Brueggemann on money and possessions

The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi

money-and-possessionsSo begins Walter Brueggemann in his new book Money and Possessions.

The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.

Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?

He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.

I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:

The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.

It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.

The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.

God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.

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You are what you love 2 (or how to develop your love life)

9781587433801Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’

If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’

He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.

And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.

In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.

He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.

How?

Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.

So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.

So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.

(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).

shopping-mall

Interior of İstinye Park shopping center in the İstinye quarter of Istanbul, Turkey with 291 stores, 85,250 sqm of retail area, and four levels of underground parking. Sep 8, 2012.

Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?

  • It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
  • It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
  • Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
    • familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
    • large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
    • High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
    • You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
    • The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
    • The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
    • Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
    • This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
    • Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
    • The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings

“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).

We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.

And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals

  • A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
  • Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.

So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?

[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.

Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.

2. I shop with others.

While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.

3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.

The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.

None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon.  Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.

Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:

We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.

To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :

  • Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
  • What are the things that do something to you?

What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?

What story if embedded in those cultural practices?

What kind of person do they want you to become?

To what kingdom are they orientated?

What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?

And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.

 Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?

Brandscapes

Here’s an excellent article on architecture, consumerism and branding (OK I’m a bit biased given the author) in Architecture Ireland, the Journal of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland

consuming-the-city

Consuming the physical environment © Ciara Mitchel

This blog has been known to talk about consumerism now and then ..

What’s fascinating about this piece is how it opens up how architecture is evolving in relationship to contemporary consumerism in the development of ‘brandscapes’

The impact of the market on the built environment is ubiquitous – so much so we do not even notice how pervasively the physical landscape is shaped by corporate identities. To a point where streets become ‘managed experiences’ and ‘brands’ to market the city …

The book listed in the article by Anna Klingmann is a creative and compelling read:

(2007) Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, Cambridge: The MIT Press.

 

Refusing to worship the cult of the body

I’m teaching a course on faith and contemporary culture at the moment. We focus in on the values, beliefs and narrative of consumerism as a case study. By definition consumerism is never satisfied – the (temporary) answer is always more .. and more.

A couple of weeks ago in class we talked about the relationship of consumerism with the body. Here’s Werner G Jeanrond on this theme in an unjustly little known book I’ve just started reading called A Theology of Love.

Fasting, painful sporting activities, beauty operations, all sorts of medicines and remedies are recommended in order to reach a higher level of control over the body. A new and perfect body is longed for – a kind of secular object of salvation. The desire for the perfect body seems to have replaced the desire for the perfect soul in many quarters of Western society. This fight against the present and imperfect body and for the new and perfect body can, of course, never end. Asceticism, once the hallmark of religious aspirations, has made a comeback in the secular cult of the body. This cult of the body has seemingly reached eschatological proportions. Moreover, this desire for perfect bodies has become an inexhaustible source of wealth generation for those market forces that have offered their mediating remedies to meet this desire, fully conscious of the fact that this desire can never be stilled. Love cannot be made through the production of perfect bodies.

The tasks of a contemporary theology of love, therefore, ought to include the demythologization of the ongoing cult of the body and the reconstruction of possibilities for Christian respect and care for the body. (12)

As someone without a perfect body, I say AMEN!

The destructive goal of the cult of the body is the creation of feelings of dissatisfaction and envy. The motive is money. The promise is love and acceptance by self and others. The effect is destructive of self-esteem and erosion of identity. Its target is particularly women, but has increasingly moved on to men (in order to broaden the market).

Such is the saturation of our imaginative and cognitive space by consumer messages about the body, that we don’t, I think, in the church talk, preach, teach and reflect on the corrosive impact of the cult of the body. Assumptions that ‘our’ culture is somehow ‘neutral’, ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ are naive at best. For culture continually ‘forms’ and ‘shapes’ us. It acts, as James K A Smith would say, as a ‘secular liturgy’ that trains our hearts and loves.

