December 06, 2004

Spiritual Yearning

Kyle Williams posted a very polite response to my scribbling the other day, and he raises some good questions:

...The point of the column was not the immorality of my generation. It also seems odd to me that Natasha completely ignored the greater part of my article. That is, the spiritual yearning of a generation not being satisfied with ridiculous subcultural Christianity, nor in the self-righteous ideas of the greater religious right.

On another point, I don't believe that hedonism, in the context I used the word, is necessarily tied to the relative morality of a generation. My overall point in using the word "hedonism" is in the way popular culture is so tied to the individual teen. Everything you could want seems to be at one's finger-tips. As this trend will probably grow in mine and subsequent generations, I certainly believe that the soul desires something deeper - something spiritual.

You might dismiss this as simply the ramblings of the average religious Baptist growing up in the rhetoric filled "Bible-belt." It would seem that such dissatisfaction from my generation would benefit me, so, I write with a hopeful bent. And, maybe that's true. ...

Put like that, "that the soul desires something deeper - something spiritual", nearly everybody feels that way. Everybody is looking for deeper meaning or higher purpose, or maybe just feeling a void if they don't sense any such thing in their lives. Even rabidly liberal blue-state dwellers like me. Even people who don't go to church, or who spend too much time in seedy nightclubs, or who get mixed up in silly pop-culture crazes, or spend all their time obsessing over work, or whose lives are unremarkable in any way.

It's an enduring condition of humanity, and it explains much of our craziness, don't you think?

The thing is, when you attack a whole generation as being out of touch with these things, that criticism shines through more clearly than everything else. Decades have been spent criticizing 'the kids' for everything that's wrong, for being immoral, what have you. It isn't constructive, and it speaks more to adults who'd rather blame their juniors for their mistakes than to your peers all across the country who probably have many of the same feelings you expressed so well in your response. Young people aren't responsible for this mess of a world, and it seems unlikely they'll believe they can improve it if they start thinking their lives are already a write-off.

I was a teenager in the 80's, when some infamous jerk declared that greed is good. The cultural glorification of self-absorption didn't start recently, it's been a work in progress. These media and entertainment conglomerates teach us to be consumers, and to have consumer values, and to expect to be entertained every minute of the day. The more obvious aspects of encouraging instant gratification can obscure the real goal, which is to sell more junk. And it's absorbing, but empty, and that emptiness is hardly news in any corner of the country. It's a concern and a void of the soul that transcends party affiliation and geography.

It's only gotten worse as advertisers figured out that young people, the people with the least spending inhibitions, have more pocket money than ever. So your age group is targeted more, offered more, encouraged to ask their guilt-ridden and time-crunched parents for more, and more, and more. And absolutely no one at all is any happier for it. We buy and buy, hoping for the happiness that the media says is just around the corner with the next purchase, and it's all a pack of lies.

But it's popular. So religion tries to join in, politics joins in, the so-called news media join in, all trying to ride the wave. Everyone trying to shock, to be more extreme, to discuss the cheap crack rather than the substantive discontent. And as every aspect of society gets blander, more tedious, more mediocre, more commodified, and more 'sensational,' it becomes less satisfying. And being a product of greed, this tide of dreck is in a basic opposition to both the liberal ideal of acting like we're all in this together and the conservative ideal of making big decisions cautiously and without undue waste.

But regarding religion specifically:

However, the over-arching theme of my column was how self-absorbed the some Christians have become - myself included - and that's exactly how we come across sometimes: self-absorbed jerks, failing miserably at being "cool" and in valuing an idealistic society, we judge others by a law that even we can't keep. ...

I don't know enough to comment on how much any of this applies to you personally, and don't be too hard on yourself, but that's exactly how most of the right-wing ministers on TV come across to me.

There are a lot of good ideals in religious teachings, in fact, in all of the religions I'm aware of. But what happened to talking about charity, about taking up the lifelong work of improving ourselves, about the kind of compassion that no one has to 'explain' is really compassion, to building each other up and making life's collective burden lighter? Where did public religion get off the boat of letting the supreme being be the judge, and taking up our individual duty to just be decent neighbors to everyone we meet and to love our family members? These are difficult tasks, far harder than memorizing a list of sins to throw in other people's faces.

Some religious people see this kind of exhortation as 'ear tickling,' just telling people nice things, which is so wrong. When I listen to someone with the great conviction of a generous spirit, it sounds inspiring, but when I walk away it makes me reflect on how far I have to grow as a human being. That part is hard, and painful, and nothing at all is more effective at making me feel like a jerk when I deserve to feel exactly that way.

There's a qualitative difference between exhorting people to live up to their best and decrying the inevitable and numerous human flaws all around. When using either, you've got to assess your goals: either getting people to reflect on their lives or mobilizing them for external action.

If you want people to reflect, and to bring an opening for positive change in their lives, the only way to do it is to hold up that yearning we all have for something better and more real. In the process of seeking it, we heap enough guilt on our own selves for missing the mark, that what's really helpful in our hours of self doubt is for someone else to believe in the possibility of our goodness. It's the best way we can help each other make it through.

