Asceticism and the Consumer Society: An Interview with Metropolitan Jonah

The Orthodox Church is mostly known in the United States for its rich liturgical life, its adherence to ancient calendars for major Christian feast-days and, perhaps most of all, the many food and ethnic festivals offered by its multiethnic parishes. Social activism and moral witness in the public square, not so much. That has begun to change with the rise of Metropolitan Jonah, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America. This youthful bishop, born James Paffhausen in Chicago and raised in Southern California before entering monastic life in Russia, was elected to lead the OCA in November 2008. Since then, he has perhaps been the most widely quoted and covered Orthodox bishop in the United States, speaking out on social issues and traveling widely to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He delivered one of the keynote addresses at Acton University in June 2011. Religion & Liberty Executive Editor John Couretas spoke with Metropolitan Jonah about his talk.

R&L: In your Acton University address, "Asceticism and the Consumer Society," you explained how the consumerist impulse was really an addictive impulse, something that compels us fill a void where God should be. And we so frequently attempt to fill that empty spot with the wrong things.

Metropolitan Jonah: I think the void occurs because we're basically distracted from God, and we don't let God fill that void. We don't have that focus and that perpetual intuitive awareness of God for which we were created, and so we let other things get in the way. And for many people, it's pain and disappointment, discouragement, anger, bitterness, all of the passions. For others, it could be the pain that follows from having been abused in some way. And so this becomes a kind of a preoccupation and we look for things to mute that pain, to distract us from it. We look for a salve.

Would you say that these passions, these addictions, have a similar cause?

All addictive behaviors are the same, essentially. They are rooted in the same kind of phenomenon, this avoidance of inner pain. It could be consumerism and a constant preoccupation with acquisition of things, as if more stuff could make us happy. Or it could be the resort to abusing alcohol or drugs or sex in the same way.

In your talk, you offered some reflection on how this distraction not only pulls us away from God, but reduces us to something less than fully human. What is the key to living out our full humanity as Christians in this highly secularized world?

I believe the real key is that whole complex of relationships that we find, first and foremost, in the family and then in the broader community. But our relationship with God, of course, takes primacy even before the family. All of our other relationships find their place within that relationship with God, because it's precisely that which actualizes our personhood. We can be autonomous individuals but that doesn't mean that we're authentically persons, in the sense of having that real meaning and vision of our lives rooted in God and rooted in the other. Without God, our personhood becomes a kind of a self definition.

At AU 2011, Metropolitan Jonah talks with R&L Executive Editor John Couretas.

And self-definition also promotes the idea of self-sufficiency, does it not?

Yes, it's a delusion of self-sufficiency and a delusion of complete autonomy. And none of us is autonomous, ultimately. We don't come into being simply by ourselves, nor can we live simply by ourselves. Which opens the way to sin and depersonalization. That's what sin does to us. It's what these addictive behaviors do, because they isolate us.

It seems as though, as our culture becomes more affluent and the material temptations expand, we can easily be drawn into that trap of self-sufficiency if we're not careful.

It ceases to become a matter of pursuing what we need. It's simply a matter of pursuing what we want. In other words, fulfilling our desires and lusts rather than our needs.

You referred to Father Alexander Schmemann's famous definition of secularism as the negation of worship, as the negation of man as a worshipping being. Could you tell us how Schmemann's insights will help us navigate the high secular world we live in now?

Well, the way I explain what Father Schmemann taught about secularism is compartmentalization. And by that I mean the compartmentalization of our lives and to a great degree, it's about the compartmentalization of God into a little box where we can access Him when we care to, but really most of the time we ignore him. We're trying to put God into a place where we can control Him. What that does is fundamentally distort the intuitive reality, or the intuitive awareness of God, Who is present at all times and everywhere. This is how we understood Him in our original state, the state in which we were created to be and from which we fell. This secularization is basically rooted in a kind of dualism of excluding or separating God from His creation, the material world. And it's precisely in the reality of God's presence in every aspect of the material world and that intuitive awareness of Him shining forth in and through the creation that's the real core of the whole sacramental vision of reality.

How would that sacramental worldview help us become better Christian stewards?

When we see things in God and radiant with His presence, we're not likely to abuse them. So if we can have that perception, if we can attain that degree of spiritual vision, everything has its place in the creation and our stewardship of that becomes our fundamental duty. Not that we leave things of the creation untouched, but rather that we truly value them.

