Tag Archives: individualism

5 lies the culture tells us: David Brooks meets our proverbs

Back when I watched the PBS news hour, when David Brooks appeared to provide his punditry,  I regularly said “Ugh!” I could not take the conservative arguments he kept making to justify the wonders of capitalism and empire, and such. Now I tend to take things he writes and repurpose them for you, like I intend to do today! I think he is kind of great. What happened?

Image result for david brooks second mountain

Light from the foothills of faith

I don’t really know what happened, since I only run into Brooks in op-ed land. But his contributions have changed, and they have changed my opinion of him. It looks like he started taking the second half of his life seriously, or he moved into the next phase of his stages of faith. Whatever happened, he began to tell some important stories about the country, morality and faith. In his latest book (which I have not read), he says he has been learning from people who are climbing “The Second Mountain.

What he means by the “second mountain” is the mountain people discover after they have finished climbing the first one society presents to them: achievement, financial stability, and reputation, etc.  In his explorations, Brooks has found joyful people who are done with climbing (often because they’ve made it to the top, unlike Bernie Sanders and other ancients running for president, who won’t stop) and have discovered the more important mountain that follows that first, ultimately unsatisfying climb. They are achieving what is really important: “They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment,” especially “the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community.”

As you read that last line, some of you thought, “That book is about the foothills of the mountain, not the actual mountain of faith. Spiritually, Brooks is talking “milk” not solid food!” (See 1 Corinthians 3 and elsewhere). That’s true. But that’s OK, because he is talking to a society which is presently digging itself deeper into the death valley of morality it is in. If the leaders do anything about the Mueller report, maybe that will change. It would be great if society could get to sea level, much more climb a mountain!  We Jesus-followers don’t need to despise society or sink to its level, we’re about loving transformation not helping society get back to normal. I think Brooks is on our side.

In last weeks’ column Brooks cited the evidence that most of us already know. We don’t need statistics to know that “college mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans.” He left out the façade of righteousness based on a military-backed empire, the science-denying environmental policies, the deceptive financial practices left unchallenged, the lack of serious response to racism and horrible policies in Africa and Palestine. It goes on. He says, “At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.”

I absolutely agree. And I’ve tried to channel our dialogue about that. Click some links:

Five lies the culture tells us

David Brooks’ latest column gives me an opportunity to bring the lies up again. I’m glad to do it, since I think the basic job of a Jesus follower might be to avoid believing lies. I keep thinking about Jesus confronting people who called him a liar (fake good news, perhaps).

Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.  You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. — John 8:43-45

Lord help us! It is hard to stand up against the tsunami of lying the world has unleashed! So Brooks tries to name the big lies. In our case, I would say he names the lies again, since, as you will see, we have proverbs that already present an alternative to all of them.

Here are some of the lies we face, especially the 20somethings trying to take their first steps of adult faith. Our proverbs and David Brooks will help us unbelieve all of them.

Career success is fulfilling.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Being successful is faithfully following the teaching of scripture according to one’s ability and one’s role in the body.

From Brooks:

This is the lie society foists on the young. In their tender years the most privileged of them are locked in a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.

Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. …The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.

I can make myself happy.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • We abide by the “Great Commandment” (John 13:34-5). Self-giving love loosens the truth locked in our desires.

From Brooks:

This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.

But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care. It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do that. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! The world does not teach us these skills.

Life is an individual journey.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • Our community is based on our ongoing dialogue not law, on mutuality not rights, on self-giving love not mere tolerance.
  • When individualism rules the culture, being the church is countercultural.
  • People should be skeptical if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.

From Brooks:

This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.

 In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love. By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.

 You have to find your own truth.

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • The church’s task is neither to destroy nor to maintain the various labels that divide the world but to offer a new self in Christ that is deeper than the definitions of the dominators.
  • How we relate sexually is a spiritual, communal matter and can’t be reduced purely to a discussion of private expression or individual rights.
  • It’s better to be reconciled than to be right.
  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project.

From Brooks:

This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you! [Here is one of many examples of books that convince us to believe that each of us is the center of our own universe].

The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose. The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.

Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people. 

