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Materialism, Spirituality, & DemocracyCritical Social Analysis of American Culture for Small Church Study Groups
By Stephen V. Riley
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Stephen V. Riley
All right reserved.
The purpose of this book is about the quest for spiritual maturity as it applies to the Catholic faith and American democracy. It is meant to engage the imagination of small church faith communities and bible study groups in light of Vatican II and what it means to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the Holy Spirit.
Vatican II emphasized the need for the Church to embrace the whole of humanity. The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. This is what Catholic social teaching is based upon. But spiritual discernment is now more essential than ever as humankind is in the midst of a true cultural and social transformation. Humankind is searching for a better world, but tragically without a corresponding spiritual advancement.
In the Vatican II document PASTORAL CONSTITUTION IN THE MODERN WORLD (Gaudium et Spes), it speaks of how "the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one. In consequence, there has arisen a new series of problems, calling for efforts of analysis and synthesis." What Vatican II is saying is that Catholicism needs to become a more prophetic and contemplative faith that leads to greater spiritual discernment. Discernment of the Spirits is more important than ever to overcome an imbalance between specialized human activity and a comprehensive view of reality that directs the mind to solutions which are fully human. This was the mind of Christ.
In summary, small church faith communities and Bible study groups are encouraged to consider scrutinizing the signs of the time by way of critical social analysis, spiritual discernment, and the work of the Holy Spirit. We the faithful are "Cathedral Builders", never to see the end of our work. This is an evolutionary movement. As followers of Christ, we can learn to see ourselves as ongoing co-creators with God for the goodness of the entire human race.
MATERIALISM, SPIRITUALITY, AND DEMOCRACY
These Are Troubling Times In America
Both the United States and American Christianity are greatly divided and confused and for many of the same reasons. It seems the U.S. is being held together with only half-truths of political spin, and various degrees of fear, bigotry, and hate. This anxiety has created a perverted view of democratic government and is causing American society to seek out scapegoats for the ills of American society rather than face the reality of our times. In American politics today, there is more denial and illusion than reality.
What seems to be ruling the national conversation are fringe issues that are mere distractions to what we need to be learning in an effort for spiritual growth, individually and collectively as one human family. The reality of our times points to more pressing issues such as the immense social destructiveness of poverty. Poverty in America is causing massive breakdowns in families and communities, resulting in community despair, mental health problems, and neighborhood crime and drugs. This has led to the largest prison system in the world that says a lot about the reality of American democracy. Poverty seems of little concern to most people in America, essentially "out of sight, out of mind".
Of equal importance is the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 that poisoned the financial systems of the world and brought great pain to millions of Americans including the loss of lifetime savings, foreclosed homes, and loss of jobs.
Regarding the economic collapse of Wall Street in 2008, there is yet to be a lesson and a wake-up call for many Americans. This economic collapse has been used by politicians and various political groups to discredit government. It was a different situation during the Great Depression. Faith in government came to the rescue. Public support for the New Deal was very broad based. The New Deal improved the county's general welfare by putting people to work and expanding the middle class.
But In America today, with the domination of neoconservative thought and propaganda, much of the public believe that "government is the problem" and it cannot be a force for the public good. This becomes a serious dilemma for government action. Thus it is causing much of the public to look for numerous scapegoats for the economic collapse rather than addressing the truth. The problem was and continues to be the greed of Wall Street and relentless power of the American financial services industry in general who continue to plead for little or no regulation. And unfortunately, to many people, the greed of Wall Street is the "American way".
Another matter of serious concern is that American citizens are meekly accepting the immorality and insanity of war and yet are alarmed by the increasing national debt, which was burdened as well by the bailout of Wall Street. With these wars has come the suppression of democratic dissent, the torturing of prisoners, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the displacement of millions of refugees. Ignored as well are the huge profits being made with the increasing privatization of the means of making war. Yet, many Americans feel this is okay because our military is keeping us "safe" and protecting our "American way of life".
