Anxiety: The Canary in the Coal Mine (Part II)
In the first half of this article we saw how anxiety is at such levels it could not be called mental illness and that our culture was set up to create this anxiety. It’s cultural anxiety and so needs a cultural solution.
What are we going to do about it?
If the rising rates of emotional distress are exactly what our system is designed to produce, then we need a new system. Imagine the production line as one that produces cars in a factory but all the cars come out with the bumpers on upside down. Do we send them back a few steps and ask them to try harder, or do we accept that the factory is performing exactly as it is designed to do – but the design is wrong and needs adjusting. Trying harder just means failing harder. The occasional successes of the ‘elites’ are not the result of the factory but the result of additional other factors like class, money and a large dose of random chance. 99.9% of Youtubers won’t make it.
As we stand back and look at our culture, we have seen huge increases in personal freedom over the past 200 years. Until recently in the West, most people lived with restrictions on their freedom such as being in a lower class or being of a certain gender. Events like the industrial revolution have changed all this but it’s arguable that it has gone too far. I can buy ten different types of coffee in five different shops within half a mile of my front door – who really needs that much choice...
Note again that, if you think you have an anxiety disorder, then please speak with your GP or a similar support. If you are going through a stressful time like exams or a change of job, then please know that anxiety is normal and speak to other people. What I am talking about here is a deeper approach to the anxiety machine within our culture.
In the past, despite restrictions on freedom, people did have other things that compensated. Sayers talks about these being community and that they had meaning – people knew who they were and what life was about. One ongoing practical example of this is in the celebrations we see from time to time on TV of people dancing in very impoverished situations such as the aftermath of civil war – their lives are (by most objective measures) very restricted and not at all free and much ‘worse’ than ours – and yet they dance and worship and eat together.
A similar example from biblical history is in Psalm 137 where ’by the rivers of Babylon they sat and wept’. They were exiles, captives, slaves – and yet they had community and meaning and, whilst not singing with joy, still sang this Psalm.
Today’s culture has overdosed on freedom – you can be anything you want to be, say anything you feel like on ‘social’ media, buy anything for next-day delivery, change things if you don’t like them and even reinvent yourself completely if things aren’t working out. But this has been at a price. Community spirit, despite a brief revival when we all clapped for the NHS in 2020, is at an all-time low. Increasing numbers of people do not leave their homes and loneliness is a major issue facing the very old.
Also, the constant cultural ‘progress’ of postmodernism means that things which once gave us meaning have been undermined. Both the left and the right of the political spectrum have encouraged this – there is no utopian political solution to vote for here!
The Left has challenged virtually all historical institutions by branding them all as oppressive and in doing so has removed most of what we navigate by.
The Right has sold you choice and apparent freedom in every kind of packaging imaginable but had to undermine meaning and community to make you feel trapped in the first place and so create a market for their product.
Reducing cultural anxiety is done by rebalancing this system:
Freedom is found within constraints and limits
Community is the crucible within which freedom is worked out
Meaning is received, not discovered
It is these three areas that the rest of this article will focus on.
The secular myth (that given enough time we will reach Utopia) isn’t working. It’s been portrayed as a graph moving slowly and relentlessly upwards. However, the root issue here is that it is trying to provide its own answers. Yet throughout human history, answers and meaning have been provided by someone else.
When a child is stuck with something, it looks for an answer outside of itself. In wanting to ‘move on’ from past prejudices and injustices, the West has also moved on from the fact that this might be a situation where external help is required. It’s great when a child works something out by themselves, but it’s also cruel to let them struggle when there is no prospect of success and help is readily at hand.
Unless our society has a better idea, and I think that we are seeing that it does not, then surely it is time to put faith back on the cultural table. Past excesses of religion have been rightly challenged, but have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Yes, that Baby, the one who “came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). This will be a bitter pill for our ‘progressive’ culture to swallow, but maybe it's better than struggling along in an anxious mess.
The other secular myth (that religion is steadily disappearing and will one day vanish) has been portrayed as a graph moving slowly and relentlessly downwards by using church statistics or census responses from the relatively recent past. However, this too has been proven untrue time and time again. It’s tempting to see this trend from a fantasy past where ‘everyone believed in God and went to church’ to a secular future where no-one believes in such ‘out-dated' ideas. However, the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) predicted that ‘within a hundred years of [his] death the Bible will be a museum piece’ but his statement was swiftly followed by the American ‘great awakenings’ and the great UK revivals.
I believe that the cracks are starting to appear in these two secular myths and it is at times like this that faith will show its value. It did before and I believe it’s time is coming again.
Faith actually has a lot of guidance on how society works. All faiths share this to some degree, but the Christian faith has some particular perspectives I will unpack below. It speaks of true freedom and is honest about what this is – and what it is not (the ability to buy a Starbucks coffee in any city). It speaks of community, flowing from the community of the Trinity into the community of (as Bendan Manning says) one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. It speaks of meaning – not just a meaning-making faith story in a Holy Book, but found in the One whose way we follow and whose grace we have been given.
