He Plants His Footsteps On The Sea: Faith Matters
Published on: April 17, 2011
show comments
  • Anabaptist raised cynic

    Your argument that change is driven by impersonal forces contrasts strangely with your Christian weltanschauung. I’m not a theologian or scholar, but as I recall events in the Bible were caused by personalities. Punishments endured by indivduals and peoples, particularly the Israelites, were the result of their sins. Mr. Mead in your world there are no sinners, or rather, there are no American sinners. Americans are simply the victims of cruel forces- unleashed by who?- and a turbulent world.

    America’s current crisis is definitely a result of our sins: bellicosity, hubris, and greed. After the fall of the Soviet Union we had a chance to abandon militaristic triumphalism and dismantle the Military Industrial Complex, which has, as Eisenhower pointed out in quasi-biblical fashion, literally taken food out of the mouths of babes.

    The collapse of the middle class was made possible by collusion between greedy elites and venal politicians who played on the fears and greed of the middle class. Unlike many, I don’t see the middle class as blameless in all of this. We let Reagan convince us that proletarian hordes were ready to take our homes. We let Clinton and Gingrich send the jobs overseas, in each instance stating that people need to adapt and isn’t my portfolio doing great.

    Ignoring the revolutionary nature of unfettered capitalism and a cult of greed and personal fulfillment, we saw the collapse of family and collective morality. Who was to blame? Hollywood and Homosexuals is the obvious answer, while we ignore how many of our neighbors are on spouse # 2 or 3 thanks to no-fault divorces, our children’s identities are the result of marketing, and we are witnessing potential generational warfare as the futures of Social Security and Medicare are discussed. Call me a cynic, but I suspect the “Me” generation will not sacrifice as their lives come to an end, instead they will engage in maudlin claims of victimization as they pass on the wages of their sins to their children and grandchildren, to the last blaming everyone but themselves.

    But perhaps you are correct, impersonal forces are to blame. In that case Christian morality with its emphasis on right and wrong and personal responsibility is not appropriate in discussing our reality.

  • S P Dudley

    “Second: God wants us to grow”

    Finally, someone gets it.

    We’re not here just to suffer and endure. We’re here to be “co-creators!”. That quote sums up so much about the human experience here, and it a very needed pickup.

    You can list out that litany of problems, but in fact there’s only one: leadership. We’ve been lacking a true leader in this nation for the last 70 years, always looking to this president, or that media figure, to tell us what to do. The truth is, we’re the leaders we’ve been waiting for, and it just takes the courage to do the right thing and persuade others to do the same. We don’t need another to fill in the blanks for us, what we need is the freedom to lead ourselves. God does the rest.


    Shawn Dudley

  • wes george

    Though I’m no longer a Christian, I am something of a student of history. This essay brought me close to tears.

  • Xpat

    I loved this essay. Contra Anabaptist, I feel that it helps me get my bearings in specifically Christian terms. Never did I sense that the author was denying moral agency and it seems like Mr. Anabaptist is arguing with someone and something else, and not the actual author or essay. For instance, WRM writes:

    “The answer that Christianity gives to the ancient problem of why a good God allows evil to exist really comes down to three things. The first is that God plays for keeps. He creates for real. When he chose to make beings with free will he accepted this meant he would let their choices stand. For better or worse, we are co-creators of the world with God and what we do and what we choose counts. Our acts have real consequences.”

    How does that break down to impersonal forces or denial of responsibility? I think theologians call it “moral evil” when one suffers for one’s own evil choices, or–innocently–others’ evil choices. I think Anabaptist (obviously a very smart person) should reset and re-read.

  • T

    Dr. Mead,

    In a discussion with a good friend, I recently posed the proposition: What if God’s being is our becoming? That, in a sense, WE are the sensory “organs” through which God experiences the very universe that s/he created and that by our becoming, God continues to experience His universe?

    I believe that Santayana was absolutely wrong. We are ALL condemned to repeat history because we are all fated to re-learn the same human experience of dealing with this world with each succeeding generation. “I Am Who Am,” His stasis is our dynamic re-growth.

    You have versed this much more eloquently than I have yet been able to.


  • herb

    Somewhere somebody decided to quit capitalizing pronouns that reference the Deity. It clanks. Does that make me a Reactionary Conservative?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      I don’t think it’s personal. The trend in English to reduce the number of capital letters is general. I do, however, object to those who refuse to capitalize the word “God”. If Bambi and Frodo can have capital letters, I don’t see what, other than infantile rudeness, makes even atheists write ‘god’.

