Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Excerpt: Searching for a Better God by Wayne Bradshaw

It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book's FIRST chapter!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Searching for a Better God

Authentic (March 1, 2008)


Wade Bradshaw is currently a pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, Virginia. He has a diverse background working as a veterinarian in Nepal for three years, at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary for four years, in the English branch of LAbri Fellowship for eleven years, and as the pastor of the International Presbyterian Church in Liss, Hampshire, England for a year. He is married to Chryse and has four children.

Product Details:

List Price: $ 14.99
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Authentic (March 1, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1934068004
ISBN-13: 978-1934068007


Have We Changed the Story?

Part 1

It seems people cannot flourish without hope. As a species, we need to be able to imagine a future that is better than our present, even if our present circumstances are not so bad. When someone truly feels hopeless, he withers. Other things may also be necessary for humans to flourish, but hope is crucial.

This need for hope has long been recognized. The Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl founded a school of psychology called “logotherapy,” which was inspired by his observations as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. As he watched some of his fellow inmates succumb to the inhuman conditions while others survived, he wondered what made the difference and came to the conclusion that essentially it was hope. Once a prisoner could no longer imagine a better future, he lost the ability to struggle on and he died.

Frankl himself did not think that the source of the hope mattered—it seemed to him that any hope conferred the same advantage. One man might say to himself, “When I get out of here, I’m going to go home and run my grandfather’s watch repair shop in Dresden.” Another might tell himself every day, “When I get out of here, I’m going to marry the girl I should have married years ago when I had the chance.”

Both the watch-repair shop and the marriage represented better futures and their promise would aid these prisoners to live. It didn’t matter if, once they had got out of the camp, they found that Allied bombs had destroyed the shop or that the woman had died in another camp: the hope of a better future had seen both these men through.

Thankfully, few of us struggle to survive in such evil conditions—and yet my experience is that whenever someone loses hope she withers, even when we would judge her circumstances to be perfectly acceptable. Successful people, affluent people, healthy people, children from loving and comfortable homes, once they lose hope, do not flourish. I have come across too many upper middle-class suicides not to take this issue seriously.

Once, a very dear friend of my family killed himself. He was a beautiful man, beautiful in both his body and his behavior. He was creative and athletic. A very attractive woman was deeply in love with him. When my eldest son asked me why he had done it, I told him that our friend must have forgotten something. What I meant was that he had momentarily lost the ability to imagine a better future. He had forgotten his reasons to hope.

Yet, actually, we have to admit that we all do in fact live in a death camp. Everything that is precious to us, everything we know, is in the process of perishing. This is true of watch-repair shops and young women, friends, institutions, and nations. It is true of ourselves. Without exception, everything is dying. Even the stars are slowly exhausting their energy and will one day go out. Of course, it’s also true that new islands are forming, new stars are igniting, seeds are falling into fertile earth, things are being discovered and invented—but ultimately none of them are going to last.

The world then is a labor ward as well as a death camp, but the delivery room is still inside the camp’s barbed-wire fence. Some people tell me that having a baby changed their lives for the better and helped them to see with new eyes the beauty all around them. Other people tell me they think it’s wrong to bring any more children into a world of suffering, decay, and futility. Both have some reason on their side—it is a basic tension of human existence.

Is hope, then, a fiction, no more than a story we have to tell ourselves to make us fit enough to survive? And what do we do once we know that this is the case? Is the fiction still effective when we know that this is all it is?

Some of us cope with this basic tension by refusing to contemplate it. We close our minds to the fact that everything around us is obviously dying. We find various ways to lie to ourselves. The present offers pleasure enough—why spoil it with anxiety about the future? It’s a bit like political discussions about pension funds or the environment: we may know that we ought to be concerned, but we find it hard to think of some unhappy distant future, possibly reaping what we have sown, when there is so much to enjoy right now. And it is even harder to be motivated to invest in the future when we have a strong suspicion that nothing we do will make any appreciable difference. To contemplate unavoidable futility leads to despair. How much more sensible not to think about it but enjoy the wine and olives and romance now.

