What defines you?
The answer to that question, to a large extent, is a commentary on who owns you. Frequently, discussions about major aspects of our humanity are little more than a rehearsal of scripts prepared by our owners. This makes it extremely difficult to have a fruitful conversation on many topics, and almost impossible to explore possibilities that have been marginalized by the owning forces of our culture.
What do the cultural forces think of our humanity?
Arguably, our culture views us as producers and consumers: we are individuals within an economy whose purpose and meaning is largely defined economically. This elevates autonomy, adaptability and manageability to the place of primary, defining values. We have been taught, increasingly, to think of ourselves in terms of job, vocation, and career, while other matters, such as marriage, family, religious belief, etc., are merely lifestyle choices (making them similar to other consumer decisions). And here I want to emphasize the fact that these ideas have been deeply internalized: we believe them to be true and they govern how we think and argue our way within the world.
Among the most significant set of ideas is the question of what it means to be male and female. The arguments of equality, vocation, meaning, purpose, etc., have largely been driven by economic factors. Our roles within the market place tend to take a primary role in our thoughts. The ideal of the market place is genderless. It redefines human beings in terms that minimize gender and biology. Money passes through one set of hands as easily as another.
Classical Christianity does not have a model for how men and women fit within a workforce, for the simple reason that our place in the workforce is not fundamental to what it means to be human. However, male and female are primary theological categories that are fundamental to our understanding of salvation. In almost any other age, such a statement would seem uninteresting, or at least, without controversy. The fact that the reality of our binary existence is becoming marginalized suggests primarily the triumph of consumerist economics over more traditional understandings.
Consumption prefers that we understand ourselves as “those who choose.” Any definition of our humanity that impairs or impedes that concept has been targeted by the internal logic of the culture.
Classical Christianity understands that a very large part of who we are is, in fact, traditioned to us. We are not the products of our own invention nor utterly free to be “anything we want.” In theological terms, this suggests that what is true is handed down and received rather than invented, developed or envisioned. The madness of the consumer-based view of humanity can be found in its ultimate emptiness. Finding a niche in the vast machine of the global economy offers no transcendent purpose and precious little meaning to human existence. Its value is primarily derived from the cult of self-congratulations that we describe as “fulfillment.”
It is probably this very point that rightly serves as a focus for the great spiritual struggle of our time. The risk of consumerism lies in its lack of a soul. Production and consumption in the ever-changing disguise of fashion begin to generate a substitute for meaning. We become nostalgic for a decade (its movies, its fashions, its toys) as though the sentiments associated with one set of ephemera have any value greater than other sentiments. But sentiments do not constitute a soul. They are nothing more than a set of feelings that have come to be associated with various things. They are relatively sophisticated pleasure-centers manipulated by canny marketers.
As an aside, Christians easily become prey to their own sentimentalization of various periods or aspects of the Church. We like market versions of a Byzantine or Russian mood, devoid of any true content. Sentiment is not a sacrament.
But what do I mean by “soul?” It is a reality of life that has transcendent value. It is the ability to withstand and endure suffering. It embodies beauty and raises the level of dignity in everything it touches. In human beings, it is that which is worthy.
It is simply the case that we cannot create our own transcendence. To do so would be to be a god, in which case transcendence would be unnecessary. To transcend the self requires that we be greater than ourselves. That requires that there be something (Someone) greater than ourselves. The fundamental position of classical Christianity is one of thanksgiving, the grateful reception of that which has been given to us. Thanksgiving is the primary response to the gift of transcendence.
Consumerist Christianity is an increasingly small religion – not in terms of numbers, but in terms of content. “My spirituality,” “my prosperity,” the “god that I believe in that you don’t need to believe in,” are all expressions of the self, not of the transcendence of the self. When the self involved dies, so will everything else in its life, its god included.
The consumer world does not suffer well. It has substituted an ethic of false compassion, defined as the relief of pain (not the “sharing of suffering,” its original meaning). Consumerist compassion is stymied when confronted with suffering. That which cannot be relieved must be eliminated. We anesthesize, abort, and euthanize, all in the name of compassion. We do not withstand and endure. Consumption is turned towards the self. Within the self alone, suffering can have no meaning. In the name of compassion, we kill, thinking that death ends suffering. It is an act of despair.
The narrative of Westward Expansion and Progress, married to Protestant theology, are the great soul-less engines of consumerism. But our culture is not without spiritual resources or a narrative of suffering. Both slavery and the extermination of native Americans have within them powerful stories of endurance and greatness of soul. Both, however, are largely marginalized, serving as little more than tropes for liberal guilt.
The struggles of immigrant America (another possible source for the American soul) have long been purchased by the consumerist narrative. They are not seen as the stories of a people whose suffering produced greatness of soul, but of ethnic groups who gradually achieved prosperity in the pursuit of the national dream. For immigrants from Orthodox lands, the narrative easily becomes the loss of a soul.
The consumerist narrative of modern culture, however, is not the full story, nor even the true story of the world. It is powerful and difficult to resist, but it need not be believed. The West is not without a soul, nor without its stories of saints. The difficulty, of course, is that those stories are rooted in a distant past, that, as often as not, is a past obscured by the modern narrative.
St. John Maximovich is said to have prophesied that the West would not come to its salvation until it began to venerate its saints. He had in mind the vast army of early saints who established the Christian faith in Western Europe and the British Isles (to which we can now add the growing number of American saints). Their stories easily compare with those of the Desert Fathers, or the great saints of the East. Their memory often remains in place-names, and in traditional names found within their cultures. I take those artifacts to be a living presence, rather than a remote history.
There is a patient, slow work set before us. It is the recovery of our soul while teaching a culture about its true roots. That we live in difficult times merely offers the opportunity for a new greatness of soul, established in patient endurance and the bearing of contemporary suffering. From that rich resource, beauty and virtue can begin to flower as God renews the face of the earth.