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The Hollowness of the Self and World: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 4)

November 4th, 2011 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Joseph Sunde has a good summary of what I'm up to, after which he concludes with this:

Although Anderson’s vocabulary sometimes clashes with my own (“consumerism” = commodification/material idolatry and “individualism” = misaligned self-sufficiency), the general message pushes our view of the individual and the other in the right direction.

We must not only affirm that it is in our best interest to love and care for others, but we must also recognize that ours is in the end an incomplete or unfulfilled approach unless we view and utilize our bodies as God intended. Only then can we truly maximize our social bonds and relationships and serve others holistically.

The paradox of anthropology is that what's true for the individual is true for the world, and vice versa.  The main mentality that I'm going after in the chapter, consumerism, treats the world as raw material that we use in our self-construction.  In making our purchasing decisions, we make ourselves.  And because neither we nor the world has any intrinsic standard according to which we should direct our desire, we are tossed here and there by every wind and wave of the market.

"Make perfect my will" was T.S. Eliot's prayer, in other words, but for us the perfection of will is attained only in the grasping of that which we desire.  Whatever happens to be trendy, even if it's TOMS.

Of course, C.S. Lewis made this point long before me.  He opens The Abolition of Man with an essay that is not about humanity, but whether the adjective "sublime" might describe a waterfall or our feelings about it.  Rejecting the latter, he makes a sustained case that such values are in the things themselves.  And in doing so, he implies that our humanity is made by the world, by acknowledging the shape of those values and ordering ourselves accordingly.

Hollow worlds make hollow men.  And worlds with the substance built in, worlds where the values are in the things themselves, build men who are as solid as they are.

This is the paradoxical relationship between the individual and the world.  How is it, we should ask, that the death of one man grounds the restoration of the cosmos?  Why is it that if humanity fails to praise him, even the rocks will yet cry out?  I argued in the book that a "theocentric" model of creation care is insufficient, precisely because the "theos" that Christians worship is the incarnate person Jesus Christ.

That collision, that remaking of humanity is not simply an introduction to a new individual life, but the inauguration of a new creation wherein all things are made new.  If our creation care and consumption is not as ordered toward the eschaton as it is the here and now, then we are doing it wrong.

All this, of course, gets us to Joseph's conclusion, and my introduction.  The sociality of the body means that our bodies are inextricably tied to the worlds in which they live and the persons whose spaces that we share.  We could all sound like Wendell Berry here in a second, and go on about the importance of place.   It's a good song, and he sings it so well that I'm wary of adding my voice.

But the reality is that the logic of consumeristic individualism corrodes human relationships, treating them as arbitrarily formed and just as easily broken.  Because the body becomes the place of self-construction and the will infinitely malleable, then the relational ties that we enter the world already in and that we make along the way are inevitably weakened.  Kim Kardashian's wedding fiasco is only the most high-profile example:  the commodification at the heart of her wedding is replicated on significantly smaller scales across the country a thousand times a day.   The return on investment may not be financial, but the expectation to spend is still very, very real.

This to say, the way through is always the same way through:  the Incarnation.  This chapter is still prefatory, still laying the groundwork for what is to come.  But it's important to put in place, and the later chapters are (I think) the better for it.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.