The relationship between materialism, happiness and Christmas…

consumerism

There are some things that all the worlds religions kind of agree on- almost as if in the distillation of spiritual wisdom of the the millennia, certain concepts were inescapable. One of these is our attitude towards possessions. Quite simply, they are more often than not regarded as an obstacle to enlightenment, not a path towards it.

Perhaps the most hard core religious response to the accumulation of wealth and possessions was Jesus- we all know the biblical passages and the perenthetical BUT we have added on to each and every one of them. It remains one of the great human paradoxes as to how Consumer Capitalism has been able to grow in a western culture dominated by Christianity- not just in spite of our faith, but almost because of the way we live it out. We have come to believe that Jesus is at heart a white middle class respectable home owner.

visa cross

There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday that opened all this up again for me. He took a long look at consumerism, sharing some research about the impact of materialism on well being, sociability and mental health. He pulls no punches; Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.

Monbiot quotes a lot of research into the impact of materialism- here are a few examples;

There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, aseries of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.

In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.

In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.

shop window

These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

As we read these studies, we instinctively know them to be true; there are no surprises here. Perhaps this is because of some kind of spiritual residue left in our psyches from all those religious people who made these discoveries previously. Perhaps also each generation has to learn it anew.

However, we in the West are more than pilgrims who have wandered off into some consumer-bog, we have become hostages.

consumerism

A few years ago I read Pete Ward’s excellent book ‘Liquid Church’, in which he suggested that  ‘rather than condemn the shopper as materialist Liquid Church would take shopping seriously as a spiritual exercise.’ What Ward was seeking to do was to get the church to engage fully with the culture we are part of- to flow in its veins. I found this idea very helpful at the time- it enabled me to move from a fixed blinkered position which saw culture dominated by consumerism as universally bad (despite my full participation within it) towards a deliberate attempt to read culture through its patterns of acquisition. So if you look hard at lots of the advertisements we are bombarded with you will start to see the yearning behind the selling. What the advertisers are trying to do is to connect us with something beyond the physical aspect of the object, into the meaning it brings into our lives- so a car is not a good piece of engineering, it is a symbol of freedom, of self expression, of celebration of our lives.

Having understood this however; having looked again at our culture through its predominant consumer characteristics, where does this take us? I am more and more convinced that it takes us towards one thing only- the need to become engaged critics. Enraged critics even.

Let us turn over some tables in the temple.

Which brings us to Christmas again.

I know, I know, the calls to make Christmas less consumer-driven are getting a bit old. I have been banging on about it on this blog for years. Lighten up a little! Have some fun! There is nothing wrong with spending a bit more at Christmas after all.

Except, as our religious forefathers knew, and as Monbiot has underlined, let us not kid ourselves that any of this is making us happier. Let us not suggest that buying lots of stuff (even for others) is making us more sociable, more loving, more empathetic, more caring.

Rich and poor alike are caught up in this addictive destructive cycle. What would it mean to be clean?

What would it mean to be free?

Liebster award!

A very nice bloke gave me the Liebster award!

liebster award

As far as I can see, this award works like this- bloggers award this to other blogs that they feel have merit. If you accept the award, you agree to answer the questions set by the person who gave you the award, and to make some awards of your own. I think the rules have become a little diffuse as it has rattled around the blogosphere, but hey, it is always nice to be appreciated, so thanks very much Paul!

Paul (who nominated me) blogs at Red Setter Christian (which is a great name) and he attends the church I used to go to down near Preston- we met there for a memorable chat a year or so ago. You should check out his blog, which is full of lovely inventive things as well as restless adventuring faith.

So- here are my answers to Paul’s Questions;

What is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen?

Because the question said ‘thing’ I will not say my wife, or my kids. I could mention sunsets over the western Hebrides, waterfalls, the roll of mountain down to gentle valley. But I will say this- home after a long journey away. The stain on the carpet. The bit of skirting board I mended poorly. The place where I am most at peace.

Who is your favourite comedian, and why?

I am too melancholic to have a favourite comedian. Lots of people make me laugh though. My mate Simon does that more than most.

If you could nominate a current/recent TV show as a future classic, which one would you pick, and why?

Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh. Each shot a portrait. Superb acting. Imperfect genius as main character. Complex, dark and moving.

Politicians or Lawyers.  Who do you mistrust more?

Politicians have often been lawyers. If not they will certainly need one to cover stuff up for them. With that in mind, they are equally culpable.

Censorship – a good idea, or not?

Not. However we should be accountable for damage done.

What’s the best thing about where you live?

It is where my home is, where my family are. Or at least before they started to spread their wings. It is also very beautiful, on the edge of wild country.

Which book do you find yourself returning to the most, and what is it that keeps you coming back?

