Supposedly, the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world. Surveys tell us this is so. It is hard to traverse even a few blocks without running into a house of worship. Since most of us in this country who are religious claim to be Christian, you might expect we would be busy scrupulously following Jesus’ words and deeds. As I recall Jesus preached that possessions acted as obstacles toward knowing and serving God. Jesus told us that if we have things then we should give them away to the poor. Free of the burden of materialism we could concentrate on what matters: loving each other, improving our souls and spreading the good news of salvation. We should all live our lives like Mother Teresa’s. What good is the obsession with the number of coins in our pockets if in the process our souls are damned? The book of Timothy even tells us that “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.
For an allegedly Christian nation, we seem to have a few wires crossed. As much as recent revelations about Mother Teresa shocked me, at least she felt a genuine calling from God. At least she took the words of Jesus not as just good advice, but as a commandment. As for the rest of us, well it is not as if we do not do our share of tithing and charitable work, but it is for most of us a very part time thing. Ideally, instead of demonstrating our values in actual charitable work, we are rich enough where we can just write checks to charities. These checks are not large enough to empty our bank accounts, but measured doses of monetary kindness that allows us to help the poor a bit while making sure we still have our McMansions, SUVs and Hawaiian vacations.
Perhaps Jesus is looking down on us from heaven and saying to himself, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. Here I was busy dying for their sins and they still don’t get it!” Yet arguably, it is due to our material riches that we can lift any of the poor out of poverty. I suspect though that Jesus was not calling us to make the poor richer, but to relieve their misery. He wanted us to lead them and everyone toward beliefs and values that will enrich their souls, not our pocketbooks. I suspect he is hearing something like this from us instead:
Yo! Jesus! Get off my case, big guy! I am a bit distracted now. I am having way too much fun creating my avatar for Second Life. Spiritual rewards are all fine and everything, but heck, they are intangible buddy! I would much rather get my reward right now, while I am alive. An iPhone will do for starters.
Americans really worship at the Church of Mammon. We love money but if we cannot actually possess lots of money, having lots of stuff will suffice. Why are financial markets roiling all over the world right now? Because the American appetite for having our rewards now appears to be insatiable. If the love of money is the root of all evil, then credit cards must be the must be a beeline straight to Hell’s gates. Americans just love credit because it gives us things we want now even though in many cases we cannot really afford them. Until recently, owning our own home was out of reach for many of us who are financially challenged. This uncomfortable fact of life though could be overcome thanks to the cleverness of American capitalism. The mortgage industry invented no money down home loans and adjustable rate mortgages. This gave us the illusion that the financially challenged could become homeowners too. This worked fine until we discovered we had not read the fine print and we were way overextended. We eventually realized that a home loan was not like a charge card and adjustable rate mortgage payments could go up rather dramatically. Uh oh.
In the 21st century, we Americans measure our happiness not by how spiritual we are on the inside, but on how much we can super-size our lives. A station wagon just will not do anymore. We want a Ford Explorer. A three bedroom, one and a half bath ranch house is so 1950s. We want a McMansion, with a three car garage, with an upgraded kitchen (marble countertops please) and cathedral ceilings in the foyer. We will not be denied, even if we have to drive three hours each way to work to afford our lifestyles.
We deal with the hypocrisy between our espoused values and our actual practices by living lives effused in glorious cognitive dissonance. Rather than play lip service to our house of worship which, if we are reasonably devout we may visit once a week, we pay daily visits to our houses of capitalism. From the cup of java from the local Starbucks we grab on our way to work to the hours we spend traipsing from store to store at our local mall, there are endless ways to acquire newer and shinier stuff. Now we no longer have to be bothered to actually go out and buy many things. We can shop from the convenience of our computers. If we do not actually have enough cash on hand to buy what we want, we can plastic it. What possible virtue can there be in putting off for some nebulous future day what we can have right now?
With every passing generation, our obsession with achieving happiness via materialism becomes ever more myopic. Our spending habits are endlessly analyzed and probed by marketing wizards. Every conceivable variation of product must pondered for its potential profitability. Materialism speaks to an inner angst inside us that whispers that happiness is only a purchase away. It is the collection and variety of things in our lives that are our Feng Shui. We want to live in harmony with the environment, providing it is our environment. Living in harmony with nature is clearly a distant second.
In the end of course we die. Since our stuff does not disappear when we die, it appears we cannot take all this happiness with us after death. At least we will have lived a distracted life. Whether we achieved happiness with all our material stuff or merely received its illusion will perhaps be made clear in the afterlife, assuming there is one. If Hugh Hefner’s hedonism is too scary for us to emulate, we can at least emulate Ayn Rand. Like Ms. Rand, perhaps we should explicitly state that the pursuit of wealth and the outsized freedom it buys is our most cherished value. Perhaps like Ms. Rand we should go to our deathbeds with a dollar sign hanging above on the wall next to us. At least this way we would not by hypocritical.
Capitalism of course gives us the means to stay out of poverty. If you have been there, poverty does not so much purify your soul as give you incentive never to be impoverished again. This should be obvious. It explains why millions of Americans are not sneaking into Mexico. Beyond a certain nebulous point though, materialism appears to become a philosophy of life. In its extreme manifestations, it is tantamount to a religion. Ayn Rand appears to be one of its saints. Her religion of sorts, which she invented, was called Objectivism.
Can one be truly both spiritual and materialistic? As I understand the Christianity as it is presented in the Bible, the answer is a resounding “No!” I am not a Christian, but as I have known poverty and have no desire to experience it again, I also know that I will not give up my fundamental possessions. I see no value to a vagabond life living in boxes under highway overpasses. For me having stuff is not evil. In fact, I think we are programmed to move from misery toward comfort. Although materialism does not seem to truly make many of us happy, at least it is a tangible expression of what we imagine heaven to be: a place of comfort. The real world is a tough place. Our degree of materialism is something of a benchmark that shows us how far we have moved from our inner caveman. Somewhere in our DNA are distant ancestors that lived short, squalid lives wrapped up in fear. Materialism is a balm of sorts. It moves these distant but powerful memories further from our sight. That is its value. It is almost a form of therapy.
Yet materialism does not cure the angst so much as momentarily relieve it. This could explain why, like a junkie getting his next high, or Homer Simpson reaching for his next box of doughnuts, we eventually need a new materialistic fix. To cure it we must look deeper into each other and ourselves. Giving away our stuff, as Jesus recommended, is probably not the real cure. Human connectedness, manifested through mutual expressions of love, is likely the cure manifested by our materialistic angst.
It is my belief that anything taken to excess, be it religion or materialism, is fundamentally unhealthy. Moderation in both our materialistic needs and our spiritual demands may be the key that truly move us toward enlightenment. I suggest using materialism as a means to help you enrich your spirit and to help form mutually enriching connections with all life. When used in this way materialism can be ennobling.