Over the past number of years I have had a growing awareness of Western culture the more I question my own environment while learning about the world. Early in this questioning, easily, it started being pointed out to me the obsession the West (and virtually any affluent society) has with consumerism. We love things. We all know the phrase “money doesn’t buy happiness,” yada yada, but we certainly don’t believe it (and maybe that’s somewhat valid). One speaker I enjoy has pondered if aliens visited Earth, tasked with finding the meaning of life by observing us, these aliens might conclude it is to buy things.
I’m not interested in writing another blog about consumerism and its relevant ethics, but rather what is behind consumerism – something I find to be far more profound these days and relevant to my journey here in Uganda: desire.
I see desire everywhere these days, and what I see makes me think. I see the desire of survival in the impoverished people of Uganda, selling fruit and USB cables between the rushing of cars in order to make it through the week. This I would say is a primal human instinct, necessary to live. But I also see desire of a completely different sense, on social media about life back home. This is the desire for more. This can obviously be seen with things like cars, accessories, a hip living room, etc., but also with careers, or the “perfect” wedding, or even having children. While all different things (which become objects in that they can be attained), the idea boils down the same: “Once I get _________, then I will be happy.”
But if Western consumerism can teach us anything, it’s that obtaining the object(s) of our desire always eventually leaves you unsatisfied, wanting more. It seems that when we get what we want, it turns out the desire itself was more exciting.
This may be why the largest demographic of suicide in the U.S. is affluent, middle aged white men – those who, after the years of stress, have attained the things they idealized their whole life only to find themselves unfulfilled, lonely and despaired. Perhaps the American Dream is more a hollow nightmare.
We see this in our theology as well. Ever since influences on Western culture like Aristotle’s list of 10 qualities of life (which he labelled substance as the highest form), we have seen God as primarily substance (noun), and have been trying to obtain this Object ever since. Most evangelicals are familiar with the phrase “the God-shaped hole in your heart that only God can fill,” which is a perfect muse. Theology like this, while well-intended, runs the risk of making the Christian experience into a checkmark event, where the “goal” has already been attained, leaving no real need for growth. No wonder so many Christians are void of joy (satisfaction by another name), and end up being the hands behind abuse, bigotry and oppression.
But a more realized Christianity has something better to offer. If God is Trinity, then the fabric or essence of God is relationship (verb). Eastern and more ancient sects of Christianity like to use the word “mystery.” While describing God as mystery does in one sense mean we cannot fully comprehend (or, attain) God, rather than being unknowable, God is endlessly knowable. This is significant. One philosopher that intrigues me says that rather than there being a God-shaped hole in your heart which is filled, it is God who leaves a hole in your heart in the wake of divine experience, leaving you full of desire. This means the “goal” of the Christian experience is desire for God. What’s most important is not the “conversion,” but rather the “working out” of our salvation (Phil. 2:12 [some would call this sanctification]). So long as this genuine desire exists, all parts of the journey belong. Every milestone, every failure, every question, every serene moment, every doubt, all has its place, and no one is ahead of you.
The hole grows ever more endless, and in our desire we are ever more satisfied.
So what does this have to do with my time in Uganda so far? (I’ll try to keep this part short). This trip came off the heels of a few years of seemingly nonstop school, stressful holidays, and summer jobs, and suddenly I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, with the rest of my time doing something I didn’t know anything about, in a place I don’t know anything about, nor where I really fit in. I felt really restless, but also wanting to retreat into my comfort zone of watching old movies. I was unsatisfied and it wasn’t clear why.
I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend who has done lots of missional travelling who felt similarly on one of his trips, and this conversation brought some clarity to me. As much as we can internally deconstruct the value of possessions, our value will shift onto something else. In my friend’s case, and mine alike, desire and value was placed on what we could accomplish. All the while, God doesn’t care. God values who we are.
This seems like a really juvenile revelation – all Christians know this – but I’m not sure it’s transferred from our head to our core. Once I started to accept that simply being on the journey was more important than what I can or can’t accomplish, I started to see the beauty, and actually feel the reward in what we’re doing here with Watoto.
So, who are you?
Jesus told a story about this, called “The Lost Son.” In this story, a father gives his son his inheritance after he demands it, which the son quickly squanders after immediately leaving. The son returns years later, starving and ashamed, begging to survive by working on the family farm. But when the father throws this son a feast and dresses him in royal clothes, the older, loyal son who has never gotten a “reward” per se, goes green with jealousy. The father replies to the son’s gripe with this: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15).
The beauty of parables is there is meaning to be found all throughout them. While certainly not the larger point of the story, this line sheds light on what it means to be a child of God: Everything is yours. You have nothing to accomplish. There is nothing you can earn.
You just have to be.
*This blog was inspired by the last two books I’ve read: “How (not) to Speak of God” by Peter Rollins, and “The Divine Dance” by Richard Rohr.*