Shopping for God

black-friday-has-gone-christmas-shopping-season-continues1I overheard a conversation between two blue-collar workers that encouraged my soul. In the aftermath of last week’s shopping frenzy (Black Friday, etc.), they were reflecting on the madness. “I had a friend who said he bought his mother-in-law a new TV. He was excited about the bargain.”

The other worker nodded.

“So I asked him, ‘Did she need a new TV?'” He said the man replied, “I never thought of it like that…”

I’m thrilled to have heard such a piercing question being asked…

That conversation made me think that re-posting this article might be worthwhile. 

It is unfair that I write this post on the evening of “Black Friday.” This is the day in the American vernacular (always the day after our American Thanksgiving holiday) when the Christmas shopping season officially begins. It is marked by many enticing sales and stores opening at Midnight of Black Friday (and now increasingly earlier – so that Black Friday is beginning to start on late Thanksgiving Day). It is the single busiest day of the retail year and a harbinger of the all-important outcome of the Christmas retail shopping season. The U.S. economy will not do well in the year following a bad shopping season. Much of the economy here is built on consumer spending. If people don’t buy, someone will eventually be unemployed. It’s almost a patriotic duty to shop.

Consumer economies are built on the proposition that people will buy what they want – even more than what they need. This is especially so if wants are experienced as needs. Fortunately for consumer economies, the human soul in its non-spiritual condition, is governed by passions. These are energies of the soul (and the body) that are disordered, such that they generally desire things that are other than the soul and body’s good. We do not want things simply because we need them or because they are good for us. We want them because we want them.

For this reason, the constant, ubiquitous barrage of advertising in which we live and move and have our being, is effective.

The passions are insatiable, by definition. If they were merely natural desires they could be satisfied. We hunger for food. We eat. We are no longer hungry. However, gluttony is a disordered hunger, a passion. By its very character, gluttony is an unnatural hunger. It cannot be satisfied.

The passions of shoppers are more subtle. Shoppers desire beauty, acceptance, self-confidence, power, intelligence, pleasure, excitement, a host of intangible needs. They are not natural needs, but the passions of the spiritually disordered. Our unnatural* existence is centered in the false self -the sense of identity generated within our memory, thoughts and emotions. It is burdened with uncertainty. Comparing, judging, measuring, revising are constant activities of the mind in its role of the false self.

All of these experienced needs are the objects of our consumer culture. Of course, I am describing this experience as though I live outside. But it is our common environment. We do not think of our desires as disordered – even as we occasionally find ourselves frustrated with having yet again been sold.

Even spirituality is marketed. We have a natural hunger for God, but those things that are natural are inevitably swathed in the unnatural voice of the passions. Thus we need God – but we need Him for our passions. Thus we find the God who will underwrite our narrative. The story of conversion becomes our organizing moment (“watch how I follow God”). Religious music is packaged to appeal. The aesthetics of religious experience can thus be more important than the content itself. Nothing is safe from the passions. The highest, most noble pursuits can be as driven by passion as the lowest bestial desires. The consumer shops for his God.

But this is only the account of consumer/man. It is not the human story. The passions, though dominant in the lives of every human being, are only disordered desires – and those desires may be healed. It is possible to live without the passions in ascendance. The goal of the Orthodox fathers was never to be passionless, though they used the word apatheia to describe the proper spiritual condition. They meant only that our passions no longer rule.

The human life was created to be centered in the heart, the spiritual seat of our existence. The heart is not subject to the passions, not driven by desire and necessity. It is not the same thing as the mind. It does not compare or judge, measure or spin tales of its own existence. It simply is. It is in the heart that we know God (truly know). Its aesthetic is true beauty, found within the most ordinary of objects as well as in the greatest efforts of man. The heart is content.

We cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot live as consumers and lovers of God at the same time. Without the disordered passions, subject to the commercial siren song, we fail as consumers. To buy something because it is actually required rather than desired is to reject the very basis of our modern economy. But it is only when we are free of disordered passions that we are free. The cloud of desire that surrounds us prior to that point leaves the truth of things largely opaque. Only the sober man knows anything.