  • noahp

    See also Palin, Sarah.

  • Luke Lea

    Mead: “The US is fighting three wars now. Our budget deficits are out of control. The country is divided and uncertain; nobody knows how to fix the educational system, the pension system or the health system. Nobody knows what will happen, or should happen, in the Arab spring. Will China continue to rise into a challenging superpower until the whole world is caught up in a Chinese-American contest to be number one? Will the living standards of the American middle class decline from year to year? Will I, or will you, dear reader, get terrible news from the doctors next week — about ourselves or about someone we love?”

    You got that right.

  • “The twentieth century was more of the same: change came at us faster and faster . . .” until, at last, we emerge into the sunny uplands of stasis perhaps?


    Is there no room for utopian projects anymore?

  • Luke Lea

    ” I do, however, object to those who refuse to capitalize the word “God”. ”

    Seeing that the word “God” is a proper noun. It refers to a peculiar Hebraic conception of divinity which has played a major role in the unfolding of European history, culture, and civilization. As distinct from the Greek conception of Zeus, for example, or the Teutonic conception of Thor. The word “god” by contrast is generic: it refers to nobody’s conception in particular.

    There is an unfortunate tendency in modern discourse to lose sight of these distinctions, reflecting ignorance of these historical traditions. I blame the universities for this.

  • Anthony

    “He creates for real….For better or worse, we are co-creators…and what we do and what we choose counts. Our acts have real consequences.” In sum, WRM recapitulates humanity’s quest since human organization to both make since of its world and to struggle with its neighbors’ existentialism. Despite progress, we yet struggle with these questions and Holy Week can provide pause/ reflection.

  • karl

    Dr. Mead:
    I find it incomprehensible that an intellect of your stature would invoke the Abrahamic God, or “Faith”, as an avenue to making sense of the world. In quoting that “God moves in mysterious ways”, you perpetuate the fundamental rationalization of those who are unable to accept the ultimate realities: that all are destined to die, without redemption, and that the universe was not created for the sole benefit of we humans by a providential and interventionist super-father-in-the-sky. The fact that these rationalizations (or, in reality, children’s fairy tales) inform your thinking detracts mightily from your credibility as a thinker of substance. Have you really regressed to that time before Hobbes and Spinoza and Locke, the men who gave us the Enlightenment, which is the very foundation for Western civilization? The same Enlightenment which threw off the yoke of ecclesiastical authority and renounced religious superstition, and implored grown men and women to stand before Nature’s realities and accept their natural place in that reality? Have you, a staunch defender of Enlightenment Western values, not embraced the core of those values, which is the primacy of Reason over Faith? If not, Sir, then I grieve for the future of the Enlightenment, which I consider to be the most magnificent achievement of humankind.

  • Jonathan

    @Karl: If the final end of things is as you claim, then why be so concerned about the magnificent achievements of humankind? In such an “enlightened” perspective, we are of no more consequence than a rock — we are just a different arrangement of atoms. I do not see why we should be concerned about anything besides maximizing our own pleasure and benefit in such a world as that. This is not much of an argument for faith, I admit, but I would rather live as though there is redemption, that my life truly matters. In such a world as you propose, my vocation as a musician would become that of an entertainer at best, if not a con artist who appeals to misguided notions of beauty. Having children would be foolish, as would dying for one’s country or even one’s family.

  • Anthony

    The inquiries of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc. as well as the demise of “ecclesiastical authority” has not preempted man’s universal exploration for meaning beyond himself. This search entails ‘faith’ for many without the reduction/diminution of ‘reason’ as embraced by the enlightened mind. Man can embrace reason and maintain faith without rationalization or superstition or incredulity.

  • Luke Lea

    Quoting karl: “Have you really regressed to that time before Hobbes and Spinoza and Locke, the men who gave us the Enlightenment, which is the very foundation for Western civilization?”

    A case can be made that the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, justice, and equality are themselves Biblical in origin. All three find copious expression in both the Old and New Testaments. French anti-clericalism has tended to obscure this connection, as indeed did the Catholic Church itself, never a big fan of the laity reading the Bible in the vernacular.

  • Barbara Piper

    @Karl and @T:

    “Dr. Mead”? Do you know something the rest of us don’t?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Another great thing about Brazil: anybody there with a college degree is often called Doctor.

