Is the world on a permanent downhill slide? To listen to many Christians you would think so. During this political season you would think so even more than during other years. People, left and right, remind us daily of the dire consequences of this election and of what will happen if the wrong person, or party, is elected in November. For many you would think that America's entire future hangs in the balance. Pardon me if I am skeptical about all of this but I heard this message in 1960. I was only eleven years old. It was not true then and it is very likely not true now either. Wars followed Kennedy's election, economic cycles came and went, morals improved and declined (yes there have been ups and downs both). Over and over things went on coming and going like waves of the sea. Some things improved, some didn't. Has our culture drifted? Well, in some ways yes. Marriage is in deep trouble. But then if I was an African American I would say things have improved, at least in terms of freedom, since 1960. And the economy, with some setbacks, has generally grown over the long haul.
If you say, "Things got much worse after 1960" then I'd like to ask you what you know about the period between 1861 and 1865 in this country? And what about the moral breakdown in the 1790s following the Revolutionary War? Illegal drugs, alcohol consumption and divorce were at amazing highs. What about the Great Depression, from which many felt we would never recover? Or the hippies and the counter-culture of the 1960s, through which I lived during my college years? And when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 some felt strongly that Armageddon would be launched by this crazy yahoo of a new president.
I was thinking about this social and cultural pessimism last week when I came across my friend Fr. Robert Sirico's "President's Report" in the January-February issue of Acton Notes. Here is how Fr. Sirico puts it:
Many people I know are rather despairing about our future. This is contributing to a real and growing pessimism throughout society. I can understand all of these feelings but there is a potential mistake here. I’ve begun to think that those who are too attached to the day’s headline news develop a bias toward thinking that the world is on a permanent downhill slide. The mistake is looking only at the bad things we know about without considering the good trends for the future.
Consider, for example, all the amazing technologies we are benefiting from today that would have been unheard and unimagined five or ten years ago. Digital communications—fueled by private investments, the market economy, and entrepreneurial risk— have connected the world as never before, making life much more efficient and easing poverty. These technologies have spread art, beauty, and truth across the globe.
The very nature of the market economy, which is an extension of human action and choice, is that we can’t anticipate its results ahead of time. Markets are constantly surprising us with new ways of communicating, healing, teaching, creating, interacting. In a way, it reflects God’s restoration of creation. Because we cannot know the shape of the future precisely, we tend to look only at the bad trends and form an overall picture that can be very bleak.
Such a bleak outlook on life can also cause us not to seize on the special opportunities that our times have given us for living out the dream of a free and virtuous life. If we understand free markets and the astounding way in which the Lord delivers us from despairing about our contemporary politics, we would temper our pessimism to realize that blessings can come to us when we least expect them. Our age has given every living generation a difficult challenge. This challenge is unlike any we’ve faced in our past. Through prayer and hard work, we can build a beautiful future for truth and liberty. This is what we are working toward at the Acton Institute, and we are grateful for your support.
Some of you who read this blog are inclined to question this kind of optimism. Why? Perhaps you've been listening to too much cable news lately. Or maybe you've been touched by the kind of prophetic teaching that confuses God's people and leads them to pessimism as a way of life. I know not the reason(s) but I can assure you Fr. Sirico is not offering a perspective that is without some serious reasons for commending it. Is the world on a permanent downhill slide? Are you sure? Have you bought into some form of pessimism when there is always reason to believe that God has a lot more to do to accomplish his good purpose in our world? Even if things do get worse there will be new opportunity to see the myriad of ways in which God might lead us in order to bless us and show again that his ways are not our ways. A little less pessimism is not a bad thing right now. God's truth marches on and he is still blessing those who trust him and follow his ways.