We like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers who act freely as we see fit. But the culture we live in has a greater effect on us than we’d like to think, and in a way that can make us resist God’s work in us. Let’s take a look.
Six Common Cultural Trends
Self-centrism places oneself at the center of concern. The self-centric person looks after his needs first and considers the rest of the world to revolve around him. Self-centrism is directly opposed to the heart of a servant. Our culture encourages us to be self-centric.
Consumerism is one result of self-centrism. As consumers, we expect and even demand, to receive the best treatment from others. Consumers don’t form caring and nurturing relationships, but instead, participate in transactional encounters that they move in and out of effortlessly as it suits them. Consumerism doesn’t give people space to be human beings. Sacrificial love is something one likes to receive but not give.
Is self-centrism different than selfishness? Yes, but not by much. Selfishness comes from a disorder of the spirit, whereas self-centrism initially is acquired from one’s cultural milieu. But those learned behaviors rapidly become internalized and embraced, and at that point, could rightly be known as selfishness.
While electronic communications flourish and increase the ease of casual contact with others, I believe that deeper connections at a spiritual level are diminishing. How?
Blame it in part on globalization and a transportation system that can move us rapidly anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Blame it on economic changes that have reduced job opportunities in smaller communities, leading to frequent relocations. Blame it on an ever-expanding competition for our attention from an inexhaustible selection of possibilities and information. Attribute it to a technology that places another layer of separation between us. The causes are many, but the result is that while we may encounter more people in a superficial way, we know and are known by fewer people at a spiritual level. And if God makes himself present to us through others, perhaps this will reflect on our relationship with him as well.
Secularism is indifference to, or even the outright rejection of, religion and the existence of God. While many in American culture try to deny God or at least downplay his place in our lives, they cannot erase the imprint of his image upon us. We have a great desire to know and understand our origin, we struggle with suffering, we look for purpose and meaning, and we look for something greater than ourselves. Secular culture tries to fill the void. For origins, we now have evolution and cosmology elevated from scientific fields of study to a kind of religion. Instead of turning to God in suffering and trouble, we look to science and government to act as saviors. No longer knowing a sense of purpose given us by our Creator, we try to find purpose in functionalism and materialism. These are poor substitutes, leaving adherents with a large void that they try to fill with material goods, distractions, and addictions.
Secularism influences us even when we acknowledge God and seek to follow Christ as disciples. Our culture pushes us to doubt. We unconsciously emphasize the acquisition of material goods. We begin to buy into the lie that our value is dependent upon our appearance, the things that we own, or by what we can or cannot do. We begin to approach life events from only a temporal perspective and ignore the eternal view.
Influence of media
People today have access to one another anytime and anywhere. Television and other forms of multi-media entertainment compete for our attention. These technologies saturate us with high levels of sensory input, shape our thoughts and values, and induce passivity as we become frequent spectators. Our new access to vast quantities of information affects how we spend our time. Advertising influences our behavior as consumers.
Someone is driving the media bus, and it’s not a call to discipleship. Becoming more selective and limiting media exposure will help, but you would have to remove yourself from modern society to remove all of its influences.
The tolerance doctrine
One of the most diabolical values imposed upon us today is the ideal of “tolerance.” Widely promulgated, it has become a dogma. The tolerance doctrine is an unwritten ethic that we should be tolerant of other’s beliefs and behaviors, allowing people to think and act as they desire without any outside interference. It appeals to an ideal of freedom, but not freedom to be and do God’s best for us, but freedom from boundaries. It is a core value for an individualistic, privatized, and self-centric world. We are told to tolerate everything, except for “intolerance.” Those trying to secure safety from harm for the unborn, the dying, for the family, and for those practicing the Christian faith are branded as intolerant and penalized, sometimes severely.
Tolerance is a fiction. How, indeed can you be tolerant of everyone and everything without coming into conflict? Without any absolute values to guide us, infringement on personal interests leads to one of two positions: complete indifference and apathy, or to resolution through power and aggression. It is a recipe for self-destruction. Jesus showed us a much better alternative to tolerance: to love our neighbor.
Overload is what we experience when the stimuli and stressors exceed our capacity to handle them. Overload has multiple sources. We have an overload of information, to where we begin to miss or ignore details or use incomplete or erroneous information because we failed to appreciate the breadth or importance of the data we receive. We have an overload of opportunity and choices. People avoid commitment, trying to keep options open as long as possible. Our attention gets diverted from what is most important as we are lured away by lesser societal priorities. Employers expect more and more from employees, pushing them to their limits so they can maximize economic goals. All of these stressors affect our relationships, physical health, and spiritual well-being.
What is the result? We are reaping an increase in mental disorders, relational problems, personal withdrawal and avoidance, physical illness, and increased time spent in activities that help us “escape.” As a physician, I have been taught to look for and recognize the effects of stress in the lives of my patients. As I would take histories from patients, I have found that stress is not the exception, but the norm. It’s not a question of deciding if a patient is experiencing stress, but only of discovering its source and severity. It makes sense that people would try to reduce these pressures, but since so much of it is imposed on us from the outside as well as the inside, they try to reduce their stress by backing off the “optionals”—like time in relationships, participation in the spiritual life, helping others and relaxation. We find time for God when it’s available, which is usually only when we go to church on Sunday if we go at all.
As we are immersed in a cultural milieu, it can be hard to recognize when practices promoted by celebrities and readily accepted by nearly everyone not only blocks conversion but is downright unhealthy. Worse, if you try to “buck the system,” you can experience anything from guilt (e.g. “Maybe I’m not being a good parent pulling my kids out of [fill-in-the-blank] activity?”), to hostility (“I didn’t realize you hated [some group of people]” because of your stand for the right to life or marriage), to rebellion from your kids (you had the audacity to limit their media exposure), to outright ridicule and persecution.
Instead of an examination of conscience, I would suggest an examination of life. Take a day— maybe even a full weekend on retreat—to examine yourself and your family life for evidence of misdirected priorities, unhealthy practices, and indoctrination by popular secular culture. Ask God to show you His will. Then be ready to make the hard choices and break free.
Counter-Dynamics: The Influence of Secular Culture is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-completed book, Parish Dynamics: Parish Vitality Through Conversion. It’s the fourth of a six-part series on obstacles to ongoing conversion.