Tomorrow I fly to Rio de Janeiro to deliver an address on the topic of happpiness. As I have written the talk I have chosen to focus on two different, rival accounts of happiness: consumerism and Christian personalism. In preparing for my address I have been struck both by the overlap between consumerism and Christianity on key points as well as the quasi-religious nature of consumerism.I trust that this ad for the Infiniti G Coupe speaks for itself as "Mr. Wonderful" covers up all the pictures of his family with pictures of his new car. The bottom of the ad (not visible here) reads in small letters: "The newest member of the family gets all the attention." Apparently we're not talking about the baby here. Unless this fool has taken to calling his mode of transport his new "baby".
That's the crass side of consumerism. Years ago B.J. Thomas sang a song called "Using Things and Loving People." It ain't a great song musically (it sounds like it belongs on a "Sesame Street" episode) but there is not much to take issue with in the lyrics. Unless you've really bought into consumerism and are anxious to defend your new "baby".
But as I said, that's the crass side of consumerism. To further our analysis let's distill consumerism as a quasi-religion down to four maxims and compare it to Buddhism. First note Buddhism's Four Noble Truths:
(1)Life is suffering
(2)Suffering arises from desire
(3)Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
(4)Detachment comes through the 8 Fold Path
That is a classically religious account of reality. It posits a global problem and poses a means to transcend or be saved from that problem. According to Buddhism, the problem is desiring things, while the liberation — the Gospel message — comes as one breaks out of that desire. In other words, to suffer no longer you simply cease to desire things. And the means to achieve this comes by following the Eightfold Path.
Consumerism is diametrically opposed to this. Here is its equivalent Four Noble Truths:
(1)Life is suffering
(2')Suffering arises from unfulfilled desire
(3')Suffering ceases when desires are fulfilled
(4')The fulfillment of desire comes through acquiring material goods
What strikes me about this is that a Christian could appropriate the first three of the consumerist's Four Noble Truths. The Christian agrees that life is filled with suffering. But in contrast to the Buddhist, and in agreement with the consumerist, the problem lies not with desire per se but rather with the lack of fulfilled desire. Consequently the way to deal with this problem is to fulfill desire.
Where the Christian departs from the consumerist analysis is found in the object of desire and the proper means to fulfill it:
(4'') The fulfillment of desire comes through loving God and neighbor
Or as Augustine said, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in you".
While the Christian's gospel message is ultimately rooted in the work of Jesus, we must also recognize our living out in a sanctified response to what Christ has done for us. So in the fullest sense, (4") is part of the liberating message of the Gospel, what Tom Wright calls "setting the world to rights."
In mounting this analysis I was struck by how much consumerism gets right in its fomenting and fulfilling of desire. But I was struck even more by how much consumerism gets wrong by having the wrong object of desire at the center of its message. Ultimately everything depends on the proper fourth proposition.
On that sober note let's end with Jesus' own succinct refutation of (4'): "life does not consist in an abundance of possessions." (Luke 12:15) And yes Mr. Wonderful, that includes Japanese performance coupes.
For more discussion of consumerism you can visit my website audio lectures and scroll down to the "Christianity and consumerism" section.