So it’s the New Year, a time for reflection and change. Reflection is important, but it’s also somewhat depressing. Change, on the other hand, is fun and exciting. Unfortunately, it’s also mostly illusory.
The illusion of change can come in many forms. Political change has been an enormously popular topic for a while now, as both presidential candidates made it the focus of their campaigns. Barack Obama did so more successfully than John McCain, and on Jan. 20 Obama’s going to get sworn into office. Some folks are celebrating the change he’s promised to bring, while others are dreading it. The most deluded celebrators are convinced he’s going to turn the economy around and give everyone a pony; the most deluded dreaders, meanwhile, are convinced that “Obamageddon” is just around the corner, what with his seemingly contradictory but apparently terrifying combination of Muslim extremism and wussy, hippie, peacenik socialism. The truth lies, um, nowhere near either of these outcomes, of course.
This is not to recycle the old argument that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, because they’re all the same. Candidates are, in fact, different. Some are better than others, and a bad president is no fun to suffer, as the last eight years have so helpfully illustrated. It’s just that, in contemporary American politics, the best- and worst-case scenarios are not as drastic as in other times and places. George Bush has been about as bad a president as America has ever had, and, while he has caused plenty of problems, the country’s still intact and systemically stable. It’s not as though we’re living in Zimbabwe all of sudden. A great president can do more long-term good than a bad president can do long-term harm, but even then programs are always at risk of budgetary constraints and infrastructure is always at risk of falling apart.
So Obama might be a bad president or he might be a great president, but whatever changes he makes will be at once incremental and temporary. A president has only so much control over the economy, and, barring some terribly misguided Hooveresque policies, it will hopefully straighten itself out. Troops will leave Iraq, slowly, and then they’ll go off to fight somewhere else. Some form of universal healthcare will almost certainly be enacted, finally. Some of the stuff Obama does will work, while some of it won’t, but none of it will, for better or worse, be irreversible. As with all political change, even if Obama’s changes aren’t entirely illusory, they certainly won’t be permanent.
More traditionally, the New Year is a time for the illusion of personal change. We make resolutions. Then we break them. We say we’re going to stop smoking. Or stop drinking. Or start exercising more. And then we don’t do any of those things. Me, I’m making a resolution to stop swearing so much. We’ll see how it goes, but I have to admit that I’m not holding out much hope. Maybe we just don’t take these things seriously enough. My big plan to stop swearing, after all, is to, um, stop doing it. Or maybe our cynicism works against us. I did just, after all, admit that I don’t actually think I’ll be able to achieve my goal. Or maybe it’s just really hard to change ourselves. It’s probably a combination, but that last one is the heaviest. To a certain extent, we are who we are.
One of the most appealing attributes of Christianity, then, is the prospect of real change. Evangelical churches focus heavily on becoming born again. That is, accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior and dedicating yourself to doing God’s will. In evangelical circles, this is always understood as occurring in a singular moment that you will remember for the rest of your life. It’s supposed to be a kind of epiphany or revelation.
This is consistent with the biblical account of Saul of Tarsus, found in Acts 7. Saul was on his way to Damascus when he was struck blind by the Lord, only to be healed three days later by the disciple Ananias and filled with the Holy Spirit. Before the event, Saul had been one of the most zealous persecutors of Christians. Afterward, he became Paul, author of the epistles and missionary extraordinaire. Most born-again experiences are, I’m sure, not quite so dramatic, but they are of the same idea. And the outcome of the experience is supposed to be change, both in what you believe and the way you behave.
Not all Christians are born again, but all do try to live their lives according to the precepts of Christian morality. But the emphasis is on the word try. Despite the fact that Christianity is supposed to change you, you often end up doing the same old things. Even Paul struggled with this reality, as the book of Romans indicates. The oft-quoted first chapter includes a long list of immoral behavior. Chapter two is quoted less often; in it, Paul asserts that Christians have no right to pass judgment on others, because they are doing the very same things. That they do those things concerned Paul greatly, as Christians are indeed supposed to behave better. And yet they don’t. Christians are supposed to be changed, and yet, so often, they don’t act like they are.
So are Christians really changed? The evidence, actually, appears to be no. Sure, some people can turn they’re lives around through faith, but they are the outliers. The change that Christianity, or any other religion, provides is largely illusory, just like the change of politics and New Year’s resolutions. For the most part, we are who we are. As Paul notes in the third chapter of Romans, being Christian doesn’t make us any better than anyone else, any more righteous. And, as per Job, it doesn’t make us any less likely to get struck by terrible events or suffer depression, either. And, contrary to the teaching of prosperity Christianity, it certainly won’t make us wealthy. Really, Christianity doesn’t seem to have any earthly benefit at all.
So what’s the point then, right? Why even bother to be Christian? For that matter, why bother to make resolutions? And why bother to vote? We might as well ask why we bother to try to do the right thing at all.
But we try for the sake of trying. We vote to try to make the world a better place and make a difference. We make resolutions to try to improve ourselves. And we follow our beliefs to try to do all of that and more. Trying is important, because it’s all we can do, even if reflection proves it to be largely futile. Depressingly enough. Which is why one should never write a column about reflection at a time when everybody’s focusing on change. So, damn.