I am not sure I have returned to many repeatedly. Swallows and Amazons because it allows me to share my childhood dreams with my kids perhaps. And the Bible, because despite all the battering it has taken from systematic theology, it is still a rather good book.

Cats or Dogs?

It rains both in these parts. I choose chickens.

What has surprised you most (in a good/pleasant/not jumping out at you in a terrifying manner way) this week, and why?

Russel Brand with his cheeky chappy revolutionary wisdom, which really seems to have changed the political debate.

In the event of ‘First Contact’ with an alien race (who would, obviously speak perfect English like they do in outer space!) – which living person would you pick as our best representative?

Tony Benn. Wisdom, age, compassion, understanding of power.

Now for my own nominations;

I am going to nominate two blogs- simply because they post often, contain much wit and wisdom, and often make me smile as well as open me up a little. Strangely, both writers make a living as ministers of religion! Perhaps I love both because they give me a human window into established church, which despite finding myself outside, I still love. It is also because I have met both writers and have a deep respect for them.

The first is this one- Diggingalot. Most of the new music I listen to I have encountered here. There is usually something to make me laugh, to ponder on for a while.

Next, Danceswithmidges- a local blog to where I live. Honest, thoughtful, full of lovely pictures. I always get the impression that (like the best blogs) it is written as much for the writer to make sense of his own world as to impress anyone else.

So, should you choose to accept this award, here are my questions;

How do you relax? What is your favourite way to waste time?

How do you pray? No- honestly, how do you really pray?

Who has been the person who has influenced your journey most in the last 5 years?

What would you rescue first if your house was on fire (assuming all living things are safe.)

You are given power to change 3 things in our political/economic system. What would you do?

When was the last time that someone showed you great kindness?

When was the last time you cried, and why?

 

And there you have it.

Thanks Paul for opening up some new connections. The internet lives, despite Google and the NSA!

It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Teaching not learning…

school-assembly

 

I had lots of good discussions on my recent wilderness retreat, one of them was a chat with Andrew about teaching in church.

This was relevant as in my ‘church’ we do not really do teaching- most of us have had a belly full of sitting in church services listening to people preach at us. This has been replaced by lots of different kinds of learning however- reading, internetting, discussing, visiting other places. Whether or not this is a fair exchange has been the cause of some discussion.

Andrew however (who is a NT scholar at Aberdeen University, so his opinion seems well worth listening to) described his own frustration with how church has become addicted to teaching, but has forgot entirely about learning.

I had to think about that- surely if someone is a good teacher, then this has to be measured by the degree to which his or her (but lets face it, in this context it is more likely to be his) pupils learn?  Well no, says Andrew, at least not in the context of Church. Rather, his experience of preaching/teaching is that it is mostly totally disconnected from learning; rather it offers a kind of moralised, spirtualised entertainment for the faithful. Rather than challenging anyone to change, to develop, to grow, to explore, to adventure with the Spirit, it actually just provides a religious diversion from real life.

Another friend of mine, Graham, called it ‘theological masturbation’ over on his blog;

 I used the phrase ‘theological masturbation’ where I referred to our tendency, in Bible study groups just to ‘self pleasure’. Groups becoming just sharing of points and opinions with no vulnerability or attempt to relate it in an active or missionary way to the world outside…

The interesting question is, if people are not learning from our teaching, what do we do instead? How do we set people free to learn for themselves?

My initial response to Andrew was that I thought it was something to do with hierarchy. Churches have people whose job it is to teach others- the paid ministers. Therefore the rest of us step back and leave the hard work to them. Sometimes they (and in turn, we) are inspired, but mostly we defer responsibility to them. What if we actually had to come up with our own solutions to the small theological questions that surround our every day life? Sure, it might be possible, even necessary, to not get into the meat of all of them, but no faith is possible without a search for meaning- and in this instance, the meaning we find is our own, it is not lazily appropriated.

However, I am not fully satisfied with this answer- after all, we are all standing in a long line of followers of Jesus, and to suggest that others have not got things to teach us is foolish. We are all subject to the influence of others, and why not at least listen to people who have given this more thought than we have.

There is still the issue of learning. What are we learning for? Is it to refine the subtleties of our doctrine? There has been a lot of this kind of learning after all. Or should learning be actually about being schooled in the disciplines shown to us by Jesus? These are perhaps best understood in terms of learning to love one another, to live in community, to let go of all the stuff that gets in the way, be they possessions, selfish obsessions, or sins. This kind of learning seems to be to be as much about unlearning, simplifying, going deeper and slower.

I write these things not because I have learnt well- rather because I am a long term remedial pupil in need of extra tutoring.

I think that is what the Holy Spirit was tasked with was it not?

Which makes me wonder again whether we have not made his job rather difficult- by filling the classroom with theological masturbation.

