Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Way Out of the Cultural Cul de Sac

consumer

The Gospels for the daily mass the last two days (Mk: 10:17-31) have been particularly hard for those of us living in advanced Western society, especially the U.S.:

“How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” 

This message is not to condemn wealth, which is inherently neither good nor bad.  The message is to condemn a disordered attachment to wealth or material possessions which prevent us from a closer union with God.  This message of detachment from material possessions is a strong counter-cultural message in the United States, where the overwhelming message from mainstream media, advertising and culture that the acquisition of material items will increase our happiness.  This message was so pervasive that, despite growing up as a cradle Catholic, I was never fully exposed in an intellectual level to the Gospel counter-message until I read the late Fr. John F. Kavanaugh’s “Following Christ in a Consumer Society” during my undergraduate years.

Unfortunately, despite this exposure and the broader exposure to a tremendous Jesuit education, I bought into the libertarian consumer culture, with an Ayn Rand intellectual justification.  I blithely followed this individualistic path and had some superficial economic and status success.  The problem was that I found increasing angst as I tried to keep up with the cultural treadmill of “keeping up”.  Despite achieving most of my career and economic goals, I was increasingly unhappy.  This disconnect between how I “should” feel according to society and how I actually felt cause me to question more core beliefs and ultimately led to my “reconversion” to Christianity.  Later, I came to realize that this gap was the longing for God as expressed so eloquently by St. Augustine.

Following up on the Gospel readings of the last two days, the Irish Jesuit prayer site, Living Space, eloquently hits on the disconnect between the Gospel message and consumer culture, and the inner angst that I felt.

“This is a reality which, unfortunately, has not been realized among many Christians who live their daily lives in the rat race for acquisition characteristic of our modern capitalist societies and who believe that what they cannot get by their own efforts they will never come to enjoy.

* * * 

by and large, we have to a great extent failed to realize that Christianity is not meant to be a religion where individuals, rich and poor, live individualistic lives and carry out certain ‘religious’ acts to “save their own souls” but that it essentially consists of creating a whole new way by which people relate to each other in mutual love and care.”

I am still tempted by the consumer culture and I try to live the Ignatian way of being an active contemplative in the world, still having the same career that I had when I left school.  However, my mindset is entirely different; I am not doing it for my personal ambition or success, I am trying to be an agent for God in the world.  I often fail in my thoughts and my actions.  However, I try to bring myself back to God and the sense of radical detachment for material items by praying the beautiful Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, All I have and call my own. 

You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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6 Responses to Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Way Out of the Cultural Cul de Sac

  1. Your kicking butt my Brother. Keep the kick and protect your backside. I stand with you and say Amen and Amen.
    Rob

  2. Lynda says:

    This is so very true. Real Christianity “consists of creating a whole new way by which people relate to each other in mutual love and care.” I have found such Christians in my parish and beyond and am truly blessed by their example.

    • Lynda: I definitely agree with you. I am also blessed to find wonderful people in my parish and in the broader community that are outstanding role models that force me to step outside myself.

  3. Secular moral philosophers are in complete agreement with you on this one. Consumerism is a major problem not only because getting more stuff really doesn’t satisfy people beyond a certain point (usually once your basic needs are satisfied, increases in income don’t translate to increases in happiness) but also because the resources expended in the process of consumerism are resources that could better be spent alleviating extreme poverty in the world. Peter Singer’s excellent book The Life You Can Save (http://www.amazon.com/The-Life-You-Can-Save/dp/1400067103) is a great example of how Preference Utilitarianism demands that we give more money to charities such as Oxfam.

    • Patrick, thank you for the reference to Singer’s book. Although I do not agree with many Singer’s conclusions, I enjoy his clear thinking and his ability to recognize legitimate arguments of others. I recently read a fascinating book by Professor Charles Camosy of Fordham University (Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization) who looks at the similarities between Singer’s arguments and Christian arguments on similar issues. While the conclusions may differ, the logic is more similar than I would have envisioned.

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