Thinking In A Time Of Crisis

As this year has unfolded, we have been confronted by one crisis after another with barely a chance to catch our breath. The phrases “unprecedented events” and “uncertain future” are now employed so frequently it has become impossible to use them unironically. Nonetheless, it does seem clear that we are in uncharted waters—yet another well-worn phrase—and that no one has any clear sense of what comes next. Indeed, the notion that we could predict and forecast the future with relative accuracy is one of the myths that have been most dramatically exposed as such. And, as many have noted, the events of early 2020 have also revealed the underlying weakness of many of our institutions. They have disclosed the ill health of the body politic and accelerated the decline of public trust.

A crisis can simultaneously call for thinking and make it difficult to think. Crisis generates a sense of urgency and pushes us to ask “What must be done?” often with little time to consider what is happening or why. Typically, the sources of the crisis are complex and multifaceted. It can be hard for any one person to take in all the parts or see how they fit together as a whole. Indeed, as the crisis unfolds many observers will experience events as if in a fog, unsure of where they are or where they should go.

The element of time is an often unperceived factor in our anxiety about figuring out what should be done. At what temporal scale ought we to be thinking? Or, better, at what temporal scales, plural, ought we to be thinking? What are the proper temporal horizons framing our moment? The experience of an unfolding emergency, the rapid pace at which situations evolve, the steady flow of unabated information, the temporal structures of social media—all of these compress our experience of time into an eternal present, obscuring the fact we must think not only about the present, but in light of the past and with a view to the future.

The danger is that we may come to feel that there is no time to think, on the one hand, and, on the other, that we despair of thinking or acting because we do not know what to do right now. Daily we are confronted with injustices far and wide, and, while we want to do our part, it is hard to know what exactly we should do when we are removed from the immediate context of the ills and harms we wish to redress. It is a problem Søren Kierkegaard identified long ago just as the telegraph made it possible to receive daily news from places far and wide. He feared that we would become desituated and detached spectators, whose capacity for action would be sapped.

Without minimizing the need, under certain circumstances, to act justly and responsibly in the moment, we should also consider expanding the temporal horizons within which our thinking and acting must unfold. We should consider not only what we must do about what is happening right now, we should also consider what we must do with a view to the next year, the next decade, perhaps even the next century and beyond. From that vantage point, we have more time to think than we imagine, more time to consider the past, too. Within this longer frame of time, more meaningful actions also come into view. If I am fixated on the moment, and my circumstances, as is often the case, afford me no obvious way of acting in the present crisis, then I might conclude there is nothing for me to do at all. But if I begin to think of the need to build new institutions or lay the foundations for cultural change that will unfold over many years, then new possibilities emerge as does the space to think deliberately about what ought to be done. We must meet urgent needs with urgent actions, but we must also recognize the need to think deliberately and patiently about problems and issues we can only address over the long haul.

The struggles we face are severe and their roots run deep into the fabric of society and the structure of our institutions, and they are presently before us in striking and disturbing fashion, but let us not despair. Let us pray and think together as we are able. Let us act as we have the light to do so. Let us take hope, too, in the work of God in our midst. Let us love our neighbor. Let ever seek to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.


Study Center Resources

Pascal’s remains open for both online ordering and dine-in service. Please do feel free to spread the word that we are open and ready to serve.

In this week’s Dante reading group, we will be covering cantos 11-13 of the Inferno. If you’d like to connect with group, please email Mike Sacasas at mike@christianstudycenter.org.

Be sure to check out the archive of resources available online from the study center. Classes and lectures are available at our audio archive. You can also peruse back issues of Reconsiderations here.


Recommended Reading

— Breaking Ground is a new media project from Plough, Comment, and the Davenant Institute. In this essay, “From Ashes,” Susannah Black explains the groups purpose and vision:

“But what we are building is, we think, one of the things needed right now: a media project and community that is an attempt at a wise response to an unprecedented time; a response that both accompanies readers and contributors through this time, and helps us think together about what might come afterward. Because the third major aspect of the Breaking Ground project is to imagine, and work for, a future that is profoundly better than that half-forgotten world of December 2019. This is an opportunity. To build this now is to take responsibility for the moment we are in, and to respond in such a way that, when we look back, we will see blessing, and see that we were able to be a blessing to others.”

— From the Book of Common Prayer (1928):

“Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

— Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:

“Those most prone to accuse others of utopianism are generally those men and women of affairs who pride themselves upon their pragmatic realism, who look for immediate results, who want the relationship between present input and future output to be predictable and measurable, and that is to say, a matter of the shorter, indeed the shortest run. They are the enemies of the incalculable, the skeptics about all expectations which outrun what they take to be hard evidence, the deliberately shortsighted who congratulate themselves upon the limits of their vision.

They include the fourth-century magistrates of the types of disordered city which Plato described in Book VIII of the Republic, the officials who tried to sustain the pagan Roman Empire in the age of Augustine, the sixteenth-century protobureaucrats who continued to do the unprincipled bidding of Henry VIII while Thomas More set out on a course that led to his martyrdom. What these examples suggest is that the gap between Utopia and current social reality may on occasion furnish a measure, not of the lack of justification of Utopia, but rather the degree to which those who not only inhabit current social reality but insist on upon seeing only what it allows them to see and upon learning only what it allows them to learn, cannot even identify, let alone confront the problems which will be inscribed in their epitaphs. It may be therefore that the charge of utopianism is sometimes best understood more as a symptom of the condition of those that level it than an indictment of the projects against which it is directed.”