The future never comes as we expect it too.

When moderns have imagined what life will be like fifty or one hundred years hence, they have often fancied utopian or dystopian societies, filled with strange new technologies. However, when the future actually arrives, it never feels as we expected it to. It is not that we lack remarkable new technologies—we have 100,000 times more processing power in our back pockets than sent Apollo 11 to the moon fifty years ago. However, it all feels so… normal. There is some disconnect between the objective technological and societal realities and the existential states that we presumed they would elicit.

The same is true of societal changes. For instance, the percentage of US wealth controlled by each successive generation has plummeted—Baby Boomers owned 21% of the nation’s wealth at age 35, Gen Xers only 9%, and Millennials will have to triple their net worth in the next four years to catch up with their preceding generational cohort. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rate of those married under thirty are about a third of what they were in 1960. Despite birth rates falling precipitously, births out of wedlock are many times higher than they were in 1960. Even deeply unsettling social changes like these can occur without people really registering them on an existential level.

Conservatives have often presented pessimistic portrayals of social developments, warning of futures that—statistically, at least—quite resemble the present. However, for the most part it does not feel to people as though their predictions have come to pass. Hearing the predictions, they expected it to feel rather different, like living through a catastrophe ought to feel.

Venkatesh Rao described this phenomenon in a 2012 piece, ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous’:

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate—a mix of natural, emergent and designed—that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak. To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

There are times when the manufactured normalcy field slips away or can no longer be sustained and something of the hidden yet true character of society appears through. For instance, seeing recent civil unrest many have compared the images on their screens to various dystopian societies, while not considering some of the ways in which we might have been living within a developing, yet unevenly distributed, dystopia all of this time and never realized it.

Perhaps one of the most jarring experiences for me over the past few months on this front has been witnessing the development of the coronavirus crisis. In the UK, we have already passed 40,000 deaths, well north of many of the early projections for the measures that we have taken and still climbing.

However, the surreal thing is that, for many, it really does not feel anything like what they thought it would feel like to live through a pandemic. It is not that the deaths of the virus are radically lower than what was expected (the worst case scenarios and projections were never expectations). Rather, it is that they expected death to feel a great deal nearer.

The British response to the virus has largely been one of rallying around the much-loved National Health Service (NHS). The local churchyard now flies an NHS flag. Children placed pictures of rainbows in the windows of their houses with messages of appreciation for health and other front-line workers. In neighbourhoods across the land, people came out of their houses at 8pm on Thursday evenings to clap in appreciation for the NHS ‘heroes’.

The NHS has never been so prominent in the national consciousness, but it is truly remarkable to see how little the deaths of over 40,000 people have registered. And, as a more general point, it is truly remarkable to see how little the deaths of over 40,000 people can register.

Soldiers returning from wars have often commented upon the disconnect between them and people at home and their struggle to communicate the nature of their experiences to people who lacked conceptual frameworks to understand them. As soldiers they both have exposure to terrifying and disorienting realities stripped of their normalcy fields—of sometimes horrific realities that can unman men. Yet they also can develop new normalcy fields that render those realities a lot less strange than some might imagine them to be.

Over the last few months, NHS employees have often been described as ‘front-line workers’. In this case an analogy with warfare, something that is often inapt and unhelpful, is illuminating in some key respects. In both cases, there is an encounter with the reality of death at the front line, an encounter that the front line bears so that the rest of us can largely be spared it.

There have been a few occasions during this crisis when the reality of death did feel nearer to the public consciousness. When our prime minister, Boris Johnson, was moved into intensive care for his worsening coronavirus symptoms it felt closer, for instance. However, for the most part, awareness of death has been successfully confined to the front line and to the obscurity of the myriad private bereavements that the virus has inflicted, although even the awareness of these has been much dented by restrictions upon funerals.

We are very aware of the importance of the ‘front line’, but perhaps especially because it shields us from the encounter with death that lies upon it. We may occasionally hear reports from the front line, yet it can feel exceedingly far away. My brother is working in a care home, where coronavirus got into one thirty-person unit. Now a third of them are dead. That could not seem further away from my own life, where, even in lockdown, things proceed much as they have always done. Indeed, some have been fooled by the success of the manufactured normalcy field, to the point of not believing that any real crisis ever existed. Our ‘normalcy’ itself has been fetishized, without consideration of how it has been constituted by the denial of death.

I wonder whether, rather than focusing more directly on medical services as Kimbell Kornu does in his conversation starter, the purpose of modern medicine could better be perceived by focusing on how it serves to sustain a world without the awareness of death for the rest of us. Hospitals and health services are a buffer against a reality that may be unassimilable to modernity and a set of manufactured normalcy fields that inure us to the world we actually inhabit. Medical professionals are like priests in the sense of intermediating for us with powers that we don’t want to face directly.

