Spiritual Materialism

A Quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.
—Emily Dickinson

Not long ago, I found myself listening to a speaker on public television during one of their pledge drives, a speaker like so many I have come to think of as a "feel good" speaker. He talked about how we should cultivate wisdom and adopt certain practices in order to become more spiritual. But as I continued to listen, I found myself increasingly irritated and not sure why. Upon reflection, it came to me that what I was responding so negatively to was the realization of a certain kind of materialism that seemed to underlie his talk. It was the materialism of a society that increasingly views all human endeavors from the standpoint of commodities of exchange. In that light, it occurred to me that this speaker was indeed selling something, and the something he was selling was spirituality. I was troubled by this.

There wasn’t anything specific in what he said with which I could disagree. On the surface, the message was very positive. How could one argue with someone urging us to be more wise and spiritual? However, as I listened more carefully, I came to hear another, deeper message, one that seems to accompany so many talks of this kind. The message is essentially this: If you buy my books and tapes, attend my seminars, practice what I am advocating, then you will become more competent, knowledgeable, persuasive, successful, or (as was the case with this speaker) spiritual. It is easy to fill in the adjectives. And the message continues: When you become competent, knowledgeable, persuasive, etc., you will have a fuller and happier life. Sometimes the happiness that is promised is framed in overtly materialistic terms, such as a better job or improved health. Sometimes the promised result is less materialistic, such as a sense of peace or emotional well being. But whether overtly materialistic or not, the thrust of the message is clear. The speaker has information to sell us that, if purchased, will make us happy. And the key­—yet unspoken—assumption is that happiness, feeling good about ourselves, getting what we want out of life is the one thing we must have. The ultimate end of all the acquiring we are being urged to do is always some enhancement of the self. This enhancement can be ours, we are told, if we but do the right things, think the right thoughts, practice the right techniques. This is spiritual materialism, a materialism that focuses not on the things we own, but on the "things" we think we need to change in ourselves. It is not about selling TVs or cars, but selling methods of personal transformation. We see it becoming more and more prevalent in the myriad of self-help books we buy, in mental health counseling, and on public television stations every day.

It seems to me that Quakers have something important to say about materialism when we view it through the lens of our testimonies. When we think of the Testimony on Simplicity, we think of such things as knowing when we have enough, eschewing outward displays, and guarding against material excesses. John Woolman spoke powerfully against materialism from the standpoint of both the Testimony on Simplicity and the Peace Testimony when he wrote in A Plea for the Poor, ". . . may we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these, our possessions." Woolman’s critique of the "furniture of our houses" may equally apply to the furniture of our souls, the various goods we purchase from the "feel good" speakers. And these nonmaterial goods, though perhaps not nourishing the seeds of war, as Woolman warns of material goods, nonetheless do seem to nourish something unhealthy in us. They nourish a form of greed, more pernicious than purely material greed. They nourish a spiritual greed that reduces the best that is within us— wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, spirituality—to the status of mere commodities to be purchased in the service of self-fulfillment. It is an enterprise doomed to leave us empty and unsatisfied, for in furnishing our souls this way, we are trying to buy what can only be cultivated in our hearts through the motive of love. Just as the stockpiling of weapons in our military arsenals does not make us safe, so too, the filling of our ever-expanding need for happiness in this way does not make us whole. More is demanded and at a deeper level.

Authenticity is another value that is at odds with spiritual materialism. I hesitate to call this a Quaker value, as if to imply that Quakers are the only ones to practice it; yet, it does seem to have a special place in Quaker tradition. It is, of course, related to truth seeking and our refusal to take oaths: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall into condemnation" (James 5:12). We do not take oaths because we reject the idea that there can be two standards for truth. In other words, we are always honest, not just when it suits us or when we take an oath. When viewed in light of this value, spiritual materialism shows itself to be inauthentic because it involves a self-deception. We claim to be seeking one thing, when we are really seeking another. We claim to be seeking higher virtues, when we are really seeking our own happiness. This is dishonest. And it places us in an inauthentic relationship to ourselves, needing to believe one thing, yet on a deeper level, knowing it is not true.

This is not to say that to be a good Quaker one must reject all commerce and capitalism. It is but to suggest that a commercial model of buying and selling should not be allowed to encroach upon the most sacred and deeply human realm of our spiritual life and relationship to God. In that realm, there is no buyer and seller, no commodity to purchase. There is but the opening up of our hearts to Love. For it seems to me that what is sacred in life is not about what one has, but about what one gives to the world. Put simply, it is about being good. And being good is not the same as feeling good. It is not about being happy. What is truly important consists not in what we have or what we feel, but in recognizing who we are in relation to the eternal Presence that lives in and through us. Being this kind of person is not just one more accomplishment, one more enhancement of our lives. It is the very core of our lives, the purpose for which we were made: to live compassionately in the world and to be faithful witnesses and bearers of God’s love to each other. When we are this kind of person, we do find happiness, a happiness that comes to us only when we do not seek after it, the only true and lasting happiness there is. It is a happiness based not on what we have, but on how well and faithfully we have loved. To quote Woolman again, who chose to cut back in his tailoring business so that he could devote more of his time to what he knew to be the true work of his life: "Here we have a prospect of one common interest, from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal Love becomes the business of our lives."

For most of us, living this kind of life is an immense challenge. It is very difficult, especially in a society increasingly seduced by materialism in all its forms. But in slowly letting go of the false promises that spiritual materialism holds out to us, we can more clearly see the path we are called to follow.

Diane Barounis

Diane Barounis is a clinical social worker and a member of Evanston (Ill.) Meeting. An unexpanded version of this article was first published in the meeting's newsletter.