In 1953 Robert Nesbit wrote a very insightful book called The Quest for Community. In it he summarised the prevailing view of man with these words: “The theologian Paul Tillich sees before him in the western world today a culture compounded not of traditional faith and confidence, but one agitated by feelings of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, and meaninglessness.” Today, we look back at the 1950s as a time of innocence, of postwar optimism. It is now sixty years since Tillich’s grim words were written. Have we made progress toward a different view of man? How would a wise observer of the world summarize man’s situation in 2013?
Perspective on 2013
Living in Australia, I experience a country free from many of the conflicts that are taking place in the rest of the world. Australia is a comfortable place, with a national attitude of “No worries, mate.” Politics (and politicians) are something to be mainly laughed at. Our economy was barely touched by the GFC. The big issues of the day seem to be rather small on a global scale: boat people trying to land in a country that doesn’t want them, bushfires and floods. People here in Sydney live a good life, enjoying their weather and coffee — and Tillich’s words somehow seem wrong, strangely alien to life here. I find that I cannot get a grip on the Australian psyche to summarize it. It is as if there is nothing going on beyond dealing with the day to day issues of life. Have Australians somehow left the feelings that Tillich described behind? If so, how did we do that?
The search for what?
I have written 2 books about what I call the “quest” for transformation. My personal view is that all human beings engage in some sort of quest for the answers to the bigger questions about life. Yet, I find that there seems to be no zest for such a quest among many of the people I know here in Sydney, and elsewhere in the world as well. People are searching, that’s for sure, but for what? A better career, more recognition, intimacy — all these are discussed frequently as being important. It’s almost as if we have somehow found ourselves further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than we thought — at the safety, belonging and self-esteem levels — with no energy for self-actualisation or the search for meaning. And, without a search for meaning, can there be any interest in religion or God? Probably not. The days when belonging to a church fulfilled a social need in most people are long past.
So, now what?
The Christian message depends on people seeing the implications for themselves of the larger dimensions of meaning. Jesus came to “save” us from the futility of ordinary human life and death. But if life is only about being safe, belonging and feeling good about one’s self, we can handle those pretty much by ourselves. And that is precisely what our culture is about — self-fulfillment, self-knowledge, self-improvement abounds. Yes, we can go find a “guru” if we want to experience the mystical dimensions of life, but there is no life and death drama connected with that, only our feeling good about ourselves. For someone to make the effort of learning about Christianity, something must jolt them out “no worries, mate.”
The old time revival preachers used the threat of hell and damnation to do that — but that is so politically incorrect today people reject it. So what is the answer? I’m trying the “awe” approach myself. There’s obviously something much bigger than me, Australia or Planet Earth ‘out there.’ Science fiction movies like Avatar give us hints that mankind will play a much bigger role in the universe in ages to come. If people get excited about the potential of what a human being really is — transcendent, on the way to becoming divine — maybe they will get serious about learning about the one who is leading us on that transformational journey. In any case, that’s what I’m tring to do. How about you?