And so, not strangely, Christ has much to say about money. We are told to give it away (or at least lots of it). Riches choke out the good seed. Be anxious for nothing. Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it. It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Today, the rich man is the consumer man. The productivity of modern man has left necessity behind. Today we no longer have needs: needs have us.

Can consumers be saved? It is perhaps one of the more appropriate questions of our time. I think consumers can be saved – but not as consumers. Consumption, in the manner in which we know it, is the symptom of a disease, the deep disease of corruption of which the Scripture warns:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

Of course, none of this was her own idea – there were commercials in the garden.

 ___

*I use the word unnatural to describe our existence because we were not created to be subject to the passions. Our bondage is the result of sin.

11 comments:

  1. A couple of days ago I emptied my junk mail folder. I looked again today and noticed another 70+ in there, some from Orthodox sources. I drive down the highway and there are billboards (many now LED, much like television screens) as far as the eye can see. My postal mailbox yields a minimum of two catalogs and several ad mailings on a daily basis (some also from Orthodox sources) – enough to kill a forest and far more than I could ever manage to burn, let alone read. While I admit that I watch too much television, I can hardly bear to view it in real time because of the endless commercials, preferring to limit viewing to recorded programs where the advertisements can be skipped. When I was younger, I used to enjoy taking my children to the amusement park, but when they began to force me to pay for privilege of being subjected to yet more advertising on monitors as we waited in line for the rides I had enough and stopped going. Enjoying a quiet dinner out with my wife used to be a pleasant time of good conversation. Now one can scarcely find a restaurant without televisions blaring loudly from every possible wall or corner. And when it comes time to use the rest room at those restaurants? You guessed it! I cannot speak to a woman’s experience, but even the walls above the urinals in most men’s rooms are filled with monitors barraging their momentary captives with yet more advertising.

    I know of no better description for this endless appeal to the passions than the word “assault.”

    The only sanctuaries from these endless assaults I know are home, nature, and most of all the Church wherein the senses find rest in beauty and the communion for which they are made. Not being at all immune from the tyranny of the passions, may God keep me in these three as much as possible.

  2. Father bless,

    I am never disappointed by your words…you bless us greatly. As a relatively recent convert to Orthodoxy, I still attend an Evangelical seminary. (a liberal one at that.) Lord have mercy. I struggle with it. I might as well be speaking a different language when I engage now, blank stares and quizzical looks are common. Just tonight we had a “probing” discussion about modern trends of Christian materialism versus the early Church and biblical themes. The question was asked, “Why are these two pictures of Christianity so different? How might we re-interpret these scriptural contexts into our own modern context.” “Lord have mercy….” I repeat silently to myself in my head.

    Ideas and explanations of “progress” (your favorite) and differing cultural contexts permeate (as if the sinful passions, the fall, death and Christ triumphant were no longer the context). “We always do ethics in our context.” This is cultural Christianity; where culture informs Christianity, not vice versa. The “context” assumed is history – politics – American identity – modernism – secularism – etc. etc. etc. The context is not The Church…or Christianity. Biblical interpretation itself can have these outside contexts used as lenses for interpretation…but never Tradition.

    These types of answers, I have found, are the only answers that can help explain the question posed once one has departed so far from Apostolic Christianity. If we don’t do it anymore, then it must be because times have changed and these things are no longer appropriate to our age. “Just as Paul’s context was different than Moses’s context, thus the NT differences from the OT, so our context is different than Paul’s. We must find a thicker ethic, rooted in the here and now.” Lord have mercy!! The other fun trend is the outright spiritualization of scripture and practice.

    Of course, I always aim to stir the pot as an Orthodox, so I suggest ideas which have long since lost their “relevance” to an evangelical mind. Ascesis, denial of self, purification of the passions and the denial of self centered individualism. I try to lob them in as softballs to warm the room to those lost practices. It rarely works. I’ll get one or two head nods, and about twenty people who look like I just spoke Swahili. Self-denial? Ascesis? Fasting? Almsgiving? Confession? Whaaaaaat? We do evangelism and charity….but all this other stuff….pffffft.

