The Horizon of Hope

From the beginning of the Christian story the world has been ugly, hostile to God come to earth in Jesus and those who follow and worship him.

The Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro in April 2017. (Image: Robert Nyman | Unsplash.com)

The world is simply horrible—isn’t it? Our politics seems poisoned: half the country hates Trump, while the other half hates those who hate Trump. The Church—well, again we’re mired in scandal as the metrics of sacramental participation plummet, indicating continued decline, and polls surveying adherence to basic teaching indicate infidelity. And the culture? The sexual revolution grinds on, morphing into the pelvic totalitarianism of the pink police state as the ideology of alphabet-soup-identity politics crushes dissent while devouring its revolutionary young. And so believing what, say, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton believed about marriage as late as 2012 will now get you ostracized, fined, and fired, and our ecclesial and political leaders show themselves ever more feckless.

At least it seems so. The scandals are real, our politics are not healthy, and the sexual revolution is a juggernaut. And yet by other metrics, we’re living in the best times ever. We in the West maintain ever higher standards of living, while world poverty rates plummet. Cancer rates are declining. Unemployment in the U.S. is as low as it’s ever been. We’re effectively at the crest of the postwar wave of prosperity and innovation, and it’s making our material lives easier and longer.

Historically, until that postwar boom in the West, life was as Thomas Hobbes described: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Even during the highest of high points in Western civilization, death, disease, and disaster stalked our race. Records for the city of Florence indicate a 61% infant mortality rate at the height of the Italian Renaissance; the average Florentine mother buried more than half of the children she bore. And of course the same situation obtains earlier in Western civilization. One of the most moving epitaphs ever recorded tells of the short and hard life of Veturia, a Roman officer’s wife:

Here do I lie at rest, a married woman, Veturia by name and descent, the wife of Fortunatus, the daughter of Veturius. I lived for thrice nine years, poor me, and I was married for twice eight. I slept with one man, I was married to one man. After having borne six children, one of whom survives me, I died.

Titus Julius Fortunatus, centurion of the Second Legion Adiutrix Pia Fidelis, set this up for his wife: she was incomparable and notably respectful to him. (Aquincum, Pannonia Inferior, A.D. 2d–3d cent.)

Married at nine years of age, buried five children, dead at twenty-seven. Such stories were common in the premodern world, lacking vaccinations, antibiotics, a steady food supply, and (in many places) decent sanitation. We’ve come a long way, materially.

Spiritually, however, it’s a different story. It’s as if the human race can’t win for losing: the material improvements we’ve enjoyed since the postwar boom have been accompanied by interior alienation, social, psychological, spiritual. Mediating institutions such as civic clubs and the no-longer Boy Scouts are collapsing along with the family as we withdraw into “bowling alone,” retreating as individuals leading quiet, solitary lives of desperation and despair, seeking solace in porn and pills.

I blame technology, as we all should. I’ve become convinced that letting kids have smartphones or iPads (or their equivalent) is parental malpractice, given not only the obvious problems of bullying and sexting but the fact that routine engagement with pixelated irreality changes brains and epistemology and those changes make for diminished academic performance. Depression in teens skyrocketed 33% from 2010 to 2015, with teen suicides increasing a similar 31% during that period, and studies suggest the introduction of the smartphone is to blame.

Indeed, just as pornographers keep their daughters out of it and drug dealers keep their children clean, many in Silicon Valley are becoming troubled by what technology does to kids. “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” said Athena Chavarria, a former employee of Facebook now working for the philanthropic Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in a New York Times article from the fall.

Those of us who teach at the university level are seeing this, as the student cohort that first got iPhones as kids upon the device’s invention are now in the middle of college. My professor friends around the country observe that these students are different. They have more anxiety, less focus, poorer academic performance, and more challenges relating to each other, especially members of the opposite sex.

So our technology delivers to us content that’s either ephemeral (cat memes) or morose (politics, church, culture), and isolates us from each other, and God. With contemporary technology and social media, we’re now capable of turning in on ourselves (incurvatus in se) in ways St. Augustine never dreamed.