  • “God wants us to grow. God throws us into deep rivers with swift currents because he wants us to learn to swim. He hasn’t created humanity to be a troupe of harmless lambs gamboling across sunny pastures. We are made in God’s image and intended to grow into beings greater, more capable, more far seeing, more loving and more true than we can imagine today. He pits us against real challenges with real consequences, natural and historical — the wrath of volcanoes and the upheavals in the economy — to bring us closer to the fulness of being he intends us to reach.”

    I wonder (again): Why DOES God pit us against volcanoes?

    Is it in order to drive home to us how ultimately small and helpless and insignificant we are? Or is He rather challenging and goading us to manufacture our own significance? Perhaps to become “bigger” – to conquer the volcano force for force, and to match (if need be) its fierceness with another, more rational and controlled (as well as controlling) ferocity of our own?

    I can see, on the one hand, how the precariousness and fragility of our lives may serve to remind us of how little the world depends on us, and what a small difference we ultimately make, and therefore of our need to order our lives on a smaller (perhaps less “potentially cataclysmic?”) scale. OR maybe the point of our smallness is to drive us to become giants; to subdue the – for now – unsubduable gigantic things around us; to construct our lives on an inhumanly grander scale – a scale more commensurate with the terrors of comets and asteroids and erupting stars. Personally I have little doubt we as a species shall eventually match and exceed the force of natural calamities in our efforts to control them – we’ve always done so before – and the success of our greater manipulative power will yield, if nothing else, the illusion of security and predictability until the next crisis, natural or human (or both), erupts. And YET, within those “illusions” – those large or small “islands” of stability within time and space – what extraordinary things we’ve been able to do! Things sometimes bold and brave and successful enough to convince us there’s nothing we humans can’t subdue and control.

    And who’s to say we’re wrong? Certainly the God of Genesis 11:6 seems to be of the same mind: that there’s nothing we humans can’t accomplish – or overcome – once we put our heads together. And yet, if we are to judge from His subsequent statements and actions, He appears to take a rather dim view of such a victory. So why DOES He confuse the tongues at Babel? Is it merely to make our lives more difficult and turbulent, where otherwise there’d have been too much of the kind of peace that kills growth and development? Aha, so THAT’S all we wanted – the kind of total control that may stir things up for a bit, but where the final harvest is to be one of lasting peace and contentment. Thankfully we have a God determined to kick us out of every comforting nest we create.

    What an arresting possibility, then – that God may have been troubled at the prospect of a too-lethargic humanity at Babel, and so dispersed them to maintain the turbulence and instability necessary for human progress. Certainly it’s a far cry from the anything-but-lethargic picture of man one gets on the eve of the Flood – that busy, resourceful, vengeful race on account of whom, we are told, the earth was filled with violence. And yet note how that same violence was accompanied by all sorts of inventions and material improvements. Say what you will against Antediluvian Man – he was no slouch, no stay-at-home. And while I’m sure he didn’t brook much in the way of interference from God, that doesn’t appear to have stopped him from playing God himself, or from interfering in the lives of his weaker, slower or more stupid neighbors. In short, the pre-Flood earth under Cain’s descendants appears to have been a most challenging place, with little if any opportunity to enjoy a quiet life. And nary a harmless lamb gamboling across green pastures. You’d think God might have appreciated all rambunctious man had done to transform the earth he’d been given, or to be a catalyst for yet further change. But, lo – what do we find Him doing a few verses on? Repenting “that He had made man on the earth.”

    To be sure, after the Flood there did ensue a kind of peace. (Observe: God does challenge and even thwart man. But sometimes it’s at least as much by slowing him down as by speeding him up.) All that hustle and effort and turbulence and progress – gone in the space of 40 days. And for what? – merely so that man could be up and about and busy doing again? Or is there the bare possibility that God meant Noah and Sons also – amid all the vineyard-planting – to stop, and pause, and ruminate on all that had happened? So that maybe, this time around, we might do things a bit differently? Or at the very least, proceed to our inevitable ruin more slowly? I may be inferring far too much from the Noahic and Babel narratives. But it would seem that the God of early Genesis is far more concerned about us ambitious humans revolutionizing the cosmic order too quickly, than about us never getting there through want of initiative. Our behavior in these stories may suggest a lust for certainty and predictability – but it hardly implies a people reluctant to change or grow. Or, again, one that is infatuated with the quiet life.

