Arts and Culture

What Matters Most to Us

Fourth in a series

In Exploring What a consumer culture can do to us, Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., in his book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Culture (New York Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991, pp. 194), refers to an article in Fortune magazine:

“Thus accumulation is king. … We are told that while in 1967 40% of U.S. college freshmen thought ‘being well off’ was important to them as opposed to 80% who thought ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ was important, by the late ’80s the numbers had reversed. It was not so much that money and possessions were seen as being a value in one’ life; they were becoming the only value. And having more of them was becoming the only goal…

“Our craving to possess and consume more, consequently, is a function both of misplaced transcendence and misplaced immanence. We not only search for the sacred in the object, we look for ourselves there. The more we have, the more we have of God. The more we possess, the more being we have. And this, as might be expected confirms the absence of personal intimacy and covenant in our lives.” (pp. 12, 13)

Creating gods

I find Father Kavanaugh’s comments not only disturbing but almost frightening. In view of his description of a consumer culture, I have to examine my conscience. Could it be that I am being seduced by things without even knowing it? What are the important values in life and do they help me understand myself at a deep level? Do they help me to relate to God? Have I created some god in my own image and likeness?

In relation to material objects, I don’t think that I have been greatly influenced by a consumer culture. My only interest in a car is that the motor starts when I turn the ignition key. In my life, a car is not any type of symbol for me of whether I am a success or a failure in life. Clothes hold little interest for me. If I ever wear something that is attractive, the article of clothing will probably be a gift someone gave to me.

Misplaced values

What bothers me most or what has set me reflecting on my life most in Father Kavanaugh’s comments on consumerism is what he calls misplaced transcendence and misplaced immanence. Each of us is tempted to place some idol in place of the living God and consequently, misunderstand who we are. Father Kavanaugh claims that we search for the sacred in objects and then identify our dignity and identity with the object. Our value and importance become what we own.

It is not some object that I think I have turned into a god. I am wondering if to some extent the god I have created is not some object, but rather activity and being busy. I keep thinking of the line from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God…”

How difficult I find being still. I’m always preoccupied with some plan or project, often a good plan and a worthwhile project, but nevertheless a consuming plan or project, I am wondering if these preoccupations come at the expense of not being present to myself, to others and to God. I think that an important question for me concerns why I find it difficult to be still with myself, others and God. It may be an important question for many in our society.

Important questions

Some of the most brilliant and insightful theologians whom I have read in the last five to 10 years are convinced that in order to help people better understand Christian beliefs, people have to be helped to ask important questions and to see how the answers to those questions should direct our lives.

Reflection on what is important is not encouraged in our society. In fact, it may even be discouraged. At times, contemporary society seems to be militantly opposed to any serious reflection.

About 20 years ago, my confessor encouraged me to do centering prayer. I wonder if I have ever received more valuable advice. Spending 15 or 20 minutes each day quietly thinking about God’s presence within me seems to have helped me enormously. Though I still find it difficult to be still, certainly the daily time doing centering prayer has helped me to be a little less hyper. We have to battle the temptation to avoid thinking about what is most important and settling for the superficial and ephemeral.

The Scriptural injunction, “Be still and know that I am God,” could be used to build an entire spirituality, influencing our relationship with ourselves, with others and especially with God. Being still could help us to know ourselves better and also help us grow in faith, hope and love.

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).