Friday, May 29, 2009

The True Source of Optimism

The Enlightenment assumption of invevitable progress rooted in the perceived human ability to, through rationality and increased technology, free humanity from the vulnerabilities of nature, is collapsing. The postmodern critique has been relentless and, quite frankly, legitimate in many ways. Tthe "hermeneutic of suspicion" that is taking an ever-increasing grip on the psyches of the West, has created a culture of cynicism toward all institutions. Michael Foucalt and Jacques Derrida (both now deceased), the two most influential architects of postmodern literary theory, called for an aggressive deconstruction of all texts, exposing hidden power structures that demanded a bold challenge.

This theory seems to have taken root in the West. Words constantly are being parsed. Trust in an author's or speaker's credibility is seldom granted. (Unless the author or speaker is a deconstructionist--but shouldn't the deconstructionist also be deconstructed--I digress). In short, the modern spirit of optimism--"each and every day, each and every way we are getted better and better"--has given way to a gnawing pessimism.

And, again, the modern optimism in humanity's ability through reason to "pull itself up by its own bootstraps" should be challenged. As we face a major, and universal, economic crisis, wars, political upheavals, and the global proliferation of nuclear weapons, there seems to be little to be optimistic about. On the other hand, there is a biblical optimism that, I think, the people of God should boldly embrace. It's an optimism, however, that is theocentric, not anthropocentric--it is centered in the sovereign God, not the solutions of humans.

Take Caleb, for example. You might recall that he was one of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Upon their return, 10 of the spies saw no possible way for their unskilled army to conquer the “walled cities” inhabited by “giants” (13:28,33). By contrast, the minority report of Caleb (and Joshua) throbbed with faith, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30).

What made the difference? All spies described the same land, and recognized the obstacles. The 10 were consumed by their own inadequacies while Caleb and Joshua concentrated on God’s ability. In short, the real difference was their relationship to God (14:8-9).

The “grasshopper mentality” of the 10 resulted from looking at the opposition rather than the Lord. That’s always how its it when we diminish the power of God. The obstacles loom beyond reason. By contrast, Caleb viewed the difficulties as opportunities to display the awesome power of the Lord.

The optimism of Caleb was not rooted in the insufficient power of a “positive mental attitude“, or in the inadequacies of “believing in himself.” Rather, in humility, Caleb saw himself linked to God in sacred partnership. “If the Lord delights in us,” he reasoned, “we’ll succeed” (cf. 14:8). The “if” in this phrase did not suggest a gnawing doubt in Caleb of God’s presence. On the contrary, it was Caleb’s way of saying, “because God has told us to take the land, we will succeed!”

How is it with you? Are you facing a Kadesh-Barnea that could change the course of your life? It may be a circumstance to accept, a work to be undertaken, or a burden to be borne. Whatever we are facing, individually or collectively, let’s remember the spirit of Caleb. How shortsighted to fret about obstacles when we’re linked with God. Caleb won the battles of life because he first won the battle of faith, obedience, and full commitment.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by circumstances or awed by difficulties. They don’t really matter. It’s our attitude toward the Lord—His glory and His will—that really counts!


Carol S said...

2 things:

1. So then does postmodern thought mark sort of an end to humanism at it has been represented since the renaissance? It does seem like that would be so to some degree, but I'm no philosophy major. ;) But if so, what replaces humanism or what form does humanism take in postmodern thought? If you aren't going to look to God and you aren't confident that man is sufficient, what's left? Nihilism?

2. Does raising one's first teenage boy count as a Kadesh-Barnea? Because it sure feels like it so far. But then I guess it's always felt like that with this kid.

Garry Brantley said...

Good questions, Carol. The problem with postmodernity is that it's a negative stance, rather than a positive one. In other words, postmoderns primarily are crtics of the old paradigm, rather than architects of the new. We really don't know what is becoming. It's very similar to the dramactic shift that took place between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. It didn't happen overnight and there was much angst, debate, fear and violence between the times.

In some ways, I think this critique is opening up our culture for a more biblical worldview--one that acknowledges the brokenness, confusion, and alienation of humanity, while seeking answers beyond ourselves. There definitely is a nihilistic stream flowing in our culture, but often the shift is toward a more mysterious, transcendent approach to the human condition. Many people, therefore, turn to Eastern mysticism, new age thought, etc. Unfortunately, some moden Christians fail to realize that, biblically, there is much mystery to God and our world. And, relcaiming the complexity of a biblical worldview and introducing the gospel story of God's in-breaking kingdom is something to which this generation can relate.

And, yes, raising one's first teenage boy counts as a living, breathing--and frustrating--Kadesh-Barnea.