In my second year of college, I went on a January term off-campus study program to the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto to take a course in Ontology from my uncle, Hendrik Hart. This was heavy-duty philosophy that left me thinking so hard I’d be sweaty at the end of class.
As part of the course, we watched the movie, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance — an often whirling sequence of images without dialogue, accompanied by the repetitive music of Philip Glass. (I’d thought we’d seen the sequel, Powaqquatsi: Life in Transition, but research tells me it came out that same year, and we saw the movie in class, not in a theater, so it must’ve been the earlier one.)
In our discussion afterwards, the teacher asked a question and then a follow-up question that provided one of those moments in which my perspective shifted in a heartbeat.
(I remember the person who led this discussion as Bob Sweetman, who was still, I think a student/Junior Member at the ICS, although he’d later come to teach at Calvin and then return to the ICS. I don’t think it was our Calvin professor, Lambert Zuidervaart, although it may have been; in a funny note, he’s also now teaching at the ICS.)
Anyway, the adult male who led the discussion asked us about optimism. The movie was pessimistic in tone, and so he asked us to raise our hands if we considered ourselves to be optimistic. Very few people raised their hands. Why would we? We were budding intellectuals, and feeling positive about things was not considered an impressive point of view. I may even have sneered a little inside at those who raised their hands, smug in my knowledge that everything was going to pieces.
And then he asked us whether we considered ourselves Christians. We nodded.
He made a half “hmm”/half sniffing noise that said, “interesting.” Because part of being a Christian is believing that God can act in the world and make a difference there — Christianity was an optimistic faith. Did we really think that things were impossible for God?
And bam. Self-righteous negativity took a fatal blow.
I could still take a hard look at how things were, but I could have hope because of God. I didn’t have to default to the negative.
That doesn’t mean I’m all Suzy Sunshine now. There have definitely been times when that promise of hope has felt like a whisper delivered upwind from five miles away — but there, nonetheless.
The real question
So all of this leads me to ask: is realism, at some level, incompatible with faith?
I know churches deal with that question at budget time. Do we commit to a course of action although we’re not sure whether we have the funds, trusting that, if it’s a faithful action, God will provide the funds? Or do we cut programs because we can’t guarantee the money will come?
If things are not going well in a relationship, where is the point at which the hard facts of history trump the hope that things will change?
Does faith always trump realism? Or does realism have to “win” sometimes?
I consider myself a realist who cries out to God for help, hoping for change, even a change of heart. Sometimes the situation changes, sometimes things get unstuck, sometimes I change. Sometimes not. I’m not so much a “God has a very specific and clearly itemized plan for my life” kind of person. I rely on the promises recorded in the Bible: God will always be with me, all things will work together for my good (not for my pleasant, but for my good), and God desires to give me hope and a future. I can make good decisions, and I can make bad decisions, but God will work with me to bring me around.
One of my best decisions was to join a multiracial church. But we’re in a situation with our church now that is tough and we’re feeling the sting of too much reality. We’re having some “listening meetings” this month, wherein we talk about what’s been great and what’s been not so great. These are good and important meetings to have. But the real question is what we do once those are over. What do we go with: realism or faith?
Not looking for an answer yet. Just raising the question.