We, I think, need active ‘reconstruction’ of a Christian theology of the body. John Paul II’s ‘Theology of the Body‘ represents a major serious Catholic response to the body in contemporary culture but I doubt that too many Protestants and evangelicals are aware of it.  An authentic Christian theology of the body will liberate people from the relentless demands of the secular cult of the body. It speaks of a radically different story and identity. I’ll come back to this in another post – this one is already getting long

The idealised image of the perfect body is telling us what the good life literally looks like. It is telling us (well me anyway – don’t know about you!) that I am not perfect. I don’t measure up. Something is wrong, broken, lacking. But the optimistic good news is that it can be fixed! Happiness and love can be mine. Implicit in this contract is that the key to salvation lies with me – to spend money on the right products or procedures, and/or to pummel my body into shape through diet and exercise.

This is a secular ‘gospel’ of sin and redemption.

Put like this is seems a pretty silly, thin and unconvincing sort of ‘gospel’ doesn’t it? I mean who really believes that shopping and/or exercise or a perfect body is the key to a happy life? But this objection fails to appreciate how consumerism works ‘below the surface’ – at the level of unspoken images, emotions, feelings and dreams. Described rationally it looks silly and superficial. But it is anything but – it is the driving force of Western culture worth mega-billions.

Why? What is so powerful about consumer images (like that of the perfect body)?

And this leads to one place where I disagree with Jeanrond’s language (and it’s not characteristic of the book). He talks about the desire for a perfect body replacing the desire for a perfect soul. But Christianity does not hope for a perfected soul. It hopes for a perfected resurrection body.

What consumerism ‘get’s in a way that some dualistic and overly rationalistic forms of Christianity do not, is that we are embodied creatures. We think, but we also feel, imagine, touch, and dream as we engage with the physical world in which we live. Smith again: we are ‘lovers’ and ‘worshippers’ who explore our way through

“an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation … we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways we don’t often (and can’t) articulate.” (51)

This is why pictures tend to be more powerful than words – try talking to someone who is watching TV or playing a game on a tablet. Images and pictures get into our hearts more easily and immediately than propositions and words. Images of the perfect body, for example, are designed to awaken our desire – not just sexual though that is certainly part of it – but desire for an attractive vision of an alternative life to one we currently have.

So the power or ‘genius’ of contemporary consumerism is that it instinctively understands human nature. We are holistic, not dualistic, creatures; we all desire some sort of kingdom; we all worship something; our lives are shaped by our loves. Smith puts it like this

I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church … they rightly understand that we are erotic creatures – creatures who are orientated primarily by love and passion and desire … meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being. These are certainly part of being human, but I think they come second to embodied desire. And because of this, the church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target: it’s as if the church is pouring water on the head to put out a fire in our heart. (76-77)

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

Ireland will vote on same-sex marriage in a referendum in May.

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Bell’s excellent The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012).

What have these two rather random things to do with each other? Well, while Bell’s analysis of capitalism isn’t focused on sex, reading him with the upcoming referendum in mind opens up what I think is an often overlooked angle on how we think about sex and sexuality. Namely: how deeply and profoundly contemporary our attitudes are shaped by the beliefs and values of free-market capitalism.

Some of these unacknowledged assumptions are rising to the surface in the same-sex marriage debate. Assumptions shaped by the ubiquitous, pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of capitalism in our culture. Since it’s the air we breathe, we don’t notice it. It’s such a natural and assumed part of everyday life that it just ‘is’.

The purpose of this post is to suggest, and invite discussion on the idea, that the culture in which we live is deeply shaped by a capitalist and consumerist view of human relationships. More specifically, it is to suggest that the reason that the same-sex argument for equality of treatment of gay couples with heterosexual couples is so ‘obvious’ and powerful (and unstoppable) is because if fits perfectly into the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary capitalism.

Just to be clear – this post is making no comment at all on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage. That’s another topic entirely. These are musings on why the same-sex marriage argument is going to win the referendum.

Nor am I proposing that it is ‘only’ proponents of same-sex marriage (or sexual equality and freedom in general) who are shaped by the beliefs, assumptions and values of capitalism and consumerism – just take a look at the disintegration of traditional marriage in Irish and many western societies (and Christians are far from exempt).

So, to Daniel Bell. He sketches various characteristics of what he calls ‘HOMO ECONOMICUS’: an anthropology shaped and moulded by capitalism. I’m loosely linking to just some of his ideas.

  1. The Individual

The freedom of the individual will benefit society. Limits on the expression of individualism will harm society in terms of freedom and prosperity. Individual autonomy comes before any form of collectivist control (state or religious).

