Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Religious asceticism and consumerism

Did Jesus have an affiliate program?I don't discuss religion very much on this blog, mostly because I don't prescribe to any particular one, but I am always curious about other's belief systems regardless of what they are. Having ruminated on the most varied of religions while studying anthropology, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people that practice pretty much any ideology and am open minded to most.

In many of the world's religions there is a strong vein of anti-materialism. Jesus counseled his followers that did have money to give it to the poor and hungry: Jesus said, "If you will be perfect, go and sell that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me."

Buddha tried to find enlightenment through near total deprivation of worldly goods, the Prophet Muhammad lived an austere life, and more recently, individuals such as Gandhi have advised that people "live simply so that others may simply live."

Of course, everyone's idea of wealth and excess are different and one man's Hummer can be contrived as another's Geo Metro. How do we determine what is sufficient and what is excess?

Not unlike the message we read in Affluenza a while back, Father Timothy V. Vaverek has written the following:
The consumerist lust for a better life is inherently destabilizing of our personal and economic lives. Since we are not satisfied with the good we possess and since our self-worth is connected to never settling for less, we must always be earning and acquiring more.

Hence we work longer hours, fill our days with more self-actualizing activities, and increase spending so that we can have the better life now. In this way we become slaves to dissatisfaction, time, and money--harsh task masters who allow no rest.

So, how can someone who follows a belief system that promotes some level of asceticism also accept materialism? Is this contradiction justifiable? For example, is it possible to follow the teachings of Jesus and accept personal, monetary wealth at the same time?

I'm interested to get your input on how your religious beliefs affect your opinions on consumerism. Do your religious views (or lack of them) directly drive your desire to limit consumeristic desires in your life?


Ivan L said...

Short answer: not really. Spiritualism usually involves striving for a higher purpose in life, and time spent acquiring stuff will not help achieving this purpose.
It is alright to obtain useful items which may further fulfilment of the purpose or otherwise for personal enlightment or enjoyment, but then it should always be with gratitude for their manufacture and they must never be taken for granted.
Less is more, would be a pretty good motto.

Kim from Milwaukee said...

I always strive for balance in my life, and feel a sense of peace when I have just enough. If I am contributing old clothes to Goodwill after I purchase new clothes, if I am giving my time to volunteering, if I try not to eat more than my share, then I feel that I am giving as much as I've received and show God that I appreciate His care for me.

Aimee said...

Yes indeed, although I'd be hard pressed to put a name to my religion, celebration of the material world and the glorious earth we live in is a big part of it. I do my best to act in a way, on a daily basis, that reflects respect and gratitude for the world.

Also I try to practice mindfulness, living in the present moment as much as I can (it's hard). I find that this practice is incompatible with the drive to acquire more stuff. Mindfully caring for the stuff I already have (children, animals, my health, my marriage, etc) is more than enough.

Aydan said...

I'm really glad you made this post. I'm Christian, and while I freely admit that I have lots of stuff, I also try to take the injunction against having lots of stuff seriously. Try, anyway, as much as I try anything. And it's definitely a part of my environmentalism, and I wish more people thought this way. For me, part of the problem is that it's so normal to have lots of stuff... and as you said, Crunchy, ideas of wealth and excess are relative.

As for the paradox you mentioned, well, I see it in the context of, no one is perfect. It's sort of the point of Christianity, that since we're not perfect we need Christ. So since I am never going to be perfect, being completely unmaterialistic is a goal rather than a requirement: it's a process to work towards. I follow the teachings of Jesus and yet I have personal, monetary wealth... but at the same time, I work on seeing how blessed I am, sharing my blessings with others, and praying for the courage to give more away. Because for me it's more fear than greed that leads to materialism: if I give away all I have, what will happen to me?

Farmer's Daughter said...

No religion here, and no desire for needless stuff. Don't think it's related though.

Robj98168 said...

Well- you know I have this cousin who does everything because "jeeeesus would want her too". She and her husband bought a new house in "jeeeesus' name", a new car because 'jeeeesus wouldn't want her to drive one that was a couple of years old. I like her a lot better than before "jeeeeesus" became her shopping consultant. Of course.. I told her That "jeeeesus" drove an Honda- it says so in the bible... "Jesus and his apostles where all in one Accord.

Elisabeth said...

Great question! I hope more people respond; I'm interested to hear what everyone has to say.

The answer to your question is yes, my religious views do directly drive my desire to limit personal consumerism.

