The Stoics believed that the whole world was destined to go down in flames in a great cosmic conflagration, only then to be remade and to start all over again. Of course, for them history was (viciously?) cyclical–this process of universal dissolution and reconstitution would go on forever and ever.
Whether or not that’s true on a cosmic scale, as the Stoics thought, on a human scale it sure feels that way sometimes. Things fall apart and things get better and things fall apart…’round and ’round it goes. The practical answer to this, according to the Stoics, is to put on a brave face and to try and be as emotionally detached as you can. Don’t take things to heart, whether good or bad.
Sometimes life feels like a sloooooow downward spiral. And when you feel that way, the dismal philosophy of Stoicism isn’t a bad way to go if you’ve got the spine for it.
I never did. I’ve always been much more likely to take things to heart, to get butterflies in my stomach, to get tied up in knots, to get excited about things, to revel in victories and to despair over losses. I’d make a lousy Stoic.
At any rate, the Stoics referred to the great turn of the ages when the whole world would start over as the palingenesia— the “again creation,” or the “renewed creation” or “genesis anew.”
Interestingly, Matthew uses this word, too. When Peter, having learned that it’s tougher for a rich person to enter the kingdom than to squeeze a beast of burden through a needle’s eye, forlornly asks Jesus what hope there might be for they who had given up everything to follow him, Jesus replies:
Truly, I say to you, in the new world (en te palingenesia), when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters of father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
There’s a lot packed into those few lines. Jesus here flatly refers to himself in terms of Daniel’s Son of Man (see Daniel 7) and also in such a way as to imply his role as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. His future rule will reward those who have sacrificed on His behalf, will put those on the bottom on the top and vice versa, and, apparently, will create the whole world anew.
What sort of world am I living in? When things go downhill, what do I look ahead to? What kind of palingenesia, if any, do I look ahead to to process, cope-with, think through life’s disappointments? It’s worth asking myself, practically speaking, am I a rubbish Stoic or a Christian? Do I look ahead and see nothing more than an endless cycle of ups and downs? Or do I see a winding, rocky, and narrow road with a new day at its end? Do I try to put on a brave face and just shrug things off? Or do I embrace life’s hurts, looking to him who hurts with me and who, through his incomparable hurt, creates the world anew? It’s the difference between just keeping a stiff upper lip and living in hope. The former requires you to keep life at arm’s length, the latter requires you to run at life with arms wide open.
For my part, I am wired to be a half-hearted Stoic but want desperately to be a whole-hearted Christian. That’s a tall order–taller than could be encapsulated in a video montage–requiring what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” But I’m definitely in. So who’s coming with me?