Cynicism, the Gospel, and the Orange Bubble
At Princeton, “bursting the Orange Bubble” is a familiar charge. From time to time, a lecture, article or conversation reminds us of the world’s many woes. A news broadcast about Sandy Hook wrests our attention away from lunchtime problem set cramming. A teammate’s death pushes us back from the vortex of the Princeton grind. We hear of another Ivy League suicide and suddenly we surface for breath. Wait, the Bubble is not all there is, we think. How could I have stressed so much about midterms when there is all this suffering out there? We disparage our own proclivity for losing perspective. We resolve to go forth and make a difference, steeling ourselves to remember what matters beyond Nassau’s gates.
But then we forget. The ensuing pattern is distressingly familiar: for a week or so, one is stunned into heightened awareness of injustice beyond the Princeton sphere. Hungry children, mistreated women, and environmental abuses occupy her emotions and energies. But then final exams approach, she is rejected from an internship, or she gains five pounds. The world’s problems fade. Immediate issues consume her attention until the next time outside darkness forces its reality upon her.
Talk about bursting the Bubble often frustrates me because of my own incapacity to do so. I try to stay beyond the Bubble, but am easily caught up in things like social validation, thesis completion, and figuring out my life’s purpose. Faced first with the amount of pain in our world and then the depth of my own selfishness, I am more often paralyzed at the huge task of redemption than inspired by humanity’s ability to carry it out. I can only handle so much darkness at once. I can much less face it honestly when I realize that the darkness is also within myself.
Yet the ethics of bubble-bursting are more complex than they seem. One could point to a social entrepreneur bringing clean water to Haiti and say that he is in a bubble too. His world comprises his personal communities: the villages that need water, and the organizations and people that further his cause. He might not spend any of his time thinking about press freedom in China or gender equality in the Middle East.
It would be crass, even foolish, to demand that this man also break out of his bubble. So the imperative of bubble-bursting is not inherently valuable. After all, no one could purport to shoulder the entire world’s burdens at once. Everyone has to be in some kind of bubble somewhere. The question that follows is where and how we decide to draw its parameters.
When so much is wrong with the world, who weighs the value of various injustices? Which is more worth one’s attention: a friend who is throwing up because she feels unbeautiful or combating human trafficking in Cambodia? Who says if a night is better spent staying up in McCosh with a roommate who is battling psychological demons or raising funds to fight poverty in India? What calculus decides this allocation of time and energy, and why should we assume that loneliness within the Bubble is less grave than suffering without?
At this point, many turn to a solution of teamwork and service. The world’s darkness may be deep, they admit, but our energies would be sufficient to combat it – if only we could get everyone to work together for the common good. Instead of weighing wrongs against one another, we should serve where we are, doing the best we can as part of a global corps fighting the world’s fight of equal education, poverty elimination, environmental preservation and liberty and justice for all. Thus Princeton University beckons us with its call: self and school in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.
Then, again, individual ego rears its ugly head. Fighting the world’s fight often becomes more about achieving status as a glorious warrior than about actually furthering the fight. When Harvard and Yale students win Rhodes scholarships, we congratulate them while nursing resentment underneath. We want good to be done, but only if we’re the ones doing it. Why didn’t Princeton get an award this year? Why did my friend get the job offer that I wanted? I’m so happy that the causes of food justice and prevention of domestic violence and immigration reform are all being furthered, we think. But I’d be happier if I was the one furthering them.
Frustration outweighs optimism when I am candid about the proclivities of both myself and my generation towards self-prioritization. It is rare and difficult to stay humbly dedicated to any cause on one’s own, let alone believe that all humanity could mobilize to prioritize service above personal needs for affirmation. Power and corruption are not easy to unseat, especially when we are all too lonely and hungry for love to care much about providing it for others.
Here, Christianity offers an unexpected alternative: in Christ, we seek not to burst the Bubble, but to re-center it. We give up agency over our Bubble. Instead of figuring out how to resist the Bubble or locate it where it means the most, we step aside. We yield the center to Christ. He takes charge.
The implications are radical. Re-centering the Bubble means that we no longer calculate what counts as worthy of our time. We don’t decide the focus, parameters, or nature of our service. We simply commit to faithfulness and let Christ decide where our bubbles are. “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him,” the Bible says.1
So the Christian seeks redemption wherever he is.2 Faced with humanity’s brokenness, his response is not to deride Princeton as a bubble of untouched privilege, but to seek restoration at every moment and in every sphere. He might lead service projects, go on civic engagement trips, or spend his career on social justice. But he also studies faithfully without placing his identity in academics, puts his work aside for friends in need, and spends time with people who offer him no social advantage. He builds dangerously vulnerable relationships with parents and siblings at home, even if it would be easier to push them behind an emotional wall. He loves regardless of time, location, or risk of hurt – whether in or out of the Bubble, at 3 a.m. during Houseparties, or on a service trip in Sierra Leone.
Re-centering the Bubble also means rejecting cynicism. My default mindset says, look at how big the Dark is. Better to be cynical than face despair. Better to scoff at the idea of hoping in a happy and glorious ending than to dare believe, and be disappointed. Better not to hope at all, or to confine my hope to a safely attainable sphere, than to pin everything on this ludicrous promise that is likely to let me down.
But Christianity demands sincerity. It not only suggests that redemption is possible, but also requires wholehearted belief and consequent action. Whereas the mainstream cleaves to the safety of snide punditry, the Gospel says: bare yourself to the dangers of being earnest. Dare to believe that Christ is real and the world is fallen, but that it is being made new.
This requires faith. The Gospel asks Christians to trust. Let Christ dictate the places where you are to be faithful right now, it says. Trust that as you are faithful with little things, He is taking care of the rest. Trust that when He has agency over where each person serves, He will also allocate sufficient redemption to each place of need. Even as sorrow tinges your bubble, trust that He is coming back.3 ‚4
How foolish this trust would seem if it weren’t rooted in personal renewal. The honest Christian knows that faith is more than blithe optimism or a super can-do attitude, especially if he is frank about the prevalence of pain in our world. Still he believes, as every Christian does, because we have seen His light blowing out the dark in our individual lives.5 The gospel alone overcomes our egos. Against all our self-centeredness, it moves us to step off the thrones of our bubbles and turns us to love God and neighbor – not by personal moral will, but by relinquishing all to His grace. Faith in Christ rests on experience first of His redemptive power in one’s own life. He makes all things new, and we believe this because we see Him making us new. If Christ can overcome my selfishness, the Christian believes, then He can redeem us all.6
After all, again, no man could purport to shoulder the entire world’s burdens at once – unless he was no ordinary man. To Christ, there is no bubble. He alone has no need to define its perimeters. He alone shoulders all burdens, knows all hearts, and renews all things. In Him alone we trust.
- Colossians 3:17. [↩]
- “Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even–heaven help us–Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way…with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. I believe if we face the question, “if not now, then when?” if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, “if not us, then who?” And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”
― N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. [↩]
- “Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of our limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness… But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to the day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.”
— Henri Nouwen. [↩]
- “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal… Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this [earthly] tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life… Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
— 2 Corinthians 4:16–18; 5:2–4, 6–7, 17. [↩]
- “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently… For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
– Romans 8:18–25, 38–39. [↩]
- “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining… Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.”
— 1 John 2:5–8, 10. [↩]