Asceticism and Consumerism

Thy Word have I hid in my heart....

Met. JONAH of the OCA has some interesting words to say regarding the direction our nation has taken. Indeed, it is not only our nation, but our world, as globalism takes hold and root in a growing number of countries. What is the purpose of life? What does it mean to conduct life in a secular culture? This is what +JONAH tries to address.

The word secular is often used but rarely defined. I only recently came to better understand it through reading some of the contemporary Orthodox discussion of the matter.

At the heart of it, secularism does not deny the existence of God. It simply denies the need for Him. The gospel of humanism was often decried but rarely restricted in this “Christian nation,” and now it has taken its death-grip. This gospel is simply put: alleviate man’s pains and burdens, and he will be happy. “Happy” here must be read as “comfortable,” and comfort, as everyone knows, is procured through material prosperity.

This is not the gospel of Christ, which preaches that God wants all men to be saved, comfort be damned. Hard to imagine, right? Why would God want us to be uncomfortable? Could it be true what everyone is saying about Him? That is, that He’s actually a vicious and vindictive God, entirely selfish and arrogant, willing to punish at a drop of a hat, and really only wanting for his creation’s ill-earned love?

When spelled out as such, this antagonistic vision of God seems ridiculous, and it is. It is nothing more than a twisted wish, the product of a twisted imagination bent on its own vindication, but like the gospel of comfort, it is gradually taking lethal hold.

The good Metropolitan has another answer for the purpose of the “discomfort” of asceticism:

…Asceticism “is the struggle of the person against rebellious nature, against the nature which seeks to achieve on its own what it could bring about only in personal unity and communion with God.” Our “restoration” to a life of personal communion with God and so our personal “resistance” to the powers of sin and death, “presuppose a struggle” within each human heart that is often lacking in contemporary society and even our churches.

Sin is precisely the desire to work alone, without God. But God did not create us to be wholly autonomous creatures. Indeed, as the Orthodox Church teaches, the source of all life, including humans with their free-will, is God, and to move away from that Source would be to move toward nothingness.

We see this nothingness take on a tangible quality in the examples the Metropolitan mentions:  “Alcoholism, drug addiction, the normalization of sexual immorality, as well as consumerism, and the pursuit of material prosperity as an end in itself, all of these are symptoms of the deep spiritual void created by secularism. The fruit of secularism is despair.” I see it too in the faces of my students, who come to school hungry for more than a sugar-infused breakfast and lunch on the board of education’s tab. Working in a public school, I find I’m preaching more often the prosperity gospel of secularism than my own Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Stay off the streets, get a good education, go to college, earn your degree and get that career started, and you’ll have achieved life’s greatest goal – satisfaction!”

And yet it is well-documented that material gain is a classic let-down. Using (or better worded, “exploiting”) the Creation for an egocentric gain is exactly the opposite of what we were created for, and leads directly to the nothingness mentioned above. This disobedience contradicts the aim we were fashioned for. But obedience “animates [mankind] and makes him sing out in the praise of God.”

It’s a hard pill to swallow, for sure, but I’ll leave it at that for now. In the meantime, I recommend the Metropolitan’s entire address.

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