Friday, 15 May 2009

Failed hopes and faith

Let me begin by a little bit of background. Around 10 years ago Wales was granted some degree of independence within the complex geographical unit that is the United Kingdom. Its governing body, the Assembly (which seems to increasingly bear less and less resemblance to the benign and competent Assembly of my novels), has both jurisdiction and funding control over a few limited areas. One of those areas is education. Recently, partly due to pressures caused by the recession and partly due to what seems to be incompetence, they have managed to cut funding to many schools and colleges that provide education for our 16- to 18-year-olds. One of those badly affected is my college, where we have something like a £400,000 shortfall.

I hasten to add that our academic record is exemplary, but these days being good doesn't seem to be enough. (Actually, it seems that you are better off being a poor performer because the trend is to throw money at failures rather than successes.) Well this week we were told that there would have to be major cuts and various drastic measures including increasing class size and reduced course options. I have been moderately badly hit by this. From teaching almost nothing but geology I will now have to diversify into geography and a wider area of environmental studies. And, on current numbers, I will have class sizes of around 24. Now of course all this may change (prayers are welcome) but the mood has been pretty glum in college and I have to say I have felt pretty discouraged. Had it been financially feasible I might have been tempted to hand in my resignation this week on the grounds that educational standards are likely to be compromised. But it wasn’t feasible. I consoled myself with the thought that I once ran an academic department that survived a direct hit from a tank shell, an assassination and an invasion. So I will try to grin and bear it.

Anyway, what I have found interesting is that a number of people who are more badly affected than me are less fed up about it. Some of them are not, as far as I know, Christians or believers in God. This raises an issue that I have noticed before: Christians can get upset and worked up over things that other people are largely unaffected by. In fact it may even be – I have no figures to prove it –that there are slightly higher numbers of depressives in Christianity than outside. What’s going on here? How does this square with our songs of joy and our talk of victory?

A full answer would require a book and a lot of time. I suspect though that a major factor is that we very easily fall into a gulf between the world as we believe it ought to be and the world as it actually is. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine you are an atheist of a Dawkinisian hue: how do you view the world? I suspect you would see it is as an imperfect place full of temporary ad hoc solutions due to working of that interminably slow, blind and extraordinarily clumsy giant Evolution. On such a view the failure of an educational policy, the triumph of bad over good, the destruction of something – or someone – worthwhile is just one of those things that happens in a messy meaningless and godless world. ‘Things are a mess!’ we protest, but our Evolutionist simply responds: ‘What right have you to expect anything otherwise?’ As Shakespeare has Macbeth say: ‘life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’

The Christian, however, takes a different view. For one thing, we have higher hopes; we believe that good should triumph, that evil should be punished and that in every way things ought to get better. I am not here being rude about atheists (although if you ask me nicely I will be) but I do believe that we Christians dream higher dreams. So our expectations are higher. We would, though, go even further. We believe in a God who has not only created the universe but also supervises it. On this basis we have feel certain that when some dirty deed is done, God as the cosmic referee will blow the whistle and cry ‘foul!’

On this basis you can see that we expect life’s little tales to have happy endings. And, all too frequently, they don't.  If you understand this you can see why perhaps we more easily get depressed when unrequited nastiness occurs or unjudged stupidity triumphs.

There are two answers to the conundrum we find ourselves in. The first is to lower our expectations – and that I am reluctant to encourage; I feel we must always aim high and hope for the best. The second is to remind ourselves that we do not here see the full picture. As the old image goes, what we see is merely the back of the great tapestry and here there are many random and tangled threads. We have not yet seen the real end of the story.

I am not of course defending depression; if you are suffering from it I wish you a speedy recovery. But if it is the depression caused by the gap between high idealistic hopes and a dismaying reality then you deserve every sympathy. Far better to dream and be frustrated than not dream at all.

Have a good week!