28 May Finding Solid Ground in Disorienting Times
Hi everyone! Morgan Stephens here. I’ve asked Joshua Adams, husband of Carla Sanchez-Adams, one of our deacons, to write this week’s “Thursdays are for Thinking”. I’ve found Josh to be an avid reader and a keen thinker with penetrating insights. I hope you find his thoughts about finding solid ground in disorienting times helpful. I know I did.
According to the popular personality test Strengths Finder, one of my strengths is context (I’m not sure how you feel about personality tests, but either way, hang with me because this isn’t about personality tests). I say that only note that for me to orient myself and make sense of things, it really helps to have the big picture, the back story, the larger setting, etc. This may be stretching the definition a bit, but I think at a larger scale, when trying to understand the time we live in, context is important for everyone.
We live in a disorienting time, and that was true before the pandemic. I don’t mean to say that we live in a worse time than previous eras, but merely that it seems to be especially disorienting. This isn’t great news. Psychologists have observed that, even more than intense suffering, what really wrecks people is deception and betrayal specifically because of how disorienting those experiences can be. Intense pain that is comprehensible can be endured, but disorientation often leaves people unable to cope. There are a number of reasons for the disorientation experienced by so many in our society today, including many Christians, but I want to look at four of them, and then offer a few thoughts (it is Thursday, after all).
First, it is widely documented that we have been in the midst of an “epidemic” of loneliness for some time now (again, prior to the social isolation related to COVID). There have been numerous studies and surveys conducted across western countries illuminating this point . This rise of loneliness is observed across all age groups, but is most pronounced amongst younger people. The loneliness that people experience is not merely a function of being alone. In fact, many people who have friends and regular social interaction indicate that they feel a profound sense of loneliness. Social scientists use the term “embedded” to describe how we as individuals are dependent on and formed by our larger social context. Yet despite being embedded creatures, many instead feel as if they are disconnected and detached from society. Lacking connection to a sense of community makes it easy to lose one’s bearings, and harder to regain them.
Another source of disorientation is the sheer amount of information that our information age has thrust upon us. In the last two decades, news outlets and other publications have proliferated. Social media bombard us with significantly more content than our brains can handle. It’s not just that we can’t consciously process it all – we are impacted by it even when we don’t take the time to process it. While this deluge of information can and should be viewed positively in some respects, it has also meant that, increasingly, we are each consuming a different story, causing our respective viewpoints to diverge. More ominously, this information contains both truth and falsehood, and it appears we often struggle to tell the difference.
Perhaps less obvious, but a point I find compelling, is how a measure of our disorientation is due to the poor health of institutions – government, academia, the corporate world, journalism, religious institutions, etc. – that form the webbing of our society. By that I don’t simply mean that they have become more corrupt or unjust. Some have, but others have been reformed in important ways over the last few decades. What I mean by their “health” is that they seem to be failing to provide a sense of shared purpose in their respective domains. Instead, as the author Yuval Levin puts it, our institutions have become mere “platforms” for personal advancement. Those who are most adept at wielding the institution to their advantage gain notoriety, while everyone else becomes disillusioned by the lack of real impact. The result is that institutional trust is at an all-time low . It’s easy to see the disorienting effect when these important forms of our common life neither provide us with meaning nor merit our trust.
Finally, there’s the matter of political polarization. Much ink has been spilled on the subject of polarization elsewhere, so I won’t linger on the topic other than to point to it as another symptom of our culture’s disorientation. In my non-expert view, political polarization appears to be what happens when a disoriented people grasp politics too tightly, hoping it will provide meaning and direction, and then double-down when it disappoints. And of course, those who opt out of the food fights are left bewildered at what our leaders – and even our system of government – have become.
This widespread disorientation did not arise overnight. The roots are deep and the causes are diffuse. Unsurprisingly, I don’t have an answer for this crisis of disorientation (except in the children’s church sense, in which I know the answer is ‘Jesus’). But I do want to offer a few thoughts (it’s Thursday, after all) about it that I pray are helpful.
One is that It’s important for us to recognize the nature of the situation we’re in. If you’re experiencing a deep disorientation, it can be hard to get outside yourself and see what you’re swimming in. If you’re not experiencing deep disorientation, it can be easy to dismiss other people’s loneliness, confusion, disillusionment or anger and wonder “what’s wrong with people?”. Critically, we must see that it’s not only an issue with the culture out there, but it affects us within the body of Christ as well. Some within the church who would genuinely like to “step up” in this moment are themselves feeling disoriented in one or more ways and are in need of care.
The other is that it is equally important for us to recognize that if there is a people equipped for this moment with something to offer, it is the Church. God has equipped us in myriad ways, but there are four specific ways that I think are important for combatting the disorientation of this time.
First, we have a sure hope in Christ in this present life. Hope is fundamentally orienting. It sets our mind on a fixed point and allows us to find our bearings. Yet Christian hope is often relegated to the end – either the end of our individual lives, or the end of this present age. We do indeed have a sure, ultimate hope at the end. But God also gives us hope within our present life. When reading through the Psalms, I’m struck by how confident David was in God’s deliverance. In the midst of deception, betrayal and the threat of death David fixed his eyes on God and his deliverance. And not only deliverance, but he says, “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” (Psalm 23:6) Jesus directs his disciples to expectantly pray for reconciliation (‘forgive us, and let us forgive others’), provision (‘give us our daily bread’), and deliverance (‘deliver us from evil’) in this life. He then assures them that ‘your Father knows what you need’. Paul tells us that in Christ, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We can place our hope in him knowing that his goodness toward us is for today.
Second, we have been given a mandate with a purpose. The mandate that Adam and Eve were given in Genesis, and in which we have been reestablished in Christ, is to continue God’s project of establishing good and right order – kingdom order – in the world. This involves not only making disciples, but also setting right the things over which he has given us authority and influence. Our homes and families, vocations and social arrangements, governance and education – that is, the areas in which we already find ourselves laboring – are places where God has given us a mandate to bring his shalom (see Stephen Vigorito’s post here a few weeks ago). This is a depth of shared meaning and purpose that no culture, nation, or institution can provide, and one in which everyone can participate and find their place.
Third, we have a coherent response to hyper-individualism. I say hyper-individualism because mere “individualism” often gets loaded up with various connotations. We can and should affirm the dignity of each individual as bearing God’s image and having intrinsic worth. But the strain of individualism (hyper-individualism) that afflicts our culture goes well beyond this, and contributes significantly to a sense of disorientation. Yet we have in Christ the supreme example of bearing another’s burdens, and in the Spirit we have the strength to do so. Burdens of loneliness that can be born by intentional embrace; burdens of confusion that can be born by prayer and words of wisdom; burdens of disillusionment that can be born by words of encouragement and prophecy; burdens of anger and frustration that can be born by patient listening and corporate lament.
Finally, we have a Father who is pleased with us. For a child, there is nothing more orienting than the assurance of a loving parent. What we have, and what we can point others to, is a loving and patient Father who has provided us with the greatest of assurances: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) Having already spent the one thing of infinite value on our behalf, there is no way he would hold back now. See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.
My hope for all of us in this disorienting time is that we would be able to recognize where our culture is, where those around us are, where we ourselves are, and where Christ is.