Eschatological Affective Disorder
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 12, 2011 - In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis rather trenchantly captured the conundrum of modernity in writing, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique . . .”
The astonishing successes of the techniques of applied science have perhaps irreparably damaged our capacity to imagine the need to “conform the soul to reality.” Industrialization has unleashed the power to order space and time in keeping with human will. All spaces and times are artifices of human desire, since we are decreasingly subject to the limitations of pace and place. Instead, thermostats and electric lights enable a uniformity of environment that renders the natural rhythms of seasons and days as optional as a screensaver.
Increasingly, the same powers that enable us to impose uniformity on our external surroundings also afford the ability to ensure uniformity in our experience of that environment. If the darkness makes us feel bad and we cannot eradicate the darkness, then we name and treat that feeling as being out of step with the uniformity of experience we desire.
Sadly, one of the casualties of our assault upon the created order (“let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years”) is our capacity to grasp the beauty and pathos of Advent hymnody. Both the glory of the light box and the sacrament of Zoloft dull the psychic urgency of mourning in lonely exile.
O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high,
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
The “wise men of old” grasped what the author of these 12th century Latin antiphons expressed in verse. The dull ache of Advent’s darkness fuels the longing for the “Desire of nations” to come.
O Come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven's peace.
Such longing is lost in a world seeking to architect heaven’s peace. The recovery of that longing is found only in the repentance to which Christians are called during Advent. Perhaps this is why, in this particular Advent hymn, the verses of longing are preceded by a repentant strain that is echoed in Lewis’s dilemma.
O Come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.