Consumer Culture engages powerfully in our moral and spiritual formation. That formation, William T. Cavanaugh says, appropriates some Christian elements but distorts them. This is the fourth in the series on Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.
“How we relate to the world is a spiritual discipline,” Cavanaugh says. (p. 47) If that is the case, then our consumer culture is especially good at disciplining us spiritually. Cavanaugh looks at two ways consumerism carries on this discipline. It instills an attitude of transcendence and a relationship to community. These are also central elements in Christian spirituality.
Consumerism can’t accommodate too much love of material things. Too much time spent with things we love and we won’t keep on moving to the next newer, better, or just different thing.
As for the next things, it isn’t just the things that attract us. Advertisers know that mere material things aren’t powerful enough. They must have spiritual meanings.
Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. (p. 48)
Christianity also advocates transcending material things, but not by leaving them behind. Created things are not ultimately satisfying goods. There is, after all, the Creator, in whom our hearts long to rest. But this is One whose goodness creation reflects. Created things point the believer to God, the One who called all these things good (Genesis, Chapter 1). A Christian mythology doesn’t need to invest material things with alien, spiritual meanings. They are good enough for what they are, reflections of God, objects of God’s love, and worthy of our love.
Consumer culture encourages us to identify with others, to form communities. That’s a strong component of Christian spirituality. But there are two major differences in the way this identifying and community making happens.
In consumer culture identification is often a matter of brand loyalty. Or it’s a matter of a certain style or the amount of money one is able and willing to spend. In each of these cases it’s people like us that we identify with. A community based on Christian principles is different. The image of a Christian community, from St. Paul, is a body, whose members are different from each other. Each contributes in its own way to the health and wholeness of the body.
Cavanaugh notes how multi-cultural consumer culture can be. I find myself often enjoying ethnic foods and “world” music. Aside from intrinsic goodness, these give me a pleasant feeling of identifying with far-away cultures.
White kids in Illinois can listen to reggae music and feel themselves in solidarity with the struggles of poor blacks in Jamaica. (p. 51)
But “virtual solidarity offers no concrete results … reducing ethics to sentiment.” (p. 51) Inevitably the same ethnic music shows up in a commercial, and the concrete sufferings and joys of real people get packaged into a product.
Christianity ties our attitude toward material goods into concrete solidarity. The rich young man must give his money to the poor before following Jesus. God is the owner of all material goods and intends them for the common good.
Consumerism supports an essentially individualistic view of the human person, in which each consumer is a sovereign chooser. In the Christian tradition … we do not help each other as individuals but as members of one another. (p. 53)
We have to consume in order to live. Cavanaugh says the Eucharist can show us a better way to be a consumer.
Cavanaugh warns against making the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist another commodity, making “spirituality” a kind of self-help. Properly, the Eucharist resists “using God to cope with the stresses of modern life.” The Eucharist isn’t a commodity we consume, becoming part of us. It’s a body that we become part of. In this eating we are consumed.
Becoming one in the Christ-body of worshipers at a particular Eucharistic service isn’t the end of the story. We must also become food for others. Eucharist requires more than being generous to the poor. It means identifying with the poor, as Jesus did, taking part in their struggle.
A new consumer culture
In closing Cavanaugh names ways to practice this self-offering. We must stop spiritualizing unity with the poor so unity is not just a feeling. That means rejecting what Cavanaugh calls our three detachments — from production, producers, and products. (See this post.)
To overcome our detachment from production we can “turning our homes into sites of production.” (p. 57) We can make our own bread or our own music, grow some of our own food. In many ways we can share, as people before us did, in God’s creative activity.
Second is our detachment from the people who make our things. (p. 57-58) Cavanaugh joins some ecological and justice movements. Buying locally and buying things that are locally produced fosters relationships among buyers, producers, and sellers.
I can’t imagine how not to be detached from the people who produce things I buy when they are very distant. The Fair Trade movement helps me to be responsible for fair wages and equitable treatment of workers around the world. Fair Trade programs, including those Catholic Relief Services offers,
… educate American consumers, putting names and faces on those who produce what they consume.
The last detachment is from material things. We needn’t develop a fierce attachment to material things as I have to my lawn mower. It’s almost as old as I am and will probably die when I do. Things are “embedded in relationships.” They “bring us into contact, for better or for worse, with other people’s lives.” When we see things as part of God’s creation and signs of God’s glory, they become “less disposable, more filled with meaning.” They are
… signs whose meaning is only completely fulfilled if they promote the good of communion with God and with other people. (p. 58)
Image credit: One World Shop