This means that there is little expectation or vision for what society ought to be. Indeed, there is no ‘ought’ in capitalism apart from the market being free.

In terms of human identity, each one of us becomes our ‘own’ manager: creators of our own ‘brand’. We alone are owners of ourselves: our bodies; our possessions; our lives. We are free to dispose of and do with them as we wish. No-one has a right to tell us otherwise.

At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying this

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation

In his day, nationalism was the unquestioned good shaping the direction of Ireland. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say

No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.

To question unfettered individualism is a very modern heresy.

Links to current debates about sex and sexuality are not hard to see. The 1937 Irish Constitution was written in a different world: a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. Some arguments opposing same-sex marriage are functioning from (or wishing we could go back to) that framework. Some argue that the big issue is what form of marriage is best for children. But such is the unquestioned good of individualism within capitalism such arguments will gain little or no traction.

For it’s the unfettered imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial power of the free individual that drives capitalism. In terms of sexual identity the individual must be allowed and encouraged to pursue his or her own authentic identity – whatever form it takes: bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or queer or ….

  1. Freedom for freedom’s sake

It’s important to understand capitalist freedom. It is freedom for freedom’s sake. What matters is that the individual is free to choose. What the individual chooses is virtually irrelevant because capitalism has no logical internal ethic or moral core. It has no teleology – no ultimate goal or end result in sight. It is freedom from restriction of choice rather than freedom for something in particular.

So, when capitalist freedom is applied to sexual ethics, it is obvious that the individual should have a right to choose whatever sexual identity and practice they wish. Human dignity derives from the individual’s right to choose. To deny such freedom is to deny human dignity and identity. Free choice is a virtue to be defended.

Opponents of same-sex marriage (and various other restrictions on freedom of sexual expression) are therefore not defenders of morality but deniers of virtue.

  1. Self Interest

Bell uses the term ‘interest maximizer’ but this really means self-interest. Let me clarify here – I’m not proposing that somehow all proponents of sexual freedom for the individual are motivated by selfishness. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is self-interest that is a vital factor that drives the success of capitalism.

For example, Adam Smith saw human life as being shaped by self-interest and this to him was a very good thing. It is the way the world works. Self interest drives the market: it is a powerful source of reform, renewal, market efficiency, creativity and liberty.

Apply capitalist thinking to sexual ethics and you end up with no particular moral or ethical boundaries to sexual relationships. If two (or more – there is no logical boundary to formalising polyamorous relationships) people enter into freely chosen behaviours that are in their mutual self-interest, this is what the market allows and should not be restricted but rather facilitated.

Therefore, those that would put boundaries on the individual right to pursue their own self-interest are seeking to control freely chosen acts of autonomous individuals and should be resisted.

  1. An invisible God

A final characteristic of capitalism is the irrelevance of God and / or religious belief. The ‘god’ of the free market is invisible and impersonal; a hand of providence that ensures that the individual pursuit of self-interest ends up (supposedly) benefitting the whole. The system does not need God, or any form of particularly Christian ethics to function. It believes that most good is done when most individuals pursue maximal gain.

Again, apply this to modern debates about sexual ethics and it becomes apparent that this sort of capitalist thinking well describes the zeitgeist. Religious beliefs should be kept invisible; they have no place in the public square. They are actually a hindrance to the wider good. Most good is done when most individuals have the free choice to live as they please. No particular ethical or moral framework should be allowed to dictate to free individuals. God, if he exists, is in the far background out of sight and mind.

Individualism

Freedom

The virtue of self-interest

 An invisible God (no particular moral or ethical framework)

These are powerful forces in western contemporary culture that when combined provide a formidable cultural wave that will wash opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage aside.

What do you think? How does this description make you feel?

If capitalism reinforces and affirms individual freedom and sexual identity above all, what are the implications for Christians living in such a culture?

Do you agree that much conservative and Christian opposition to liberalising law around sexual ethics tends to concentrate on the symptoms and not the cause? In other words, conservative and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage tends to ignore how capitalism has reformed and deformed human relationships. Neither does it tend to be self-critical of how Christian practice of marriage and sexuality has also been debased by capitalist consumerism.  This is because capitalism is either seen as a good thing or it is such a ‘natural’ everyday presence that it is not even noticed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Christian Consumer: eschatology

In this final chapter of The Christian Consumer Laura Hartman turns her attention to how God’s ultimate purpose for the created world can shape consumption in the here and now.

