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WORLDVIEW: In defense of optimism

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Broken your New Year’s resolutions yet? If not, what’s taking you so long?

Sorry, that was a pessimistic question. A pessimist, they say, is an optimist mugged by reality — and human fallibility.

Optimists have taken some hard knocks in the last few years, what with global violence, mass terrorism, AIDS, economic turmoil, moral chaos. And the prospects for ’04 don’t look all that rosy.

Some folks come by their pessimism more honestly than others, however. Pessimists usually fit into one of three categories:

People who are pessimistic because of negative events or personal hardship.

People who are pessimistic by nature.

People who are pessimistic because they think it makes them look smarter than the rest of us.

It’s the third type that irritates British historian Paul Johnson, distinguished author of “Modern Times” and other works.

“Pessimism is the ‘ism’ that has succeeded Marxism in occupying the vacant space in the minds of the slobbering classes,” Johnson writes. “Nowhere has it established a more feverish grip than among journalists, especially in Britain…. There is no more depressing — and unenlightening — experience than reading our national press.”

American news media are only marginally more upbeat than their European counterparts. They seldom fail to find the negative angle in any positive development (when they take notice of actual news at all, as opposed to sensation and sleaze). But they’re cheery compared to many intellectuals, who seem perpetually convinced that civilization is on the edge of collapse.

Why do we listen to these Chicken Littles?

“Part of the trouble is that few people study history or know anything about it,” Johnson observes. “The idea that humanity has never before been in such poverty, danger, and hopelessness … is a fantasy…. The sheer misery of the past, not least the comparatively recent past, is difficult for us to take in.”

The recent past, Johnson reminds, includes the pointless slaughter of World War I, the tyranny of communism and fascism, the horrors of World War II and several generations of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

“For countless numbers, life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short,” he states. “Working democracy, freedom of speech and movement were luxuries confined to a few comers in the world.”

Today, by contrast, those freedoms are spreading to more and more people. India is a democracy, albeit a shaky and violent one. China’s economic opening will inevitably bring an “irresistible advance” toward individual freedom, Johnson believes. Even if it doesn’t, Christianity is spreading rapidly there.

Islamic terrorism, as destructive as it has been, should not obsess us. “It is a shadow of the past,” Johnson contends, “not an adumbration of the future” — a last and desperate spasm of violent hatred that will subside if it is steadfastly resisted.

Is Johnson naive? Pessimists would say so, but I wouldn’t bet against a guy who’s probably forgotten more history than most of us will ever know.

Besides the advance of political and economic freedom, the staggering progress of technology has changed so many things for the better. Take one example: powered flight. The Wright brothers’ longest flight on that historic day at Kitty Hawk 100 years ago spanned 852 feet. As Nathan Bierma noted recently on ChristianityToday.com, that distance wouldn’t even clear the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare. Today, you can fly to the other side of the planet — and take the Gospel with you. You can send the Good News by e-mail in seconds to someone in the heart of the unevangelized world.

The world isn’t getting better every day in every way, to be sure. Technological progress hasn’t changed the depravity of man. But it has opened countless millions who live in darkness to the possibility of light. Today, as never before, Christians have the means to take the light to every people — if they have the will.

Remember the spirit of the Wrights on that first day of flight, when so many were still saying it couldn’t be done. In the words of Albert Louis Zambone:

“… [T]he two brothers, forever frozen in our memory on that North Carolina beach by a photograph of casual genius … intent on their purpose, their backs to us, joined together at the moment of triumph, with only the empty horizon in front of them…. Even after a terrible century, that photograph urges us forward — faster, faster, farther, farther — into a hopeful future.”

That’s the kind of optimism the church needs now.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. His column appears in Baptist Press twice each month.

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  • Erich Bridges