Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dostoevsky on Consumerism

A recent post from my "Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society" journal:

I've been thinking a bunch this week about whether the contemporary "consumer culture" we find ourselves in is really any different than what has come before. Given what my Lutheran theology says about us all being sinners and saints, haven't folks had the same level of desire to consume things, feelings and experiences throughout human history? Last night while reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (I'm a big nerd and reading classic literature is one of my favorite things to do on a Saturday night, for better or worse), I came across a passage that would seem to indicate much of what we are experiencing is nothing new. This quote comes from a portion of the book that as written as the final notes and memoirs of a recently deceased saintly monk, Father Zossima, who serves as the main protagonist's mentor:
Look at the worldly and all who set themselves up above the people of God, has not God's image and His truth been distorted in them? They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what doe we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
"You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires." That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation... For how can a man shake off his habits, what can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less (Dostoevsky 288 - 289).
Is our experience as Christians any different than Father Zossima's (and Dostoevsky's) nearly 150 years ago? I honestly doubt it at this point. If there is any difference however, it seems like it might be a positive. Father Zossima laments that his wider society has rejected the spiritual world entirely in favor of the material. As we've talked a great deal about in our course already however, in our contemporary world, we're often sold or pursue material in order to fulfill emotional or spiritual needs. Perhaps, at least, we have the right desires, but just simply don't know the right way to move toward fulfilling them.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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