Two Christian practices embody eschatological hope Sabbath keeping and Eucharist.

Sabbath

In the discussion she brings in Marva Dawn (who we had the privilege of hosting during an IBI Summer Institute some years ago – a wonderful theologian and godly woman of faith). She talks about the Sabbath as a ‘weekly eschatological party’ that anticipates ‘the future, eternal consummation of Joy.’ Sabbath keeping can lead to new habits of consumption.

– humility to put human agendas and frantic economic activity in their proper place. Rest from the gods of commerce.

– trusting in God’s provision and resisting the idolatry inherent in our consumption. For Dawn this works out as a simple daily lifestyle of lessened consumption, with a sense of celebration on the Sabbath. A rejoicing in community.

– For other Christians, Sabbath keeping is tied to justice as we imagine a better world. Jesus and doing good on the Sabbath comes to mind here. Hartman quotes Catholic, Lutheran and others in Sabbath keeping as far more than personal rest and renewal, but as a template or vision of social justice.

Eucharist

Eucharist for many Christians is associated with fasting and simplicity – the ‘meal’ itself is minimal, full of spiritual significance rather than an abundance of food. Yet it is also a feast, associated with the agape meals of the first Christians. Joy, hope and meaning come through participation in minimal physical consumption. A ‘savoured consumption’ or ‘sensuous asceticism’.

This is a sacrament God’s grace by which believers are united in Christ. It is backward looking to Christ’s death, but it also looks forward to Christ’s return and ‘a glimpse of a redeemed world’.

It offers a present experience of a future reality – a healed world of equality and peace in the presence of Christ. Hartman suggests, rightly I think, that this most fundamental Christian activity has profound implications for the way we consume:

– sharing food together

– a community equality, recipients of God’s bounteous grace

– deeper spiritual truth and hope beyond the mere material here and now

– Christ-like lives of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the service of others

– consumption that enriches and blesses rather than consumption which enslaves and destroys

Hartman has looked at four lenses of consumption from a Christian perspective

1. Avoiding Sin

2. To Embrace Creation

3. Love of neighbour

4. To Envision the Future

She concludes the book that at the heart of consumerism is a distorted view of human nature that sells the lie that we are what we own [192]. A Christian view of consumption offers a different anthropology.

– we are prone to sin but are called to renounce it

– we can delight in creation

– we are neighbours who are called to love others

– we are citizens of the new creation who are called to align our lives with the kingdom of God.

This is a right and constructive theological response. Hartman is reminding us that (as in all things of course!) we need to think theologically about the world around us. There are no simple solutions to hyper-consumerism, but Christians are called to a way of wisdom and discernment framed by the richness and depth of Christian revelation and tradition.

As she says, we do not face this challenge empty-handed.

We can consume both Christianly and well. [193]

The Christian Consumer: love of neighbour

A third Christian perspective on consumerism unpacked by Laura Hartman is to love thy neighbour. She focuses on the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day in NY city in the 1930s as an example. [What a character and story!)

If God commands us to love one another as he loves us, then this will show in our consumption choices. Hartman uses a sixfold framework of proximity:

This could get a long post, so here’s a snapshot. If love is a ‘committment of the will to the good of another’, Christian love is framed by God’s sacrificial love  of even his enemies.

How then can you and I love those who touch our lives, and who are impacted by ours?

Hartman’s categories are useful for making us think about ‘consumption’ – we need to define what sort of consumption we are talking about.

1. SELF LOVE:-  – means caring for the self. What that means is slippery. A Dorothy Day who lived frugally cared for herself through eating and living modestly. Yet for most Westerners, such a simple life of voluntary poverty would be close to self-abuse. We Christians live lives of remarkable luxury. We over-consume food in a self-destructive way. I doubt that there is much difference in obesity stats for Christians and the wider (expanding Western population. When does self-love become selfishness?

2. LOVE OF CLOSE-OTHERS: – we consume things all the time in order to bless others. What is buying a present but other-centred consumption? (Yes, motives can be mixed but you get the point). Most parents consume for the benefit of their children, often putting their own needs last. Inviting friends round to dinner to consume lovingly prepared food is other-centred consumption. This is a life of generosity and giving.

