ARE YOU CONVINCED that everything is going to hell in a handbasket? Down the tubes? Or are you possessed of a more sanguinetemperament? Do you feel that life is getting better every day in every way? Do you believe in progress or regress?
What would the make and model of your handbasket happen to be?
The older I get, the more interested I am in people’s convictions about the directionality of history.
I have been told that there were times when the doctrine of progress was in the ascendant, when millions of people believed that society was moving inexorably toward utopia. But every time I investigate such a period, I find the evidence contradictory at best. For example, some people point to the time after World War I when the Russian Revolution and the League of Nations were held up as beacons of hope. But in that time I also note the rise of existentialist despair, surrealism, and the popularity of Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
Or take the 1950s, when the glossy magazines were filled with pictures of gleaming model cities—Cities of the Future!—and immaculate suburbs. At the movies film noir was painting a different, grittier sort of canvas, replete with beauty that was too good to be true, disguising the deep insecurities of a generation still reeling from a world war and the Holocaust.
Some people believe in Up, some in Down, but my guess is that most people skew toward Down. Perhaps this should be taken as little more than a form of moral common sense, a recognition of the human tendencies toward greed, lust, and the hunger for power to become solvents that break down the rights and protections we put up as bulwarks against self-interest. Since it is easier to erode such bulwarks than to build them up, our sense of decline is, in part, a form of moral realism.
Still, I can’t help but feel that we suffer today from an excess of what I’ve come to call declinism, a pathological belief that things were once much better and are now skittering toward the apocalypse.
Two forces lend legitimacy to declinism: the power of technology and the rise of virulent political ideologies. Both forces not only seem to be speeding up the pace of change but also to be meddling with the building blocks of being itself: the atom, DNA, the biosphere, the family, the integrity and coherence of the nation-state. Each of these things contributes to our sense of identity, and tampering with identity is always the most disturbing of sensations.
To lose one’s identity is to believe that something vital—literally life-giving—is coming to an end. In her book For the Time Being Annie Dillard puts it this way:
Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is?—our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes?
Dillard’s words were published in 2000. That they already seem slightly dated may be the first clue that something is amiss in the declinist way of thinking. A European living through the Thirty Years’ War might well have felt that the musket, religious conflict, and the rise of the “divine right of kings” and other forms of political absolutism signified the end of history.
But history went rolling right along.
Another hint that declinism is itself a problem is that it so easily transcends party lines. Is there much difference between the conservative who believes that freedom and enterprise and family values are being slowly but inevitably eroded and the liberal who believes that freedom and the environment and civil rights are on their last legs? To argue with either is to risk being told that the alternative to apocalypse is apathy.
Here I will confess that this is one of the many arguments I have with myself. Raised as a conservative, I once envisioned myself as the scourge of a decadent world; I would be the tragic hero working tirelessly to stem the onrushing tide of communism abroad and socialism at home. It made me feel important.
Then communism and socialism were more or less soundly thrashed on the world stage, with a few eccentric exceptions. Yet this historic turning of tides had little effect on my conservative friends, who managed to be just as obsessed with decline as ever.
Even now I love the prophetic voice—the religious or artistic figure who can open our eyes to injustice, narcissism, and pride. And I remain a fan of satire, that stinging form of humor employing irony and absurdity to hold up a mirror to our culture’s follies and vanities—to the forms of decline that richly deserve castigation.
But in my late twenties I realized that I would never be a prophet or a satirist. Nor could I sustain a life on the basis of unrelenting criticism and negativity.
Though I’ve always been a pretty sturdy fellow—more workhorse than thoroughbred—I think it’s fair to say that I went through something of a breakdown at that point. Out of that crisis came a change of heart. To be sure, I could chart many dark declivities in recent times, but I had begun to notice some modest but significant breakthroughs, recoveries, and revivals, too. For one thing, it became clear that a growing number of artists and writers were braving their fear of criticism by secular critics to create art that bore witness to the experience of faith, renewing an ancient tradition.
I also felt an urge I hardly understood, but which seemed to amount to this: the need to build, rather than tear down. Suddenly it became more important for me to search out and celebrate the good than to denigrate the bad, to promote the original creative voice rather than the negative and polemical.
I am not in favor of apathy, nor do I believe that people should not condemn what is wrong. There are many vocations in the world of culture and ideas, and I am not narrow enough to believe my choice is the only valid one. But I do worry that declinism is so pervasive, that it has given rise to so much anger and frustration and shrillness that it now stands in the way of reform and renewal. In the end, declinism contributes to social gridlock.
One could write whole libraries about the role that religion plays in the business of Up or Down. The millenarian impulse—the desire to use coercion to institute a realm of perfect purity, a return to some lost Eden—while it is hardly exclusive to religion, has certainly been taken up by it often enough.
But faith ought to make us feel less oppressed by decline, rather than more. The preoccupation with rise or fall now appears to me a projection of the perennial human temptation to live in the past or the future rather than the present. We live burdened by what we have lost or preoccupied with something we don’t have but need in order to be happy.
Faith, according to the letter to the Hebrews, is “the substance of things hoped for.” That phrasing, from the King James Version, hasn’t been improved upon in recent translations. In faith, what is hoped for becomes present, substantial. To live in faith means to live in the present, to know that the substance of grace is here and now. That is not to say that faith involves some sort of simple possession; it is, rather, to exist in the tension between the presence we encounter and the sense of what that presence means for our destiny. As the critic George Steiner put it in Real Presences, we live on Holy Saturday, between the death and loss of Good Friday and the promise of resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Annie Dillard, a wise woman, has an answer for the questions she poses about ours being a late time, a uniquely important one. It is, quite simply, no. “These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….”
There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.
Marx called religion the opiate of the masses while offering the drug of happiness in some future revolution. Faith, far from making us apathetic, enables us to be present to what surrounds us. It also provides a sense of peace, which is always a better platform for action than anger or grievance. Saint Francis didn’t stand on a soapbox in Assisi hectoring the rich about the plight of the poor; he asked those who had bread to give him some and then he delivered it to those who didn’t. And you can be sure that as he did so, he didn’t feel important at all.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.