Over-Consumption and a Simple Life

Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise. (Luke 3:9-11)

(1) I imagine John did not have more than two tunics at a time while I stare at a new Lee jacket in my closet; it was bought with a violated conscience and is now unable to be returned. The guilt bothers me—I have more than two jackets, and none serve a unique, justifiable function. My purchase was consumeristic, and potentially harmful to others. The money spent could have comforted some suffering soul, while its loss would have had absolutely no effect on me. Further, I’ve encouraged a company which will in turn encourage many to similarly spend irresponsibly.

I have desired a very simple life—one free from materialism—for some time. I tell others to live simply in the same mode Jefferson condemned slavery. A simple life requires ceasing over-consumption; doing so is of great virtue, for over consumption comes with great harm to (1) the self, (2) other individuals, and (3) society. The self’s character is diminished by an ever-increasing focus on its property, and as it becomes accustomed to gain in the face of harm to others and society, it becomes skilled at placing its own pleasures above others. Other individuals (may/probably do) receive harm in virtue of supporting poor working conditions, and by stripping them of charitable funds which, though these are gifts, are given as responsibilities of any who can make them—clearly over-consumers fall into that category. Consider here Anselm’s view: even the most pious life will be a life of doing only what was originally expected of the pious; even our acts of spontaneous charity go towards paying reparations we can never complete.[1] The exhortation to give one of two tunics is not framed as a mere suggestion.[2] Further, wider society is harmed because the collective—soul (whether this be something over and above a generalization about the average moral character of members in a society or not) is corrupted through and in the same manner as the corruption of the individual’s character.

I have given the most cogent argument I have for living such an idealized life, though I admit they are still underdeveloped—vague. There are a few more, but I am confused even in regards to my best; a thorough development would require more time than I can allot to the subject currently, involving tracing supply lines and manufacturing methods and processes. Still, what I have given seems persuasive enough to me. I am convinced and can at least identify a significant number of cases in which my own over-consumption features. Metaphysics is straightforward—ethical judgement often have to be formed through the sentiments (thanks, Hume), or what I call “intuition,” and this should not count against ethical judgement-formation. Further, if one replies that we are not sure if/how production and consumption harms “without more data,” intending to somehow counter the slight conclusions I have come to, I will in turn reply that we should not (unless forced) support powers accused of such incredible wrongdoing while in ignorance.

(2) Is my position not worth respectful consideration? Tell me, imaginary followers, why, when I express my views on consumption, I am mocked? I understand (somewhat) the difficulties involved if one consistently adopted my skeletal views, including working out exactly what it involves. My new jacket testifies to my own debt to God—I will be judged in the end. But even the raising of questions is met with defensiveness and irritated scoffs. Can we not put down our own inconveniences, so that we might take up assisting others?[3] My life must serve its proper function—I must die. Is this too much? Am I juvenile? Authors and journalists cover the sins of our nation and wrongdoings of a corporate consumerism, but few move beyond legislative exhortations while still encouraging consumption.[4] Do we improperly imbibe while waiting in hope for an improved mode of consumption—allowing a tarnished conscience in the meantime? Or should we come to temperance? I wish to consume what is necessary for the fulling of the proper function given (again, what this involves is not settled in my mind). But, I am weak: I willfully align with failure, conforming to social pressures and private desires, instead of being transformed toward the good itself.[5] Perhaps a radical restructuring is in order.

(3) I am lonely. For whatever reason, it is difficult to find receptive company—likeminded encouragement. But, to avoid promoting a hopelessness, I want move to note some non-NT authors who I have come to take as my friends and mentors. These have helped me greatly, least of all in providing a tradition to fall into:

  1. Anselm of Canterbury: Though I do not accept Anselm’s theory of atonement in full, Anselm is an inspiring philosopher/theologian with strong moral teachings, even those woven into his satisfaction theory. As I cited earlier, Cur Deus Homo is a wonderful work to explore long-lasting atonement theories and so the situation man finds himself in.
  2. Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus: Both these early Church fathers developed a theory of atonement involving an ontic-restructuring of the soul; for them, Christ’s work really reconstitutes the soul of man, providing a foundation for understanding how the life of the Christian needs to be so radically restructured from the previous dysfunctional state. See Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, and Gregory of Nazianzus’ “Fourth Theological Oration” and “Second Paschal Oration.”
  3. NT Wright: Wright’s works, especially How God Became King, flush out a picture of God’s Kingdom and what subjection to God consists in. Obviously pairs well with the work of Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus.
  4. Charles Foster Kent: See Kent’s The Social Teachings of the Prophets and Jesus. This work is just as it sounds, and functions well as a reference text for social implications of ancient preaching. It has been some time since reading this work, and my citing it should not be seen as a full endorsement of any views it contains.

Rather than waste time recapitulating what I have written, I conclude only with a long passage from St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ “Second Paschal Oration.” Here, Gregory commands his listener, no matter what sort of person they are, to follow Christ in all they do–to construct their lives in a way that fulfills the function God gives them:

XXIV.  If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow.  If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber.  If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, do you become law-abiding for His sake.  Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen.  Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make thine own that which cleanses the world.  If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning.  Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself.  Say something; hear His Voice.  If He say to you, Touch Me not, stand afar off; reverence the Word, but grieve not; for He knoweth those to whom He appeareth first.  Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples.  Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race.  And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not Looking into the tomb, but Going in.[6]

[1] (Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford University Press. 1998.)

[2] John 3:11

[3] Mark 8:34

[4] For example, see (Hobbes, Michael. “The Myth of the Ethical Consumer.” http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/the-myth-of-the-ethical-shopper)

[5] Romans 12:2

[6] (Gregory of Nazianzus “The Second Oration on Easter” in Schaff, Phillip, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, SII.v7)

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