by Aina Marie Svendsen
It is told, in the Celtic tradition, that St Columba once was visited by a traveller in his cell on the island of Iona. The traveller, standing in the middle of the sparsely furnished room, glanced at its emptiness. Then he cried out
“Where is your furniture?”
St. Columba answered: “Where is yours?”
“Oh,” said the traveller, “I cannot carry my furniture, as you know I am a traveller!”
St. Columba answered: “So am I.”
In the beginning of this semester, a friend of mine and I were drinking coffee on the lawn close to the Rooi Plek. We were talking about the future. At one point, my friend looked at me with a dreamy, fleeting look and said: “My big dream is to become economically independent so that I can buy whatever I want without hesitation.” I didn’t know what to answer. And weeks after our conversation about future dreams, several questions kept spinning around in my head: How many people of today’s society share her dream? To what extent do I, consciously or unconsciously, share her dream? And what could be an appropriate, practical, and authentic Christian approach to the consumer culture?
When choosing a research topic, we were asked to select an issue of an economic nature that was of interest to the faith and economics discourse. I will in what follows look at how the human being is understood in a culture of consumption. The consumer culture can be viewed as part of a web of “cultures” that frame many societies of today; capitalism, individualism, the aspect of advertisement and marketing, globalisation etc. The consumer culture is strongly linked to economics as a big part of our marked economy today relies heavily on people’s consumption. Hamilton is of the opinion that growth “fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakened social cohesion and corrodes character.” (Quoted in Roos, 2008, p.282) There are many points of entry when criticising consumerism from a Christian point of view. Due to the size and scope of the assignment, I’ve chosen to narrow my approach. In the paper’s first part I look at the aspect of the anthropology that undergirds consumerism, and especially at the aspect of individuality in relation to the human being as a communal being. Then I look at the aspects that Christian theology contributes with when one is to define a human being. I will use a document that was written in 2009 as my main point of departure. This document was written by a diverse group of Norwegian theologians that was appointed by the Norwegian bishops to reflect upon what it is to be a human being, and how the Church can promote and communicate this view. I will also make use of an article by Mark G. Nixon.
In the paper’s second part I look closer at two Christian movements of today that tries to respond to the consumer culture by going against the grain by emphasising fellowship as a value. I will look at look at the New Monasticism and at the Norwegian Crossroad movement (Korsvei). I have been part of the CrossRoad movement for six years, thought I’ll not share my personal experiences in this paper. As I journey along with my assignment, I will reflect upon the following question:
What aspects of the anthropology that undergirds consumerism are problematic from a Christian point of view, and what would be an appropriate, practical, and authentic Christian response?
I will do a final reflection on this question at the end of the paper.
The anthropology of the consumer culture
The consumer society
In his book Christianity and a critique of consumerism. A survey of six points of entry Conradie refers to consumerism as “the ideology of our time.” (2009, p. 9) Consumerism can be regarded as the guiding principle of the culture, and the term can refer to a “cultural orientation.” (Conradie 2009, p. 13) Zygmunt Bauman “characterises consumerism as a social arrangements where human wants, desires and longings are propelled to become the principal operating force in a society.” (Bauman, 2007 cited in Conradie 2009, p. 13) The economy of the world today needs the consumers to buy. Through massive marketing it is communicated that unfulfilled needs exists, and the advertisements present the product that will fulfil the need. But this fulfilment lasts only for a short while as new products emerge and the consumers’ horizons of needs are expanded once more.
Conradie mentions the single family house and the automobile as two of the most important factors that have been shaping the consumer culture. These have again caused social challenges such as isolation. This isolation “has led to an atrophy of the psychological skills required to live in close proximity with others.” (Conradie 2009, pp. 34-35) A successful person within this framework can be described as a person that is self-sufficient, productive and independent. One might claim that the market value has become the measurement all things. Thus “we have been schooled into a particular mode of interpretation with regard to what we perceive as being of value.” (Conradie 2009, pp. 38-39) In his chapter dealing with hermeneutics, Conradie makes a remark upon how the consumer culture has changed how we engage with information. This influences also how people relate to Church and the message of the Gospel. The advertisement and marketing “direct people to fulfil their needs for meaning, wholeness, and belonging through consumption.” (Conradie 2009, p. 57) It is thus a challenge for the Church not to be just one commodified religious product.