Modernity, however, lacks the capacity successfully to reckon either with life or with death. When life can never overcome death, merely stave it off for a time, death’s shadow lengthens over life. Such ‘life’ is thin and tragic, a life condemned to the ultimacy of futility. Such a life will be unable truly to face death and, even as it does whatever it can to turn away from it, can only imagine itself in terms manifesting its thrall to it. And, as is the case with such things, life starts to assume some of the characteristics of its moribund master.

When reading of the post-Fall judgments in Genesis 3, we too readily think of them merely in terms of punishments. Yet, from another perspective they could be regarded as mitigations of and gracious constraints upon evil in the world. One of the effects of the introduction of death into the world, for instance, is to force us to reckon with our ‘end’, not only in the form of our biological terminus, but—spurred by the presence of such a terminus—in and beyond it with the horizon of our fundamental purpose. A world without death for fallen humanity would be a world in which sin could develop unarrested and unchecked by consideration of humanity’s end. In Ecclesiastes 7:1-4, Solomon declares:

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

In a fallen world, it is the grave that recalls life to its gravity. Without the alterity of the ‘matters of death’ it is difficult for us to recognize the weightiness of the ‘matters of life’.

In a powerful and moving video, Kevin Toolis, the author of My Father’s Wake, describes the experience of his father’s wake, in an island off the coast of County Mayo. Where death can be faced directly, life is lived differently. Death remains an enemy, but not an enemy from which we must cower.

Perhaps the practice of medicine is only part of the picture and much more may depend upon the wider practices and character of our societies, which serve to frame what the practice of medicine represents. A far greater concern may be the way that even in the culturally marginalized life of our churches, death is an unfamiliar presence. Deaths are privatized by a radically mobile society and by the generational stratifications of popular culture, where intergenerational relationships beyond immediate family are much attenuated. The memento mori that used to fill and surround our churches have rapidly diminished. How many new church building projects have graveyards, rather than just car parks, in their plans? Funerals are drifting more in the direction of private rather than communal occasions. The crowd that once surrounded the deathbed has thinned out as it has disappeared behind the doors of hospital and care home corridors. Instead of reminders of death, our churches increasingly exhibit a tragic cult of youth and levity.

If we are wisely to speak to the practice of medicine, perhaps we must first put our own house in order. The Christian faith has historically long been imagined as a practice in the art of dying well. Christians meditated on the deaths of the martyrs and the deathbeds of the saints. We gave our deaths to each other as the capstone of our witness to our risen Lord. If we are to resist the deathliness of modern society and the priesthood of modern medicine, this might be where we need to begin.


Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged

Next Conversation

The future never comes as we expect it too.

When moderns have imagined what life will be like fifty or one hundred years hence, they have often fancied utopian or dystopian societies, filled with strange new technologies. However, when the future actually arrives, it never feels as we expected it to. It is not that we lack remarkable new technologies—we have 100,000 times more processing power in our back pockets than sent Apollo 11 to the moon fifty years ago. However, it all feels so… normal. There is some disconnect between the objective technological and societal realities and the existential states that we presumed they would elicit.

The same is true of societal changes. For instance, the percentage of US wealth controlled by each successive generation has plummeted—Baby Boomers owned 21% of the nation’s wealth at age 35, Gen Xers only 9%, and Millennials will have to triple their net worth in the next four years to catch up with their preceding generational cohort. Perhaps not coincidentally, the rate of those married under thirty are about a third of what they were in 1960. Despite birth rates falling precipitously, births out of wedlock are many times higher than they were in 1960. Even deeply unsettling social changes like these can occur without people really registering them on an existential level.

Conservatives have often presented pessimistic portrayals of social developments, warning of futures that—statistically, at least—quite resemble the present. However, for the most part it does not feel to people as though their predictions have come to pass. Hearing the predictions, they expected it to feel rather different, like living through a catastrophe ought to feel.

Venkatesh Rao described this phenomenon in a 2012 piece, ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous’:

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate—a mix of natural, emergent and designed—that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak. To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

There are times when the manufactured normalcy field slips away or can no longer be sustained and something of the hidden yet true character of society appears through. For instance, seeing recent civil unrest many have compared the images on their screens to various dystopian societies, while not considering some of the ways in which we might have been living within a developing, yet unevenly distributed, dystopia all of this time and never realized it.

Perhaps one of the most jarring experiences for me over the past few months on this front has been witnessing the development of the coronavirus crisis. In the UK, we have already passed 40,000 deaths, well north of many of the early projections for the measures that we have taken and still climbing.

However, the surreal thing is that, for many, it really does not feel anything like what they thought it would feel like to live through a pandemic. It is not that the deaths of the virus are radically lower than what was expected (the worst case scenarios and projections were never expectations). Rather, it is that they expected death to feel a great deal nearer.

The British response to the virus has largely been one of rallying around the much-loved National Health Service (NHS). The local churchyard now flies an NHS flag. Children placed pictures of rainbows in the windows of their houses with messages of appreciation for health and other front-line workers. In neighbourhoods across the land, people came out of their houses at 8pm on Thursday evenings to clap in appreciation for the NHS ‘heroes’.

