the right trainer and owner. I believe most things we do are good - or would be good - within the bounds of their proper times and circumstances. "He maketh every thing beautiful in its time," says the King James Version of Ecclesiastes. He in this case being our Maker. The converse point of which, it seems to me, is that we make every thing ugly when we take it out of its time. That is, we humans manage even our best-laid plans badly when we fail to wait upon - or run rough-shod over - the proper times, and manners of unfolding, of those persons and things who have been appointed to our care. Indeed, one of the last points we may learn before the final Scroll gets rolled up, is that while the Lord Man may have succeeded in making most things efficient, it yet remains for the Lord God to make all things well.

But, again, that doesn't mean most things we do are not good - or even beautiful - within their rightful places and times. It is the occasions when they step, or slip, or spill out of those boundaries that make for either slow-leaking or sudden-erupting disaster. Somewhere, in other words, there may be a place where even the most boldly aggressive and presumptuous good we intend to do has no disastrous issue. Where even our most odds-defyingly courageous attempts at cost- and personnel-cutting result in no casualties, and no leaking rigs. I have little doubt, for instance, that even our most unbridled technological growth would be an unmitigated blessing in the hands of saints and angels of some future heaven. It is what that same unbridled growth can do, and has done, in the hands of human beings of this present earth that leaves me more than a bit worried. And yet, concerned as I am over the effects of our so-called Progress on the things around us, I'm even more uneasy about its effects upon the things inside us. Let's face it: hardy and strong as we may be when exposed to other viruses, we humans on the whole have shown the very poorest resistance to most strains of sin, both new and old. The result is that, in our present delicate condition, we continue to learn much more from failure than from success, much more from defeat than from victory. Certainly it is the former things that have taught us most of the little we know about love, and patience, and mercy. It would be nice, of course, to think that one day success, wealth and power shall have the same consistent - and even humbling - effect upon Man that they continue to have upon the Son of Man. But so far it seems to be the one result that even the hardest of work, and the most frenzied multi-tasking, cannot accomplish.

What is it, then, about the human nature prevailing in this present world, that so often the "better" we make our conditions, the worse we make ourselves? What is it about modern man today, that the "better" we get at straining the gnats of racism, sexism and homophobia, the worse we gorge ourselves on whole camels - head, hooves, tail and all - of the most shameless conceit, and arrogance, and vindictiveness? Try thinking, for a moment, of all those features of this past decade which even now make it most distinctively Today, as opposed to the yesterday of the 1980's, or the day before yesterday of the 1960's. Regardless of whether we call ourselves Right or Left, isn't this the Age in which we've exalted our favorite political righteousness into a kind of sanctimonious, hounding, even persecuting religion? While meantime world-class religions have become debauched into militaristic ideologies sanctioning mass slaughter. Certainly, I hope, at least with hindsight it will become clear that our McVeighs and their bin Ladens were not cut from so different a cloth. Observe for instance, in both cases, how righteous indignation at the direction in which the world was going became the pretext not only for murder, but for mass butchery of the most fiendishly indiscriminate kind. And the sheer wonder of it all is that these acts of purifying righteousness - and others - took place not in the godless, socialistic Sixties and Seventies, but in those gloriously God-fearing, free-marketeering decades on either side of AD 2000.

What is it about us, then, that through all our many phases of self-reinvention, the more intent we are on controlling, manipulating, and altering our material circumstances, the more inept we become (or half-hearted?) at restraining our own worst impulses? And in particular those urges that secrete the most subtle, insidious and infectious kinds of evil? So that even today - whatever the success of our massive ad campaigns against those age-old vices, anger, bigotry, sloth - we're becoming ever so quietly indulgent of, and ever so adept at disguising and dressing up, those other, more industrious and forward-looking sins - like pride, greed and envy? (With our latest fashions in lust and gluttony meanwhile taking increasingly bizarre - to say nothing of perverse - turns and twists.)

It was H G Wells, I believe, who once wrote that mankind's best immediate hope of surviving the 20th century lay in the outcome of a race between education and disaster. Personally I think it's still much too early to pronounce education the winner. But even if we could, I'm not nearly as sure as Wells that man's survival prospects lie wholly within his present grasp - or even within the compass of his own future wisdom and ingenuity. And so for me the big question is not how far man can make it on his own; it is how bad the earth and its inhabitants will manage to get, under the benevolent lordship of Old Adam, before the New Adam finally steps in. And that is a question, for me anyway, which can only be decided by the outcome of a very different sort of race than Wells had in mind. I mean a race between knowledge and control. And more specifically, a race between

(1) the most unflinching, unsparing knowledge of ourselves - including all our most ambitious and seemingly productive vices; and
(2) our urge to control everything else - including those parts of us that may not be the most ambitious or productive, but which are definitely the least vicious and controlling.

