Asceticism as Cure for Consumerism: An Interview with Fr. Gregory Jensen

Source: Eastern Christian Books

With the impending release this week of the papal encyclical on ecology, attention is once again focused on the social outworkings of the Christian gospel. As I noted recently, it has often been said that Orthodoxy has not developed its social teaching as much as the Catholic Church has. This is not a point of triumphalism but rather a recognition that--as with so many other things--most of Orthodoxy until 1991 was living under tyrannical rule, either Islamic or communist, and thus in no position to make these developments.

But as with so many things in Eastern Christianity in the last quarter-century, we are now happily seeing a stream of books emerge each year to fill in some of the gaps. One such book has just been published. Written by the Orthodox priest-scholar Gregory Jensen, The Cure for Consumerism (154pp.) is the second volume in a new series devoted to Orthodox Christian social thought published by the Acton Institute. I asked him for an interview and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background

Let’s see, my wife and I have been married for 30 years and I’ve been a priest for 18. These are probably the two most important things I can tell you about myself not just personally but also as a scholar. Everything I do flows out of my experiences as a husband and a priest.

Professionally, academically, I did my undergraduate work in psychology at the University of Dallas. After graduation I stayed on for an MA in theology (and meet my wife—I had a good year!). My thesis was on ethics in psychotherapy, which got me interested in exploring issues of fundamental anthropology in the social sciences.

In 1995 I received my doctorate from Duquesne University’s Institute of Formative Spirituality where I was able study with the late Fr Adrian van Kaam. Both a Catholic priest and a psychologist, van Kaam was instrumental in establishing a critical—but appreciative and collaborative dialogue—between psychology and Christian spirituality.

Like many other programs in spiritual formation, IFS was an interdisciplinary program in personality theory, religion and pastoral practices. So on the graduate level, my academic background is in moral theology and personality theory. This allowed me to write a dissertation—that still sits accusingly on my shelf waiting to be reworked for publication—exploring phenomenologically the psycho-social structures and dynamics of communion in Orthodox liturgy (you see why it needs to be re-written!). My published work is in Christian spirituality, psychology, and now economics and property rights.

AD: Tell us what led to the writing of this book in particular

The short answer is that Acton asked me to do so. The slightly longer answer is that The Cure for Consumerism is based on a presentation I did at Acton University, the Acton Institute’s “four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society” (see here for more details). I’m doing the presentation again this year (“East Meets West: Consumerism and Asceticism”). It has been well received not only by the sprinkling of Orthodox at AU (all of whom are my friends) but also by Catholics and evangelical Christians. So Acton saw there was some interest in the project beyond just Orthodox Christians.

There needs to be moral limits on human consumption. Unfortunately, we often equate moral limits with merely curtailing consumption. And to be fair, yes sometimes I need to make do with less--but not always. The moral problem of consumerism is not, however, solved by telling people merely to consume less but rather by helping each other consume in ways that are morally better. Learning how to do this is part and parcel of the ascetical life.

I think the book provides Christians and others of good will with a framework to respond to consumerism in a manner that is both anthropologically and economically sound. Evidently the folks at Acton agreed and so they asked me to write the book.

AD: Your book is vol. 2 in the Orthodox Christian Social Thought Series from the Acton Institute. Do you know what has prompted them to start this imprint rather than, say, a more traditional Orthodox publisher?

I’m not sure why Acton took the path they did. You might want to direct that question to Acton. But as a scholar, I prefer to work in an interdisciplinary environment. That was my doctoral program after all. Being able to have conversations about consumerism with other Orthodox Christians is helpful to be sure but insufficient. Doing research for the book meant talking with Christians in other traditions, pastors, lay business leaders and other professionals as well as with economists (only some of whom are Christians).

While I’d be happy to do so if asked, I’ve never written for a traditional Orthodox publisher so I can’t speak to what that experience would be like. For me at least, I want to get feedback from a broad range of sober scholarly and pastoral voices. Working with Acton helped me do this and further helped me to write a book that, while clearly Orthodox in its sources and themes, can speak to a broader audience. I’m writing as an Orthodox Christian but for men and women of good willing trying to live out their economic lives in a morally good, and even holy, manner.

AD: The back blurb of your book notes that in all the railing against “consumerism” on the part of churchmen and moralists, one thing is overlooked: a massive drop in poverty worldwide since 1970. Tell us more about this development.

If you take a slightly longer historical view, the decrease in poverty is more dramatic still. Over the last 200 years, the percentage of people living in poverty has fallen while the population has increased dramatically. The economist Max Roser points out that “In a world without economic growth, an increase in the population would result in less and less income for everyone, and a 7-fold increase would have surely resulted in a world in which everyone is extremely poor. Yet, the exact opposite happened. In a time of unprecedented population growth we managed to lift more and more people out of poverty!”