I personally consider consumerism to be a moral issue. I fail at being non-consumeristic every day, though, and have so far to go.

From an economic perspective, consumption may be relative; I may very well be a good little non-consumer by America's standards. But I know from a global perspective that I, a middle-class American, live a life immensely rich in THINGS. I already have enough stuff! I try to remind myself of this every day, every time I want whatever-it-may-be.

I think that consumerism is closely tied to stewardship. I believe that I should be a good steward of the things God has given me, and I take that responsibility seriously. I believe that I am held accountable for my stewardship of what I have been given: the earth, my body, and even my possessions. Each, of course, are inextricably tied to each other.

For example: I believe I should be a good steward of my money and, if that leads to "wealth" (however one defines this monetarily), I am not absolved of my responsibility to be non-consumeristic. Rather, as always, I should focus on using whatever resources I have to help others, not on amassing more things. Jesus was not concerned with things, he was concerned with people. I also view my consumption of and my impact on the earth's resources as a moral issue because I consider stewardship a moral issue.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much happier I am with simplicity, with just the basics. I always tell my husband that I wish I could have been a hunter/gatherer!

Elisabeth said...

Oops, I got carried away and didn't mention my religion. I'm Christian, Lutheran specifically.

Dea-chan said...

I'm pretty sure that's one of the things that's glossed over in Sunday School -- it's all about "be nice to each other" and "remember these Holy Days" not "remember how Jesus was a bum? He totally ran around Jerusalem unshaven, with no money, and partied a lot! Also he thought that living like a bum with nothing was perfect."

Which one of those choices gets people to come back, week after week, tithing? Betcha it isn't about how we should strive for being a bum.

That being said, I'm not a Christian any longer, and am working my way through my thoughts of "but I want!" and my new thoughts of "but I shouldn't!" As my new faith is much like Aimee's and is more about connection with everything at large, non-consumerism works fine.

Katy said...

To be honest, I would say that my religion, Christianity, is what lead me to my non consumer life style even before I started connecting thinking about my enviromental footprint.

While I don't think its impossible for a wealthy person to be spiritual, I can't help but think that if you make aquioring wealth, and stuff a main goal in your life you have lost focus of what is important.

Anonymous said...

We attend Quaker meetings. Quakers are supposed to live as simply as possible. It's difficult with 4 kids to do that. I can not count the number of times I have heard, "my friends all have one". The meeting house we attend is steeped in history, is beautiful and peaceful. Our weeks seem to be better when we make it there on Sundays. There is still this ongoing struggle, even with us as parents, to stop wanting. While we are not huge shoppers, don't drive brand new cars we still do WAY too much impulse buys. My,husband, who works more than a human should be capable, struggles with this as well. It will be interesting for us as a family for the next several months to be conscious of what we purchase. This is something we are forced to do right now because of our financial problems. My hope is that it will continue even when times get better for us.

Unknown said...

As a Christian, I struggle with this, too. Jesus certainly said that you cannot serve both God and money, but I don't know that it's necessarily impossible to HAVE some material comfort without SERVING it--it's the attitude you have toward money and stuff that matters as much as the stuff itself. Two passages from Paul's epistles are interesting in this regard:

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 - I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.

My understanding of this passage is that we are not supposed to define ourselves by anything "worldly"--meaning anything of this world. The obvious things this brings to mind is material things, but Paul even goes so far as to include human relationships and emotions in that category. I think that the idea is that if you define yourself by things that are in the world, then you don't have the ultimate end (salvation through Christ's death and spending eternity in the new heaven and earth that God will create) in mind.

As second passage is 1 Timothy 6:17-19 - As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.

I think this basically says the same thing: it isn't wrong per se to be rich (which most of us in Western society comparatively are), but it is wrong to make worldly riches more important than spiritual riches (like what Jesus said about laying up treasure on earth as opposed to in heaven--for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also).

Maybe I'm just trying to justify to myself my own material comforts, but I don't think it's necessarily impossible to have them and still have God as your highest priority. Difficult, yes, but perhaps not impossible...

eulenspiegel1 said...

In your list, you left out St. Greenpa, the patron saint of outhouses.

Most would certainly call his lifestyle ascetic.

Ashley said...

That's a toughie. I'm a christian, and I try to follow the words of Jesus. That being said, I am also a consumer. It's tough to balance the things you believe (less is better) with feelings that take you in a different direction (buying stuff will make you happy!). It's a struggle honestly. I often find myself wondering why I can't conquer my consumerism, and I wonder what Jesus would think of me. It's a thin line sometimes, but I just try to do the best I can, and try not to beat myself up about the rest.