Perhaps what we actually need is a small island with no internet or phone reception…

Eileach an Naoimh wilderness retreat pics…

Just looking at some photos of our trip to Eileach an Naoimh. It was great, and there is much more to reflect on, but for now, a few pics as I should be busy setting up our house for an ‘open studios’ event;

 

Nihilism…

community 1

Readers of this blog will know that I am not one of those people who bemoan the passing of some kind of golden moral Christian age, when all was in its godly place.

Neither do I believe that our churches are the last repository of goodness within our sinful planet- the last means of the planets salvation.

But just sometimes, the zeitgeist gets me down;

The feeling that the beautiful creature, made a little lower than the angels, is busy shopping.

Is busy watching TV, obsessing about royal babies, caught up in rolling news bulletins showing the same clips of disasters in photogenic parts of the world.

Is concerned only with the next car, the next orgasm, the next holiday.

And I start to wonder again about the old Evangelical cliche about a God-shaped hole in the middle of us all.

I was thinking about this word recently;

ni·hil·ism  (n-lzm, n-)

n.

1. Philosophy

a. An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.
b. A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.
2. Rejection of all distinctions in moral or religious value and a willingness to repudiate all previous theories of morality or religious belief.
3. The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.
4. also Nihilism A diffuse, revolutionary movement of mid 19th-century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society and government through terrorism and assassination.
5. Psychiatry A delusion, experienced in some mental disorders, that the world or one’s mind, body, or self does not exist.
And it took me back the Matthew chapter 5- The words of Jesus that have been known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. All those words about finding a better way of living, characterised by love, service, justice, peacemaking.
And in a moment of bleakness (you have been warned) I wrote this;

Nihilist creed

 

Blessed are the neurotic

But skin them under a cold cloak of positivity

For who wants to see their damaged flesh?

 

Blessed are those who have loved and lost

For this life has few survivors

We will all too soon be dust

 

Blessed are the kind, the shy, the meek

Though their fortune fails and their labours are ignored

While the go-getters steal away the earth

 

Blessed are the God-botherers, the long-skirt-wearers, those frozen-chosen

Let them gather in their holy huddles, to ward off

The must and draft of their empty buildings

 

Blessed may be the charitable, but beware

For friends offering favours will always want something in return

And their helping hands only serve to show the weakness of your own

 

Blessed are those with no dirty secrets, with nothing to keep out the light

Let them shine for a while because we are watching and waiting

Nothing falls further than a second rate saint

 

Blessed are the community-makers, village hall re-painters, singers of the songs of peace

But Rome did not rise without war

So let them march and wave their banners while we sharpen our steel

 

Blessed are those who still have something to believe in

Fools that they are

For we will construct meaning only from what we can buy and sell

 

There is nothing more

The Holy Atheist Church…

atheist-church

I am sure many of you have heard of the Atheist church services put on by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans in London. Around 600 non-believers have been gathering in Bethnal Green since January to listen to inspirational talks, sing songs accompanied by a live band, make friends and volunteer for good causes. Meetings are about to move from monthly to fortnightly.

It now seems that they are taking the idea to international heights- there is already a monthly event in New York, with ‘services’  to begin soon in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle.

A ‘religious’ service without God, I hear you ask- what is the point? This from here; 

The Sunday Assembly was created after Jones attended a Christmas carol service and enjoyed the sense of community: “There were so many wonderful things about it, but at the centre of it there was something I didn’t believe in. And for me, life is such an absolute gift so why can’t we talk about that?”

He added: “I’d always thought there’d be people in other parts of the world who would like this. It was picked up by the media and more than 750 people around the world have written to us saying they’d like a Sunday Assembly in their town.” At the New York meeting, the congregation sang songs by the Beatles and Queen, and closed with Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Guest speaker was Chris Stedman, a humanist chaplain at Harvard.

It coincided with the city’s Gay Pride march, so the theme was “coming out”. Jones said: “People in the US talk about coming out as atheists. I’d think, what’s an ‘out’ atheist? That’s bonkers.”

Jones visited nine other US cities where people asked for advice on setting up assemblies. In the UK, branches will launch in Bristol this weekend and Exeter and Brighton in September. Jones and Evans kick off a global roadshow on October 20, with 40 assemblies in 60 days. Locations, decided by demand via their website, include Australia, France and Scandinavia.

Evans, a Christian until she was 17, said: “When I stopped believing in God, I didn’t miss God but I did miss church. And that’s the point of the assembly, meeting like-minded people and bolstering each other up.”

Jones added: “Atheists are very good on reason, and science, but that doesn’t get you jumping out of bed in the morning. This is about being alive.”

All of which sounds quite lovely to be honest- anything that celebrates community, encourages people to do good things and to live life in a deeper and fuller way is OK with me.

I suspect that God might agree too.

What does it mean however to call yourself an Atheist? It suggests a little more than just indifference to the idea of a supreme being at the centre of it all.

