One of my goals for 2018 is simple – not to buy any new books this year. Why? I’ve recognised I have a huge wealth of knowledge sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve never even opened – so am wanting to make my way through a back-catalog of paper that’s been collecting some serious Waikato dust.
As a result of this, I’ve begun re-reading The Way of the Modern World: Or Why It’s Tempting to Live as if God Doesn’t Exist, by Regent College professor Craig Gay. This fascinating book combines sociology with theology, exploring the foundational worldview of society – and why we tend us to live as if God doesn’t matter – or even exist.
Early in the book, Craig highlights three key features of the modern world – born out of the rapid technological advances of the past 120 years. These three are:
- An increased desire to control the world. Rather than seeing ourselves as passive victims of disease, climate and the powers that threatened life and pleasure in the past, the current mindset is one of control. We seek to understand, so we can control;
- As a result of this, we see an increased secularisation. The areas that used to be the domain of God – weather, health, work – are all being replaced by technique and science. However, the scope is beginning to increase – we’re seeing relationships, character and morality being reduced to frameworks and technological solutions – squeezing out any space for God.
However, it is the third feature that Gay highlights that has been playing on my mind. Gay notes that as a result of above, humanity in the modern world is plagued by an increased anxiety. We have removed God from the picture – and are left standing, all alone.
Much of modern thought promised liberation from the heavy burden of history and religion. We no longer needed to be defined by what had gone before us, but could throw off the shackles that had held our ancestors down.
Much of this needed to be assessed and engaged with. But an uncritical throwing off of all that has gone before – or all that does not fit within a scientific worldview – has left us with a heavier weight than before. Suddenly, we are thrust into the role of gods – a role that we were never created for.
With our scientific advances, we’ve become increasingly aware of how the world works. We can hurl satellites into space to see our planet from a new point of view, and explore the neighbourhood of our solar system. We can zoom into cells, and gaze at the microscopic building blocks of the world.
And yet, as we do this, we become increasingly aware of how close our world can be to spinning out of control. We understand fault lines and earthquakes – and understand how devastating a seismic shift can be. We understand space – and discover the risk of asteroids annihilating life on earth. We look into our bodies, and discover latent genetic mutations, possibilities of cancers, and the risks of incurable conditions.
More and more we understand how our world should work. But this does not seem to result in any true control. Instead, we realise that much is out of our hands. Earthquakes and nuclear missiles, heart-breaks and moral failings – these are still out of our control.
And yet – as we become more aware of our lack of control – we have also thrown out the possibility of a controller. We have rejected any possible revelation that doesn’t fit into a narrow band of knowledge – leaving us with the mammoth task of creating our own identity and meaning.
In the beginning story of Genesis, the Deceiver speaks to humanity, and promises them a freedom of life if they disobey God – and become like gods. In the past century, we’ve embraced the lie as truth all over again – and are seeking to become like gods – determining right and wrong, and setting the bounds of all reality.
And it’s a weight that many of us can’t carry.
The scientific advancement has led to higher standards of living, amazing health innovations, and applications of technology that are truly fascinating. And yet it has been closely followed by increases in mental illness, unhappiness and suicide.
Gay writes of the tyranny of history, and how the Western world seeks to throw this burden off. Instead, we are who we become – in our striving for historical meaning. We get to make our own history, but many of us are destined for lives that will be forgotten by the pages of history. We see this, we know this – but we try to forget it.
And yet it lurks – a nagging discontent that our life must matter more, that we will become more truly ourselves if we do something. Our identity is not in our family or our faith – it is in who we are, and who we are becoming. And for many of us – that’s a disappointment and a burden we cannot carry.
Instead of turning to another technique, or blindly struggling on – why not consider reflecting on the facts of life?
See, true freedom for athletes is not found in throwing off the rules – but in embracing them and striving within the restrictions that are placed on them. Artists find true freedom within the boundaries of their form.
True freedom for humanity is found within the design of life. To throw off the design is to be fettered with the weight and burdened by anxiety.
Jesus invites us to come to him with his burden and find rest. In a world of science and secularism, his words sounds foolish and childish. Yet in a world of anxiety, stress and nihilism – perhaps his words have a wisdom that we need to hear.