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In some respects, President Obama is like the man who, in an old story, caught a tiger by the tail. There is danger in holding on and danger in turning loose. Though he inherited three major problems – the economy, health care and U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan – his handling of these will have an impact on the nation for decades and will determine his own place in history.

In reality, the three areas mentioned are simply part of the chaos that engulfs contemporary Western society. Other manifestations of that chaos include the widespread breakdown of authority and personal responsibility, the increase in violence, the loss of respect for others and of a personal sense of decency and restraint, the political hysteria in radio and TV talk shows from both the right and the left – and on the list could go.

Twenty years ago, I wrote that Western society at that time exhibited characteristics commonly associated with insanity, including obliviousness to reality, absorption in a self-contained world of one’s own invention, obsession with trivia and domination by paranoia. It was motivated by the contradictory drives of self-love and self-hatred and driven impulsively toward self-destruction. In other words, society, I said, was clinically insane. I see no reason to modify that observation today.

From a biblical perspective, we have been handed over to what English versions of the New Testament translate as “the wrath of God.” For the apostle Paul, however, the wrath of God is not God’s angry attack upon the world, but is God’s withdrawal from the world, God’s handing the world over to its own desires.

Some will say that since Paul also saw Jesus as the one in whom God reclaimed the world, God no longer acts the way I have described – that, instead, God so completely loves the world that he will never give up on it. Ultimately, that is correct. But that does not change the fact that there still are times when God abandons the world to its own devices. The work of God in Christ does not eliminate the wrath of God. It simply reveals it more clearly. And we experience the working out of that wrath as social and personal chaos.

Consequently, megachurches, mainline churches, independent churches, TV evangelists, church growth engineers, advocates of “bringing the church into the modern world,” advocates of a return to Christian domination of the society – all, failing to recognize the reality of our plight, are simply tilting at windmills.

Although there have been religious thinkers with prophetic insight into the nature of our age – for example, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton and Ivan Illich (Catholic), Jacques Ellul and William Stringfellow (Protestant) and Martin Buber (Jewish) – there also have been secular prophets who saw the world more clearly than did most religious leaders – for example, George Orwell (“1984”), Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and Mary Shelley (“Frankenstein”).

They warned that a world controlled by technology and good intentions would wind up with control in the hands of a few and with all those things that truly make us human having been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. It is frightening that most college-age students today see as acceptable, even desirable, the very things against which Orwell and Huxley warned. In 1968 Huxley wrote “Brave New World Revisited” and he remarked that the prophecies made in 1931 were coming true much sooner than he had thought.

The constantly encroaching tentacles of government so feared by Libertarians, naively ignored by many liberals and blindly accepted by many conservatives are matched on the other end of the spectrum by the illusion of the Libertarians and most conservatives that either enlightened self-interest, rationalism or a combination of the two will lock the world into synchronization with some grand scheme of the universe and will produce a world of harmony.

So we labor on, using knowledge acquired by the natural and social sciences to increase our control over the world and our efficiency in that world. But we do so without the restraints of wisdom and humility. Consequently, even with the best of intentions, we plunge ever deeper into the chaos.

Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tenn., and theologian in residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jackson. It is reprinted here courtesy of the Jackson Sun.

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