By Jonathan Rowson
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” — Julian Barnes
Christmas is the season of shallow critique. We lament the commercialisation around us as if it were a seasonal problem, but lurking inside the wrapped presents, juicy puddings and roasted birds there are deeper questions about ethical drift and the social logic of our entire economic model. Not merely now in December, but in January, February, March, April and all the way back to next October when people will predictably say ‘No, it’s too early!’, consumerism remains our modus operandi. Consumerism is heightened — we are confronted with it most directly — during whatever quarter now passes for the festive season, but it is not a uniquely Christmas phenomenon.
Consumerism, consumption and capitalism are often conflated. I have written previously about consumerism as our prevailing cultural and economic modus operandi. It is what we do, to some extent who we are, and it is ideological in nature because it defines our sense of normality, the nature of our social practices and the structure of our attention. Consumerism is not consumption, which is a basic and necessary human activity that predates capitalism. Hunter gatherers, for instance, consumed the products of land and used animals for various ends. Consumerism is not capitalism either — a slippery notion that connects ownership to profit and takes many forms. One way to look at it is that consumerism is what capitalism does to consumption — it turns a simple human activity into something culturally hegemonic.
The familiar critiques of consumerism include its deleterious ecological impact, its failure to offer enduring satisfaction and the comical absurdity of ‘spending money you don’t have to buy things you don’t want to impress people you don’t like.’ So consumerism is unsustainable, unrewarding and ultimately absurd. Yet it endures because it meets a range of emotional and social needs, and because it is conveniently operational — ‘it works’ in a bureaucratic sense, or at least it seems to. It is certainly hard to imagine replacing it. And yet we have to sail our imagination in precisely that direction, not least because we are transgressing a range of of ecological boundaries of which rising average mean surface temperature (‘climate change’) is merely the most notorious. We need to imagine a world beyond consumerism for other reasons too, not least to help clarify what we are living for(!) but any such imaginary will have to better meet social and emotional needs at scale within ecological limits (as I argued in a four part series here).
As the Philosopher and Psychotherapist Mark Vernon put it to me, there is a sense in which we try to create the significance of Christmas through what we buy, as if the consumerist frenzy was an attempt to make real something that we feel should be real. To get beyond shallow critiques of consumerism, I think we need to pay closer attention to precisely that kind of idea.
Martijn Konings has published a (brilliant but inaccessible) book called The Emotional Logic of Capitalism (2015) where he argues that progressives of all stripes fail to grasp that money is more like an icon than an idol. In other words it is not something people worship in itself (‘Money is God’) but rather something that represents forms of life that people identify with (‘Money is me’). No wonder then that we spend more at Christmas — it is in some ways the spending that gives the significance to the festival. That’s not how it should be of course, but compare weddings or graduations and the fact that a wedding cake invariably costs more than a mere cake, regardless of the cost of baking it. It seems we often associate ‘special’ events with the amount of money we give to them. So if we know or at least sense that Christmas should matter more than other times, our cultural logic now seems to demand that we spend more than usual as a result.
To take a broader view, in the context of excessive marketisation, which is part of how consumerism takes hold, Philosopher and Theologian Rowan Williams put the challenge as follows:
If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like — and the costs of failure as well.
I examine each of these ideas in some detail here, but reading that paragraph in December highlights that Christmas should be able to undertake some of these functions of resistance to consumerism — it has all the things Williams thinks we need. Which is why it should intrigue and concern us that Christmas not only fails to act as a check on consumerism, but actively promotes it. Indeed, many parts of the economy are entirely dependent on the Christmas boom to survive, but it is also true that the frenzy of activity that looks like a boom may not be because most people would pay much less than the value of the items they are given, so some believe Christmas actually features what economists call ‘a dead weight loss’. It feels like the entire festival is laced with delusion.
So the question is: What would it take for Christmas reflection to go beyond the personal and become a time when we collectively imagined an entirely different world, beyond consumerism? This is no small ask, because as the think tank Theos indicated in a thoughtful report on The Politics of Christmasa few years ago and through subsequent polling research, most people do not really understand the Christmas story; details for instance about homelessness and the refugee experience, and my favourite — the wise men getting lost and turning up late. Moreover, most people see Christmas as a time to turn away from politics and towards home. Theos summarised their findings on public attitudes to Christmas in 2012 as follows: “The message is clear: domesticity and charity yes, religion and leisure maybe, politics and economics no.”
Why might that be?
For the non-religious in Europe’s post-Christian culture, Christmas is still a reflective time where attention naturally draws inward and questions about meaning are heightened. Even for those from other faith traditions and none, the rituals of the Christmas festival alter the character and tempo of experience. For Christians, Christmas is a culturally sanctioned time to celebrate an answer to the most fundamental of questions — an answer about God becoming human that has a history, a philosophy and a narrative charm that still resonates, whether or not we think it is true. Moreover Christianity is in some ways a thoroughly materialistic religion, and Christmas is partly about remembering that ‘matter matters’…the materiality of the gifts, of the food and of the trees and lights is no accident — the ‘stuff’ is, other things being equal, ‘good stuff’. And yet things seem out of kilter.
