The Passion to Consume – Revisited

This article first appeared last March. It seems to bear reprinting at least for a fuller discussion of the passions.

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.

9 Responses to “The Passion to Consume – Revisited”

  1. Stephen W. Says:

    “Can freedom survive in such a setting? Or what kind of freedom is it that we have in such a setting?”

    These are very good questions?

    Many Americans take great pride in their “freedom”. The word freedom is very relative. I lived in Sweden for 4.5 years and found myself more free from consumerism, although this way of life is quickly spreading to all parts of the world. The Internet and television offer all kinds of “freedom” (as well as great deals). Ultimately we can use or abuse this freedom. I worry about children in this environment who may lack discernment, when they are given free reign into the sub-world of the Internet. I am somewhat glad that I made it through college using only a word processor. Most kids today seem as if they can’t go anywhere without some kind of information being put into their heads. The Church has a large task to compete with the world of media and consumer culture, for the attention of the youth. It difficult to engage without compromise. The Orthodox Church is not an “easy sell” but I believe that it stands as a beacon of truth in a rapidly and changing and pluralistic society. For me it is a boat to help me safely weather the storm. When people start to see there culture as something having the possibility of standing in the way of an authentic spiritual life they may then beginn to look into the Orthodox Church as a viable way to live. Many churches seem to have adopted the “If you can’t beat em join em” attitude.

  2. handmaidleah Says:

    Father, you recently posted this in a comment:

    “Everything is connected. Some things are connected positively and some negatively. But there is no such thing as a “neutral” connection, nor something existing that has no relation to God…”

    The passions are the same in this way, I think, a turning to God or away from Him
    as the case may be.

    As you state: “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.”

    Knowing the difference is priceless…

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed. May He grant us the grace of such knowledge.

  4. elizabeth Says:

    This is a huge topic and a large struggle. I find it difficult at times to know how to navigate. Once, when discussing this with a holy monk, he told me what was needed was prudence.

    I am still thinking about this. My current thoughts: I realized, when looking at a magazine from the 70’s when I was a child in the 80’s, that fashions change quickly and are not to be trusted. Living in this world, however, it seems at times to be the understandable pragmatic decision to dress relative to the times we live in – i.e. I am a librarian by profession and will soon be running a small corporate library. It is important, pragmatically, to dress the part. At the same time I try to get my work attire on sale and always with modesty and professionalism in mind.

    Fr. Stephen, I would love to hear any thoughts about how to live in our culture and how to balance it.

    I find the other challenge related to your post is to not judge others on their choices/dress/belongings. To do as Fr. John of Kronstadt advises, to see and treat people all as having Christ’s image in them the most challenging of all; to live believing that we have souls in this culture is directly linked to this challenge…

  5. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Forgive me for being overly persistent. But if you have time, perhaps you would be willing to elaborate at some point in a future post on what precisely the Orthodox mean by “the passions”. To a modern audience, it sounds like someone is saying that emotions are sinful (Indeed, I once read a translation of 4 Maccabees that simply translated “the passions” as “the emotions”). If you could post sometime explaining what “the passions” are in more modern language, that would help me understand you better.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Prudence – what a good word. To have an inner judgment that can see or understand the balance in these things. There are very few hard and fast rules in these matters.

    For instance, I wear a cassock most of the time, but I also am aware that it will engender conversations regarding the faith. It also delivers me from having to think too much about what to wear.

    On the other hand, my wife works in an office and is the first person people meet when they enter the building. She should dress in a manner that properly represents the professionalism of the business in which she works. It’s simply prudent.

    But I often see people who are not prudent – in every sort of direction – from someone who dresses in a provocative manner and yet comes to Church – it is imprudent. Or a man I encountered who was entering a family restaurant wearing a t-shirt that had as degrading a phrase as I’ve ever seen proudly displayed (he was eventually asked to leave). Not prudent.

    It is particularly difficult for young people. Their social world is almost entirely artificial, many times judging people only by outward standards. It’s hard to teach virtue or prudence or modesty in such an atmosphere.

    They need our prayers especially, as well as our thoughts and examples. They need a proper love of beauty and a sense of modesty. These are all difficult virtues. Without the Church I do not know what I would do.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Wonders,

    In the short term let me recommend a smallish article by Met. Kallistos Ware.

    http://www.incommunion.org/articles/conferences-lectures/the-passions-enemy-or-friend

  8. Passions and Consumerism « On Living Says:

    […] he writes about the passions that drive us, many of which are imposed on us from outside. Some years ago (many years ago now, I realize) when […]

  9. A Mind Awake » Blog Archive » Around the Blogosphere Says:

    […] The passion to consume by Father Stephen […]

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