    It is always interesting to me to see the equivocating that occurs in such discussions. I do my own kind of equivocating in my life…perhaps we all do…so to the degree that I still have not changed my life in this regard…I judge myself, I know. But I have found how much more difficult it its to equivocate and deny my sin in the face of Orthodox life which retains self-denial and purification of the nous of the passions of materialism as part and parcel to Christian life, not as abstract or spiritualized concepts.

    It is amazing how hard people resist these teachings of self-denial. All such ideas are explained away and left for dead on the cutting room floor. Mark 10 and the “rich man” couldn’t possibly mean what it implies…”what does it reeeeeeaaaally mean.” I wouldn’t dream of taking the extra step of suggesting monasticism as a living, working model of Christian life, that’s just too “unrealistic,” “escapist” or “legalistic.”

    What inevitably ends up happening in the conversations is that people want to have their cake and eat it too. The advertising of which you speak, both inside and outside churches tells them they CAN serve God and mammon. It all depends on how you define and conceptualize mammon as an abstract. As Bill Clinton once wriggled; “It depends on what the meaning of the word is…is…” so too does cultural Christianity on the subject of God and money.

    You hit the nail on the head; ” “Thus we find the God who will underwrite our narrative.” It is apparent that as Westerners, we want a hybrid religion which allows us to live “normal lives” and “seek Christ” simultaneously. Christ therefore must meet our economic, democratic, and social models. Christ, we think, must be relevant to our needs, our society, as we identify those needs and cultures, not vice versa. Biblical calls to suffering and sacrifice as part of the Christian life are explained away and trivialized. Those who pursue them are accused of “spiritualizing” Christianity…quizzically, by applying such precepts actively to their lives.

    Actual quotes. “We’ll, I want my kids to have a good education and a good home and opportunities, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” “Capitalism isn’t evil.” “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have nice things…you just can’t let them rule your life.” These wants are never considered passions. Somehow, they are virtues, particularly if I reference my kids and how I’m doing this FOR them…ergo…I’m selfless. Controlling these as passions simply means “living within my means.” Nevermind that I’m constantly seeking more means…and then adjusting my life to those higher means….ad infinitum. “But I can do more good with more money…I could give away more.” We are conditioned to believe in progress in this way too…bigger house, bigger car, bigger yacht…bigger vacations…bigger 401k its all the natural progression of life. We define ourselves by our economics. Ascesis and self-denial have no meaning to cultural Christianity.

    What has meaning is desire…passion…security…happiness. Christian materialism is essentially Christ as an appendum to secular life, not Christ AS LIFE Himself and a life lived in unity with His Body, The Church, where all of these things may be “added unto you.” In the end, the normative Western Christian understanding of happiness and justice is fundamentally economic, and is the defined by the pursuit of worldly “passions,” even as they are obfuscated under Christian themes. Lord have mercy.

  3. A.J.
    It sounds like a touch environment – but I thank God for He is doing in your life. Orthodoxy is living proof that the faith is “relevant.” We ourselves live in the 21st century.

    The day will come when this economy’s “soul will be required.” Then whose will all these things be?

  4. Father,

    I left a comment on the Let´s Get Physical -post which I don´t know if you have noticed. It is perhaps too off topic but I would be very grateful if you could take the time to think about some of the questions I had there.

    Thanks,
    Andreas B.

  5. Father, I’m curious about something. My wife and I run our own leather business. We make wallets and such. How can I reconcile the need to sell and make the money required for our needs with the fact that the majority of our customers are likely not buying out of a real need, but out of desire for our particular designs, materials and methods? I mean we produce good work. Everything is stitched by hand and made from very high quality leather. I just…feel guilty about it sometimes.

  6. There’s no sin in buying things we “don’t need.” We also enjoy things – for their beauty, quality, etc. It’s quite human and a good thing. It can be abused, obviously. But if there is no beauty, there is no humanity. “Need” can also be too easily understood as “useful” or “utility.” But we need beauty as much as we need food. Make beautiful things. Do good work. Be blessed.

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