In that fuller context I wonder what are we really saying when we critique the commercialisation of Christmas:
This is not what Christmas is supposed to be about.
I don’t like the feeling that I am complicit in consumerism.
Our entire economic model is unreal and built upon manufactured needs and desires, generated through advertising.
I miss whatever it is that Christmas is supposed to be about.
I am part of the Christmas confusion but can’t see a way out of the myriad social and cultural expectations it entails.
I am culturally Christian but feel disconnected from my cultural roots.
I might even be Christian, but I have lost any sense of what that means.
I would like to be Christian, but my intellect gets in the way.
I am a resolute atheist, but we need rituals, myths and seasonal tempo to give life meaning and depth.
Something is not right, but I’m too busy to give it any thought — somebody else should do something about it.
Christmas reminds me of all the things that are wrong while simultaneously obliging me to pretend that everything is all right.
There is no correct answer, but the question remains how we might reimagine Christmas such that the time of repose and reconsideration might allow us to better reimagine the world. I am grateful to CUSP Investigator and Perspectiva Adviser Ian Christie for sketching what this might look like. Julian Barnes’s famous line “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him” is particularly poignant at this time of year, and you don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the Christmas story to appreciate its mythic resonance in the connections that follow. The connection between the original story and our current relationship to Christmas includes some of the following elements:
GIFT: God makes the transcendent gift of Himself. We reflect His generosity in our earthbound way, reaching out to loved ones and also giving to charities. Consumerism is not just rooted in greed and lust for novelty, but in generosity and desire to find a material symbol of love and care.
DARKNESS: We huddle together against the cold and dark, and celebrate not just our togetherness but also the inevitability of Spring and renewal, and the imperceptible lengthening of the light in the days of late December. God arrives in the darkness and is the Light that is reflected in the lights of Christmas trees, the candles against the dusk, the glimmers of extra daylight in each passing day beyond the solstice.
DEATH GIVES BIRTH: A death gives birth: the Christ-child will die for us all and come to new Life. The dying year gives birth to a new one. The death that is Winter holds the seeds of Spring. The death of our old self holds the seeds of something new. Christmas marks an ending and a closing-in on death, which is also a closing-in on rebirth.
THE SHARING OF THE FEAST: Christ comes to offer Himself as new life, as symbolic food to share in a sacramental feast. The Christmas dinner is one of our attempts, whether we know it this way or not, to bring fellowship and feasting together.
IT CAN’T BE PERFECT: Something alway goes wrong. Uncles are sick, the new toy breaks, grandma is taken to hospital, old tensions erupt, there’s an earthquake somewhere, thousands feared dead. Christ is born in destitution in an alien town, and his parents fear for His and their lives.
NATIVITY: Not only are the Christmas presents and feasts multi-cultural and even multi-faith by now, so are the Nativity Plays and Carols. Something is speaking to us through them, and not just to Christians.
“Although my Christianity is still mostly cultural, one impact of the RSA spirituality project was to deepen my appreciation for aspects of the religion that I was unaware of. As a result, I find I am increasingly drawn to churches as places to experience depth, humility, history and to escape the ambient instrumentality outside. I also feel much less allergic to Christian teachings and practices than I used to. Simply by reflecting on what Easter means beyond the chocolate bunnies I appreciate that there is an exquisite darkness at the heart of the Christian story that speaks to all forms of human suffering. Through confronting that darkness the glimpses of grace and transcendence I periodically experience (as billions do) feel not merely enlivening but more like a deepening relationship or homecoming.
I find it tough being an adult, and I have come to see that being human is necessarily about being one human in particular. I find myself thinking about what it means to be always in relationship to something or somebody at a particular time and place, to be utterly unique — like everyone else, to be in an extraordinary body with diminishing resilience, to care deeply and therefore suffer, to know the dignity of self-sacrifice, and to inevitably die. By reflecting on these features of life more fully than I could when I was younger, I can see that the notion that God may have existed once and only once in human form is not a gratuitous notion, though I still don’t know whether it actually happened and what it would mean for me if it did. I mention this now because I feel our churches play a good hand rather badly. If Spiritualise helps in any way to reimagine our main institutional vessel of spiritual life in the west, I would be glad.”
My new organisation Perspectiva is making the case for the need to engage more fully with spiritual questions when considering how to create new operating principles for our political economy. Personally, I remain as confused as ever about consumerism and Christmas, but the more I think about each, the more I feel their relationship has something to tell us. Perhaps the problem with our post-christian culture is that Christmas has become the question to which consumerism is the answer, and it should be the other way round.
*This post was originally written by Jonathan Rowson and made available on the online publishing platform Medium.