We are often tempted to associate secular culture with a crass materialism, and think that what the culture propagates is the idea that matters of the spirit are irrelevant to human flourishing and that matters of the body are the only things of importance, writes Matthew Tan.
he response of missionaries who entertain this line of thought very often do one of two things: either they reduce the Gospel to a set of purely materialistic or humanistic niceties, or try and remind potential recipients of the Gospel of the existence of the soul, often with little success.
While one should not doubt the sincerity of such missionary strategies, both of these miss a rather important component of postmodern culture. Far from denying the salience of the supernatural, postmodern culture is actually awash with celebrations of it.
In no other age after the Industrial Revolution has the supernatural been so widely accepted and celebrated in public art forms, film, television, music, public exhibits and religious movements. In a similar way, and more importantly for the missionary, the soul is one of those categories that is caught up in this supernatural revival. Last year’s Mind, Body, Spirit festival is but one example of this trend.
At this point, many might think that this seeming renewal of interest in matters of the spirit would make it easy to reintroduce the Gospel in an otherwise secular postmodernity. In one sense it is true, until one considers how within postmodern culture, the soul is not the kind celebrated within the Christian tradition. Rather, the kind of soul celebrated in the postmodern revival is a commodified parody of the Christian soul.
A way to think this through might be to think of the idea of sacraments, which many Catholics understand to be the visible manifestations of an invisible action of God. Oddly enough, a variation of sacramental logic seems to be at play within postmodern culture when matters of the spirit are concerned.
This is articulated most succinctly by Herbert Marcuse who, writing in the 1960s, already spoke of a culture where people “find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split level home [and] kitchen equipment”. This is even more so in postmodernity, where advertising is able to weave ever more subtle stories of locating what should be the most profound interior aspect of the human person – namely the soul - on the surface of the commodities we buy.
Consumerism’s parody of the Christian sacrament goes even further. The Christian’s participation of the sacrament brings one into a co-abiding with another larger than himself, none other than the Eucharistic Christ who said in the Gospel of John ‘Abide in me as I abide in you’ while presiding over the proto-Eucharistic Last Supper (John 15).
On the other hand, participation in the sacraments of postmodernity – locating one’s soul in the goods we buy – makes one ‘co-abide’ with the logic of commodities. Just as commodities close off one bit of the world to other commodities to enable its exchange and sale, the consumption of these commodities creates no such bonds with any larger body.
Indeed, what commodities do is create borders to distinguish and ultimately close oneself off from anybody.
If postmodernity is but a culture of secularised sacraments, then only a truly sacramental vision, embodied in the Christian tradition, is what helps us counter its toxic logic and propose an alternative to the crass consumerism of our age.
Matthew John Paul Tan is a lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College, a Catholic Liberal Arts College in Sydney. He has published articles in theology, politics and culture and runs the blog The Divine Wedgie: Church. Culture. Politics.
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