Many people look around at closing churches and other centers of faith with sadness. The reason for this trend changes depending on who you ask. People inside struggling faith communities often look to outsiders. Members can attribute their struggles to keep the doors open to those who don’t attend, the source for monetary scarcity and spiritual stagnation. Outsiders in turn look inside for a relevant reason or attraction to attend. I feel that attraction never comes because insiders are too busy preserving what they have. And too often what they fight to preserve does not attract people of our era.
With such a focus on preservation, new attendees can feel they don’t fit in. Or worse, that trend of preservation extends from worship to membership. And opportunities for growth are subliminally sabotaged. I don’t wish to convey preservation as a bad thing. Tradition is important. It reminds us of our histories. It is often rich with symbolism and meaning. All I propose is that communities of faith do not sacrifice presence for preservation. That they do not operate blindly to the realities of their parishioners. That they do not look so much inward that they are blind to the climate and needs of the world outside.
Yes, we are called to preserve traditions that give us identity. But I feel we are called in an even bigger way to be a light of divine love in the world. When our traditions keep us from people in the here and now, people that are hungry for spiritual interaction, then our preservation has gone too far. God’s people (all people) come before our man-made religion. Let’s put God’s creations first and work to be good stewards of them. With a balance of preservation and presence, churches can create something that people can’t resist. With presence, the doors will always be open to let God’s people in and divine light out.
Atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and others that follow no faith tradition many times think religion is archaic and barbaric compared to our modern, science driven understanding of the world. They believe that we have somehow moved past or out-grown religion. That it is something for the childish or feeble-minded. But from where I’m sitting, the standards of many faith traditions continue to be more advanced than the standard found in Western culture. Look at the political and social climate of the United States currently. We’ve just witnessed the inauguration of the most contested president elect in the country’s history. And the following day, a massive protest took place in the capital mall. Similar demonstrations went on across the country and across the world. All focus on the central idea of equality, and standing up to those who oppose it.
Despite our intellectual bounds, equality has not been achieved. The root problem is not implementation or the logistics in doing so. The reason we do not have equality is because many people do not want it. This applies to regular Joes, all the way up to decision makers on capitol hill. In order to be at the top, there has to be a bottom. Such a system obviously benefits the elite and privileged. But people at the bottom continue to support inequality as well. Why? Because America is the land of opportunity. If one works hard, they can work their way up, they can make their way to the top. Or so we’ve been told. With every passing day, the American dream seems to be becoming more of a dream than a reality. Which begs the question: Which is the barbaric system? The one that thrives on inequality for the benefit of few, or one that thrives on a divine sense of universal compassion, respect, and love?
God’s love doesn’t stop at rich, white men. Divine devotion is not dependent on gender, race, religion, or wealth. Sadly, at this stage of the argument, many Christians may be reaching for their bibles to look up versus on wifely obedience or smiting lowly non-believers. If so, I ask that you keep flipping to the gospels and look at Jesus’ example. Jesus extends God’s grace to sinners, Gentiles, women, the handicapped and the poor. In Him, God’s love knows no bounds. This universal aspect of equality is very much rooted in the divine, but it is more than appropriate and necessary in the secular world. I know church and state are separate with good intentions, but maybe man’s law could take note from God’s law in this case. God does not make trash, so why do we treat each other as so? God does not make second-class citizens, so why does our government treat us as so? We are all equal in the eyes of God, so why aren’t we equal in the eyes of our government?
In the wake of the presidential election, the issues of this nation are still being discussed. Those more liberal in mindset, often face off with capitalism when it comes to economic issues. However, consumerism often seems to be the true focus of their complaints. No doubt the two are related, but it seems that the principles of consumerism and capitalism are so deeply intertwined that many Americans can scarcely tell the difference anymore. It got me wondering how this strong link arose and ultimately: Can we have capitalism without consumerism as we know it?
Capitalism means free market, driven by the private sector rather than being government regulated. By virtue of its definition, business that are popular will flourish and those that are not will die. Businesses must have consumers if they are to continue trading. Consumption in this literal sense is necessary for capitalism to work. The act of consumption also allows people to weigh in on market players, with their dollars working as votes. But ‘consumerism’ is a whole different animal. Consumption allows people to gain items that they need, gifts to illustrate affection, and items that bring joy. Our ‘consumerism’ has come to mean little in the way of necessity. Instead it is means by which gifts replace true affection and gratitude, and material objects become increasingly necessary to simulate joy.
