Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

When What We See Is What We Worship

The old saying goes that the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many are quick to scoff at the grave implications of a faculty that is used so often for such mundane things that it is taken for granted. Upon examination of the Christian tradition, however, such a claim, though liable to some qualification of being the window to the soul, nonetheless posits sight as one very important access point.

Consider how, of all the senses, the Christian tradition appears to give the most attention to the sense of sight, as if our being and our salvation – our beginning and our end – literally depended on it. The first creation account in the book of Genesis makes the  provision of light – the foundation of sight – the first creative act upon whichall other creative acts follow. It was the sight of a burning bushthat lay the foundations of the forging of the covenant with Israel. The psalms speak of the path of life as also a path that is lit by God, the Gospel of John speaks of Christ as the “light that shines in the darkness”, while the synoptic Gospels give great weight to, Jesus’ healing of the blind as well as the lame. Our salvation lies in a state that theologians call the “Beatific vision” where, as Paul once wrote, our true home lies in an eternal state of “seeing Him face to face”.

Scripture’s attention to the sense of sight is continued on in liturgical worship, where colour, shape and sheen are not incidental to the proper worship of God, but are the very means by which one enters into the proper act of worship. Seeing was very closely linked
to worshiping.

As we know from the Genesis account, however, a major contribution to the downfall of humankind lay in the eating of a fruit that was “pleasing to the eye”. Other than sound, it was also sight that contributed to the entry of sin into the world.

What is interesting to note, however, is that this kind of sight was not a seeing devoid of worship. However banal the object of our sight is, whether it is in a movie, news report, fashion item or porn image, the act of worship is never far behind. In his book Gifts  Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross provides a very important insight into the link between seeing and worshiping. Ross refers to the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to show the way in which seeing in our day not only serves a material function, but is also a spiritual action.

For Debord, seeing was not merely an instrumental function, but also a tapping into a longing for transcendence. Debord speaks of our economy as one dependent on the faculty of sight, and argues that a sight-based economy is driven by a form of “religious fervour” for what Debord calls a “factious god”, and seeing becomes a way of accessing this god.

Though Debord sees the need for a change in the economy by ridding ourselves of the need for religious fervour and gods, Ross sees in this analysis a highly important insight, that Debord recognised that seeing is more than a function but a liturgical “worship of a …  god”. Ross is even more pointed to not only draw a link between seeing and worshiping, but saying that seeing analogous to worshiping. The beholding of a spectacle in an economy saturated with the shine of images and commodities, Ross says, “is like a prayer offered to a malicious god” which “opens us to powers and principalities”. Ross suggests then, that an economy built upon spectacle is not just a material order, but also an order oriented towards the worship of things other than the worship of the God of Israel.

Crunchy-Conservatism, Migrants & Pope Francis

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Crunchy-conservatives” in the United States have started organising against the neoliberal and faux-conservative status-quo, and one outlet for this organisation is the online thinkerspace known as Solidarity Hall. Whilst having run a website for a number of years, the Folk at Solidarity Hall have launched their publishing arm, Solidarity Hall Press, with the release of their first book Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis, edited by Daniel Schwindt.
This book is an edited text with a number of short essays which, from a variety of perspectives and stations in life, the theme of what it means to be a radical and Catholic is explored and what the relatively new papacy of Francis would mean for this intersection. By extension, the contributions of the book explores possibilities for Catholics in America – outside the media-manufactured slogans – to relate to their nation, democracy and modernity.
Though not American, the Divine Wedgie is glad to be associated with the work of Solidarity Hall, with its blogger at large being invited to make an Australian contribution to Radically Catholic, in a chapter entitled “The Migrant and the Latin Church“. A contribution has also been made to the Solidarity Hall website with the online essay “Pop Culture and Total War“, which is a more condensed version of the conference paper presented in Germany for the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, entitled “War by Other Meangirls: Pop Culture as Total War“.
Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis is available in hard copy and on Kindle.

The Third Coming of Christ

The Christian Church is three days into the Christmas season, the period that commemorates the first coming of its founder Jesus Christ. It is not contentious to say that, long after the Christmas trees are down, Christians will continue the hard task of waiting for Christ to come again. However, in that waiting, many Christians seem to operate under the assumption that, until He comes the second time round, Christ is somewhat absent or at least separated from creation.
In response to this assumption the medieval Doctor of the Church, the Office of Readings offers us a sermon by the medieval Doctor of the Church St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who stated that there were not two but three comings of Christ. For Bernard, the period bracketed by the Incarnation and the eschaton – two visible comings – constitutes a hidden and intermediate coming of the Lord. This intermediate coming is no less salvific than the more familiar two, with the only difference being that whilst the two visible comings of Christ were witnessed by believer and non-believer alike, the only witnesses to the invisible coming would be the elect within the body of Christ, who see its transformative power in their own lives.

Some might dismiss this as some purely interiorised flight of the imagination, but note Bernard’s exhortation on what to do in the face of this intermediate coming:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life.
The notion of transforming your “whole way of life” thus points to a very material, visible, transformative and very public dimension to this intermediate coming that is no less material, visible, public or transformative than the first and last comings of Christ.
It is this understanding of God’s coming into creation between the two great visible comings that informs a sacramental imagination, and the medieval understanding (one more acutely articulated in St. Bonaventure’s writings than in St. Thomas Aquinas’) that God is constantly bringing all of creation back to Himself and in the process, transforming creation and making creation more Godlike.