    And even allowing that some of us are much less go-ahead than others, is that even roughly the greater balance of our nature, but for God’s periodic pot-stirring – the love of ease and ”peace,” the avoidance of upheaval? Isn’t Man even now, on occasion, known to be a pretty nasty cataclysm in his own right, and on his own initiative – whether simply to relieve boredom, or to vindicate his sense of superiority over his fellows, or to create challenges and then overcome them (and so further reinforce his sense of superiority)? Or even, just maybe, to be “all the best that he can be” – regardless of who gets in the way, or whom he CHANCES to hurt or step on? Was Lucifer asking anything more, or more unreasonable?

    Look closely at the energetic, enterprising “wicked” described throughout Psalms and Proverbs. Whatever else the phrase “hands that are eager to shed blood” may mean, it doesn’t sound like anyone looking for a particularly smooth, elegant or predictable way of life. And whatever one may say for or against a life of violence, it is certainly a way of living with uncertainty, and of rising to and overcoming challenges. Neither does the Scriptural author sound like he’s describing an attribute confined to a narrow, anomalous human segment, as opposed to a more imbedded strain, broad or narrow, running through all our race. “The way of peace they know not.” That’s always sounded to me more like a complaint than a commendation. And not just about the Hitlers and Nebuchadnezzars of the world.

    Again, I have no doubt God has created a very challenging universe for man. The question for me is whether and how far He intends that same initiative to reside with us – whether He wants, or approves of, our creating or mutating a still more challenging universe based on the whims, perversities and obduracies of a fallen nature. If the stories of early Genesis mean anything, it is that we tried that sort of thing once or twice before and each time He stopped us dead in our tracks. Evidently it was not the sort of growth He had in mind. Nor do our present patterns of creating, rising to, embracing or overcoming challenge appear to be all that different from our Biblical ancestors’. Oh, I’m sure they’re making us “greater and more capable,” as well as more aggressively ambitious, and more productive of turbulence and uncertainty in our own and others’ lives. Perhaps they’re also making our downtrodden elements “more far-seeing, loving and true”(-hearted?). But what about the rest of us bullies?

    As for the theological value of the lamb imagery, I notice it’s an image fairly regular in its recurrence throughout Scripture. Could it perhaps symbolize the simplicity, trustfulness and innocence intended by God – by the One who makes us lie down(!) in green pastures – to be the one surest soil of ALL fruitful human growth? As distinct from the sort of frenzied progress arising out of the Cainite experience of a harsh, seed-rejecting soil? There can be no doubt God wants us humans to grow – and that He can use both natural and human cruelty and calamity to expedite that end. But grow HOW – and towards what end? Are we here merely to amplify and intensify – to take “to the next level” – the patterns of competitiveness, domination and subordination (and occasionally extermination) we see already at work within “nature”? Or are we occasionally even there, as St Francis put it, to try to make ourselves the “channel of His peace”? To “seek peace and pursue it” – even in those unlikely, forbidding places that have never known peace, but only upheaval?

    Note that both Jesus and Muhammad enacted changes of great turbulence in the world. Both came not to bring peace, but a sword (albeit two very different kinds of sword). Yet observe also how very differently – and with what different degrees of glory and honor – both men died. So where do you suppose is the real image of God in man to be found? In pride or humility? At the head of world-changing armies, erupting like a volcano out of Arabia? Or proceeding slowly, gently, deliberately, from so unlikely a place as the wounds of a nameless man, abandoned by friends to die on a cross?

  • Kate

    For those who don’t know God — sorry. Of course faith is incomprehensible in the circumstance.

    As to the blog itself, what is discouraing me at the moment are not the big things of current events that are horrific or terrible. What frightens most is our culture, especially the “American” culture of a nation that so largely considers itself or calls itself Christian. Where we are sickens. Therefore, this message that the awfulness of the world is about growth is really encouraging. I am not looking forward to the process, though.

  • Keith

    Mead: “He wants us to face challenges … He wants us to ‘be all that we can be’, and he won’t take anything less.”

    And when tens of thousands of children are killed in the tsunami that gives me the opportunity of being my best, I guess that’s the price they pay for my having more of God’s opportunities.

  • Keith

    Luke Lea: “A case can be made that the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, justice, and equality are themselves Biblical in origin.”

    That’s only because the Bible can be used to make a case for or against anything you can imagine.

    Freedom? Equality? While the Confederate churches that used Biblical verses to justify slavery were morally wrong, they were on the winning side of a theological argument; there’s little in the Bible to condemn slavery, and quite a lot more that presents slavery as moral behavior.

  • Zacceaus

    God warns us of the certain consequences of our choices, but we don’t listen. We’re like 2 year old kids arguing with Grandma. We think we know better, so He lets us suffer the real results of our choosing. God hates arrogance, that false assurance that come from not remembering how much we don’t know. Idolatry is the art of forcing God into a mold more of our liking, but He scorns our efforts, and allows us to test for ourselves what the limits of our our false “gods” are.

