“Ours is an anxious age,” says writer and commentator Joseph Bottum. As a resident of our nation’s capital—where I have the pleasure of being witness to constant ideological mud-slinging, I can’t help but agree.
Bottum is the author of “An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America,” an insightful window into modern-day America’s socio-political climate. Since the fall of Mainline Protestantism in the 1970s, a new class has been born, Bottum hypothesizes. These educated, middle-to-upper class “elites” have largely abandoned religion, but have retained the universal, human hunger for something beyond the here-and-now. In an effort to satisfy this desire, they have turned politics into a spiritual realm. From the Occupy Wall Street movement to radical feminists to extreme Tea Partiers, politics have become a metaphysical battleground. In many ways, these groups are on spiritual crusades—and if you happen to disagree with them, you aren’t just mistaken, you’re evil. No wonder anxiety is the defining characteristic of our times. (A recent lecture that Bottum gave at AEI is well worth watching in its entirety.)
However, this is nothing new. The “hunger” that these elites feel is a natural, incredibly good thing. In “Pensees,” a collection of his philosophical reflections, Blaise Pascal describes it this way:
There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.
And human beings have always attempted to fill that vacuum with things other than God; our idolatry has just taken many different forms. No longer do we bow down to golden calves; today, we are more refined and sophisticated. Much like Marx and Engels who predicted the Proletariat’s uprising over the Bourgeoisie with eschatological language, today’s political ideologies are where we seek—and find—our salvation. But will we ever find it?
Some scholars have called this human tendency an attempt to “immanentize the eschaton.” It means we try to bring the end times—in all its perfection, unity, equality and fraternity—by our own power. Unfortunately though, we are not capable of such a feat; hence the anxiety.
[pullquote] May all of us fill that God-shaped hole with the only thing—no, Person—that fits.[/pullquote]
Now, as much as ever, we must embrace an Augustinian sensibility that looks forward to—and works toward—Christ’s return, when all will made right, but realizes that we will not reach those times by any earthly means.
With that in mind, a healthy political culture is one that accepts politics for what it is and what it is capable of. In the realm of politics, we come to discuss, cooperate and seek solutions to our common problems, not wage spiritual warfare against one another. Socio-political causes may be noble, but they can also be idols. Like the golden calf, they are unworthy of our worship and will leave us unsatisfied, confused and as Bottum suggests, very anxious.
May all of us fill that God-shaped hole with the only thing—no, Person—that fits. And as Paul writes to the Philippians:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (emphasis added)