The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
1 John 3: 1-2
A couple of days ago I received an email from one of our Xaverian Associates who is a teacher at a state university. He spoke of his concerns about a growing and pervasive sense of discouragement in his students, something he has not seen the like of in decades of teaching. He wrote:
I have a growing sense that something new is emerging in the student body. I have a sense that the students are discouraged and perhaps don’t even know they are discouraged. I sense a growing pessimism. There is more evidence of not trying too hard, of just going through the motions hoping that everything will work out. . . . I think the world needs an answer or at least a beacon pointing to a way that avoids the catastrophe that so many are predicting.
I yearn for some evidence of insight coming from within Christianity, from within the teaching religious communities of the Church that would have the capacity to capture the attention of today’s young adults. But, John, I just don’t see it and it makes me sad. I don’t want to accept that we are living through some new kind of Dark Age and there is nothing we can do. We just have to let it play itself out.
What he writes is not surprising. Young people in American culture are coming of age in a time of what the philosopher Jonathan Lear terms “cultural devastation.” Immediately before Christmas of this year, we witnessed a gathering at the White House to celebrate the passage, on a totally partisan basis, of what was termed tax reform. By any measure, it must be said that this legislation only contributed to the wealth disparity that most Americans considered the most pressing issue of the past presidential campaign. There was something obscene about the celebration in which one legislator after another touted the “extraordinary leadership” of a president who campaigned and was elected as the candidate of the forgotten laborer and who now signed a bill that would transfer yet more of the nation’s resources to the very few wealthiest citizens. Many of those “on stage” at this moment were persons who touted their religious convictions as their primary motivation as politicians.
My friend’s concerns about his students evokes this scene in memory because it represents the failure of Christianity in American public life. The great danger of unbridled capitalism is that wealth and success (meaning one’s level of wealth) become gods. As gods, the claims of wealth and affluence are infinite. There is never enough. Thus, the answer to inequality becomes more inequality. The response to discrimination and poverty becomes an increase of the flow of the common wealth (and of public welfare) up the scale to the privileged and wealthy and a decrease of the common wealth to the quality of public life and infrastructure. Meanwhile virtue is attributed to those with money and privilege while those caught in cycles of poverty are increasingly shamed and marginalized.
I wonder if what my friend is witnessing is not the movement of such marginalization up the social scale to those who were once considered middle class. Many, if not most, of his students, I’d suspect, will finish their degrees carrying the burden of thousands of dollars in student debt. They will spend the first many years of their working lives not pursuing their dreams and contributing their unique gifts to the society, but rather as slaves to an economic system that keeps them in bondage at the very least for the early part of their working lives. They will find themselves working only to make enough to slowly move out of debt. Most of this generation will begin their lives enslaved to a system controlled by a mere handful of oligarchs whose extravagant wealth entitles them by law to far more dominant and powerful “speech” than the rest of the population combined.
Many Americans in the past year have been repulsed and disgusted by the coarseness, ignorance, and narcissism of our political leadership. And yet, this did not begin in the past year. What we now experience is but a caricature and a symptom of the dark side of a value system that has lost any moorings in transcendence it once might have had. To read the Gettysburg Address or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is to see Lincoln inserting the country’s political life and struggles in the context of the mystery of God’s ways. To hear Jimmy Carter in his inaugural quote the prophet Micah is to realize his sense of responsibility to that which is so much more than our grasping for wealth and power. In his First Inaugural Address, Barack Obama said:
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity, on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
When Barack Obama became president, the country had just experienced what happens when the market, lacking a watchful eye, spins out of control. The market, he reminded us, the pursuit of wealth and prosperity, must be subject to values that far transcend it. What my friend sees in the eyes and hearts of his students, what we witnessed in that spectacle at the White House before Christmas, is the result of the loss of soul that comes with the loss of transcendent value and its replacement with the deification of the system, of the “free market.”
In the first letter of John we hear that the world does not know God’s children in the same way it did not know Jesus. It also tells us that all of who we are, as God’s children, is unknown to us. We live in a time when we look at the past and recognize its naivety. Yet, we ourselves are not less naive. We fail to recognize the truth of life’s mystery, of how little we know of who we really are. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed.”
Martin Heidegger wrote that “The human being is not the lord of beings, but the shepherd of Being.” As we are “not the lord of beings,” neither are we the slaves of a financial system and of the oligarchs who control it. The young people that my friend teaches have lost the sense of themselves as “shepherds of Being.” It is a striking spiritual paradox that we only know our worth, our dignity, our “eternal life” when we are put in our place in the world. To know ourselves as shepherds of Being is to recognize at once our smallness and our dignity. We do not live to be cogs in a wheel, or to be slaves to the greed and arrogance of the privileged few, or to spend the few years of our lives in pursuit of wealth. Each of us is called to shepherd Being — to tend, to cultivate, to communicate, to serve Life in our own unique way.
At this moment in the course of western capitalist culture, conventional religion may have largely failed in its call to serve as a beacon to this truth. It has largely confirmed itself to the present age by taking the place that the secular culture has given it — as a lonely and irrelevant moral scold. By making the litmus test of religious belief a certain limited kind of ethical probity, organized religion has lost its roots in its own great wisdom tradition as shepherd of Being and Mystery. It is so busy telling people how they must act within the parameters of the dominant social system, that it has lost its ability to challenge that system in its basic idolatry and nihilism.
Who are the beacons of transcendence and Being, and where are they to be found today? What is required of us if we are to be put in our place and so become true lovers of God and so the witnesses to that love that the world needs? Perhaps it must begin with the stark realization of what we don’t know. We have developed a consciousness, including a religious consciousness, that has little room for the “learned ignorance” that gives space for Mystery. John’s letter tells us that finally we shall be like God for we shall then see God as God is. But in the meantime, we must learn to befriend the darkness and the Mystery. We need not be anxious about what we don’t know of who we are, because we can know, in our very being, that the Mystery is beneficent and loving. We are servants and shepherds of Being, and, as 1 John reminds us, that Being is a loving parent calling us always ever more into its life and love.
This is not, in any of the cases mentioned, a speculative statement about some imagined metaphysical limit on God’s liberty; all of those listed are clear that God is where God chooses to be. But God’s nature and action entail that God is not an item in the world, battling for advantage. The religious life, on this account, would be taking on the task of ensuring a habitation for God, a God who does not guarantee for himself a place in the created world, a place alongside other agents, and so is visible only when a human life gives place, offers hospitality to God, so that this place, this identity, becomes a testimony. And another of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms, from 1937 this time, echoes this, when he says that belief in Christ is something other than the acceptance of a historical record: it is the ‘result’ of your own biography, and so you must ‘make a quite different place in your life for it’.
Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square, Kindle Locations 6094-6101