Others of us survive by trying to accept death and decay as natural in addition to being real and inevitable. But because we want to imagine a better future, we learn to tell ourselves that this death and decay is not only a natural situation but also good and beautiful once we have come to see it as it truly is. The death camp, we may tell ourselves, is somehow found within the walls of the labor ward.

However, the universe is not ultimately a wonderful cycle of life, because with each turn of the wheel things grow that much colder and more dim. When the universe takes its last bow there will be no humans left to applaud it, and physical forces are no longer awesome when there is no conscious observer to be awed by them.

Most of us, as a result, are not very concerned about the survival of the universe—a small, personal future is good enough for us to hope in, and then when we are old and full of years, when we are tired of our bodies failing us in various ways, we will no longer need hope; we will become resigned to no longer existing. We burn the fuel of our desires until they run out, and then we welcome the long sleep from which there is no waking and of which there is no knowledge. Presumably it won’t be any worse than whatever preceded our births.1

I don’t think that any of these ways of coping ultimately leads to human flourishing. Sooner or later something happens that forces thoughts of decay upon us. The wheel of life spins but gets nowhere, for there is nowhere else for it to go. Being content with a small, personal future that ignores the fate of the universe is not an ultimate enough solution for humankind. Neither is it sufficient to view death as natural—and even desirable, once our abilities are impaired by age and daily life becomes an ordeal. These are attempts at resigned acceptance of a situation that should anger us. They are like telling one of Frankl’s roommates that he is free to move into a nicer barrack if he goes alone and that he won’t be mistreated or shot until just before the camp is liberated by the Allies. If we really believe that there is nothing outside of what is visible, we must give up our right to anger about many things. Nothing could be other than it is. Anger at lost opportunities and injustices in this case are irrational. There is no right or point in being angry at our circumstances. However, most of us intuit that being human means refusing the satisfaction of this kind of compromise, and we continue to give in to the temptation to import a transcendence that is alien to our dead-end materialism.

We have to admit that we find ourselves in a very strange place. The very abilities that allow us to dominate the planet we inhabit seem also bound to persuade us that there is little point in our doing so. In the original Matrix movie, the sensate program Agent Smith could have learned a few interesting things from Morpheus if “he” had not been so busy torturing him. A growing number of people in the West have come to agree with Agent Smith that humans are the problem. Our “stink” is everywhere. Only we seem to violate the natural patterns of behavior and ecology. And yet only we are conscious of the situation. No matter how much one may prefer other organisms to humans, one has to come back to humans for the hope of a better future. You, dear reader, are both part of the problem and a potential part of the answer—and you didn’t ask for any of this. If we were not so used to the situation, I think we would recognize how odd it all is.

In the Christian scriptures there is something that disagrees quite profoundly with Frankl as I understand him—it speaks of “a better hope.”2 The implication is that not all hopes are equally good. But can one imagined future that gives us the will to live really be better than another? Suppose that two men are mowing the lawn under a hot sun: one pictures himself drinking a beer afterwards, the other a Diet Coke. They are expressing a personal preference, but both pictures get them through cutting the grass. How can we say that one is better than the other?

I think that a “better” hope is an imagined future that turns out to be good and true when it becomes an experienced present. When the lawnmowers are put away, the Diet Coke proves to be the better hope if the fridge door opens to reveal lots of Diet Coke and not one can of beer. Many things, I think, can function as hopes for us in our present lives. (All of us, apparently, invest our hope in something, even if we may not find it easy to put into words.) But these hopes must also turn out to be good and true when the future finally arrives—as it must, because a future that never arrives cannot act as a useful hope.

We prefer not to think about death and decay, or tell ourselves that they are things of natural beauty, because there is nothing we can do about them—there is no alternative. It would be too painful to admit that we have a desire greater than the pleasures of life can meet. Admitting to such a desire could be labeled unhealthy. Why demand that things last when they cannot? Where is the sense in that? And who are we making the demand of anyway?

