Mo' Money, Mo' Problems: Faith in a Consumerist Society

By Metropolitan Jonah

Editor’s Note: This is a part of His Beatitude’s address to the American Enterprise Institute earlier this month. A video of the full talk, comments, and questions and answers is available here.

In becoming a monk, I’ve been given the blessing of taking a vow of poverty. This vow, which encompasses facets of non-possessiveness, spiritual detachment and charity, exists for no other reason than for the sake of helping one attain union with Jesus Christ. In evaluating myself in an attempt to perpetually live up to this vow, I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect on the manner in which my own culture has influenced my personal development. One notion that has stood out in these evaluations is the manner in which material culture affects the relationships that we have with each other. The way I see it, one of the major problems of our culture is that oftentimes we have no clue about how to relate to each other on any level more genuine than “object”, leaving us isolated from Jesus Christ and from the rest of humanity.

We are now in the midst of the Nativity fast, anxiously awaiting the celebration of Our Lord’s birth. Famously, the shepherds and magi bore witness to the infant Christ by bringing him gifts. In celebration of the remembrance of our Lord’s birth and of the charitable works of St Nicholas (and, granted, of a Coca-Cola advertising campaign) we offer each other gifts on Christmas day. This is a good practice I think, one which allows us to be charitable to the ones we love and, hopefully, to strangers as well. We are allowed on this day to make a beginning in the establishment of a habit of charitable giving. And we do this, of course, in remembrance of the abundant gifts that Christ gave to us in his crucifixion and resurrection, the gifts of repentance and the remission of sins unto everlasting life, which are the precious fruit of the cross. This is an amazing time of the year, rich with blessings.

A time of year rich in blessings

But the feast comes and goes, and there are many sales at our favorite stores during the weeks that follow. Why is it that we lose focus so quickly following the feast? Or perhaps even truer for myself, why is it that the feast fails to bring me focus? I believe that this is because the prevailing habitual manner of relating to others is not founded upon an understanding of who we are in the eyes of God.

Apple is one of the younger generation’s favorite companies. They make such innovative gadgets, have really slick commercials, always feature great music and capture a design aesthetic that is just perpetually cool. Their ads show beautiful people dressed in a familiar manner doing things to which we are able to relate–making music, sharing photos with loved ones, finding lost friends. Apple makes computer products, but in reality they are a lifestyle brand. Buying an Apple product is about entering into a community and aligning one’s self with a certain vision.

This is really an incredible notion. Our younger generation is the generation of the iPod, and anyone who’s ever been to Apple’s store in Manhattan knows that this generation worships at the church of Mac. We align ourselves to live an ‘Apple lifestyle’. We ‘switch’ to mac. But peeling this back beyond a simple social phenomenon reveals something that I think is much more troublesome.

This generation treats each other as though they are actually iPods! Or, as though they were Facebook or Glee or the Warped Tour or J Crew’s fall collection. We develop our sense of identity through the material culture with which we surround ourselves, and inadvertently our friends and loved ones get the same treatment. We want our friends to look like the people in the commercials because we want to be the stars of those commercials. We expect our loved ones to interact with us in the same manner as those in the television shows we watch, because we want to be the stars of those shows. We want our significant others to do the things we see in the movies and music videos, because we want to live lives just like those that are portrayed. We demand that our women look like the magazine covers, and our men like those models at the mall. We treat our loved ones as objects that can be curated and manipulated just like the order of the songs in our playlist, or which types of olive and cheese we’ll buy this week at Whole Foods.

Really?  Through my work with college students I have heard Two quotes this past year which will help to illustrate my point: “I’m in to the whole Spanish thing right now, so get those olives and that sheep’s milk cheese. And get that other type of baguette, because the French one doesn’t work.” And, “Let’s do a Mad Men themed party and only drink classic cocktails. I’m really into the classic style thing right now. Don’t invite them, because they don’t really get it.” Those whom God loves and whom he created in the image and likeness of himself, those very same persons who are more precious to God than anything else in creation, we treat like the varieties of yogurt in the grocery store. Those whom we claim to love we use like objects in the project of “defining” ourselves.

"....we treat like the varieties of yogurt in the grocery store".

There are some in of this generation who believe that they can’t be treated in any other manner. Young women believe that they can only be loved by a man if they flaunt themselves as objects of sexual desire to be used for pleasure. And men, the perpetual adolescents, refuse to take responsibility for themselves and for this insidious treatment of women, ensuring that the trend continues. Or they rebel against the system, and treat themselves as objects of sexual desire as well. When we bore of our surroundings, we dump each other like clicking the empty button on the trashcan on our computer desktop and look for a new surrounding. How often have we said to ourselves, I want to be like so-and-so, so I’ll spend more time with this group of people, or buy these objects. We are perpetually trying to “make” or “define” ourselves with material culture, as opposed to digging deep into whom God sees us to be, and allowing for our “definition” to come from our creator.

