Moltmann Monday: On Consumption and Grace

Happy Moltmann Monday! Today’s selection comes from Ethics of Hope, where Moltmann is talking about consumption, consumerism and how it clashes with our identity in God:

A society which takes the growth of its production of goods and services as the yardstick of its health is forced to increase consumption. In order to stimulate consumption, advertising must sell not only commodities but dreams as well- dreams of power and recognition… So what develops on the one hand are fears of a decline in the social scale, and on the other hand greed for more and more… Nothing motivates like recognition; nothing is so humiliating as disregard. If that is the driving force behind progress, then behind the greed for life we can detect the shadow of the fear of death, and behind the life of luxury, nihilism.

The alternative facing us here is really the old alternative between justification through works and justification through faith. What was called ‘justification’ in theological tradition corresponds very well to recognition, acceptance, esteem- in short, the love which people despairingly seek. If people find this recognition through faith in God, they have no need to look for it in what other people see as their achievements or their luxury… The human being as person is more than his achievement, more than his poverty, more than his own opinion of himself. A human being is more than his success in business and something other than his business failure. People who perceive this can cope unperturbed with successes and failures.

As we know, we tend to measure ourselves as a nation (and as a world) according to the GNP: gross national product. This can be a helpful way of gauging our economies, but as Moltmann rightly points out, it is a very unhealthy way of gauging our sense of worth.

When we base our worth or identity in our achievement, and we connect that achievement to our financial success or worldly recognition, what we’re doing at the deepest sense of things is allowing our fear of rejection and failure to rule us. This is why Moltmann can say with clarity that greed is at its heart a fear of death, and the unchecked pursuit of luxury is at its heart a form of nihilism.

When advertising becomes a form of selling us dreams, it requires us to define ourselves as people who, more than anything else, lack something. If we could only have X or Y, we could fill that hole, we could be happy, we would be content. But consumption is a greedy monster. It does not intend for us ever to be satisfied. It can only feed on our relentless longing.

I appreciate how he ties this to the idea of justification by faith and justification by works, maybe because that old theological debate can become so tired so quickly. Yada yada, we think, we receive God’s grace and don’t have to work for it. We are fine perhaps in nodding along when a preacher relates this to salvation. We are far less comfortable when a theologian relates it to our bank account, our job title, our socio-economic class. This kind of success and acceptance is an illusion, because those who have “achieved” are constantly under the threat of losing what they have amassed, and those who are struggling are constantly working against a society that wrongfully assumes they could achieve more if only they worked harder.

There’s no life in this battle. That kind of recognition and self-esteem won’t get you anywhere. We can all think of someone who reached the apex of success and put an end to his/her life anyway.

To find spiritual maturity and centeredness is to receive the gift of justification by grace; in other words, we allow our worth to be defined by the simple truth that God loves us, and that love is enough. When we do so, we do not get upended by success or failure so easily. We find humility in the midst of worldly recognition, and find esteem in the midst of worldly disregard.

We become people who can cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life, because we measure our worth not by the yardstick of consumption but by the endless supply of God’s love.

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