Humanity’s Futile Attempt to Regain Paradise

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.  Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us.  There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height.  We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.                                         —CARL SAGAN, Cosmos

Ah!  How they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!                                                                                                                                                                                                 —HERMAN MELVILLE (on Ahab and the crew of the Pequod’s pursuit of Moby Dick)

The last temptation is hope.                                                                                                                                                  DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, Letters and Papers from Prison

I’ve sweated through philosophy,

Jurisprudence, Medicine,

Yes, and alas, Theology

Through and through and out and in!

Poor fool!  Poor disillusioned man

                                                                No whit more wise than you began.                                                                                                                             JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (opening statement of Faust)  

Religion and politics are humanity’s attempt to restore what was lost in the Garden of Eden without doing it God’s way. At the Fall we lost two things: 1. Our relationship with God. 2. Paradise in the Garden of Eden. Religion is our attempt to restore our relationship with God, and politics is our attempt to restore paradise. There is only one way to bring back both . . . and that is through loving and embracing Jesus and the truth of the Bible.

When we reject this way, we become INDEPENDENT with a capital “I.”  We are the universe’s equivalent of a strong-willed child and human history is merely the embarrassing record of all of our temper tantrums, messes, rebellions, and darts into the street. . . the ultimate struggle for power and control.

temper tantrum

Although Voltaire saw history as merely a “series of crimes and misfortunes,” I say history is the record of the world’s attempt to regain paradise.  It’s like a little boy who was sent to his room on Christmas morning because he was disobedient, and now he can’t bear his punishment and yearns to get back to the brightly wrapped gifts and the stocking he knows is stuffed with little treats. He’s told that he must humble himself and admit that he did wrong and apologize, so that the relationship can be healed., but this he can’t bear to do, so he tries to get to the gifts his own way.  He begs.  He throws a fit.  He manipulates.  He sneaks. He tries to make a deal.  He demands.  He’ll try anything except the way of humility.  But nothing works.  Futility is a word created just for the purpose of describing this process.  And yet, in spite of the fruitlessness of this endeavor, he can’t give up.  He has to believe he can get back there on his own.

Like that little boy, we try everything to return to that joyful moment in time, the Christmas morning of history in the Garden of Eden.  And nothing works.  We keep hoping for a brighter future, but like a bad dream where we just can’t seem to get where we want to be, we try harder, certain that satisfaction is just around the corner, only to have it vanish like an elusive ghost.  The solution is there, but we refuse to give in. We defiantly jut out our chin and convince ourselves we’ll figure something else out.

baby Jane

For those who hold a progressive viewpoint, who hope for and believe in a bright future for mankind, a restoration of Eden, history stands as an ugly reflection of reality.  In the movie, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Bette Davis plays a child star who’s grown up, yet always hopes for a return to the limelight.  She’s so old that her face is wrinkled and her eyebrows are drawn onto her face, but she still wears little girl dresses and curls her hair in ringlets, unable to face the fact that she’ll never make a comeback.

Instead of gray hair and wrinkles though, historians must look in the mirror of the past and face gulags, inquisitions, greed, lust for power, wars, holocausts, and genocides.  There’s no hopeful and fresh face of youth gleaming out at us, just a weary, contorted, and aging face, and like Baby Jane, we want to scream in horror and frustration.

We’ve tried to make sense of the ugly image.  Not wanting to accept the hopelessness for a comeback, and a return to the heyday, when everything glittered and shone with possibilities, we surge ahead with new plans.  We develop think tanks so our best minds can be put to the task. We organize, thinking that our collective effort can bring it about.  We dialogue, strategize, scrape, claw, and manipulate.  “There must be a way!” we scream.

Maybe some kind of synthesis of human thought is the answer. Perhaps we can try to blend the thinking of the best and the brightest in the world.  So Hegel blended Kant and Herder, but that just produced a holocaust.  Marx thought it was Fuerbach and Hegel, but that just produced a gulag.  Thomas Paine thought it was classical liberalism and anti-clericalism, but that just produced the guillotine.  Failure.  How can this be?!  There has to be a way back!

