What is the spirit of our age? What is the vision set before us today by “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2)?
That is a massive question, but perhaps it goes something like this: man has set about to fix his situation, to cure his ills, to solve his problems, to eliminate suffering, to defeat death – to build Heaven here on Earth. In other words, the spirit of the age and the vision it pursues is utopian. The seed of almost every ‘cause’ there is to follow is a pathos that seeks to build the ‘City of Man’. Haunted by a reminder of Eden buried deep in its spirit, our age yearns for Paradise (like any age) but thinks that it can build it through its own merits (unlike maybe any other age).
It used to be that this was a more obvious thing to see. The French Revolution, the movements of socialism, communism and fascism were more in-your-face visions of utopia. Now, like everything of our times, it is under the surface (more ‘cyber’): less institutional, harder to point at, too ethereal to touch; yet, the utopian venture is still the oxygen we breathe. The spirit of things that now set the temperature of the world – the U.N., educational systems, the army of N.G.O.s and most of modern-day U.S. policy – is still to raise ‘humanity’ (whatever that is) out of the dust, to create the perfect world without injustice, without hunger, without want, without inequality… without suffering.
It’s a tricky thing, because we are supposed to cultivate the earth, do good, build things and bring the Kingdom of God to our world. As always, at least half of every lie is truth. There is a lot right about our modern yearning for Paradise. But, how corrupted it is by the monumental pride of our time! What rage against God there is! We have looked at God and said, ‘You obviously aren’t doing a good enough job. We will fix this world ourselves.’
Never do we stop to think: this is impossible! How do we think we can mend every crack in the world? Look no further than the butcher table that is the twentieth century to see how far we have progressed in that area. How can a man (to use a C.S. Lewis analogy) lift himself off the ground by his own shirt-collar? Perhaps the sin and greatest unhappiness of our times is that we have misplaced our hope – we have placed it in ourselves.
And unfortunately, this utopian hope eventually gets really frustrated, and violent:
For the person who entrusts all problem-solving to the single final solution [utopian vision], reality is without hope and without solutions. It must be forced into another mould, and to this end new forms of government and new, far-reaching powers will be needed. So behind the utopia there advances another aim altogether, which is the desire for revenge against reality. Should utopians come to power, the very instability of their goal, which remains always out of reach, requires them to find, in the real world, the cabal or conspiracy that is preventing its realization… Hence [utopian] ideologies invariable divide human beings into innocent and guilty groups. (Roger Scruton)
But where else can we go? In an age that has denied God, man, who cannot live without some semblance of hope, must cling to a sugary optimism in himself.
But, tragically, this optimism is only the prettier, more palatable dress of despair. This is why C.S. Lewis said that the truly unfortunate man is the high-minded unbeliever who is desperately trying not to lose what he calls his faith in man.
There is no better reminder for our age that there are some vital ways in which we are not meant to ‘believe in ourselves.’ We must hope, but our hope cannot be in the powers, successes and abilities of the world. Ironically it is then that we are without hope because hope is “always directed toward something which we cannot achieve ourselves” (The Art Of Not Yielding To Despair).
We long for a final rest, a resolution to a felt discordance, a filling in of an emptiness. We long for glory, we long to see Him whom our hearts know and yet have never seen. We want to live in the Kingdom of God. Our age is beautiful in that it has the right ache. It has been laid bare and exacerbated by our times. But we must open up ourselves anew to the fact that we cannot go about it on our terms. The Kingdom of God is coming, but it is not the auspice of man.
A couple of quotes from and about Malcolm Muggeridge (whose conversion from socialist atheism ran through the line of everything discussed above) end these thoughts well.
How can I ever explain to those who insist that we must believe in the world to love it, that it is because I disbelieve in the world that I love every breath I take, look forward with ever-greater delight to each new spring, rejoice ever more in the companionship of my fellow humans… the vista of the hills, the bounds and dimension of our earthly hopes and desires. To accept this world as a destination rather than as a staging-post, and the experience of living in it as expressing life’s full significance, would seem to me to reduce life to something too banal and trivial to be taken seriously or held in esteem. (Chronicles of Wasted Time)
Comments about Mudderidge:
His vision of social reform is of Christian saints who quietly go about their works of compassion while all about them the world succumbs to barbarism. Muggerigde was widely considered a gloomy, pessimistic thinker, but he responded to that accusation with a story. When Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the popular Catholic evangelist, lay dying in New York, he summoned Muggeridge (who had never met him) to his bedside. The urgent message which Sheen said he must impart to Muggeridge was this: “We are witnessing the end of Christendom but not of Christ.” There is, he said, no more hopeful message in the world than that. (Beauty Will Save The World)