From the Circle of Hope proverbs:

  • One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • Wealth and power reduce sympathy for the poor and powerless. A marriage between unfettered capitalism and piety makes the Lord’s words inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.
  • We admit that we are less of a “safe place” for people who don’t want to take initiative, own their dignity, or make commitments.

From Brooks:

We pretend we don’t tell this lie, but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies.

The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love — that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized.

We knew all this, but it is good to listen again

We did not need Brooks to tell us what the Bible collected centuries ago and what Jesus followers have practiced ever since. But it is great that he used his fame and platform to do it. We are also alarmed at how hard it is to be a young adult today. Although these young radicals were making it look easier the other night at Comcast.

We are also alarmed that society is fragmenting. But we are hardly surprised that making the lies of hyper-individualism the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live would result in destruction. The fact that the powers are so evil keeps making it plainer to people who have been hoping the Empire would not fall that they have been living a lie for a long time. As painful as it is to experience the unraveling of the extravagant U.S. safety net, for a lot of people it is unraveling and sending them off to seek the alternative Jesus offers.

Brooks laments that people keep talking about the political revolution needed in the country. He thinks a cultural revolution should be our focus. For the good of the country, I think he is right. But for the good of the kingdom of God, he is just in the foothills of faith. Politics and culture need to be salted with grace, but they will all pass away, never to rise again. Jesus and his people are forever

Turn to resilient love: History is bearing the fruit of nominalism

Last week I offered an article to my Facebook friends about the “secret” war the U.S. is helping to sustain in Yemen as the unhinged Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the Defense Minister, causes war crimes out of the view of journalists. Our own unhinged ruler further loosened the  long leash the Obama administration had given the Saudis as the civil war between Shias and Sunnis raged on, backed by Iranians and Saudis with Al Qaeda in the wings.

I lamented the lack of a moral center in the whole, horrible mess. Americans have wondered how Russia can think the ends justify the means as that government supports the Syrian government bombing and starving civilians. Yet the U.S. government is doing the same thing through its ally Saudi Arabia, and it’s just as unconscionable when the U.S. is complicit in war crimes.

It breaks our hearts to see children starving. But how can anyone decide what to do? It appears that most people are sinking in a philosophical morass that started a long time ago and is bearing the fruit of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and many other horrors. The myth of freedom demands that desire is at the center of everything we do. It is how we decide. Desire defines our “individuality.” Western culture believes an individual must be the author of his or her desire in order to be free. Nothing or no one can tell us what to do. So how could the U.S. tell the Saudis not to starve Yemenis in the name of their country’s desire to be free according to its sense of identity?

Last week’s blog post was about Donald Trump’s lack of moral center, as he pardoned the racist Joe Arpaio. A couple of friends got on my son’s feed after he posted my work and made light of it, mainly because i dared use the tragedy of Congolese slaves as part of my example. I think I violated their sense of ownership of their own experience, co-opted the story of their desire, and appeared to thwart their struggle to be the authors of their own destiny. I was trying to be a Christian with them, but we’ll have to keep trying.

What happened to goodness?

Finding a moral center in a Trumpian world is difficult. People can’t seem to agree on what is good. There are many reasons for this difficulty that Jesus followers should ponder. For one thing, progressives and conservatives alike serve the same god: individuality. If Christians are to speak the truth in love, they need to get off either bandwagon. We may find some affinity with good-hearted people in either camp, but the world desperately needs the church to get back in God’s camp and provide an alternative to the madness. When will we clearly say, “No, we are not going to ‘follow our hearts’ no matter what society, the church or anyone else says, no matter how many times Disney preaches it to our children”?

I’ve been studying and pondering how we got to the place where Christians can support Trump and the place where identity wars can divide brothers and sisters in faith. Here’s the philosophical/theological trail toward the answer I’ve discovered so far (with help from Rod Dreher).

in the 1300’s “nominalism” took the medieval philosopher’s sense that everything has an inherent, God-given meaning and tweaked it to say that the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends on what humans assign them. You can see the seeds of our present preoccupation with our individual identities in this thought. How we have been named and how we name ourselves makes all the difference to most of us, and the title “child of God” is not usually our number one sense of self, since that derives from God and not ourselves.

In the 1400’s optimism about human potential shifted Europe’s focus from God to humanity who were seen as “the measure of all things.” We’ve been measuring our progress ever since.