3. LOVE OF SOMEWHAT DISTANT OTHERS: – the people you and I meet occasionally and can have some sort of relationship with. Perhaps the Good Samaritan and the guy on the road – their paths literally cross (well as literally as you get in a parable. In the context of consumption, Hartman connects this to love in the marketplace.

She quotes Luther here railing against unjust sellers. He links injustice and greed with lack of love of neighbour. The seller’s main concern should be “directed more toward doing him [customer] no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself”

Imagine such neighbour love being practiced by Irish banks ? Imagine the implications for capitalism if practiced with some sense of relational responsibility to each other? Imagine buyers not taking advantage of desperate sellers to sell as unsustainable prices?

Hartman has a discussion of neighbour-love in economics via feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner and Japanese evangelist Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960). To be loved and blessed by God is to share that blessing outwardly and generously with others. Such other-focused love leads to formation of community: co-operatives; businesses owned by the workers and consumers for mutual benefit, not for the powerful few.

Tanner counters capitalism’s innate privatization and individualism. A ‘common possession right’, while each person has a right to a share of God’s gifts, means that private property is relativised. A communal identity transcends the hermetically sealed ‘self’ that has little need of others or of neighbours. This is an attempt to re-envision the marketplace in terms of mutually beneficial relationships. A call to fair wages and fair pricing.

4. LOVE OF PLACE. For Hartman this is love of the ecosystem, primarily local. Love of the local, buying local, looking after the local ecosystem, walking the area etc. This section didn’t hang together for me.

5 LOVE OF FARAWAY OTHERS: This is where global capitalism promotes anonymous goods in our supermarkets and shops. They ‘just are’; sitting there without context or any sense of where they came from or who made them or how they got here.

This is where it gets tough to make informed decisions. How do you love people you have never met and know nothing about? How can me deciding to consume less chocolate (for example) actually help the poor? It might help my waistline and wallet more immediately!

John Schneider’s response is not to worry about it. We can’t change the world, we are only responsible for what we can impact. Even trying to consume locally is impossible given globalisation. Otherwise we are overwhelmed by things we can do nothing about. This is pragmatic boundary drawing.

Schneider does have a point. It is very hard to figure out practical steps that don’t seem like mere tokenism when it comes to love of far away others. Yes, we buy only Fairtrade. Yes, we can say that there needs to be a massive readjustment of living standards in the West if the global majority are to share equitably in God’s creation consistent with their human dignity and environmental sustainability. But such abstract goals remain nice ideas.

But Schneider’s myopia is also all too conveniently self-serving. It asks no questions of Christians as to who is their neighbour. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan asks each of us what sort of neighbour are we? How does our consumption impact others?  Hartman talks of the will to love, regardless of how ‘successful’ such love may be.

She advocates virtue ethics of moderate consumption, temperance, prudence, and generosity. Love being the highest virtue of all.

6. LOVE OF GOD.  Loving God means loving what God loves – justice, the poor, the world he made. The loves described above are, Hartman argues, ways of loving God.

How does our consumption reflect love of God? Love of his creation? Love of those made in his image? Love of justice?

Loving others means a desire to transform the world and its economic systems.Visions of justice and love are framed by an ultimate eschatological vision of a re-made world when all will be made right. And it is eschatology that forms the focus of Hartman’s fourth and final Christian perspective on consumption.

Comments. as ever, welcome.

Some thoughts (and questions) on pleasure

Corinth

Ancient Corinth

We’re just back from a family holiday – and very enjoyable it was too. Not only the company, but also doing a bit of following Paul around in Corinth and Athens and other historical stuff – rather a lot of it lying around Greece.

To the words ‘enjoyable’ and ‘holiday’, I guess you could add others like ‘pleasure’ and ‘fun’ and ‘craic’ and ‘play’ etc.

Life is full to bursting with pleasures is it not? Each of us has our particular sources of pleasure. We are embodied creatures, each sense attuned to the physical world and able to connect with the joy and beauty of that world.

What are some pleasures that you enjoy from the physical creation ? Here are some of mine:

– a hug from a loved one

– the smell of the hot earth after long-awaited rainfall

– jumping into a crystal-clear azure sea

– splitting the fairway with a drive when you need a good one [golf obviously being the highest and purest form of enjoyment known to humankind]

– sharing a good red wine with friends over a meal

– tucking into a big plate of Linsen mit Spätzle made to a secret German recipe (it’s a lot nicer than it looks, honest!)