It is economic growth that lifts people out of poverty. There is a place for foreign aid, and there’s a place for government assistance, but what people need isn’t just compassion but also work. St John Chrysostom says the hand of compassion is extended because work isn’t available (or in some extreme cases, possible). Human beings are made to work.  

For people to acquire gainful, and dignified, work we have to create wealth. We need to do this not only to pay a just wage but also to expand the opportunities men and women have for education and access to health care--to take only two examples.

Unfortunately, many Christians hold what Jeffrey D. Sachs in an op-ed calls an “anti-market sentiment.” Yes, as he says, “Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone.” We can, and should, argue over the exact mix of public and private expenditures. Whatever the mix, lifting people out of poverty requires “economic growth, and hence a market economy, is vital.”

AD: You begin your book with a story from the Desert Fathers to illustrate the connection between asceticism and economic life, a connection that seems to me often overlooked. Tell us a bit more about how you see that connection.

Consumerism, is not so much a denial of our nature but rather the frustration of our natural desire to experience communion with God, our neighbor, and creation. Asceticism is about forming, reforming, and transforming my consumption so that creation is once again an experience of communion with God and neighbor.

Human beings are by nature consumers and if we weren’t then receiving Holy Communion would be sin. Our Lord says, “take and eat; take and drink.” We are to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and are invited to the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” Again, we are by nature consumers but our consumption must be in harmony with the Divine Will.

But communion is always personal and the ascetical tradition of the Church takes this into account. Yes. there are limits to human consumption (e.g., gluttony, greed, avarice, and sexual immorality of all types are forbidden) but within those limits we have great freedom to form our lives. Ascetical struggle, like the life of communion it serves, is always personal. An ascetical approach to our economic life requires more than a simplistic, and let’s be frank often ideological, call to consume less. To do so inevitably means that I’m imposing my own ascetical rule on you. So yes, fast, pray, and give alms according to your conscience and circumstances (hence the story of the rich monk and the poor monk with which I begin the book).

AD: You then recount the life of St. Mary of Egypt, by many accounts an “extreme” example of asceticism. How did you see her life as relevant to a book about economics and consumerism?

Our economic lives, our lives of social involvement, and our spiritual lives are not meant to be separate but to work together in harmony. Communion is also a consonance, a harmony of the different aspects of our life, working together for God’s glory and our own salvation. St Mary of Egypt embodies all of this.

Listening to St Mary’s life every year, I’m often struck by how she didn’t enjoy her sinful life; she takes neither physical pleasure or financial profit. She didn’t prostitute herself for gain but to degrade herself and others. She was, as we hear in the services of the Church, a slave to her passions.

At the very end of her life she is able to free herself by God’s grace from the passions—and I suspect profound sexual traumas of childhood—that enslaved her. Not only does she receive Holy Communion (for only the second time in her life) from Zosimas but also, for friendship’s sake, she has a little taste of the food he brought her. Communion with God, neighbor, and the material world all converge in her and all are the fruit of her ascetical struggle. St Mary makes clear, in very dramatic form, what is true for all of us: that we can live lives that are whole and integrated.

AD: Toward the end of your chapter on Orthodox criticism of the free market, you note that a “systematic treatment” of economic issues from an Orthodox perspective is often elusive, and more “homiletical” than systematic. I’ve often talked to my students about this frustration when it comes to Catholic social teaching, but I present it to them as a feature, not a bug: that is, the OST/CST is designed to be somewhat vague and exhortative so that actual individuals in concrete circumstances can figure out how to implement it in details fitting their contexts. Would you agree?

I would agree that it is a very good thing that both OST and CST avoid making prudential decisions and so avoid imposing solutions without concern for the lives of actual individuals and concrete circumstances. So yes, the homiletic character of both is a feature not a bug. What I was getting at was something more basic: especially in English, there really isn’t much research and writing being done in OST.

AD: “Consumption: Vicious and Virtuous” is the title of your fifth chapter. Tell us more about how you see virtuous consumption, especially as I think many middle-class Christians seem to suffer from at least a little guilt in what they consume, feeling as though they are somehow depriving others of food or shelter or whatever by the very act of consumption. Do too many Christians operate on a zero-sum approach to consumption today?

What we can do--and this is what I mean by “virtuous consumption”--is work to help create opportunities to expand the circle of economic activity to help more people enjoy the benefits of a market economy. For example, if you hire a maid service to clean your house, you are providing work for someone who (typically) has very few skills and who might otherwise be on welfare (or worse). These jobs are low on the economic ladder but they can (and often do) serve as a starting point for people to move up economically. The point here is that economic self-interest and altruism are not inherently opposed. Unfortunately, you may think this if you hold to a zero-sum economic model.

