Last Friday at Acton University, Fr. Gregory Jensen gave an engaging lecture on the dual subject of asceticism and consumerism. The “East Meets West” part might not be what many would expect. Rather than contrast a consumerist West with an ascetic East, Fr. Gregory insists that both consumerism and asceticism transcend cultures and traditions. Inasmuch as all people take part in consumption, an ascetic answer to the challenge of consumerism is (or ought to be) where East meets West. The audio of Fr. Gregory’s lecture will be available on Ancient Faith Radio in the near future, but as a teaser I would like to explore some of the themes briefly here.
Fr. Gregory began by reflecting on the meaning of human consumption. Drawing from the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Fr. Gregory noted that consumption is not negative or destructive per se but, rather, about the production of social meaning and culture. Put simply, debates about consumption are debates about culture. What we need, then, is a theology of consumption in order to evaluate the total pattern of our consumption, rather than resorting to ad hoc answers as is so often the case.
“In Genesis we learn that human beings were created hungry,” said Fr. Gregory, referring to Genesis 2:16 (“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat…”). Consumption is intrinsic to being human. We are created with a little emptiness from the beginning that conditioned our tending of Paradise, harmony in the animal world, and the creation of human community. Ultimately this served as the foundation of peace to the earth and communion with each other and ultimately with God, who we bless by offering his blessings back to him. As St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” It is through culture and tradition that a biological necessity (eating), founded in our nature as dependent beings, is transformed into an act of communion.
What, then, is consumerism? Consumerism, Fr. Gregory argues, is ultimately a matter of self-absorption and practical atheism. It is when, to quote St. Paul, we become one of those “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Consumerism, then, is misused consumption summed up by the phrase, “I shop, therefore I am,” whereas the reverse would be more accurate.
Asceticism, on the other hand, is not merely abstinence but abstinence for the sake of self-sacrifice, proper balance, and communion with God. The Fall, Fr. Gregory pointed out, starts with “a refusal to fast.” This refers to the breaking of the commandment: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). The command (“you shall not eat”) is a fast and it is through breaking this command that sin mars the world. While discussion of policy proposals are important, Fr. Gregory helpfully reminded us, “It is so much easier to have economic debates than to look into our own hearts.” Yet that is precisely what we must do if we hope to combat consumerism in our own lives and cultures.
In summary asceticism is the right use of abstinence for a positive end: communion with the living God, love of one’s neighbor, and harmony with the creation. In this sense we may also characterize it as consumption rightly conceived, not as an end in itself but as a means of communion and balance. The disciplines of asceticism cultivate the virtues, which, according to Fr. Michael Butler (and the fathers of the Church, of course), are natural to every human being. Furthermore, it is through the reorientation of our lives toward God in asceticism and the grace of the sacraments by which we are able overcome consumerism and live not only according to nature but beyond it, realizing the statement of Jesus Christ in our own lives: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13).