– hiking to the top of a mountain on a clear Irish summer’s day and drinking in the view

– singing along with your daughter trying to remember all the words of Dylan’s Desolation Row

– getting engrossed in a great story whether film, TV or book

– finishing a piece of writing that hangs together

And so the list could go on and on …..

And yet, if asceticism is an intrinsic Christian response to the material world, does not all talk of pleasure for Christians have a double-edged feel? To abandon ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure is to love the world and what it gives me. It is a form of selfish indulgence that also ignores vast inequalities and injustices.

Holidays are for the rich who have the luxury of planning their lives and the funds to travel to places that they are welcomed. Golf, wine, good food, hobbies, sport, books, computers and leisure in general are unimaginable luxuries to much of the world’s population.

So a Christian ascetic will tend to reject the frivolity and self-indulgence of enjoying the pleasures the material world offers. If you, like me, only have a little streak of asceticism, maybe it manifests itself in a vague sense of guilt after taking a holiday? All that time (and money) just to relax and enjoy ourselves? (help me out here if you can!)

But it’s here that other Christians say ‘NO!’ to such guilt. God has created this ‘very good’ world. He has given us senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. To reject pleasure is to reject the goodness of the creator and the life he offers.

Taste and see that the Lord is good! (Ps 34)

Good consumption enjoys the blessings of God’s creation; it is grateful, celebrating the created world around us and the rich diversity of experience it offers. We need to consume to live and God calls us to fruitful and full life. God is the ultimate hedonist who created pleasure.

Is such a tension simply contradictory? How can asceticism and enjoyment of God-given creation co-exist?  Do you feel a pull from one to the other, enjoying a feast at a good restaurant one day yet uneasy at the extravagance looking at the bill the next?  What counts as greedy self-indulgence and what is ‘good consumption’? How the heck can such questions be negotiated without falling into petty legalism on the one hand and thoughtless pursuit of selfish pleasure on the other hand?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[All this btw is to seamlessly set up Laura Hartman’s next chapter of The Christian Consumer on embracing creation.]

The Christian Consumer (3) ‘To Avoid Sin’

Laura Hartman identifies 4 Christian responses to the challenge of consumerism and then unpacks each in detail. She wants to draw on Christian tradition to develop a wise response to contemporary consumerism.

This approach is helpful – it captures how complex the challenge of consumerism is. There is no one obvious ‘Christian response’ but there is depth and riches in the Christian faith by which to think about and engage with consumerism.

Here’s the first one:

1) ‘To Avoid Sin’

This is renunciation of consumption: a call to counter-cultural living as a route to holiness and virtue. Over-consumption is both physically and spiritually damaging.

This is a form of resistance to consumerism that takes the form of frugality, asceticism, self-denial, simplicity, avoidance of complicity in the sin of unneccessary consumption.

Being spiritual is to avoid getting sucked up the desires of the world.

This response has a rather long pedigree since it begins with Jesus and his call to pursue the kingdom of God before material needs.

Hartman takes three representative voices from Church History:

Francis of Assisi (no intro needed): a radical life committed to prayer, preaching and poverty. He ate little, fasted regularly and wore simple clothing.  This ‘avoidance of sin’ was controversial then and even more so after his death.

Francis’ asceticism was a path to holy non-attachment – an act of resistance against the pull of the material world. He is reputed to have said that if he took more than he needed, he would be robbing from the poor.

John Woolman (1720-72, Quaker Abolitionist, who urged avoidance in complicity in the slave trade. For example he refused to use silver, sugar and molasses due to their inextricable link to slavery. (All new to me, sounds like a fascinating character.)

If Francis pursued poverty as an ideal, Woolman sought simplicity. This is far more than a ‘simple lifestyle’ that yet still fits comfortably in the prevailing culture, for the Quakers it was plainness in dress and active detachment from possessions. Woolman resisted luxury since it contradicted God’s will. Luxury is a fruit of evil – it results from overuse of God’s resources (including slaves). Like Francis (and Sider), accumulation of luxury is at the expense of the poor and is sinful.

Ron Sider of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger among many other things. His clarion call has been for rich (Western) Christians to simplify their lives in order to better help the poor.