At its most benign, zero-sum economic thinking is neurotic. Somewhat more worryingly for me as a pastor, I think it reflects a lack of gratitude (thanksgiving,eucharistia) to God for the material blessings He has bestowed on us. Feeling guilty only paralyzes us and keeps us from wisely appraising our own economic decisions. Let me explain.

A “zero-sum approach to consumption” says that wealth is only destroyed, never created. The reason is that the total amount of wealth is fixed; and while it can be redistributed, doing so creates winners and losers. Ironically, this is the thinking that leads to consumerism since a zero-sum economic model ultimately say that I have to take from you before you take it from me. Now, in fairness, I may have done exactly that but that makes a thief. If we assume that the whole economic system is zero-sum, well then yes, the middle class are thieves and robbers just like the “1%.” But, even the poorest Americans—who are almost always better off than the poorest Africans or Asians—are also guilty.

This is simply not true. While there is much work to do, even in my lifetime humanity as a whole has become dramatically, unbelievably, better off economically. What we want for ourselves we should also want for others. If it’s wrong for me to be middle class then it is wrong for the poor of Africa or Asia or of inner-city America.

AD: Though you grapple with modern economic issues, your book is shot through with a very healthy dose of the Fathers, and of considerable quotation of, and meditation upon, liturgical texts. This was all, it seems, in service of a larger theological vision of the human person and human community, yes?

While I think the free market and economic development are good things, they aren’t ends in themselves and they aren’t sufficient for all our needs, but they are morally good. At the same time there are moral limits for our economic life just as there are for the rest of life. One of the reasons I like working with Acton is they (and I) aren’t free market fundamentalists or anarcho-capitalists (nor, by the way, are they or I libertarians). They (and I) argue that for the free market to remain free requires not only the rule of law but also the cultivation of the moral virtues. Economic development likewise requires not only technical expertise but moral wisdom. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who defend the free market fail to make this clear.

Understandably scholars and bishops take what are typically secular and materialistic defenses of the free market and economic development at face value and assume that these defenses exhaust the moral and practical justification for the free market. As I see it, a central task of OST is to ask if there isn’t a deeper, moral foundation to a market economy and economic development. Logically, we need to answers these questions before we can criticize specific economic or policy decisions.

AD: You conclude (p. 145) that “consumerism is consumption misdirected.” Tell us a bit more what you mean by that.

I mean here that consumption, being a consumer, is in the service of communion with God, neighbor and the creation. Consumerism, on the other hand, sees consumption as the goal. This means that in consumerism what matters is not wealth creation—which as I said earlier is especially important if we care for the poor—but wealth destruction. It is wholly a negative phenomenon.

AD: Tell us your hopes for this book, The Cure for Consumerism and who in particular will benefit from reading it.

Like the other social sciences, economics develop as a science within the mixed blessing that is the Enlightenment. To put our economic life on a sound anthropological footing means seeing through and beyond the anthropology of the Enlightenment. This in turn means asking what it means to be a person created in the image of God and called to live and work as a member of not just “a” human community but multiple, often overlapping, intersecting and not infrequently diverging human communities. The family and the Church are our twin foundation here but I belong to other communities well. I think the liturgy and the classical spiritual writings (East AND West) can help us understand how these different communities are meant to function and relate to each other.

For example--and I’m not arguing policy here: I’ve heard people say the Church Fathers teach that we have an absolute obligation to help the poor. Fair enough. They then go on to say that therefore any cut in social services or unwillingness to increase the SNAP budget is a violation of Christian charity. While I appreciate the good intention here, I’m not sure this is the case. Even if it is, though, appeals to the Fathers to justify government expenditures fails to take into account some important parts of patristic teaching.

For the Fathers, not only do the rich have an obligation to the poor but the poor have their own moral obligation in the economic realm. If the situation allows for it (and in the ancient world, it often didn’t) the poor are to work and support themselves and their family and not become a burden on the Church. They also have an obligation toward the rich. They owe their prayers, their gratitude, and a kind word to the rich. This is something that isn’t (and I don’t think can be) part of a state welfare program.

So those who argue from the Fathers in favor of government spending are picking and choosing just as surely are those who argue that government has NO obligation to care for the poor. Both for reasons of morality and public policy this all needs to be sorted out, and I hope my book can play a small part in doing so. My work is a very modest attempt to help Christians and others of good will navigate the moral challenges of a market economy, especially (though not exclusively) in their personal lives.

AD: Having finished the book, what projects are you at work on now?

Some of the research for the book was also done when I was a Lone Mountain Fellow at the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, MT. PERC is a secular group primarily concerned with researching free market solutions to environmental issues but I found them very supportive of my own theological perspective. I hope to go back there in the near future and work more on property rights in OST. Early monastic literature and the canons of the Church both I think assume what a basic right to property as part of what the Moscow Patriarchate calls the human vocation to labor and right to “the fruits of labour.” The latter includes “the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church VII.1). But, as my wife says, the future belongs to God.


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