Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Power, Progress, and the Drama of Freedom

Today's world remains a world in search of progress. People insist on the imperative to build a more just and equitable society, in which the dignity of the human person is respected and diverse social and cultural contexts of human community are appreciated and fostered. Recent centuries, in all of their complexity and in spite of tragic setbacks and enormous evils, have also left us a magnificent legacy of material and human progress.

We are equipped with this outstanding power to manipulate the material world to serve human purposes and to access and exchange information in unprecedented ways. But though we have a sense that the human race is supposed to "move forward" by using wisely this legacy of power, we are increasingly perplexed as to how this movement should proceed.

There is a kind of "movement of history," but it isn't the simple playing out of some predetermined scientific laws of evolution. Human beings are far from being so easily explained or contained. In fact, the natural progress (the essential movement) of human history involves the unfolding of the potential for humans to interact with the world and one another.

Here there has indeed been "progress" which we must acknowledge. Our power to act has grown, but it remains in the hands of our freedom, which means that just as we have become capable of doing greater and more wide-reaching good in the world, we have also become capable of doing worse, more widespread, more devastating and more monstrous evil. The challenge for humans today is to use our power and understanding to serve the good, and this means perceiving and living our relationship to transcendence, to the destiny of the human heart, to infinite beauty, in a much more profound and intense way than we have in the past.

Christians must remember that the only way to meet this challenge is with a deeper integration of faith throughout the whole of life, a larger "opening up" to the transforming presence of Christ's love through our willingness to engage the vast array of circumstances and problems that human beings (i.e. all of us) face today. This, of course, can only happen if each of us is willing to grow in our relationship with Jesus. Following Jesus means seeking eternal life first, recognizing that our present life—with all of its purposes and hopes and good things—is the path we travel toward fulfillment in Him.

But Jesus also promises "a hundredfold in this life" to those who follow Him (not, however, without "persecutions"—see Mark 10:30). The journey to God entails an attention to the road (while not being reduced to only that), and this attention—rightly given—does endeavor to make the road of this world a better, more beautiful, more human place.

The unprecedented power we possess and the scope of the problems we face in the world today do not mean that we should ignore those who struggled to try to build Christian or religious-inspired civilizations in previous times. We can learn from their achievements and mistakes (carrying forth all that was true, good, and beautiful without nostalgia for a golden age that never existed). But because the Kingdom of God "is not of this world," human history, even historical progress, is always ambivalent. Evil and its "persecutions" continue to prey upon the good.

And as we have said, material progress and the gigantic development of the scope of human power means that our capacity for good or evil has become more dramatic. Christians need a deepening of the awareness of faith that faces the drama of freedom inherent in the challenges of our time and adheres with greater love to the mysterious working of God's grace in the world. The Second Vatican Council was a beginning of that deeper faith and adherence for the Catholic Church, but the Church's members, like everyone in the world and history, are weeds and wheat all growing together, so there is no neat "program" here either. There is no theory that can resolve and thus spare us from the drama of living the life given to us with trust in the mystery of God's love.

God will not fail us. His grace will be sufficient and abundant for us to attain our destiny, and also to inform our vast power in this world with the patience, kindness, and non-violence of Christian love (see 1 Corinthians 13). Let us not fail to adhere to Him in trust and perseverance.

Of course we will forget. We will make mistakes. But let us remember to get up again, and to return to the Lord whose love is always enough to heal us and empower us to give Him glory, build up the good, and cooperate with Him in the work He is already accomplishing, mysteriously, in the hearts of our neighbors, in the heart of every person. He is the Lord of history who draws all things to Himself.