Heck in a Handbasket

OId Man Yells At Cloud

The “signs of the times” listed in Matthew 24 are broad enough that they can be (and have been) applied to pretty much every generation since Jesus.

So if you’re going to hold him to those prophecies, you’ve got to wonder why he wasn’t a little more specific. C. S. Lewis makes a pretty compelling case that God did this, like most things, on purpose:

Precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments. Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again; as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone. I shall come like a thief. You will not, I most solemnly assure you you will not, see me approaching. […] There will be wars and rumors of wars and all kinds of catastrophes, as there always are. Things will be, in that sense, normal, the hour before the heavens roll up like a scroll.

I think most Mormons would agree with this, at least on an intellectual level: we’ve gone through several would-be eschatological boogeymen in living memory (fascism, Marxism, nuclear war, Islamic radicalism, etc.) — and it’s hard to get wedded to a new interpretation when the old ones seemed just as plausible and didn’t pan out.

Still, being “latter-day” saints, we can’t abandon the idea completely.

Modern revelation doesn’t tie us to too many particulars about the “last days”, and it’s a little gauche to speculate about it in Sunday school; but it seems like those words ought to mean something. Maybe Jesus isn’t coming back next week or next month (or even in my lifetime), but “soon”, in some real, reasonable, not-jerking-you-around sense.

So while most of us aren’t expecting to see crowned locusts with human faces and scorpion tails any time soon, we are expecting the world to get worse; to turn steadily away from virtue, and slide into moral chaos and despotism. And oddly, it seems to be the older folks (who have seen more than one potential world-ending scenario come and go) who seem most interested in constructing end-times mad-libs from current events.

This narrative drives progressives nuts, for obvious reasons.

Mostly because it casts them as the foot-soldiers of Mordor (or the effete, decadent quislings who hold the door for them) — but also because it’s a really easy expectation to fulfill: almost any grab bag of social or cultural anxieties can be stitched into a narrative of decline, so someone’s personal “signs of the times” often tell you more about them than about the state of the world.

They point out that recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from traditional Christian morality; but they’ve also seen a billion people lifted out of poverty, huge gains in life expectancyfree-falling crime and conflict death figures, even declining rates of divorce and teen pregnancy (corresponding with lower rates of marriage and higher rates of abortion, but still).

From this perspective, the social changes of the last few decades have been a resounding success, and all this noise about decline is mainly just conservative Christians adjusting to a society in which they no longer call the shots. They’ll keep dragging us into modernity, things will keep getting better, and one day we’ll be mortified that we made such a big deal about it.

But material prosperity isn’t quite enough to kill this idea.

We expect the quantifiable, material problems — war, poverty, etc. — to be lagging indicators of spiritual decay. Of course there will be times when people are wicked, and fat, and rich. In fact, if you take the “pride cycle” seriously, there seems to be a causal link between prosperity and wickedness.

But this is a tough argument to falsify. From a rationalist point of view, once you’ve conceded the quantifiables, you’ve essentially conceded the argument. The data says things are getting better all the time, even as society runs screaming from our values, and we’re stuck talking poetry: stuff like “virtue” and “decadence”, for which it’s really hard to find p-values.

So, if we want to persuade anybody else that our values are essential to human flourishing (before events do the persuading for us), we’re going to have to examine this declinist narrative more carefully, and think about the mechanism by which we expect it to work.

How does our theory of social decline fit with the doctrine of moral agency?

We say that the world is growing more wicked, but “the world” is an aggregate of billions of people, each with individual opinions and motivations and agency. How does a system as big and chaotic as that become “more wicked”? What does that even mean? Does everybody just decide to go bad, all at once? In other words, is it really a moral question, or a sociological one?

If it’s strictly moral — people doing wrong when they could have done right — you’ve got to wonder what could possibly make a whole society of free individuals beat a simultaneous mass retreat from virtue/decency/sanity. And if it’s purely sociological — people doing what any group of people would have done in the same circumstances — should we even call it “wickedness” at all?

The way the Brethren talk about the future is instructive.

It isn’t strictly pessimistic, with the wicked growing more wicked and the righteous “holding the line” for Eisenhower-era morality. The divergence goes both ways: the wicked will grow more wicked, but the righteous will also grow more righteous. They also love to talk about how the greater temptations of our time come with commensurate opportunities to do good.

From this perspective, our material prosperity isn’t inherently corrosive to human morality — if that were true, it would be pretty perverse of God to reward righteousness with the very thing that will destroy it. Instead, material prosperity is a source of freedom, to do good or evil.

This explains how the cycle of righteousness > prosperity > wickedness > collapse can seem like such an iron law of the universe (at least in the scriptures), without interfering with individual agency. Power and prosperity make it easier to accomplish good aims, but they also make it easier to absorb the costs of wickedness and delay repentance. We live in a time in which people will be more free than ever before; so they’ll have a lot more runway to get going in one direction or the other, and the divergence in values and outcomes will be correspondingly larger.

So what does this mean for our “heck in a handbasket” narrative?

Does the fact that we’re living in “the last days” really imply that things are just going to get worse, and worse, and worse until Jesus comes back? We were already a “latter-day” church way back in the 19th-century, and it seems like a lot of things have gotten better since then (morally as well as materially).

This puts us in a tough position: it’s pretty easy to argue that we’re currently on the brink of decline (in fact, that seems to be pretty close to the mainstream consensus). It’s harder to make the case that human civilization has been on the skids since 1830. Are we really more wicked than South Carolina in 1861, or Russia in 1917, or Germany in 1933?

I was aiming at something more conclusive when I started writing, but now it seems like the question is less important than I thought. It really doesn’t matter if this current arc of decadence and decline is “the big one” or not. Every downswing in the pride cycle looks like “the end of the world” to the people living in it; and the proper response is the same either way.

Heck in a Handbasket

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