Several scholars and members of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently explored and contemplated consumerism, along with its potenial dangers and blessings, in the May 2003 issue of Voices, the parish journal. Ken Myers also contributed an article to this issue (titled "Consumerism: Wherever Your Treasure Is, There too Will Be Your Heart"). His article, which introduces writer Wendell Berry's thoughts on the God-given order of Creation and what that order means for human housekeeping, is available here.
The structure of a great proportion of our social, economic, and political life encourages us to think of ourselves as consumers. "Think" is actually the wrong verb here, since what is happening is an act of presupposition or assumption or intuition. Since so many institutions around us encourage such an assumption, since the "self as consumer" is a model of self-understanding so pervasive, it is a great challenge to gain enough detachment from the prevailing winds to think of our lives in any other way. And yet the consequences of imagining ourselves principally as consumers are destructive and disordering.
In order to recover other ways of imagining our lives, we need prophets and practices. We need the assistance of wise and creative truth-tellers who have, by God's grace, been given a vision of life that challenges the great myths of our time. From such seers, we can acquire models for living our lives deliberately, ways of engaging space, time, and the material world that conform more fittingly with the order our Creator has established.
In my own reading, I have found Wendell Berry to be among the most profound sages addressing the manifold confusions associated with the habitual turn of our mind, hearts, and bodies toward consumption. Berry is a novelist, poet, farmer, and essayist, not necessarily in that order. His writing is plain and elegant, deceptively simple to the point of being rejected by many as simplistic. As with the wisest of sources, his work requires meditation and reflection. Many of Berry's observations about the shape of human well-being can only be comprehended if the reader is willing to make radical changes in patterns of living. Not all will have ears to hear.
One of Berry's fundamental assumptions is deeply Christian and yet profoundly out of tune with most of modern culture. It is the assumption that God has established an order in Creation the honoring of which is required if we are to live well. One of the characteristics of modern culture is the contrary, technocratic assumption that the world is just so much raw material awaiting human creativity and transformation. There is no nature to nature (even to human nature), and human willing is meant to be sovereign, free, and unlimited. In this view, we live well when we have power to remake all things according to our desires.
But Christianity taught from the beginning that desires are to be trained to fit reality, to fit the order of Creation. That is the assumption Berry brings to his writing, and he emphasizes what might be called an Incarnational theme within that assumption, training our attention not simply on the immaterial world of ideas and the will, but on the givenness (that is, the Divine ordering) of the world our bodies inhabit as well.
Berry's essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" is a good place for beginners to start with his work. It is contained in a volume called Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. (The title of this book, also the title of one of his essays, suggests how Berry encourages us to join what is often put asunder: we cannot understand the place of sex in our lives (privately and communally) unless we pay attention to how other material aspects of our lives are to be ordered, and we cannot know how freedom should be preserved apart from an understanding of the calling into community that is established in our nature.) In that essay, Berry insists that if we are to preserve any meaning in our lives, "religion" and "economy" cannot be regarded as disconnected. The reasons for this are suggested in the etymology of the word "economy," which at root means literally the "management of a household." "By 'economy' I do not mean 'economics,' which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature. To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and in character. Probably the most urgent question now faced by people who would adhere to the Bible is this: What sort of economy would be responsible to the holiness of life? What, for Christians, would be the economy, the practices and the restraints, of 'right livelihood'? I do not believe that organized Christianity now has any idea."
Berry is very hard on organized Christianity, because he sees the churches behaving as handmaidens to the assumptions of political and economic institutions dedicated to the exploitation of creation rather than its stewardship. "Despite its protests to the contrary, modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. Because it has been so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven, it has been made the tool of much earthly villainy. It has, for the most part, stood silently by while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. . . . It has assumed with the economists that 'economic forces' automatically work for good and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history. It has assumed with almost everybody that 'progress' is good, that it is good to be modern and up with the times.
Berry's critique of national and global forces always comes back to the concrete challenge of individual families, households, and communities. In one of his most comprehensive essays, "Discipline and Hope," he insists that marriage cannot be understood apart from its concrete, material aspects. "The prevalent assumption appears to be that marriage problems are problems strictly of 'human relations': if the husband and wife will only assent to a number of truisms about 'respect for the other person,' 'giving and taking,' et cetera, and if they will only 'understand' each other, then it is believed that their problems will be solved. The difficulty is that marriage is only partly a matter of 'human relations,' and only partly a circumstance of the emotions. It is also, and as much as anything, a practical circumstance. It is very much under the influence of things and people outside itself; that is, it must make a household, it must make a place for itself in the world and in the community. But with us, getting someplace always involves going somewhere. Every professional advance leads to a new place, a new house, a new neighborhood. Our marriages are always being cut off from what they have made; their substance is always disappearing into the thin air of human relations."
