The Worst of All Possible Worlds? Religious Pessimism and the Gospel of Hope

There is no room in the city
for respectable skills…and no reward for one’s efforts.
Today my means are less than yesterday; come tomorrow,
the little left will be further reduced. So I’m going to make for
the place where Daedalus laid aside his weary wings.
                                    —Juvenal, Satire 3, lines 21– 26

Something is profoundly wrong in our country. Once, we were a great power, but our standing has been jeopardized by corrupt rulers, burdensome taxes, and a population that has lost its spiritual moorings. Unchecked immigration has flooded our nation with cheap labor and a large population that does not even speak our language. Sexual perversions abound, and it is becoming impossible to tell the difference between men and women. This is without a doubt most corrupt and lascivious generation that has ever lived on earth.

That, at any rate, was the opinion of the Roman satirist Juvenal during the first century CE, when he wrote his famous Third Satire. The country he reviles, of course, is Rome, which has been invaded by mercantile Jews and libertine Greeks–whose sexual proclivities he had already described in his Second Satire, “Hypocritical Perverts.” And the conclusion that he comes to—that we are living in the worst of times—has been pronounced by every generation in human memory. Thinking that our lives suck is one of the things that humans do best.

It is also, unfortunately, one of the things that religions do best—especially religions that have a strong “end-of-time” narrative like ours. As a  Mormon child in the 70s, I got a big dose of the Saturday’s Warrior’s rhetoric: these are the wickedest days in the world’s history, and the Lord has saved His best soldiers to combat the forces of Satan in the Last Days. My children now hear much the same things—they are Late-Saturday-Night-Just-A-Few-Minutes-Before-Sunday Warriors.

As we go back into previous generations of the Church, we find much the same rhetoric in every generation: pessimistic turtles all the way down. For the last six months or so, I have been working on a critical edition of Apostle Orson F. Whitney’s 1904 poem, Elias. Just last night, I got to the passage about the world in the time of Joseph Smith. It is way too long to reproduce in a blog post, but here is a brief sample:

Disorder reigned, and satire laughed to scorn
Grotesque, invidious inconsistency:
Talent on title waiting, brain on birth!
Genius at oars, and dullards at the helm!
The prancing war-steed fastened to the plow,
The ass unto the chariot—oft with rein,
Curbing the mettled courser’s noble rage,                                                   
Or goading him with needless cruelty!
Matter was monarch; Spirit stood apart,

Unknown, unseen, or spurned and thrust aside
By thronging myriads, bending supple knee,
And basking in the proud usurper’s smile.
Men bowed not down to sun and moon and stars,
To bird, nor beast, nor reptile, as of yore;
But worshipt still at other creature shrines,
Ignoring the Creator’s primal claim. (Elias VIII, 2494-2509)

You get my point. It was the worst of all possible worlds, and this is the core of the problem: any generation can be bad, but only one can be the worst. If every generation is the worst one ever, we have to keep inventing new reasons that life sucks even worse in order to justify our eschatological narratives. We have tricked ourselves into believing that hope in Christ for tomorrow requires us to believe that we live in the worst of all possible worlds today.

We have quite a bit of evidence to suggest, however, that we are closer to Dr. Pangloss’s world than to Voltaire’s. Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (see my review here), for example, presents a vast amount of data to support his point that we are now living in the least cruel and least violent era in the world’s history. We have a hard time recognizing this, of course, because of our unprecedented ability to monitor the world’s events.

According to the standard Juvenalian nostalgia cycle, those us living in the worst of all possible worlds have to go back just a few generations to find the other end of the spectrum. I had an institute teacher in college tell me, in 1994, that the best time live in America was the 1950s—the era of Jim Crow, lynch law, massive gender inequities, and the open oppression of almost anyone who did not fit into the WASP aesthetic-political ideal. The world has improved in hundreds of tangible ways  since 1950 (which improved a lot from 1850 and a whole lot from 1450), yet a non-trivial percentage of Latter-day Saints believe that we are living in the worst of times today.

