Finding Our Way
It was just a week and a few hours ago that I had an entirely new experience. It was one of those experiences that sticks in your memory and perhaps could be counted on a bucket list, or perhaps more accurately counted on a bucket list of things you'd rather not experience in life – an anti-bucket list, if you will.
I was in Kiev, Ukraine teaching a course on Christian ethics and I'd just finished the intensive week of classes. It was night time, I fell sleepily into bed, and unusually for me I was out in a matter of minutes. Out of a sound sleep I was awoken with what felt like somebody shaking the bed. I was startled. I thought at first, "Who's in my room?" I leaned up on one elbow, I looked around, I couldn't see anyone there. But the bed was still shaking.
At first I thought, "Well there's something wrong with me. My heart's beating so strongly. Maybe it just feels like this room is swaying." Of course it was then that within seconds, it dawned on me, of slow wit, what was actually happening. Of course those of you with a much quicker wit than mine will have discerned that what was actually happening to me was an earthquake.
Having never had that experience before, it did take me a few seconds to realize that not only was my bed shaking but the entire hotel seemed to be swaying in the sky. Being on the tenth floor I was exceptionally well positioned for this experience. What goes through your mind at such a time? Well, at first I thought, "If it ends soon and it is an earthquake, all will be well." But then I began to wonder how much sway of an ibis hotel in Ukraine is too much sway?
With a little fear but no panic, I didn't even pray. At least not that I remember. I just thought, "So, this is how it ends, in an ibis Hotel in the Ukraine." Thankfully, by the time my existential reflections reached their end the rocking was over and I checked my phone for the time. It was 2:13. I looked out the window and the Hilton up the street was still standing. I figured that was a good sign.
All seemed calm. I Googled then the U.S. Geological Survey and found that yes indeed, there had been an earthquake. It was centred in Romania but felt as far away as Kiev. Being assured that I wasn't losing my mind, I went back to bed and to sleep. All was well.
An earthquake is a dramatic, disorienting event. In many ways Western culture has been experiencing an earthquake. This cultural quake has shaken the foundations of our commitments, our faith, our understanding, our institutions, and the earthquake has seen the collapse of previously-held certainties of things we thought we could count on. It's left many Christians and churches disoriented. Disoriented especially, because unlike an earthquake, the cultural changes that have shaken things up didn't end after a few seconds. The earthquake has continued, a prolonged cultural shaking that has left us to wonder how long our church institutions can stand up under the strain. How much shaking is too much before the whole enterprise collapses and we're left to make sense of the rubble, if our faith manages to survive at all? Will it all be well?
These are some of the themes we're been exploring together this weekend as we consider what it means to be Christian in 2016. We focused on the disorientation that we've experienced as Christians and as churches, and we've posited together ideas for understanding and responding in positive and engaging ways.
We first started with understanding what is happening. What is causing the shaking? What is the earthquake? Our immediately experience of course if of the fact of sheer numbers of church attendees dropping significantly in Canada, not universally but dramatically in many places. And the drop overall is a gradual but consistent decline that heads only in a downward direction.
Some say that this is simply a winnowing of churchgoers to find the true believers from among the throngs. Others say it's a loss of belief in ideas whose time has truly passed. Regardless of a positive or negative explanation, the fact of it leaves us to ponder the future of Christian faith and the place of the church in Canada.
The trends also tell us that although there's not a complete drop-off in faith at the moment in our country, the numbers of disbelief – those people who have no faith in any particular belief in the younger age ranges – are sufficiently significant to warrant attention as that generation grows and emerges. And the trend towards unbelief seems to be growing with each emerging generation. We have not done a good job of passing on our faith to the next generation, and we know they need faith in something besides the culture.
Some brand new statistics revealed just this week in the U.K. show that as many as one in four girls between the ages of 16 and 24 engage in self-harm of some form. Although this is not a Canadian statistic, we tend to follow culturally where Europe and the U.K. especially goes. We know that similar numbers in Canada are rising, and these numbers rise with the decrease in church attendance and expressed Christian belief. And although I wouldn't suggest causation we must at least admit correlation.
There's a clear loss of connection with community and those supportive resources for exploring our identity, for finding a deeper meaning in a culture where these are thrown into disarray we are experiencing in many ways in our country, a crisis of meaning. This is itself disorienting.
The earthquake however is deeper than these surface fractures. There are profound changes that are not immediately obvious that have led to the changes we see and experience every day. Our intellectual disorientation, for example, emerges from an increased skepticism towards any claims to truth. On the one hand there are those who dismiss Christian belief because of a perceived lack of evidence for our claims.