The wisdom about consumption in Berry's work is not limited to specific comments he makes about consuming; it permeates his essays as a critique of the posture toward Creation and toward the material world that dominates American society. In theological terms, he is opposed to Gnosticism, the ancient and perennial heresy that matter is evil (or indifferent) and only the world of spirit is really important to God and to us. Berry knows that this does not square with the Biblical account of human life, and so his explicit critiques of consumerism (as in this passage from "Discipline and Hope") tend to refer back to a theologically rooted view of Creation. "A consumer is one who uses things up, a concept that is alien to the creation, as are the concepts of waste and disposability. A more realistic and creative vision of ourselves would teach us that our ecological obligations are to use, not to use up; to use by the standard of real need, not of fashion or whim; and then to relinquish what we have used in a way that returns it to the common ecological fund from which it came.
"The key to such a change of mind is the realization that the first and final order of the creation is not such an order as men can impose on it, but an order in the creation itself by which its various parts and processes sustain each other, and which is only to some extent understandable. . . . The order of the creation, that is to say, is closer to that of drama than to that of a market."
In an essay called "Two Economies," Wendell Berry recounts a conversation with his friend Wes Jackson during which they mused about how to define a framework for thinking about the economy that would be comprehensive enough to deter ecological and social destruction. Berry suggested that an economy based on energy rather than money might be more benign. Jackson thought it still wouldn't be comprehensive enough, and when asked for an alternate framework, he "hesitated a moment, and then, grinning, said 'The Kingdom of God.'" We may not be able to persuade Alan Greenspan et al. to adopt such a standard, but certainly in our discrete households and in the household of faith that is the Church, such a framework ought to be imaginable. [Posted July 2003, KAM]
Malcolm A. Jeeves, Human Nature at the Millennium: Reflections on the Integration of Psychology and Christianity (Baker Books, 1997)
"In addition to specific issues, such as sexual orientation and psychotherapy, there are more general pervasive issues recurring across the board as we detect consensus views emerging about human nature widely shared by scientists working on mind, brain, and behavior. Thus, taken together, much neuropsychological research has pointed almost uniformly to the ever-tightening link among mind, brain, and behavior. One result is that it has raised, generally and with a fresh urgency, issues such as the extent to which we actually do have freedom of choice in our thinking and behaving. In the domain of sexual orientation, this in turn raises important questions for Christians for whom moral choice and responsibility are not optional extras. More specifically, among Christians it raises questions of the status of terms we have become so familiar with in the past such as soul, spirit, body." Malcolm A. Jeeves, Human Nature at the Millennium
In Human Nature at the Millennium: Reflections on the Integration of Psychology and Christianity, Malcolm A. Jeeves discusses how current psychological knowledge may affect traditional Christian beliefs about man and develops a framework for reconciling what Scripture reveals about man with what psychology reveals. Before describing either view, Jeeves introduces readers to psychology. He defines what it is, states that many consider it a discipline of science, and reviews past models of the interaction between established sciences (such as physics, astronomy, or geology) and Christianity and religion. He then provides Biblical and psychological portraits of human nature, discusses contemporary discoveries from psychology about how people function, and compares those discoveries with Christian and Biblical understandings of mankind.
Human Nature at the Millennium comprises a preface and thirteen chapters, a number of which include technical scientific language. Each chapter, however, ends with a "Taking Stock" section that summarizes the chapter's content in layman's terms. [Posted July 2005, ALG]
Robert P. Kraynak & Glenn Tinder, eds., In Defense of Human Dignity: Essays for Our Times (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2003)
"The defense of human dignity has been a perennial theme of philosophers and theologians, but it takes on new and special urgency in our own times. . . . [Many observers] think that the major challenge of our times is to recover a true and authentic understanding of human dignity and to defend it against threats from modern civilization." Robert P. Kraynak, In Defense of Human Dignity
In In Defense of Human Dignity: Essays for Our Times, editors Robert P. Kraynak and Glenn Tinder gather essays that name threats to human dignity concomitant with modern civilization and develop defenses of the former. Kraynak, in the introduction, "Defending Human Dignity: The Challenge of Our Times," writes about issues at the core of human dignity, namely: whether or not human beings have a distinct and privileged place in society that carries with it duties and rights; and whether or not they have a unique destiny and moral worth that should be protected from science gone awry. He states that modern civilization threatens human dignity in multiple ways, and gives a brief description of both the organization of the anthology and the pieces therein. The first essay, "Against Fate: An Essay on Personal Dignity" (by Tinder), addresses the dignity of individuals, treating people as ends and never merely means. The following seven essays develop Tinder's themes while also offering alternative perspectives on dignity and its political and ethical implications. They are titled: "Kant on Human Dignity" (Susan M. Shell); "'Made in the Image of God': The Christian View of Human Dignity and Political Order" (Kraynak); "Between Sanctity and Depravity: Human Dignity in Protestant Perspective" (John Witte, Jr.); "A House Divided, Again: Sanctity vs. Dignity in the Induced Death Debates" (Timothy P. Jackson); "Are Freedom and Dignity Enough? A Reflection on Liberal Abbreviations" (David Walsh); "A Well-Ordered Society" (John Rawls); and "Saving Modernity from Itself: John Paul II on Human Dignity, 'the Whole Truth about Man,' and the Modern Quest for Freedom" (Kenneth L. Grasso). Tinder provides the book's afterword, "Facets of Personal Dignity." [Posted July 2005, ALG]