In the 1500’s the Reformation broke any remaining sense of religious authority to shreds and started the infighting that makes Christians hard to trust. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand” and ably expressed the personal conviction that has been individualizing faith ever since.

In the 1600’s The Wars of Religion in Europe further discredited religion and helped usher in the modern nation state. The scientific revolution  replaced the organic sense of the universe with a machine. Descartes applied the mechanistic thinking to the body: “I think therefore I am,” not “I am an organic part of God’s world.” Most Europeans, like Descartes, still thought of themselves as faithful Christians at this time, but the way they thought of themselves and decided what is true began to change.

In the 1700’s the Enlightenment created a framework for existence with reason, not God, at the center. Religion became private, not public. The United States protected an  individual’s right to faith in a faithless state. France created an antifaith democracy.

In the 1800’s The industrial revolution ended the connection most people had with the land. Relationships became defined by money. The romantic movement rebelled by emphasizing individualism and passion.

In the 1900’s The horrible world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress as well as faith in Jesus. The growth of technology and consumerism further convinced people to fulfill individual desires and submit to huge corporations which supplied that fulfillment. The sexual revolution elevated the desiring individual as the center of a new social order, deposing enfeebled Christianity and all other religions.

Now in the 2000’s people have almost no moral center outside themselves to rely on, no community that is respected to monitor their behavior, and no sense of covenant that can require their sacrifice. We are reduced to individuals gathering enough power to win an argument about whether our desires will be legalized and our identity protected.

Good is faith working in love

All along the way the church has been sustained by the Holy Spirit and has continued to perform miracles and connect people to God, in spite of increasing opposition and a persuasive counter-narrative to the Gospel. Moana’s song, above, sounds fresh, new resonant, while Sunday’s songs are made to seem old and discordant. Christians readily adopt the demands of the new order just so they can stay in business, or at least not have the endless arguments with judgmental people who parse their every word looking for some insidious oppression that would steal away the freedom to be whatever is desired and to do whatever money can buy. Even so, God’s love is resilient.

In the middle of all the turmoil, I think the church has an opportunity to save the world. One of the ways we do it is to resist being co-opted by the arguments that are fragmenting it. If you want to satisfy your nominalist itch, name yourself a “Jesus follower.” If you are drawn by all the Disney propaganda and worry that your desires will not find enough freedom to flourish (or you are worried about others)  at least wonder, with James, whether your desires will lead to life, as they promise. And when the constant, conflict-promoting media tempts you to turn a suspicious eye on your loved one or neighbor and require some test of their truth to gain your acceptance, turn to love, which covers a multitude of sin. Trust first, accept first, include first and then sort out the inevitable issues that only faith working out in  resilient love together can solve.

Redux #4 — It is OK NOT to be WEIRD — the Bible’s many “rights”

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” entries. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #4

In the fall of of 2013 I tried to help people consider how they make decisions about what is right. With the companion piece, I pointed out how broad the Bible is compared to the cultural assumptions that masquerade as normal.

While I was waiting for baby Hannah to arrive the other day I read a book. (The labor took much longer than I expected! )  It was such a good book that I can’t resist applying a few of its more applicable thoughts to what we are going through right now.

We live in a weird culture and it has influenced us so much that our Christianity is weird. But our church is the brave antidote to that, unless we make it weird.

we-arent-world
Pesky sociologists deconstructing again.

Jonathan Haidt,  a UPenn alum, wrote a well-received book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. It is not a Christian book, even though he gets a lot more sympathetic to Christians by the time he is finished with his huge study on why people react the ways they do when it comes to politics.

He realized that his blue-state sensibilities were actually rather WEIRD. By that he means: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. As far as assessing how humans work, in general, WEIRD people are statistical outliers in the world today and certainly are out of the mainstream of history. USonians are even WEIRDer than Europeans.  Haidt says that “several peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of self than do East Asians. For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the word ‘I am…,’ Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).“

Continue reading Redux #4 — It is OK NOT to be WEIRD — the Bible’s many “rights”

It is OK NOT to be WEIRD — the Bible’s many “rights”

While I was waiting for baby Hannah to arrive the other day I read a book. (The labor took much longer than I expected! )  It was such a good book that I can’t resist applying a few of its more applicable thoughts to what we are going through right now.