The anthropology inherent in the consumer culture
Nixon, in his article ”Satisfaction for Whom? Freedom for What? Theology and the Economic Theory of the Consumer”, highlights five anthropological assumptions that undergird the consumer theory. (2007, pp.42-43) The five assumptions can be summarized as follows;(1) the human being makes his/hers choices individually, (2) The human being knows his/her needs, (3) the human being possesses perfect information about the different products being available, (4) the human being is given the necessary resources to fulfil his/hers need, and (5) there is no tomorrow or yesterday that has to be taken into consideration when the human being is to fulfil his/her needs.
The emphasis and point of orientation is the individual’s needs and satisfaction. Nixon examines the five assumptions one by one and shows how their understanding of the human being does not correspond with the reality. The theory of the consumer incorporate a strong anthropology with “its axiomatic character, its strong social and value dimension, the ideological role that it plays in legitimating the free market system, and the often adverse consequences of the system for those it encompasses (…).” (Nixon 2007, p. 46) Nixon is critical towards individual satisfaction as the goal for human lives, a view that can be said to undergird the consumer theory. This assumption makes it difficult for community among human beings to grow. “Both God and community becomes secondary”, to the satisfaction of the individual. (Nixon 2007, p. 53)
At the end of his article Nixon looks at the implications of theology and economics engaging with each other. The one discipline can challenges the other, and the other way around. One of the questions that theology might ask in this space between the disciplines is: “How could consumer theory modify its axioms to view the individual as a communal creature and what would be the effects of doing so?” (Nixon 2007, p. 55)
In what follows I will have a closer look at how Christian theology and the Christian tradition has understood the human beings as communal creature.
A Christian anthropology
A Norwegian group of theologians – towards a diverse, concrete and dynamic definition
In 2009, a group of 7 Norwegian theologians were appointed by the Norwegian State Church’s bishops to investigate the Christian anthropology. The group’s mandate was to investigate important aspects of the Bible’s teaching and the Evangelical Lutheran teaching on what a human being is. The group was told to do this within the framework of today’s cultural environment and in dialogue with different Christian dominions. In what follows I will highlight two aspects from the report that they produced; First on the elusive and contextual aspect of the definition of a human being, and secondly at the aspect of the human being as a consumer. I will refer to the 7 theologians as ‘the group’.
The Christian tradition does not start of by defining what a human being is or should be. According to the group, the Christian tradition first of all starts by wondering; what is man? (cf. Psalm 8:5). (Bondevik et al. 2009, p. 8) The definition of a human kind is always liked to concrete human beings, and cannot be reduced to a concept or an idea. It is not possible to pin down a perfect and “once-and-for-all” abstract definition. In addition, the question (‘what is man?’) is always related to the personal quest of one’s own humanity. The group refers to this as the existential side of the process of defining. “Jeg er ikke alene om å være menneske på jorden, men deler min menneskelighet med andre mennesker. Når jeg tar stilling til hvem jeg er som menneske, tar jeg også stilling til andre menneskers menneskelighet.” (I am not the only person on earth, but I share my humanity with other human beings. When I decide on who I am as a human being, I also decide on the humanity of other human beings.”) (Bondevik et.al. 2009, p. 8)
The group is dealing with the aspect of the human being as a consumer. It admits that there is no simple solution to the challenge of consumption. Consumption also creates jobs and income, and the governmental economy makes it possible to solve public tasks as a fellowship. At the same time as it is not a solution to disagree with consumption in general and the aspect of human beings are consumers, the issue becomes problematic if the human being is viewed as a consumer only. According to the group, this is where the Church can contribute, by promoting a definition of the human being that takes a diversity of perspectives into consideration. (Bondevik et.al. 2009, p. 12-16) In their report, the group mentions perspectives such as human being as nature, as culture, as a being in a multi cultural context etc..
Nixon – objections on characteristics asocial, amoral and ahistorical
In his article, Nixon points to three areas were the theory of the consumer is contradicting the Judaeo-Christian view of a human being. It is asocial, amoral and ahistorical. (Nixon 2007, p. 46) I will look closer at how Nixon understands the consumer culture’s asocial characteristic and how a Christian approach objects to this.
