Saturday, 21 July 2007

how do you face the end of the world we know?

It's become a truism that the world is more complex than it used to be and things are changing faster than ever before. To some it seems that the world cannot continue as it is, and many people are finding it harder to cope. How do we respond to this?

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, social researcher Richard Eckersley suggests there are three common responses:

  1. Nihilism - Some people have abandoned any belief in a social or moral order, and believe that in such a chaotic world, "nothing much matters any more". Some see violence as a "purifying attempt to intervene against the nothingness" - whether the violence is real (suicide or random killing) or imaginary (violent movies). Others respond with determined efforts to be "a winner at all costs" or to "lose themselves in the quest for pleasure and excitement", or to simply "focus on home and hearth".
  2. Fundamentalism - Another response is to hold ever more tightly to some simple, and simplifying, beliefs. The certainties of religious faith (whether Christian or Islam, or some other) are seen to fit in here (in the extreme form, some fundamentalists may be happy to bring on apocalypse and the end of the world now, as a prelude to God's new order). However secular fundamentalism is also common, in the form of embracing political or economic certainties.
  3. Activism - A third response is to challenge the status quo, attempt to create new values that "will make a sustainable future possible", and hope this will change the world, or at least the individual's world. This may mean taking up a cause such as global poverty or environmental sustainability, but for others, it may simply mean "down-shifting" - putting less emphasis on earning a high income, and more emphasis on family and friends, spirituality, lifestyle and self-fulfilment.

Eckersley sees hope in the latter response. He says social research suggests that the numbers of people responding with positive activism is increasing, and is becoming an unstructured movement, made up of people in social justice. indigenous rights and environmental groups, citizen and community networks, faith-based groups and other institutions.

Fellow researcher Hugh Mackay has written: "the gap between 'what I believe in' and 'how I live' is uncomfortably wide for many of us, and we are looking for ways to narrow it".

I wonder what your response is? (Will you tell us?)

As a follower of the way of Jesus, I believe there is hope, and strangely, I think it lies in a combination of all three responses.

  1. I think we need to go part way with the nihilists, and understand that the material world of reductionist science (where only the material and the demonstrable exists) is indeed not worth living for.
  2. Jesus was opposed to religious fundamentalism (which he saw expressed in the restrictive rules of the religious authorities of his day), but he nevertheless offered some ennobling certainties which we should embrace.
  3. But I agree with Eckersley that we need a creative and active response to the world and the injustices in it. I see some signs of this in new forms of christianity, and in those of the younger generations who refuse to embrace the selfish certainties of the rat race.

I don't have a web reference for Eckersley's essay, but this review of his book covers similar territory.


  1. maybe it's my compulsion to see all sides, a vain attempt to make everyone happy (which is clearly an impossible task,) but i agree with you. i think fanatic, extreme actions in any one direction is dangerous, and we must strive to achieve balance. of course i have no clue, even in my own life, as to how to do this effectively.

    for example, in theory i agree with activism. however, extreme activists around here have taken to vandalizing SUVs to the point of causing thousands of dollars worth of damage to people's vehicles. to use a cliche, two wrongs don't make a right.

  2. Yeah, I think Eckersley's 3 categories are not exclusive. You could be an activist because you wanted to help. or because you were a fundamentalist or because you were a nihilist. etc. Therefore I think, as always, motivation matters, not just action.

    There is a saying in the Bible which I think is true: "the anger of man never works the righteousness of God" (rough quote and excuse the sexist language). So often, in the history of what ought to be good causes, such as the church, or anti-war movements, people get to the point where their actions are inconsistent with their cause. It shouldn't happen. Christians being violently anti-gay is an example - they can believe something is ethically wrong without forcing that on others.

    Why would people vandalise SUVs? In Australia they tend to be hated by others because they are large and intimidating, and some people feel their drivers are pushy, but we haven't had a vandalism problem I'm aware of.

  3. yes, i have had issues with certain churches for that very reason.

    it seems nobody can agree to disagree anymore.

    they way it was told to me, the SUV vandals are trying to make a point about global warming by getting large gas guzzling vehicles off the road, even temporarily.

  4. Some churches are their own worst enemies!

    A person who had discussed (and disagreed about) issues with me on a forum wrote that he was happy to disagree without being disagreeable - I like that!

    I get the picture re SUVs, but the repair work probably uses more energy than driving!

  5. i like that too, although i don't always find it in myself. but i try. imagine if the whole world could truly "live and let live"

  6. Unfortunately, we can all feel so confident of our own opinions that we get impatient for others to see the light too. It is obvious that religious people are likely to be prone to this because they have strong opinions and strong reasons to believe they are right. But I can't help thinking that if God (whichever god someone believes in) has given each of us the freedom to make up our own minds, we should not take that away from someone else, but rather respect it.

    I used to be argumentative, and I still can be, but I've become more peaceful as I've grown older. Thankfully!


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