Your Christianity may be weird

We live in a weird culture and it has influenced us so much that our Christianity is weird. But our circle of hope in Christ  is the brave antidote to that, unless we make it weird.

westerners are weird
Pesky sociologists deconstructing again.

Jonathan Haidt,  a UPenn alum, wrote a well-received book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. It is not a Christian book, even though he gets a lot more sympathetic to Christians by the time he is finished with his huge study on why people react the ways they do when it comes to politics.

Haidt realized that his blue-state sensibilities were actually rather WEIRD. By that he means: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. As far as assessing how humans work, in general, WEIRD people are statistical outliers in the world today and certainly are out of the mainstream of history. USonians are even WEIRDer than Europeans.  Haidt says that “several peculiarities of WEIRD culture can be captured in this simple generalization: The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships. It has long been reported that Westerners have a more independent and autonomous concept of self than do East Asians. For example, when asked to write twenty statements beginning with the word ‘I am…,’ Americans are likely to list their own internal psychological characteristics (happy, outgoing, interested in jazz), whereas East Asians are more likely to list their roles and relationships (a son, a husband, an employee of Fujitsu).“

Your morality may be WEIRD

If you see a world full of individuals, like WEIRD people do, then you’ll want a morality that protects those individuals and their individual rights. Concerns about harm and fairness will be emphasized. If you live in a non-WEIRD society, as most people do and as most have lived througout history, then you will see a world full of relationships, contexts, groups and institutions. So you won’t be so focused on protecting individuals, you’ll place the needs of the groups and institutions first, often ahead of the needs of individuals. Morality based on harm and fairness won’t be enough. You’ll have additional concerns and a whole set of virtues to go with them.

People often wonder when our church is going to get on the bandwagon and become as WEIRD as (the obviously exceptional) westernized culture around us. We resist being WEIRD and resist conforming to their outlier morality. For one thing, we don’t think the rest of the world and the previous history of humankind is stupid. But the main reason we don’t conform is because God has revealed a much larger playing field on which truth and morality is worked out. You can see that in our far-reaching and diverse scriptures.

Haidt apparently teaches undergrads, because he can boil down his ideas into bumper stickers (which I admire). He follows his own journey out of being WEIRD as he discovers that there are six foundations for morality, not just the one that Americans are using right now to make all their new laws about protecting rights. I was not surprised to see that all six of his “foundations” are elements of the Bible’s teaching about how to live a righteous life [check them out!]. I love it when social science “discovers” the Bible! I think I will save the other five for next time. But since we just welcomed another child into our clan, I’ll leave you with the foundation that dominates our society right now, what Haidt calls the “care foundation.”

The small basis for all those laws

babies are weird but nobody caresThe care foundation for morality is all about protecting people from harm. It is what triggers that “aahh” when we see picture of babies and puppies, preferably together. And it is also the trigger that makes us angry when we see baby seals being clubbed or chickens crammed in a cage. It is also why we can be obsessed about everyone’s rights and why our leaders hasten to tell us they are protecting whole countries and the rights of humanity when they bomb them. All our ethics codes begin with the basic premise that we are supposed to “do no harm.” That’s essentially how we sum up how to act. If the married couples I know are any indication, we all apply this with vigor. They are often very concerned not to do anything wrong that will harm the other, thus protecting fairness but paralyzing intimacy. At the same time they are always doing harm because their rights are violated every day and they can’t help being mad about it.

The “care foundation” is also a main motivation for how we act as Jesus followers. We love how Jesus described God as being like a father filled with compassion for his child: “So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20). God is all about loving individuals; the worse off they are the more Jesus seems to love them.

The Bible teaches us to be like God in how we live: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32). Love, we are taught  “always protects” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Individuals and their well-being count and they are supposed to matter to us, just as they are.

There is more to morality than harm and fairness, however. USonians boil it down to that and then start analyzing everything to see if it meets up to their rather tiny idea of what is good. But they are off to a good start, at least — as long as they don’t try to make the rest of us, and the rest of the world, conform to their small idea of what is right, based on their WEIRDness.