Eden is in our hearts.  Even though we think we’re pressing forward in time towards our Utopia, the goal isn’t based on a future vision as much as it is on a memory, an inward recollection of how things should be. It’s a primeval instinct, something out of the ancient past that hounds us and refuses to leave us alone, causing us to be obsessed with the attainment of the perfect day.  We live under this tyranny of “what should be” and are unable, no matter how hard we try, to gain fulfillment.  Mick Jagger wasn’t singing only of himself when he bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t “get no satisfaction.”

Mick JaggerThis experience is common to all mankind, collectively and individually.  How many of us wish that we could just get things in order?  We want to arrange our garages, arrange our homes, arrange our society,  our churches, our schools, businesses, and relationships.   If we could just get organized, we would be successful. Somehow, we unconsciously know that there’s been a breakdown. Something went terribly wrong and now instead of order there’s chaos.  Entropy is a tiring reality.

Totalitarian governments are an expression of this desire for order.  In fact, tyranny of all forms has  its roots in this need for structure, the drive to create our idea of what should be, a self-willed attempt to overcome the consequences of the Fall. But human beings are flawed and cannot create perfection, so our attempts at designing an orderly world turn out more like the monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:  violent, cruel,  and hideous.

And yet we must continue to try.  We must hope.  We devise bigger and bigger structures and grander organizations, offering us temporary jubilation and success.  But then the plan is mismanaged, runs out of money, peters out.  It’s almost impossible to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the Curse. Consequently, the world goes through cycles of hope and despair.  We have a bipolar disorder in this sense.   When we’re down, we’re really down, and when we’re up, we’re often manic.

Nations also go through these fluctuating cycles. In the early twentieth century, the United States went through a period of  progressive hopefulness. We had abolished slavery and social reform was ablaze in our hearts. But then World War I came and it produced a slew of despairing writers such as Willa Cathers and Ernest Hemingway who sadly lamented the horrors of war.  A bit of hope came in the development of the League of Nations, and the “Roaring Twenties” became known as an era of gaiety and prosperity, when Hoover promised a “chicken in every pot,”  but then, fear gripped us on Black Tuesday and despair settled in again as businessmen jumped from the windows of tall buildings and we stood in soup lines and battled dust storms. Black Tuesday

FDR would deliver us though, giving us hope again with his New Deal – and then tragedy struck as Pearl Harbor was bombed and Hitler rolled across Europe.  Another World War.  But then victory!   The boys were coming home and we were moving to Levittown.  Nothing could stop us now.  . . . except the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation by communists who were intent on conquering the world.  (Can we never get a break?)  But we were too war weary to really think about that.  The 1950’s were a time of optimism and idealism.  A new prosperity was possible.  All we  wanted was to “Rock Around the Clock” and “Leave it to Beaver”. . . until the Korean War made us face the reality that there was indeed an enemy.

levittown

The early sixties, in a sense, was an “up” time. Elvis Presley and Doris Day sang light-hearted songs on brightly colored sets.  JFK had successfully stood down Kruschev in the Cuban missile crisis.  Jobs were plentiful and there was the prospect of creating a “Great Society,” but then desolation and grief engulfed us as Camelot disappeared in a flash and a small war in a little place in Southeast Asia began to chew up our sons like a meat grinder.  A cloud of despair began to settle down on us again.  Music and drugs offered an escape, but we had no solutions, no hope . . . until Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his “Dream” and the Beatles invited us to “Imagine” a new world.  Our hopes began to rise again.  We began to sing about the dawning of “The Age of Aquarius” and teaching the world to “sing in perfect harmony.”

And then, again , depression and failure. The U.S. loss in Viet Nam, Watergate, the prospect of mutually assured destruction, and the backlash of free sex and drugs, led us to another moment of hopelessness. We began to accept the fact that we were just “Dust in the Wind.”

watergate

Night after night, we were reminded by the newscaster of what day it was in the Iranian hostage crisis.  Gasoline prices and interest rates skyrocketed. And in case we didn’t realize how the deck was stacked against us, we watched great white sharks, towering infernos, hijacked planes, upside-down ships and earthquakes on the big screen. How can anyone be hopeful in this kind of world?