But what if that thinking is wrong? What if the really healthy thing is to be angry at the universality of death and decay? What if the correct way to endure our frustrated universe is to admit that we possess gigantic desires that defy this basic tension?

Many people in the past have had Heaven as their imagined “better future.” As a hope, it got them through tough times. It motivated them. It has made them willing to make sacrifices in the present and to be kind to others. It is common to criticize the idea of Heaven as a remote hope that causes people to neglect making the effort to achieve needed changes to present circumstances. However, I find that, when properly understood, Heaven’s effect on my life in the present is to cause me to be willing to postpone personal comfort and fulfillment (because these are assured in the future), and so I can better give thought to the needs of others in the present. The idea of Heaven, which can sound like a very selfish notion, has often served to produce the most unselfish people. (Of course, some ideas of Heaven—and ideas of how to gain admittance—have prompted people to become suicide bombers.) But only those who are dead know whether Heaven was a “better” hope in the sense I am using here.

The first movie I ever saw about neural nets and virtual reality was Brainwave. It came out before the film industry really had the technology to create vistas comparable to the ones we can imagine, but the story was fascinating. Two scientists were working together to develop a “net” that recorded every sensation the wearer experienced. If someone else put on the gear and played the tape back, they would experience exactly the same sensations. The scientists worked well together, despite the fact that one was an ardent optimist and the other saw only obstacles from horizon to horizon.

One day while the optimist was wearing the net, she died, and it was several hours before her colleague found her, slumped over the console. After all the distraction of doctors and relatives and a funeral, the pessimist finally found himself back at the laboratory. Gazing at the machine, he realized what an opportunity had been presented to him: he could experience death vicariously and—hopefully—continue to live afterwards.

Being as curious as any good scientist, he opted to take the risk and plunged into the death of his colleague. He was surprised to find that very soon after he “died,” other things began to happen. Previously—not being a very good scientist—he had merely assumed that physical death was the end of a human’s existence, but now he found himself approaching something bright, like a celestial city, the sight of which filled him with joyful anticipation. At this point, the tape ran out, flapping on its spindle. The pessimist had not yet arrived at the city, but he knew of its existence. Everything he had sensed made him think that it was a good and beautiful place.

Would such an experience make a difference in someone’s life? In the movie, it did. Thereafter the pessimist approached everything differently. He was still obviously the same person, but his outlook and his behavior had changed.

I like the story this film tells because it is the story that I think is true: hope is different from bare optimism. Our ground for hope, the story we tell ourselves about a better future, has to engage in some way with what we know. It cannot float above the world’s frustration and decay. It cannot ignore pessimism simply because pessimism isn’t fun. Equally, however, we should not deny our need for hope because we find that it takes less effort to be pessimistic, and we should not surrender to negativity only because it protects us from disappointment. Fiction cannot be a good hope, and a better hope must prove to be both good and true.

Many people, of course, don’t have a future hope in Heaven. This is understandable. They have never had a vicarious experience of death. Around them they see only decay, and they have concluded that when the tracings of the heart monitors and the brain scanners go flat, then the person the cords are hooked up to is gone forever. Usually they have also concluded that Heaven is a fiction invented to help us cope with the basic tensions of life. And now that it has been revealed as such, they refuse, quite properly, to adopt it as their own imagined future. Sometimes they also think they ought to tell others not to adopt it; sometimes they don’t. But in any case I don’t find their reaction hard to understand: they don’t think that the story about Heaven is true; they don’t think that Heaven is real, and so they do not hope in it.

No, the thing I find hard to understand is when someone does believe in Heaven and yet it doesn’t produce in him a sense of hope. I talk with people in this situation quite frequently. It used to seem bizarre to me, but I think I am beginning to see how it can be. It’s just a small symptom of something much larger.

1. When two of my neighbors died within a week of each other—one a woman of one hundred years who had just received a telegram of congratulations from the British Queen, the other a man of fifty-nine—it was fascinating to observe the different reactions at their funerals.

2. Hebrews 7:19.

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