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Escaping or Being in the World?

Over the past several months I have been revisiting some of my favourite books. I’ve gone back to the fantastical people and landscapes of Diana Wynne Jones, the quiet but fire-fueled feuds of Barchester, and the gently lapping waters under the bows of the Swallow and the Amazon. William Brown, Lata Mehra, and Bertie Wooster (one can only imagine the conversation these three would have) have accompanied me through 2020. Given the surprises this past year has thrown at us all, it’s comforting to sink back into a well-known story and know what’s going to happen next. Added to this, there’s an element of nostalgia for a past in which things appear simpler: in most of these stories events run their course in a well-ordered and quiet world, and that’s comforting too.

It seems I am not alone. Articles have sprung up in newspapers across the world about how people are finding comfort in a heavy dose of nostalgia in these challenging times. From reading to baking, from sourcing vintage furniture to organising lantern parades in the neighbourhood, nostalgic yearning for a past, seemingly better, world is seeping up into many parts of our lives.

This nostalgia for a fictional past hides the need for escapism that we all feel at times. Escaping into books, films, or the satisfaction of curating the perfect 1930s living room gives us respite and recharges our batteries. The problem is, of course, that if we retreat too much into this fictional world, we lose our connection to the present, the real world. The more we snuggle down into the comforting blanket of seeing the past, or indeed any ‘elsewhere’ as an ideal place, the less we invest in what is happening in the here and now. This can have its upsides: it’s exhausting to keep up with every news bulletin, every tweet, every update. We end up feeling swamped by ceaseless new information, and it’s important to step back and remember not to be entirely caught up in the cycle of news. But equally, we can’t ignore it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the twentieth century German theologian, has some helpful things to say about the human propensity to disconnect from the reality of the world. For Bonhoeffer, this propensity is particularly present in what he calls the homo religiosus, the religious man. For the religious person, there is a strong temptation to ignore the world and reach out to a God who is beyond the world. In this way of understanding our situation, we are stuck in the world and God lies beyond it, flying in from time to time to solve problems and help us out, playing the part of the deus ex machina of Greek tragedies. This view, argues Bonhoeffer, is based on a misunderstanding of how God and the world relate to each other.

For Bonhoeffer, God and the world are reconciled in Christ. This means that those who desire to be disciples of Christ must take the world seriously, and not seek to escape from it. Those who distance themselves from the world in order to try to live a purely “spiritual” life are not in fact doing the will of God, which Bonhoeffer describes as “nothing other than the realization of the Christ-reality among us and in our world.” As he develops this idea further, Bonhoeffer will later claim that key aspect of taking the world seriously is to suffer alongside God as God suffers in the world. This means not shutting the sufferings of others out, as they might taint the cozy world we have painstakingly built for ourselves, and crucially for Bonhoeffer, being prepared to suffer on behalf of others.

This is a difficult view to consider at what is already a difficult time. But it gives theological legitimacy to the actions of all those who have put their personal priorities on hold to help counter the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, be it by returning to medical work from retirement, delivering food parcels to those forced to self-isolate, or choosing to spend festive seasons at home so as not to put others at risk. This view can of course be broadened to include all those who choose to engage with the reality of the world instead of retreating into their own personal fairyland.

The good news is that we can both engage in the reality of the world and read our favourite books. Even Bonhoeffer, the rigorous Lutheran pastor, allows time for that.