The other day, as I was driving down the road, I saw a young man standing at a bus stop with a black shirt on, with one word in big, bright capital letters written across the chest: WHATEVER. It occurred to me right away that this one word encapsulates one of the chief philosophical competitors to Christianity in our day: total apathy.
I didn’t much care for high school, mainly because, in my experience, one of the chief accepted ways of covering one’s social insecurity was by projecting a personal ambience of nonchalance. It was the established method for trying to get other people to notice you: look like you don’t care whether they notice you (the trouble, of course, was that other people were too busy curating their own persona of nonchalance to be free to notice yours). One of the most dangerous things you could do, it seemed to me, was appear overzealous for something. Wearing a shirt that says whatever is like turning the insecure 15-year-old’s defense mechanism against social awkwardness into a philosophy of life.
Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on this guy. There are plenty of defense mechanisms against social awkwardness used by adults (myself included) that also betray an underlying philosophy of life. Really busy as the standard response to How are you? — especially when I don’t know what else to say or don’t want to be too specific — probably masks an insecurity: I assume you will think I am a worthless lout if I’m not working all the time, as if the world’s proper functioning depends on my labors. It’s no bad thing to have good work to do, but to parade that work around as the certification of my self-worth is to exaggerate its proper limits.
Maybe the whatever is an exaggeration in the other direction. The young see the frenzy with which their elders pour themselves into things, they see stress and conflict and failure and frustration, and they quite reasonably come to the conclusion that the problem is the zeal: temper the zeal, and you’ll lose the stress. Whatever, on this reading, is but an exaggeration of this tempering, something like Dude, chill out taken to its maximum intensity.
That’s the most charitable reading I can give the T-shirt. But I actually think it’s a failed attempt. It is one thing to say that zeal ought to be “ordered” (or maybe even “flexible”); it is another to say that it ought to be “tempered.” Ordering one’s zeal, keeping it with a certain flexibility that is capable of receiving and absorbing surprising contingencies, is an important part of prudence.
For example, I am zealous to tell Christians (especially Anglicans) that they should pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day. But I also recognize that if I unreflectively hold this out as the sine qua non for being a Christian to people who have no experience of and no imagination for clearing up two regular half-hour slots in their days for prayer, then I risk putting a burden “too hard to bear” on people who may well want to be more devout, but just need a little practice and creativity. So my zeal for commending this discipline needs to be flexible.
That doesn’t mean zeal needs to be tempered. That lots of Christians have a hard time figuring out when they can manage to say their prayers — with meals to cook, crying babies to wrangle, etc. — doesn’t mean I just need to chill out about it. It doesn’t mean that I’m taking prayer a little too seriously, that my zeal has blinded me to practical reality. It doesn’t mean that I need to realize that, though the Daily Office may suit my preferences for spiritual practice, I shouldn’t try to impose this practice on others who may find that they “connect with God” better by going for a run.
Anglicans, who so often parade their theological moderation, pastoral sensitivity, via media ethos, and so on, are particularly susceptible to fudging this crucial distinction between ordering one’s zeal, on the one hand, and tempering it, on the other. Too often, “moderation” manifests itself not in a prudent spiritual flexibility but in, for example, a stuffy upper-class embarrassment about people showing a little too much enthusiasm in their piety.
I suppose what I mean to say is that I don’t think whatever can really be salvaged. There’s no way of dialing it back from its “exaggerated” form to a more moderate, properly proportioned virtue (as there is a proper place for a moderated form of “busyness,” in the sense of having good work to do). Whatever is ultimately the claim that zeal itself is the problem, which is just another way of saying that love is the problem. “Just don’t care about things so much, and we’ll stop fighting,” or “you’ll stop being stressed,” or “you won’t get so worked up about this or that.” “Love will disappoint you, so let your love grow cold, and then you won’t have to feel so much pain when it fails.”
But St. Paul gives us another vision: “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:11-12). Christians have been freed from the bitter cynicism of whatever to embrace a life of unreserved devotion, because we believe that zeal is the metaphysical ground of all reality. The “zeal of the Lord of hosts” is what promised to establish and uphold the everlasting throne and kingdom of our father David (Isa. 9:7). It ensured that the “remnant of the house of Judah” would “again take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (Isa. 37:31-32). And it “consumed” our Lord with a burning desire for a pure Temple, a people whose sacrifice was the offering of a heart cleansed by the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit (John 2:17).
God’s zeal is the love that moves the sun and the other stars, the love that gave everything to secure our redemption. Christians have been offered the great adventure of throwing ourselves into that zeal, and we ought to let it “consume” us in such a way that those around us come to believe that life is not reducible to an indefinite relative pronoun (whatever), that there is in fact something worth living for — and dying for.