Agape in the Shopping Mall

Matjaž Črnivec

Christianity and Contemporary Society

“What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3, neb)

This bold statement of John, Jesus’ beloved disciple, has always been a huge challenge to me personally and to my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I am also convinced that it presents a great challenge for the contemporary Church and through it to secular society as well.
To be able to see this challenge, let us first do a brief analysis of the society around us and of the prevailing ideas or forces that work behind it.
In a way, we live in a world that represents an end of a long development. In philosophy, this end is marked by post-modern resignation about any definite truth or any other absolute notion. What started as a brave march of the emancipated human being and reason back in the Renaissance or even more so in Enlightenment, now finds its end in a big question mark.
However, this resignation is generally confined to the areas of philosophy and the arts. Western society, on the other hand, seems to be doing better than ever—at least from an economic perspective. After the fall of Communism (which, one could argue, was the last bastion of modern, but non-post-modern ideals), a nice vision of a “new world order” emerged. This world boasts of ideals of democracy, freedom for everyone, tolerance, human rights and economic prosperity; and we cannot deny that the last decade has seen real development in these areas. Even the hard questions that the world is facing now, with the problem of poverty, global terrorism and ecological issues, seem to be manageable in the long run.
The situation is rather strange: this huge development is driven only by economical, political and especially technological forces, but it lacks any deeper philosophical support and even less theological support. On one hand, we have economic prosperity; on the other, we have philosophical despair and decay of values.
I actually believe that this strange coupling of aggressive economy and technology with a philosophy that doubts that there is a definite sense, a télos to human individual and corporate existence, is a sign that our society might be sicker than it appears at the first glance. Because of this deficiency the télos is defined simply by economical and technological factors—economic and technological advancement thus becomes the only firm, undisputed value of the Western society and everything else is made subject to it.
A short look at the mechanisms at work in such a society will reveal how this télos is introduced and sustained. The main concept that drives the society is the idea of the free market. The free market is supported, sustained and expanded with the help of aggressive advertising, which in turn rules the mass media, the main sources of information in society through which ideas of lifestyles and core values are planted into the lives of the majority of people. It takes a great effort to purposefully disbelieve and question these ideals and standards, which are so powerfully being presented as “normal”. Moreover, because of the general loss of reason, mentioned earlier, such clear opposition is even less likely.
We should also mention the power of advertising to create a need in an individual—mostly through identification with a certain lifestyle, etc. If the consumerist mindset is firmly planted into people, the further expansion of the free market is secured.
With such a value system, everything becomes a marketing object. In such a world, it is hard to remain a real, whole person: I am seduced and reduced to my (prefabricated) needs and desires. My identity is now in the fulfilment of these; this is now supposed to be the only certain, unquestionable goal of my life. I can have other goals and preferences, but this is the norm. Only this way I am able to be a true, right, full member of this world and this society. This is now what my life is all about: the fulfilment of my desires, my self-fulfilment. Other people are good as long as they do not get in the way of meeting my needs and my life’s dreams. Finally, this is a totally self-centred, self-absorbed world.
Interestingly enough, even the emerging spirituality of this “new world”, the so-called spirituality of the “New Age”, shows a generally very similar pattern. Though it may outwardly condemn the greed and the selfishness of the profit-oriented, materialistic society and though it usually understands itself as its complete opposition, many of its “spiritual” principles show drastic resemblance: they prove it to be a true daughter of this individualistic, self-absorbed age. It is a spiritualised version of consumerism.
The “new” spirituality is there to help me be more aware of myself, to reach my final self-realisation in the spiritual sense (though sometimes a very concrete success in my life is connected with it as well). There is a huge variety of tools, disciplines and techniques that will help me with this (and for which I should usually pay). I can literally do shopping in this huge “spiritual” market—which is free, in the sense that there are no rules or boundaries set. I learn to invoke great cosmic powers to guide me and to help me reach my goal: the total realisation of my spiritual potential, which is understood in some radical circles as equal to becoming God, or better, it means manifesting my own fully and absolutely divine nature and realising that everything else is an illusion. Thus, I can become utterly independent of anyone and anything and be completely self-fulfilled.
So here we have the same pattern, only radicalised and made absolute: the individual in himself has become the only, ultimate goal and value; also the only remaining “law-giver” who decides what is good and bad, right and wrong. It seems that Nietzsche’s idea of Übermensch has won the masses.
We could go on with such description, but I think we have said enough for our purposes here. This short and, I admit, somewhat caricatured and exaggerated picture which focuses on the prevailing forces and currents, presents us, Christians, with a number of challenges.
Let us now return to our opening quote from John’s epistle. In it, the essence of Christianity is described as communion, koinonía, “sharing a common life”, close connection, intimate nearness to another. And this has two dimensions: the first is communion with God the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit), made possible by Christ’s saving work at the cross. The second dimension is communion with others who were saved in this way.
