The Hidden Dangers of the Narrative of Decline (Towards an Eschatology of Hope)
I am generally resistant to theories that claim to fully explain large social trends. This is in part due to the fact that I know that movements are multifaceted and driven from various directions. But, despite my distaste for what might be called “meta-narratives” I may go against my better instincts in suggesting one overarching idea and narrative that explains so much of what seems to be troubling the church. This is the narrative of decline.
This narrative is self-explanatory, the story (or stories) we tend to tell are marked by how much worse things are getting, rather than on anything getting much better. Take for instance the myth of the golden age as an example. This is when we glorify a past time and mark each ecclesiastical development or Supreme Court decision as the inevitable decline since those halcyon days. It was the 1950’s, the Sixteenth century, or in a parallel universe like Atlantis or Thomas More’s island of Utopia. Ask yourself, without overthinking, are things getting better or worse? On a recent podcast I discussed some of the reasons we should be optimistic. Infant mortality and homicide rates are at an all time low, disease is down and goods able to make it to market at unprecedented low prices. Sure, the state of our souls is marked with something beyond GDP and mortality rates, but we can’t write off the tangible benefits of progress.
But let’s go back to the idea I think we have hard wired into us, everything is getting worse and worse. I wouldn’t mind a nation of Eeyores if it didn’t affect how we vote, buy, act, and think. Maybe pessimism is the safest option because it keeps us from getting our hopes up and being disappointed. But what if the total effect of this has been to be so pessimistic that we have lived and legislated to our detriment, with an unhealthy eye for doom and suspicion.
The narrative of decline does not exclude any optimism, it simply makes those points to be counterexamples against the wave of supposed mounting evidence that things are actually getting worse. Nowhere have I seen this more than in the church, where it has raised suspicion, encouraged fear and promoted a sense of insecurity. And this is in spite of the fact that we have competing narratives which might be more congruent with the Christian faith.
Around the middle of last century, after feeling rocked by the growth of so-called “modernism” in the church, conservatives fled the mainline and abdicated its role as engaged cultural commentators. There was to be little to no engagement. Conservatives started their own denominations and schools as a mark of theological or cultural purity. And in this cultural and theological retreat the church picked up a particular eschatology (that is, ideas about the end of all things). This eschatology emphasized the imminence of the end times. And according to this interpretation (sometimes referred to as premillennial dispensationalism) we would most certainly not go quiet into that long night. From eerie predictions about the environment to national and international wars we abandoned the 19th century model of progress and came to adapt a theology that coincided with the Cold War its concomitant grandiose paranoia and hysteria Conveniently, this seems to sell better and we’ve had no shortage of theological and political prophets ready to reap the reward.
So how does this change the way we talk and think today? If my primary grid for understanding the data I come across is one of decline I am more apt to throw my hands in the air and give up. Or maybe I decide to fight with the lost cause for a season, I may feel better about myself but can’t ultimately see any good coming from it. So now bring this to where the rubber hits the road: marriage, raising kids, the environment, race relations etc… Not only does the narrative of decline give me little reason to mount a concerted effort to fight for the long haul, it also makes me more negative, bitter, and hopeless. Even if my story concludes with a savior coming to make all things right, it might be that under this narrative of decline, until I hear that trumpet sound I might as well assume the worst. And when the media wants to show me increasingly violent and disturbing images I have more ammunition to understand the decay by which I judge everything else. I can become increasingly suspicious of any change, on its age alone. This is what C.S. Lewis referred to as "chronological snobbery" only this time in reverse!
But what about other narrative options? What if the narrative isn’t one of cultural decline, but one of the movements of people and the exchange of ideas? We might be hesitant to call this, the era of the internet, the golden age but we are more social and diverse than anytime in history. Ask yourself, if you were to be born in any era but you wouldn't know if you would be a boy or a girl, nor could you know your race when would you be born? Can this change the way we see the present as opposed to a half of a century ago? Or, what if the meta-narrative is primarily one of oppressed people groups rising up to fight for equality? This might not be the golden age for that, but levels of equality and democracy are at an all-time high. Or, what if my narrative isn’t one of general decline, but of hope? A hope that despite my bias for bad news, things are ok. Maybe it is a hope that one day all will be made well, but also, that since the Resurrection all things are being made well. It's an eschatology of hope, and while I wish I knew what that entails, but for know I might have a theological reason for fighting political despair. We seem afflicted with something, whether its premillennial dispensationalism, a general sense of doom, or a spell of general depression. We need to reorient ourselves to a thinking that is less “natural”. By embracing an "unnatural" optimism, or maybe just by accepting the preponderance of good news, we may find we have a brighter outlook and fewer enemies of whom to be wary. We can look over our shoulder less and be far less suspicious. Would there be a people of God that embrace an eschatology of hope, such that we might fight despair and bring a tangible help to the world as we know it, not of simply saving souls for the sweet bye and bye. The church then might become a place that reorients otherwise pessimists into people of hope, not just of an ethereal future, but of today as well. I'm not sure what an eschatology of hope might look like, but stay tuned to this spot on the internet as I try and wrestle through it. Feel free to add your thoughts at any point.