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Is Church a Consumerist Activity?

A Message from the President

The title likely indicates to most readers I’m going to criticize a growing commercialization in the spirituality marketplace. But I’m headed in the opposite direction. Consumerism gets a bad rap as a word. We cannot avoid being consumers every single day, and spiritual issues ride in the choices we make. 

Long ago during my undergraduate years as an economics major, I became fascinated with how economic activity is a spiritual topic. Consumerism is all about community: we need to consume each other’s goods and services to survive together. Consumerism provides ways of thriving as a community and as a world. That’s why I value supporting my church. As a consumerist activity, I get something valuable by helping make Swedenborgian spirituality available to more than just me. 

Swedenborg became a helpful companion in this regard once I came to explore his life. A contemporary of Adam Smith—the theorist of an invisible hand caring for the whole if everyone ethically provides a good use—Swedenborg blended economic and consumerist views into his own spirituality. His powerful doctrine of uses can be seen as arising from his lifelong interest in making things better for everyone through practical improvements in economic activity. 

Professionally, the Swedish savant proved vital in the early industrial development of Sweden. Undoubtedly the most effective scientist and administrator developing Sweden’s mining production, his impressive technical tomes advancing methods for smelting copper and iron were state of the art throughout Europe for more than a century after his death. In the Swedish Parliament, where he held a seat in the House of Nobles for a half-century, he was especially renowned for his contributions to economic and monetary policies. And he provided a significant voice for democracy by advocating reduction of the monarchy and expansion of representation for the middle class. 

When we open up his spirituality of usefulness, Swedenborg’s moral consumerism as the way to a healthy society becomes clear. True usefulness combines love and wisdom in a concrete form: the goodness of the intended use arises from love, and the skillful means of making that intention functionally useful involves truth—or, to put it another way, the heart of wisdom. Thus, how we produce and consume is full of spiritual aims. 

But I find that staying on course requires a lot of discipline. Have you ever taken your eye off the road thinking that you can continue in a straight line for a moment while you fiddle with something, only to discover to your horror that you’re heading into danger almost immediately? I think that happens a lot with people spiritually because it happens so often with me. Inattention to spiritual life leads to straying into less excellent ways of living. That’s where church comes in. Every week church is a useful place for resetting to basic purpose. 

Our larger denominational family is also an example of how community arises from “like loves.” Swedenborgian spirituality is a specially designed form that creates a distinctive contribution in the marketplace of culture. We have special loves in our theology and in our view of what’s really going on in this cosmos that is quite distinctive still from most other traditions. And by being consumers of this kind of spiritual food we love, we are also producers of it for others. Church is a production factory. We produce the goods and services of spiritual insights that so often mean a great deal to those who consume them. 

So, is church a consumerist activity? Scandinavian American economist Thorstein Veblen long ago coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” When it comes to church, I’ll have another. 

—Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence

Read the full issue of the June 2023 Messenger

Meet Jim Lawrence

Rev. Dr. Jim Lawrence is the president of the Swedenborgian Church of North America. He was the dean of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies for 21 years prior to being elected President in 2022.