Perhaps some might describe it as a religion that sets out to describe all other religions as wrong. There are after all a lot of those kind of religions.

As a Christian, I was brought up to see atheists as evil, deluded, the enemy. Agnostics were perhaps redeemable, but atheists were active opponents of God. They were sticking two fingers up at the divine and would have eternity to regret their foolishness. Militant atheists like Dawkins have done nothing to erode the battle lines.

I found this article by Andrew Brown in the Guardian really helpful, in which he describes six kinds of atheism (based on American research);

The largest group (37%) was what I would call “cultural non-believers”, and what they call “academic” or “intellectual atheists”: people who are well-educated, interested in religion, informed about it, but not themselves believers. I call them “cultural” because they are at home in a secular culture which takes as axiomatic that exclusive religious truth claims must be false. Essentially, they are how I imagined the majority readership of Comment is free’s belief section.

They are more than twice as common as the “anti-theists” whose characteristics hardly need spelling out here:

If any subset of our non-belief sample fit the “angry, argumentative, dogmatic” stereotype, it is the anti-theists. This group scored the highest amongst our other typologies on empirical psychometric measures of anger, autonomy, agreeableness, narcissism, and dogmatism while scoring lowest on measures of positive relations with others … the assertive anti-theist both proactively and aggressively asserts their views towards others when appropriate, seeking to educate the theists in the passé nature of belief and theology.

Nonetheless, these people made up only 14% of their sample, and all other research that I know of would place their proportion much lower.

The other two noteworthy groups are those to whom religion is completely and entirely irrelevant, “non-theists”, and what the researchers call “ritual atheists“, who overlap quite a lot with “seeker-agnostics”, both of whom might be targeted under the marketing category known as “spiritual but not religious”. What defines them is the ability to treat religious practices as something like acupuncture or Chinese medicine: something that works even though the explanation is obviously nonsense:

One of the defining characteristics regarding ritual atheists/agnostics is that they may find utility in the teachings of some religious traditions. They see these as more or less philosophical teachings of how to live life and achieve happiness than a path to transcendental liberation. Ritual atheist/agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual.

As the authors observe, this covers a large spectrum of American Jewry.

(One further category, “activist“, is used to label those who hold strong beliefs on ethical and environmental issues. Pretty much what the term means in lay parlance.)

I think the English, or more generally European results, would be different. The typologies are broadly the same, but since Christianity is much less of a marker in European culture wars, and certainly not an active one in the UK, you would expect the distribution of categories to be different, and for people to be very much less self-conscious about unbelief and less likely to regard it as a salient feature of their personalities.

Atheism is an honest response to lack of belief.

However, most of us who continue to try to live with faith in God have to admit to the presence of doubt, and I for one think we should be honest about this.

I liked the perenthetical trickery of  Pete Rollins who talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the idea that what we know is always incomplete, imperfect and error-strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

Gravity gets us all in the end my friends, and may we all fall into the arms of a loving God.

Vanier on community…

jean-vanier

‘Community can be a terrible place because it is a place of relationship; it is the revelation of our wounded emotions and of how painful it can be to live with others, especially with ‘some people.’ It is so much easier to live with books and objects, television, or dogs and cats! It is so much easier to live alone and just do things for others, when one feels like it…. While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone’.

Jean Vanier ’Community and Growth’
I pinched this quote from my mate Graham’s blog.
.
Because Vanier puts into words what most of us instinctively know to be true. Our relating is mostly driven by self- our need for friendship/entertainment/validation/collaboration.
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It is this kind of relating that allows us to believe that we live ‘good’ lives, that we are ‘nice’ and that we are ‘Christian’ even.
.
My experience is that community first teaches us that we are none of these things.
.
Most of us recoil at this point- surely there must be something wrong with the people we are communing with? Joe is a pain the arse, Gill is a power hungry despot-in-training, Jim has far too many opinions and should just shut up before I slap him. Better to just go home and watch TV.
.
I confess I have watched a lot of TV.
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But still, there is community. They have not kicked me out yet…

Wilderness retreat, September, some places left…

The Garvellachs, in the distance

We are planning another wilderness retreat Friday 20th – Sunday 22nd September, for a group of blokes from Garioch Church, Aberdeen. They are particularly interested in finding a way to explore what we might understand to be ‘male spirituality’.

We will be heading out to the Garvellachs again, weather permitting! The last time we tried to get there (in May) the rising swell meant that landing was too big a risk, and so we ended up on Scarba- which was brilliant too.

At present there are 6-7 of us, so room for a few more if anyone wants to join us? Expect costs to be around £50-60, depending on how many actually come (due to fixed costs of boat.)

If you want to come, let me know soon, as there are a few folk interested.

It is a fabulous place to spend time being still…

Jonny and Paul, fire