On the other hand there are those who dismiss it because any appeal to truth itself is philosophically compromised, simply an attempt to take power over others by defining what they should and should not believe. This is the strange postmodern conundrum. Some want evidence, some think evidence is not an adequate source of knowledge but a bid for power. I think we can offer a response to both.
There is of course, and we've explored that this weekend a little bit, historical evidence for the life and death and teachings of Jesus Christ. There is even intellectual warrant for the Resurrection, though this is and always has been the stumbling block to faith. The Apostle Paul knew this. Whether he spoke with philosophers or political leaders, people of power or none, he knew that the Resurrection was the stumbling block upon which many would fall.
And so it is for many today. We must acknowledge that while evidence through reason doesn't establish our faith – that would not make it faith anymore –neither does the available evidence contradict it. We are not without intellectual and philosophical warrant for Christian belief despite many protestations to the contrary. It is important still for many of us that when we say we belief in Christ, we're not believing in fairy tales or the Flying Spaghetti Monster Richard Dawkins would prefer to call it.
On the other hand we recognize that there are others who have posited the deconstruction of the foundational building blocks of reason. In a rejection of the big stories, the meta-narratives that explain who were are, we have instead found ourselves caught up in more localized narratives and these fragmented stories that define who we are, but without a means of comparing or contrasting whether one narrative is preferable to another narrative. Forgetting in the midst of that the story, the one story, that defines who we are as Christians.
We find ourselves connected but isolated in this culture, losing confidence in our faith and often afraid. How can we think that all will be well? We've taken refuge instead in a new meta-narrative, a new big story that has really come to define Western culture in so many ways. In fact it's come to define mass culture where mass media goes in the world, so it's no longer even strictly a Western phenomenon.
This is the story of consumerism. We've forgotten our stories' disciples, who we are as followers of Jesus Christ, and so have adopted instead the story of the consumer of commodification. What is consumerism? People talk about it a lot but do we ever talk about what it is? It's more complicated than going shopping. We all have to buy things and we have to consume them in order to live. This isn't consumerism. Consumerism is what happens to a culture when we commodify everything, even relationships. It's what happens when we exchange social obligations for price tags, and a desire for things that will never be fulfilled.
Slater puts it this way: "Consumer culture is about continuous self-creation through the accessibility of things which are themselves presented as new, modish, faddish or fashionable, always new and improving. Because they're always new and improving, things are obsolete before we even get them home.” Consumerism relates to shopping but it's so much deeper than that. It's a longing for things; it's an endless desire that creates simply a desire for more. It's never satisfied. It's always reaching out beyond itself.
And eventually it consumes everything. Social relations, activities, objects, that in principle are exchanged as commodities. Slater again says, "This is one of the most profound secularizations enacted by the modern world.”
Consumerism depends not only on our unsatisfied desired, but it needs to convince us that we are the authority in any given transaction. We're in charge. I'm the one who chooses. I'm the one around whom all of the products of the world and their enticing qualities revolve. Except that we aren't. In reality we're manipulated into parting with our cash and developing this unfulfilled desire by a very carefully orchestrated system that include advertising, music, colour and smell, and forms the way we think and access the world.
It's amazing that we think we're in charge, and yet we do. Consumerism, Slater notes, actually delivers heteronomy. We think it's differentiation. We think we're getting different, we're expressing ourselves through what we – but we're not! We're just becoming more of the same because our needs are determined by the fashions, opinions and scrutiny of society, not by any higher meaning.
We can never fulfill that internal desire and we can never meet the expectations of others. Consumerism promises people freedom and satisfaction but it needs to make people discontented in order to perpetuate itself. And we participate willingly, and the formation of the next generation, of course, the cultural development of the next generation as consumers. Our children are learning well, and their story of existence in the Western world at least can now be plotted as a narrative of consumption. There's a market analyst, James MacNeil, who has posited five stages of childhood development based in a consumer society. He says that these traits, or these stages, are universals in as much as they transcend family background or economic class.
This is how we are being formed within a Western culture. Philosophers remind us of the anomie, the boredom, the deep inner boredom that creeps in when the consumer image we project becomes discontented from the person we really are. We stop being interested, we stop caring, we hide on the back deck instead of engaging on the front porch. We down our boredom with excess food and drink or we seek escape through endless self-amusement with gaming, TV, internet and pornography. We feel that we've seen all there is to see, and still we're not satisfied.
