Our culture has bred consumers and addicts. We eat too much, buy too much, and want too much. We set ourselves on the fruitless mission of filling the gaping hole within us with material things. Blindly, we consume more and more, believing we are hungry for more food, status, or money, yet really we are hungry for connection.
We typically misunderstand what's wrong about consumerism. It's not that it makes us love material things too much. To be a good consumer, you have to desire to get lots of things, but you must not love any of them too much once you have them. Consumerism needs children who do not stay attached to their toys for very long and learn to expect the next round of presents as soon as possible. When consumerism succeeds, our attachments are shallow, easily broken, so we can move on to the next thing we're supposed to get. Being a good consumer means desiring new things, not cherishing old ones. And the new things you're supposed to desire are not always material things. Spirituality is now a consumerist enterprise, too.
Who are we without our addictions; without our media-induced hungers? So often the voices we hear echoing in our mind are not our own but that of our influencers. Isolation, while arguably going against human nature, is essential for mental and emotional health. Solitude is a detoxification of all that distorts our personality and misguides our path in life. It allows us to filter out the foreign opinions and hear our own voice—reach our authentic character—and practice fidelity to self.
But we have, if not our understanding, our own experience, and it feels to me sealed, inviolable, ours. We have a last, deep week together, because Wally is not on morphine yet, because he has just enough awareness, just enough ability to communicate with me. I’m with him almost all day and night- little breaks, for swimming, for walking the dogs. Outside it snows and snows, deeper and deeper; we seem to live in a circle of lamplight. I rub his feet, make him hot cider. All week I feel like we’re taking one another in, looking and looking. I tell him I love him and he says I love you, babe, and then when it’s too hard for him to speak he smiles back at me with the little crooked smile he can manage now, and I know what it means. I play music for him, the most encompassing and quiet I can find: Couperin, Vivaldi, the British soprano Lesley Garret singing arias he loved, especially the duet from Lakme: music of freedom, diving, floating. How can this be written? Shouldn’t these sentences simply be smithereened apart, broken in a hurricane?All that afternoon he looks out at us though a little space in his eyes, but I know he sees and registers: I know that he’s loving us, actively; if I know nothing else about this man, after nearly thirteen years, I know that. I bring all the animals, and then I sit there myself, all afternoon, the lamps on. The afternoon’s so quiet and deep it seems almost to ring, like chimes, a cold, struck bell. I sit into the evening, when he closes his eyes.There is an inaudible roaring, a rush beneath the surface of things, beneath the surface of Wally, who has now almost no surface- as if I could see into him, into the great hurrying current, that energy, that forward motion which is life going on. I was never this close to anyone in my life. His living’s so deep and absolute that it pulls me close to that interior current, so far inside his life. And my own. I know I am going to be more afraid than I have ever been, but right now I am not afraid. I am face to face with the deepest movement in the world, the point of my love’s deepest reality- where he is most himself, even if that self empties out into no one, swift river hurrying into the tumble of rivers, out of individuality, into the great rushing whirlwind of currents. All the love in the world goes with you.
We who were not so pathologically far out on the spectrum of self-involvement, we dwellers of the visible spectrum who could imagine how it felt to go beyond violet but were not ourselves beyond it, could see that David was wrong not to believe in his lovability and could imagine the pain of not believing in it. How easy and natural love is if you are well! And how gruesomely difficult--what a philosophically daunting contraption of self-interest and self-delusion love appears to be--if you are not! And yet ... the difference between well and not well is in more respects a difference of degree than of kind. Even though David laughed at my much milder addictions and liked to tell me that I couldn't even conceive of how moderate I was, I can still extrapolate from these addictions, and from the secretiveness and solipsism and radical isolation and raw animal craving that accompany them, to the extremity of his. I can imagine the sick mental pathways by which suicide comes to seem like the one consciousness-quenching substance that nobody can take away from you.
As sinners we are like addicts - addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: "The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it." So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new. Since the theology of glory is like addiction and not abstract doctrine, it is a temptation over which we have no control in and of ourselves, and from which we must be saved. As with the addict, mere exhortation and optimistic encouragement will do no good. It may be intended to build up character and self-esteem, but when the addict realizes the impossibility of quitting, self-esteem degenerates all the more. The alcoholic will only take to drinking in secret, trying to put on the facade of sobriety. As theologians of glory we do much the same. We put on a facade of religious propriety and piety and try to hide or explain away or coddle our sins.... As with the addict there has to be an intervention, an act from without. In treatment of alcoholics some would speak of the necessity of 'bottoming out,' reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help. Then it is finally evident that the desire can never be satisfied, but must be extinguished. In matters of faith, the preaching of the cross is analogous to that intervention. It is an act of God, entirely from without. It does not come to feed the religious desires of the Old Adam and Eve but to extinguish them. They are crucified with Christ to be made new.
On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis.
Ultimately, we are much more addicted than the junkie because we are responsible for not only our own demise, but the breakdown of the entire natural world. There is no other appropriate response to a situation this grave, this utterly overwhelming, than powerlessness. It has taken countless generations to arrive in this predicament; a solution cannot arise overnight. It will take work. It will take time.