MadameMim said...

I think it's totally possible to accept wealth and still follow Jesus. It's what you do with that wealth that matters if your living a faithful live. If you're buying Manolos and private jets but forgetting about helping out the sick/poor/downtrodden...I don't think that screams "I love Jesus." As long as you are helping the less fortunate and live a fairly modest lifestyle, I think wealth is fine. I don't think many of the "christian right" portray this too much (at least where I live...and I live in the midst of a sea of red)...but anyway, I'll stop the political tangent before it begins.

I don't know as much about Buddhism, but I have read Sidartha about 15 the Buddhism section of a world religion book. I think that makes me pretty competent on the subject, no? I always thought it would be harder to justify stuff as a Buddhist. It seems much more important to the final goal. But hey, someone has to feed the monks, right?

As far as the materialism goes...I find I still want stuff. The only difference is it's just stuff like a solar oven, an awesome chicken coop, a piece of land in the country, and an electric car.

Issa said...

I'm an atheist, but that doesn't really relate to any other beliefs or practices for me. It's simply a lack of religious belief. My non-consumerism ways come from being a raging hippie, which is a far more powerful force in my life! :-)

Luschka said...

I think the answer to that is as variable as the religions of the people who answer. I myself am a born again believer in Jesus Christ, but I don't really like the title of 'Christian' because it has SO many connotations and I don't believe 'religion' brings much joy with it. All that said, I think 'stuff' ties you down - making you less likely to do what Jesus told us to do: spread the gospel. But that's easy for me to say - I've packed up and moved life a number of times. It might be harder for someone who is more settled. As I said, I think it'll be different for every person.

Liz said...

In a way, yes: I'm an Orthodox Christian and asceticism/denial of self is a big part of how we are called to live. We are supposed to fast at different types of the year. We are supposed to freely give alms. If you truly start to embrace this type of lifestyle, then consumerism simply isn't compatible.

Round Belly said...

Yes- it often seems like a conundrum... we should be willing to share we have and give to the poor, feed the hungry. But then how do we not feel guilty if we get rich? The answer is that if we use what we have to help.... and seek not after riches... then if we get riches we have more ability to help others.

MaddyG said...

Most of my Christian friends and family have no qualms about chasing around the newest products and labels. However, most of my Aetheist friends buy into the consumerist mentality as well!
The difference, for me, is that I (foolishly)tend to expect Christians to answer to a higher moral standard, and to show more awwareness to their responsibilities of being 'stewards of the earth'. Not fair of me to expect more of Christians, I suppose.
I'm not a Christian or an Aetheist.

Lee said...

Religion is a BIG issue in my family: my husband is Jewish, I sing at an Anglican Cathedral and am Earth-based in my beliefs.

The systems and viewpoints usually, but don't always, sit comfortably with one another, but the clashes do teach tolerance!

Over the past few years I've been working towards simplifying my life, not always successfully. We're quite wealthy, even in Western terms, from our own professional achievement, and the decisions to live within our means are not always understood by those around us. It's also tempting to spend what we can, rather than what we need.

I think, in the end, being a good person (which is what all religions are about) comes from caring genuinely for our communities. That doesn't just come from shelling out money.

I also think that Jesus and Gandhi are talking about not placing our hearts in material things. They will never love us back. While they can make life more comfortable, an excess becomes a burden.

For example, I have a very cheap (but safe) car which means I don't worry about stone scratches or shopping trolley dents from the supermarket carpark. If I'd bought an Audi or BMW instead, I'd forever worry about the tiniest scratch.

I think being ethical also means being aware of the repercussions of our actions in a wider world. The fact that if we eat beef, that cow will produce effluent fouling another person's drinking water and produce gas heating the world that all people and creatures depend upon. So to eat beef is a selfish action that steals from others rights.

But as a regular Churchgoer, I don't think you need to have a religion to be ethical, nor do I think Churchgoers are automatically more ethical people. Ethics come from within, in the end, not from a pulpit. And Churches can preach all they want, but some people just don't seem to want to listen! :-(

Billie said...

Other than this vague concept of stewardship, I don't really think that my religion(Mennonite) is what prompted me to gradually move towards living simply.

It just started to become clear to me that I didn't need all the stuff that I had/have. Lately, my definition of what I need is even more restricted because I see that I truly don't need it.