Over at Religion Dispatches, Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado has written an insightful theological reflection on consumerism. I encourage you to read the entire piece when you get a chance, but in the meantime, here are her thoughts on what she calls “consumer theology”:
Religion and shopping may seem like an unlikely pairing, and yet as I dived into my own tradition, Christianity, I found a wealth of biblical scholars, Christian teachings, and Christian scholars that spoke to our consumerism. Oddly, I came to find the clearest answer to my quest to understand our current culture of shopping in the fourth century. Augustine of Hippo, in his poetically written spiritual autobiography, The Confessions, struggles with misguided desire in his long and arduous path to Christianity. As I searched for a theological category to come to terms with our context, the word concupiscence leapt out at me. A theme that emerges in Augustine’s corpus is how we have misguided desire, or lust and passion, in relation to the material world and other human beings. How does Augustine define lust and passion? He often describes it as concupiscence: strong desire, especially sexual, that sometimes implies sin or evil. Concupiscence refers to compulsive and pleasureless enjoyment. Augustine sees all desire as dangerous and evil, for passion leads to a loss of control. Concupiscence describes the culture of shopping.
As a Christian theologian Augustine will ultimately argue that ultimate satisfaction is found in God. As he writes in the opening lines of his Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” We can fool ourselves into thinking that material goods and wealth are the path to happiness, but ultimately Christians argue that true human destiny is the sacred. Oddly, the culture of consumerism relies on a similar logic—its underlying assumption is that there is always something, bigger, better, and more satisfying out there.
A common misconception surrounding Augustine’s view on concupiscence is that the object of desire is evil and seductive. This is not the case. For Augustine, it is not the material good or object that is problematic, it is our misguided desire for it. This is a significant distinction. I in no way want to suggest a vision of Christianity that is at its core anti-materialist. I am also not one to embrace an anti-body, anti-aesthetic vision of the human that demonizes the body. And yet, as I understand it, Christianity teaches us to value relationships over objects and embrace a communal vision of the human community over individualism. This is fundamental, for example, to the Catholic Social tradition, where the common good is foundational, as is the dignity of the human person.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.