Bonaventure for Environmentalists

In a previous post, reference was made to the necessity for the Christian to be concerned for the environment, whilst at the same time being cautious of not buying into the anthropophobic premises of the most predominant strands of environmentalism. That post suggested that the key lay in finding a new form of anthropocentrism, a picture of the environment with humanity at its centre, which at the same time resists pitting a voraciously consumerist humanity against an innocent and vulnerable planet. To get past this tension, the notion of the stewardship of man is very often put forward by Christian greens as the solution to keeping that anthropocentrist vision of the environment. Yet, the question remains: what is the content of stewardship? Without any positive content, stewardship becomes a slippery term that can run the risk of affirming that very consumerist notion of anthropocentrism.

A possible way forward can be gleaned with a read of Illa Delio’s book Simply Bonaventure, a chapter of which looks into the Trinitarian theology of the 12th century Doctor of the Church. For Bonaventure, Delio suggests, the outpouring of the Trinity within creation leaves a mark of the Godhead within each and every creature, both animate and inanimate. There is thus a mark of the holy in every creature, but this sacralisation is done so in a way that resists the pantheism that is characteristic of much of today’s environmentalism. This is so for two reasons. First, their sacralisation comes not of themselves, but by their relationship with the Triune God. Secondly, rather than remain as they are, all creatures have within them a pull towards the Godhead that made them, to return to the source from whence they sprung forth. In so doing, each creature undergoes a process of perfection.
The twist to this comes as a result of Bonaventure’s platonic premises (which will have to be the subject of another post). Bonaventure writes that each creature undergoes this process of perfection not of their own volition, but by a process of following “models”, higher forms of creatureliness that are more advanced in the path towards the return to God. Bonaventure sees this in the accounts of creation where more and more complex lifeforms are created with each passing day. In addition, Bonaventure sees in each creature a world of potential for transformation to other lifeforms (a principle he calls hylomorphism). This notion of following models of perfection suggests a profound harmony within creation, and thus a set order and telos – namely the Triune God.
However, creation’s return to God can only be properly modeled by a creature that is a composite of material and spiritual nature, and which returns to God by its own free will rather than by instinct. For Bonaventure, only humanity can lead this return to God, and this is the reason why Bonaventure considers humanity as the center of creation. Humanity is given the charge of all of creation to lead that creation’s return into the Trinitarian economy.
Thus, in the writings of Bonaventure, humanity retains his privileged position in the order of creation. At the same time, however, that privileged position is qualified by his awareness of all creature’s destination towards the Triune God and the need for that universe’s perfection. This is an anthropocentrism thus that is rooted in the worship of God rather than the worship of man (a state of sin where humans becomes like gods, as the book of Genesis states). It is an environmentalism that is Eucharistic, for as Catherine Pickstock reminds us, the Eucharist dedicates to God not just bread and wine, but all the materials that are used in their making – wood, stone, wax, plants and flesh. This Eucharistic element is what prevents the confusion between the perfection of Creation in its Godward pilgrimage, and the subjugation of creation to satisfy humanity’s appetites.

Whose Green? Which Man?

Courses in political ideologies will almost inevitably cover the green movement or ecologism in some way, shape or form. At the heart of the coverage on ecologism is a critique on anthropocentrism: the giving of humans prime consideration as a political subject. The theories of ecologism posit a series of alternatives, and while their contents vary, what ties them together is they almost always displace the political centrality of humans in favour of the earth, flora or fauna. At its heart, such political programs are redefining what constitutes the polis by incorporating other categories of beings as citizens.
To the secular ear, this may all sound well and good, but then any political program that begins from the premise of the removal of the primacy of human beings must provide an account for occurrences such as the one reported here, in which a program to give priority parking for cars using electricity, at the expense of the handicapped who now have to be parked further away from businesses.
Environmental naysayers might jump at reports like this to argue the evils of any program to topple the political kingship of man. To the Christian ear, this might sound well and good, until one considers one key question: what exactly is the man we are talking about? Is there only one type of anthropos in anthropocentrism?
It would seem that the issue lies not so much with anthropocentrism per se, but a secular definition of anthropocentrism in which a secular anthropos – the autonomous, self-seeking, materialistic individual – is given pride of place in the social ladder. This secular anthropocentrism is one in which limitless consumption is regarded as a built-in good for the anthropos, and thus one in which environmental degradation is the inevitable result.
The conservative reactionary may decide that this secular anthropos is the kind of anthropos to defend in the rejection of the extremities of the green agenda, and there would be cases where the Christian may similarly and sometimes rightly resist that agenda. But in that rejection, the Christian CANNOT countenance the defense of the secular anthropos, for the simple reason that the secular anthropos is one that rejects the primacy of God in the social order. The Christian must be aware that there are other anthropologies out there, and that there is a theological anthropology, one in which a person is made in the Imago Dei, in the image of a trinitarian God.
This anthropology still posits man as the pinnacle of creation, but unlike the secular anthropos, this theological anthropos’ centrality within creation is still qualified by its subordination to a Creator. In contrast to the self-loving secular anthropos, the theological anthropos, modeled on the relationship of love in the Trinity, will not indulge in the distorted love of self and engage in mindless consumption on the premise that such consumption constitutes a need. And in contrast to the secular anthropos’ kingship of domination, the theological anthropos’ recognises the ultimate kingship of God, who as a sign of that kingship gave authority to man over the earth as a steward, a stewardship that must be accounted for one day.
It is this theological anthropocentrism that posits in turn a new mode of being green, one that is necessary if the Christian were to avoid a real risk of environmental catastrophe on the one hand without being beholden on the other to the extreme anthropophobic tendencies of the green movement in its current form.