“HUMANKIND CANNOT BEAR VERY MUCH REALITY”
That from T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets, his “answer” to the problems he raised in The Wasteland. Or at least I think it is. I didn’t understand The Wasteland the first time I read it, and my comprehension hasn’t improved much since.
Few lines capture the central neurosis of our age better. Our relationship to reality is not an uncompromised one. It is tarnished, marked by sin, and the refusal to bear responsibility for our actions in it. At the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, Lewis wakes in a fit of horror because he has seen a glimpse of the reality beneath the shadows, the fixed eternal that is the accumulation of a million choices distended through time, and he cannot bear the sight. God, we hear in those pages, is the Fact to whom the universe answers, and the Fact on which all other facts depend. It is a point worth contemplating.
My own generation, the “millenials,” love to talk about being “authentic.” And well we should, for whatever else happens, we cannot fail in honesty or veracity to that which we are—in Christ.
But as Eliot reminds us, authenticity isn’t easy. Rather, it is the most difficult thing of all. Acknowledging the reality of who we are is the sort of enterprise that will inevitably fail unless aided by grace. The moment we claim to “know ourselves” is precisely the moment when we are most prone to self-deception, especially if that knowledge is not mediated to us by the Word of God.
Our age is one of deep confusion about the nature and authority of reality, and one of endless amusements to help us avoid it. We are, to return to Eliot, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” working tirelessly to avoid God, our neighbors, and ourselves. No generation has been able to bear reality—ours is simply the first that has been able to construct a virtual alternative that is more to our liking.
But avoiding the truth is a fool’s game, for the Fact that we avoid is one named Love. Truth and grace have met in the person of Jesus Christ, the Beloved Disciple tells us, and inasmuch as we are in Him we will see them both in equal measure. In Him we can bear all the reality he gives to us, for He gives it to us according to our measure.