Reaching all the way back through western civilization, through Christianity, the Romans and Greeks, is a binding idea that is rapidly disappearing. That idea is this: the proper response to the losses and tragedies of life is not to flee them, but to embrace them, mourn them and move through them. This process results in sacrifice and a real coming to terms with mortality. And sacrifice results in qualities which ennoble, enhance and strengthen what is, at root, a tragic existence.
The escapism which increasingly characterizes modern life is a repudiation of the idea of sacrifice. Having fun, a rather trite but apt enough phrase, describes the overarching theme of millions of lives, now bereft of any religious or higher purpose. Without the capacity to embrace the tragic in life, suffering, hardship, loss and death become examples of meaninglessness. And with no transcendent point of reference to draw these things into a redemptive framework, the best many hope for is simply the ability to deny them, to reduce encounters with these all too real aspects of life at all cost.
It does not require much imagination to see where this leads. All forms of serious attachment, marriage, family, close relations of all sorts, by definition require a measure of renunciation, of sacrifice. But when sacrifice is avoided, people seek others to serve as accomplices in the project of seeking fun, affirmation, escape and pleasure, while avoiding discomfort, renunciation and sacrifice.
The inability to face and embrace loss also results in a wide-ranging impatience with all forms of life that require compromise, which is also a form of sacrifice. We see this today in the growing impatience with free speech, in the the demand to silence voices which offer dissent and create discomfort. Rather than endure differences and seek to understand them, we flee to ‘safe spaces’ to lick our wounds and hug puppies.
The ability to see the struggles of life as worth the effort is rooted in the capacity to see life as gift, to see the neighbor as gift. And this must be rooted in a religious sensibility. If there is no God then life, whatever else it may be, can surely not be seen as gift. Who is the giver? The impersonal forces of a godless universe do not give gifts. And lacking this fundamental absence of the sacred, life becomes one dimensional. Life is not filled with gifts. It is inhabited by differentiated and indifferent objects.
As the Christian faith has receded into the background of western life, a sterile nihilism has crept in. The increasing hardness and brittleness we see in our social relations are a product of this. The apostles of bald science and reason are preaching a parched gospel of stark nihilism to human hearts made for meaning. The human heart should be repelled and apalled by this assault. Many are.
The deepest relationships in life are not born out of fun. They are born out of facing the struggles, hurts and suffering of life together. And for this struggle to be meaningful, there must be a wider redemptive purpose at work. As a Christian, I believe that purpose is at work in Jesus Christ. In Him I believe we see the reality of God in which nothing human is alien to the saving purpose of His grace. And in that confident knowledge, I may take up the difficult business of living in all its dimensions, sharing it with others in all humility and patience, awaiting the new Day which God has promised to bring.