presentism and the Present

One of the major themes of my book Breaking Bread with the Dead is the danger of presentism. But what do I mean by that? Presentism is an unspoken and often unconscious allegiance to the conventional wisdom of our own era. Presentism assumes that the past is rarely if ever a source of instruction or insight — indeed is more typically something to fear and loathe — and can only be of interest in so far as it pleasingly anticipates something that we already (thanks to our contemporaries) know to be true or aggravatingly fails to affirm something we know to be true.

But there is another sense in which the present, for Christians especially, has a signal value. That value is explained to us by Screwtape in his fifteenth letter to Wormwood:

The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have an experience analogous to the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with Eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.

You can see that presentism as I describe it means something altogether different than Screwtape’s description of the Present. Presentism limits our intellectual and moral equipment and thereby constrains our development; for Screwtape, or rather for the Enemy whose views he is describing, attention to the Present is absolutely essential for faithful Christian practice.

Screwtape makes a related point earlier in his series of letters when he comments that human beings have a curious ability to worry about many different possibilities at once, even though only one of them will happen. We radically multiply our anxieties by trying to prepare ourselves, all at once, for a series of eventualities that will never come to pass. It is as an antidote to this anxiety (among other things, of course) that attention to the present is counseled.

I think of Screwtape’s point often these days because for the last few years conservative Christianity in America has been completely inattentive to the requirements of the moment — in ways I recently commented on — but has been obsessively focused on a series of terrible futures which they believe are sure to come.

This kind of noise is ceaseless, and characteristic of non-religious as well as Christian populism. I commented a few years ago on the idea of the “Flight 93 Election,” when we were told to “charge the cockpit or die.” What does that mean? I asked over and over again, and no one would ever tell me. Die how? Rounded up and shot on the day of Hillary Clinton’s inauguration? Gradually shipped to concentration camps? Presumably not; presumably it wasn’t meant literally — but what was even the figurative meaning? I could guess, but not with any confidence.

The same rhetoric re-emerged last fall. “I’d be happy to die in this fight,” Eric Metaxas told Donald Trump. “This is a fight for everything.” Obviously not “everything” — it’s not a fight for the continued existence of cronuts or for the political leadership of Zambia — so what does “everything” mean, for Metaxas? Also, how exactly does he think he would die? (I mean, Biden is President and Eric is still alive …) In this case I can’t guess what he means.

(Though maybe some of these people really and literally do mean that everything hangs in the balance: the MyPillow guy says that if his movie about election fraud doesn’t convince everyone in America that the election was stolen from Donald Trump, then “We pray and we go to heaven, it’s over.” He can’t mean what he’s saying … can he?)

All the “prepare for great tribulation” shouting, in its milder and more severe forms, has certain common traits.

The first is what I’ve called an “absolutizing of fright.”

The second is that this absolute fright has no content. What, specifically, do they think will actually happen to American Christians over the next few years? What do they think are the next steps even? It’s usually impossible to tell, and it’s impossible to tell because they don’t know, they don’t have any actual ideas, they just have overwhelming forebodings.

Which leads me to the third point: They have been completely consumed by their forebodings. I think of the character in Dostoyevsky’s Demons who says to one of the revolutionaries, “I only know that you did not eat the idea — the idea ate you.” These people have been eaten by their fears.

And that’s why they can’t pay any attention to the demands God makes on them in the moment. That’s why — referring back to my post from the other day — they don’t bless those who curse them or pray for those who persecute them or turn the other cheek or seek to live in peace with their neighbors or any of the other things that their faith clearly commands them to do. They don’t obey in the moment because they can’t see the moment — their eyes are fixed on the distance, where they perceive a great and terrible cloud of … something. Something coming to destroy them. Somehow.

And they don’t, therefore, remember that even if their worse fears come true, it won’t abrogate or even lessen a single one of those commandments. Jesus Christ asked forgiveness for those who were nailing him to a cross. Do we think we have it tougher than that? Or will? If we were to give a seriously biblical and genuinely Christian answer to the question of how we might prepare for some future disaster, we would have to say: By doing what Christians always do. In good times or bad, Christians proclaim that Jesus is Lord and seek to love Him and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.