It would be easy to say: kill your technology. And perhaps that’s a real first step. But even something like going to a dumbphone and eliminating internet at home would only be a first step. The real problem is we’re mired in the world below—something that afflicted humanity before tech offered us the addiction of constant dopamine hits—when we should focus our attention on the world above. That’s the only way to peace and joy, for there, above, is God found.

The world is a mess, then, and I find many of us drowning in it. We know the world is a mess not only from experience, however, but also from Scripture. The Gospel of John informs us that the “world” is something hostile to God, Jesus, and the Church—“If the world hates you,” says Jesus in John 15:18, “know that it has hated me before it hated you”—and it is something in need of conquering: “In the world you will have trouble,” says Jesus in John 16:33, “but take courage, for I have overcome the world.”

Indeed, John’s Gospel points the way for us today when we’re tempted to despond. It assumes two levels to reality, the earthly, fleshly level, and the heavenly, spiritual level. And in the story of John’s Gospel many characters remain in error, confusion, anger, and despair because they focus on the earthly, their eyes fixed below the horizon.

After Jesus drives everyone out of the temple and turns over the tables (John 2:13ff), his opponents ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” His opponents are confused; looking down, they say, “It has taken us forty-six years to rebuild this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” St. John then tells us Jesus was speaking allegorically: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Jesus’ opponents were thinking only of the earthly temple crowning Jerusalem, failing to look up through the sign and see the allegorical meaning of the temple in Jesus’ body, the new temple in which God himself dwells.

Nicodemus’ exchange with Jesus (John 3) is a second example. Jesus says one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus, looking down, asks a grotesque question about how it’s possible for a grown man to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born once more. Jesus tells Nicodemus to look up: one must be born not only of earthly water but also of heavenly spirit to enter the kingdom of God.

A third example is the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. Jesus proclaims he’s the bread of life and that his hearers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Seeking only to get their earthly, mortal bellies filled again, they look down, hearing cannibalism, and miss out on the spiritual food of the Eucharist that “endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).

A fourth example: In John 8:21 Jesus predicts his death, obliquely: “I go away, and you will seek me and die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.” But the Jews respond, “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” (v. 22). Jesus replies, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (v. 23). Jesus, from above, was speaking of his sacrificial death, but those hearing him, trapped in the realm below, mistake him to be speaking of simple suicide.

St. John’s greatest theological disciple, St. Augustine, saw this captivity to the earthly realm as “a wretched slavery of the spirit, taking signs for things, and being unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in the eternal light” (De doctrina Christiana, III.5.9). St. Augustine inherited St. John’s two-level schema (it’s foundationally Christian, not something peculiar to Johannine theology) and, using Platonism as a resource, sketched an entire vision of the Christian cosmos which permeates all his works and becomes normative for western Christianity going forward.

I have found that when I am tempted to despond and despair at the state of the country, world, and Church, a most effective tonic is reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, for it presents the eternal reality of heaven, our destiny, not just clearly but palpably, and it does so in great effect in the form of an extended prayer, from beginning to end. St. Augustine does not address us, but rather God, and we are invited to listen in, and go deeper in an encounter with God as we encounter St. Augustine’s story. The Confessions’ great theme is rest: that true and eternal rest we hope to achieve in heaven, rest from anxiety, toil, and fear, perfect rest coram Deo, in the presence of God.

And so St. Augustine opens his great work with the famous claim, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in Thee.” And then we listen in as he recounts his life of lust, ambition, and curiositas (fascination with the ephemera of worldly spectacle, like gladiatorial games, a bad form of curiosity seeking relief in amusement) to the God who has been reaching it to him from eternity, reaching out from within him from his conception. God pulls St. Augustine deeper to God and to himself, for God is interior intimo meo, closer to St. Augustine than St. Augustine is to himself. And so in finding God, St. Augustine finds his true self.

