Faith & Reason: We struggle with the cosmic powers of consumerism

The season of the spirit must take us into a murkier realm than might be supposed, writes Elaine Storkey.
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The Independent Online
WE LIVE in an era where "spirit" is back in vogue. There are still people around who are materialists by intellectual commitment, believing only in practicality and what we can perceive through the senses. But they are a dwindling band. Most people now readily acknowledge that what we see or hear is only a very small part of the complex reality that exists; contemporary scientific research makes it hard for us to believe anything else. What is more, we recognise that many things which matter most in our daily lives lie beyond our senses: love, values, morality, time, space, the past, persons, communities, even logic. So it has become so much easier to accept that the world is a intricate mixture of what is seen and unseen, and that the unseen includes the spiritual. The spiritual is part of our own selves also, for we are more than anatomy, neurology and cell structures.

There is a problem here, though. This idea of the spiritual can become a vague, amorphous category which has no shape or structure. We can talk of "spiritual values" or of something having a "spiritual quality", by which we usually mean something ethereal and profound, but we are not always sure what. Or we can identify the spiritual with situations where we feel moved or exhilarated, until it seems as if there are spirits everywhere: in the trees swaying in the wind, the waves lapping on the shore, the rugged boulders on the cliffs. In effect we turn the spiritual into an nebulous, benign zone, an alternative realm beyond the physical which holds the most sublime experiences for people who delve deeply. And those who urge us to develop our spirit tell us that we can then transcend material existence and experience the world aright.

Yet developing our spirituality does not automatically lead us gently towards truth and beauty. Identifying the spirit does not ensure peace or joy. Because the spiritual is not a single, neutral zone. Nor is it necessarily benign. It is a place of contest, and we are close to the centre of the battle. For there are many rival forces after our spirits, and those which we recognise least have the greatest power. Consumerism is one of them, claiming our allegiance as thoroughly in the spiritual realm as in the financial. Every 15 minutes it broadcasts its message that it is blessed to consume, and invites us to make this the central spiritual truth of our lives. But when we allow such commercialism to feed us, our spirits become thin. As we face these contests every day the idea of the spiritual as a neutral or benign realm soon flies in the face of our real experience. We find, for example, we can be invaded by a spirit of greed more easily than one of generosity, of bitterness rather than love, of injustice rather than fairness. In fact we can become all too aware of quite sinister forces making a bid for our spiritual lives and demanding our energy. So it is not the existence of the spiritual that deepens our experience of reality; it is how we allow our spirits to be moulded.

The earliest Christian writers were in no doubt about this point, insisting that "our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against . . . cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil". It is no less a struggle when evil masquerades nonchalantly as normality, and spirituality itself becomes neutralised. What is needed is a way of somehow exposing the spiritual realm, allowing what is unseen to be seen, so we can separate the spirit of goodness from the spirits of destruction. At one level this exposure takes each day, in the attitudes people exhibit in their lives. Violent anger, jealousy, strife, impurity, quarrels, unfairness, idolatry are reflections of a distorted spirituality, whereas love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, generosity, self-control are described as fruits of the Holy Spirit of God whose arrival among Jesus's disciples after the Resurrection is celebrated by Christians at Pentecost tomorrow. Then the Holy Spirit spoke not just to people's spirits, but to their understanding also; came not just to the spiritual world, but to the world that we see and hear. For there are not two worlds but one: the creation of the loving God who calls us to live our lives with integrity and spiritual discernment.

Today we struggle against contemporary powers which would control our spirits, and shape the spirituality of our culture. And we have been given the responsibility of choosing the spiritual direction which leads to freedom rather than servitude.