Where we live has a profound effect on our identity. A child raised in the East Village will have a different outlook than one raised in East Texas. A person from Cairo, Egypt, will have a different perspective than one from Cairo, Missouri. Most of us know that and consider where we live to be an important part of our identity. What we may fail to consider is that we live not just in the physical world, but in the world of the spirit as well. This spiritual world of soul-influencers and intangible forces isn’t as easy to describe as our physical world, but it is just as real and has at least as powerful an impact in shaping who we are. Since navigating the spiritual landscape is one of the primary concerns of this blog, I’m going to do my best to describe the spiritual environment that I inhabit.
My spiritual environment is isolating, ego-centric and individualistic. An implicit belief in meritocracy validates the status quo, hardening our hearts to the poor and training us to desire money, prestige and, especially, fame to validate our sense of our own worth. It is often difficult to gather with friends, relatives and spiritual family members, as we tend to prioritize things other than building relationships. The low level of condemnation I receive for failing to make and keep significant commitments to others suggests that such commitments are widely perceived to be luxuries – nice if you have time for them, but fundamentally unnecessary and unimportant. As a result, it can be difficult to treat the people in my life with the care that they deserve. When I am able to summon the energy and the will to try to deepen my relationship with someone, it is often an exercise in frustration as my calls go unanswered and my emails and texts go unreturned for long periods. I try not to let this bother me when it happens, since I sometimes do the same and worse to others.
My spiritual environment is tainted by anxiety. Even among Friends, whose practice of waiting worship trains the spirit in tranquillity, a spirit of frenzy is often waiting for the opportunity to take control. For example, meeting for worship with a concern for business may be marked by a conversational scrum rather than by patient waiting on God’s guidance. Successfully scheduling a joint committee meeting sometimes seems like a miracle on the scale of the feeding of the five thousand. A surprisingly large number of my well-educated, personable, middle-class friends are worried about making ends meet, while several of my retired friends never seem to have enough time. Scrambling is our default, while rest is something we do a few days each year during our vacations – if we are lucky.
My spiritual environment is shaped by market-based thinking. Even in discussions about sensitive spiritual topics – abortion, say, or spiritual disciplines or euthanasia or sexual ethics – it is often easier to talk about “efficiency”, “usefulness”, and “choice” than we do about dignity, obedience, decency and sacrifice. We often conceive of both our rights and our responsibilities as though we were merely economic actors: we have the fundamental right to use our resources to maximize our own pleasure; a decision is good if it expands the range of our choices and bad if it restricts our future possibilities; the most important thing we can say about a person’s life and choices is that they are “productive”; and the worst thing we can do as a society is restrict the choices of another, whether by limiting access to abortion or by imposing the death penalty or the draft. Consumption is treated as a right and production as a virtue.
In my spiritual environment, people are respectful of difference, tolerant of contradiction and suspicious of certainty. We are eager to welcome and befriend people of a broad range of religious beliefs, as long as they do not seem to consider their beliefs superior to anyone else’s. We are comfortable combining aspects of different religions into our own bespoke belief systems: meeting Christians who believe in reincarnation or Buddhist Jews barely raises an eyebrow. “Alternative lifestyles” are accepted with ever-increasing speed and time-tested social arrangements are increasingly viewed as old-fashioned and unnecessary. We have difficulty with moral judgment, preferring to say that something is wrong for us to saying that it is wrong period.
This is my world – pluralistic, cosmopolitan, individualistic and consumption-based. This is the worldview that I call Babylon, based on the similarities I see to the rapacious Biblical empire described in the prophets, the Psalms and Revelation. Even if you do not live in Babylon, I can assure you that you are touched by the long shadow that it casts. Babylon has many things to recommend it, such as the hesitancy of its inhabitants to condemn differences in behavior and its insistence on equality. However, I can’t believe that Babylon is anything like God’s dream for humanity or that one can fully inhabit the mindset of Babylon and that of the Kingdom of God at the same time. The Babylon system, with its focus on self-promotion and self-gratification, its resistance to the concept of universal truth, and its stubborn conflation of price and worth, is incompatible with living as the Body of Christ and incarnating the Kingdom of God, where self-sacrifice, self-control and obedience in the face of hardship are both a joy and an expectation.
This blog will document my meditations, travails and triumphs as I try to walk faithfully with Jesus in the shadow of Babylon. I hope that, as I share my experiences and insights with you, you will share yours with me, and we can challenge, encourage and inspire one another as we discover what it means to embody the abundant life Jesus promised us as an alternative to spiritual domains like Babylon. What does it mean to enjoy the freedom bought for us on Calvary while still dwelling in the lair of the Beast? How can we claim our identity as Children of Light in a world so often shrouded in darkness? To be honest, I am not sure. Will you join me as I try to find out?