I tend to be a “glass is half empty” sort of guy, always noticing the downside of things and usually having to have others of a less melancholy temperament point out to me that sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the glass is really half-full.
Today via Facebook I saw a link to post about the “sad decline” of Western culture. I resonate with posts like this a lot, because, again, I tend to be a pessimist. Nevertheless, when I read the individual’s concluding thought, which was that we need to “dust off” our Old Testaments and become re-familar with “remnant theology,” a light went off in my head – a light I would not have expected to go off in my (pessimistic) head.
I’ve been working with the Old Testament a lot for the past several weeks as I prepare to teach an integrated Bible / History / Literature class this coming school year, so the Old Testament has been much in my thoughts of late. When this individual invoked that portion of Scripture as a support for his cultural pessimism, suddenly I thought, “But wait – God is the God who told Abraham that He would spare the horrifically wicked city of Sodom if only ten righteous people were found in it, and He’s the God who spared the horrifically wicked city of Nineveh, because there were 120,000 people within it who could not tell the difference between their right hand and their left – plus livestock.”
That got me thinking about my usual pessimistic attitude about our culture. Here I am teaching in a Christian school, a fact which implies a long-term vision of cultural success. (There is no reason to educate, to impart a knowledge of our heritage and achievements to another generation, if the whole thing is irretrievably and inexorably sliding into the abyss really soon.) Yet here I also am, a melancholy and pessimistic evaluator of our present cultural situations, sitting around lamenting the loss of Christendom, and well, even the loss of just basic “Western culture” in our time. Woe is us!, I want to sit around complaining, for we are sadly declining and there is no health in our bones! Surely God cannot put up with our manifold sins and wickednesses for much longer, but must hasten us into the trash-heap of history! What can we poor, besieged Christians do but pray for strength to avoid falling along with everything else?!
The problem with this way of thinking, is, of course, that God isn’t obligated to underwrite a despairing, prophetic-rock-throwing, Gospel-thundering remnant and destroy the rest every time things in the world get really bad. As Augustine pointed out so long ago in the City of God, nobody knows the secrets of providence. God raises up kings and God deposes kings (Dan. 2:21), and all without consulting us or even remotely caring about our limited, and usually quite foolish, perspectives on the ephemeral events of our terribly momentary little lives.
Moreover, from the standpoint of what we can, as humans, actually know, we are explicitly told in Deuteronomy 29:29 that the only things that belong to us are the things that have been revealed – the secret things belong to God. Last time I checked, there is nowhere in Scripture that says Western culture will fall in the 21st century, leaving only a pathetic little remnant of faithful people to say “See, I told you so! At least we kept preaching the Gospel and doing apologetics while the house burned down around us!” And at any rate, as Peter Leithart has sagely pointed out in his commentary on 1 and 2 Kings, the Old Testament teaching of the remnant does not typically refer to a small band of believers who survive a judgment of God because they stayed firm to the end. Rather, it refers to a mixed remnant, a remnant of believers and unbelievers, who, by God’s providential selection alone, survive a judgment of God.
So yes, I say, let’s dust off those Old Testaments and stop being cultural pessimists. Yes, things right now in Western culture are pretty bad, and seeming like they’re getting worse every day. Nevertheless, we are not the ones who have declared the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10), and it is not our will for our culture that will be done. Perhaps we ought all to more seriously consider the words of Jonah 4:2, which, despite being uttered by a prophet who was angry that his gloom-and-doom expectations had not come to pass, “Ah Lord…You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm.” This God who saved Nineveh is, someone else subsequently pointed out to me, the very same God who knew that ultimately Nineveh would apostatize again and would have to be destroyed.
Yes, indeed, we have reason to hope, even in the midst of our “sad decline.”