In the end, I think, we must all remember that we believe in a Gospel of Hope—and not just the hope that Jesus will come soon and set us free from the fetid sewer that our world has become. Hope means believing that the world we wake up in tomorrow will be worth living in because there are good people in it (many of them not Latter-day Saints or any of the other standard forms of “us”) doing good things for good reasons. It means loving the life we have and not just the one we expect to have when this one is over. And it means getting out of our bubbles once in a while and noticing that there are many things in “the world” today worth thinking well of.

 

Comments

  1. Comment from me to my colleagues today: “My pessimism has reached a depth I never thought possible.”

    In other words, I needed to read this today. Thank you.

  2. I am often unsure how to respond to this constant belief that things are “the worst.” I often just walk away. Thanks for explaining this so eloquently.

  3. I think the “it’s the worst of times” deal is part and parcel of the Christian persecution complex.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/the-evangelical-persecution-complex/375506/

  4. Thanks, Mike, and amen.

  5. Excellent. I may even relax my cynicism a bit, and regain my normal optimism, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

  6. “In the end, I think, we must all remember that we believe in a Gospel of Hope—and not just the hope that Jesus will come soon and set us free of the fetid sewer that our world has become. Hope means believing that the world we wake up in tomorrow will be worth living in because there are good people in it (many of them not Latter-day Saints or any of the other standard forms of “us”) doing good things for good reasons. It means loving the life we have and not just the one we expect to have when this one is over. And it means getting out our bubbles once in a while and noticing that there are many things in “the world” today worth thinking well of.”

    Very well stated. Thank you. I, too grow weary of the “doom and gloom” talk. I continue to see much good in the world, and like you pointed out “goodness” is not confined to being LDS or even religious for that matter.

  7. Peter Bleakley says:

    I remember fondly what a breath of fresh air President Gordon Hinckley’s attitude was after growing up as teenager with Ezra Benson’s doomy last days rhetoric. It shows how bad that had got when it was a revolutionary concept for Gordon to tell the YSAs in a devotional broadcast internationally to prepare for a long life, raise children and expect to reach retirement. He also reminded us that at our age he had lived through the Depression and nothing we were experiencing was that bad. A very timely reminder that the modern age has a lot of good going, on as this article points out.

  8. “I had an institute teacher in college tell me, in 1994, that the best time live in America was the 1950s…”

    My Bishop has made that statement in a church meeting within the last 12 months.

  9. “If every generation is the worst one ever, we have to keep inventing new reasons that life sucks even worse in order to justify our eschatological narratives.”

    Well said! This pessimism in the face of real evidence is one of my least favorite things about Christianity.

    For what it’s worth, this Wikipedia article shows that someone in roughly every generation over the past 2,000 years (including the generation of Jesus) thought the world was about to end because things were so bad. And this only shows the predictions that have been recorded. I’m sure there have been many more that we don’t know about…
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

    In 2016, most of us have endless reasons to be grateful and hopeful. Thanks for writing this piece.

  10. Not a Cougar says:

    But, but, but, but… uh, pornography! It’s so… so… available!

    Sorry, this is an issue (i.e., how bad the world is now compared to the past) I feel particularly strongly about, and I get a bit worked up in Sunday School when people spout the line about these being these being the most wicked of times. My wife and I also happen to disagree strongly about how bad “the world” is today, and her typical example is pornography. While I understand how widespread pornography is today, in terms of ill effects on the consumer, I’d much rather my son watch pornography than patronize prostitutes, drink and smoke himself to death, or participate in the slaughter and enslavement of people who just happen not to speak his language (just to be hyperbolic and all).

    I wouldn’t trade the world I live in today for one even 100 years ago. I don’t have to worry about many diseases killing 30-50% or more of my children before age 2. I don’t have to worry about the next town over raiding my town, killing me, raping my wife and children, and then carrying them off into slavery. I don’t have to worry about being assaulted or killed just because I’m a Mormon or some other slightly less than orthodox Christian (whether orthodox to you means mainline Protestantism or Catholicism – Protestants could be just as intolerant in the 16th century). Yes, there is definitely room for improvement, but, to me, life is pretty good right now, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ makes it even better.