In the consumer theory that Nixon elaborate and develop, the human being seen as an entity caring for his/hers own needs. The consumer culture focuses on the satisfaction of the consumer and the instant fulfilment of his/hers need. A consequence of this emphasis might be that social relationships and cultural elements are commodified as well. Everything is measured as to whether it brings the individual satisfaction. As an objection to this, Nixon mentions the Biblical view of the human being underlining that man is of communal nature. (Nixon 2007, p. 46) Nixon refers to the two stories of how human being was created in Genesis 1 and 2-3. “(…) The Judaeo-Christian view begins with the individual in community, specifically, a community with God is both present and of ultimate concern as creator and source of meaning and value.” (Nixon 2007, p. 47) If one only takes Genesis 1 into account it is, according to Nixon, possible to argue that humans have the right to self-determination and self-possession without taking the other into account. If we, on the other hand, read Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 together, this interpretation is difficult to defend. Nixon refers to Von Rad and his notion on the importance of nephesh as the most important aspect of the anthropology of the Old Testament. Nephesh is the word that is rendered as ‘the breath of life’ (NIV), ‘life-giving breath’ (Good News Translation), and as ‘life’s breath’ (Common English Bible). “The nephesh feels hunger, it loathes, it hates, it feels anger, it loves, weeps and, most important of all, can die.” (Von Ran, 1962 cited in Nixon 2007, p.49) Nixon points out that the Torah deals with the community as a people with corporate personality. The individuals were bound together in their experience of being/having nephesh. (Nixon 2007, p. 49) In Christian theology this thought is reflected in the metaphor of the believers all being part of one body. It is within this body, where every individual is seen as valuable and designed to different tasks, “that people are nourished, and if one member of the body hurts, all suffer. (Nixon 2007, p. 49) Nixon points out that being created in the image of God is first and foremost a call to imitate God’s love, and this love “must be reciprocated and exercised within community.” (Nixon 2007, p.47)
As Nixon, Conradie calls for alternative values that might be promoted as an alternative to the individualism embedded in consumption. He advocates for a sense of community, and I find that his point aligns with the notion of nephesh and the body of Christ. Conradie writes: “What is necessary is a sense of community characterised by just relationships, active participation, cooperation amongst all, a sense of caring for others and a sense of connectedness (ubuntu).” (Conradie 2009, p. 41)
What would be an appropriate Christian approach to the consumer culture? I think that there is no one, final answer to this question. Different context causes different human beings to come up with different “solutions”. In what follows, I will look at the new monasticism and at the CrossRoad movement as two such solutions.
In the article “The New Monasticism”, Rob Moll, investigates the New Monasticism movement by visiting three communities in North America. These communities can be seen as representing “the latest wave of evangelicals who see in community life an answer to society’s materialism and the church’s complacency toward it.” (Moll 2005, p. 39-40) Young, often single, persons come together and live in poor and disadvantaged areas, sharing “a desire to experience intense community (…).” (Moll 2005, p. 40) They make use of ancient traditions to form these communities. In June 2004 a conference held in Durham, North Carolina, marked the birth of this new movement. The participant of the conference developed 12 distinctives that would mark the communities that wanted to be seen as part of the umbrella term New monasticism. The rules embed the care of the other and a devoted life in community with other believers. Moll lists the rules:
“submission to the larger church, living with the poor and outcast, living near community members, hospitality, nurturing a common community life and a shared economy, peacemaking, reconciliation, care for creation, celibacy or monogamous marriage, formation of new members along the lines of the old novitiate, and contemplation.”(2005, p.41)
In an interview, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a leader of such a community in North Carolina, said that he thought “that new monasticism is a response to individualistic and consumer driven Christianity.” (Wolpert 2011) The communities belonging to the New Monasticism movement can be seen as groups of Christians that are going against the grain. They refuse to accept the status quo, and are dedicated to try to live out the Gospel. Living in a community is not as simple solution, but contains both difficulties and blessings. (Moll 2005, p. 44) Moll points out that the community life is difficult to combine with family life in the long run. This may result in a “love-them-and-leave-them pattern” as young single people live in such a community for a while, and then moves on when their life situation changes. (Moll 2005, p.46) This type of radical and eccentric response to the challenges posed by the individualistic consumer culture may appear as “sexy ministry” according to Don Stubbs who works as a director of recruitment for Inner City Impact in Chicago. (Moll 2005, p.46) Stubb says that he would rather see workers who committed themselves to long term engagement.
