Out of Control

At the opening of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams’ wrote “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

There is something marvelous about the “unknowability” of creation. It is a sort of paradox that the more we find out about the universe, the more questions arise. When we reached the cold, dark depths of the ocean floor, we found it teeming with life. We mapped the human genome, only to discover that it is a drop in a bucket of complexity it revealed. If we make it to Mars, we will no doubt find we are quite undone by all the things we don’t know about the Red Planet. 

Even when trying to understand ourselves, Shakespeare’s Hamlet expressed his dismay at the contradictions in human nature: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!… The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah said it first when he wrote that a man’s heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?”

Yet it has been the project of the modern era to explain and organize the world. Professor Gregory Schulz does a great job explaining the paradigm shift that occurred between the pre-modern and modern ages, as characterized by the thinking of Descartes. (If you haven’t watched Pastor Wolfmueller’s interview with Prof Schulz, you really should. The link is below.) The world ceased to be viewed as the creation of an infinite, orderly God, but rather as something that can be understood and controlled, using the scientific method.

All this was brought to mind when reading a post from Michael Sacasas, writing atThe Convivial Society. Sacasas uses the work of German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa to explore modern humanity’s desire to have everything “known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” He reflects that the pandemic has put quite a dent in the humanitarian aspirations of mankind. It is easy to think you’re pulling it off when things are going swimmingly, but when”the uncontrollable” comes menacing, we get the “feeling that our efforts, however well-intentioned or feverish, are not only inadequate but somehow self-defeating.”

Sacasas says there is a “paradox of control”, in that, the more we seek to control things, the less satisfied we feel. The “modern quest for control” leads us to experience the world as a “series of points of aggression.” Our obsession with measuring, in order to master and improve the uncontrollable drives us mad. “We climb onto the scale: we should lose weight. We look into the mirror: we have to get rid of that pimple, those wrinkles. We take our blood pressure: it should be lower. We track our steps: we should walk more.”

In this way, “everyday life revolves around and amounts to nothing more than tackling an ever-growing to-do list. The entries on this list constitute the points of aggression that we encounter as the world … all matters to be settled, attended to, mastered, completed, resolved, gotten out of the way.” But we cannot stop for fear of losing ground. Whereas early modernity was driven by the promise of endless improvement, Rosa suggests that today we are motivated by the “threat that we will lose what we have already attained.” It is not so much a ” lust for more, but by the fear of having less.”

The best solution that Rosa can offer is to suggest that, if we want peace, humans need to relinquish our desire to control everything. He argues that a world where everything is measured and known would not be worth living in. He says we should strive to live more in-the-moment, “resonating” with things around us, as they are, not as we want them to be.

While there is wisdom in that idea, Sacasas comes closer to the Mad Christian answer for the paradox of control. He quotes the author, Wendell Berry who wrote that “we live the given life, not the planned.” Our life is a gift of God, not the result of our efforts to control the chaos. This is the way God’s truth breaks the idolatry of wanting control – it is his glory to conceal a matter (Proverbs 25). 

Curiosity about our amazing world is a wonderful thing, especially if you know who is really in charge. Reading what God has revealed in his Word leaves us, not with an overwhelming to-do list, but assurance that one day, faith will be sight, in the world to come. Whatever the future holds, it is the Lord who sustains our life. And to that we say “God be praised!”

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