Realism vs. Idealism

The Bible has both, but which one gets the last word?

There is that famous depiction of the human conscience which has an angel whispering in one ear, and a devil murmuring in the other. The image helpfully reminds us of a strange tension that exists in each one of us. We are pulled in opposite directions by vice or virtue, and offered differing rewards by the prospect of good or evil. The propensity towards such different ends — this is the remarkable potential of humankind.

Daniel L. Migliore says this:

“We human beings are a mystery to ourselves. We are rational and irrational, civilised and savage, capable of deep friendship and murderous hostility, free and in bondage, the pinnacle of creation and its greatest danger. We are Rembrandt and Hitler, Mozart and Stalin, Antigone and Lady Macbeth, Ruth and Jezebel. ‘What a work of art,’ says Shakespeare of humanity. ‘We are very dangerous,’ says Arthur Miller in After the Fall.”

Whilst our society is quick to categorise certain people as having mental illnesses — and rightly so, in order to ensure proper care — we all hear voices in our heads. I wonder whether we ought not hasten to distance ourselves too much from ‘the diagnosed’, as though we ourselves suffer no symptoms of our own. Perhaps what is most frightening to us about mental illness is that it is at once peculiar and strange yet strikingly familiar.

Our minds are busier places than we realise, often full of noise and congestion. At times our minds can be the greatest of friends, affirming us in that which we do. Yet in the shortest moment things can turn sour, and our minds attack us with self-critique and doubt. We are confident, self-assured, and positive. But we often descend into hopelessness, fear, and dread.

Am I alone here? Am I the only one who feels this tension? It is a pulling between such extremities of elation and despair; an excitement for life followed by a feeling of purposeless; a rapid movement between the highest and lowest of thoughts.

No, I am not alone. Even though it’s rarely spoken of, I know that I am not the only one. In the Bible is found poetry which documents some this feeling, and it is here that I find company. There is a strange co-existence of hope and the lack thereof which mirrors my own daily experience. Whatever else might be thought of the Bible, and however much it is criticised or ignored, it cannot fall under the charge of being unrealistic. Here in an example:

“I lie down and sleep; 
I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.”
“I am weary with my moaning;
 every night I flood my bed with tears; 
 I drench my coach with my weeping.”

Don’t we all find this to be our experience: sleeping soft and sound one night, only to be restless and disturbed the next? I find the Bible’s realism haunting. It tells me about myself, unearthing thoughts and feelings I had tried to bury and hide out of sight. Oftentimes, this is the ‘pull’ of the Bible and this is the hold it has on me — its raw honesty. When I have no one who seems to understand me, there is a place to which I can go.

But the good news is that the Bible offers us not only a parallel for our own experience. We are not left with mere empathy. It also offers us a solution; one that is hinted at in some places, and gloriously explicit in others. Put simply, the solution culminates in Jesus, whom Christians call ‘the Christ’ — lit. ‘the anointed one.’ And so when Paul writes his letter to the Philippians, he can say this,

“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

O For that supernatural peace, which surpasses any other and transcends any ordinary offering of the world, which guards and protects us from the roller-coaster ride of life. Where is stability? Where is security? The Christian faith will not point you to a ‘teaching’, but to a person: Jesus. The Christian faith says, “The Lord is near.”

The Bible is profoundly realistic in documenting the human experience in ways to which we can all relate. But, fundamentally, the Bible also tells us of a resolution, one that goes beyond faint idealism, in which we can have hope. It comes through knowing Jesus.


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