  11. So what are the consequences of religious pessimism? Are people less likely to be activists for good since the decline is supposedly inevitable (and prophetically necessary before a Second Coming)? It’s like the opposite of the religious optimism we embrace that may come with its own consequences: “No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing.”

  12. Thanks, Mike. I agree 100% with what you’ve said here.

    At the same time, I kind of understand the reasons people might think this is the worst of all possible worlds (and, as you note, it’s not just Mormons who do). The evils of today’s world are salient, while the evils of past worlds are theoretical. And the salient evil feels bigger and more oppressive than the one in the past. Having seen some local news last night (accidentally–I was trying to watch the Olympics, but NBC cuts into local news at 10 or 11), I saw a litany of the horrible stuff that happened in and near Chicago yesterday–that can certainly feel more real than the very tangible evils that happened in the past. (I suspect that salience also motivates anti-vaxxers, who can imagine autism much easier than they can imagine polio.)

  13. Great thoughts, Michael. When it is politically expedient to paint the past eight years as the worst in every way, those who do the painting simply do not see or portray the world as it really is. Unfortunately, most Mormons are solidly in this camp. It will surprise them one day to find out that Obama has been one of the best presidents we’ve had in ages and he would have been even more effective if he hadn’t faced such unprecedented obstruction. No, things are not perfect, but many statistics indicate that we’ve come a long way since even the 1990s. Violence is way down; so is teen pregnancy, and so are lots of other “evils.”

    (Also, you’re missing a couple of “ofs”: “the era ‘of’ Jim Crow, lynch law . . .” and “getting out ‘of’ our bubbles . . .”)

  14. Explaining the delay of the Second Coming has been a problem for Christians going back to the very beginning of Christianity. Giving lip service to the idea of how bad things are is a lazy way of dealing with that problem. It allows us to signal (mostly just to each other) that we believe Jesus will come again, even though we have no idea what that really means or when it will happen. If we keep talking about the Increasingly Wicked World, then we can tell ourselves that our duty is done when we huddle together and commiserate with each other. And if we occasionally bring a few people out of the World and into our circle of misery, then we’re really doing great. (Yes, of course the Church is much more than this, but our conversations about eschatological doom are just poisonous.)

    We need a positive theology of Zion for our time. We had one for the nineteenth century. Now we need to figure out what building Zion means in the twenty-first century. Our senseless reliance on doomtalk feels mostly like a way to pretend that we care about Zion without doing the work.

  15. When these discussions of ‘the worst, most sinful time in the history of the word’ come up, I always ask who they are comparing too. …So worst for whom? I mean have you read about slavery under the Ottoman empire (or the US empire for that matter)? How about the Spanish Inquisition? Jews in WWII? Women in Chinese history (foot binding, where all your toes fall off)?

    It takes a great deal of hubris to look at our pampered lives and think the sins we are forced to live around are ‘the worse’.

  16. “We need a positive theology of Zion for our time.”

    Yes, indeed we do!

  17. How can you be so optimistic in the face of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross’s loss of the Gold in Rio? Surely these are the end of times.

    Thanks for this. I want to shout it from the roof tops. I’m so tired of apocalyptic thinking. The Schuyler Sisters have it right,
    “Look around, look around
    At how lucky we are to be alive right now”

  18. kamschron says:

    One aspect that is worse than the past is the overall human impact on the earth. Even when we sometimes succeed in reducing pollution and cleaning up part of the mess that we have made, we continue to chip away at the portion of the earth that remains available to wild animals and plants. Not everyone agrees that a sixth mass extinction has started, but if we aren’t in it already, we are dangerously close to it.

    http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/extinction/

  19. Clark Goble says:

    ReT, typically when people say it’s the worst, they aren’t speaking of absolute violence or the like. Rather I think there’s a sense of it in terms of “where much is given much is required.” We have a space for us such that we are able to think morally in a way that people barely subsisting can’t. Further we’re educated in a fashion many aren’t. Finally, our destructive power is simply far greater than what any highway robber of the 14th century to hope to accomplish.