Actually the whole Scripture, and within it most expressively the Johanine texts, bears witness to this.
Through the person of Jesus and his work, even God himself is revealed to be a perfect, absolute community of oneness: three distinctive persons being perfectly one—and being fully other-centred, other-serving, mutually dependent and submitting. This divine character and nature is fully manifested in the lifestyle and teaching of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition, through his death and resurrection, something even more unthinkable happens: this divine community, this inner life of the triune God, opens up to mankind. By embracing Jesus, everyone is invited in. Moreover, at the same time, these new people are encouraged to live a life of true community among themselves, here on earth, thus being a visible manifestation of God. Living in Christ-centredness and mutual submission, they are the visible “body of Christ”.
One word that is most often used in the New Testament to describe the quality of such community is agápe. This can be only poorly translated as “love” in our languages, since “love” for us usually denotes a strong but pleasant feeling, not seldom connected with self-fulfilment. Agápe in its most radical expression is all but that: it means complete forgetting of oneself and turning to another (to God and/or to other people), even to the point of physical death. These are the words of Jesus: “There is no greater love [agápe] than this, that someone should lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 reb). He himself fulfilled this to the letter. Thus, agápe means a total loss of self, its complete end, ruining of everything that pertains to me. At this point—paradoxically—the real, God-like self is being found![1] With such a perception in mind, we can understand John’s radical statement that “God is agápe” (I John 4:8). This is the very nature, the substance of Divinity.
Now if this is the essence of Christianity, we can easily ascertain that this is something drastically opposite to what we have said about our contemporary society. On one side, we have community and other-centredness; on the other, we have individualism and self-centredness. If this is so, the gap is huge and one may wonder whether any really interaction is possible at all. What contribution can Christians have to such a society? More specifically, how can Christian intellectuals present anything that will constructively influence the thought-patterns of our world?
I think that the situation we are in is both harder and easier than earlier. It is harder, because Christianity cannot count on any position in the society. The good Christian heritage, the Christian tradition and Christian values are more or less gone from the Western world. We cannot claim them and we cannot rely upon them. The sooner we get rid of such attempts, the better.
On the other hand, it is easier, because the situation forces us to become an opposition, a true and living alternative to the society. This is by no means a political opposition; it is an opposition of thought, values and concrete lifestyle, which can then be reflected in a fresh philosophy or theology. I believe this is easier for us, Christians, since this is more what Christianity looked like in the beginning, in the time before Constantine, before the religio-political monster of “Christendom” has been born. Moreover, Christianity has proven to be highly effective in such conditions—in this early epoch, Christianity grew stronger and more resolute despite the very hard circumstances.
Of course, this demands a paradigm shift, a changed understanding of our identity and role in the culture. For too long have we, Christians, understood ourselves as the norm, the historical foundation of our society. The truth is we have become quite an exception, but as such, we have some new opportunities.
In the first place, we again have a chance to represent (by word and deed) the radical difference of Jesus, the good news of God’s koinonía being opened up to everyone.
In terms of our theoretical endeavours, this means developing a thought that stresses the importance and exceptionality of the historical Jesus—a thought that is able to reflect the rich relevance of his death on the cross and of his physical resurrection that followed. This means an ethics that upholds him and his agápe-lifestyle as the télos of human—and divine!—existence and therefore as the highest standard for what is good and right. This means an anthropology that expresses this paradoxical insight into the human nature and a psychology that knows the importance of other-centredness for our true identity.
The practical challenge for us might be even greater. The nature of our message and the state of our society both call for developing concrete, real forms of community (both within and without the existing ecclesiastical institutions), where other-centredness, mutual submission and dependence are being practised and cultivated. As we said earlier, this is the visual manifestation of Christ himself, his eikón, in our world. This is the strongest, irresistible weapon against the evil of our society.
In conclusion, we could say that because of our new position in society, Christians can again (as they did in the early centuries) easily identify with the many and various victims of the self-absorbed, power-driven society around us. As we know from the history, these do not come only from the oppressed lower classes, but from the whole spectrum of society, since no one is excluded from its damaging effects. Our role is then, once again, to pour “wine and oil” onto their wounds and to take them to a safe place.[2] The two approaches mentioned above will provide for what they need: the theoretical reflection will first help to recognise the inherently evil assumptions which prevail in the society and, at the same time, provide a new mindset driven by new values and new télos, empowered by Jesus himself and his historical act on the cross. The practical action will provide a new social environment with a different lifestyle, which actually proves the reality of these theoretical views and the truth of the living God who is behind them.
All this undoubtedly requires a vast intellectual effort, but possibly even more a great personal involvement and sacrifice from us. This is, I believe, the challenge that we face.

[1] Compare: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, reb).

[2] See Luke 10:25–37.