The Life of the World Revisited: Christmas–Not Material Enough

By Andreea Bălan

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.

~ Søren Kierkegaard

            Black Friday sales this year set a new record in terms of the monetary revenue generated by consumers. Shoppers spent over $52 billion over the weekend, up 16% from 2010.[1] More than 225 million people spent their dollars in stores or online, shelling out an average close to $400 each.[2] This spending fervor by no means indicates a healthy economy or results in optimistic predictions about the overall sales for the Christmas season. As Ms. Dickler, writing for CNN Money, quotes a consulting firm analyst, “It’s clearly a great start to the season but we still have five weeks until Christmas.”[3] The shocking behavior of those Americans who venture out on Black Friday to shop their hearts out only makes for interesting news — at the end of the day, the wherewithal is what interests corporations, and not the bizarre deportment of their customers. It comes as no surprise that, in this climate, religious leaders warn their flocks about consumerism and its pitfalls for the human spirit — creating in the process, ironically, a market for such ideas that comes complete with its own shelf in bookstores across the nation. However revolting, though, consumerism is not the illness of the human spirit. At its root, it is only a symptom of the disease afflicting all of us, namely idolatry, in Biblical parlance. Moreover, consumerism is incompatible with the Scriptures not because it centers on the material, as opposed to the spiritual, but precisely because it does not center on the material enough, in much the same way that pornography is not wicked because it is erotic but because it is not erotic enough — explicitness and eroticism have almost nothing in common. By ignoring creation’s inherent relational aspect, consumerism transforms matter into an instrument of self-destruction and a vehicle of tyranny over every living being. The Incarnation of Christ[4] offers a different perspective, pointing out that matter can be understood only when is it seen as existing in relation to the mystery of God, and not as an end in itself.

Black Friday

From the time of the prophets, the Hebrews became accustomed to hearing polemics against idolatry. That Israel was supposed to be faithful to Yahweh alone was a surprise to no one, since the first commandment that was revealed to Moses pertained to this, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). What was surprising about the prophetic tradition was the extent to which Isaiah and the rest accuse the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of violating the covenantal relationship with Yahweh — even prompting Ezekiel, for example, to rewrite his people’s history as a long string of idolatrous events and decisions on their part, something that sharply contradicts earlier descriptions of the Exodus event and the subsequent wilderness wanderings (Ezekiel 20). The same prophet’s magnificent vision of God’s chariot-throne testifies to God’s mobility and stands as a warning against his fellow Jews who believed that God was tied to his temple and would never demolish it. The people’s desecration of God’s holy place acts as the catalyst for Yahweh’s eventually leaving his temple (Ezekiel 10). Ezekiel’s message is clear: idolatry is heinous in the eyes of God.

Are we so different than the Hebrews?

Paul, as an heir to this tradition, is firmly anchored in it when he argues that the world is enslaved to sin (Romans 1). What Paul means by sin is precisely idolatry as defined by the prophets, a willful turning away from the Creator of all and a worshiping of the creature instead (Romans 1:25). Put differently, idolatry is a misuse of our freedom that stems from fear and that we direct at constructing a world in which the “I” can become self-sufficient.[5] Fear of annihilation, the fear that if I lose my self I will die, a fear that springs from the awareness that I am powerless and contingent (i.e., God, not I, is the source of my being), plagues all humans, who feverishly turn to possessions as a way of securing their existence. This instinct to acquire and possess “things” motivates us to do just that, which in turn gives rise to the illusion that we have become completely independent of God, that we have found the means to live without our real wellspring of life. In order to maintain the world that we have thus constructed we must continuously procure things, or else we stand in danger of having our world shattered into pieces. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes,

The objects of our worship require our constant attention if they are to remain gods, because they have no necessity of their own. The essential sign of the idolatrous spirit, therefore, is compulsion, which is simply a clinical term for enslavement. I must maintain this project, for it will collapse if I do not. Yet this is the project I pretend gives me my life! Idolatry begins in fear and ends in compulsion.[6]

It is easy to imagine how this instinct to acquire takes over our lives, since, among other things, maintaining a world built on sand instead of rock takes a tremendous amount of effort. Like all the false gods that we build for ourselves, it enslaves us and tyrannizes us with its never-ending need for constant attention, which ironically only exacerbates our fears that this brave new world will one day come tumbling down. Idolatry comes in a variety of shapes and sizes (some of which are boringly predictable). Consumerism is one such aspect, displaying, arguably, the most clearly the compulsion of idolatry with its frantic thirst for possessions, a habit that becomes hard to control.

