This is an age of conformity, but I do not think it is the only one the world has ever known. Today’s state of lethargy, however, seems to issue from certain specific factors. Foremost among them are man’s deification of technical and material things, his desire for self-gratification and satisfaction, and his devotion to peers and society rather than to God.
Apparently in every man’s heart is a “lonely crowd” and at every breakfast table an “organization man.” We are sick, but are unperturbed by the diagnosis. We are tied to our machines, but think them indispensable to produce “the good life.” “The tragedy is,” says Joy Davidman, “that we really know better. We know happiness is a spiritual state, not to be achieved by piling up wealth or seizing power …” (Smoke on the Mountain, Westminster, 1954, p. 36).
The Prisoner of Chillon is our prototype; after many years in the dungeon he says:
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are.…
C. S. Lewis points out this same truth of environmental narcissism in The Last Battle. Here he describes persons so fooled by their own ways that they believe themselves to be partaking of the heavenly banquet when all the while they are actually eating dung.
Anyone who severs the chains of conformity quickly becomes tagged with some unpleasant sobriquet, even as was Jesus—that “winebibber.” Those in modern society who do not mind speaking out for a much-needed “change of pace” are ridiculed as a “repugnant” minority. We cannot brook either irregularity or dissension! Nonconformists are swiftly “cut down” by those who cherish the comfort of “cacoon existence.” The words of those who try to rouse us from fat-bellied contentment usually fall on deaf ears (Isa. 6:9–10). The shock treatment Nathan used on David (1 Sam. 12) and which Jesus used in the story of the Good Samaritan and in the incident involving the woman taken in adultery meets without success in our day. Modern man is like him who “observes himself in a mirror and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (Jas. 1:24). We see nothing but the blur of homogeneity, and think this to be the normal state of things. In his book, The Outsider (Houghton Mifflin, 1956, p. 154), Colin Wilson pictures the situation like this:
These men travelling down to the City in the morning reading their newspapers or staring at advertisements above the opposite seats, they have no doubt of who they are. Inscribe on the placard in place of the advertisement for cornplasters, Eliot’s lines:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
and they would read it with the same mild interest with which they read the rhymed advertisement for razor blades, wondering what on earth the manufacturers will be up to next. Some of them even carry identity cards—force of habit—that would tell you precisely who they are and where they live.
They have aims, these men, some of them very distant aims: a new car in three years, a house at Surbiton in five.… They change their shirts every day, but never their conception of themselves.… These men are in prison.… They are quite contented in prison—caged animals who have never known freedom.
The constant pressure “to conform” has produced a new ethic of life, the social and bureaucratic ethic, “that body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Its major propositions are three: a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in “belongingness” as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve the belongingness” (William H. Whyte, The Organization Man, Doubleday Anchor, 1957, p. 7). Not merely the surface uniformities of American life are responsible for the problem, although television and station wagons and hi-fidelity are certainly no deterrent. It is beneath the surface of our lives, in the motives and frustrations, where lie the roots of our problem. On one hand our students who no longer wish to think for themselves: on the other are young organizational trainees who are so preoccupied managing others they “would sacrifice brilliance for human understanding every time” (ibid., p. 152). Though they are encouraged to search for the truth few persons are encouraged to experiment or to express themselves to the point of disagreement. Consequently we are becoming interchangeable robots. There is no longer such a thing as charismatic leadership.
Life Every Saturday
Furthermore, our society now hinges upon “events.” We simply live only for Saturday night. As Thomas Wolfe says in You Can’t Go Home Again (p. 464):
Saturday night arrives with the thing that we are waiting for. Oh, it will come tonight; the thing that we have been expecting all our lives will come tonight, on Saturday! On Saturday night across America we are waiting for it, and ninety million Greens go mothwise to the lights to find it. Surely it will come tonight! So Green goes out to find it, and he finds—hard lights again, saloons along Third Avenue, or the Greek’s place in a little town—and then hard whiskey, gin, and drunkenness, and brawls and fights and vomit.
The worker lives for the beer-with-the-boys after work, or for the Tuesday night bowling game. The wife looks forward to the arrival of the Ladies’ Home Journal, or the next bridge game, dance, or party. When the event is over, life is over—that is, until the next “event.” Were there no “events,” there would be no life at all for most of us. We have tied ourselves to idols, rhythms, and routines. We get along quite well so long as the newspaper and milk keep being delivered and the office is still there at the dawn’s early light. We have made the temporal absolute and the absolute temporal. Who among us ever heard of the Event?—the one involving the Man of Galilee?
The Washed-Out Man
Inevitably we are caught up short when we see that this routine-cycle-of-life-existence is really quite meaningless by itself, or at least in our distortion of it into the ultimate. What’s more, those who get fed up with the “raw end of burnt out days” and realize the deadness of life that lies all around them are often no better off for recognizing the predicament. They may see their sickness—which is better than being sick and not even knowing it (Matt. 9:10–13 and parallels) but they do nothing about it. So despair sets in, or what we so often call “anxiety.” With the author of Ecclesiastes they say: “What gain has the worker from his toil? All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 3:9; 1:8a, 9b). Sartre says, “L’homme est un passion inutile.” T. S. Eliot calls us “Hollow Men.” Though man sees his predicament and knows he is being crammed into a mold, he is unable to break free. And he is apathetic about his situation. Why is a person like Meursault in The Stranger, by Albert Camus, so passionless? When his mother dies he does not weep. He cares not at all about the girl who loves him. And his job means nothing to him. Even after he commits murder and goes through his trial he is content with his “stoical” life. His attitude is not so much that of carpe diem as that of a washed-out man who cares not a whit about life. He feels no passion, no concern, no self-condemnation.
