Christianity as Philosophia and Modern Society

If Christianity is, indeed, a philosophia, then it will also have three important components: a distinct discourse and discursive method, or a way of speaking and thinking; this discourse will be rooted in a fundamental principle (or principles), or logos(-oi); around which are built specific “soulish exercises,” or askeses, which serve to inculcate the fundamental principle(s) and to further the communal discourse. Though a defense of a particular philosophia in antiquity was part of that way of life, apologia was not necessarily a dominant feature of such discourse, and in any case was meant as a defense more than as a proselytizing method. Proselytization of converts occurred via the public nature of the way of life in which a particular philosophia was lived. Would-be disciples “dropped in” as it were on the dialogoi and instruction that went on in the Academy, the Lyceum, the Stoa and the Garden, that were embodiments of their respective philosophiai, and in an existential pre-theoretical choice, attracted by the beauty and goodness they perceived in that particular philosophia, entered the community as a disciple.

This was true as well, with regard to Christianity. The public display of the Christian philosophia was primarily centered on the way of life they shared: care of the poor, the orphans and the widows; mutual love exhibited in the concrete life shared among them, for example, the sharing of possessions and care for the sick; the devotion to the apostles’ teaching and to the gathered worship (though not on public display was the portion of the Liturgy dealing with Holy Eucharist), and other visible demonstrations of Christian lived faith.

Christianity certainly has fundamental principles: the Holy Trinity, God the Father, the incarnate Logos, and the Holy Spirit. And the discourse rooted in these principles is also distinct: sin, repentance and judgment; grace, new creation and resurrection; and so forth. This discourse has its own forms: liturgy, preaching, confession, catechesis, etc.. And this way of life has its own askeses which further this way of life: fasting, prayer, almsgiving, confession of sin, the Sacraments, and others.

Modern society, too, has its own philosophiai, though these are far less formal than the schools of antiquity. Think for example of modern Western consumerist society. It has its organizing principle: the “free” market and capitalist economies; its discourse: Gross National Domestic Product, inflation, unemployment, income, sale, discount, and so forth; and its askeses: advertising, shopping venues, and entertainment. I claim that these are not formalized, but that is only to say, there is not an overall philosophia that is articulated (the “consumerist way of life” say) in a systematic way. But that is not to say that certain aspects of this informal philosophia are not formalized; advertising, for example, is extremely formalized, as is consumer spending patterns (induced by such gimmicks as semi-annual, holiday, and seasonal sales, and the behavior modification and manipulation that accompanies these contrived sales). There is a particular outlook and thinking, and public discourse if you will, that is shaped by these economic principles and their respective askeses such that one finds ones identity strongly associated with particular buying decisions (which also feed into other consumer driven mythologies and identifications such as buying organic foods and environmentally friendly products).

Concomitant with such consumerism is the cult of celebrity and its religious ascetical component of entertainment. Much of what drives consumerism is the notion of entertainment (think of the mutliform uses to which home computers are put, as well as the uses to which most technological advancement is put) and the manipulative power of celebrity, both in identification as well as in consumer endorsements.

One may very well identify other modern day philosophiai, though in the affluent West, one is hard pressed to find one more influential, if less formally conceptualized. But clearly this identification of consumerism as the West’s primary philosophia clarifies and juxtaposes some extremely important implications.

One can very well note at least two important realizations: consumerism is both an anti-christ, preaching a demonic and rival philosphia to that of Christianity, and consumerism is an extremely powerful and potent philosophia which is both its own way of life and parasitic upon others. Not even Christianity is immune from its influence.

Consumerism is anti-christ and demonic precisely because it opposes nearly every major principle of Christianity. It is thoroughly monistic in its materialism; there is no other reality than economic production. It replaces love of God and neighbor with quantitative manipulation of human beings and utter servitude to self-interested profitability. And instead of self-denying sacrifice for the good of one’s neighbor is substituted passive acceptance of any and all forms of self-gratification. (I should note that in speaking of consumerism and identifying one of its principles as capitalism, I am not saying that Marxist, or other forms of, socialism aren’t as equally anti-christian and demonic. These, though of a different form, are consumerisms just as insidious as the Western capitalist variety.)

Clearly, consumerism is its own way of life as can be objectively observed pervasively throughout Western society. But it is parasitic as well: it will infect its host and drain away its life, assimilating the lifeless shell into itself. One need look no further than the cult of celebrity and marketing that is rife in modern Western Christianity. All that is left of these hollowed out husks of what may once have been Christian is a thin veneer covering over a way of life that is exactly identical to godless consumerism.

One must be clear here: consumerism is not the same things as consumption. The difference is that between consumption as a way of life, and consumption subsumed within a way of life. All humans consume, and necessarily so. Not all consumption must be strictly utilitarian, either; for utilitarianism is its own philosphia. The wasteful plenitude of beauty crafted into life and the universe is testimony enough for the proper place of non-utilitarian consumption, such as that of celebration.

But the philosophia that is Christianity is at diametrical odds with the philosophia of pervasive consumerism. This is easily told by simply comparing the opposing ways of life. A consumerist will not fast, unless such a fast is for self-gratification such as weight loss. A consumerist will not pray, unless such prayer is simply the self-hypnotic mantra utilized to acquire those things one wants. A consumerist will not give alms, unless such giving will decrease the amount of taxes owed or the amount of tax refunded. Worship for a consumer is entirely subjective and focused on the gratification of the self. Christian worship is utterly objective and focused on the Holy Trinity. A consumerist seeks for security in this life, and measures such in terms of portfolios, insurance policies and possessions. A Christian places all his trust in the Holy Trinity he has never seen, nor will see apart from holiness. These comparisons do not presume to assert that there are no subjective benefits that sometimes come from fasting, prayer and almsgiving, nor that the subjective gratification that one often receives from true worship is somehow to be deplored, nor that a Christian cannot make godly use of his finances, insurance policies and possessions. But he knows that all these benefits are undeserved and not to be sought in themselves and that all wealth and possessions are matters of stewardship and are as transitory as the morning fog. To be sure, the Christian way of life is attacked on all sides by consumerism’s structures and disciples and its pernicious capacity as a parasite, and Christians do well to handle such consumerist tools and products with a great deal of wisdom and perspicacity. And this can only be done if a Christian is thoroughly formed in and supported by the Christian philosophia.

This formation and support can only come from the Christian philosophia that is still lived in the community directly descended from the apostles. Only that philosophia that has been handed down by one living generation to the next and that can be organically traced to Christ through his apostles is the Christian philosophia, and therefore only that one which can make real both the living of the Christian faith and the combating of the philosophiai, especially that of consumerism in the West, that would suck the life out of the individual Christian and his community, leaving only an empty shell, a thin veneer that is Christian in name only.

I have spent the entirety of this post dealing with the opposition between the Christian philosophia and the philosophia of consumerism. In my next reflection on this series I will think about what it means to proselytize (or in Christian terminology, to evangelize) within the rubrics of a philosophia.

[The remainder of the posts in this series can be found here.]