Archive for March 18th, 2008

The Passion to Consume

March 18, 2008


I have mentioned the role that the passions play in our consumer culture. I would like to write in greater depth about that phenomenon. It permeates our culture – and yet, strangely, I do not find it to be a dominant concern of people when they think about their sins or when they think of our culture and its sins. In that sense it reminds me of a study I did several years ago on the subject of envy, a passion which many of the Fathers of the Church thought was the “original sin,” but in my recollection had never been the subject of a sermon that I had ever given or heard. I preached the first of my sermons on the topic following that and have included that passion much more thoroughly in my map of the human heart than I once did. The same should be true of the passions that work in our consumerist culture.

I should say at the first that I am not opposed to shopping, or buying or owning things. I live in a house that I’m buying with furniture and furnishings like most of America. I went through a 2 or 3 year phase of communal living in my early twenties – so that I know what it is to consciously opt out of the consumer culture. But since my marriage in 1975, that has not been my way of living.

To say that I am not opposed to shopping, etc., is also to confess that I am not immune to the passions that come into play in our consumerism. I know what it is to want what I can’t have. I know what it is to abuse a credit card on an impulse purchase. Some years ago (many years ago now, I realize) when I was a “tie-wearing” man (priest in cassocks don’t wear ties), I remember wondering how ties that had once seemed so fashionable (think of the really wide ties of the early 70’s) overnight seemed so terrible (think skinny ties of the 1980’s). The question that came to my mind was, “When did I ever make a decision about how a tie actually looks – how wide it should be, etc.?” The answer, of course, is that I never did make such a decision. Those decisions were made in fashion houses miles from me and in the marketing departments of the fashion industry. What disturbed me then (and now) was that it was clearly the case that “how I saw the world” (at least as measured by ties) had nothing to do with reason, decision, preference, etc. It was “planted in my brain” to quote Paul Simon, and I never noticed the operation.

The question that followed was, “How many other things are there in our world-view, that exist within us through the same process?” The answer, of course, is, “Far more than we know.”

To be fully human does not include becoming a passive receptacle to marketing forces (ideas are as marketable as ties). To be a person of virtue includes not being a slave to any of the passions. Struggling with the passions (greed, envy, lust, gluttony, etc.) is an everyday struggle for Christians and should be part of the agenda of every Christian who intends to be obedient to Scripture.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5).

The list of the passions is not exhausted in St. Paul’s admonition. But we are commanded to join the battle. The passions are inherently strong in every human being. To a degree, some are completely natural and have a proper place within us. Hunger is natural and necessary. Gluttony is hunger in a disordered form. Sexual desire has its proper place as well as its disordered form.

Many human cultures, particularly those in which Christian spiritual teaching had a dominant role, actively sought to discourage the reign of the passions. There are certainly failures and even coercive nightmares to be recounted in that history – but few ages have lived as we do now in which the passions are actively used as a means to maintain the very affluence of the culture.

From time to time the masters of the media will decide to promote something they decide is virtuous. You can hardly watch a children’s show today that is not at the same time a propaganda piece for environmentalism. Perhaps that is a good thing. I make no judgement. Lip-service is paid to “less violence” but it remains. Children are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages.

I recall an event in my family from years ago. Two of my children were watching Saturday morning television. I sat quietly behind them and during one of the more tantalizing commercials I whispered: “All they want is your money.” I thought I was being very subtle and helpful. One child heard my warning and reeled in abhorrence as she saw the truth of it. The other smiled at me and said, “How much?” We’re all wired differently when it comes to the struggle with the passions. But the struggle remains.

We are at a great disadvantage today – for we are all being studied like lab rats. Research groups are wiring us up and testing even the speeches of politicians so that what we are being told about our civic life is itself shaped to our passions. Can freedom survive in such a setting? Or what kind of freedom is it that we have in such a setting? It is little wonder that political passions run as strongly as they do and that we are so divided. That’s just the problem: they are political passions.

Christ has come to set us free and to change us into the likeness of His image – to make us fully human and united to God. Slavery to the passions is not part of the plan. The Church must be a place where this struggle is taught and nurtured. It is the last place where the passions should be manipulated and used for any end.

I add this short technical note on the passions from Dmitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality:

The objects which the passions look for can’t satisfy them because objects are finite and as such don’t correspond to the unlimited thirst of the passions. Or as St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy. But objects by nature are finite, both as sources of satisfaction and in regard to duration; they pass easily into nonexistence, by consumption. Even thwn the passion also needs the human person in order to be satisfied, it likewise, reduces him or her to an object, or sees and uses only the objective side; the unfathomable depths hidden in the subjective side escape him.

Either we believe in a good God who is working good for His world, or we don’t. Either we turn ourselves towards the infinite God who alone can fill the infinite need of our soul or we perish. I am not surprised by the actions of unbelievers. As Dostoevsky said, “If there is no God, all things are permitted.” But if there is a God (and there is), then some things are not permitted. A Christian should know the difference.


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