The Gospel reading on Sunday was the story of Lazarus and the rich man. I often refer to this parable in discussions about poverty, because Augustine points out that it was not wealth that sent the rich man to hell, but his indifference. He just didn’t care. He was too attached to the world and his own comings and goings to notice Lazarus. As Pope Francis commented in Evangelii gaudium,
Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor…as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us (EG 54).
Being thrilled by the market can distract us – we can all become easily attached to material things, to comfort, and the newest gadget. At its worst it becomes consumerism.
Consumerism as a spiritual problem
We tend to think of consumerism as an economic problem because this is how it manifests itself to us, and because we live in a consumerist society surrounded by advertising and behavior modification.
Of course it is undeniable that a market economy and the advertising culture is one of the causes of consumerism. Yet the economy alone is insufficient to explain the problem of consumerism. At its core it is a spiritual and cultural problem, related not only to economic but to philosophical and theological issues. There are a number of social and philosophical influences that I will explain in more detail in a longer piece. But some include:
- philosophical materialism
- the residue of 19th century atheism
- the sexual revolution
- widespread relativism and the resulting nihilism
All of these and more contribute to an absence of meaning and purpose in life beyond acquisition.
While it is absolutely the case that an efficient capitalist economy can encourage consumerism, I do not think that consumerism is fundamentally or solely an economic problem. We know that consumerism can exist in non-capitalist societies. Rather, it is primarily a crisis of the soul and loss of meaning.
Consumerism is more than simply buying things or the newest gadget. At its core, it is a way of seeing the world in which, as Benjamin Barber put it in his book Consumed, “brands have replaced families, religion, and communities as a source of identity.”
But it goes deeper, much deeper, than this. Consumerism sees everything, every experience, and ultimately everyone as an object to be used for my pleasure or liberation. Marriage is merely to serve the emotional needs of the people involved and disconnected from children and the common good. Babies are not gifts to be reverenced, but simply choices and can be aborted at will if they are not convenient.
Pope Francis described the situation well in an address to bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia on September 28, 2015.
“Today consumerism determines what is important. Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions….Whatever the cost or consequences….
“The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer ‘useful’ or ‘satisfying’ for the tastes of the consumer….
“I would say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a widespread and radical sense of loneliness….Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.”
6 ways to combat consumerism
Consumerism, culture, and the economy are complex topics and there is much to discuss and debate, but what I want to do here is to suggest several practical ways to address the problems of philosophical materialism and consumerism.
Here I will not focus on questions of economic policy, not because they are unimportant but because most of us can’t really do much about the structure of the economy – but we can do some things about our souls and our ways of living.
It is essential to realize that we can’t simply stop consumerism in ourselves or others. We must provide an alternative way of life – a higher vision of life and nobility that inspires people. Here are six suggestions:
Quit or reduce social media and reject the behavior modification that encourages consumption and addictive behavior.
For a good summary of this, read Jaron Lanier’s 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Here is a review of the book I wrote last year.
Stress the reasonableness of the Faith in contrast to the just-so stories of materialism.
This may sound surprising, but in a materialist world, Christianity has great intellectual power. As Benedict XVI has written: “Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the logos. It is the faith in the creator Spirit from which proceeds everything that exists. Today this should be precisely a philosophical strength….”
Materialism is insufficient. It gives no satisfactory explanation of consciousness. It gives no satisfactory explanation of free will or our lived experiences as moral and responsible agents. It cannot explain or give voice to our deepest emotions. Materialism and its counterpart – empiricist rationality – cannot give an account for our most profound human experiences of love, justice, anxiety, sadness, hope, mercy, etc.
In contrast to a culture of meaningless acquisition and an incoherent and irrational world of randomness, Christianity offers a call to nobility, sacrifice, and the highest values. Though he is not a professing Christian, Jordan Peterson’s popularity is evidence that people are looking for a way out of materialism. Materialism gives us neither a coherent explanation of the world nor a plan to live our lives. In the end it gives us simply this: consume today for tomorrow you die.
Clarity on moral norms
Related to clear explanation about faith’s reasonableness is clarity on moral teaching. Christian morality is not simply a set of rules but a positive vision of human life that promotes human flourishing.
To quote Benedict XVI again:
“Morality is not man’s prison but rather the divine element in him…the Christian faith is the advance post of human freedom.“
This is especially evident in the area of sexuality and family. The sexual revolution failed and has brought nothing but unhappiness. Women and children are suffering and men are turned into predators instead of protectors. The Theology of the Body of John Paul II is an antidote to sexual revolution. It not merely academic – it has had profound influence on many families and continues to do so.
Encourage ascetic practices
These include small acts of mortification and denial where we discipline our passions, desires, and will to attain higher goals. The practice of fasting is is not only a spiritual discipline or a way to lose weight. It is a good first step against consumerism.
Fasting also fights against consumerism by helping to create community. It can help create what the late Oxford anthropologist Mary Douglas calls a condensed symbol. She explains in her excellent book Natural Symbols that when abstinence regulations were removed in England, the Irish Catholic community of Liverpool was almost completely assimilated and lost much of its Catholic identity within only a number of years. Communal ascetic practices can help create a sense of belonging and community that fight loneliness, which, as Pope Francis said, is one of the causes of the consumerist attitude.
Even avowed secularists see the value of aesthetic practices. Think of all the books and essays on dieting, exercise, and meditation. The German philosopher Peter Sloterjdik has gone as far as to say that we need to recover a monastic secularism – he wants a Christian ethos of self-sacrifice without Christ. I think this is a futile attempt, but again it points to the philosophical and practical strength of traditional Christianity.
Attend beautiful Liturgy
Another thing that helps fight consumerism is good liturgy. Why? Because consumerism profanes everything that’s reverent and sacred and good. Sacred and beautiful liturgy says to the world that there are some things that are sacred, that this is different from everything else you experience.
Sabbath rest: encourage observance of the Lord’s day
This is a powerful force against consumerism. It sets one day apart with no work, no rushing, time to be with the family, less use of technology, and more time for contemplation. There is a lot to say here; I address this issue further in my lecture on the Moral Imagination and in some other lectures on Sabbath to Lord’s Day. Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath and John Paul II’s Dies Domini (The Lord’s Day) are good places to start.
We are created for more
Consumerism has economic causes, to be sure, and we need to think these through and address them, but the idea that sees the economy as the driving force of culture and consumerism is not enough. Consumerism is at its heart a philosophical and spiritual problem that no technical or economic policy can solve. It is ultimately about the deepest meaning of human life.
As Benedict XVI explains well:
Man needs transcendence. Immanence alone is too narrow for him. He is created for more. The denial of an afterlife led initially to a passionate glorification of life…The lust for life, the lust for all kinds of fulfillment, was intensified to the utmost. But at once, an enormous devaluation of life came from this: life is no longer surrounded by the seal of the holy; one throws it away when it no longer pleases…Lust for life changes into disgust with life and into the emptiness of its fulfillments. Here, too, the abolition of man is the consequence.
Without the good news of faith, human existence does not survive in the long run. The joy of faith is its responsibility: we should seize it with new courage in this hour of our history.