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Things That are Real

September 3, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I present to you one of the finest moments in the history of cinema:

In the scene, this printer is condemned for being the frustrating piece of technology that it is, and the characters in Office Space are pouring their wrath out on what is, for them, a symbol of their entire futile existence as office workers. The audience easily identifies with them, sharing in their anger towards the printer and the inhuman system that it symbolizes. In this scene and others, Office Space does a good job of expressing a basic frustration that people these days have with the sort of artificial way of life many of us are thrust into, and how such a lifestyle goes against our basic humanity. We human beings have an instinctive ability to decide what things in this world truly matter, and what things don’t. We can see that being confined to an office cubical for eight hours a day can be a soul-crushing waste of time–I say “can be” because I’m sure there are exceptions to this, where the work being done is itself rewarding somehow, and I don’t mean to trash anyone’s vocation. But we can easily see how so many aspects of our modern life go against our basic humanity. We know that these things are artificial. And we know that other things, things like friendship, family, love, art, and truth, are real somehow. Or, at least, if anything proved to be real, it would have to be those things. What I believe deserves more consideration is the question of how and why we are able to make the necessary distinction in order to make such judgments. That is, where does this distinction come from?

The real and its enemies

I propose that some things in life are actually real, whereas some are unreal, and that people can tell the difference, though far from perfectly. I will not be using the ordinary meanings of these words here. That is to say, I will not be using the most immediate senses of the word “real” that it has acquired in contemporary usage. The distinction I wish to make has nothing directly to do with what actually exists–some “real” things are not realized in our world, at least to the degree that they ought to be, whereas some “unreal” things exist in abundance. Nor does the distinction have anything fundamental to do with the human process of manufacturing, effort, or planning. For example, many things are very intricately planned, like a ballet or a symphony, yet will fall on the side of “the real.” Other things have no clear human design, but nevertheless fall on the side of “the unreal”–for example, the HIV virus is not man made (unless you buy the conspiracy theories), but it is quite unreal.

Perhaps some more examples are in order. I hope none of these seem either too sentimental or too morbid; neither is my intent. A family gathering held each year, for thanksgiving, is real. It is real when people gather together and share memories, tell jokes, and think of each other fondly. It is unreal, however, when they let old grudges or gossip skew their perception of one another, when they hold false expectations of each other and judge each other. A couple of glasses of beer, and a few good laughs, shared between old friends, are real. Severe drunkenness, and an angry shouting match, resulting in the destruction of a friendship, is unreal. Marriage is real; pornography is unreal. The smile of a baby is real; cancer in a baby is unreal. Life is real, death is unreal. Real things are intrinsically good; they are part of reality as it should be. Unreal things are intrinsically bad, and are an unwanted intrusion on a good world. Our world, the world we all know, seems to be a synthesis of real and unreal components.

Now, it is my view that we live in a society that craves realness, but lacks the ability find it consistently, that lets unrealness flourish, all too often. Much of this is a matter of confusion. Since our world is a mixture of the real and the unreal, often we create false associations between the two, and so we seek realness in the wrong places. For example, one might seek love and acceptance, which are real, through the pursuit of fame and power, which are unreal. We usually don’t know how to get the real without also getting some of the unreal mixed in. We are, may I say, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus: champion of the real

Of all the charges that can be made against Christianity, perhaps the most troubling for me is the simple charge of irrelevance. This is not simply the charge that it doesn’t matter, but further that it couldn’t matter; that is, not simply the charge that it is untrue, but the charge that, if it were true, it wouldn’t be worth much. This is the charge that my most basic conviction really has nothing to say about life, the real life that people live, and that it is even opposed to the flourishing of such life. It is, in the terms of the above, the charge that Christianity is “unreal.” And I think that many people honestly believe this, and won’t give a consideration to Jesus Christ precisely for the reason that they don’t think he has anything to say to them, that he doesn’t speak to their most fundamental reality. They think that, if he really were who the Christians say he is, this would not be good news at all. On the contrary, this would probably mean that the universe is essentially artless and boring.

I understand this sentiment well. I confess that I feel it myself sometimes. After all, who does not get the sense, when confronted with, say, a certain type of street evangelist (those guys who hand out little slips of paper telling you to believe in Jesus or go to hell), that this person is out of touch with life, ordinary life? His slip of paper must appear as an invitation to become like him. And who would want to be like that guy? I don’t usually doubt the sincerity of his motives, but I fear that it is hard for another person to look at such a thing and believe that what stands behind it is of any real value. More generally, much of popular preaching presents, as Dallas Willard says, a Jesus who is “barely conscious.” Often, Christianity doesn’t present a Jesus who we could imagine is actually interested in the things that we clearly perceive as mattering.

