“No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote John Donne back in the 17th century. He was right. We might think we are independent and that our thinking is all our own work. But we are all deeply affected by the outlook and opinions of the society around us.
One of the most fascinating studies I did at college was about how the church’s outlook, practice and even some of its secondary beliefs have been deeply affected by society over the centuries. We look, for example, at 19th century missionaries and wince when we see that, in addition to their sacrificial dedication (many of them died in the process) to spread the gospel, they also embarrassingly spread British imperialism and colonialism. But when we point the finger, three fingers are pointing back at us! We are ALL creatures of our age and we tend to be blind to it.
In the West we are very affluent by world standards and we are constantly bombarded by materialism in TV programmes and adverts. Our generation is subject to more powerful mass communication than any in human history. The advertisers are trying to convince us that we can’t do without possessions that we don’t really need at all. Such is the power of propaganda that it often works, and we trot out to buy them (or to the computer and order them). The lifestyle of people on TV has a similar effect on us. If we are honest, we rather want to be like them, with big houses and sleek cars, etc. If one brand doesn’t suit us we can go to another shelf and get one that does.
Human beings have always been materialistic but we are rich enough to excel in materialism. Has it brought happiness? Our better nature knows that it hasn’t really and that good relationships and fulfilling activities are far more important. After all, the suicide rate amongst people who win lots of money is very high. But we have an addiction problem and part of us thinks materialism might bring happiness.
It is possible to be very respectable, upright and religious yet not to realise that materialism can be as fatal to spirituality as immorality. Material affluence can become a god. And that is not consistent with dedication to the only true God after all.
The danger today, in our supermarket culture, is that we are in life for what we can get out of it. We can be in relationships for what we can get out of them – so if our present partner no longer satisfies us we discard him/her for a better model. We can live in society for what we get out of it and finish up grumbling and complaining when we don’t get what we want. It is possible to go to church for what we can get out of it, and if it’s not entirely to our liking, we might stop going.
Some are even involved in Christianity for what they get out of it. After all, Christians receive a lot: forgiveness, healing, comfort, answers to prayer, fellowship, special experiences and, above all, eternal life.
But Jesus turned all this aspect of 21st century culture on its head. He said: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” He added: “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [make sacrifices] and follow me.”
Our motive should be to thank God and bring blessing to others. But, in so doing, as St Francis of Assisi said: “It is in giving that we receive.” So:
- If we concentrating on giving to others we will receive, not least, fulfilment
- If we concentrate on giving to our partner we will deepen the relationship
- If we concentrate on giving to God (our love, our time and obedience to his will) we shall receive many blessings.
- If we concentrate on going to church to give (in service to God and others) we shall receive rich satisfaction.
- If we concentrate on giving our lives to Christ in faith we shall receive eternal life.
That’s what Christianity – and life – is all about.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction