Working on two different presentations this weekend, I ran into a familiar theme: the ‘problem’ of excess.
This afternoon I am teaching a class on ‘Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition’. The students are at the end of their semester and so I wanted to present something to them that will give them a chance to apply what they have learned this semester to a contemporary situation.
I was also working on a church service for two weeks from now where I will be filling in for the pastor who will be at regional gathering with most of the worship team. I am planning a creative Christmas interactive sort of experience.
In both of these projects I kept running up against the theme of excess. What would someone like John Wesley think of the world if we could reach back three centuries and bring him to today? The Methodist (who he helped to found) were a people of moderation and temperance. They prioritized simplicity and focus. Many times this semester I have tried to imagine what they would think of the world and the Methodist churches that I have been visiting.
I imagine them being a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things and options. We live in an age consumption in which manufactures compete to get consumers the variety and amount of whatever they desire.
At the same time, I am preparing for Christmas and trying to address the pervasive chorus I hear about the extravagance of what Christmas has become. This weekend I watched some football on TV, I had to go the mall to get a package, and I went to church to observe the second week of Advent. I get it … the season is a lot. I hear what people are complaining about and I 100% acknowledge that it can frazzle the nerves and trigger some soul-searching about the modern world.
I am haunted by a lingering suspicion and I want to put it out there for your consideration:
What if excess isn’t the problem? What it excess is the venue and virtue is the issue?
I think about trying to watch football on TV with John Wesley and how I would explain the commercial for 800 channels of cable to him. Why do we need 800 channels? We don’t. So what is the problem? I get why people complain about excess. I do.
I am just wondering: what if excess is the given and that how we handle it is the variable.
So I went to the store for cheese and there are literally 200 varieties. I don’t have to eat them all. In the same way, I don’t have to watch every show on every channel of TV, flirt with every attractive person in a restaurant, or desire every item that is advertised to me.
We make choices. Those choices are born out of a character. That character is formed and informed by a virtue that I embody and which is enacted by the choices I make and how I behave.
I just wonder if we wouldn’t be better off to spend our energy talking about character-in-community instead of complaining about the ridiculous and excessive manifestation of modern consumer society. It feels like a golfer complaining about the presence of grass or a fish complaining about the presence of water. Excess is the venue of western society. We are not going to go back to the 4 kinds of cheese (Swiss, American, Cheddar and Velveeta) or the 3 network channels of my childhood (ABC, NBC, CBS). Costco isn’t the problem (per se).
Excess isn’t good – but neither is it the problem. Complaining about it, while legitimate and justified, may be an exercise in futility. We are not going back to a simpler time anytime soon. In fact, pointing out the problems of excess may be a good diagnosis but still leave us with the lack of a cure. Even if excess is a problem, the lack of it is not a solution. We are still left with the absence of something deeper.
Spending this past semester studying Methodism has been good for me to think through this stuff. Going back to a simpler time isn’t the solution … and I’m arguing that living in an age of excess isn’t the problem. The absence of excess doesn’t result in the presence of character.
My growing conviction is that excess isn’t the problem, it is merely the venue and virtue is the issue.
December 7, 2016 at 11:13 pm
I have an anxiety disorder (in which I’m one of a rapidly growing number of people in the country), and I’d like to issue a protest against too much choice. I can far too easily be paralysed by adding another option or ten, unable to make any decision at all. I could argue that you can have too much freedom – it you have no constraints at all in your choices, it becomes far more difficult to make them.
Take an example – I used to paint. All my best work was done when I deliberately limited my palette for a painting to just a few colours, rather than throw the whole range of Artists Gouache at the paper. (OK, that was pre-anxiety disorder, and I’d now have too much difficulty choosing the limited palette). Take another – which I know affects a LOT of people – we used to have fairly simple choices of one or two energy providers with, perhaps, a couple or three tariffs each. Now there are about 500 possible options. None of my more elderly relatives or friends can remotely cope with making a decision between them, and I just won’t try…
December 11, 2016 at 4:30 am
I have been thinking about your response all week. You make a very interesting point that is causing me to reconsider something.