SPIRITUALITY VERSUS A CULTURE OF ILLUSION
The key to understanding how this political madness has been made possible is that Americans are living in a culture of illusion. As a consumer nation, Americans have been led by the love of money and exaggerated individualism. The narcissistic egoism of American culture has suppressed the spiritual nature of our own humanity. We have forgotten what it means to be fully human.
What does it mean to be fully human? To be fully human is to become more alert, more aware, and more observant of others. It is to recognize the spirituality of our own humanness, the Divine within us. To be human is to know love, to feel compassion and care for others. Ones spirituality is concerned with values that engage in reality and offers a kind of awakening. Spiritual maturity leads to a sense of personal balance and wholeness that is an equivalent of freedom. Spirituality is a form of creative energy that makes us aware of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all living things. In turn, spirituality gives us the capacity to envision that which is not real. The suppression of spirituality and our own humanity is shamefully hidden from public understanding in America.
The worshiping of individualism and financial success has replaced the caring of others. What American society has also overlooked is that a capitalistic consumer culture preys on human weaknesses and imagined desires. It is the work of Madison Avenue "witchcraft", the art of advertising. Consumer capitalism magnifies the dysfunctions of the human ego and leads to subconscious mass control by powerful corporations. We as a people and a nation have become what we truly are not meant to be. The early teachings of all the major religions of the world have understood the evil that can emanate from both the love of money and the dysfunction of the human ego.
In American culture, the runaway human ego has made extravagant consumption and war look like a good. I was startled by what the modern day mystic and author Eckhart Tolle had to say in his book New Earth about the human ego and the plight of our troubling times: "The greatest achievement of humanity is not its works of art, science or technology, but the recognition of its own dysfunction, its own madness".
A materialistic culture suffocates opportunities for spiritual growth and personal transformation. The domination of consumerism and the ego obliterates the contemplative mind and the higher pursuit for spiritual wisdom. Spiritual wisdom is really about the ability to change our human ways for the betterment of all human society.
I like what Dominican Sister Joan Chittister, renowned speaker, theologian, and prolific author, has to say about the need for a greater appreciation of the Monastic tradition that has an eye for wisdom. She states that "our troubling times are crying for great creativity and change. We are in need of 'a new beginning' on multiple levels".
"The real questions with which we must certainly grapple now, however, if we are to deal with a new future, are more cosmic in nature—even more life changing than the continuing ripple of the old ones. The new questions are deeply spiritual ones.
"What is unclear is whether or not the great churches and idea agents of the society will stop trying to reinvent the past long enough to bring us all to consider what is really facing us in the future.
"The theological implications of evolution, the social and religious issues inherent in interfaith cooperation, and the kinds of personal spiritual conversion necessary if global justice and national accountability is ever to be achieved are boiling up everywhere while the world ignores them.
"But this is a different world now. Now the great questions of life belong to us all. Now with the internet, no one can keep the rest of us out of the discussion. Now we can all know together what before only the educated and the elite knew. Now we can get the information we need to take our own place in the decision-making arena of the world.
"No wonder the foundations of one institution after another are trembling. No wonder the definition of 'authority' is shifting. No wonder it is now small groups of ordinary people who are raising the questions outside the institutions that should be guiding the public examination and discussions of them but are not. No wonder institutions, therefore, are losing their credibility as a result.
CHRISTIAN DISCERNMENT OF CULTURE
As stated, the purpose of this book is to encourage small Christian communities to new ways of thinking through critical social analysis and the discernments of the Spirit. This is said though with the understanding that there is a pressing need for spiritual discernment of American culture.
The following commentary on discernment is adapted from Clashing Symbols: an introduction to faith based culture (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997 and Paulist Press, Mahwah,1998).
Discernment is a way of interpreting experiences and of making choices in the light of faith. In other words it is a specifically spiritual and Christian way of reading reality. It seeks to recognize the presence of the Spirit within the human. It enlarges the method of viewing a culture from description of outer factors to reflection on the deeper attitudes or dispositions of people.
Excerpted from Materialism, Spirituality, & Democracy by Stephen V. Riley Copyright © 2011 by Stephen V. Riley. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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