9. The Spiritual Life as a Response to Consumerism


Spirituality as a Response to the Consumerism

Conducting the Lesson



Ask participants to identify some of the things about contemporary society that are negative – that lead to human unhappiness. Help them to identify ‘consumerism’ as a significant problem.

Play the video clip, asking students to identify as they listen (see transcript for guide):

(i) The various terminologies used to describe or define ‘consumerism’;
(ii) The distinction made between ‘accumulation’ (consumerism) and real ‘happiness’
(iii) Reasons given for the inadequate response of religions or the failure of religion to convey its message regarding consumerism;
(iv) any solutions to the problem above that the religious scholars offer.

Gather answers to the above on the board and briefly discuss if the solutions offered respond to the problems identified.

Text studies:

(i) Hindu text
(ii) John of the Cross
(iii) Buddhist text
(iv) Happiness Index

Texts with questions – appendices. Depending on time, it may be advisable to divide the class into 4 groups, each with one text, or to 3 groups, each with one text plus the Happiness Index. Feedback can either be one representative from each group or can be in reconfigured groups with 1 or 2 representatives from each study group joining together.



Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein:
In what way do we, as people who come out of religious traditions, have a message, a focus, an orientation that we feel is particular to us, that provide a system of checks and balances to some of the other things that are going on there, that can sound a note of warning or at least offer a recommendation? In what way do we want to safeguard spiritual and mystical life as in some way being particularly valuable when practiced within the context of the traditions that we come from? In other word, a rabbi, a sheikh and a priest go to Marrakech.. that’s the beginning of a joke .. the question is, what happens next?
What is our unique voice as people who represent religion in a world where religion can no longer be taken for granted?

Dr Anantanand Rambachan:
I think we are united, all of our religious traditions are spiritual and mystical traditions deep down. I see them as the final frontier where we confront the issue of greed. Religion is the final critique; the last place where the argument is made against the illusion of greed. It is in our spiritual traditions that we say that there is something more. Christian tradition says that man cannot live by bread alone. The world will not satisfy the human being. This is a very important argument to be made in contemporary consumerist society.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:
I couldn’t agree more. The Christian tradition in a more old-fashioned language precisely says that and I am sure many other mystical traditions say the same. John of the Cross in his text the Ascent of Mount Carmel, using the mountain as the image of climbing towards ‘ultimacy’ or truth, says if you want to possess everything go by the way of dispossession, if you wish to possess all, as opposed to many things, go by the way of dispossession; if you wish to know all, go by the way of unknowledge. So this business of deconstruction or letting go – the tendency to accumulation or greed is precisely the recipe for not finding an answer. And the Ignatian tradition speaks of seeking the semper major – the always greater, the always more – which is not more of the same; it is that which is beyond ‘things’.

Dr Muzaffar Iqbal:
Taking what they consider their joy and happiness in life – very often those young people perceive us as those who destroy their happiness. We need to engage them, giving them insights into the true nature of happiness, and this is something which we didn’t explore very much but the kind of happiness which religions provide, the kind of deep-seated happiness, that leads to joy, that one attains without having to go the marketplace, load the car with things. That’s a different sort of happiness and it requires a different kind of hunger, which requires a different kind of receptivity, so the challenge for religious leadership is to create that receptivity just as the market-forces have created receptivity for consumerism.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias:
What happens when the clergy, religious leaders, become the ‘high priests’ of consumerism? ‘Your donation to this..’ ‘buy my book’, ‘promote these things’, ‘all the handkerchiefs that you are going to receive, I have touched’ .. some of these people. So the religious leaders themselves are promoting a consumerism of sorts and we are deceiving people and leading them into the ‘magical’ approach to the healing.

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg:
I think of course it’s the case that many religions, indeed all the religious traditions, have been in part colonized by or have embraced in varying degrees the very consumerism that it sometimes critiques.

Dr Anantanand Rambachan:
What religious traditions can specifically do. There is the phenomenon of consumerism on the individual level. But I think the individual level is reflecting the larger goals that the societies in which we live hold up for us as desirable. In other words, when we see fulfilling our self-worth in pursuing consumer items, we are reflecting the fact that society tells us that when we gather these things, we are worth something. In other words, there are wider structures of meaning which sustain a consumerist ideal. Therefore it is not simply blaming the individual but the individual is mirroring what his or her society holds up to be of value. And therefore, what our traditions are calling us to do, a particular challenge for us, is in addition to speaking to individuals at those moments of crisis, we need to develop a much more informed, vigorous critical response to this whole religion of consumerism. I think that all of our traditions do articulate such a critique. To be on call we need to critique the illusions. Already we are seeing that while consumerism is very pervasive and growing in many parts of the world, we are seeing also its collapse – in human anxiety, in human dissatisfaction, in human unhappiness – but we need really to develop that critique. As I said this morning, our religious traditions are the last frontier where the argument about greed as illusory is being made. All of our traditions tell us that the life of greed is an unsatisfactory life which ultimately leads to crisis. We can do so in our individual traditions but this is an opportunity for the spirituality and the mystical strands of our traditions to speak with one another.
We can do it in many ways.
One is to draw on the critiques that are already there with those deep insights. Secondly I think that also mentioning the growth in the social science studies of happiness – there’s a lot of good research coming out of the world of social science about human fulfillment, human happiness, all reinforcing and sustaining what our traditions are saying about human fulfillment – the Happiness Index. So we have both the responses of our own traditions and the responses of modern research which will sustain the arguments of tradition against the illusory. This is a responsibility.

Br Lawrence Freeman:
I think it brings up the question of language again and the way in which theological or religious language speaks to a secular world. If you tell the world that consumerism is bad and they shouldn’t go out spending their money, they won’t listen to you – especially because the government and everyone else is telling them to spend money in order to support the economy – not the economy of salvation but the economy, the economy. So I think the word to focus on would be ‘addiction’. That would lead you to a redefinition of ‘sin’ because most people’s rejection of religion is because religion is always telling them ‘you’re sinners and you will be punished for it, one way or another’. And people don’t want to hear that any more. But they do know that sin makes them unhappy and sick, so addiction is a prime form of ‘sin’ in the broader understanding of the word. And the ‘new age’ movement and a great deal of modern culture is concerned with healing, with therapy. Well, so is religion. Jesus was called the ‘divine physician’ and the Eucharist was called the ‘medicine of immortality’. The language of healing does belong to religion as well, so I think we could enjoy and in all our traditions we could find these things.

Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein:
A very specific market of need for – the world needs a deeper part of religions. In fact, if religions are failing it is because people are only seeing their outer manifestations.