Have you been listening to teenagers lately, along the frontier? City meets suburbia and third world meets all the rest in this funky landscape we call the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, and for the sake of the Church we should pay close attention to how theology plays out here with the emerging generation.
One thing you will learn if you listen is to proceed with extreme caution when you repeat our new bishop’s suggestion that the future is not our enemy. There is indeed a great deal to be afraid of in the future many of these young people imagine.
But listen deeply. Beneath the oft-mentioned dark worries about drugs, drinking, violence, and environmental degradation lies an infinitely more horrendous fear: we seem to be moving inexorably toward an all-devouring Oak Brook Center of the Soul. There acquisition of name brand merchandise, use of designer drugs, and immersion in hyper-reality will enable long-term avoidance of spiritual maturation. Crises of the Spirit will be headed off before they are experienced.
In this scary scenario everyone will be lookin’ good but no one will care. They will shop till they drop to a swinging beat, but they won’t have the slightest idea what their lives are all about.
They will not vote for and pay to see and hear those whose ideas and talents they admire, but those who have become certified celebrities: people who are better than the real thing. They will prefer simulated reality captured on celluloid and CD ROM to the morally troubling primary reality that preceded it. They will be happy to have a soul-sickness like the Vietnam Syndrome killed off by multi-media spectacles like the Gulf War. And in the emerging virtual community there should be less offensive language and disagreement in general. The road kill will be limited to the relationships and commitments that become casualties along the information super-highway to the future we are told will be our friend.
This is the soul-less, phony, boring future teenagers fear because they feel it already enveloping them. On this Metro Synod frontier our youth detect a Grand Assumption that everyone’s best hope is to flee the poly-lingual sidewalk on Devon for the security of a three-car garage in Schaumberg. Especially here youth fear everyone has already surrendered to the seduction of fleeing the inconveniences of soul. That may be the future many are heading toward. Even working toward. Yet it remains the scariest future of them all.
We as Christians have a duty not to preach too glibly against all fears of the future. Our first gift should be to help people, young and old, bring their anxieties about our culture to the surface and confront them honestly. Our duty is to point out that the crises and pains must be confronted because they remind us that we are, even after the divine act of salvation in Christ, simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and a sinner), or, as philosopher Søren Kierkegaard often pointed out, a synthesis. We are constituted as beings who can imagine eternity but are locked in the present. We can taste and long for freedom, but are locked in brutal necessity. Only when we quit turning away from brutal reminders of this tension can we remember our souls–our selves have been made this way by God. We are of God, yet remain creatures. As Kierkegaard might say, we cannot cure it—we are our despair. We are also our community. The Law, Jesus teaches, centers our existence on love of God and circumscribes it with love of (for and from) others (Matthew 22:34-40). Addiction to simulated reality makes us passive spectators, beyond the circle’s edge. Chemical dependencies bounce us radically back and forth from center to beyond the circumference. Our dependence on God and community shapes our souls.
To help our youth live into this mystery demands from us an integrity in our future talk—an integrity shaped by a healthy tension described well by Jaraslov Pelikan in his book The Shape of Death (1961:5): “The core of the Christian faith is pessimism about life and optimism about God, and therefore hope for life in God.”
This integrity has been largely maintained by the Spirit of the Church as a dynamic tension between schools and movements of thought within the church. Sanctified optimism about a pre-parousia or historic future under the aegis of the church (as in Augustinian ecclesiology) has served to further the domestication of the institutional church. The cost of embracing such propaganda has always been a deepening of the culture of denial. Leaders who sound that trumpet always tend well to institutional image preservation and ignore the creeping loss of soul all about them.
Enthusiasm and utopian spiritualism, on the other hand, abandon responsibility for the too tainted here-and-now. These theologies may also neglect such things as daily repentance, or Word-and-sacrament living, which, by mediating God’s grace to the relationships which constitute human spirit, also sustain the uncomfortable realization that we are limited beings dependent on divine mercy.
By themselves none of these approaches to the future would answer the fears of our youth, but the tension between them is what tends to keep us honest. This vital tension reminds us that all living toward the future is conditioned by communion and creatureliness—an essential relation to the Christ to whom the future belongs. We worship, proclaim and minister, as Hans Schwarz writes in his article on eschatology in Christian Dogmatics (1984:510), “until he comes.”
Another way of expressing this is to say that we must choose our future. The prototype of all Christian eschatology and future talk is the promised land imagery of Israel’s history and the eternal present is the time of choice, when Joshua/Moses/Isaiah/Jeremiah/John the Baptizer/Jesus says, “Choose this day whom and whose future you will serve.”
The oft-recognized tension between the “already” and the “not-yet” aspects of eschatology may be seen also as an existential necessity to continually choose which future to fear and which to embrace. Lutheran sentiments against any notion of cooperation with grace notwithstanding, a baptized “new creation” is still called to act new and lead in the “groaning in labor pains” that characterize a way of living toward a future with God. Choosing is an existential urgency and necessity. If we do not accept that there is not one but multiple futures we become non-selves, dissolving into the Oak Brook Center of the soul. Bishop Anderson said, “[The future] belongs to God, untouched by human hands.” But the moment it becomes present it has our fingerprints all over it. Past and future are a matter of faith and hope. Here and now is were we love. And with the work of love comes the fear and trembling of knowing God works not only in, but also with us (Phil. 2:12-13).
The future-defying “fear not” that is the Bible’s most striking response to future-anxiety is God’s word for those who are on the wilderness journey from oppression and toward covenant faithfulness (Is. 7:4; 41:10ff; Mt. 10:28 et. par.; Rev. 2:10, and elsewhere). It is not for those who play it safe, making their nest in comfortable compromise because they fear temporal consequences more than God or the God-less death of the soul (Ps. 55:19; Is. 57.11, 63:17; Hos. 10:3; Mal. 3:5;).
Kierkegaard wrote in the introduction of Sickness Unto Death that people meet dangers head-on only because they fear an alternative danger even more. He adds that Christians gain their courage “by learning to fear something even more horrifying” than physical death and all “temporal suffering.” They bear the pains of being human or being a blessing when others are paying dearly to numb those sensations only when they learn from the salutary fear of the Oak Brook Center of the soul.
After listening deeply to the legitimate fears of our youth we should bid them to read with us Ephesians, chapter four. Here God’s Word exhorts us all to the only healthy way to face the future. Growing up into Christ, the theological, psycho-social process of dealing in love and truth with the pains of our despair and communal conflict, is the Christian’s way of making God’s future present.