"This current battle is the latest engagement in a very long war—the struggle over the nature of man. It is a battle which has been precipitated by the rise of new and powerful sciences dealing with man: physiology (particularly of the brain), psychology, sociology and that whole cluster of disciplines variously referred to as the behavioral sciences or sometimes the social sciences. What is at stake in this battle is the very notion of personhood. Are human beings persons in the sense in which that word has been traditionally understood?" C. Stephen Evans, Preserving the Person
In Preserving the Person: A Look at the Human Sciences, C. Stephen Evans examines whether or not the more recent scientific view of man complements the older personalistic view of man; the question he strives to answer is: how do contemporary explanations of personhood compare with how it has been understood traditionally? In the first chapter of the work, "The Problem: The Attack on the Person," he explains what the two views of man entail: the personalistic view understands people as agents who use reason to make choices; who can be held accountable for their actions; and who can be understood best through the eyes of several disciplines, philosophy, sociology, and theology included. The scientific view, on the other hand, understands people as organisms best explained by systems and efficient causality, whose actions are determined by forces in the natural order. Evans notes that the remaining chapters of the book explore the complementarity (or lack thereof) of the views in more depth. Chapters two through five examine what various disciplines of science reveal about man, and what they espouse regarding people as agents. Chapters six and seven explain what is at stake if the older view of man is lost, and chapters eight through twelve develop a contemporary model for thinking about man that does not disregard either the personalistic or scientific view. [Posted June 2005, ALG]
Malcolm Jeeves, "Portraits of Human Nature: Scientific & Theological" (Regent College, recorded in 2002)
Available on CD through the Regent Bookstore, 800-334-3279 or www.regentbookstore.com. A brief question and answer session followed Jeeves's lecture and is included on the CD recording.
In "Portraits of Human Nature: Scientific & Theological," professor emeritus Malcolm Jeeves analyzes what science can contribute to the debate about human nature and dualism. He discusses what people have thought about human nature, how the Imago Dei is manifested in mankind, and spirituality, all in conjunction with scientific discoveries throughout the centuries. The collective evidence, he states, overwhelmingly points away from thinking of humans as dualist beings and towards regarding them as unified wholes. The glimpses of reality science affords reveal that humans are a mysterious unity of body and mind. When that revelation is considered alongside the glimpses of reality that theology affords, Jeeves notes, it is possible to see that human nature is largely defined by people's capacity for relationships with God and others, and that people's spirituality—their practice of their relationship with God—is embodied and thus can change as bodies degenerate or are traumatized.
Jeeves is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of St. Andrews and was President of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland's National Academy of Science and Letters. "Portraits of Human Nature: Scientific and Theological" was recorded in 2002 at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
A Literary Aside:
For centuries, various strains of philosophy in Western civilization have assumed a dual nature in human beings, pitting the mortal flesh against the immortal soul in a battle over which has more eternal importance. As long as these philosophies have existed, however, there have been additional systems of thought that assume the opposite. Poet John Donne (1572-1631) spoke from within one of those traditions, as the following quote from his Easter sermon in 1623 demonstrates:
"Never therefore dispute against thine own happinesse; never say, God asks the heart, that is, the soule, and therefore rewards the soule, or punishes the soule, and hath no respect to the body; Nec augeramus cogitationes a collegio carnis, saies Tertullian, Never go about to separate the thoughts of the heart, from the colledge, from the fellowship of the body; Siquidem in carne, & cum carne, & per carnem agitur, quicquid ab anima emaculetur, All that the soule does, it does in, and with, and by the body. And therefore, (saies he also) Caro abluitur, ut anima emaculetur, The body is washed in baptisme, but it is that the soule might be made cleane; Cargo ungitur, ut anima consecretur, In all unctions, whether that which was then in use in Baptisme, or that which was in use at our transmigration, and passage out of this world, the body was anointed, that the soule might be consecrated; Caro signatur, (saies Tertullian still) ut anima muniatur; The body is signed with the Crosse, that the soule might be armed against tentations; And againe, Caro de Corpore Christi Vescitur, ut anima de Deo saginetur; My body received the body of Christ, that my soule might partake of his merits. He extends it into many particulars, and summes up all thus, Non possunt in mercede separari, quæ opera conjungunt, These two, Body, and Soule, cannot be separated for ever, which, whilst they are together, concurre in all that either of them doe." [Posted June 2005, ALG]