The Feast of the Natvity of Christ

When the feast of the Nativity comes, and we journey through the fast to behold Christ who was borne of the Virgin Mary, we are unable to welcome him into our hearts. We are so occupied juggling iPods and Kindles and the keys to that car we really want, and we aren’t capable of receiving Our Lord and Savior. God came into the world so that we might behold him, and I’m left holding this bag of Cheetos. The pain of my generation in this instance is so incredibly deep, because in Christ’s birth we recognize that we haven’t prepared ourselves in the slightest for his coming. Christ’s birth demands something from us and radically changes how we conceive of ourselves. So, we have effectively ignored the one who gives us meaning.

At first I had thought that this pain stems from the fact that we give all of our attention to all of these material possessions and eventually they break or get old and aren’t as exciting. Certainly, this is part of the equation. But the deeper underlying problem, the reason why giving all of our attention to anything other than Christ is a problem, is that without the experience of relating to Christ we are left in isolation. We need first to be defined by Christ, in order that we might appropriately relate to those around us. As it stands, our experience is only based on relationships to objects, and not relationships to persons. In relating to our creator as a person, we come to know what it is to be a person. There is such a poverty in this generation, because we don’t know what this means. We do not possess an understanding of what it means to be loved by God, and appreciated as who he sees us to be””by definition, who we really are. Having never known this love, which takes into consideration even those things that we refuse to acknowledge about ourselves, we are incapable of relating to others in a similar manner.

Love does not exist outside of Christ. It is not possible to love something in a manner unlike Christ. Only in being transformed in Christ’s love are we able to love others. But we can’t do this until we recognize what it means to be loved. Christ sees us as individual, complete, beautiful persons created in the image and likeness of himself, and loves us unconditionally, despite our propensity to soil the beauty in which he created us. Because we have not felt this love and are thus incapable of reciprocating it first and foremost back to ourselves, we do not govern our actions in accordance with who Christ sees us to be. When such a thing has become accomplished, we will become better able to interact with each other and our surroundings in a Christ-like manner. But until that happens, so much of what we encounter only serves to distract us from how the truth of Christ’s coming changes our lives. Instead of immersing ourselves in Apple, we need to immerse ourselves in Christ. This is the only solution to our pain.

This immersion in Christ sounds so abstract and difficult, and it is because it demands complete self-denial and the putting to death of the old man, cultural inheritance and all. But it’s also simple, because we’ve been given a means of accomplishing this feat. The answer to the pain of separation, which causes us to treat others as objects, is giving.

The magi had the opportunity to give Christ gifts, and the woman with a flask of precious oil was able to anoint our Lord before his crucifixion. Abraham was willing to give Isaac, Manassah gave a prayer, the assembled masses gave a few loaves of bread and some fish, the deacon Stephen gave his life. We are able to give ourselves completely over to Christ, to donate our time, our talents and our treasures to Him. Even when we have nothing, we can give Christ our sins in repentance. He takes all of this and redeems it. There are no fire sales or bargain bins left with picked-over rejected products. It is no longer Apple’s economy but Christ’s economy, and instead of looking like a TV commercial our lives begin to reflect the kingdom of heaven. Salvation comes to the world! We give Christ our yearning hearts and he enters into our very being, and he acts through us to accomplish his saving work. We do not “switch” to mac, but to everlasting life. His indwelling in us saves us, and our pain vanishes. We partake of abundant life, and strangely, extraordinarily, everything comes back to us, in its appropriate time and manner, gifts like manna from heaven. Then, having come to known Christ’s love for us and having accepted that which Christ has given to us, we come to know ourselves and are able to love each other with the love of Christ. We no longer feel the pain of being treated like an object, or the loneliness of treating others like objects. Christ is born in us and in our midst. We relate to each other as real persons, and the pain of my generation is solved.

"Our lives begin to reflect the Kingdom of Heaven"

Being a monastic””that is, struggling to truly be a Christian- I have been given the great blessing of making this endeavor my only priority. Those who know me will vouch for me when I say that fail in this endeavor continually. But through quiet, sweet converse with God we are given a great deal of understanding about what God desires from us. He loves us and wants us to grow in him, so he keeps us constantly updated about how we are to grow and mature. When we experience this sense of rearing, we expect the same from others, and begin to treat them not as static objects that need to be moved like fashionable chess pieces, but as integral persons whom God loves. In reflection, for me, consumerism is a continuous cycle the starts with the failure to love others as God loves them, not with open expectation and genuine interest in development but with judgment and selfishness, and ends with the pursuit of material goods to assuage the pain of not feeling loved.