On Sunday morning you worship at church, on Tuesday attend a Buddhist meditation session, on Thursday, a Muslim recitation of the Qu’ran and Friday a Jewish Sabbath Eve service. Of course to modern ears this sounds like stretching the bounds of sanity. In the ancient world, the phenomenon of combining religions, sometimes fusing them, at other times observing them side-by-side, was quite common. In this practice, known as syncretism, when one encountered a new religion, deity or spirituality, its observance could be added on to one’s life while leaving almost everything else untouched. For example, supposing one was a frequenter of Zeus worship, adding the imperial religion of Caesar worship, or perhaps of the goddess Roma was quite simple and did not threaten or even remotely affect the prior held affiliations. There was nothing incompatible between venerating Zeus and upholding the imperial religion.
While this sounds somewhat foreign, is it really all that odd? If there is any imperial religion in our day, you won’t find it explicitly advertised in any church or other faith group. Yet you will find people bowing to consumerism in nearly every segment of society. Consumerism often refers specifically to an obsession with the acquisition and accumulation of consumer goods, in short, having lots of stuff. I would like to use the term in a more expansive manner – to our obsession with using everything for our own consumption, even exploitation – money, power, time, resources, relationships, etc. Everything is valuable based on its use for ourselves, namely how I can use it and use it up. Relationships are valuable if one can use them for entertainment, or opportunities, or sex. Money is used primarily to advance one’s own comfort, honor or stimulation. Power is used (abused) to secure one’s own self-worth and expand one’s narcissistic self-aggrandizement. This is what I mean by consumerism – a general orientation of life which seeks to use (consume) everything for one’s own benefit.
Love is a completely different way of life. It seeks its own delight, not in the consumptive use of others, but in the delight and well-being of others. Relationships are valuable because the other person has an inherent worth given by God, which is to be honored, affirmed and celebrated. Money is useful to improve the quality of life for those who are downtrodden or in need. Power is manifested in serving and enriching the lives of others. Love’s primary orientation is giving as opposed to consumerism’s posture of taking.
Love allows no syncretism with consumerism. Though the earlier portrait of syncretism seems inordinately strange, is it all that uncommon for someone to adopt select religious practices that seem Christian, rather than reorient their entire life around what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment? I go to church on Sunday and bible study once a week. Maybe I am more radical and have a daily quiet time for 15 minutes. I may even go hours a day. But what about the other 12-15 hours of waking time? Do they remain untouched? Is consumerism allowed to run unchecked while being justified by the presence of certain spiritual activities? Does the habit of relating to everything external to oneself for one’s own benefit continue unabated alongside of Jesus worship? Love requires a radical renunciation of all consumerism in every area of life. It demands that we loose the snatching grip of control and open our hands in generous living. This cannot be an isolated activity or it screams of insincerity. Rather, Love allows no dimension of life to remain sacrosanct, to lie beyond its scathing critique. It exposes and names all the ways we remain without interference in our enclave of indifference, pursuing our own selfish ambitions and interests in parallel to tokens of altruism. Love longs to permeate our entire existence with its gentle fragrance, to have free course with its liberating and life-giving presence. Love seeks to pry open the vise grips of fear to release our very lives as an offering of love to the world. It matters not if we find ourselves to be weak, feeble and insufficient. This is no reason to shrink back. Following the way our crucified Lord has gone before, we can, with great assurance, offer our broken bodies and bloodied selves as a gift of inestimable worth to the world.