Sider’s prophetic style ministry has been designed to shock Christians complicit in a consumer culture into confronting global poverty. If they really believed the Bible they would divest themselves of affluence and develop a passion for justice.  It is evangelicals, who claim to believe the Bible, who are ‘liberals’ when it comes to interpreting what it says on wealth. His call is one to repentance.

Beyond individual responsibility, Sider argues that those who have benefitted from affluence while knowing it is built on systemic injustices and yet do nothing are guilty of sin against God and neighbour.

Sider’s way to be free of sin (or complicity in sin) is for individuals to practice a graduated tithe based on the bare minimum to live on ($30,000 income = $6,300 tithe based on an early chart in 1997).

His point is what should Christians measure their lifestyle on? Rather than taking their base against the norm of a capitalist consumer culture they should begin in comparison to the world’s poor.

Hartman sums up this ascetic tradition well: saying NO to your own desires is saying YES to something better. At its best it is a vision of human flourishing (rather than a negative denial of life).

The ‘avoidance of sin’ or ascetic tradition is not without its critics – but Hartman (rightly) contends it is essential to any truly Christian understanding of consumption.

Here’s my brief observation / question – the ascetic tradition, despite its long and honourable legacy, now seems to be so marginal in Western Christianity as to be almost invisible. It appears to have been swamped by hyper-consumerism and technology as to appear not merely old-fashioned but almost incomprehensible in the modern church …

Or am I missing something?

 

 

Christian Consumer (2) shopping as an ethical act

Laura Hartman contends that Christian ethical reflection (on consumerism) is not about defining whether particular types of consumption constitute low moral or social status, the real purpose is to discern what is right.

(I liked her example of cheap, low-cut jeans having low social status and low moral status!)

Moral questions around consumption relate to concrete questions around its physicality: its extraction, transportation, production and the environmental and social impact that follows.

She’s concerned about how buying, having or using the item may impact a person’s spiritual condition and his/her relationships with others.

Consumption ethics, is, at bottom, a species of stewardship ethics, asking questions such as: What does God intend for humans in their interactions with the material world? What is creation, and what are humans to do with it? How are humans to relate well to one another concerning the proper use of the material conditions of life? (15)

Coffee is a classic example that could apply to all consumption: at least 4 ethical realms come into play

i) The impact on the individual consumer – health & well-being. Coffee like most products has mixed attributes here. Overconsumption of most things leads to bad outcomes.

ii) Immediate social impact: coffee is consumed mostly in social settings (cafes, coffee shops, work etc). This gives work and income; it facilitates relationships, but regular consumption of over-priced drinks can mount up to significant strain on finances.

iii) Impact on others the consumer does not know and can barely imagine: regional managers of coffee shop chains; executives running large companies; marketeers etc. Consumer preference for Fair Trade coffee begins to impact the growers in getting better prices for their raw materials. Global demand for coffee can mean land-grabs and the ruthless expulsion of native indian communities (I added this last sentence see also this post by Daniel Kirk on ‘The Dark Side of Chocolate’).

iv) Impact on the non-human world: Hartman quotes a study that concludes that the unquenchable Western desire for coffee has had devastating  effects as vast tracts of rich bio-diverse rain forest are cleared for coffee plantations. Each stage of subsequent production from roasting, to packaging, to transportation all contribute to environmental impact.

Hartman’s purpose is simply to illustrate how all consumption is an ethical act on multiple levels.

Now, even to begin to think about our daily consumption in those terms is, I propose, a radical shift from our default Western assumption that all the stuff in the supermarket just ‘is’.

It is there for our convenience and need – always has been, always will be. We don’t begin to think about the people and processes by which it arrived on the shelf. The only thing we have to think about it is what to consume (depending on choice and money).  Ethics and morality belong in church, they don’t have anything much to do with shopping – except maybe for gross conspicious consumption of luxury goods or when ‘we’ are ‘ripped off’ in the prices we pay compared to somewhere else.

In other words, our thinking about consumption is generally self-centered and shallow. And it is very much in the interests of many major companies to keep it that way, especially around points iii) and iv).

So how to begin to ‘think Christianly’ about consumption without ending up in ‘paralysis by analysis’ every time you go shopping? Hartman begins to go there next.

Comments, as ever, welcome.