But that is not the end, to find one’s true self on earth. Rather, God pulls St. Augustine up; even while on earth, he participates in God’s eternity through sacraments and prayerful contemplation. And ultimately the very end of the Confessions describes the end of St. Augustine and indeed the end of every Christian, eternal heavenly rest in God forever:

O Lord God, grant Your peace unto us, for You have supplied us with all things — the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which has no evening…in unbroken rest You made them that the voice of Your Book may speak beforehand unto us, that we also after our works (therefore very good, because You have given them unto us) may repose in You also in the Sabbath of eternal life…

But You, being the Good, needing no good, art ever at rest, because You Yourself art Your rest…Let it be asked of You, sought in You, knocked for at You; so, even so shall it be received, so shall it be found, so shall it be opened.

That, Christian, is your destiny; that is reality.

We have just come through Christmas and now are in the extended time of Epiphany. In the former, God came to earth in Jesus. In the latter, God is revealed in Jesus to the world. Eternity has entered the world, to conquer the world, and in the meantime, to take us ever more out of the world into the domain of heaven. And yet the Scriptural texts the liturgical calendar prescribes as readings for Christmas and Epiphany remind us the world is opposed to Christ and to us. Right after Christmas, we get the martyrdoms of St. Stephen, the Holy Innocents, and St. Thomas Becket, as well as the example of St. John, a martyr of will (boiled and exiled) though not of deed. For Epiphany, we hear of the Magi fleeing Herod, who means them harm, and the next day we hear of John the Baptist’s execution.

From the beginning of the Christian story, then, the world has been ugly, hostile to God come to earth in Jesus and those who follow and worship him. So too for us today, for the world is not yet redeemed, and human progress often sets itself up as a temptation to love this world alone and as a servant of that false secular messianism the Catechism identifies and decries (§§ 675–677). But our horizon of hope is the end of time in God, our rest forever. Reflection on that—through meditative and contemplative prayer, through praise, through sacramental participation, through liturgical worship—will give us the peace, joy, and hope we need in these trying times. And so we ought to escape the city of man and dwell even now in the City of God.


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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 41 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew and co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually.

20 Comments

  1. “I blame technology, as we all should.”
    Technology as a means to send information from point A to point B, is neutral; it is the content and the character of the information that is sent from point A to point B, that matters..

    “Who do you say that IAm”, has always been the question, for, to recognize Christ in all His Glory, is to accept Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.

    What we are witnessing is a Crisis in Faith, due to A Great Falling Away. Doing away with technology, will not fix the problem, using but not abusing technology as a means to witness to The Way, The Truth, and The Life of Love, our only Savior, Jesus The Christ, only Good can come from that.

    • Which is why the author writes: “It would be easy to say: kill your technology. And perhaps that’s a real first step. But even something like going to a dumbphone and eliminating internet at home would only be a first step. The real problem is we’re mired in the world below—something that afflicted humanity before tech offered us the addiction of constant dopamine hits—when we should focus our attention on the world above. That’s the only way to peace and joy, for there, above, is God found.”

    • Nancy I agree with your take on technology and the Internet specifically. Moral malaise is rampant internet or no. Most religious website and commentaries on the internet are in defense of the Gospels. It is perhaps the most valuable tool to make worldwide witness to the truth of Christ and its dismissal favors the underlying trend toward silence and evil.

    • Tech is absolutely not neutral. Print is not radio is not television is not the internet. They all do different things in different ways. Read, at least, Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. It’s brief and readable.

      • @ Leroy Huizinga: Augustine’s fascination gladitorial games and fascination with the Internet are comparable insofar as both distance us from The City of God and life of contemplation. To similarly compare varied communications tech is an error. Gladitorial games are not print or television the radio or the internet. The analogy doesn’t fit because you compare a media with its use. The reason is moral good or evil are not inherent to difference in technology either by species or by essence. Evil is in the will as is good. An otherwise good article is blurred by this lack of distinction. “Escaping the City of Man” is not contingent to the use of media tech rather the “fascination” which implies willful misuse. Denial of the moral neutrality of the media ‘implies’ evil is in the technology itself which in effect denies that evil is in will. That must be made absolutely clear.

