Losing My Pragmaticism
A few years ago, our family enjoyed a trip to Austria. We prepped by studying German a little to pick up the basics. One of our favorite German words, one that we continue to use on a regular basis, was "praktisch." Just like its English counterpart, it means "something that is useful."
Similar to many Americans, we have a smattering of German ethnicity in our background. That German-practical mentality has arguably strongly influenced American culture as well as individuals like myself. I approve of things that are useful and practical. I value efficiency and "life hacks." I get irritated and annoyed when things don't move along according to plan, or deviate from what I think is optimal. Everything should be "praktisch"! I remember one bathroom in a house we rented in Salzburg. It was an ordinary galley-style room, and yet every drawer, every plug, ever inch of that room was incredibly practical. Absolutely everything had been well thought-out and arranged optimally. It was such a drastic difference than what we had just experienced coming from touring the United Kingdom, where we were used to lovely ambiance and low practicality (really, no plugs at all in the bathrooms??).
While I do secretly think that efficiency and practicality are the way to go, this mindset is arguably detrimental to my faith and the faith of many other Americans. To what extent has this practicality infused and demeaned our faith?
Isaiah 31 is the tiny yet powerful section that Isaiah has been gearing up for throughout His writings, and now he comes out and says it baldly,
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or seek help from the Lord.
Unlike other Isaiah chapters warning against trusting in Egypt (for example, see the blog post: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/so-you-wanna-go-back-to-egypt), Isaiah doesn't blend this warning with other topics; he just stays laser-focused on why Egypt should not be relied upon. And, happily, the writing is crystal-clear as well.
The warnings focus on two things primarily:
Trusting in technology
Disobeying the Lord
Isaiah is no Luddite. Technology isn't inherently evil. The issue is us and the idol factory (thanks, Calvin, for the metaphor!) that is our hearts. We trust in our technology, we rely on it. In Isaiah's time, the hottest technology was in warfare, particularly their chariots. For us, well....so many things. Even if we feel we aren't putting our trust in our technology, that over-reliance call-out here should probably hit home for most of us.
What disobedience does Isaiah refer to? Well, this admonition to not rely on Egypt is a long-standing one. We can see God's instructions on this all the way back in Deuteronomy 17:
When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, You shall never return that way again.’
"You shall never return that way again." The previous blog post I referenced earlier focused on that aspect--unhealthy nostalgia for former things, or, as Rabbi Berkowitz says on his "My Jewish Learning site" (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/never-return-to-egypt/):
The options before us are twofold– as they were before the biblical Israelites– returning to Egypt or returning to God. The former implies continued oppression and enslavement to materialism, ignorance and complacency; the latter implies hope, vision, and possibilities...the rabbis, in all of their wisdom, keenly understood the seduction of the old and the familiar–the challenge is to break with the attraction toward a brighter and more hopeful future.
Materialism, ignorance, and complacency. I do think this is the dark side of American pragmatism, where the ends justify the means. Do we Christians have a tendency in our personal, political, and professional pursuits to aim at what we think is a moral cause but neglect to care how we get there? Is this how we end up every election cycle actively choosing compromise in the hopes of attaining a moral "win" someday? To what extent does that train us to actively choose moral compromises (i.e. the "lesser of two evils") on a routine basis? Is this how we can sit in pews every Sunday (or, more or less every Sunday), and yet treat our co-workers or family members unfairly, neglect those who are struggling, and lead inner lives more characterized by anger and condemnation than love and joy?
I absolutely had a tendency when I was younger to be pragmatic in pretty much all aspects of life. I sighed a little at those who I felt were naive in not understanding that sometimes you just needed to get things done and not worry so much about the how.
I'm now part of a leadership structure in my workplace that is advocating for the very opposite. Process is as important as product. How we treat each other is just as important as how fast we get to where we're going.
I'm part of leading this charge, but it was a hard-earned lesson for me to have my eyes opened to see the world this way. For me to acknowledge that I am not fully trusting in the Lord if I'm actually trusting in my own abilities to out-think and out-plan certain situations.
I love how God concludes this section of warning in Isaiah 31. No matter how much planning Israel was trying to do, and turning away from the Lord to do it, the actual outcome was never in their hands anyway! God issues a "oh, by the way" comment at the end of the chapter:
Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of man; a sword, not of mortals will devour them.
As in, "Oh, by the way...you were so afraid of Assyria that you kept turning to your own political savviness, technology, and partners that I warned you against...and yet, all the things that you thought you needed to do to 'win'....none of these will ultimately matter in the slightest. I'm in control here, and when I say Assyria is finished, it's finished. It's really not up to you and you won't be part of the victory at all, as it turns out."
While Babylon does end up defeating Assyria, historians have wondered how the ferocious Assyria capitulated so suddenly before this new army. One explanation (https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium-assyria-ruined-by-drought-and-crowding-1.5327140) is that the Assyrian empire "imploded" due to severe drought, which led to food scarcity, as well as conditions where the population was consuming more than they produced. This left them ripe for destruction by an outside force. Or, as 2 Kings 19 puts it, "the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp." Ancient historian Herodotus says it was field mice who ate the Assyria's weapons. Some records indicate the destruction was due to a plague.
Those who disbelieve in the supernatural look to the natural causes and those uncomfortable with believing that God works through the natural causes to bring forth the supernatural may have trouble aligning these two explanations. Yet as John Walton (here: https://biologos.org/articles/natural-and-supernatural-are-modern-categories-not-biblical-ones) and N.T. Wright advocate, "supernatural" and "natural" are modern categories. From a Biblical perspective, it is all from God!
So, regardless of the precise mechanism, Assyria was ultimately defeated and Israel's scurrying around thinking they needed to solve this through political means was shown to be futile. Would that we would also heed the messages of Isaiah 31!