“What is greed?” It’s a good question, and it is one which was posed to me by Ted Scofield during his breakout at the Mockingbird Conference a month ago. (You can hear the audio recording here.) According to Ted, several statistics and polls reveal that we Americans collectively see greed as a societal problem yet deny it as an issue in our individual lives. Merely citing the addictive behavior around smartphone upgrades revealed to me, a self-professed wannabe techie, that there is a problem: “We have grown weary and dubious of all the technology upgrades. For the first time in a 15 year history of this poll, now more than half of us believe that the reason for Apple updating iPhones and for Microsoft putting out a new Windows version—it’s no longer to make our lives better—the poll now shows that we answered it’s for greed.”

As he said it, there I was feeling guilty as ever: not a new smartphone this time, just a pre-order of the Apple Watch I had made two days beforehand.

washing_machine_ad1355704741962But back to the question: What is greed? We all, of course, know that it has something to do with stuff, money, possessions. If you wanted to express it in emoji terms, you might choose the moneybag, jet, boat, and diamond ring (and don’t forget the appropriate hashtag). So is greed the possession of a certain amount of money? Would, say, making $150,000 a year be the point at which one becomes greedy? Is the owner of a four bedroom house guiltier than the owner of a three bedroom house? Is the person who drives a Mercedes greedier than the one who drives a Toyota? Where exactly is that threshold for greediness?

The easy and immediate attempt to quantify greed does not appear to mesh with everyday experience, and any hard and fast rule surely has to be arbitrary. So might one be able to move the issue internally, rendering it a qualitative problem? In other words, it seems a safer bet that greed has more to do with wanting things rather than merely possessing them. But continuing down this path leads to a similar dead-end: at what point does desire become excessive and thus greed?

The sense of greed we all have on a national scale is likely due to the fact that we live in a consumerist society. (Remember that unnecessary smartphone upgrade?) Consumerism bears striking similarities to greed and is usually defined by the possession of things. But a consumer does not act to possess things; no, he or she lives merely for the pursuit of things.

As William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed:

In consumer culture, dissatisfaction and satisfaction cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not so much in the possession of things as in their pursuit. There is pleasure in the pursuit of novelty, and the pleasure resides not so much in having as in wanting. Once we have obtained an item, it brings desire to a temporary halt, and the item loses some of its appeal. Possession kills desire; familiarity breeds contempt. That is why shopping, not buying itself, is the heart of consumerism. The consumerist spirit is a restless spirit, typified by detachment, because desire must be constantly kept on the move.

If Cavanaugh is right, that would explain why as soon as the iPhone 6 was released, there was already talk of what the next iteration might look like. In a consumerist society, an individual’s desire is unlimited, and because desire is unlimited, goods are scarce. It is not that we want to own more things; it is that we pursue them endlessly, discarding them nearly as soon as we pick them up.

Such desire is fueled in a world that no longer has an overarching story, quite characteristic of our postmodern, secular society. When the narrative that shapes a culture’s identity has collapsed, there is no longer a shared past or future, and the individual self must retreat to itself to shape its own identity; when human society no longer has a chief end (a telos), when it no longer has a future, when all we are is a group of autonomous individuals, the self reigns and desire runs rampant. The postmodern self, in other words, is a storyless self, one who is bound to the present because there exists no narrative identity. The best marketing companies know this, which is why their ad campaigns will tell consumers less about a product and more about an experience. Or more precisely, they create a larger mythological narrative to fill the void that remains in a storyless society. In Cavanaugh’s words,

BarbaraKruger_IshopThereforeIam_Associating in one’s mind with certain brands gives a sense of identity: one identifies one’s self with certain images and values that are associated with the brand. Branding offers opportunities to take on a new self, to perform an ‘extreme makeover’ and become a new person.

Thus, consumerism, it would seem, goes hand-in-hand with a secular society (if we grant the religious-secular bifurcation), yet it ironically reveals the religious undertone of secularism on the ground. The secular sphere is often seen as the space that remains when all appeals to religion have been removed, yet the human impulse to create a larger narrative remains. In our postmodern, secular society where we no longer have a larger story to make sense of ourselves, the self can never rest, revealing consumerism and greed’s law-centeredness.

So in a culture that can never see past the present, could it be that the Triune God’s story of incarnate presence remains truly countercultural? One wonders if this story—the narrative of God’s one-way love revealed in Israel and culminating in Jesus Christ—is the story that opens to a future that sets the impatient consumerist self to rest. And this is precisely the story the Church rehearses again and again each week as the Spirit gathers her together to be addressed by the Word, washed in baptism, and fed in the Eucharist “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26): no longer consuming, but consumed into a larger body (as Cavanaugh puts it).

The announcement of grace from the God who speaks effects a radical decentering of the self. It calls one outside him- or herself to participate in God’s own continual self-giving. In the Gospel, even we storyless selves receive an assured future, an end, a telos that is firmly rooted in Another’s abounding goodness and love.

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