Progress? Where are we?

chaos_and_meaninglessness_roweIn 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?



8 Replies to “Progress? Where are we?”

  1. This morning I went to a pancake breakfast at a catholic church in downtown St Paul Mn, USA. I would consider this area to be a sunset community, one going through great changes. The original members, around whom this church was built and grew upon, are, for the most part, seniors in the third stages of their lives. A parish member approached me and asked me my name. She said she looked around and she didn’t recognize many people there anymore. But who were the parishoners she spoke of? Most of the people I saw there were from a 3rd world country. The children running around all belonged to them. In their faces I could see they were searching for something. But their journey is much different than what you describe Jim.
    The point I’m making is, to better answer your question, isn’t it incumbent upon us to get out of our comfortable environment and go someplace where great change is taking place? I currently go to a very well-to-do Lutheran church that is filled with successful people who are enjoying the good life yet also seem to be unfulfilled. Their search for meaning is much different than those new immigrants with large families who are seeking a new life and have found a community in their local church, one to build their lives around.

    Do the people who attend your church Jim see their church as one that fulfills their need for community?

  2. John, excellent point. We have to get outside our comfort zone (our familiar church communities) to actually encounter what people “out there” are searching for.

    1. I understand this church was probably going to close. Due to the cost of upkeep, this parish was going to integrate into another. What I see happening is many of the duties of the local churches are being taken over by the state. I don’t believe the state will ever replace many of the functions that churches do for their parishoners. If you think back to when you and I were growing up Jim, how was the church an integral part of our lives? Think of all the functions we would attend. This morning it was an epiphany for me attending the pancake breakfast and seeing all the players in their different roles. These roles allowed people to give of themselves to other parishoners, be part of a community. This woman was truly sad she didn’t recognize others there, something was lost in her community. The children were running around,enjoying themselves. People were talking to each other at the various tables, animated with life. Most of the people had smiles on their faces, this was a very comfortable place for them. The priest was walking around, saying hello to everyone. The servers at the table could not have been friendlier.

      You need to be able to go to a place like this Jim, it is a moral cleansing.

  3. Jim,
    Your comments are so relevent to to the world I find around me today. It seems that people are no longer interested in the relevancy of their existence in conjunction with the existence of their fellow man. It seems to be that it’s all about.” Me”. What I do, what I’m interested in, what I expect has to have an immediate satisfaction quotient for my psyche. I have said many times that people today want what they see and they need what they want. They believe they are entitled to all of their wants now. As we search for self gratification, we become oblivious to the value and contributions of those around us. It seems that existence has no meaning without immediate gratification. With this type of mentality, there is no room or time in our daily lives to search for a purposeful meaning to our existence.

    I find in my community that the mainline churches are experiencing declining membership, attendance and financial strain. The churches in the area that are growing are those that have deviated from the more traditional God centered worship and have taken a more you centered approach to worship. Instead of trying to shape the community to Christian values, they are conforming Christian values to the community.

    I am in the last trimester of my life, and I doubt if I will see the end results of this (shall we call it evolution) change that is taking place. Or will I know if God and the Holy Spirit turn us back to a time where we are a Christ centered community.

    1. Everett,

      I think that the Holy Spirit is “alive and well,” and that we need to open ourselves to its presence and work in all the things you mention. That is what the gift of hope equips us to do. I’m trying to awaken Christians to this reality — “stir things up” a bit — in Grace Filled World. I’m just starting to assemble the 90 posts I have written into a book. I hope you’ll help me figure out how to make the case that holy change is happening all around us, and we are being called to join in.

  4. Good stuff, very illuminating…I like the blog and in particular this article..I have always felt that God is the force that is guiding man’s quest for space travel and that one day man shall move on to conquer other planet(s). As a result I have a fascination and liking for anything space.

    I have read several other articles, and I believe you are onto a great cause. If you touch but one soul and inspire him/her through this work, you would’ve added more light in this world to quell the dark forces that seem bent on destroying God’s work.

    1. Thanks Jeff for your encouragement. I especially agree with two things you say. One, God has great plans for the human race; space travel may be a step toward a much larger role in transforming the universe. Two, if we only touch one life, we have done something that is as big as transforming the universe because each person is an infinite divine-like being. I look forward to more of your comments.

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