In his chapter on consumerism and virtue ethics, Conradie warns in his conclusion against the danger of moralism. A moral critic of consumerism can easily turn into “the ineffectual murmurings of the self-appointed guardians of the moral values if nation.” (Conradie 2009, p. 55) One has to hold closely together the promotion of different values and “a theological vision of grace and sufficiency.” (Conradie 2005, p. 55) Moll also makes a remark upon the element of guilt that is sometimes used, consciously or unconsciously, to manipulate people to become part of communities associated with the New Monasticism. In relation to the New Monasticism movement, one cannot say that the communities are only criticizing morally without “walking the talk”. At the same time, one might ask the question whether this radical approach that challenge human beings to uproot, turn around and totally change their ways of living (if they lived like most affluent, western people do), is realistic for the majority of believers.
In my opinion, it is not possible to judge a movement such as the new monasticism as either wrong or right. It can be seen, I think, as one way of solving the tension between the promoted consumerism and one’s personal belief. But is it possible to find a reaction that is more doable to the broad scope of Christians, and that is so well informed in the economical discipline that it makes use of a nuanced language. As Miller has pointed out: “There are many (…) people, whose sincerely held believes and values are deeply informed by Christianity and other profound traditions, who are frustrated by the excesses on consumption and would like to live another way, but simply do not know what to do.” (Miller, 2003 cited in Conradie 2009, p.55). This brings me to the Norwegian CrossRoad movement.
The CrossRoad movement
In his article “Searching for spirituality roots and discipleship in a postmodern consumer culture”, the Norwegian professor Leif Gunnar Engedal dose an analysis of the Norwegian CrossRoad Movement. He looks at the “distinctive character of the Christian spirituality” that is developed within this movement. (Engedal 2011, p.1) The movement is not an old movement, but was founded in 1984. It was born out of an enthusiastic devotion to Jesus Christ and the announcement of the coming Kingdom, and frustration felt in relation to the poverty and suffering taking place in the world. The movement can be seen as a reaction towards what the founders viewed as a rather conventional and dull spirituality within the Norwegian State Church. (Engedal 2011, p. 2) Today the movement is growing, and it has also expanded outside Norway. It has its own journal, its own liturgies and prayers and the so calls “Four Road Signs for Disciples.” (Engedal 2011, p. 2) Unlike the New monasticism, the CrossRoad movement does not consist of committed communities. The people that take part in the movement’s arrangement, most important is the summer festival held every second summer, are Christians from different denominations that live all kinds of different lives. Engedal writes:
The movement is situated in the midst of an affluent society, in a pluralistic culture, within a dominant Lutheran Church with a vast majority of passive members. (…) The CRM witnesses a new sense of spiritual openness and longing of authentic life.” (Engedal 2011, p. 4)
How does the movement go about when trying to live out this authentic Christian life in such a context? In what follows I will examine the movements spirituality by looking at the four Road Signs as this are meant to give and indicate authentic direction to the movement of believers. Other aspects of the movement will not be dealt with due to the scope of the paper.
The Four Road Signs of Disciples
The four Road Signs have “been of crucial importance for the development of CRM’s (CrossRoad Movement) spiritual identity.” (Engedal 2011, p. 2) I would claim that it is possible to say that they form the heartbeat of the movement. The Road Signs tries to say something more specific about what it actually implies to be a disciple in a society deeply marked by individualism and pluralism. (Engedal 2011, p.6) Engedal notices that the Road Signs both involves a strong counter-cultural dimension, and at the same time they are flexible and open guiding principles. “They combine in a certain manner a directive and a non-directive strategy.” (Engedal 2011, p.7) The Road Signs are not seen as goals that should be fulfilled, but rather as principles that guide the disciple as she/he journey as a believer of Christ. They are guiding markers of direction and allow the believer to be on the way.
