Christ and Consumer Culture
We are all consumers. As finite, dependent, embodied human beings, all of us need goods and services to survive, flourish, and enjoy the lives we each possess. For Americans, the vast majority of our consumption comes by means of the wages we receive from our employers, rather than home production as in agrarian societies. So the simple question arises, “How should Christian congregations and individuals faithfully engage with the modern market economy as consumers?”1
This four part series, I hope, will be an example of fulfilling Conciliar Post’s goal of “serious reflection upon matters of theological importance.”2 After all, what could be of more theological importance than consumption, an act which we perform many times a day, which reflects the desires of our guts and hearts? The angle of engagement I take in this series is not one of public policy concerns or capitalism vs. socialism debates, but of day-to-day practices such as eating, entertaining, and transporting. The series will follow a general pattern of presenting a problem for the consumer in the modern market economy, and how the resources of the Christian tradition call us into “concrete alternative practices that open up a different kind of economic space—the space marked by the body of Christ.”3
In the modern market economy, there is no monarch, dictator, or bureaucracy charged with the task of planning the production and distribution of goods and services. When we enter the shopping mall or grocery store, Barack Obama does not hand each of us a list of rations to pick off of the shelves. So, in a certain sense, the American economy is free. The whims of the consumer are not constrained by an outside force. Milton Friedman, in his book Capitalism and Freedom, argues that this freedom is of the utmost importance to protect and promote. He explains, “So long as effective freedom of exchange is maintained, the central feature of the market organization of economic activity is that it prevents one person from interfering with another with respect to most of his activities.”4 “Freedom of exchange,” then, allows each person to purchase according to their desires, free to purchase toward any perceived end the consumer deems favorable.5
I want to argue that the freedom of the market should be met with unease by Christians. This conception of the “free” market, assumes its virtue to be a mere freedom from coercion, outside of any conception of a freedom for an objective end. William Cavanaugh, following Augustine, argues that when “a free market has no telos, that is, no common end to which desire is directed,”6 the desires of consumers become enslaved to the spirit of the age, in our case the spirit of consumerism.7 If we believe, as the Westminster Confession states, that all of creation is called to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever,”8 then we must first recognize that the market is a creature9 and then second reject the spirit of the age, for it does not conform to the order toward which it was created. Freedom of consumption, to conclude, outside of an objective telos given to us by the creator God, is thus an idolatry of, and enslavement to, our own autonomy.
In the world of the Incarnation, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”10 Every square inch, every dollar and cent, every consumption of a good, is to be “conformed to the image of his Son.”11 If this is true, then for the Christian there is a telos for this world and thus for our interaction with the market. Furthermore, this purpose for consumption, glorifying and enjoying God, is not of our own making, but is one that we receive. In this reception, we are given eyes to see that “the church as a people of God who live in a [consumer culture] but are not of such a [culture] is called to inspire a distinctively ecclesial set of economic practices… that anticipate the future economy of the kingdom, while working as a leaven within the present market system.”12
So, given that the market has a telos, imbued by its divine creator, what does this mean for Christian congregations and individuals who long to faithfully consume within the modern market economy?
Catholic theologian and economist Mary Hirschfeld argues that faithful consumption requires recognizing that “material goods are valuable only insofar as they are ordered toward virtue.”13 This statement has many implications, though here I will focus on one. Hirschfeld argues that we must learn to see our consumption decisions as a sort of art, learning to ask whether our purchases conform to a harmonious vision for our families, homes, and lifestyle.14 She sets up a hypothetical situation involving two families wanting to purchase a dishwasher for the kitchen. The first family decides against the purchase, recognizing that though the dishwasher would save labor, the time would be valuable to connect the family in a common purpose each night. The second family loves to spend certain nights entertaining guests at their home, and thus purchases the dishwasher, seeing it as important in order to spend quality time with their friends.
In both cases, the families discerned what virtues their home was ordered towards, and directed their consumption patterns towards this harmonious vision. The two families were able to see their purchases not as autonomous decisions defined by their freedom, but as participation in the received telos of the glorification of God.
To conclude, this vision of faithful consumption, as participation in the divine telos for creation, is both restful and convicting. It is restful in that Christians are not tied to the desires of the spirit of the age, but are beckoned by a purpose that is not of their own making. However, we American Christians must see the call to faithful consumption as one that is not to be taken lightly, for the pulls of status, novelty, and individualism are so pervasive in our modern consumer culture. May the Holy Spirit give us both rest in the gospel and conviction in this broken world.