Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Does it have to be this way?

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

- Isaiah 11.1-9 (NRSV).

The claim that it doesn't have to be this way, that the seeming inevitability of the status quo is an illusion, is one I have made many times over the last few months. Sometimes, it has been a more or less impotent protest appended to the end of some piece of bad news as a flimsy barrier against a rising sense of despair. Some readers (especially my most faithful and critical one) have pointed out that there is a disconnect between the scale of the problems I've highlighted and the glimpses of responses I've put forward (for example here and here). The threats are formidable; the remedies feeble. It may not have to be this way, but it certainly seems like it is highly likely that it will be.

Nonetheless, I repeat my assertion that it doesn't have to be this way. Ultimately, this claim is not grounded in empirical observation of alternative ways of living, though they can help to fire the imagination and break free from the shackles of the all-too-obvious we associate with business as usual. Ultimately, this is a theological claim, a messianic expectation that depends upon the promise of God. Even when we cannot see any way forward and all options seem like dead ends, even then we must treat all apparent political and economic necessities as only apparent. And when there seems to be only one way forward, we should remain sceptical of the reasoning that forces our hand. To believe in God's future is to remain free from such necessities, it is to refuse to grant ultimate relevance to the hand of fate, or the market, or of might.

This is one of the effects of Christian faith upon the vision of our immediate future. By placing our immediate future against the backdrop of a messianic promise for the renewal of all things, it is not that the present sufferings become irrelevant. Indeed, in some ways, they become worse, because we can never make our peace with them as merely "one of those things". Instead, a hope that does not arise from the possibilities already apparent in our situation means that the present predicament can be seen with fresh eyes. This doesn't necessarily mean that an escape route will open up for those with the eyes of faith, but that even a road ending in a cross may be seen as worth walking.


Anonymous said...

Interesting point about seeing God's future. Though one could argue that Paul's position was also one of hope in God being present in the now....aka Phillipians.

byron smith said...

Which bit of Philippians do you have in mind and are you suggesting that the presently realised hope (the "now") is more significant than the as yet unrealised hope (the "not yet")?

psychodougie said...

my problem is grasping hold of 'it doesn't have to be this way' (your words) in the context of 'it won't always be this way' (more or less isaiah's words) – perhaps it's the things becoming 'worse' you mention that makes it so difficult.

but your last sentence is great. eminently quotable!

Anthony Douglas said...

It must be the Douglas bit. I went to the blog to comment, simply to say that the last sentence was gold, and find another Doug has beaten me to the punch.

Faithful pessimism could well rock.

Anonymous said...

The bit I'm thinking of is how Paul has learnt to be content in all situations...

I believe that the now is as equally as important as the not yet...and depending on ones understanding of the intermediate state... perhaps the books ends are equally important ;)

To elevate the not yet over the now; diminishes the work of the cross and what Jesus did in you and I the day we were saved... if the not yet is more important than the now... then we diminish our work for the now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron. I found that a hopeful post, in a thick sense.

jessica smith said...

YES! Thank you for this post, it's exactly what I wanted spelt out and it's also something I need to be reminded of again and again.

byron smith said...

I'm glad I've managed to please my most faithful critic. :-)