When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in earnest in the United States a year ago, we made lots of jokes about the end of the world. Who would have predicted toilet paper to be the currency of our post-apocalyptic hellscape? we quipped. In a cinematic turn of phrase evoking crumbled civilization, we dubbed everything preceding March 2020 the “before times.”
Underneath those jokes was truth: not only that the pandemic was to be taken seriously but also that its disruption revealed how fragile our society really is. In normal times, this fragility can be difficult to see. We’re enthralled by normalcy bias—the common human assumption that the basic structure of our lives will go on and not really vary. Even changes brought by new technology prove less dramatic than anticipated. Our minds are prepared for a life of cumulative tweaks. We’re not ready for revolutions.
Yet revolutions happen, and not always for the better. The social order we take for granted is by no means guaranteed. “Every human institution is, in its way, built on sand,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in January, the day after the sedition at the Capitol. “It’s all so frail.” The veil “between civilization and chaos” is thin, she said, and “we have to go through every day, each in our way, trying to make the veil thicker.”
Noonan pointed to conservatives—as in temperamental conservatives, those concerned with tradition, prudence, and finitude—as the longstanding heralds of this fragility. “True conservatives tend to have a particular understanding” of it, she argued. They see the thinness of the veil. This is the classic tension between conservatism and progressivism: The progressive is optimistic about what change can bring and so pushes forward in hope, feeling a certain comfort with risk and exploration. The conservative responds with caution, pointing to the merits of what we already have and the limits of our own wisdom and ability to innovate.
Done right, this interplay of progress and conservation produces a very healthy tension we see in Scripture too. On the one hand, many biblical stories demonstrate the fragility of human institutions, relationships, and lives. The book of Judges—often horrifically chaotic (Judges 19–21) and repeatedly naming itself a tale of when “everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)—might alone be enough to instill a care for social order in anyone.
Psalm 103 uses our frailty as a contrast to explain God’s enduring love. “The life of mortals is like grass,” the psalmist says, “they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children” (vv. 15–17). The prophet Isaiah uses this metaphor to praise the eternity of God’s word (Isa. 40:7–8), and the apostle Peter picks up the theme to call Christians to lives of truth, holiness, and love (1 Pet. 1:13–2:3). So much of what humanity is and does right now is fleeting, Peter says, so Christians should set our sights and hopes on the durable, reliable “grace to be brought to [us] when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1:13).
The progressive theme appears more often in passages involving the second coming. As Christians, we participate in and prefigure God’s renewal of all creation (Rom. 8:18–25; 1 Cor. 15). In Christ we have victory over death itself, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, so we should “always give [ourselves] fully to the work of the Lord, because [we] know that [our] labor in the Lord is not in vain” (15:58). What we do now, though in one sense fleeting, nevertheless possesses eternal significance.
The “present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die,” argues Anglican theologian N. T. Wright, reflecting on 1 Corinthians 15 in Surprised by Hope. “What you do in the present,” he continues, “will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. … They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.” The “new earth” at the end of the Christian apocalypse (Rev. 21:1–5)—unlike the gloomy apocalyptic visions of pop culture—is this earth renewed and made well, Wright explains. The old is not discarded but restored.
But we’re not there yet. God has not yet made “everything new” (Rev. 21:5). The last year has felt more like the chaos of Judges than the triumphant end of Revelation. It has me thinking: What happens to a society that doesn’t understand its present fragility? What happens when it’s not conservatism as I’ve described it in tension with progressivism, but rather an angry, tribal urge to “own the libs”? What if no one is trying to thicken the veil?
This is Noonan’s worry, and she took to task those self-styled conservatives who spread the lie that fueled the violence at the Capitol, apparently unconcerned by its potential to remove the barrier to chaos. “They are like people who know the value of nothing,” Noonan wrote, “who see no frailty around them, who inherited a great deal—an estate built by the work and wealth of others—and feel no responsibility for maintaining the foundation because pop gave them a strong house, right?”
Recent months have made clear the inherited house isn’t so strong. It needs active care, and Christians, more than anyone, should be conscientious caretakers.
I say this in a secular sociological sense. Places with robust institutions of civil society, the church being one, tend to be less fragile. But I also say this as a Christian. Thickening this veil between civilization and chaos is part of what it means to prefigure God’s kingdom.
The kingdom is not a place of malice, fear, violence, and chaos, for “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33) and “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). Our labor in the Lord is progressive and conservative at once: It looks forward to Christ’s return and final victory over evil, but it also carefully stewards the original goodness of God’s creation, of which peaceful, orderly human society is part.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.
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