Yesterday I posted links to a couple of articles by Yuval Levin attempting to speak intelligently about Our Current Moment from a place where ethics, economics, politics, and sociology meet. Since then, another couple of articles have made their way across my screen that I think worth sharing. They are a little more philosophically sobering than yesterday’s links. It’s not a place to stay for too long, but it’s a place worth acknowledging. I’ve hinted at thinking about such things before because I have a blog post category titled “Notes for a World’s End.” Before getting to the pieces, a quick side-track to two articles from The Point.
First from “The End is Coming”:
Probably this is not the end of the world. But a plague is creeping around the globe at a seemingly exponential rate, killing some of us and affecting all of us. And this pandemic is only the most recent and most sudden of a series of afflictions facing humanity . . .
We may not have arrived at the end, but we have certainly arrived at the thought of it. Medical, environmental, political, economic and military problems seem to have joined forces to remind us that the story of humanity is, at some point, going to draw to a close. That’s a very painful thought to have. It also raises a serious philosophical problem.
And then from a more recent piece from the same journal titled “It’s All Just Beginning”:
Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.
These are not the end times, I mean, but nor are they business as usual, and we would do well to understand that not only is there room for a middle path between these, but indeed there is an absolute necessity that we begin our voyage down that path. To the squealing chiliasts and self-absorbed presentists, indulging themselves with phrases like “the end of the world,” I say: “Did it never dawn on you that all of human history has just been one partial apocalypse after another?” And to the business-as-usual mandarins I say: “Thank you for your service in the glorious battles of the past.”
So we live in quite an apocalyptic moment, apocalyptic in a sense of “unveiling” or “revealing.” It’s an awkward place to be, mostly because we are trying to “survive” (as in going online with learning or cooperating with new [temporary?] societal norms). But how do we move forward, whose voices do we listen to? Which brings me to two other pieces worth noting.
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In “The Green Zone Plan,” James Poulos brings together a number of threads that move in an unexpected direction that, even if you disagree with it, paints a picture of possibility worth considering. He does so from the sense of a deeply embedded Americanism that feels appropriate and sets the trajectory well. From there, he brings in the ideas of what he calls “Lockdown World” and a world that is “Open for Business.” “Red Zones” are places of current high population density that are now (obviously) overly-susceptible to Our Current Moment. This “Green Zone Plan” involves a move and a rethink. Here’s a snippet:
In some quarters, analysts are arguing forcefully for the virtualization of as much of the economy as possible. To a degree this is understandable as an emergency sort of measure, or even as a measure that would increase our safety and resilience for whenever the next pandemic—or the next coronavirus wave—arrives.
Critics of this approach rightly object that millions upon millions of Americans can’t virtualize their jobs in this way: they are, so to speak, “stuck with nature,” and can’t simply be thrown under house arrest and expected to ride out the pandemic in months of suspended animation. While painfully evident, this truth needs to be seen in the bigger context that it’s untenable to herd masses of Americans—whatever their privilege, earning power, or status—“into the pod.”
This “red zone” kludge for ekeing out our existence in virus-overrun areas runs viciously contrary to our human nature and severs us from nature. It does so in a way that encourages us to become slaves to our illusions—to see our illusions as our saviors. This approach promises to fuel a gnostic attitude toward life implacably at odds with both our given anthropology and with the American way.
Rather than piling all our chips on Red Zone Plans, what we need to do is mobilize around Green Zone Plans. Emergency measures to ensure social distance in major cities made strong sense to impose. But the clock is ticking. Locking down and expanding Red Zones is not enough.
He’s not wrong on a number of levels. Take the first paragraph about virtualization: there are people who see this as a great chance to “virtualize everything,” not just employment as such. Let’s not be willfully blinded to Our Current Moment as one of power-plays and take-overs. The whole article is a good, challenging read that reminds us that something good SHOULD come out of this beyond simple survival.
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The final post that came my way last night was via Andy Crouch. The essay, titled “Love and Lament in March Madness,” is by Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist with a great web page (from a Social and Emotional Learning perspective). Crouch liked it because it reflects much of his own thinking about Our Current Moment. In its own way, it’s compact but comprehensive. Here’s a great clip from the piece:
Certainly, the virus and the disease it causes are real, they are dangerous and they are “out there,” meaning that they are genuine things that can potentially cause us great harm, not least by harming those we love, and as such we are, understandably, fearful. And to be clear, that we are fearful does not mean we’re weak or stupid. It means we’re human. But in our anxiety, some time from now it will be easy for us to find ourselves looking in the rearview mirror (as we already are), focusing our attention on what could or should have been done differently—conversations the likes of which will only tend to be traumatic and cause more anxiety. But our deepest problem won’t have been that we were not smart enough, or even wise enough. Not that we won’t have learned things. Hopefully we will be wiser. But the virus is a force of nature that simply is not easily reckoned with—and as it enters into our civilization, it comes not only as a wrecking ball; it comes as a floodlight.
And here is where the hard news begins. The virus and the disease, for all of their genuinely disconcerting effects in the world, are not just about an illness that might do horrible things to some of us, including kill us—which it may. We might think that death of that sort—the death of our bodies—is what really frightens us. But here is where the virus is more than a deadly infection—it is also a revelation. For our fear is far more ancient and far deeper than the fear of our physical mortality. And believe it or not, it is not mostly about a virus. Rather, the virus is shining a bright light on the heart of the matter, both interpersonally and neurobiologically, which we see more plainly when we read Jesus’ words,“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:4-7).
I don’t know if Jesus had pandemics in mind when he mentions “those who kill the body,” but his words are no less poignant for our time. Our brains tend to automatically pay attention to those things that frighten us. Being afraid is part of our makeup; the question is not, will we be afraid; but rather, to what will I direct my fearful attention. And here is where the good news begins, running right alongside the hard news, and eventually outpacing it. I get the sense that Jesus is telling us to pay attention to God. Not, as in, make sure you do what you’re supposed to do; don’t screw up; don’t make mistakes; in essence, be afraid of God, or else. Or else he’ll send you to hell. Many of us are tempted to believe that that is the God Jesus was talking about; one who, if you are not in some way enough, will send you to hell. Even if we don’t buy that kind of god theologically, we still can find ourselves feeling that deep in our souls. Either way, that doesn’t sound like good news at all.
That’s why the good news is that Jesus’ words are not about paying attention to God or he’ll send you to hell. No, rather, pay attention to—direct the attention of your fear to—the one who has authority, the one who has authored your life. The one who knows you’re afraid and wants to hear about it and comfort you. The one who never forgets you. The one who, as he said to the prophet Jeremiah, has known you before he even formed you; who delights in you; whose thoughts are ever about you; who only has good intentions for you; who is proud of you; who is so committed to your becoming a living, breathing icon of immeasurable beauty that brings life and joy and goodness to all whose lives you touch that he won’t even allow death to get between the two of you. Not even a pandemic. It is that God to whom Jesus commands us to direct our fearful attention.
You should definitely click the link for this piece and the Poulos piece. They are sobering and encouraging the whole way through.