So I understand the sentiment. I understand it, but I believe that it is, as a fundamental objection to Christianity, untrue. Seen properly, God is actually the author of the real (whereas Satan, perhaps, is the author of the unreal). As such, God is supremely concerned about the real moments of our ordinary life–more concerned than you or I. One proof of this is simply the central belief of Christianity that God became a man, and experienced these moments, all for our sake. Christians have called this the incarnation. Think, for a moment, about what it means for our everyday life, for the things that all human beings do and go through–that the creator of the universe poured himself into a person! Now, Jesus spent most of his years on this world doing nothing particularly memorable, from a historical standpoint. The New Testament mentions only one public incident between his infancy and his last years. He wasn’t famous during this time. We aren’t told much of what he did then, but I imagine he must have lived a pretty ordinary life. Only those closest to him saw much of it, of course, but I think this is part of the point. In this part of his life, Jesus identifies with the ordinary experience of every man (and woman). The God-man, the one man who ever lived a perfect life, only really made a scene at the end (it was, of course, of prime importance that Jesus eventually did make a scene, since through making it he became our redemption). And that is part of the point: a perfect life, in God’s sight, isn’t all heroic deeds and public attention. Part of the point of the incarnation was to solidify the permanent meaning and basic reality of ordinary human experience. All that is good in human life, Jesus made his own, God’s own. And if we are to believe that Christ’s righteousness–his basic goodness as a human being–becomes our own, then at least part of the reason that our redemption takes place at all has to do with the basic, unrecorded, ordinary life of Jesus. And you see the corollary right? It’s the eternal significance, for each of us, of the real moments of our ordinary, everyday lives.

Eternal significance

In particular, I’m thinking about the eternal significance of how we think and act, including what things we choose to value, and the perspectives we adopt towards life itself. Not believing in any sort of eternal weight to how we go about life is, perhaps, the central tragedy of our age. Even though all people have the ability to intuitively judge what is significant, to know what is real, so many of them are ultimately nihilists–so many people today don’t believe that life will ever really amount to anything, that it all turns to dust in the end. People want to make life count, but they don’t believe that there is anything it could really count towards. This rejection of meaning, in fact, is embraced so strongly by some that it, in spite of itself, practically amounts to a conviction. So people say, sometimes with a hint of irony, “life may be pointless, but at least I…” But if life is pointless, there is no “at least.” The phrase “at least” implies a context in which things are meaningful. One could say, “we lost all our money, but at least we still have each other” or “the Yankees didn’t make the playoffs, but at least their prospects are good for next season.” But to say “at least” without specifying greater context of things in which a comparison could take place simply doesn’t make any sense.

The truth is, our lives are not arbitrary; on the contrary everything fits together in a grand story that will all come together in the end. So life is not a game, and if we live like it is, we are building on a foundation that will crumble. People today are so wonderful, yet so tragic. People are wonderful because God made them that way. People are tragic because they don’t know what and who they really are; they don’t know that they are unique creations of God, and they don’t know that their actions and their lives actual matter, actually count, forever. Not just for the future, nor just for the sake of some vague notion of “having lived a good life” or even “having made a difference.” What you do matters forever; what you say to people matters forever.

I know some brilliant and fun people who are agnostics and atheists. Sometimes, around them, I feel like I am witnessing a great drama in which the participants are dangerously unaware of the real consequences of their most basic decisions and habits of speech and thought. I think to myself: these people do not believe in God, and would barely give consideration to the story I believe in, and yet the truths it speaks of are so obviously present in their lives. In their beauty, I want to cry out to them: is it really so hard to believe that you were created in the image of God, a God who loves you and pursues you? And in their folly, I also want to cry out to them: don’t submit to unreality, don’t trade the real for an illusion! Is it so hard to believe that your cynicism is a spiritual poison that first stings, and then numbs, and then kills the life of your soul? Or that when you mock, or when you gossip, you are doing permanent damage to yourself and others, that you are participating in a plot to rid you of your very humanity? I admit, this often can be hard to believe, and quite hard to remember. I would do well, as I write this, to realize how much my warning applies to myself. I’m not sure God loves me. And I poison myself with cynicism, and I mock and I gossip. Further, I’m too proud to really believe this, as I write it–I’m just doing the standard Christian move of deliberately admitting I’m as much of a sinner as anyone. But it is true, nevertheless.

Our decisions, good and bad, affect our relationship with the most basic reality that there is. This is the basic reality that is, to some degree, perceptible to everyone, that is behind the scenes of all of our interactions in this life, that is rarely spoken of directly but is, in the end, what really counts. It is the reality that God cares about, and it is not a secret. But it is, often, hard for us to see; many things in the world work against our seeing it, and on our own we drift away from it. But there is one who always perceives this reality, and who can and will always show it to us, who will cut through the dark fog of evil that blinds us, one who knows what is really important and is eager to share it:

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8.31-32)

I said before that it is wrong to think that Jesus doesn’t care about the things that people intuitively know are significant and real, that he does actually care about these things. I want to make the point stronger now: I think it would be correct to say that Jesus only cares about the things that matter. And if a person decides to try to care about the things that Jesus cares about, he will quickly begin to see more clearly what is really real, what matters to the reality that God always has in mind. If Jesus sees something as unimportant or needless, or worse–like empty religious ritual, or self-righteousness, or selfish accumulation of honor and wealth–then you can bet it is not actually worth anything in the end. If Jesus seems to care about something–like praying for your enemies, or feeding the hungry, or celebrating, or being welcoming to children–you can bet that it matters. So Jesus can show us what life is really about; he is the one we can trust to deliver us what is real.

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