Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Pertinent Question

There is a story in the Gospels (I forget which) where Jesus heals a man that has been lingering next to a pool of water for some thirty years. The water was supposedly disturbed every once and a while when an angel came and touched it, and the first person to bath themselves in the water after it was disturbed would be healed of their ailments. The man in question was a paralytic, however, and had no one to take him to the pool. So he sat unmoved for around thirty years.
When Jesus found him, his first question He asked him was, "What do you want?" I believe it was John Eldridge who pointed out that this is an astounding question. It seemed that Jesus' first step in healing the man was to get him to reestablish what his desire was, his goal, his end game, for sitting near the pool. It is not unreasonable to assume that, after having sat still without success for around thirty years, that he had eventually forgotten what was the point of it all.
I believe that Jesus' question to the paralytic is highly pertinent to our current culture and society that has been terribly paralyzed by the grip of post-modernism. We would do well to ask people, both liberal and conservative, atheistic and spiritual, secular and religious, what it is exactly that they want. When faced with the tumultuous lot of faddist and trivial institutions, ideologies, parties, minority groups, voting blocks, revolutions, moralities, and philosophies that our current culture and society parades around like next year's fashion, perhaps the best question that we can put forth is, "What's the point?"
I recently read an article in the August edition of Chronicles, a monthly mag that I don't always agree with but I still heartily recommend, and found its author (Thomas Flemming, the mag's editor) implicitly agreeing with Chesterton's What's Wrong With the World, where Mr. Chesterton states in the first chapter that what is wrong is that "nobody knows what is right," i.e., no one has an ideal, an end game, a goal, a purpose that their energies are aiming for. As Mr. Flemming stresses, we would do well to ask "what's the good of" all the scared cows and beloved dogmas of the current trend-setters and socio-political philosophers.
Of course, if this question is posed, people on every side of multiple different fences will fire back with culturally approved buzz words like "growth" or "prosperity" or "equality" or "liberty" or "freedom" or whatnot. These words, however, do not solve the problem; they only push it further and reveal a peculiar ignorance (and subsequent arrogance) of our time, viz., that the things that those words signify are goods in and of themselves. Thus, if we ask someone, "What's the good of growth, etc?" they will probably have no answer, other than that those things are good, which they are not.
That last statement may seem odd (maybe even blasphemous), but it should be an obvious truth. Those things are not goods unto themselves; they are goods only in regards to their ability to secure another good. In other words, they are means, not ends. "Prosperity" and "liberty" are meant to achieve something other than themselves. What exactly is the identity of that "other" thing is up for debate; the point here is that no one even debates it precisely because they view the means as ends and thus can see nothing beyond them. The result is that we have a slew of methods, but no ideal to apply them to; we have more than enough tools, but nothing to build.
Growth, prosperity, etc. must have an ideal that sets their energy and movements within a proper context. Left to themselves, they hopelessly degrade into all manner of evils that have and will continue to plague mankind from one end of history to another. So "growth," left to itself, becomes greed. "Prosperity" becomes decadence and apathy. "Equality" becomes conformity and tyranny. "Liberty" becomes licence. "Freedom" becomes anarchy. Set outside of a clear-cut goal and guidelines, these things run wild, and cause massive damage after creating pleasure for a season.
The next time the gurus of the modern/post-modern dark ages, both inside and outside the Church, come to us whispering sweet nothings, it would be wise of us to check our itching ears at the door and instead ask them what exactly is going on? What's the point? What's the good of it? What's your goal, your aim, your ideal? "What do you want?" said Christ. We would do well to ask the same question. Even if the ideas presented to us (after much tiresome digging) are not at all what we would call ideal, at least then we have something with which to wrestle with and talk about. Until then, this society will continue to go nowhere at all as it has no ideal or goal, only pleasant feelings in the pit of their stomachs over wonderful soundbites and bumper-sticker slogans.

-Jon Vowell

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