It is hard to live a Christian life in the modern world. But the main difficulty does not come from the overt enemies of the Church, or the issues on which the so-called “culture wars” turn.
Of course, I acknowledge the threat from those who would usurp the Church’s freedom, and degrade cultural morality. In our everyday lives, however, such radicalism is not the main obstacle to discipleship.
The difficulty of Christian life in our culture has more to do with a general atmosphere of indifference to truth, made worse by a culture of consumerism. Our challenge is to live faithfully in a society that tries to reduce everything – even God Himself – to the level of a lifestyle accessory.
Pope Francis understands this problem. In section 2 of Evangelii Gaudium, he warns of “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism.” Through the “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures,” consumer culture forms “a complacent yet covetous heart,” and a “blunted conscience” cut off from God and others.
The Pope also speaks of the “tide of secularism”: a force that can “reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal,” by “completely rejecting the transcendent” in the realm of culture and public life. The outcome is “a steady increase in relativism” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64-65). Technologies and desires count for everything; all higher knowledge is ignored or marginalized.
Consumerism and secular relativism are not merely two parallel trends. They are related forces which support and amplify one another. In modern Western culture, relativism and the market-mentality are combined in the single phenomenon I call “Worldview Consumerism”
Worldview Consumerism has become the controlling principle of culture and public life in the Western world and all other “Westernized” locales. It fuses secular relativism – the insistence that we can have no knowledge of non-material truths – with the obsessive, amoral consumerism of economic super-development (cf. Pope John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 28).
The resulting culture treats everything, even faith, like a product: a purely subjective choice one makes after scanning the shelves. Beliefs about God, and life’s meaning, are treated like ice cream flavors (“simply a matter of taste”) or laundry detergent (“whatever works best in your machine”).
Outright atheism is relatively rare in our society. But the blend of relativism and consumerism is reinforced by most cultural venues. It is the unstated presupposition of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, academia, and the business world. It is the air we breathe.
This consumer approach to truth and meaning is a dismissal of God, disguised as neutrality. It says: “Believe what you want about life’s meaning, since we can’t really know anything about that.”
“Believe in this Jesus character if you want. Whatever floats your boat,” the voice of Worldview Consumerism says. “Just – don’t start acting like he’s the King of the World or anything.” That, after all, is the kind of behavior that could upset the whole business model . . .
Many of us have discovered that this combination of relativism and consumerism makes evangelization difficult. Drugged into a stupor of religious indifference, many people see the Faith of the Church as simply another product on the shelves – one which they feel no need to acquire.
It is less obvious, but equally true, that this environment harms our own efforts to follow Jesus. Even if we reject the lie, and resolve to serve God as He deserves, we are deeply affected by the surrounding culture.
Sedated by the general atmosphere of Worldview Consumerism, we treat our life in Christ as the kind of thing the world says it is: a personal enthusiasm, a preference, a private hobby.
Christ the Lord, the true King of all creation, is driven from culture and public life. Our Creator and Redeemer is marginalized as just another consumer-choice. If we accept this as normal, we have clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere.
At this point, I should mention that I am not diagnosing someone else’s problem. I am not pointing to “all you slackers over there.”
I am writing about what I see in the mirror. I am writing, in fact, about one of the reasons I intend to become a monk.
I am tired of my own feckless, bourgeoisie mediocrity. It was not what I envisioned when I first turned to Christ in faith.
How can I live without hypocrisy? How am I, personally, supposed to follow and imitate Christ, in this consumer-world of endless, meaningless choices?
We must face these questions. The modern world forces them upon us. Part of the difficulty, though, is that no single answer can suffice for every believer. We each have to work out what committed discipleship looks like, in a world of consumerism and relativism.
Of course, the truth itself is a unity: the Faith is one, and the Church is one, as God Himself is One (cf. Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 47), Yet even for the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, there is no single, pre-set formula for living without hypocrisy. This takes discernment – personal attention to God’s guidance.
My own search for a truthful life has led me toward monasticism. But no institution can save me from hypocrisy. That is only possible if one comes before God with complete, unsparing honesty.
I do believe, however, that monasteries are badly needed today. We need them, at a time when relativism and consumerism have been fused into one all-encompassing cultural delusion.
A monastery is an “experiment in truth,” an effort to live the Gospel without compromise. Such a life is certainly possible outside monasticism. But the Church needs the witness of those who explicitly renounce “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).
Christian monasticism, in the formal sense, emerged as a response to the worldliness of the Church in the fourth century. Large numbers of men and women chose to set aside the goods of this world, to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1).
They wanted a completely truthful life: a life that would announce – in word, deed, and silence – that Jesus is Lord. So they gave up everything distracting them from life’s real business: which is simply to live in God’s presence, and to love Him through self-renunciation.
These two tasks are, in a sense, the simplest things in the world. Yet they are the very things we habitually forget, in a culture that devotes nearly all of its institutional energy and attention to “the things that are upon the earth” (Col. 3:2).
No past society has ever pursued the “lower things” more vigorously than ours now does. Perhaps no society has needed monasteries more desperately than ours.
Pope Francis’ interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, “A Big Heart Open To God,” was published during my first visit to Holy Resurrection Monastery in September. The portions highlighted by the popular media were not of great interest to me, but I was moved by the Pope’s words on consecrated religious life.
Consecrated men and women “are prophets,” Pope Francis said. “They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity.” And this vow of chastity, so misunderstood by the world, is “a vow of fruitfulness” in the spiritual sense.
Monks, and other consecrated religious, are “called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the Kingdom of God will be in its perfection. A religious must never give up prophecy … Prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.”
Like his statements about consumerism and secular relativism in “Evangelium Gaudii,” the Pope’s words on consecrated life are countercultural. The spirit of the Gospel opposes the modern spirit of Worldview Consumerism, which ignores the question of truth and considers only preferences.
In humility and obscurity, the monk testifies against the consumer-world. He makes himself “empty for God” – “vacare Deo,” in traditional Latin terminology – and so proclaims that all things belong to the God Who is Truth.
Pope Francis wants this prophetic witness to be part of the Church’s New Evangelization. Three days after he published “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Pope announced a “Year of Consecrated Life” beginning in 2015. The timing does not seem coincidental.
We need prophets. With every passing day, the relativistic consumer-world exalts itself more and more, taking itself increasingly for granted as the only valid way of life.
Yet every day we move closer to the destruction of this colossal lie, and the full unveiling of the truth.
“I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them … those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31, NAB).
The modern consumer-world is already doomed. God’s Kingdom comes. Who is willing to declare this now, while there is still time?