Wednesday, July 1, 2009

All for the Best

It was at about this point last year, in the midst of a prolonged exchange with a neoatheist, that I was first exposed to the word panglossian. Neoatheists love pitching out obscure vocab, because it makes you feel unusually potent and rational.

I had no idea what it meant, of course. I looked it up at the time, and it means a range of different things, depending on the usage.

One full rotation around the sun later, I found myself encountering the word "Pangloss" again in my reading, only this time in the original context. Gotta love that serendipity.

The word derives itself from Dr. Pangloss, the tutor in Voltaire's Candide. Pangloss is a second-rate philosopher who mooches off of the easily-dazzled court of a small provincial German lord, while simultaneously helping himself to the charms of some of the serving girls. He's found his niche, and a combination of Leibnitz and wenches have convinced him things are great, the best they could possibly be. That philosophical conviction continues, even when things turn considerably for the worse.

Generally, panglossian refers to the belief that every little thing is going to be all right. Or, rather, that the current reality is the best of all possible realities. It's Pollyanna fatalism, a passively cheery nihilism that sees no point in anything other than just thinking the current reality must be destiny, or Providence, and that nothing could possibly any different.

This almost works for me. Almost. It does have a certain stoic appeal, and it also sounds rather nicely off of the residuals of my Calvinistic tendency to view things as predestined.

But I'm not entirely Calvinistic. A mechanistic fatalism simply has no place in a faith that is directed outside of the processes of time and space. Christianity orients thems of us who follow the Nazarene radically beyond those processes that define the structures of being around us. While it can certainly give us a deep and abiding patience and ability to endure, it ultimately does not involve quietism.

"Letting go and letting God," as some Christian Panglossians might say, cannot mean just sitting on your hands and smiling feebly. If you're really oriented to and transformed by a reality that infinitely transcends our own, the impact that orientation has on your life does not involve passivity in the face of injustice, bigotry, greed, or any of the other poisons that eat away at our lives together.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: faith is inherently progressive.