We go on expensive holidays, we collect exotic experiences. They give us a buzz for a while, but soon we need the next fix. It's never enough. On my way up here I was going through security at the Halifax airport, and there were a lot of people going to see an Adele concert. They were all excited about this. This is how I knew what was happening. I overheard one many saying, "Yes, going on holiday to Spain and going to see Adele, this is our way of trying to really live a good life." There's always going to be something else. It's never going to be enough. It'll never be satisfying.
But this is the culture we live in, where gathering those experiences are what constitutes the good life. This is our culture, and this is the culture of our churches. We are part of the same culture as everybody else. We feel the same pressures, we have the same desires, and in some ways it's worse for us as Christians because even the church becomes commodified.
Even the Christian faith becomes commodified. I have in my office at Acadia a shelf dedicated to Christian kitsch. I called it “Anna's Little Museum of Christian Kitsch”. I like to collect some of this stuff because it's interesting to me. I have a collection of pocket Jesuses, Last Supper mints, Jesus band-aids, Testaments – these are mints with Bible verses on them, right, scriptured teabags that have a little verse on the little square of paper at the end. And probably the pièce de résistance is this lovely white scarf with Jesus Loves You in gold lamé all over it.
Why do we do this? Consumer culture commodifies everything. So in place of symbolic exchange with social meaning and social obligation attached, everything has a price tag. We can't own without obligation, and so when we used to have ownership and trade with social obligation, we've simply trade it for a price tag. You sport the right labels, you own the right brands, you signify your worth, your identity. I'm a person of good taste, a person in the know. That is, I'm better than others or at least as good as the best.
And even – we experience this a lot in the East amongst those who aren't super wealthy – because this isn't an attitude that is restricted to the people in the West who have money. It's everyone, all of us. It's part of how we think and operate. Even amongst those who aren't super-wealthy there's a sense of pride in finding the right item for a better price than anybody else paid for it.
Of course if you can't afford to participate in this reality at all, you signify you have no identity. You disappear from the cultural landscape. You're regarded and treated as worthless by the culture at large. This is what happens to the poor, the homeless, often the elderly or the mentally ill. For those who can afford it and participate, it leads to endless anxiety. We're a very anxious culture. Have you thought about why? Because instead of being secure within our network or relationships, we get caught into this endless cycle of trying to stay on top of everything as it changes, trying to signal the right things about who we are and underneath it all we lose out on who we are. Our identity slips away.
I also think that we do it out of a false sense of security. "If I just get all these pieces in the right order, I'll be okay. In a world that is so changeable and shifting all the time, if I can just stock up enough stuff and things, well I'll be okay. My family will be okay." Our society actually structures this for us in some ways. I mean I have a pension. It's not huge but I like it. I'm glad I have it. But my house that I live in isn't paid for. Who's saying I'm going to live long enough to draw my pension. I don't know. But by doing this, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard suggests we're building a sarcophagus against death. We're trapping ourselves into our own mechanisms of death and pretending that we can pushing death away. But we can't do it.
One economist, Tomáš Sedláček, is being wildly heralded for his observations about consumerism. He says in the West, we've reached a point of peak stuff. Do you know what peak stuff is? It's when we have so much we don't need any more. We can't even take any more. He says we talk about peak oil, but I'd say we've hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff, peak home furnishings. He talks about how the industries are going to have to find new ways of helping us in the West, who already have so much stuff, to make more of what we have in order to keep the enterprise rolling forward.
As we think about all this, I think we can see why Walter Brueggemann called this consumerism, "the story that we told when we forgot that we already had a story." What he means is when we forgot who we are as the church, we let in another story, another narrative to shape our being. We let the story of consumerism create us in its image, in our own image instead of in God's and we forgot that we bear the image of God alone. We embody the values of acquisition and consumption and we forgot that we're called to discipleship, as those who bear the image of God. It is conformity to Christ that we pursue, and not conformity with the prevailing culture.
Be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, comes the biblical challenge. Jesus set this challenge directly for his disciples. In the verses read from Matthew today, and if we look at some just before, we read of Jesus taking his disciples on a road trip. No doubt they spent some time in meditation and prayer together. He taught them many things, and here he's brought them to Caesarea Philippi, a place of pagan worship that was the birthplace of the god Pan, the greatest fertility god of the age, and later hosted a temple to the god Zeus.
