Tuesday, March 2, 2010

on limitedness

There are a lot of options available for explaining what’s gone wrong with our society. Blame it on the break down of the family, or on the influence of television, or our glamorization of sex and violence in media. Blame it on turning our backs on God, or on the federal government. Blame it on materialism, racism, sexism, feminism, classism, or egotism. I do not want to negate the vailidity of any of these options, but to offer another option, that I think underlies and perpetuates any problems that we already face: unlimitedness.

God created limits. He created springtime and harvest. He created day and night. He gave us the earth and our families. He created the Sabbath. A detrimental effect of industrialization and globalization has been the obliteration of our consciousness of such limits.

Hear me out.

Our country and its wealth were built upon the folly of unlimitedness. Colonialism, imperialism and slavery draw deeply from the unbridled lust for more. These forces say, “It is conceivable to make more money, to have more land and to spread our influence further…Do it.” It is clear to me that our enslavement of Africans came not from a hatred toward people with dark skin, but from an inability to recognize limits. We saw that more money could conceivably be made in a growing season, and we did it, with conscience as our only limit. And conscience doesn’t often put up much of a fight against cash. Now we have gotten rid of slavery, but unlimitedness is more alive now than ever. The symptom is gone but the cause remains. Unlimitedness is an axiom that defines us. And as a people unlimited, we will always enslave and oppress.

There is a natural, God-created order in seasons. The Bible’s wisdom literature tells us, “There is a time for everything.” Because of our technological and globalizing leaps, though, we now know that truth only in theory. We can have food which is out of season, grown by farmers in lesser-developed countries, ready for us to consume whenever we want, year round. Our homes are heated and cooled to a “perfect” temperature, so that regardless of the season, it always feels the same inside. Our knowledge of the limitations and structure that seasons bring to our lives is gone. Developed countries re-write the biblical passage to say, “Now is the time for everything.”

Another limit God gave us was dependence on land and on our families. We were all born somewhere, from some woman, and in that moment were given community and a place. Modernization and globalization have made us isolated individuals committed to no place and no one else. Getting up and leaving the place and people that brought us up is expected. I’ve written more on this here.

God created day and night, and I believe he did so as a gift that told His creatures when to start and stop work. Because of electricity, we are now capable of operating outside of the naturally created day-night boundary we were given. And the more we operate outside the natural boundaries, the more we forget there are boundaries at all.

And this must be the deepest problem. Not that we are unlimited in the particular ways that I am highlighting (and in dozens others as well), but that we have no knowledge that limits can and should restrain us.

All affronts on limitedness require counteraction to lessen their consequences. Our independence of land and manual labor has made us weak. To offset the weakness that urbanization and its resultant sedentary lifestyle have wrought, we can buy memberships at gyms to use machines, which can replace work, which used to keep us healthy and strong. It's a run-on sentence. Air travel breaks the earth-sky separation that God created. Counteracting its effects on our atmosphere will require the energy of our most brilliant scientific minds before it demands restraint on we who ruin the atmosphere.

I believe the beginning of much wisdom is saying “no” to the things we are told we have to have, the things we have to do, and the full-throttle pace we have to keep. We are wise to limit ourselves. And I believe a good place to start in keeping limitations is with the Sabbath. The Sabbath is different from the other creations, because it is also a command. There is nothing we can invent to counteract a command, as we can, say, seasons or place or community, or day and night. No matter how far we advance (or retreat) as a society, the command to keep the Sabbath holy; to rest, will still be there. I think one point of the Sabbath is that we recognize our own limitedness. Wisdom says, “work six days, and rest the seventh, even though there is more that you could do. Stop. Rest. Go this far, and no further.”

The tower of Babel was built by a people who did not understand where they should stop. But God’s limits humanize us. They remind us who we are as creatures subservient to Him, and that all we do must be done with a head not cocked to our glory, but bowed to His.


cPOINTe said...

B this is good word. I too believe this is the root of many evils. I am going to share this blog with three of my friends. Two of which are pastors who are pushing into racial reconciliation and the third a friend who is always becoming more active in the Kingdom.

Thank you for sharing your heart

- Nick

chad said...

Brian, I always appreciate your words.

Your comments on the sabbath are powerful.

I believe actually, the sabbath and even moral law itself are more an insight into our potential power as human beings, in a sense, our ability to transcend our limits to accomplish great things.

It is also an insight into our inability to properly use that ability to transcend limits in a way that is healthy for ourselves and others.

If you think about it, the sorts of problems we're having today from operating outside "natural boundaries" have been the same sort of problems that the wealthy have always had. God gave specific instructions to the wealthy to help them use their power, knowing that the power associated with wealth is very dangerous and can destroy a lot of people.

So here we are in the industrialized world in the 21st century with a concentration of wealthy people who don't have any idea how use this power properly, or, as you said Brian, where they should refrain from using it. (I mean wealthy by international standards.. the person living in section 8 housing working at walgreens is wealthy).

chad said...

Brian, as I reread your post, when you say "limits" do you mean "limitations" or "boundaries" ?

Brian Stipp said...

I hadn't thought about the connection between wealth and limits, only that natural limitations are now gone from our consciousness. This is an interesting idea. What is one or two scriptural examples you have in mind when you say, "God gave specific instructions to the wealthy...."

Also, what is the distinction you see between limitations and boundaries? In my mind, I'm talking about both.

Karen said...

Is it a coincidence that a special educator has a special understanding of limitedness, or is this part of what your students teach you about the world?

Holly said...

im all for limitedness...simplicity...slowing down...boundaries. But if we are facing converting lusting greedy folk to this ideal. hmm. There is a deeper satisfaction in Jesus...a soul filling makes letting go and limiting yourself...possible, I think, no?

Brian Stipp said...

I hadn't considered limitedness's impact to Special Ed. until reading your comment. I am mostly frustrated by the limits I face teaching Special Ed., so I guess I should do some thinking on how the societal problem manifests itself in my work.

I think you're right. When I am not satisfied by Jesus I run around like-a-chicken-with-my-head-cut-off. At least in my heart I feel like I am. In these instances I can't limit myself because I have to prove myself; I certainly can't entrust the proving to anyone else! (Ugg)

I wonder if you're getting at something else. Are you suggesting that if we turn to Jesus as a society, our societal ill of unlimitedness will begin the process of curing? or are you saying that on an individual level, those who are greedy could begin to limit themselves by first turning to Jesus?