Materialism and Consumerism: How to Avoid These Traps

Materialism and Consumerism: How to Avoid These Traps

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"Christianity and Judaism are arguably the most 'worldly' religions on earth."

Upon hearing that for the first time my jaw dropped. "Worldly," where I was raised, meant one thing: sin. Armed with "pure doctrine" I prepared for battle. But, like much of my education, I needed to "unlearn," and then "re-learn." "Worldly" has numerous meanings.

Unlike some religions, Christianity and Judaism affirm that God purposefully created the physical world, stretching out the heavens "like a tent" (Psalms 104:2). He pronounced it "good." The world's divine origin and purpose should have forever fixed creation's evaluation of itself and our posture towards it.

God commissioned the creation to become a bearer of His glory and witness to His name. The psalmist called upon everything to "praise the name of the LORD" (Psalms 148:5). And to humankind, fashioned from dust of the ground, God assigned stewardship over the "good" creation.

From the Church's beginning, it has faced challenges to its doctrine of creation.

Time and again some accused "matter" (the physical) of being the springboard for evil, and credited "spirit" as the source of all that's good. They've tried to kidnap the Christian faith and make it an ally of their charge that the world is inherently evil.

The first century Docetists, for example, denied Jesus' humanity. They said "matter" is incorrigibly evil. Later, the Gnostics (from the Greek word for "knowledge") posed a major threat. Not only did they believe matter to be inherently evil and spirit invariably good, they thought "souls" had become trapped in "matter" and needed a "savior" to rescue them. Some Gnostics identified Jesus, who only appeared to be human, as a Gnostic savior.

Against such attacks the early church fathers insisted that God created the world and that it is the object of redemption. They insisted that Christ cannot redeem what He did not assume--full creatureliness, full humanity. In the Incarnation, God became "one with us." The apostle Paul placed the physical world among the "children of God," and said that along with God's other children the creation now awaits its final redemption (Romans 8:22-25).

Yes, Christianity is "worldly" to the core. If not, forget the Incarnation. Forget the Jesus who scandalized some religious leaders because He loved the company of others and spent time with the lowly.

But "Christian worldliness" and "materialism" are not the same. They represent two radically different ways of valuing the world. A Christian appraisal of the creation sees it as instrumental in the worship of God. Materialism, on the other hand, turns the creation into an object of worship. (Philosophical materialism and the physicalism/reductionism, advanced by some contemporary neuroscientists, are not under discussion here. Materialism as a worldview will be treated in the article on atheism.)

From the days of Adam, humans have made the lamentable error of worshiping God's creation instead of its Creator. In countless ways we have bowed before the "gift" instead of the "Giver." Consequently, we are hideously and destructively "curved in upon ourselves." That is the "worldliness" properly called "sinful."

Above all else, materialism values the physical, the quantifiable, the visible, and what can be grasped for oneself. It is the sole possession of no age, race, nation, religion, or gender.

Materialism undermines love and beauty, families and friendships, virtue and creativity. It sucks the oxygen out of "spirit."

It places noble values in bondage to what can be touched, pocketed, owned, hoarded, and consumed. Given its reins, materialism reduces the creation-including persons-to an exploitable, emaciated, and barren shell. It destroys community, makes human sexuality nothing more than a utility, and rids human life of self-sacrifice.

Twentieth century Marxist-Leninist Communism was materialism's most sophisticated philosophical and political expression. But materialism doesn't require a sophisticated framework. It simply needs persons and cultures that will treat the material as life's supreme value, and permit it to eclipse all others.

In some eras materialism has been more challenging than in others. In the Western world, the 19th century Industrial Revolution and economic capitalism unintentionally fostered an unprecedented brand of materialism. Mass production vastly increased access to goods. Ever-expanding market strategies followed. This fed a belief that "we are what we own, or aspire to own." As a cultural beacon, modern materialism leads persons to conclude that owning "less" means being "less person."

Materialism respects no boundaries. It can be as much at home in a church as in a bar, in a bishop as in a prostitute, and in a pauper as in a king. Materialism is a "disposition," a disease of the soul, before it becomes an "acquisition."

Ingenious efforts are even made to fit God into a materialist grid where God's "worth" is determined by the "goods" He delivers. Some popular speakers and media empires hawk the arrangement. They retrofit God to assure a heavenly supply chain. He becomes a cosmic "warehouse foreman," and an unfailing "distributor of happiness."

Consumerism is a specialized form of materialism-not to be equated with "consuming." All of us are consumers, whether food, oxygen, sunshine, medicine, or clothing. Thanks to mass production, many beneficial products are common possessions for most of us. But consumerism is something else. It is the belief-exhibited in attitude and practice-that the quality of one's life depends upon unending acquisition, accumulation, and consumption of generated "goods." Media repeats this mantra 24/7. Consumerism's range extends from electronic gadgets to social approval received from the "style setters."

Consumerism's gargantuan external engine is the science of advertising and easy credit. Its internal driver is our vulnerability to consumerism's "gospel." It enslaves whole families, breeds narcissism, emaciates souls, and scorns moral excellence. Its end is to gulp down community and virtue, nobility and humility, self-discipline and growth of soul.

Describing materialism and consumerism is the easy part. Battling it is quite another. Let's identify seven strategies for grappling with materialism and consumerism.

1. Recognize that the problem's primary location is "in here," not "out there." Through the ages, many have tried to fence materialism or exhaustively identify its "out there" members. Materialism is a spiritual problem before it ever becomes a material problem.

2. Combating materialism and consumerism is much like a "tight wire act." A deft balance is required-between crippling austerity on one hand and equating worthwhile life with what one possesses on the other. Fall into condemning the material as evil and we implicitly condemn God for creating. Fall into materialism and we end up worshiping what God created.

3. Overcoming materialism and consumerism is more an art than a science. Is there a precise formula for isolating and defeating materialism and consumerism' Don't even bother to look. Combating materialism and consumerism is more like mastering a musical instrument, or choosing colors for painting a sunset. We are in pursuit of a virtue that requires practiced "habituation."

4. Battling materialism requires diligent and candid self-criticism. Regular examination of our attitudes towards persons and things and of our aspirations must have free rein. The apostle Paul compared Christian self-discipline to an athlete in rigorous training (1 Corinthians 9:25).

5. Materialism is relative. What might qualify as materialism and consumerism in one setting might not apply in another. A camel's hair girdle for clothing, locusts, and wild honey for food were appropriate for John the Baptist. However, if the bank's loan officer were to show up dressed like John, you'd be looking for another bank.

6. Never declare final victory. The temptation to succumb to materialism and consumerism will not cease. Persons who declare final victory invite self-deception and subversion.

7. Make confession a way of life. Confessing failures, both recognized and unrecognized, without becoming morbid and immobilized, must be regularly expressed in the strength of God's grace.

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Holiness Today, May/June 2010