You see that in highly materialistic cultures, Soviet Russia comes to mind, where the physical environment was horribly degraded and even people were viewed more or less as purely material objects to be controlled and manipulated.

It's no different in our culture when we become purely utilitarian. When people look at the environment and think, How can I extract the greatest profit? And then walk away from the mess.

What's the important work of the churches with the respect to the advance of secularism? What is the witness that our bishops and our clergy and laity should offer?

I think the most important thing is that the members of our churches live integrated, spiritually informed lives. That's first and foremost. That's the greatest way of battling against this culture. We can't create a cultural movement that's based on a worldview that comes out of a spiritual vision if people don't share that vision. For those who do share that vision, then it becomes simply a matter of teaching how to live out that life. We have to show how the spiritual is integrated into all of life and how God, on a personal level, and religion on another level, are not simply relegated to just a certain box or a certain category. Faith cannot be dismissed as a compartmentalized influence on either our lives or on society.

In your talk, you also touched on the rise of Christianophobia, which describes the process of pushing the faith witness out of the public square. This has been going on for some time. It seems though that even some Christians have absorbed this view, preferring to keep faith a private matter. What do you make of this?

That's precisely compartmentalization. And it's the compartmentalization of the Church and its witness into simply one more interest group, another lobbying entity, with all views of equal weight and simply a matter of opinion. Now obviously I'm not arguing for some kind of a unified church-state with a single official view. That can also take you to a very secularized place, as a matter of fact. But people of faith are informed by not simply doctrines and dogmas, but by that living consciousness that God is and that our lives are dependent on Him. And that changes one's entire worldview and stands in sharp contrast to the views of those who believe there is no God or He is not present and our lives are not dependent on Him. That's the fundamental difference. And so while an authentic faith witness is not going to come out in any kind of great official pronouncements from some kind of central authority, we can work toward a common vision that is arrived at by people of a common mind.

You're talking about an ethic, a culture that you live it out. It's not just talking about these things, but it's embodied and experienced in relationship to Christ.

And I would also say more broadly that I'm talking about people of faith, who are also Jews and who are Muslims. Not just Christians. They have a witness to share, too, and in our society I think we can mix common cause with them in many areas. Because it's a matter of a living perception of God. Now, we can disagree about some of the specifics. For Christians, our perception of God is always in terms of Jesus Christ. For a Jew or a Muslim, their perception of God is not through Christ. Yet, they still have a very powerful perception of God. With Christians, they would share a belief that God informs all of their moral and ethical decisions.

Towards the end of your Acton University talk you said that, despite all the grave and deep problems in the culture, it can be fixed. What gives you that hope?

Because there are people who believe and people who love. And it's precisely that reality that's going to keep, I think, the culture from going over the precipice. It's always been the case that there's been a kind of a remnant of the faithful. Is it not that remnant that remains the foundation stone of the culture? We have that when cultures go awry, so that no matter what happens politically or economically, there remains the core of a community that's intact and living according to the Gospel. That can be our lifeline.

After his AU talk, Metropolitan Jonah answers questions from Acton intern Tony Oleck.

At Acton University, you talked about wealth and made the statement that wealth in itself is not evil or wicked or bad, and that this is something that a lot of Christians struggle with. How would you guide a Christian that comes to you and says, You know, I've had some material success. Yes, I give to the Church and everything, but I see so many without the things I've achieved or have in a material way. How am I to make sense of what I have, if I have more than my brother?

The first and foremost thing about wealth is that you have to give thanks to God for it. But you also need to know something about stewardship, that everything comes from God and it can disappear just as quickly, sometimes much more quickly, as the length of time it took to earn the wealth. And so you have to give thanks to God. And stewardship requires that you take very seriously the question of how wealth can best be used for the betterment of the greater community and for the betterment of society. You know, we're all called to give to the poor. But as they say, it may be better to teach a man to fish than simply to give him a fish. A proper understanding of stewardship might lead us to teach a person how to do a job rather than simply give him a handout.

That would be consistent with an authentic monastic understanding of work, would it not?

Yes because you learn that work, no matter what it is, is good. Work is holy and if it's taken on for unselfish motives rather than just self enrichment, it can be something that God will bless and that it can become a part of our spiritual life. How we do our work is part of an integrated spiritual life.