The NHS has never been so prominent in the national consciousness, but it is truly remarkable to see how little the deaths of over 40,000 people have registered. And, as a more general point, it is truly remarkable to see how little the deaths of over 40,000 people can register.

Soldiers returning from wars have often commented upon the disconnect between them and people at home and their struggle to communicate the nature of their experiences to people who lacked conceptual frameworks to understand them. As soldiers they both have exposure to terrifying and disorienting realities stripped of their normalcy fields—of sometimes horrific realities that can unman men. Yet they also can develop new normalcy fields that render those realities a lot less strange than some might imagine them to be.

Over the last few months, NHS employees have often been described as ‘front-line workers’. In this case an analogy with warfare, something that is often inapt and unhelpful, is illuminating in some key respects. In both cases, there is an encounter with the reality of death at the front line, an encounter that the front line bears so that the rest of us can largely be spared it.

There have been a few occasions during this crisis when the reality of death did feel nearer to the public consciousness. When our prime minister, Boris Johnson, was moved into intensive care for his worsening coronavirus symptoms it felt closer, for instance. However, for the most part, awareness of death has been successfully confined to the front line and to the obscurity of the myriad private bereavements that the virus has inflicted, although even the awareness of these has been much dented by restrictions upon funerals.

We are very aware of the importance of the ‘front line’, but perhaps especially because it shields us from the encounter with death that lies upon it. We may occasionally hear reports from the front line, yet it can feel exceedingly far away. My brother is working in a care home, where coronavirus got into one thirty-person unit. Now a third of them are dead. That could not seem further away from my own life, where, even in lockdown, things proceed much as they have always done. Indeed, some have been fooled by the success of the manufactured normalcy field, to the point of not believing that any real crisis ever existed. Our ‘normalcy’ itself has been fetishized, without consideration of how it has been constituted by the denial of death.

I wonder whether, rather than focusing more directly on medical services as Kimbell Kornu does in his conversation starter, the purpose of modern medicine could better be perceived by focusing on how it serves to sustain a world without the awareness of death for the rest of us. Hospitals and health services are a buffer against a reality that may be unassimilable to modernity and a set of manufactured normalcy fields that inure us to the world we actually inhabit. Medical professionals are like priests in the sense of intermediating for us with powers that we don’t want to face directly.

Modernity, however, lacks the capacity successfully to reckon either with life or with death. When life can never overcome death, merely stave it off for a time, death’s shadow lengthens over life. Such ‘life’ is thin and tragic, a life condemned to the ultimacy of futility. Such a life will be unable truly to face death and, even as it does whatever it can to turn away from it, can only imagine itself in terms manifesting its thrall to it. And, as is the case with such things, life starts to assume some of the characteristics of its moribund master.

When reading of the post-Fall judgments in Genesis 3, we too readily think of them merely in terms of punishments. Yet, from another perspective they could be regarded as mitigations of and gracious constraints upon evil in the world. One of the effects of the introduction of death into the world, for instance, is to force us to reckon with our ‘end’, not only in the form of our biological terminus, but—spurred by the presence of such a terminus—in and beyond it with the horizon of our fundamental purpose. A world without death for fallen humanity would be a world in which sin could develop unarrested and unchecked by consideration of humanity’s end. In Ecclesiastes 7:1-4, Solomon declares:

A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

In a fallen world, it is the grave that recalls life to its gravity. Without the alterity of the ‘matters of death’ it is difficult for us to recognize the weightiness of the ‘matters of life’.

In a powerful and moving video, Kevin Toolis, the author of My Father’s Wake, describes the experience of his father’s wake, in an island off the coast of County Mayo. Where death can be faced directly, life is lived differently. Death remains an enemy, but not an enemy from which we must cower.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALT8zbjnjkY

Perhaps the practice of medicine is only part of the picture and much more may depend upon the wider practices and character of our societies, which serve to frame what the practice of medicine represents. A far greater concern may be the way that even in the culturally marginalized life of our churches, death is an unfamiliar presence. Deaths are privatized by a radically mobile society and by the generational stratifications of popular culture, where intergenerational relationships beyond immediate family are much attenuated. The memento mori that used to fill and surround our churches have rapidly diminished. How many new church building projects have graveyards, rather than just car parks, in their plans? Funerals are drifting more in the direction of private rather than communal occasions. The crowd that once surrounded the deathbed has thinned out as it has disappeared behind the doors of hospital and care home corridors. Instead of reminders of death, our churches increasingly exhibit a tragic cult of youth and levity.

If we are wisely to speak to the practice of medicine, perhaps we must first put our own house in order. The Christian faith has historically long been imagined as a practice in the art of dying well. Christians meditated on the deaths of the martyrs and the deathbeds of the saints. We gave our deaths to each other as the capstone of our witness to our risen Lord. If we are to resist the deathliness of modern society and the priesthood of modern medicine, this might be where we need to begin.


Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged

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