I read a very powerful essay by Father Stephen Freeman yesterday (though he wrote it on Thanksgiving night) entitled Shopping for God. My first thoughts were that this essay would be about “church shopping” i.e. finding a church (and god) that fits me. To my surprise, what I read was completely different than my first impressions on reading the title. It turned out to be a lesson in not judging a book, or in this case a blog essay, by its cover. Father Stephen’s essay challenges the American consumer culture in a clear, concise, and upfront manner. This culture is antithetical to Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Particularly humbling, for me, is that I have given into this culture. So from the outset I wanted to make that clear because as I write a reflection on this culture, highlighting Father Stephen’s words, I do so as a repentant consumer.
Father Stephen begins with some background and sums up “Black Friday,” which seems to start earlier each year…how can it be a “Black Friday” when it starts on Thanksgiving evening? Fr. Stephen notes that “Black Friday:”
…is the single busiest day of the retail year and a harbinger of the all-important outcome of the Christmas retail shopping season. The U.S. economy will not do well in the year following a bad shopping season. Much of the economy here is built on consumer spending. If people don’t buy, someone will eventually be unemployed. It’s almost a patriotic duty to shop.
What a powerful statement: “A patriotic duty to shop.” The sad part of his statement is that it is absolutely correct. Spending money, even if we don’t have any, has become an American cultural staple. We see spending across the entire spectrum of American society. From government spending to private spending, Americans can’t seem to stop borrowing, spending, and consuming stuff. Father Stephen then brings us to an important conception, the spiritual one, of America’s consumerist society:
Consumer economies are built on the proposition that people will buy what they want – even more than what they need. This is especially so if wants are experienced as needs. Fortunately for consumer economies, the human soul in its non-spiritual condition, is governed by passions. These are energies of the soul (and the body) that are disordered, such that they generally desire things that are other than the soul and body’s good. We do not want things simply because we need them or because they are good for us. We want them because we want them.
Since the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, human nature is distorted by sin. Humanity is submissive to the passions. The passions, according to Metropolitan Nafpaktos Hierotheos, “are natural powers of the soul which have been corrupted by sin and by our withdrawal from God.” In Eastern Christianity the passions traditionally consist of, but are not limited to, gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, despondency, despair, vainglory, and pride. Father Stephen further defines the passions for us:
The passions are insatiable, by definition. If they were merely natural desires they could be satisfied. We hunger for food. We eat. We are no longer hungry. However, gluttony is a disordered hunger, a passion. By its very character, gluttony is an unnatural hunger. It cannot be satisfied.
Lets now bring this back to our consumer culture. As Father Stephen said, our consumer culture is fueled by a proposition that we buy what we want not what we need. Is this not the definition of a passion? It is natural to need certain items, such as clothes and shelter, but because of the corruption of sin what we want replaces the perfectly natural need with the unnatural need for stuff. What is worse is that our culture fuels this consumerist passion of need and that fuel is:
The constant, ubiquitous barrage of advertising in which we live and move and have our being…
Turn on the TV, the radio, internet, social media site, ect and what are we constantly barraged with? Buy this or that, or not this or not that. It fuels our needs for instant gratification and drives us to want more and more stuff. Granted, there are some things we do actually need but when was the last time you saw a commercial that promoted a car that just gets you from point a to point b safely? Now, I don’t want to sound like I am arguing that all of us should become Luddites and reject all technology because it fuels this passion. What I am saying is that if we are not spiritually aware of this consumerist assault that rouses the passions then it will be better for us not to use such devices or watch/listen to commercials that fuel the passions.
Father Stephen now goes on, in his essay, to describe the passions that make up our consumerism.
The passions of shoppers are more subtle. Shoppers desire beauty, acceptance, self-confidence, power, intelligence, pleasure, excitement, a host of intangible needs. They are not natural needs, but the passions of the spiritually disordered. Our unnatural* existence is centered in the false self – the sense of identity generated within our memory, thoughts and emotions. It is burdened with uncertainty. Comparing, judging, measuring, revising are constant activities of the mind in its role of the false self.
All of these experienced needs are the objects of our consumer culture. Of course, I am describing this experience as though I live outside. But it is our common environment. We do not think of our desires as disordered – even as we occasionally find ourselves frustrated with having yet again been sold.
I don’t think I can add anything to Father’s words here. He sums up our modern consumerist passions that are destroying American culture. I can’t but help think of the image of Nero playing the lyre while Rome burns. Nero is our media outlets and the lyre is soul destroying consumerism disguised a violin music. The city burning is, ultimately, the souls of many giving into the passion of consumerism.
