People in developing and third world countries have gazed upon the Western world from a much better position in recent years. This has happened through their hugely expanded access to mobile phones, internet, radio and television.
They have reacted both positively and negatively. On the one hand, they very understandably desire to enjoy some of the benefits of Western world life. Those in the third world struggle to survive from day to day. Many of these have taken great personal risks in trying to become economic migrants.
On the other hand, many people dislike some things that they see about the West. They notice that Western world life-style is, in many ways, alien to their own experience of society. They see Western world multinational businesses exploiting low paid workers, avoiding tax and causing damage to the natural environment.
Are the viewpoints of people outside the West, right or wrong? Does the average thinking person, who is not particularly environmentalist, liberal or left-wing, sympathise with these criticisms? Or are these negative comments unfair and basically derived from envy of living standards and resentment of economic power?
Three universal spiritual principles
When one is immersed in a culture it is very difficult to take a step outside and see ourselves as others sees us. However, in answering these questions, we might consider Western world culture by thinking in terms of three universal spiritual principles.
- Quietening our worldly desires
- Recognising there is a higher power beyond what our senses tell us
- Appreciating the sacred within the sexual relationship
Worldly desires and higher concerns
There is a contrast between worldly desires and higher concerns.
World-wide spiritual practices often aim at controlling bodily desire in favour of moderation. The Judeo-Christian tradition warns against inordinate desire for material things. The tenth commandment “You shall not covet” means one should put self-control and contentment before envy or possessiveness. This means not craving for whatever gives bodily pleasure or social status. Similarly, Buddhists view attachment to material things as the root of human suffering.
Yet, the drive to acquire more and more things contradicts this spiritual principle. Advertising often works by stimulating desire where none was there before – for smarter clothes, the latest electronic goods, impressive cars, and exotic holidays.
Never-ending economic growth and contentment
Politics are an expression of moral and spiritual values and the lack of them. Sadly, in my view, central governments operate on the belief that increasing material wealth, rather than spiritual wealth, equates to increasing people’s well-being. They assume happiness comes from being better off. It is not surprising, then, that Western world governments base all their policies on an overarching aim of never-ending national economic growth.
Some commentators take the view that the Western world’s emphasis on consumerism creates over-production and waste. Does a devotion to growth means governments’ default position is to fight shy of inhibiting commercial enterprise? The extent to which markets are not adequately regulated, and energy and human resources are over-exploited, is a matter of political perception. This will of course vary from country to country.
Some politicians argue that continual economic growth is the answer to poverty. They say there is a trickle down of money to the poor. Others would argue that such a policy actually increases inequality. These again are matters of political judgment but the need to quieten our desire for more and more material things remains a spiritual consideration.
Science and a higher power
Science sees a lack of purpose in nature. It explains evolution as due to numerous random accidents having survival value. This understanding of evolution is paramount in Western-world education and the mass media. You also often hear the scientists, in talking about the big-bang, imply that the universe, although awesome, is actually developing without any creative plan.
In his best selling book Essential Spirituality, Roger Walsh talks about the ‘blinding power of science’. He points out that the main spiritual traditions are concerned about our being blind to the sacred – in the world, in others and in ourselves. He argues that this blindness is made worse by the power of science in the Western world.
“We look out on … a world seemingly stripped of meaning, significance, and spirit, and we see ourselves as equally barren.” (Roger Walsh, spiritual writer)
You might wonder whether the Western world is really a victim of a materialistic science.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so the answer to this question will depend on who is asked.
I would like to suggest that the naturally minded person denies any higher spiritual life and personal survival following death. For him or her, when you are dead, you are dead. But, for the spiritually minded there is something that goes beyond what science can discover: there is an underlying deeper reality to existence: a transcendent purpose to everything from which everything is derived.
Sex and the golden rule
Another spiritual principle to consider is that the sexual relationship is a sacred one. Our quality of life is greatly improved when intimate partners treat each other with respect, affection and as someone special. Living together as sexual partners is an opportunity to practice the Golden Rule which can be applied more widely:
“Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” (Confucius)
Such a loving relationship is fulfilling and ennobling if based on trust and confidence. This means sexual fidelity.
It has to be said, however, that if you were to believe everything you see in the Western world media, you might conclude that in the West there is no such thing as sexual fidelity.
This is because Western world media – drama, television, cinema, and magazines – strongly convey the idea that sex is a basic drive that needs to be satisfied, just like hunger and thirst. Pornography has become more easily available. The promotion of sexual laxity is at odds with the ideal of long-lasting intimate love.
We can all argue until the cows come home about politics. And I suspect most shades of political opinion have something illuminating as well as illusory. However, whatever one’s politics, I would suggest that one can surely be helped to see the best policies by measuring them against spiritual principles: quietening our worldly desires, recognising there is something beyond ordinary consciousness and appreciating the sacred within the sexual relationship.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems