Salvation can be messy.
I believe this with all my heart and so I state it at the outset of this article. As such, it marks me as a heretic in Modernity. I not only believe that salvation is messy – I believe that messiness is pretty much inherent to salvation. And along with that, I believe that our aversion to messiness (in all things) is a peculiar affliction of the modern world and a vexation of the spirit.
Let me explain.
I hold no ill thoughts towards those who appreciate cleanness and neatness. I even recognize that there are arguments to be put forward in their support. But the universe tends towards messiness – in physics it is known as entropy – things tend towards increasing amounts of disorder. Human civilization has always offered a push back to the world’s entropy. We build roads and then begin the tedious work of maintaining them while all of the forces of nature conspire to return their invented cleanliness to a more natural, disordered state. Every home-owner knows the never-ending work of holding back the forces of entropy, for he or she has invested a tidy-sum into a structure that is destined to fall down.
Our lives are no different. For though there is some inner drive at work within us that wants to order things and make sense of them, the randomness of the day works in the opposite direction. I have often thought that movies (and novels) fail to rightly represent this aspect of our existence. These narratives always show the wonder of a beginning and an end. The story moves from one point in the text to another and finds its crisis, climax and denouement. A good movie leaves us with a feeling of resolve. But life is not like that. Just before the incredible job interview that would have opened a new chapter in life and provided the capstone for a personal story, the real-world protagonist has a heart-attack and dies. And that’s just it. The film breaks and the images flutter on the screen and render the entire work of art that is a life-time little more than meaningless tatters. And this happens every day. Many people do not die at the “end” of their lives. Their narratives are interrupted messes that frequently leave loose ends and deep, unresolved problems.
But Modernity despises this aspect of our existence. The Modern world is the triumph of human intellect and will. It is the subjection of nature to the force of order. Entropy be damned! The myth of progress is the imposition of an orderly narrative onto the canvas of the world, an insistence that things must come together in a more sensible, useful and productive manner. Our lives will be better if only we master the messiness. The myth of success only works if the world agrees to be predictable and manageable, yielding itself to our efforts to make it behave.
But it will not – ever. The world was not created for such behavior. Even in the Garden of Eden, man had to “dress it and keep it.” There were weeds in the Garden of Eden! Someone will doubtless suggest that our “dominion” over the fish, birds, and every creeping thing, etc.” is a commandment to bring order into the messiness. I respond that this is like “herding cats.” Fish and creeping things become orderly at our command, only when they’re dead and we can lay them neatly in rows. And even then, the entropy of corruption will reduce their rows to dust.
These are just observations on how things work. But the problem that I want us to see is how Modernity works – and particularly how it works within us. We have internalized the myth of progress and utility. We not only believe that the world and the things around us can be better, but that it is our God-given task to make them so. We push this same cultural mandate into the Scriptures as well. We imagine the parable of the good stewards (those who invested their talents of money and made a profit) to be stories of how God praised and rewarded them for their productivity and usefulness. We fail to wonder what actually constitutes faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God.
More than this, we are tormented by the abiding and increasing messiness of our lives and world. The cultural myth runs deep in our psyche. We experience guilt and shame in the face of entropy, knowing that we could have done better and should have done more. For some, such thoughts are the very stuff of insanity. They have more than occasionally been the stuff of great evil.
The darkest moments of the modern world have come as a result of various plans to “improve” things. The Modern state found its first great champion in the efficiencies of 19th century Prussia (later Germany). Rationality was elevated to new heights, not just on the philosophical level, but across the board. The result was an efficient state, an effective army, and a policy of improvement for the world that created two world wars, genocide and a legacy of darkness that has yet to be dissipated. Other visions of a better world sought to remove the irrationality of religion and any number of other “messy” human pursuits. And although it is popular among the new atheists to blame religion for human conflict, religion is purely amateur when compared to the ruthless efficiencies of the rationalized state.
The sad drama of contemporary Christianity is marked by the “improvements” of “productivity” and “effectiveness.” “Better” Church has given us increasingly silly and ill-invented forms of the Christian faith. Old mainline denominations are shuttering their buildings with increasing frequency as their once efficient forms fail to keep pace with the rapid morphing of the contemporary scene.
And it is here that I will point out one of the great virtues of Orthodox Christianity: it is irretrievably messy. It operates with a set of canons that have remained unreformed through the centuries. Some are so old that the date of their origin is lost in speculation. Its messiness is visible to all the world – particularly in such problems as the over-lapping jurisdictions that seem to serve as a constant embarrassment. It is a situation that others point to with derision. It is being addressed at the present time, though it remains to be seen whether the problem will be corrected in the lifetime of anyone now living. I am not confident.
The Orthodox life is simply messy (when it is properly lived). For it is not a way of life given to us in order to tidy up the planet. It is a way of messiness, or a way to live with messiness. Christ trampled down messiness by messiness (to paraphrase). Death is chaos, for those who have understanding. And we need fear chaos no more than we fear death because of what Christ has done and is doing.
The world around us is simply messy, chaotic and marked by the workings of entropy everywhere. And though we “dress it and keep it” we must not curse it or despise its “weediness.” And we should recognize and resist the abiding temptation of our times to fix everything. Rather than create jobs and insist on a living wage, we declare a “war on poverty,” much like our forebears fought the “War to End All Wars.”
As the present state of things seems increasingly chaotic (Covid, politics, and the like), so our anxiety grows. The call to alarm can be heard from every corner, including some within the Church. The injustice and disorder of all things presses on us as a threat to our existence (or so it feels). We crave for an order (“normality”) to be restored and can only imagine it as the result of better management. Regardless of whatever temporary measures might be inacted, the messiness of the world will reassert itself, given time. There is a logos within creation, an order that reflects the Divine Logos, through whom all things are made. It is, however, an order that must be discerned within the apparent messiness.
“All things work together for good,” is probably the boldest proclamation of messiness that I know. Many are quick, even nervous to note that the sentence goes on to say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” That is certainly true. And His purpose doesn’t seem to be about making the world a more tidy place, only in making us to be like His glorious self.
*The photo is of an abandoned trailer in the northwest part of South Carolina. It is the home to which my parents retired, and thus became “home” for my family for a time. It is slowly being swallowed by nature.