The movie Inception will perhaps serve to make this concept clearer. Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his partner Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, have found an innovative way of performing espionage. By stealthily infiltrating the subconscious minds of their subjects, using a dream-within-a-dream technique, they manage to extract valuable information without their targets’ knowing. Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) approaches Cobb and his crew about doing spying-in-reverse, i.e., planting an idea on an unsuspecting mind, which comes to be known as inception. The mission is dangerous, since, depending on the dreamer’s defenses, it could entail penetrating deeper than the usual one or two layers of the subconscious, possibly even reaching a place known as Limbo, where one becomes easily lost and unable to find the way back to reality. What is interesting for our analogy here is precisely this Limbo, unique because one can build a world to one’s own liking where one can live forever undisturbed. This place is so powerful and attractive that it can be easily confused with reality itself, something that happens to Mal, Cobb’s wife. Having constructed a world of their own and lived there for years as a happily married couple, Mal becomes unable to tell the difference between this dream state and the real wakening state, refusing in the end to leave Limbo. This predicament forces Cobb to implant in her, during one of their shared dream explorations, the idea that her world is not real. The plan backfires, since Mal, now back to the real world, believes that this world is a dream and commits suicide in an attempt to return to Limbo (dreamers are awakened from their dream either by a shock or by dying in the dream).

Don't get incepted!

Limbo shares many similarities to the world in which idolatry constrains us to live. It is a considerably appealing world to us, since in it we become like God, creating the structures and limits of our surroundings. It is a dangerous existence, however, because it is built on a false premise, namely that we are in control of our destiny, of creation, and of those around us. In Limbo, we literally build castles in the air, but such a task proves intoxicating, since it gives the illusion that we have the ultimate power over what transpires. The enslavement that occurs is clear: we are no longer able to tell the truth from a lie, to distinguish between reality and a dream. In Paul’s words, we become futile in our thinking and our senseless minds become darkened (Romans 1:21) — which best describes the state that idolatry brings about. Limbo is so enthralling that it becomes difficult to leave it, some opting for death rather than being disabused of the powerful delusions that hold them in their sway.

Consumerism, much like Limbo, engenders a small, but vicious world. When I stand at the center of the universe, I no longer see myself in relation to creation, but only perceive how it can serve me and my needs. Furthermore, what my needs are also becomes distorted. Consumerism tends to exaggerate or downplay our physical demands, ruling with an iron fist over the body. The most readily abused of all material goods is food, so easily observable in the United States, where the rate of childhood obesity is on the rise and where one in every three adults suffers from this disease.[7] At the other side of the spectrum we find eating disorders, which are part and parcel of the despotism of consumerism over the body. Disquieting stories about either extremity abound in the media, one of which belongs to the Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos who died in 2006 of heart failure due to a steady diet of lettuce and diet Coke for three months prior to her passing. No matter what expression it may take (e.g., food deprivation or an insatiable appetite, a couch potato or a gym addict), it is clear that consumerism is a constant onslaught on our body. It does little to satisfy its needs, but takes on its natural appetites and warps them, either by amplifying or diminishing them, in an attempt to quench unsuccessfully the idolatrous impulse that stems from our own misuse of God’s gift of freedom, which destroys, in many cases, the body.

The current ecological crisis best embodies the tyranny of consumerism over the world. If the I is at the point around which everything revolves, then creation is understood only in its relation to the same I. The world, grasped in this way, becomes simply a warehouse of “stuff” that I can use at my convenience and for my pleasure. Regardless of whether one accepts the scientific data corroborating the theory of global warming or not (and, oddly, in the U.S. this issue is still hotly debated), we can at least agree that our planet cannot sustain another economy like that of the United States since its resources are not infinite.[8] Such an abuse of Earth’s raw materials stems from a twisted perception of creation and our place in it. As Rowan Williams writes,

The world is not simply what we can manage and use for ourselves; there are unfathomable dimensions to it, hidden realities, hidden connections (or connections that we discover only too late, like the effect of carbon consumption on the atmosphere). Things in the universe exist in relation to the Creator before they exist in relation to us, so that a degree of reverence and humility is appropriate when we approach anything in the created order.[9]

The created order does not exist in order to fulfill my desires — it exists because of God’s love. Genesis confronts us with the truth about our role in God’s world: we are to tend and keep the garden, not misuse it for our own purposes. The present-day catastrophe bears the stamp of our idolatry, “for the creation was subjected in futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it” (Romans 8:20). Instead of maintaining the Garden of Eden, we have managed, recklessly, to transform it into the Eden Depot.

