By Rev Dr Sally Douglas
I do not subscribe to the notion that you have to be religious in order to have a moral framework. Why? Because the evidence is clear.
I know people who are not religious, but who live out of a clear ethical framework, in which compassion and justice are integral. They make the world a better place because of this.
However, there is more to say.
As the influence of religion has receded in our culture over the last century, the platform the church once had to speak to society about what the good life – a meaningful life – might constitute and what virtuous living might entail has been given over to other voices.
In contemporary Australian culture it is largely the voices of the market place that have filled this void. As a result, we are constantly told (not just on TV now, but also on our phones, in our feeds, as well as in advertising) that in order to be of value, or to live our best life, we must be consuming, achieving and, perhaps, most important of all, we must be seen doing this and be liked for it.
Radio National recently reported on a survey of high school students in Australia in which 60% of respondents said what they wanted to do after high school was be “rich and famous”.
This is no accident. These young people have been attuned to the constant messaging of our culture and are simply reflecting back the desires they have absorbed.
There are many reasons why the amplification of the message that the good life is made up of consuming, achieving and being seen and liked is a problem.
An integral issue is that this emphasis feeds our unsustainable throwaway culture. This is reflected in fast fashion, as cheap garments are bought constantly and then quickly discarded. This mentality contributes to the profound degradation of the earth, for example, through the wasting of vast amounts of water. This also contributes to the de-humanising of poor workers, who often exist in slave (like) conditions working impossible hours at very low pay.
There is also another issue at stake and it has to do with the care of our souls.
The reality is that it is untrue that we will experience a good or meaningful life by adhering to the market’s mantra of consuming, achieving and being seen and liked. That is why the cycle of consuming is so powerful – we can easily think if we just buy, or achieve, or be seen more, we might finally be happy.
I doubt it is a coincidence that there has been a significant increase in mental health issues for young people in the past 10 years. They have been sold this lie (that is constantly amplified on their smart phones) and are trying to be faithful disciples to this, often unfettered, message. All the while, they experience the emptiness of this pursuit, and can easily assume they must be doing life wrong.
In the grip of our society’s new religion of the market there is no easy fix. I suspect that simply saying to young, or old, people “consuming is not good for you, it doesn’t matter how popular you are” is unlikely to make an impact.
Instead, people need to know that a different story is possible and, as followers of Jesus, we have something to humbly offer.
If we dare to claim the way of Jesus, we have to face Jesus’s disruption of consumerist culture. Across the gospels, and perhaps most especially in Luke’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly speaks out against consumerism.
“Sell your stuff – give it away,” Jesus says (Luke 12.33; 14.33). “Don’t worry about what you are going to wear or eat” (Luke 12.22, Luke 1215 -21).
Why does Jesus say this?
Jesus is inviting people into an entirely different world-view in which our value is not based on our status, consuming, self-seeking or even our sense (or lack thereof) of worthiness.
At the heart of this world-view is an understanding of the Divine who sees us and gazes upon us in love and who values us regardless of how lost or found, poor or rich, popular or excluded we are.
In my experience, it is the practice of giving our attention to this One that the volume of our culture’s messaging can be turned down. It is in discovering, again and again, that we are seen and loved by the Divine, and so are “they” (whoever we think of as “the other”), that we can begin to live into the same kind of generosity and humility that Jesus, the radiant One, embodies.
Research is showing people often discover more meaning and happiness as they begin to live more altruistically. If, in a serious way, we are made in the image of God: that is, God in Community, the Divine who comes to us in Jesus and who is utterly self-giving, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we come closer to our own centre of joy and meaning when we live more deeply into this internal Divine-human reality.
Clambering out of the treacle-like consistency of consumerist culture is not easy. While some might do this in their own strength, most of us will need regular moments away from the drip feed messaging of our culture, through practices like wrestling with sacred text, carving out spaces for prayer and spending time in nature.
We will also need people around us (or examples we can aspire to) who do not derive their meaning from consuming and achieving and being popular, but who embody – and this is important – joy and hope, as they live simply and generously.
Rejecting consumerist culture – with its accouterments of accumulating, achieving and being seen and liked – may be the work of a lifetime. But it is worth it.
As followers of Jesus, we have access to an alternate story of reality that we can live into, humbly (and falteringly) embody, and speak about when people are curious. For the sake of our precious earth, for the sake of our fellow humans and for the sake of our own souls, this is important.