Now that I’m my sixties I have a clearer sense than someone in his thirties might have that things are changing. When I was a teenager I would never have imagined what the world would look like just fifty years later.
Differences in the technology of everyday life are huge. Jets have largely eclipsed propeller airplanes. High definition flat screen devices have ousted the massive and unstable black and white televisions of old. Computers have dismissed slide rules. The ipad has trumped laptops which trumped desktops which trumped yellow legal pads and film-based cameras. Digital is in and analog is out. So the impression we have from this side of life is that progress is ever and always swallowing up the inertia of the past. And with such changes the future is always brighter and better than the past.
But the biggest changes—biggest in terms of the impact on our daily lives—have come in our social connections. Where traditional family units were once relatively secure and central we now have shifting connections—bonds that last for a time and then dissolve into new pairings. Marriage was once the gold standard of social integrity but today most youth see marriage as a potentially awkward option. Double careers were once rare for couples but now are standard. And while they offer double incomes they also double the chaos if a career change calls for a new setting and shifts in relationships.
There is also the change of girth: the average waist size of all westerners has grown and the problem of obesity is now—dare I say it—huge. Diabetes and other health issues that were once more marginal problems have now become widespread.
So here’s my question: is self-indulgence part of our bold and oddly lopsided new world? Can we explain much of what has changed over the last century to our having a newfound capacity to gain and enjoy new appetite-fulfillments? Many of which are less than helpful and some are simply evil?
Consider, for instance, the time-devouring screens that fill our visual side of life: from small screen communication devices to big screen entertainment devices. And all of them bring elements of appetite stimulation: with perpetual advertisements usually at the center. And value stimulation: with movies, music, and stories from culture-shaping artists who offer new visions of life with compelling and often morally erosive force.
There’s more than the visual side of life, of course. Since I was a pre-teen a sexual shift has come with the very separate but still mutually engaged offerings of contraceptive pills and convenience-based-abortions-on-demand. Both allowed a new indulgence of our natural desires for intimacy yet without the older responsibility of bringing new generational life and of offering a stable marital base for the nurture and care that new life needs.
What, as Christians, should we make of all this? Should we throw up our hands and try to retreat into the good ole days (days, by the way, that had their own serious issues)? Or should we take up moral marches to confront sin and call for new levels of discipline to overcome indulgent living?
That was what one Christian teacher thought best. He moved from Britain to Italy many centuries ago and faced new technologies and the associated immoralities they offered. His name was Pelagius. His response? He argued that robust self-control was needed to confront and change the moral turpitude of his day. And with that moral effort God would help those who worked hard to be more righteous.
Another man of the same era—one who struggled with his own sins of self-indulgence as a youth—gave another answer. His name was Augustine. And his answer? He said we should love others, with God as our foremost love, and then indulge that love.
Think about it.