Saturday, November 16, 2013

What Ender's Game Teaches Us About Orientation

The word orientation was originally a Christian architectural term. Christian churches were designed so that the altar would face east, that is to say, toward the orient. (That's why old churches often appear oddly angled when contrasted with the buildings around them. They seem out of step with their surroundings because they are aligned with Jerusalem -- oriented.)

We have come to apply the concept much more generally, and use the word orientation to describe the central interest of a given individual or community. Thus, an individual or community's orientation can be nearly anything. It doesn't have to be a geographical location.  It can even be an event or a period of time.

As I was watching Ender's Game, it came to me with some force that developing a future orientation is critical for any person or group expecting to survive into the future.

Recent studies suggest that children who enjoy science fiction often develop a passion for science, or at least become technologically creative. Having learned to find delight in an imagined future, they began moving themselves toward that future. We get things like iPads as a result. 

In contrast, an orientation toward the past produces a traditionalist, a person who feels ill at ease with the present and who dreads the future because future can only represent a further deterioration of his or her ideal past world.

Of course, everyone who honors tradition is not a traditionalist. Some people thinks of me as a traditionalist because I treasure tradition. Also, my first degree was in history. However. for me, history is not an ideal world. It merely gives me valuable information about how civilization emerged and developed. Its also teaches me valuable lessons about how society works.

Another important reason we study history is so each generation won't have to start over. 

Young mathematicians study Euclid and Leibniz so they can go on to develop their discipline. However brilliant, young mathematicians they won't get very far if they spend their lives discovering principles already discovered centuries ago. They honor the past by expanding on the lessons of those who lived in the past. They don't label Einstein as irreverent because he moved beyond the knowledge he learned from the likes of Euclid. Einstein knew he would not have made his discoveries without the contributions of people like Euclid. Einstein didn't suppose that living in Euclid's world was the right way to honor him. Young mathematicians study Einstein in the same spirit. 

The same holds true for any discipline, including theology, incidentally.  

The past provides a base, a foundation. However, it is the future that provides the inspiration, the motivating power that pulls individuals toward new understandings of the world. Setting up conflict between history and the future is thus a most foolish and destructive tendency.

That is what Americans have been doing politically, in my opinion. When conservatives grow hostile to the idea of progress and the notion of the common good, and progressives become hostile to tradition and the notion of the private good, we end up losing both history and the future. We become fools, wallowing in our self-righteous sense of ideological entitlement, without either sufficient wisdom from the past or an adequate vision of the future to keep making sense of the world.  

Fortunately, there is a way out of this impending cultural lobotomy. It is a third way, a way that honors tradition without making us into slaves of the past and honors the future without making us addicted to endless novelties unhinged from any context or meaning.

In The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass describes this third way far better than I can. He tells us how the ancient Hebrews founded a culture around their confidence in a teleological universe. That simply means that they saw history as a continual movement toward some good and purposeful future. Like all ancient cultures (and unlike our own) the ancient Hebrews honored their past. However, they focused even more on their promised future and on the duty of parents and community leaders to prepare the next generations to walk into that future. Armed with their deep awareness (and acceptance) of individual mortality, Jews prepared and blessed their offspring to move forward in time toward ever greater understandings of the world. 

Christianity inherited this Hebrew belief. Ours is thus a prophetic faith. It assumes that time is not the result of some past event from which we have been moving into ever greater dysfunction; it is the result of a future event toward which providence has been pulling us into greater levels of understanding and blessing.

God is not in the past then, waving sorrowfully as we helplessly descend into ever greater kinds of evil. He is in the future, waiting for us to grow into full personhood and fulfill the completed creatures he envisioned as one day fully embodying His own image and likeness.

God is also in the present, giving us understanding of the revelations of about the past and hinting about what awaits us in the future. 

These are the implications of what is often called an ancient/future faith. It views Christian orthodoxy as a foundation upon which one builds and matures rather than as a prison from which one transcends at his own peril. Faith is thus a compass more than a map; a formation of character and intellect more than a rule book to hammer us into conformity with the past or uniformity with our peers. It is a prophetic call that assumes that moving into the future is the best way to honor the past.

To use biblical language, after the pillar of fire shifts and moves, it becomes a sin to remain in our old camping place. Canaan is before us, not behind us. Although we honor the dead, we are not obligated to remain with them so we can perpetually venerate their remains. We carry their bones with us as we proceed with them to Beulah. As  the writer of Hebrews puts it, "so they without us will not be made perfect."

We are an oriented people. However, that does not mean we are stationary. We were created to transcend all that we should continue to honor. We are called to love the earth as we keep heading for the stars.

1 comment:

Richard Vasquez said...

I love this... If my dear "Conservative" evangelical brothers would just hear this perhaps they would better understand my progressive mind.