    That said, clearly in absolute terms the world keeps getting better and people keep behaving more morally. We often look at how our communities have decayed from what they were but miss how most communities have been uplifted. (I also think we often neglect the many ways in which our older communities were themselves contaminated by sins that were not obvious to us such as racism)

  20. Scott, one of the direct consequences of religious pessimism can be found in the tenure of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior.

    Closer to home: As of 2010, 41% of Americans believed that the Second Coming would have taken place by 2050 (http://www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/jesus-christs-return-to-earth/). When scientists say, “If we don’t cut atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 ppb, sea level will rise by X meters, etc. by 2100,” an astonishingly large portion of Americans–including many ostensibly educated people–respond, “So what? The world will have ended by then.”

  21. Occasionally I wonder if the reason the statistics seem to show things getting better but there’s still a sense of things getting worse is if we’re measuring the wrong things. As we progress, we seem to find new ways to injure one another. We don’t have 50 year old records of identity theft, cyber stalking, or predatory lending, nor do we have anything to indicate seeming increases of greed, covetousness, or deception.

    I tend to prefer the outlook that the world is getting better, but the thought still lingers. What if it’s not?

  22. There are always problems in the world. What’s unhealthy is the obsession with proving that things are always getting worse. That obsession is a disincentive to deal with problems; if we actually start solving problems, then we can no longer take perverse comfort in knowing that things are always getting worse.

    Maybe things are getting worse. Okay, that’s fine. Let’s get to work and make things better. That’s what Christians ought to do.

  23. Ether 12:4 comes to mind. And while some might say that the hope for a better world refers only to the world to come, I don’t think so. If faith leads people to abound in good works, then it must give us hope for a better world here in mortality.

    And the point about needing a positive theology of Zion is a good one. The 19th century version was so radical that given the current political climate in the church, I’m skeptical it could ever come back, absent something truly cataclysmic. But the raw material is there in our history and current temple worship to build a theology of consecration that is more personal and less communitarian, but no less demanding. The irony is that being committed to the communitarian version as a matter of theory acts as an obstacle to keep us away from any other version as a matter of practical fact. It just looks so unachievable that we basically just decide that it can’t happen until Jesus comes, so we don’t have any real responsibility until then.

  24. Anyone have any thoughts on why those that play up the end-times narrative never use global warming as part of their story?

    Related to that I wonder that even if we are less cruel and violent as Pinker claims at what price has the Earth paid for us to achieve this? Perhaps we are on the right course, but unless we get there the proper way I fear our wings may melt and our ascent will be short lived.

  25. Anyone have any thoughts on why those that play up the end-times narrative never use global warming as part of their story?

    Anti-environmentalism (and opposition to 20th-century science in general) is part of conservative Anglophone Protestant tribal identity–and make no mistake, the Church, or at least the lion’s share of its leadership, deliberately tried to become part of this tribe during the 20th century. Environmentalism is seen as part of the same Bolshie conspiracy as the Civil Rights Movement. (It didn’t help that Utah’s economy depended to a crippling degree on mineral extraction until maybe 15 years ago.) I suspect that there are deep divides among the Brethren on the matter of anthropogenic global warming (also note that the Church installed the American Petroleum Institute’s chief lobbyist, who is one of the most magnificently silver-tongued liars I have ever met, as an Area Authority Seventy a few years back) to the extent that it may be considered a verboten topic for any public speech by members of the Q15.

    Having said that, there certainly is no shortage of end-times narratives among environmentalists.

  26. Clark Goble says:

    Carey, those most focused on the apocalypse tend to see God as doing miracles to created the end of the world. So say Evangelicals are less likely to promote more natural ways prophecies could be fulfilled. The fact that most people focused on end of days have bought into the more radical right view of politics also means they’re more apt to see climate change as a lied promoted by scientists for conspiracy reasons.

    However broadly speaking many do see climate change as a sign of the apocalypse. 49% of Americans view it that way. White Evangelicals tend to be the ones who don’t and I think that owes more to Rush Limbaugh and dislike of Al Gore than anything else.

    Regarding more authoritative statements there have been mentions in the Ensign but not by a GA.

  27. You may not think we’re living in a Golden Age, but then again you’re not an expert are you? Yeah didn’t think so.