Ultimately, as with all passions, consumerism leads to more passions and to more passions. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our “stuff” and “possessions.” We are a king because of our clothes or iPod Yet, as we allow the passions to take us over we lose our souls and instead of truly living life we die to our stuff. In then end, as the funeral liturgical texts of the Church clearly state, we all are “but earth and ash” and many spend their whole lives acquiring worthless stuff. Oh what a curse the passion of consumerism is. Christ warns us of this in the Gospel
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
So now we have seen the problem that is the passion (or passions) of consumerism. Father then brings home a sobering reality. Our consumerism has now infected the way modern society views spirituality.
Even spirituality is marketed. We have a natural hunger for God, but those things that are natural are inevitably swathed in the unnatural voice of the passions. Thus we need God – but we need Him for our passions. Thus we find the God who will underwrite our narrative. The story of conversion becomes our organizing moment (“watch how I follow God”). Religious music is packaged to appeal. The aesthetics of religious experience can thus be more important than the content itself. Nothing is safe from the passions. The highest, most noble pursuits can be as driven by passion as the lowest bestial desires. The consumer shops for his God.
What is sobering about this reality is that Orthodox and Catholics are guilty of this. Father is right when he says, “Nothing is safe from the passions.” Ok…but now we may be wondering what the solution is? Or is this consumerism just a part of life that we can’t escape from?
We have seen the account of consumerism or as Father Stephen calls its “consumer/man.” This account is just that, an account. Luckily for us it is not the story of humanity! Consumer/man is healed through the uncreated energies of God through the Theanthropos, Jesus Christ. Father Stephen explains the Eastern Christian teaching on how the passions are to be healed:
The passions, though dominant in the lives of every human being, are only disordered desires – and those desires may be healed. It is possible to live without the passions in ascendance. The goal of the Orthodox fathers was never to be passionless, though they used the word apatheia to describe the proper spiritual condition. They meant only that our passions no longer rule.
The human life was created to be centered in the heart, the spiritual seat of our existence. The heart is not subject to the passions, not driven by desire and necessity. It is not the same thing as the mind. It does not compare or judge, measure or spin tales of its own existence. It simply is. It is in the heart that we know God (truly know). Its aesthetic is true beauty, found within the most ordinary of objects as well as in the greatest efforts of man. The heart is content.
We cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot live as consumers and lovers of God at the same time. Without the disordered passions, subject to the commercial siren song, we fail as consumers. To buy something because it is actually required rather than desired is to reject the very basis of our modern economy. But it is only when we are free of disordered passions that we are free. The cloud of desire that surrounds us prior to that point leaves the truth of things largely opaque. Only the sober man knows anything.
And so, not strangely, Christ has much to say about money. We are told to give it away (or at least lots of it). Riches choke out the good seed. Be anxious for nothing. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it. It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
Today, the rich man is the consumer man. The productivity of modern man has left necessity behind. Today we no longer have needs: needs have us.
The solution, as with all passions, is becoming freed from them. Christ, and His bride the Church, are the tools needed for us to move away from submission to ascendancy of the passions. What then about consumers and consumerism? Father Stephen closes by posing a question, “Can consumers be saved?”
It is perhaps one of the more appropriate questions of our time. I think consumers can be saved – but not as consumers. Consumption, in the manner in which we know it, is the symptom of a disease, the deep disease of corruption of which the Scripture warns:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Of course, none of this was her own idea – there were commercials in the garden.
As Christians prepare for the Feast of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ (the real reason and meaning of Christmas, not the disordered consumerism that dominates our celebration of this feast) we would do well to examine ourselves and ask “Am I a slave to the passions? Does the passion of consumerism have control of my life?” If the answer is yes, and most of us should answer yes in a certain sense, it is a time for a metanoia, a change of heart. It is good the Church gives us a time to prepare through fasting because it puts “Black Friday” and the passion of consumerism into its proper place of submission to the human heart, freed through Christ’s love. The Church and the fast requires us to recognize the problem that consumerism is and that it is a disordered way of life (as is all life dominated by the passions).
Thanks be to God that I am blessed to have a wife who sees the Christmas season for what it is and should be about. That is a celebration of Christ and the salvation He brings. It is not about gift giving. While, I want to buy and give the “best” presents or acquire the “best” gifts she wants to spend time with family and friends. What better way to celebrate the Nativity than to be with those you love remembering the love that is Christ’s self-emptying of Himself, through the Incarnation, and the salvation and healing he offers.
Come Lord Jesus, Save and Redeem us!