But then Ronald Reagan was elected, the hostages were freed, and old-fashioned American idealism–Mom, baseball, and apple pie–were recalled.  It was “morning in America!”  We forgot about the Cold War and began to create our free enterprise paradise. Capitalism thrived as we built bigger homes and bought bigger cars.  Even the church got caught up in the euphoria of success and prosperity.  And when the Berlin Wall came down, Frances Fukuyama declared with exhilaration that the world had finally experienced Hegel’s “end of history,” the final triumph of liberal democracy and freedom over totalitarianism.  Now Utopia was even possible on an international level.  The solution was finally here: allow everyone to create their own individual Gardens!

berlin-wall_2526447c

We basked in the glory of our victory.  Eden was possible!  Tiananmen Square–oh well, what can we do about it?  Rwanda–who wants to hear about that?  Somalia–let’s just get the heck out of there!  The President lied and obstructed justice–who cares?  It’s the economy stupid!  Y2K?  No way!  (See, we told you so!)  Just show me the granite countertops and big screen TV’s.

And then . . .

9/11.september 11th

On a perfect day–an Eden-like day–everything changed.  We lost paradise and we knew it.  We couldn’t deny reality anymore.  We grieved not only at the loss of life, but also at the loss of Eden.  Instead of “Capitalists of the world, unite!” we faced the prospect of a “clash of civilizations” just as Samuel P. Huntington, that Harvard prophet of doom, had warned us less than a decade earlier.

But why???

So now we scramble to make sense of it all.  The solution is democracy, we say. After all, it seems that democratic nations aren’t as likely to go to war.  Bruce Russert’s “Democratic Peace Theory” may work.  Perhaps this will get us back.  So we embarked on another grand experiment, the success of which hinged on Muslims being capable of living at peace with one another and embracing the concepts of freedom and democracy.

In the meantime, the Israeli problem hangs like a noose around the neck of the world, How can we stop her enemies from wanting to “push her into the sea?”  If we could just solve that problem, maybe hope could be restored.  So we try a new angle – if the civilizations of the world are indeed “clashing,” then let’s try to stop this by forming an “Alliance of Civilizations,” a United Nations-led attempt to merge and blend all religions and cultures into one huge dialogue of tolerance and understanding–a new Tower of Babel.

As King Solomon would say, “Vanity.”

Yet this is the direction many people want to take the world. Pope Francis thinks we can get back to Eden if we just join all the religions of the world together.

Pope Interfaith
Pope Francis meeting with religious leaders during his visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Many of our young people are flocking back to the belief that redistribution of wealth through the power of the state is the means to regain paradise. And many Americans are believing the promise that paradise can be restored because a billionaire is promising them that “it’s gonna be great again.”

Yet, this world is not Eden. Paradise was lost. Sin continues to ravage humanity.

We want to be safe and at peace, yet there are people who hate us and want to destroy us and force us into wars. We want our economy to grow…yet we don’t produce children to purchase our products. We desire that elusive peace and prosperity . . . but as long as there are people who refuse to do it God’s way . . . there will be no hope of attaining it.

One day paradise will be restored. Our swords will be pounded into plowshares and the lion will lay down with the lamb. The Prince of Peace will reign. But only those who are in unity with His Word will be with him. There will be no false unity. Instead there will be holiness. Wholeness. No division. Only the One who died on the Cross has made a way for Eden to be restored. This is why he came.

The closest the world has ever come to attaining the restoration of Eden was the American experiment. The Founders designed a political document and a political ideology based upon the truths of the Bible. And the American people, who have been described by Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation as “stupid,” have believed in those truths more than any other nation of people. Harris describes Americans:

Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen–and many who themselves get elected–believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God. Among developed nations, America stands alone in these convictions.

And yet, all of America’s founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and all of the Enlightenment writings leading up to the creation of these documents were centered on the truth of the Gospel that these stupid Christians believed in. Checks and balances, individual dignity and worth, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, anti-clericalism, equality . . . these are all ideological fruits of the Gospel.

And as Alexis De Toqueville, the French political philosopher discovered, the secret to America’s success was the condition of the American church.

There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth . . . 

If the world wants to get back to Eden, their hope doesn’t lie in the grand schemes of the societal planners and dreamers; it lies in the belief in and adherence to the Gospel.

 

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