How our Western culture short changes us as human beings.
It’s a difficult ask to condense the huge volume of material written on this topic, and do justice to its breadth and depth. Certainly impossible in a thousand words or less. In these circumstances all that is possible is a conversation starter, which is what this post is intended to be. Whether that conversation is with me, or in the reader’s own mind, is not important.
I’ve drawn on a book by Mark Sayers: “Disappearing Church” (Kindle). It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, but I’ve just picked up a few ideas and expanded on them. The book itself covers far more ideas than are discussed here. I recommend it to you.
Quotes are from the book are indicated in the usual way. Page numbers are not given due to the digital format of the book.
(Gold Coast Australia. My photo. An icon of secular consumerism)
Sayers’ book observes and critiques the culture that enfolds and forms us in the west. That culture considers itself sophisticated and highly evolved; superior in most ways from cultures that preceded it, and those that continue to flourish in non western societies. It is a culture full of contradictions: Fiercely secular, yet soaked in early religious traditions of gnosticism, animism and paganism; Indifferent or hostile to traditional Christianity, yet celebrating diversity of other traditional world religions; Devoted to the power of the individual, yet gathering itself into tribes where conformity of opinion is demanded; and desperately searching for transcendence and enlightenment, yet generating alienation and despair at the purposelessness of life lived according to its values.
Sayers delves deeply into the controlling beliefs driving our western secular culture, and pinpoints where the innate contradictions of our lives reveal themselves. These beliefs, principles, doctrines are regarded within the culture as self evident and beyond challenge. Those bold enough to challenge them can expected to be silenced and ostracised by the weight of social pressure, and/or legal sanctions.
The controlling beliefs of our western zeitgeist are seductive, powerful and ultimately deceptive. They promise happiness but bring us emptiness; preach self actualization but dehumanise us; offer freedom, but enslave us.
“So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power.
This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs**:
1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, and self-expression.
2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom and self expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.
3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology—in particular the Internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.
4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated.
5. Humans are inherently good.
6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.
7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.
So, recognize any of them? Maybe you can add more. Maybe also, you don’t fully endorse each and every one of them and would like to qualify here and there. Fair enough. I’m not here to defend the list, but to claim that, like it or not, be aware of it or not, our culture does shape us. It corrals us into certain ways of thinking, it limits our dreams, and in some ways diminishes our human potential. I don’t have the space (or perhaps the ability) to present a knock down argument for what I just wrote.
I think that its possible to live in the midst of a culture like ours, and be unaware of the beliefs that drive it.
How often have you heard or seen written, “Be true to yourself” or “It’s all about You”, or “You’re worth it”? The words change, but the principle behind it is a powerful one in our culture, shaping millions of lives every day. Of course, it’s not necessarily all bad to believe and follow that principle, but as an overarching principle for life it seems more than a little deceptive and shaky to me. What does it tell us is important about our relations with, and responsibilities toward, others?
The worship of tolerance is another phenomenon in our culture, except that we’re not really tolerant at all, are we? Well, as long as people share our beliefs, which, if they happen to be the socially responsible, earth friendly, diversity celebrating beliefs embraced by the elite, then all is rosy. Except I have never been able to understand how elevating tolerance above all else can not lead to anything but a clear example of intolerance.
If individual freedom and self expression are the highest good, and the self is the reference point for what is good, then what does that say about who we are as human beings? Are we then our own gods? The problem arises, and it always does, when the god in me and the god in you disagree on what “good” means.
We are encouraged in a host of ways, subtle and overt, to see ourselves as sophisticated and enlightened when we reject the notion of a transcendent creator God. If we continue to believe in such ‘fairy tales’, as the message goes, we ought to have the decency to keep that belief to ourselves. Our secular cousins can have free range for their beliefs, but ours are to remain hidden and private. Seems fair, or does it?
If there were any evidence at all that the rise in the number of people who reject faith in God is accompanied by a rise in general happiness, mental health and peaceful coexistence in society I would stop and take a good look at it. Alas the opposite is true. As we throw our faith away in the west and install ourselves as gods, we enjoy all the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness that attends that. Our lives are pointless, apart from the goals we set ourselves: wealth, power, self actualization and so on and so on. None of these things brings a sense of meaning, of connection, of being fully human.
“This is a culture in which we (are encouraged to*) believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip.” (Sayers quote)
“Without God, humans attempt to create a beautiful world, filled with fine foods, craftsmanship, fulfilling work, elegant forms, and creativity. Yet this beautiful world becomes a prison as humans are possessed by the things that they create. We are unable to understand or even see the world correctly as a gift from God, to be enjoyed, but not owned.” (Sayers quote)
Our western culture is leading us (or are we leading ourselves) into a place we do not want to be. I believe we were not made to be gods. We were not meant to live stunted alienated, meaningless lives. We were made to be fully human. That is one thing that many of us in the west today can not be sure we are any more.
* My insertion.
** I have edited some of the principles from the book, mostly to simplify them.