The first Road Sign is “Seeking Jesus Christ”. This points to a personal search for the individual’s way, at the same time as this road is identified and viewed as a roas that one walk together with others. The personal search “is a search within a community of believers.” (Engedal 2011, p. 7) The second Road Sign is “Building communities”. This encourages the believer “to establish relationships and build communities.” (Engedal 2011, p. 7) The third reads “Living more simply”, and this Road Sign challenges the lifestyle promoted by the cultural forces of a consumer culture. The fourth Road Sign is “Struggle for justice” and points to a broader perspective. “It transcends the limits of personal piety and points to the vital importance of issues related to social, economic and ecological justice.” (Engedal 2011, p. 7)
Engedal refers to R. Wuthnow that identified two different categories of spirituality: (1) the spirituality of dwelling, and (2) the spirituality of seeking. The spirituality that grows out of the Cross Road movement can be said to be “a transformative spirituality of seeking” where the believer is seen as a pilgrim, as Homo Viator. (Engedal 2011, p.9) The movement promote a life of discipleship that has a clear goal. Engeldal summarize the spirituality of the the CrossRoad movement like this: “Living more simply, guided be hospitality, celebrating the goodness of earthly life, enjoying the blessings of fellowship and never giving up the struggle for social and ecological justice.” (Engedal 2011, p.11)
In the introduction I asked the following question:
What aspects of the anthropology that undergirds consumerism are problematic from a Christian point of view, and what would be an appropriate, practical, and authentic Christian response?
The Christian view of the human being does not eliminate the aspect of the human as a consumer. To consume is part of what it is to be a human. But if man is only viewed as a consumer it becomes problematic. When defining a human being from a Christian point of view, one should take a diversity of perspectives into consideration. One of the important aspects that undergird these many perspectives is the notion of the human being as a relational being. One of the problematic aspects with the anthropology that undergirds consumerism is emphasis on the individual as the centre of meaning of life. The satisfaction of the individuals needs, created constantly, is the goal. This goal does not go well together with the Christian view.
One can choose different ways of challenging this goal. In my paper I looked at two different responses. Both responses, the communities belonging to the New Monasticism, and the CrossRoad movement, can be seen as deeply personal approaches. At the same time this personal approach is rooted in the belief that it is in relation to and committed to each other that we can truly explore our manifold humanity, and keep the hope of God’s kingdom alive.
The approaches of the movements can be viewed as quite radical. This is at least true when it come to the New Monasticism. On the one side I do not think that these responses define the only appropriate, practical Christian response to the consumer culture. On the other side, I do think that their approaches have captured an important aspect of the Christian approach – the aspect of fellowship. It is as a fellowship that we have to figure out a way of relating to a consumer culture that reduces the human being to a consumer only. It is within fellowships that we might get encouraged, challenged and transformed. And it is in fellowship with God and other human beings that our true identities lie.
Bondevik, Christoffersen, Fiskå, Guvsám et al. 2009. Hva er da et mennekse? Å kommunisere kirkens menneskesyn. [online]. Available as Pdf at: <http://www.kirken.no/?event=doLink&famID=6886> [Accessed 12.10.2011]
(Translation of the documents title: “What is a human being? How to communicate the Church’s view of a human being.”)
Conradie, E. M. 2009. Christianity and a critique of consumerism. A survey of six points of entry. Wellington: Bible Media
Church of Norway General Synod on Consumption and Justice.(Issued 18.11.1996). [online]. Available at: <http://www.kirken.no/miljo/index.cfm?id=238205> [Accessed 12.10.2011]
Engedal, L. G. 2011. Searching for spiritual roots and discipleship in a postmodern consumer culture. In: Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 11/1, Spring 2011, pp. 51-66
(Availabe as pdf (pp. 1-12) at: http://www.korsvei.no/korsvei/vedlegg/Engedal_omKorsvei_iSpiritus2011.pdf)
Moll, R. 2005. The New Monasticism. In: Christianity Today, September 2005, pp.38-46
Nixon, M. G. 2007. Satisfaction for Whom? Freedom for What? Theology and the Economic Theory of the Consumer. In: Journal of Business Ethics 70, pp. 39-60
Roos, A. (ed.) 2008. Economics. An introduction. Johannesburg: Heinemann
Wolpert, A. 2011. Exploring the New Monasticism, Relevant. God. Life. Progressive Culture, [online]. Available at: < http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/features/21029-the-new-monastics> [Accessed 12.10.2011]
Aina Marie is a Norwegian student at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.