After all, what does it matter how productively and efficiently the brilliant but spoiled child runs the entire household, when all the while he's becoming ever more dangerously out of control himself? What difference does it make how fast he gets stuff out the door when the entire warehouse is in daily, imminent danger of burning down or blowing up?

Today, more thoroughly than ever, I suspect, Man is become that brilliant spoiled child, and sadly this time around there seem to be few if any adults left in the house. Certainly none among his own kith and kin, and meanwhile God help the dogs and cats, the hamsters and goldfish. So what do you suppose, then, are the chances of our child-prodigy-sociopath at last bringing under manageable control, not those sins of which he's always been more or less ashamed, but those sins he has always tended - at least in his rare moments of self-honesty - to be most proud of? Those sins that, say what you will against them - well (dammit), they sure do get results.

For my part, I'm pretty confident of our species' eventual success in beating, more or less brutally into submission, our most lower-animal-like vices and sins. Maybe not enough to make us happier and wiser, but certainly enough to make the vast majority of us fairly confused and miserable, if not in many cases largely dehumanized to boot. But, again, what difference will it finally make if Wrath and Sloth end their natural human careers as the most irretrievably shamed and disgraced of fallen women, while Pride, Envy and Greed (PEG) go on to become the most ostentatiously gilded, honored, above all respectable dowagers and society matrons?

Some will tell me the answer is a world run, dominated and permeated by Christians. And not the merely professing kind either, but (one can almost hear the snarl in their voices) reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeal Chris-ti-ans! But frankly I can't imagine even the most intensively Christianized world ever getting a proper handle on PEG. Indeed, given the historical success rate of most well-meaning theocracies, I'm inclined to think such a world would be as likely, if anything, to make us still more Pharisaic - which is to say, more proud, envious and greedy. All speculation of course. What I'm really wondering is this: Given the furious rate at which today's world is improving, in a generation or two shall any of us have even the presence of mind to recognize our three deadliest as sins at all, and not virtues?

Not, mind you, that we haven't managed to step back from that brink before - though we Christians, I'm sad to say, have not always been at the forefront of those who saw the approaching cliff most clearly or most early on. Churchill was no sort of Christian that I am aware of, yet at the critical moment he seems to have been as handy and flexible a mere human instrument as ever God took in hand. At all events he backed us off from the edge quite as well as any contemporary bishop or preacher.

And yet there's something about our particular Now which makes me feel that that's not going to work this time. Something which makes me wonder if we, both Christians and non-Christians, are not faced with a rather different kind of urgency than that which confronted Churchill's generation. Maybe now the critical question, for all of us, is not whether we shall or even can step back again, but rather, as we stand once again on the brink, and muster the courage to look all the way down inside, how widely open our eyes shall be, or how tightly shut. Shall we have the grace to reinvent ourselves just this once more, simply in order to see more clearly? And not just one more time, but just in time? That is, before what, in any other Age, would have been recognized as the uttermost monstrosity of human Pride becomes so well-dressed, and so impressively groomed and polished, as to be unrecognizable? Before an Arrogance against which Hitler would have seemed meek and mild gets spun to look and sound like Mahatma Gandhi? Or worst of all, becomes transmuted into some apocalyptically urgent and virtuous necessity for the Survival of Humankind?

And what if even we Christians don't quite pull it off? What if those eyes and ears, on whom the whole world depends to keep watch and guard through the night, themselves begin to drift off? What sort of world will begin to disclose itself, to emerge and take shape, through the drooping lids? What will that world feel like, when the last of the watchers have all but gone to sleep, and the whole of mankind has finally succeeded in controlling just about everything - except, of course, the very worst of itself? What will that world taste and smell like, when every thing in it that presently seems least manageable is at last brought under the proud, hard dominion of Man - everything, that is, except those very things in us which have always been most proudly obdurate to the dominion of God?

And long afterwards, I wonder - in the days that follow upon the End of History as We Know It - how will the very last, the millennial earth, remember us lately-departed Christians? Will it remember us gratefully, as having been its salt - or its solvent? As having been honest, decent, clear-sighted folk who did our best, as the old world stood teetering on the edge, to keep its eyes wide open? Or as essentially pious-but-blind guides, who unwittingly did our worst to fasten those eyes wide shut?

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