Coming Soon to Paradise!

Even though consumerism is a disease of the spirit — the evil husbandry of the mind over matter — the emphasis in religious circles, perhaps in an attempt to bring some balance to the scales, seems to be that Christians need to emphasize the supremacy of the spirit over matter. Such a position emphatically disagrees with the Scriptures, which teach us that we are not called to leave the material world behind us, in quest of a disembodied existence that would allow us to become “spiritual” beings. We are to become more incarnational, and not more spiritual. If we claim to believe that Jesus is the Word become flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14), then we cannot justify the position that espouses the belief in the sovereignty of the spiritual over the material. The incarnation of Christ emphasizes the centrality of matter in Abba’s plan for the salvation of his people, which salvation encompasses the entirety of the created world (Romans 8:19-22). John of Damascus uses a similar argument in his writings in the defense of icons.

I do not venerate matter; I worship the fashioner of matter who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. … Is not the body and blood of my Lord matter? Do not abuse matter; for it is not dishonorable.[10]

What St. John teaches us is that salvation occurs through matter, but that matter is good only when seen in relationship with Abba the creator. Such a mindset guards against the idolatrous impulse that compels us to use creation in order to satisfy a hunger that is unable to be satiated.

We live in a world that trains us to shop frenziedly for possessions with a burning passion regardless of the consequences that such consumption invariably brings about. Consumerism, a disease of the spirit, not only has disastrous consequences for our environment and ourselves, but is also in part responsible for the popularity of the heresy that underscores the spirit at the expense of matter (or at least its continued existence). The Scriptures do no exhort us to escape the world, but always plunge us back into the physicality of life, allowing us to work with matter in a way that bears witness to Christ. As priests of creation, our task is to gather the whole world in us, transform it, and offer it back to God in thanksgiving, just as we offer bread and wine (formerly wheat and grapes) at the altar table where they become the body and blood of the Lord.


[1] Jessica Dickler, “Record Black Friday Sales? Don’t Get Too Excited,” CNN Money (November 29, 2011). December 9, 2011 <http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/29/pf/holiday_sales/index.htm>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Incarnation cannot be understood as a separate event from the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. As Behr puts it succinctly, “[T]he Incarnation of the Word is not located in the birth of Jesus from Mary as a distinct event from the Passion and exaltation. In some ways, such a position results from assuming the shorthand formulae as ‘dogmatic facts,’ and then conflating John 1:14, which does not speak of a birth, with the infancy narratives, which do not speak of an incarnation of a heavenly, previously existing being. … to describe this event as ‘the Incarnation of the Word’ can only be done by reflecting on Christ in the light of the cross through the medium of Scripture.” John Behr, “The Paschal Foundation of Christian Theology,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 45:2 (2001): 129.

[5] This line of thinking, and most of the rest of the paragraph, is indebted to Luke Timothy Johnson. See especially, Faith’s Freedom: A Classis Spirituality for Contemporary Christians (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1990).

[6] Johnson, Faith’s Freedom, 61-62.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Overweight and Obesity Page. December 5, 2011 <http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html>.

[8] For an interesting article on this issue, see Chandran Nair, “Can the Planet Support More Americas?,” The New York Times (June 6, 2011). December 5, 2011 <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/opinion/07iht-ednair07.html>.

[9] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 49-50.

[10] St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, Andrew Louth, tr. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 29-30.

One thought on “The Life of the World Revisited: Christmas–Not Material Enough

  1. Missy

    I really enjoyed this article – much food for thought and as a former Evangelical, “anti-materialist” I found it quite enlightening. Thank you for writing it. And have a merry, materially-correct Christmas!

    Reply

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