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The Sensate Culture

Greetings All!

     Today I struggled long and hard to know what "thought" to post.  So many books, so little time to read through them all!  But I finally settled on this one from Harold O. J. Brown's book "The Sensate Culture."   It was published in 1996 and has to do with the three stages nearly every major culture passes through as it moves from it's initial rise to power to eventual collapse.  Having read it in 1996, and just skimming it's pages once again today, I realized it is not only full comprehensive research, and wise insight, but is also rather prophetic -- since what he predicted 20 years ago has come into fuller measure today.

     After taking a class with him, I must tell you he is one of the most intelligent people I ever learned from (with John Frame, in my opinion, coming in a close second).  I say that because I want you to know he knows his subject well.  He is well-studied, knows history, gives attention to detail, and sees things from a somewhat non-biased (since no one is unbiased) big-picture perspective -- and combines it with an incisive understanding of culture and human nature. I highly recommend the reading of his book (if you truly care to gain an understanding of where we are at culturally speaking, and why so much upheaval is taking place). That's why I share this little taste of what his book has to offer. Enjoy.
     "Sorokin (in his book Social and Cultural Dynamics) identified three distinct phases through which cultures pass: 1.) Ideational - This is where a culture is willing to sacrifice pleasures and immediate goals for the sake of higher principles. Self-denial, asceticism, and martyrdom are natural behaviors from the ideational point of view.   2.) Idealistic - This is a compromise stage between Ideational and Sensate, where spiritual truths and values are still rated above all others, but it appreciates the realities and values of the sensory world and does not treat them as meaningless or non-existent.  3.) Sensate - At this point, the culture tends to be interested only in those things (usually material in nature) that affect the senses. It seeks the imposing, the impressive, the voluptuous and it encourages self-indulgence... No apology is made for encouraging people to squander their resources on self-indulgence...
     The great democracies of the ancient world (e.g., Athens and the Roman Republic) arose during an idealistic culture and did not survive the shift to sensate culture. Democracy requires self-discipline and self-control on the part of the masses -- qualities that are derided and destroyed by sensate culture...  Our present sensate culture [the phase the U.S. is in right now] increasingly lacks one of the most important conditions for a vibrant democratic government, namely, moral responsibility and integrity on the part of the majority of the citizens. Democratic institutions necessarily presuppose that people will govern themselves in many areas of life, but this is precisely what is discouraged and impeded by the sensate attitude of "eat, drink and be merry."  The idea that there are certain eternal or divine principles of justice that most people will respect without compulsion (which is characteristic in both the ideational and idealistic cultures) disappears in a sensate culture where people are interested only in things that give pleasure, avert pain, and provide immediate gratification.  When people do not have ideals and principles that move them to act without compulsion for the good of all, no government functions smoothly or well.  In the sensate phase of society, it is extremely difficult to maintain faith in the moral legitimacy of government, whether monarchical or democratic....
     Democracy presupposes a consensus of values or widespread agreement concerning what constitutes the morally good and desirable life. These are features of an integrated culture, but they become lost as a culture disintegrates in a transition phase. Consequently, one can predict with certainty that the democracy that we in the West profess to value is doomed to die if the sensate phase continues without any fundamental reorientation. When any form of government functions well, without the need to resort to extensive compulsion (by force), it is a sign that the citizens it governs have an adequate degree of personal responsibility and integrity. In an overripe sensate culture, governing a large multitude of people becomes progressively more difficult no matter what the political system, whether monarchy or democracy, oligarchy or dictatorship, because people interested only in that which gratifies their own senses find it next to impossible to act spontaneously and without compulsion, for the benefit of the community...
     In his inaugural address in 1961, President Kennedy made an appeal to the remnants of the idealistic mentality among the American people: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Unfortunately for the Kennedy's hopes, the remnant was not hardy enough to accomplish what he expected of it, for the culture was already too sensate, and the influence of the mass media and mass communication was rapidly exterminating virtually every memory of earlier idealistic attitudes...  Events of history -- "historical accidents" so to speak (ie: the murders of John Kennedy and his brother Robert, Vietnam, segregation, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few) - have all contributed to the increasingly acute crisis of democratic theory in Western society, although its fundamental causes lie in the nature of the sensate culture itself, not in historic incidents, however dramatic...
When a sensate culture is wealthy and luxurious, as Western culture now is, it becomes increasingly difficult to motivate people to exert the self-denial and effort necessary to overcome dangers and avoid economic catastrophes...  It is difficult for the population of a democratic society in a late sensate culture to generate its own moral sense, or build the morale necessary to produce endurance under difficult and trying conditions. In such a culture, Jesus' words, "not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28) strike most people as pure foolishness. Idealistic societies prize service; sensate societies cherish gain... As the sensate mentality becomes more pervasive, democratic politicians are forced to become nothing but demagogues, flattering the people and offering them easier and easier acquisition of more and more material goods and pleasures, as the Roman emperors provided the plebs with bread and circuses."
     This is not a political rant.  I don't belong to any party.  Nor do I indulge in politics.  I never bring them into the pulpit because I have never seen governmental systems as the answer to the human problem. I tend to follow Jesus on this and leave what is Caesar's to Caesar.  In fact, that's what impressed me about Prof. Brown -- after an entire course with him, I had no idea of his political affiliation, be it Democrat, Republican, or any other party (if he even belonged to one).  In fact, his general attitude seemed to be the one I espouse: That the Gospel of Jesus Christ was too radical to be held captive to any humanly devised political system or party.  That's about as political as I get!
     No, this "thought" is about the rise, and eventual demise, of any culture.  What brought it to prominence, and what will eventually lead to its downfall.  And I offer it to you simply as wise thoughts to consider, as well as soul-food to guide you in your prayers. Because cultural collapse, as our increasingly recurring glimpses have shown us, is a matter worthy of our earnest intercession.

In His Service, Pastor Jeff