In the rocks over this beautiful place, through which runs the headwaters for the Jordan River, Jesus brings his disciples to witness this pagan worship of all these gods. No doubt temple prostitution and animal if not human sacrifice were rife in this place. But it's here that Jesus chooses to reveal his true identity to his disciples, as well as his forward plans for his people. Here in this place of devotion to many deities, Jesus asks his disciples this question, "Who do people say that I am?"
It's a good question. They respond, well some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, still others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets. If we were to ask this question today, I wonder what sort of responses we would hear. Who do people say that Jesus is? Some say a good teacher, some say an invention of wishful thinking, some say a disappointed prophet.
"But what about you?" Jesus comes back, "Who do you say I am?"
Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, Son of the Living God." Peter has answered well. In the midst of all these competing deities, Jesus is unique. He is the one who has been sent by God to save his people.
Jesus says, "Good for you, Peter, you have answered well. Not because you figured this out by reasoning about things but because God has revealed a spiritual truth to you and you didn't resist it. In a world where people want to worship what they see, you have looked deeper, and you Peter, the rock, you will be the rock on which I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."
They would have looked up at the temples carved into the stone face, where the alcoves of the gods still stand today, hammered out of the rock. All of these gods present for worship in the rocks. But, "No," Jesus says, "Peter the rock, man of flesh and blood, on this rock of flesh and blood, I will built my church. You will preach and offer the invitations. You will love and invite. I will do the building."
Building the church we discover for the first time is for God to do. Phew, what a relief. I think many of us have felt for a long time that building the church was our responsibility. In a consumer society we wanted to build the church that we wanted, the one that looked the way we imagined it, a way that made us comfortable. And if we didn't like how things were done in one place, well, just pack it in and go somewhere else. Buy into another church that would then build again according to our own preferences.
This is a similar reaction as we see in Peter, when Jesus reveals that his journey forward is going to be one of suffering. Does he say, "Oh okay?" No, that's not Peter. He says, "God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you!" Peter didn't like what he was hearing. Impetuous, passionate Peter wanted to take control of this situation. He didn't like Jesus' plan and the way he suggested things were going to pan out.
Jesus rebukes him this time and reminds Peter he's overstepping. I want to be the one in authority. I want to be the one in control, the one who decides things. Peter wants things his way but this is not what Jesus said. "I will build my church," he said, "not the one you want or would prefer." Certainly not the easy, simple one. The church is not a product of our consumer choice, the church is for him to build.
So what is it for us to do, then? I think it's clear, but you know, it's not a pretty picture. In the face of Peter saying he wanted things to go his way, Jesus offers him a strong challenge. "If any want to come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me. For those who save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. What will it profit them to gain the whole world and lose their soul?"
As the church in the Western world we have lived well. Perhaps we have lived too well. We have had things our own way and it has been very comfortable. In a message I delivered recently to my home tribe, I described this as church being a cruise ship rather than a fishing boat. There's some good Maritime imagery for you but it's accurate I think. The church has in many ways and places become a place for Christians to hang out in relative comfort, serving each other drinks on the lido deck.
In this changing culture this is no longer an option for us. The hull is rusted out and there's not enough people to serve the drinks, let alone keep the whole thing afloat. So the call to discipleship we're reminded is not one of comfort. The call to discipleship is not one of commodification or consumerism. It's a call to come and die. Market that: to die to the desires that we would have for the way we would want them to be, to surrender our desires, our wants, our possessions, our very lives for the one thing that means everything – to follow Christ.
This is not some sort of aesthetic self-denial. This is true self-sacrifice for the sake of serving others. It's not a concept with great marketing potential. "Come to Christ and die to self." So we preach other things. "Come to Christ and your life will be great, prosperous, successful, hang out with the redeem folks in comfort and ease." But it isn't true and it isn't real, it's an image. The real thing is different. Take up your cross, die to self, follow me.
This sort of radical love and service are the essence of discipleship. These are not the things we can do if we simply muster up enough moral courage. The dying of self is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit, who as we give ourselves to die, fills us with new life. This is life abundant, not life in a consumer culture. This life is love and joy and suffering and hardship, yes, but not alone. It is companionship and peace. This is real life and you can't buy it. But it has been bought for us, and we have been bought with a price.
Consumer culture is subverted through the gift of grace freely given. Because of this we know that as we surrender to whatever the journey holds for us in the future, no matter how the culture quakes and shakes, we can confidently affirm with Julian of Norwich, that no matter how hard these cultural foundations shake, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.