  2. God made a terrible prototype when he made earth. You say: ” using but not abusing technology as a means to witness to The Way, The Truth, and The Life of Love, our only Savior, Jesus The Christ, only Good can come from that.” How do you define “abuse of technology”?

    We don’t HATE anyone. We can become annoyed as with the head of our government, Trump. Yes, both parties are at their pinnacle of power yet they are weak and polarized. America is in a stranglehold over immigration, Russian involvement in our 2016 elections and healthcare. Trump has been in office for more than 2 years and his incessant misdirection and lies and his poor moral image for our children he is a divider, not a uniter has forced us Republicans to reject him. The Democrats with Pelosi as speaker don’t seem any better.

    God save the Union.

    • I gather that the question that keeps you up at night is: “Who is worse: God or Trump?”

      Abuses of technology? How about many forms euthanasia and abortion, chemical contraceptives, pornography (especially on the internet), addiction to video games and social media, etc., etc.?

      Saying that people are just annoyed when it comes to political discourse is a bit like saying that racists are irritated with minorities or neo-Nazis are impatient with Jews.

    • That Mr Trump upsets you so much brings a bit of a smile to my face.
      As the anti-Hillary, it seems he is doing his job. I’m fine with that.

  3. Anticipating Huizenga, even Charles Darwin (who already tended to reduce religion to a matter of emotion and esthetics) still had the following to say about himself and about what he identified as “atrophy of the brain” and the damage of “intellect” and about the loss of “moral character” (Huizenga’s “pixilated irreality changes brains and epistemology”):

    “This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder[….]My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive[….]A man with a mind more highly organized or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature. . . . My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics” (Sir Francis Darwin, ed., Charles Darwin’s Autobiography).

    The malady compounds itself as the industrial-educational complex, in the college catalogue, augments and then replaces human education with STEM training (as in brain-stem?) fixated on “large collections of facts.”

  4. All that you have written is deeply perceptive – but I do not understand the ambiguity of the last sentence. It might seem to propose a possible conclusion that is not supported by all of your reflections. You say, “And so we ought to escape the city of man and dwell even now in the City of God.” As we all know, God has a job for each of us right in the middle of this awful mess that seems to have no bottom. Hiding from the mess by retreating somehow into a deeper reality that we know exists is an ambiguous line of thinking. Surely, you would mean to tell us we need to contend with the reality we live in, by God’s Will, while simultaneously using the great spiritual means He has given to us. Spiritual caves are for the dead. Thank you, nevertheless, for your review of the current status of the world. My family might think it supports what they falsely perceive to be a pessimistic cast of mind.

    • Fair enough. I suppose I find so many of us spending a lot of time concerned about the affairs of the city of man and the parlous situation of the Church therein–but maybe I need to take my own medicine. So not Gnostic escape, but a realization that Heaven is greater than whatever is keeping us up at night (Romans 8).

  5. “Our politics seems poisoned: half the country hates Trump, while the other half hates those who hate Trump.”

    No, the other half realizes that those who hate Trump hate his deplorable supporters as being backwards, unenlightened, bigoted, bad people, and so we are responding to their hostility accordingly.

  6. Thank you Dr. Huizenga. I am re-reading City of God as a 50 year old, (Started at 21 and got to page 12), and am reading so many jaw-dropping parallels of the pagan world at the time of the fall of Rome to our own contemporary times. What comes to mind in reading your article is St. Augustine’s chastisement of immoral, lascivious and obscene plays dedicated to the worship of the pagan gods. These plays open to the public and to all ages were forcefully identified by St. Augustine as an evil normalized with the patronage and approval of powerful Roman patricians. I am not sure what will happen to this generation growing up with the availability of so many formally taboo information and social networks of shadows and disembodied voices but I do pray to the Holy Spirit that there will be at least a handful of faithful Christian youth willing to risk social martyrdom in the name decency and the way of our Lord. Ironic how Jesus came to liberate the world from the sins of hedonism and now its greatest of hedonistic practitioners have the gall to justify their practices in the name of an all loving God.

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