The Temptation of Weariness
One of the lines in theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s classic, Theology of Hope, that struck me when I first read it and which has stayed with me is this one:
“Temptation then consists not so much in the titanic desire to be as God, but in weakness, timidity, weariness, not wanting to be what God requires of us.”
Christian tradition has most often pointed to overweening pride, the human desire to be as God, as the big problem. Moltmann raised another possibility, and another sin, despair. Remember “sloth”? The problem he focused on was human timidity, lack of courage, an unwillingness to take great risks in love, hope and faith.
I thought of Moltmann’s point as I read a piece by a writer I admire, Yuval Levin, at the newsletter, “The Dispatch.” Levin’s article is titled, “The Changing Face of Social Breakdown.” It was inspired by a social science study done by two of his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute.
What does “the changing face of social breakdown” mean? We used to associate social breakdown with failures of restraint and self-discipline. Here’s Levin:
“Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.”
While such “unruliness” remains a challenge, Levin argues that social breakdown today looks quite different. It is not unruliness that ought concern us, but passivity. Not wild ambition, but little daring. Not rushing into life without experience and support, but the failure to launch at all.
“The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.”
What accounts for “the changing face of social disorder”? Levin lays a fair bit of blame at the feet of technology, the internet and all the ways these allow us to connect with actually interacting with other human beings in much depth or fullness.
“Particularly for Americans who live in cities, the internet,” writes Levin, “has also come to mediate different parts of our real-world experience (from dating to calling a taxi to getting food at a restaurant) in ways that have let more people live as functional loners, meeting their needs with a minimum of eye contact or interpersonal risk. And countless younger Americans dissipate their erotic energies in similar seemingly risk-less substitutes for human contact, particularly video games and pornography—the latter of which has grown into a hideous, colossal scourge that our society has inexplicably decided to pretend it can do nothing about.”
Of course, it is too easy to say, “it’s the internet.” Nor is that what Levin does. In fact, it’s difficult to tell which is the chicken and which the egg. Has the internet caused the “pathologies of passivity” or have such pathologies and the preference for “risk-less substitutes for human contact” brought on a world where we look more often at the face of our phone than at the face of another human being? Remember Mark Zuckerberg started out by creating a way to rate and rank girls, electronically, without having to actually take the risk of getting to know them.
Levin’s argument rings true. A spirit of adventure, of risk-taking, or jumping into life seems to be, not extinct, but certainly diminished, in retreat. While “Stay Safe,” as a common wish or secular blessing may have been given urgency by the pandemic, it does sometimes seem that “safety” has become our greatest calling and concern.
Moltmann was right. Temptation, these days, in this society, may consist more in weakness, timidity, weariness than in pride and overweening ambition. The threat may not so much that of charging off in the wrong direction, but in not charging much of anywhere at all.