Select any city in America and pause there long enough to examine it. Drive toward the city from a distance: ponder its magnificence, the intricate lines of communication that funnel in and out of it, the highways, the railroads, the trailer trucks, the speed and efficiency that radiate from its very atmosphere. As this vast incarnation of power and prosperity looms before you, think for a moment how utterly irrelevant Christ seems to be to the whole situation. What has Jesus Christ to do with bricks and cement and hurrying secretaries; with heavily-loaded trucks, tabulating machines, road-side stands, wheels, and smoke; with the endless amalgam of life and inanimate stuff that composes our American scene?
What Room For Christ?
To put Jesus Christ into the contemporary age where he belongs seems almost as incongruous as placing a Rembrandt beside an array of abstract expressionist paintings or like injecting a Beethoven symphony among the “Top Twenty Rock and Roll” numbers of the afternoon radio musicale. Do you see what we have made? Do you see what we have literally manufactured with our own scrawny little hands? Do you see how many minds have cowered before as many drawing boards; how many bricklayers have labored through as many union-encased restrictions to make as many stale buildings in as many towns and cities? Do you see how many men have centered their lives in these man-made businesses, how many families depend completely upon the functioning of these many boards of directors? To stop someone in the hall to speak of “Christian hearts in love united” would be totally out of step with the design of the hall and with the speed and purpose of the man, and even with the color of his regulated suit! To encounter someone—were such a thing possible—with the “simple words like those who heard beside the Syrian Sea” is a faux pas, something one just does not do; it’s like a red silk tie of the old broad style in the middle of solemn gray conformity. To speak to Jesus Christ in the middle of America, in the middle of the morning, in the middle of the week—where life is supposedly lived—is simply not done. Somehow, it does not fit.
Truly, the sickness has struck deep, and pervades us from within and from without. What can we do? Fortunately there is a biblical solution for our predicament. We can begin by gleaning some advice from the Old Testament. I personally prefer the world-life view of the Hebrew in the days of the Old Covenant. I would pause, like him, to drink from the Brook Kidron; I would sleep under the stars like the shepherds; I would rise early in the morning to go apart to pray—these things would I do before I ushered the beauty of the world from my heart. Life is not meant to be splintered by the wedges of bureaucratic pigeonholing, by organizational mediocrity, and by deceptive advertising lures. We are a totality. We cannot allow the pressures that compose our existence to dissect our being.
Indeed, while I would make the world my stomping ground I would let my steps descend to earth from God. To do this will give me a different perspective on life. It is one thing to avoid the lure of side-show attractions along the narrow Way; it is quite another to realize we traverse this strange land with and for a purpose. To have a purpose; to wander like an Aramean toward the heavenly City; to set our minds on God even while we wear the coat of this world; to love the earth and its fullness—these expressions are the first taste of our “sealed orders”—orders which shall be revealed in the fullness of time.
The things we love so much: autumn leaves, cheese on rye, the warm sand of summer, an adolescent’s blue-eyed love, the aroma of hickory smoke and the touch of frost in the meadow—are we to bypass, to deny these things, these powerful and pungent things of the earth and of those who live and die there? If we have the Old Testament perspective, we need not forego these God-given gifts.
The world, the very earth, is necessary as the playing field for knowledge. To rise to the level of an earth-worshiper, then, is at least a step in the right direction. After all, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” (The Outsider, ibid., p. 45). Certainly there must be those who justly enjoy and love this world without conforming to it. Let us not misjudge these who have a “different drummer’s beat.” Our real danger and enemy is our dedication to the passing parade: to vanity; to the gout of self-destruction; to the tyranny of devotion to pettiness and pomposity; to tea and gossip, to hollow and empty laughter.
In short, the world-life view of the Hebrews is a firm step toward the Christian interpretation of our secular cell. The Old Testament gets us above our serpentine preoccupation with the false artifacts of life and shows us that the earth is “good” when related to God. The New Testament carries us further to a divinely-oriented understanding of the world. Through Jesus Christ we learn both that the world will eventually pass away and that we ought therefore to deny it. We learn, also, that the world is divinely willed as the framework of the present stage of redemptive history and that we ought therefore to affirm it (one of the themes of Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time, Westminster, 1956).
We can either carry or be carried by two very powerful weapons in our fight against the age of conformity and all its components. One weapon is Christ himself in his incarnation, death, and resurrection. The other weapon is participation in the “real community” which Christ fashions, the regenerate Church.
Because of His total action on our behalf we may have these weapons for our struggle against conformity and mechanistically-controlled existence. Individualism per se cannot overcome these “elemental spirits”; although Christ has vanquished them, these “elemental spirits” still annoy us. Nor can the Church per se achieve any more than just a harmonious “tie-in” with the social system. What we need to do, therefore, is to unite the “rare individual’s” I-Thou relationship and the Church’s divinely-inspired fellowship of believers.
Somehow we must transmute our beautiful words and academic descriptions of Christ and his Church into an expression of love that cuts to the very core of our being. We must replace the enigma of ritual with the reality of Christian devotion. Somehow we must overwhelm our impending “Ozymandias” with “Christ and Him crucified.” Then lethargy shall become urgency. Then the daily walk shall become a race toward Him who long ago beckoned us from Golgotha.
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