The move from consumption to ‘consumerism’ I think has a lot do with secularism. As religion is pushed to the fringes of society and minds, people began to look elsewhere for the same things regular spiritual participation once provided. Advertisers use this marketing opportunity to fill people’s lives with products. And with empty promises to heal brokenness that no ‘thing’ can heal, businesses secure and improve their own position in the marketplace.
What we need is an awakening about ‘things’, realize the gaps left by a lack of spirituality cannot be filled with the latest and greatest stuff. Such a notion scares economists: If people stop spending, the bottom will fall out of the economy. But we are starting to see companies that operate on a sustainable business model. They pay employees well, often better than minimum wage. They are eco-friendly and chose quality over quantity. They know there is more to be concerned about than their bottom line. This is the direction we are headed in, which hopefully yields a sustainable economy. There is life and hope as people put an end to consumerism Then our market and people will be truly free to function. And I think both will be better off.
In many Christian traditions, followers are baptized as infants or small children. In the sacrament of baptism, the baptized are welcomed into the kingdom and community of God. As children, the baptized have done nothing to earn this, they have done nothing prove their worthiness. But it is given freely by virtue of wanting to know and get closer to God. In baptism one enters the Christian community and is unconditionally loved by God.
This is very different from the love we encounter and often act out in our everyday lives. Our love is often conditional on how people speak to us, and on what they do for us. In secularism’s religion of consumption, love is often dictated by how people spend their money on each other. Now such gifts are not completely shallow, as they are often expressions of deep and sincere love. But such items are not necessary to express love as those marketers and advertisers would like to have us believe.
However, there is some exception to the secular world dealing exclusively in conditional love, mainly in the wider acceptance of universal human rights and secular humanism. Rather than unconditional love, these concepts use logic to establish basic human rights of wellbeing and respect. While I do not wish to downplay the importance of such measures, they are very different from divinely inspired, unconditional love. However, I believe they hold enough weight for those who follow no faith tradition, are atheist or agnostic.
In the interest of order and appropriate behavior, conditional love does have some purpose. As our new reverend put it on Sunday, Christian tradition gives us the ‘father god’ and the ‘mother god’: the authority figure enforcing rules and serving discipline, and the warm unconditional love of a mother for her child. These attributions can largely be seen in the differences between the old and new testaments. A God that punishes his people when they stray, like the Israelites followed out of Egypt into the land of promise. And a God that loves unconditionally, like the God Jesus described through much of his teachings. There are roots for both the conditional and the unconditional in Christian scripture.
Meanwhile humanism is making headway establishing some universal care and respect in the secular realm. But the secular world still largely runs on conditional love which is endlessly encouraged through consumerism. Given the nature of secularism, unconditional love is often sequestered to faith centers, and we live mainly in this world of conditional love. Imagine how the world would change if this principle of unconditional love was the norm. Loving one another radically to stamp out radical hate. Loving not just to be loved in return, but exuding love because it is good for everything and everyone.
Tis the season for resolutions. People are looking back over 2016 and deciding what they would like to change or how they would like their lives to be different by the time 2017 comes to an end. For some, this can be like an awakening, an uplifting and exciting time. For others, it is full of regret, disappointment, and negativity as they take stock of their current circumstances and perhaps the downslide since the last new year’s celebrations.
Don’t get me wrong, some people need a wake-up call. Destructive behavior to oneself or others should be the object of a serious 180-degree effort. But too often the self-reflection necessary in making resolutions involves unnecessary negativity. People look at their past or themselves harshly, and are often blue this time of year. This is ideal for capitalism and our secular religion of consumerism. Marketing tactics prey on those feeling down, as they make impossible promises of improved self-image, confidence, or attractiveness to others. When one’s efforts are pinned on a product or a magic quick-fix, it is superficial and unlikely to be successful.
A better approach may be to root resolutions not in regret but in gratitude. First expressing thanks for what you’ve been accomplished in the past year, no matter how small. Or at least be thankful for making it through if it was an especially tough year! And only then determine areas in life you would like to improve or explore further, or identify existing circumstances you would like to change. This encourages self-reliance to help one avoid gimmicks and false promises. Furthermore, it fosters inner-strength making resolutions more likely to succeed.
Don’t look back with disappointment, but look around at where you are with gratitude. Look forward to the coming year with hope, perseverance, and excitement for all the joy and opportunity this year has to offer. There will always be stumbling blocks, but remember the goal is not to be the best, but better than you were before.
I would love to hear about your resolutions, so please comment! Specifically, how you came to choose them and how you plan to keep them as the year progresses. Happy 2017!