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We can’t go back, so let’s go forward

The loss of normal times means new opportunities

I’m old enough to remember a time when I didn’t start columns with “I’m old enough to remember.” When flower children roamed the earth, singing along with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a song called “Woodstock” expressed their hope of humanity’s new dawn:

We are stardust, we are golden / We are billion-year-old carbon / And we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.

We know how that turned out.

Everyone seems to agree by now that we’re on the edge of seismic change, and prominent features of the culture we knew will never be the same. Joel Belz’s column “No Path to Normalcy” laid out some hard facts about going back. The unknown has overtaken us, packing fear and dread. Once again, Utopia is canceled.

Over the sweep of human history, don’t we see plenty of One Way signs at every major intersection?

Here are some things we probably won’t be going back to, or at least not anytime soon: cheap air travel; cheap consumer goods; huge sporting events, conventions, conferences, and festivals; restaurant meeting rooms; traditional higher education; urbanization; megachurches; and the careless expectation of a life without risk.

But looking over the sweep of human history, don’t we see plenty of One Way signs at every major intersection? Genesis lays out the pattern. There was a time when we had the perfect life, capped by communion with God Himself, and we threw it away. We can’t get back to the Garden. There was a time when humans lived for centuries, free of disease, creating farms and tools and music—yet used their longevity to increase in violence and wickedness. Post-Flood, we can’t get back to 900-year lifespans. There was another time when humans employed their technology and communication skills to aspire to the heavens, only to be confounded and scattered through the earth. We can’t get back to the plains of Shinar.

Since then, human ambitions have collapsed with some regularity, but humanity always claws its way out of the ruins and builds the remains into something new, both for better and for worse. The last empire to convulse the globe brought about a world war that cost upward of 80 million lives and left Europe in ruins. But it also led to postwar affluence, a surge in consumer goods, an uneasy ban on traditional warfare, NATO, victory in the Cold War, and the state of Israel.

In every case of collapse, we can’t go back. And ultimately that’s to the good, because the God of history is leading us forward. Trying to get back to the Garden—an ideal state of harmony and plenty—tends to breed just the opposite.

That’s not to say the future looks rosy. Danger and difficulty may lurk on the road ahead. As government waxes in crisis mode, freedom wanes, and yet—the bigger government grows, the more incompetent, leaving gaps to fill. We may be headed for a more controlled economy, but it won’t look like China’s, or even Switzerland’s. An enterprising, entrepreneurial spirit is buried deep in American DNA, and an opportunity for it to flourish is opening up.

Here are some things that are likely to survive, and even thrive, in the near future: homeschooling, home cooking, camping and outdoor activities, national and state parks, homegrown softball leagues, online everything, the Interstate Highway System and road travel, crafts and trades, and extended families rediscovering community.

And we may see a smaller Church, but also—God willing—a leaner, more energized Church whose resources are pared down to the Holy Spirit alone. That’s all the 120 believers in an upper room on the morning of Pentecost had, and they built a kingdom.

“New normal” is a term I’ve come to dislike intensely. It’s said with a sigh of resignation to reduced circumstances. But God never takes away without also giving. We can’t go back to the Garden, but He’s building us a city. In between is a pause—a very pregnant pause. What will we do with it?