Have you seen the film Chocolat? It tells the tale of a woman who moves to a village in the french countryside to open a chocolate shop at the beginning of Lent. The townspeople, particularly the mayor, are concerned about her arrival. They live a life of strict moral diligence and don't know what to do with this woman who fails to fit into their preconceived notions of a life well-lived.
The film deals with the questions of how one should live their life. Like so many other films, books, and plays, it deals with two approaches to life that the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard calls the "aesthetic" and the "ethical."
The aesthetic approach to life is a life of sensual indulgence, a life of freedom from the confines of traditional morality. A life of radical independence, self-expression, and self-discovery.
The ethical approach to life is a life of moral diligence, a life of dutiful obedience to standards of right and wrong. A life of discipline, rigor and conformity to tradition and religion.
So much of what I seen playing out in our culture seems to divide along these lines. Our country seems to be growing more and more secular and more and more religious at the same time. On one side are those who are weary of religious people imposing their views on everyone else. On the other side are those who want to rescue our nation from the encroaching secularism by "taking back the culture" and returning to traditional morality.
This division between the aesthetic and the ethical is nothing new. It's even addressed in the Bible. This morning, with my senior pastor out of town, I was invited to take the pulpit and give the sermon. My text was Luke 15. In this chapter, Jesus is surrounded by a group of irreligious people, people from the "wrong side of the tracks", so to speak. A group of religious leaders are also present and they're mumbling to themselves, wondering why Jesus would have anything to do with these people. In response to their grumbling, Jesus tells them three parables. Though all three parables are similar, the third one is unique in that the two main characters, a wild younger brother and a dutiful older brother, represent the people in the crowd. The younger brother represents the "aesthetic" approach to life and the older brother represents the "ethical" approach.
Surprisingly, Jesus singles out both approaches to life as inadequate. He suggests something entirely different. He offers a way of life that is neither religious nor rebellious. A way of life that is neither strict and rigorous, nor lax and self-indulgent. A way of life that is not a balance between two extremes but an entirely different approach altogether. An approach so unique that the ancient Romans called the first Christians "athiests" because they didn't fit into any of their pre-conceived understanding of religion.
More on this later in the week.