Religion does not have a perfect track record here, with past interpretations seeing a lack of freedom for many. However, this needs to be set against current secular culture where freedom has been pursued at the expense of everything else – and actually not found. We also need to remember that most of the mass genocides and wars of the last 100 years have been at the hands of people who were explicitly atheist. This isn’t to start an argument – rather to point out that the no-faith position isn’t exactly smelling of roses either!
It’s tempting for the church to hide away when faced with aggressive voices on a whole number of challenging cultural issues. I’m not even going to list the various ethical issues of today as you know what they are and also because I don’t think that is where the debate is to be had. I’ve two reasons for this.
The first is that to try and engage in reasoned debate on any specific issue tends to end in an angry stalemate because the Christian ethical viewpoint does not make sense if you are not a Christian. For example, if you do not believe that God made man in His own image, then it is very sensible and logical to see him as merely the pinnacle of a long evolutionary process and therefore not much different from a chimpanzee. Please note the word ‘merely’ - I know full well I share 99% of my DNA with a chimpanzee and that biologically we share common descendants – it's just that I believe God created humans in his image too which he didn’t do for the animals
Secondly, it is because we are not standing back and seeing the bigger picture. It’s been progress for the sake of progress across a whole range of issues and one modern ethical debate in particular has even pushed its own boundaries too far and provoked resistance from the most unlikely quarters. A recent example from where I live in Scotland is of a transgender (male to female) convicted rapist who was to be housed in a female prison (as he now identifies as a woman) even though he committed the offences against women (when he identified as a man). The feminist lobby was understandably up in arms!
To quote Sayers, “Post-Christian [culture] is experiencing a crisis of doubt over the prospects of its own revival program.” Or more pithily, “We are singing our [secular] revival songs and it isn’t working” or “We are drowning in freedom but thirsty for meaning” .
It’s time for balance to be restored, and below I want to briefly set out some principles. I run the risk of trying to fit the whole of Christian teaching into a few paragraphs of text, so these will need to be expanded upon for your context. However the backdrop is the key thing to bear in mind – the secular dream is failing, rates of anxiety are rising and the church has something to say.
Balance 1 – Freedom: true freedom through slavery
In the modern culture, the goal is ‘freedom’ – freedom from expectations placed upon me and freedom to truly be myself. But in the pursuit of freedom, the other human needs of meaning and relationship have been neglected. By contrast, The Bible says that true freedom is found in slavery – being a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18).
Biblically, freedom is being set free from slavery to sin but it is not the freedom to do anything we want to. It is being free to worship God, and free to be as we are before Him; knowing he loves us just as we are and there is nothing we can do that will make him love us any more or any less. To just be able to ‘be’ is so liberating – no more trying to be good, no more trying to whip up my own happiness and keep on being the best version of me. It’s exhausting!
It’s also true that we need to reduce our freedom to find true relationships and meaning. Relationships are built on service, meaning means following a creed. The recent U2 album is called ‘Songs of Surrender’ - and this is from one of the biggest bands of all time.
Balance 2 – Community: full life through relationships
Closely related to personal freedom is the freedom to be with others. When we are free in Christ we are free to be together in community – warts and all. Being in an accepting relationship is actually the foundation of all therapy – what is called unconditional positive regard. In Christianity, our acceptance of others flows directly from God’s acceptance of us – we are all unworthy so no one can get up on their high horse. The most read Christian book of all time is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’- which flows from life with Christ.
There is a coffee shop near Bicester called ‘FLTR’ – standing for full life through relationships . Their website says this - “Our coffee passion is only superseded by our passion for a community where relationships flourish” - and the church that exists around the coffee shop lives this out. People come for the coffee, they stay for the deep company.
A mentor of mine once said “Community is when good friends and wise people turn their chairs inwards and talk well” - and by ‘well’ he means about proper stuff that actually matters – how are you really? I'm here if you want to talk. I struggle too.
Life has ups and downs. Being a Christian is tough. Don’t put yourself on the front cover of the fashion magazines – learn to talk well before you end up on page seven.
Balance 3 – Meaning: true identity through holiness
Close to the start of John’s Gospel (3:30), John testifies, “He must increase, I must decrease.” John found his meaning in his role as herald of Jesus, and now that the Messiah had arrived, the herald must stand down. Creeds can give meaning of a kind, politics can offer a vision for the future, but the meaning of Christianity is a person who, in our lives, must become more as we become less.
Thus, meaning is not a state of mind but a state of worship; and it is not a way of behaving rather a way of believing. J C Ryle, the 19th century writer of ‘Holiness’ says “Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down?”
The Christian’s meaning is found in God and our relationship to him – as heir, beloved, chased after, chosen, prodigal son or daughter. Identity that is deep and freeing, that has foundations of rock – and one that enables a non-anxious presence to contrast with the anxious and insecure leaders of our anxious world. But that is another long read...
 Reappearing Church. Sayers, Mark. 2019. Moody Publishers, USA – buy on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3LLhI8C - also the main subject of a podcast: ‘This Cultural Moment’ available on Spotify https://open.spotify.com/show/5vc4AILCeO1HDAQV8jE8J4?si=KL3MnnmTSi-XklQM0v3zKQ
 Factfullness, by Hans Rosling – buy on Amazon https://amzn.to/3nlI5IO
Rob Waller, 21/05/2023