UPDATE: The audio of Father Jensen’s lecture has now been posted at Ancient Faith Radio. It’s well worth your time. Audio: East Meets West: Consumerism and Asceticism
Attending Acton University last week in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was one of the highlights of the year for me. Aside from hearing from some speakers I’ve long admired (J. Budziszewski, Anthony Bradley, Rev. Robert Sirico, and William McGurn among some), I listened to an Orthodox priest who captivated me.
Father Gregory Jensen presented “East Meets West: Consumerism and Asceticism.” Drawing on the work of church fathers, modern anthropologists, and the Scriptures themselves, he made a great case for why the consumerism/anti-consumerism binary is unhelpful and ultimately untrue: from the very beginning man has been a consumer. Even before the Fall, God gave Adam the Garden and all the fruits therein for his enjoyment. In fact, our call to cultivate and shape creation is a function of our consuming them and our own anthropology. Hence, the anti-consumerism rhetoric of today seems knee-jerk and insufficient. We were made to partake of the good things God gives us. As Jensen put it, our consumption can actually lead us to communion with God. Christians acknowledge this most starkly when we partake of the Eucharist.
Furthermore, our consuming actually strengthens social bonds, as anthropologist Mary Douglas tells us. Think of a birthday party. Purchasing gifts for one another — hopefully out of genuine love and not social obligations — is one such act of socially-strengthening consumption. Jensen used an iconic image to make this point: a family gathered around the dinner table at Thanksgiving.
So why asceticism? Just like any desire, the desire to consume can run rampant. If left unchecked, it can become a monster. This is consumerism. As Rev. Robert Sirico has put it: “Consumerism is the muddled idea that only [emphasis mine] in having more can we be more.” Asceticism — which Webster defines as “practicing strict self-denial as a measure of personal and especially spiritual discipline” — is how we guard against this. It’s the attempt to rightly order our desire to consume so that it doesn’t take on that “only” modifier in Sirico’s quote above. Asceticism is at the heart of the Lenten season: we purposefully deny ourselves something in order to remind us of our ultimate dependence upon God to both: 1) sustain us despite our want and 2) from his fullness provide for us in the absence of the thing we want. And it points us toward the celebratory feast to come (in the case of Lent, on Easter Sunday). Jensen highlights the fact that problems with consumerism often arise when we refuse to feast — when everything we consume comes in such quantity and intensity so as to render the term feast meaningless; if everything is a feast, there really is no feast at all. Ultimately, fasting — one manifestation of asceticism — is the preparation for celebration, in the same way that we don’t stop and order a Big Mac on the way to Grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner.
This all struck a chord with me because it’s not just in the realm of physical consumption this rings true. Jensen’s anthropological and theological call for asceticism applies to any good, but ultimately rampant, desire we may find ourselves with. The notion that we can, in fact, develop the muscle required to keep such desires in check is such a foreign one to us. In terms of sexuality, we’re told that if we want it, we should have it, that no sexual desire is really out of bounds (at least that’s where the logic being used takes us). Julie and I have struggled for many months now with where we live: a small, inconvenient place for a family of four. But, for various reasons, this is where we’re meant to be. So how do we hold back envy and discontentment in the midst of our frustration? Asceticism may be the key: steering our thoughts and desires to an attitude of home-economic fasting, if you will. This seems to me exactly what C.S. Lewis spoke of in The Abolition of Man when he spoke of us exercising the muscle of our “chests” to help our minds rule over the passions of our bellies:
The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison of officers between cerebral man and visceral man.
Asceticism is the training of that habit. As Jensen puts it, asceticism is the way we learn how to become prudent; it is temperance. Those are dirty words today, but oh so needed.