P.S. – Assumptions

As part of preparation for teaching a module on 'Faith and Contemporary Culture' I’ve been thinking about the myriad number of assumptions inherent within our Western ‘way of life’. By 'assumption' I mean an expectation of normalcy: something that has nothing remarkable or unusual about it and is therefore not even consciously thought about. So I started to jot down assumptions of daily western life. It’s a simple exercise, yet it quickly becomes clear that our location within the West carries a truckload of assumptions that do not apply in most of the world. It also raises questions about how deeply and pervasively our Christian faith and theology proper (view of God himself) is shaped by those assumptions. Without going all the way with radical postmodern deconstructions of human nature, it appears self-evident that human identity is remarkably malleable. We are all deeply shaped by our context. Of course anyone from the West who has lived in 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. Perhaps some readers of PS will have your own experiences and perspectives which you are welcome to share in comments. So, here are some daily Western assumptions set against imagined contrary realities of life on the margins of the developing world:
  • the easy and endless availability of daily feast contra a prayerful hope of daily bread
  • a place of respect and influence, even if declining, for denominations and churches contra an experience of persecution, imprisonment and possibly martyrdom
  • plentiful and clean water at the turn of a tap contra hours of labour, toil and danger for a polluted and contested resource
  • the right to 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
  • legal rights: of citizenship; to justice; a fair trial; to be presumed innocent contra imprisonment for calling for greater state transparency
  • 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 the 'right' to free 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; living day to day
  • 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 contra 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
Now these are big generalities; I’m simply trying to paint a picture of alternative experiences, alternative realities, alternative cultures that co-exist globally today. 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 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? And what would such 'disbelief' look like in practice? Dr Patrick Mitchel is Director of Studies and lecturer in theology at Irish Bible Institute in Dublin (www.ibi.ie) and blogs www.faithinireland.wordpress.com.
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3 Responses to P.S. – Assumptions

  1. Patrick Mitchel says:

    Thank you Ken and Roy for comments: rather than being an optional extra, I think the church being a loving and caring community to those in need (locally & globally) is at the heart of its mission.

    I wrote this before “war” erupted here in the Republic over the introduction of water charges. The “right” to free, clean and treated water coming out of the tap is embedded in the campaign group’s name “right2water”. While I have a lot of sympathy in the protest against gross govt mishandling of the whole process (and how it is taxpayers paying off private bank debt from the crash), the idea of water as a right is a very Western one.

  2. Ken Todd says:

    Thank you Patrick for your most helpful insights. Hopefully they will elicit from us, compassionate action and prayer. In this part of the world we wage a war on waste while in the two-thirds world they wage war on want. Ken Todd

  3. Roy Totten says:

    “Assumptions” is an extremely challenging read.
    Thank you for reminding me of the comfortable environment in which I live and that the majority of people only dream of.
    I struggle at times to know what one individual can do to right the imbalance within our world.

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