  • Dave

    “He pits us against real challenges with real consequences, natural and historical — the wrath of volcanoes and the upheavals in the economy — to bring us closer to the fulness of being he intends us to reach.”

    So you are saying that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_P somehow lived up to his fullest potential? Or that the “upheavals” he experienced brought out the intended “fulness of being” for those that repeated chose his fate?

    “He keeps throwing us into the deep end of the pool when we still aren’t sure we can swim without water wings; ”

    He seems to throw toddlers into the deep end of the swimming pool even when they demonstrably cannot swim.

    If this fiercely loving God “shares” in this world, it is more like a voyeur, endlessly “sharing” the experience of a parade of 3d high-res reality snuff tv.

  • Voss

    Wow, just wow. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much woo concentrated in one place.

    “God never gives you more than you can handle”

    Please tell that to the people who died in the Japan quake or the tornadoes. You can’t handle much of anything when you’re dead.

    “He pits us against real challenges with real consequences, …to bring us closer to the fullness of being he intends us to reach.”

    So he kills kids with cancer so that they can reach their fullness of being? What is “fullness of being”, and how much of it can you have when you’re 5?

    It’s interesting that you only deal with human suffering. Most humans don’t die by being eaten alive, yet that’s a fate suffered by millions of animals everyday. Is that just another example of god’s love?

    Please, drop your wishful thinking and see the world for what it is. Good and bad things occur at random, and there’s no one who can help us but ourselves.

  • Sam Ailor

    Walter, this [ gratuitously disrespectful grammatical error involving capitalization corrected — ed] God you keep droning on about, next time you’re chatting with him, suggest that he leave me out of his plans, ok?

    The normal day to day kind of [disliked substance — ed] is bad enough without a low-functioning retarded sociopath making things worse.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Mr. Ailor: I find your attitude odd. If there is no God, then bitter hostility to this non-existent being is a deeply illogical attitude. Serene indifference both to the concept of a deity and toward those delusional fellow beings who vainly worship it would seem to be the sane and balanced approach. What about this idea makes you so angry and upset? Why would you care what a delusional idiot like me says to a non-existent being like God?

      My suggestion, sir: try not to care so much about a God you don’t think exists — and give thanks to whatever entity or force you believe shapes the world that America’s Christians believe (as the overwhelming majority of us do) in tolerance and free speech. Long may you go on venting your spleen and speaking your mind about other people’s religious beliefs with no fear of repercussions. And if despite my advice you find that the idea of God continues to make you unreasonably angry, you might want to ask what there is about this concept that you find so hard to shake.


  • Sam Ailor

    Walter, you desperately need to [unpleasant suggestion deleted — ed]. You urgently need to get a sense of humour as well because the [G]od you believe in shorted you on yours.

    And this tripe: “gratuitously disrespectful grammatical error involving capitalization corrected — ed]” Disrespectful to whom, Walter? You? Where’s the corresponding respect to my view? This [G]od fellow? He can send me a memo. Or is it that you’re defending [G]od, Walter? Have you really considered just what sort of [G]od would need to be defended by you?

    And lastly this: “Serene indifference both to the concept of a deity and toward those delusional fellow beings who vainly worship it would seem to be the sane and balanced approach.” Walter, what you suggest would be entirely appropriate if the topic was Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny…but you and religionists in general follow an utterly irrational belief in the supernatural, a hateful, vain and arrogant belief that has caused vastly more grief and death than any man can tally. Not only do you not deserve respect or tolerance, you should be subjected to all possible derision and scorn until you start to grasp reality for it is you and poeple like you who have held Humanity back since the first [G]od was invented.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Have a nice day!

  • Sam Ailor

    Stunning riposte, Walter, carry on defending the indefensible. But do tell me, do you think your Invisible Friend is impressed by your capitalization fetish?

  • Dave X

    My bitter hostility is directed towards those that seem to excuse all manners of evils visited upon the apparently innocent (Baby P) as justified by some inaccessible ethic.

    I’m fine with accepting uncertainty in the world. But not at all fine with redefining uncertainty and clear evils (Baby P again) as justifiable collateral damage visited upon us by some warped sense of order. Did Baby P deserve what he got? Was his short tortured life justified as a means to some inscrutable end?

  • Lallie

    This wonderful essay is making the rounds. Thanks.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.