by Steven Garber
Have you seen the cartoon where the professor has written out an incredibly complex mathematical equation on the two whiteboards in the front of the classroom? Numbers and letters, plus and minus and multiplication and addition signs throughout? At the very bottom of the right hand corner there is an “equals” sign, followed by the word: “Whatever.”
Whatever. Whatever. Sometimes simply used, often cynically offered, it has become the word that is the finger-on-the-pulse of our moment in history. There are days when it feels like it is not too much to call ours “the culture of whatever.”
And yet most of us understand that it cannot be. Whatever is not a big enough word, as it does not describe a big enough world.
It misses the meaning of the story that came out of Africa in 2003, for example. Nine years after the genocide in Rwanda, the International Criminal Tribunal judged that the three journalists who incited the Hutus to massacre the Tutsis, writing words such as “Let whatever is smoldering erupt….” were guilty because they were responsible for the words they wrote. With freedom of expression came responsibility, the court argued.
Whatever. No, a thousand times — the blood of 800,000 Rwandans cries out against it. We need a larger word, for a larger world. Vaclav Havel, the great playwright who became a political prisoner who became president of Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union imploded in 1989, offers this probing thesis: the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility. Eloquent, persistent, in forums all over the world he has argued that if we lose God then we lose the ability to speak meaningfully about responsibility.
Why does this matter to him? As a Czech he understands that it would be only too easy to feel victimized by history; if in one decade it was the Nazis, then in another it was the Communists. The tanks rolled in, again and again. As a people they were oppressed on every level. But Havel is astute enough to understand that if a people takes on the identity of a victim, then there is no future. And he is wise enough, honest enough, to know that if God is gone, then so too is responsibility.
The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility. Havel sees where the line in the sand is, culturally, philosophically, historically. Few have the courage of conviction to see it as clearly. On what basis can we, do we, act responsibly in history? To see ourselves as “able to respond,” and therefore responsible?
Often poignantly, sometimes very playfully, these questions were at the heart of the novels of Charles Dickens, and perhaps most plainly in A Christmas Carol. Over the decades filmmakers have offered several takes on this classic, and there is no city of any size that misses the opportunity to tell the tale one more year on stage. We love to see Scrooge and Tiny Tim come to know and love each other, even as we reflect again on the meaning of human life under the sun.
There is a scene during the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present, where Scrooge is looking over the festive table of the Cratchit family. He has seen their happiness, even with the frugal meal they have eaten. Pondering Tiny Tim’s “God bless us every one!” Scrooge muses aloud about the future, wondering what it will be for the Cratchits. “Spirit, tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” The Spirit responds, “If these shadows remained unaltered by the Future, the child will die.” Scrooge protests to no avail.
In one of the great moments in literary history Christmas morning comes, and Scrooge is surprised by the joy of being alive — and alive, still human, and therefore responsible. He can choose to speak and act on behalf of Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family, altering the Future.
Amidst the carols and bells, with the commercialization of most everything dear, Christmas is still a time for remembering to remember that God has come into history, and therefore we have a sufficient basis for making choices marked by grace that echo across time, for making decisions shaped by truth that ripple through history. Whether our vocations require us to confront the horror of genocide, the sickness and poverty embodied in an individual home, or a million other situations that come to us in the context of our callings, we are able to respond, responsible, and that is good news from heaven above — because it is the secret at the heart of our humanity.
In stark contrast, “whatever” is never a big enough word, as it never describes a big enough world.
Steven Garber is the Director of the Washington Institute (www.washingtoninst.org) and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (Second Ed., 2007).