Are we living in bad times or good times?

One of the worst parts of using Facebook is seeing all of the articles people post whining about how bad things are these days. It doesn’t matter what your political leaning is, there is plenty out there for you to moan and wail about. Either Obama is a Muslim terrorist or his Republican opponents are gay-hating fascists. Either parents are basically killing their kids by not vaccinating them or the government is so infringing on personal rights that we’ve finally been taken over by George Orwell’s Big Brother.

Not nearly as annoying but equally as absurd are the people who are so ridiculously optimistic about the promises of technology or health care or politics or education that you’d think we’re finally entering into a longed-for utopia. New solar roads will solve all our energy needs! The winner of the next election will usher in an era of peace and prosperity like none before! Eating this dietary supplement will enable you to live like a 20-year-old until your 120!

But neither of these pessimistic or optimistic views is anywhere near the truth. Charles Dickens put it best in the beginning of his novel A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

I love how Dickens points out that every period in history has its noisy so-called authorities who believe that they are living in the best of times and others who believe they are living in the worst of times.

The reality is that there’s pretty much the same amount of good and evil in each generation. It’s just that both are manifest in different ways than they were in previous generations. ISIS is different from the Khmer Rouge which was different from the Nazis which were different from the Bolsheviks which were different from … Each of these despotic regimes was evil in its own way and none of them has turned out to be the ultimate evil that its contemporaries thought they would be. (Please don’t take that as a dismissal of the atrocities they committed. Those were horrific. But thankfully, they were stopped.) The same is true of technological advances. Each new one promises to save humanity, only to fall far short and to introduce new problems. For example, the introduction of the car drastically changed the way we live in the world. How many people have had their lives saved because they were able to be driven to a hospital right away instead of getting medical help hours later? And yet, how many people had died because of the combination of cars and alcohol? It killed my sister Joy.

The threats we face aren’t as big as we make them out to be. These aren’t the worst of times.

The promises we’re offered aren’t as helpful as we make them out to be. These aren’t the best of times.

Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann writes that the Hebrew prophets engaged in what he calls “hopeful realism.” They were realists, seeing all of what is wrong in the world and in their own hearts and naming it for what it is. At the same time, they knew that God is actively present in the world, and therefore they always had hope for what would emerge. As important as science, technology, health care, education, and government are to human flourishing, the prophets didn’t put their hope in these things (like so many do now). Their hope was in the God they believed has not given up on his creation, but who is always at work in big and small ways, redeeming, reconciling, restoring, forgiving, blessing, loving, creating.

This is the hopeful realism I want to live by. Taking all of the good and all of the bad in me and in the world around me without over-emphasizing one or the other and offering it all to God to see what he will make of it.