Spiritual sense in a secular era

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Spiritual sense in a secular era

May 18, 2007    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
tparham@flumc.org     Orlando {0674}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at http://www.flumc.info/photo_gallery2.shtml.

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

It is remarkable how quickly many in modern Western societies are embracing secularity. By secularity I mean a view of the world and a way of life without God. Europeans have led the way, but people in places like Australia and Uruguay and America are following their lead.

The increasing secularity of modern societies is not surprising. Modern societies are consumerist. They condition human beings to live to enjoy the good things of life — health, food, houses, clothes, entertainment, sex. Consumerist societies are comfortable places. There are so many pleasures and diversions that we feel no need for another kind of life. The late writer John Gardner summed it up succinctly: “Values thought to be of prime importance prove trivial when one encounters an admirable culture in which those values are not held (“On Moral Fiction,” Basic Books, 1977).”

An indicator of increasing secularity is the decline in the numbers of people who worship every week. The worship of God seems “trivial” when life is so pleasant in a consumerist society.

Yet beneath the surface of this comfortable existence in a consumerist society is a restlessness of the human spirit. As the late Peggy Lee sang, “Is that all there is?”

The problem of life in a consumerist society is that it reduces the human experience. The human yearning for transcendence beyond mere natural existence through language, art, ritual and contemplation is repressed.

From a Christian perspective on human nature, human existence in a consumerist society is living in a “natural” rather than a “spiritual” mode. One might even say that the good life in America and other Western societies is the perfection of “natural” mode of being. Since there are two ways to live — the “natural” and the “spiritual” ways — we can see why the consumerist way of living is both attractive and anxious: our “natural” desires are fully satisfied, but our “spiritual” desires are fully repressed.

The denial of the “spiritual” mode of being is death — the death of the soul and the death of society. It leads to what Thoreau famously called “lives of quiet desperation.” It also leads to the eventual destruction of society, which requires a social responsibility that involves the one virtue a consumerist way of life erodes — self-denial.

The church should be a witness in a consumerist society to another way of living than the “natural” way of life. The church possesses the freedom to become human beyond the “natural” mode of living because it hears a Word that comes from beyond the world. This Word tells what we yearn to hear whether or not we are fully aware of it. It proclaims news you cannot find in The New York Times. This Word, which was made visible in history in the coming of Jesus Christ, says that it is possible to live in a “spiritual” mode of being.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Those who are unspiritual (i.e., natural) do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).” Here is the Christian description of the secular human being in a consumerist society.

On the Feast of Pentecost, the church remembers that God has poured out the Holy Spirit upon those who believe in the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. This Spirit is given to us to transform us from a “natural” to a “spiritual” mode of being. We begin to look at life through new eyes and start to live by values that are the inverse of those of a consumerist society. Then the death of the soul and society begin to be overcome by the gift of new life in the Spirit. Joy replaces mere enjoyment as we participate in community with one another and communion with God. It is not just persons who are changed, but also whole cultures in their art, literature, philosophy and politics.

We need a new spiritual sensibility in a secular age. We need nothing less than the experience of Pentecost in our souls and in our society. Meeting this need is not a “stretch,” but it is at our hands; as Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children (the exchange of consumerism), how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13)!”


This article relates to Pentecost.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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