A plea for disbelief

For a couple of reasons I’ve been thinking about the myriad number of assumptions inherent within the western ‘way of life’. By assumption I mean an expectation of normalcy – something that has nothing remarkable or unusual about it, it is just assumed to be part of ordinary everyday life.

And yet how transient and ephemeral such expectations are. You and I exist as a blip in time. We inhabit a 21st century western culture that is itself a (admittedly significant) blip within the flow of human history.  Our location within the West carries a truckload of assumptions that do not apply in most of the rest of the contemporary world.

So I started to jot down assumptions of daily western life. It’s a simple exercise that raises questions about how deeply and pervasively your Christian faith and theology proper (view of God himself) is shaped by those assumptions. I suspect far more that we can begin to imagine for theology itself emerges out of the intersection of culture and revelation.

Without going all the way with radical postmodern deconstructions of human nature, it appears self-evident that human identity is remarkably malleable. Probably it is this adaptability and flexibility which has been the key to humanity’s bewildering globalised cultural diversity.

Of course any missiologist or missionary to the developing world (or vice versa) knows this in a more personal and real way than I do for I haven’t lived outside the West. And you dear reader, will have your own experiences and perspectives which you are welcome to add.

Some daily assumptions set against imagined contrary realities of life on the margins of the developing world.

not only the prayerful hope of daily bread, but the easy and endless availability of daily feast

– plentiful and clean water at the turn of a tap [contra hours of labour, toil and danger for a polluted and contested resource]

– of travel pretty well anywhere in the world and at anytime I want (and can pay for) [contra the undocumented paying a ransom to risk all in an open boat across the Mediterranean]

Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport (Reuters)

– legal rights: of citizenship; to justice; a fair trial; to be presumed innocent; [contra imprisonment for calling for greater state transparency]

– of instant access to information about pretty well anything courtesy of pervasive, omnipresent technology [contra life without google, information or basic technology; a daily battle for survival]

– of equal opportunities for men and women [contra where women are exploited, silenced, abused and disempowered]

– of education for all at primary, secondary and (for most) at tertiary levels [contra where education is a pipe dream for the wealthy]

– of endless choice: choice ‘to be who I am’; choice of partner; choice of job; choice of clothes and ‘my style’; choice of religion; choice where to live; choice of what to consume; choice of sexuality; choice of friends; [contra where I have few if any choices of any sort]

– that the police and army of the state will protect its citizens [contra where the organs of the state are the enemy to be feared]

– of a long and healthy life and of access to health care [contra deep familiarity with infant mortality, war, violence, death and disease]

– instant electricity at all times for heat, light, power, TV, internet, [contra grinding hours of work finding scarce fuel]

– of a modernist ‘life narrative’ of safe birth, education, employment and career, family, retirement [contra having few if any expectations of any sort]

 – the ability to plan ahead – tomorrow, next week, month, year, that holiday next summer [contra knowing that planning is for the rich]

– of ‘weekends’ off work [contra where leisure is unimagined]

– that death is hidden, rare and should only be for the old [where death is an everyday part of life]

– of the consumer right (and ability) to complain (and maybe be listened to) [contra having no voice, being silent and invisible]

– that a good education, hard work and ambition will get you where you want to go [contra where all of these things are beyond reach and child labour is the norm]

– that ‘our’ Western consumerist ‘way of life’ is secure, natural, progressive, sustainable, normal, and good [contra it being recent, atypical, increasingly unstable, and built on a mixture of empire, colonialism, economic exploitation of weaker nations, and unsustainable use of global resources].

– that ‘I’ can change things and make a difference for good [contra long acceptance that things have always been this way]

OK, these are big generalities; I’m simply trying to paint a picture of alternative experiences, alternative realities, alternative cultures that co-exist globally today. (And I’m sure this could be done within Irish culture without pitching it on a West vs the Rest scale).

The question I have is how different would your and my Christian faith be if we lived in that ‘contra’ world? Can we even begin to imagine an answer to that question? What have we to learn from Christian voices from that world?

What deeply held assumptions do we as Western Christians have that are much more cultural than Christian?

Over what do we get shocked, surprised or disillusioned when life (and therefore God) inconveniently fails to match our expectations of what ‘should be’?

Paul liked gently to remind the Corinthians that they actually didn’t know it all and really should have known better. Where should we really know better than to believe the cultural assumptions of our host culture?

Or, to put it another way, where should we be ‘disbelievers’ in the story of the West?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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