November 6, 2014 by J. Truett Glen
We, the consumers of the West, are a frustrated bunch. I have traveled a good deal over the past 10 years and I see at least one commonality wherever I go: an ignorant discontent. I was teaching class the other day, after reading a bit of Kierkegaard, and I was explaining to my students Kierkegaard’s progression in finding one’s true identity. As I was outlining his progression from aesthetic to ethical to religious on the white board, a cultural observation came to me. It feels as though our culture is physically stuck in the aesthetic stage of life while virtually believing it travels within the ethical.
The consumption that most westerners participate in is ample proof for the fact that we are aesthetically driven. Even though most of my thought life is driven by deconstruction of beliefs and ideas, I can’t help but be confronted daily by restaurant reviews, celebrity sex scandals, Sherlockians, Whovians, and numerous sports team assessments. By no means am I suggesting that we shouldn’t enjoy some of these elements of our culture, but many get lost in the dark Aokigahara forest of consumption. The forest takes in the spiritual wanderers and they die a slow distracted death, as they seek for substance and yet never find it.
Like a Mt. Fuji looming above the dark forest, the modern day concept of justice calls out in a shadowy voice from above the aesthetic existence. Many hear its voice online, and consider their mouse moving and button pushing an ethical act. For sure there are those who come close to actually participating in some form of justice on the web, but through experience and sociological data I’m compelled to believe that they are only a small fraction of our population. Those who have truly moved on to the ethical stage of life, as Kierkegaard identifies it, experience a whole new set of values that drive their conduct. Those in the ethical stage still enjoy the aesthetic joys of life, but by and large they are driven by principles and values that define their patterns. They are driven by deeper ideas that morally frame their days. The average consumer might have approached the foot of holy mountain, but they counted the cost and thought it better to return to the temporal shelter provided by the forest. The music group Fun paints this picture poignantly in their video for the song “Some Nights Intro.” Check out the video for context. Warning, it’s powerful and depressing (pardon the french in the video). One verse from the song goes like this:
There are some nights I wait for someone to save us
But I never look inward, try not to look upward
And some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me
But usually, I’m just trying to get some sleep…
The burning bush of religion is just a figment on the shadowy mountain to most. It wispers from an age of myth. There is no doubt that those who stare up at the mountain would also like to acquire the meanings of religion. Some stubbornly believe that the ethical is all there is, but most strongly desire the narrative of the burning bush and the blood-stained cross. Nothing gives one comfort within a life of consumption like the branding of love-based justice stamped on it. Thus the wanderer continues to wander none the wiser, and under the watching eye of death.
The Spirit is in the business of awakenings. Although Kierkegaard argues that faith is a personal leap, I stand with Schleiermacher in his assessment that it is the faith community that we are drawn into through the personal recognition of our need for a relationship with the divine. Those who have reached Kierkegaard’s “religious stage” of life can serve as ushers, or ambassadors, of that stage to those in their community. Our society needs representatives to come down from the mountain and walk people out of the woods.
So, what the crap does this all mean? It means that if you see the need, you have an obligation to consider the need. If you have a healthy relationship with the creator and creation, you need to intentionally invite people not only into your perspective, but into your LIFE! Open up your home. Open up your schedule. Open up your wallet. Walk with people. Really, I mean actually WALK with people. Chatting online might be a start, but it is no end. All around us people are dying in their consumption and playing with shadow puppets of justice and religion cast upon the forest floor. Approach them, and pray you are not distracted in the process.