Posted by natasha at December 6, 2004 09:45 PM | Community | Technorati links |

Hi Natasha...have enjoyed your writings since recently discovering your blog. Not all of us are looking for a deeper meaning, a spiritual depth, whatever.

Why isn't what you have, life, sufficient wonderment for you? Why does there HAVE to be more than life?


Posted by: bruce on oz at December 7, 2004 04:45 AM

Great post, Natasha! You have expressed my problem with the televangelists (and really, most organized religous employees) quite well. They preach about the flaws in others, while they themselves have larger flaws of the same nature that they conveniently ignore. It seems to me that true spirituality can no longer be found in any place of worship these days...

For the record: I am an ex-Catholic (and hence filled with guilt about most everything) and probably would not be considered spiritual, much less religious, by most people.

Posted by: (: Tom :) at December 7, 2004 01:36 PM

Born Just Fine the First Time Thank You Very Much.

There are far more interesting things to think about and learn.

Posted by: Thomas Ware at December 7, 2004 01:53 PM

bruce - "Not all of us are looking for a deeper meaning, a spiritual depth, whatever."

Well, you know, you can only put so many qualifications in a paragraph before people get to wondering what you were talking about in the first place.

But on that thought, I don't define meaning or spirituality as narrowly as all that. I'd think of it sort of like there being a sweet spot in our natures that craves purpose and worth. There's no reason that anything outside the real fabric of our daily lives needs to be involved, but there's a nontrivial difference for everyone in the quality of their lives when they feel that they have value. People dress it up, sure, but that seems like a base minimum for having a good life. And are you going to tell me that the constant barrage of advertising and consumerism seems like anything better than bread and water fasting for the psyche?

FWIW, I consider the study of biology to be a deeply spiritual pursuit. Particularly the evolution of life as we know it. It's hard for me not to be possessed of awe and wonder that we get to live in such an interesting culmination of 4 billion years of natural selection. Gives me the chills.

Thomas - "There are far more interesting things to think about and learn."

Probably true. Nonetheless, people continue to be endlessly fascinated with religion, spirituality, and the depths of our own navels. But living as we do in a world full of other people, it can be helpful to discuss the things that interest them. Further, it can be useful to explore the dynamics of the ideas and worldviews which govern their interactions with us and others. All part of taking an interest in things that affect what happens around us.

But granted, it's a subject that can wear out its welcome at times.

Posted by: natasha at December 7, 2004 09:08 PM

I missed your original post because I was in Hawaii. Cheers on another great post.

With the exception of secular humanism (which is great), the Democratic Party really does not have a belief structure to call its own. Democrats are often left to soul search with scraps from a religion here and a religion there (I thinks that’s called Unitarian), sometimes being agnostic, sometimes we dry up and become atheist, and when we are really frustrated we turn to anarchy.

I'll be candid. Overall I feel Democrats' trying to compete with Republicans on who is more ‘Christian’ is a completely useless endeavor. Republicans own Christianity; it's their monopoly now. Whether or not they follow the supposed word of Christ is a side issue.

Christianity was formed as a control mechanism from its cult inception, and when Constantine instituted Christianity as the Roman state religion, the institution of Christianity began its strangle-hold over political 'capital' in Western history. This remains true today.

Regressive Democrats and the 'professional election losers' are the weak-links in the party's armor. Though the Republicans and evangels are selective Christians in that they only choose certain components of the Bible that assist in the promotion of their reactionary agenda and their fanatical goal to bring forth the so-called 'end days,' Regressive democrats strive to keep up with the fundamental Christians in what turns out to be a religious pissing contest. Regressive democrats become slaves to the Christian construct. A true progressive should abandon Christianity all together. Christianity has been a burden on progressive thought over its entire history ranging from theocratic rule, the dogma of Christian medieval dark-age thought, the eventual attempt by the Church to suppress the advancements of the Renaissance, the Spanish and Italian 'holy' inquisitions, the Counter Reformation, and the constant hacking at scientific progress and discovery. Christianity has been rotting for some time now; its greatest renovation is the born-again evangelistic movement that we are currently suffering through. Christianity only remains alive in the minds of the simple minded or within the minds of those that are educated / intelligent but refuse to let go of their infantile religion.

Progressives should practice the method St. Augustine labeled the spoiling of the Egyptians: "...on leaving Egypt the people of Israel, in order to make better use of [the treasures of ancient Egypt], surreptitiously claimed for themselves... [by] God's command [the treasures of Egypt]." [1] St. Augustine was validating the Hebrew's use of pagan treasures and relating that Christians who leave classical pagan society should take with them pagan thought that can be used in Christian context. Christianity is now spoiling, an antiquated & decaying organized religion, and so progressives should form a new belief structure (whether secular or spiritual), which takes from Christianity [and all other religions] what is useful, morality plays, metaphors, and discard all that is obsolete [literal dogma]. We need a system of beliefs that can evolve in our contemporary times. I propose we call this movement in progressive thought the Earthian movement, and we build our belief structure together with the rest of the willing citizens of the world.

Posted by: TABS at December 14, 2004 04:53 PM