Sunday, July 09, 2006

Thoughts while skipping church

There is no permanence to things.

However things often pass for meaning. By any sane standard, I am fabulously wealthy. I can get up from where I am sitting now, walk into my kitchen, and choose between coffee from Kenya or Hawaii, tea from Ceylon, or wine from Argentina or Australia to go with a cheese from Denmark or Wisconsin, as my fancy suits me. So can almost anyone in America, or the Western world. Yet I feel it is necessary to buy more things, more objects stamped out of plastic or titanium or carbon fiber, whatever is the flavor of the week.

I read once that Andy Warhol's apartment was full of bags of groceries when he died, that he bought things merely to fill the void. The story may be false, but the essence rings true. Our lives lack meaning or permanence, so we buy things to fill them. Consumption is the order of the day. What are we doing? What are we looking for? Or is it to avoid looking that we consume? Why is it so difficult to give up the material security I have?

When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

I call myself a Christian, but I see more of the rich man in me than I'm sure Jesus would approve of. I've grown tired of attempting to rationalize, of saying that since I tithe or hand out food to the homeless on the street corners, or even that I've chosen a profession tradtionally allied with selfless service that I've somehow fulfilled my obligation. I think Jesus was cutting to my heart of hearts with that simple phrase. And his words mean I can't compare myself to others, I can't say I'm not Bill Gates, or even "I'm not choosing a lucrative medical specialty" and give myself a pass.

There is (and here my rationalization starts) a point to which I cannot go here. If I were truly to sell everything I own, it would necessarily include the accoutrements I require to practise medicine. Fine, keep those. It would include my car, without which I would be unable to reach the hospital. Fine, keep that. It would include my clothes, including those of the nicer variety I am expected to wear to maintain a "professional image". Where does it end? Are the rationalizations continued with validity to the point where I can say "keep the iPod, because music feeds ones soul" or "because G-d wants us to enjoy His creations"?

Peter Kreeft, in his ethical work "Making Choices" outlines a theory that usually, the correct, godly choice is somewhere between extremes. As humans we tend to extremes, and being made in the image of God, those extremes are at least shadows of Him. Similarly here, there must be a third way between consumerism and asceticism. But finding that third way seems to necessitate compromise, and worse, a compromise on absolute principles.

The point I'm taking away from all this is that G-d must be foremost in our thoughts, and any time possessions or the drive to possessions come between Him and us, we are wrong. That much is obvious, but as Calvin said, our hearts are "idol factories". Therefore this will always be a danger, even if we possess only a roof over our heads. So we must go farther, circumcising our hearts, and though it pains me to say this, because I realize how far I am from fulfilling it, I think we must limit our consumption to the point that we notice it. Even as in fasting we are to use our awareness of hunger to spur contemplation, so in material asceticism, we must have an awareness of lack so that we can use that awareness to drive us to our Maker. In doing so, we avoid the error of the rich man, in valuing our possesssions more than our salvation. Additionally, we restore the abilty to recieve gifts that mean something, allowing our fellows to be blessed in the giving.


Thainamu said...

I have two comments. The first is that it is good you are thinking about what you are doing. That is, you aren't filling up your barns mindlessly. God is keeping you on your toes, so keep listening to him.

The second is a thought about my own medical-student son. (I assume he doesn't read your blog, so I'll assume it is OK to talk about him--poor child!) He got about the world's best scholarship to med school--everything paid and a stipend nice enough that he was able to buy a condo at age 21. Then he realized that even though he doesn't really need it, he can still borrow lots of money like all the other med students and that's what he intends to do. Why? So he can buy a new car. Does he need a new car? Yeah, he probably does. But does he need a fancy new car? Not in my way of thinking. Yet he called me the other day to tell me all about the new fancy car he hopes to buy. I gently poked at him by saying, "It sounds like you want my approval here..." He replied, "No, I don't want your approval; I just don't want your disapproval." Why is he bothered about my disapproval? Well, he's grown up in a missionary family, had lots of experience around people who do very well with very little, and he knows there is a world out there living in poverty. He knows he doesn't need a fancy car, but he's feeling some kind of peer pressure from his peers to "live at a certain standard."

I assured him the decison about what kind of car to buy is entirely his, but he knows that in my heart I think it is better to chose something less ostentatious. Just because he's going to be a rich doctor doesn't mean he has to live like one.

thebeloved said...

My own materialism has come to mind as I try to pack enough to live for six months in a foreign country with one checked bag less than 44lbs. I have never lived a wealthy lifestyle, always learned to be content with the abundant blessing and plenty God has provided.

Jen said...

Thanks for the honest, sincere reflection. I've never been attached to things much, and I believe I'm rather less materialistic than most. However, it's the small stuff that tells the truth, like when every flat surface in my room is taken up by towers of books, or when I lose my temper at finding bleach spots on a favorite shirt. A friend of mine replied to a similar mishap, "That's why we love people and not things."
Come, let us not be materialists, but rather immaterialists, caught up in the real reality of infinite souls.

Steve Hayes said...

Yes, I often have thoguhts like that, but there is one thing that niggles at me -- the idea that there is a kind of middle way between asceticism and consumerism. Actually I'd not call it consumerism but conspicuous consuption.

I know the Buddha spoke of such a Middle Way, but I think that the Christian take on this is asymmetrical. I believe that God calls some to asceticism, I don't believe God calls anyone to conspicuous consumption.

It's not a middle point between polar opposites, but rather varying degrees of asceticism.

S. Lee said...

Thanks for sharing that. A great reminder.

eLr said...

all very interesting.

Nathan said...

thainamu - thanks for the encouragement. Bonhoeffer (my latest reading material) says that "the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God's word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself " So thank you for doing so.

thebeloved - you are fortunate not to struggle with this besetting sin. I don't presume you are free of tempation yourself, but grace and peace to you in your resistance to it.

jen - "caught up in the reality of infinite souls" I like that line a lot. You're right on.

Steve - You've pointed out an interesting facet of this whole issue. "Varying degrees of asceticism" is a wonderful summary of the Christian life insofar as possessions are concerned. And I think you also point out how Christianity is different from its imitators. A "middle way" might be easy to find, and compromise is attractive to some, but we have an ideal to aim for, lest we be like the Laodicean church in Revelation. And you've also hit on what bothers me about allowing ourselves anything but asceticism.

s. lee - you're welcome.

elr - thanks.

Zwerver said...

Several years ago when I was puzzling over similar issues a friend recommended a book called "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger." It contemplates some of these same questions -- how can we justify ourselves and our lives/lifestyles in light of our faith? -- without simply offering cliche answers.