RE-READING some books can be a relatively boring experience. What I mean is that some books deserve only one reading and a second reading does not lead to the discovery of any new insights. That has not been my experience re-reading Father John Kavanaugh’s “Following Christ in a Consumer Society” (New York Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991, pp. 194).
The late Father Kavanaugh was a friend and whenever I heard him lecture or read any of his writing I benefited. That is exactly what is happening as I re-read this book. It seems as though insights leap off the page at me. Father Kavanaugh, who taught philosophy at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Miss., was able to express truths that seemed fresh and new very clearly. I am finding his insights into the gospels that we are exposed to especially enlightening. Father Kavanaugh writes the following:
“We will inevitably be confronted with at least two competing gospels or books of revelation in American society. These gospels differ as radically as light and darkness, life and death, freedom and slavery, fidelity and unfaithfulness. They serve as ultimate and competing ‘forms’ of perception, through which we filter all of our experience. Each form, moreover, provides a controlling image for our consciousness in apprehending our selves and our world….
“One form of life, one gospel, reveals men and women as replaceable and marketable commodities; another gospel, inalterably opposed to the first, reveals persons as irreplaceable and uniquely free beings. Some people having formal membership in a Christian church may in reality follow the gospel of the culture, and belong to the secular church of ‘the thing.’ Others, not formally belonging to a Christian church or to a synagogue, may actually be giving their life-commitments to the message and truth revealed in the covenantal Lord of the Jewish Bible or in Jesus Christ as true God…” (pp. 20-21).
For me, Father Kavanaugh’s statement that these gospels serve as ultimate forms of perception and that all our experience filters through them is exceptionally important. Father Kavanaugh’s point is that we basically live by one of these gospels. Whether we do or don’t go to church or synagogue every week does not by itself necessarily reveal by which gospel we live. We might be churchgoers and yet in our lives have embraced consumerism’s gospel and we might not be churchgoers but be committed to the message and truth revealed by God.
Put simply, I would say that a gospel tells us our identity, the identity of other persons and the identity of God. The gospel of consumerism tells us that we are consumers, that our value is in what we possess.
It tells us that other persons are consumers and that we should want to have more than they do. It encourages us to not only “keep up with the Joneses” but to have more than the Joneses. It tells us that the “god” we should worship and serve is money, power or possessions.
Whichever gospel we follow will influence how we perceive everything and will greatly influence us in our choice of vocation. In fact it will greatly influence much of our conduct.
The Christian gospel tells us that we exist because of God’s free loving act of creating us. It tells us that we are – unconditionally and unreservedly – loved by God. We don’t have to win this love, earn this love or merit this love. It is a gift.
The Christian gospel tells us that all persons are our brothers and sisters, also unconditionally loved by God. Because of their dignity we should love them. Not only should we not do evil to them but when we can, we should do good to them.
In Pope Francis’ magnificent encyclical, “Laudato Si’”, the Pope points out that all of us are related. The Christian gospel tells us that God’s love for us is so great that we have been created for eternity, that God’s love has conquered death.
The two gospels are so different that it is difficult to compare them. It is much easier to contrast them. The gospel of consumerism, if embraced and lived, will lead not to personal growth, but more likely to selfishness and self-centeredness. It can even nourish narcissism. It can seduce us into looking for fulfillment and salvation where they cannot be found.
No thing or set of things will ever fulfill us. We are created for love relationships. The Christian gospel, if embraced and lived, can change our view on everything. Romano Guardini, a great theologian and greatly admired by Pope Francis, expressed a profound truth when he said that a Christian climbs a tree differently. The Christian gospel sheds new light on all of reality.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).