This year, as a spiritual discipline, I decided to make a deliberate effort to think about things and engage the world from a radically different perspective. In my case, as a liberal, I am trying to see the world through the eyes of conservatives. This project leads me to read books I never would have read, seek out information I didn’t know existed, and participate in conversations with people I previously assumed weren’t worth talking to on subjects I assumed were no longer open to discussion.
This has been a fascinating and humbling experience. Among other things, I have begun to doubt former certainties, and find new ways and new reasons to have faith.
Not long ago, my youngest daughter Woolie and I were crossing a street together. I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk, and leaned out so I could see beyond the line of parked cars. As I did so, I reached back, to keep my darling daughter from walking before I could be sure it was safe.
My daughter was 21 years old. She was a police officer. She was wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.
In the Gospels, there are three kinds of people—-well, four, if you count Jesus himself. There are the ones who believe without evidence. There are those who see the evidence and then believe. There are those who see evidence—-irrefutable evidence!—- and still don’t believe; who instead despair.
And then there is the one who actually knows. Remember eloi, eloi, lamas sabachthani?—- there were moments before his death where Jesus himself had a little trouble believing without seeing. By the time of the story of Doubting Thomas, however, he knew what he needed to know in order to have no doubts at all.
Thomas, I think, need not be our symbol merely of doubt. Doubt is human, and it’s important and necessary, lest we all get suckered into wasting our time and energy attempting to save the world by the wrong methods.
Doubt is a needed prophylaxis against credulity, since credulity—-mindless belief—-is not what Jesus asks of us. Credulity is not faith.
But there is a temptation that Thomas was in danger of falling prey to—- the temptation to despair.
Not long ago, I heard a very well-educated, highly- intellectual guy named Andrew Harvey, give a talk entitled Transformative Action in Dangerous Times.
The professor had an English accent, which made him sound even more intellectual—-wish I could imitate it, but I can’t—-and he was very passionate.
“We are now,” he said. “Living in Dangerous Times. A self-conscious conspiracy between corporations, politicians and the media are deliberately producing an unprecedented global cataclysm,” with wars, famine and the extinction of the snow leopard.
“We must stop denying the truth of this catastrophe, stop clinging to our comforts, utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart!” and then we’ll help the poor and presumably the snow leopard too.
The professor sounded intelligent, as I say, and passionate but not especially optimistic. Makes sense: the chances are extremely good that we won’t utterly transform ourselves in body, mind and heart, and so the poor and the snow leopard, and all of us really, are doomed.
It is actually a lot more fun to give a fire-and-brimstone sort of sermon than a “things aren’t all that bad” sermon.
“We are all sinners in the hands of an angry God!” really wakes up the folk in the back pews. “ God is gazing down upon the seething cauldron of sin that is Lincolnville, Maine and surely He will send the fire this time?”
Maybe it’s just the human attraction to melodrama that makes despair so tempting?
Or maybe it’s that, if the world is about to end, we might as well fly to Jerusalem or Davos or Aspen and party with the other pessimists?
You may be more familiar with religious predictions of apocalypse, but secular apocalyptics, are at least as common.
The secular apocalyptic will see a plastic grocery bag caught in a tree, or a traffic jam on I-95 and grimly declare that there are too many people using too little birth control and too many fossil fuels ….the end is near.
The secular apocalyptic will, however, be offended if you point out the similarities between her point of view, and that of the preacher who thinks same-sex marriage is what will provoke God to send the fire this time.
The secular apocalyptic after all, is rational and well-educated. She is drawing her conclusions from history, from science, from facts. And so she, of course, is right.
In 1968, a very smart, rational, educated guy named Paul Erlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, wrote the following about the state of the world:
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He made this prediction in a book called The Population Bomb.
Another book, written around the same time by William and Paul Paddock agreed—- “By 1975, a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world. Famines, greater than any in history, will ravage the undeveloped nations. The swelling population is blotting up the earth’s food and, they confidently added, “Our technology will be unable to increase food production in time to avert the deaths of tens of millions of people by starvation.”
I was about six years old when these books were published. My parents read them, along with a whole lot of other Americans—-they were big hits, best-sellers.
For the young people here—-Caleb, I’m talking to you—- perhaps I should explain that no, the world didn’t experience mass starvation in the decades between my birth and yours. Our technology was, it turned out, more than able to increase food production in time to avert disaster.
In fact, the percentage of people living on the edge of starvation has fallen by 80 percent since 1970. When I was a kid, more than one in four people around the world lived on a dollar a day or less—-the standard, adjusted-for-inflation measure of starvation-level poverty. Today, only about one in twenty live on that little.
As the economist Arthur C. Brooks declares, “This is the greatest anti-poverty achievement in world history.”
Yet 86% of Americans surveyed think global poverty is getting worse, not better. Until very recently, I was one of those Americans, even though the evidence, like Woolie’s uniform, was available for me to see, Google or go visit. More than two-thirds of us—-again, I include myself—— do not believe it is possible to substantially reduce extreme poverty in the world in the next few decades—-even though, in the past thirty years, we’ve been doing just that. Oddly enough, the well-educated are no exception.
I would like for us—-everyone here—- to be the exception. I want to inoculate myself, you, our children and our grandchildren against the temptation to despair.
Self-centeredness and self-indulgence are tempting enough without adding in the notion that any effort made on behalf of others is doomed to failure, and any gifts of service are meaningless.
Maybe there would be some excuse for giving up hope if the world really was coming to an end, but it isn’t. The world is not getting worse, it’s getting better, and it is getting better through the hard working lives of all those “excess” human beings the secular apocalyptics will tell us the world would be better off without.
Good news! We need not—-indeed, should not—-gaze upon those teeming masses in Africa or India or New Jersey or wherever masses teem these days and despair. Human beings are not the end of the world. In all our billions, we are the ones Jesus gave his life to save, and despite his doubts he was not foolish or wrong to do so.
Resurrected, Jesus, no longer doubtful and definitely not despairing, gazed upon the evidence of us, and smiled and blessed us.
Who are we to do otherwise?