A Theology of Consumption

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-8941-6285
Reveley, Nelson, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mathewes, Charles, Religious Studies, University of Virginia

What role do consumer goods play in human flourishing? When considering market consumption and consumer practices, many Christian ethicists and theologians focus far more on injustices and injuries than on flourishing. Nevertheless, a key and complementary tool that Christian ethics currently lacks for healing wounds and cultivating well-being is a comparably detailed account of a theological rationale for market consumption and its connection to human flourishing. This dissertation argues that there is a deeper theological purpose to consumption: it is nothing less than glimpsing God’s infinite goodness.
The dissertation holds that human flourishing consists of such glimpses of God, and using the bridge concept of “wonder,” it critically connects Platonist Christian theology and ontology, the positive psychology concept of “flow,” and the Capabilities Approach to Human Development in order to detail the way human flourishing - glimpsing God’s infinite goodness - consists of cultivating people’s capabilities for wondrous activity in community with one another. The dissertation draws on the work of theologian Robert Adams, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. By linking their core insights together, it constructs a more detailed and expansive account of human flourishing than any of the three perspectives is able to offer on its own.
The Christian ethic of consumption that grows from this understanding of flourishing expansively includes things people find wonderful and worthy of pursuit in ordinary life, while also remaining critical of ways in which these good things can be treated as idols to the detriment of neighbors, self, as well as the rest of creation. This theological ethic highlights market objects, services, and activities in which people can: (1) engage in the production process to some extent, (2) participate actively during consumption, whether mentally or physically, and (3) connect with others through consumption. This ethic appreciates the role certain consumer objects, services, and activities can play in offering glimpses of God in the cultivation of wondrous capabilities for flow in community with others.
Having this articulation of a theological purpose to market consumption is important for practical as well as conceptual reasons. On a practical front, it is a call to recognize and embrace the wondrous glimpses of God’s goodness to which market consumption can contribute, thereby offering more enticement to ethical consumption than the call of moral duty, virtue, or responsibility alone. On a conceptual level, a positive vision of market consumption duly highlights that this world and life are neither trivial nor simply something to be endured and ultimately escaped, but are part of God’s good creation in and for which humans have been made and redeemed.
This dissertation is intended to be of use to Christian theologians, ethicists, college and graduate students in religious studies, and Christians broadly who are seeking a framework for theologically and ethically engaging market consumption. Its argument will also be applicable to interfaith dialogue and engagement around consumer ethics, and the constructive work around the Capabilities Approach to Human Development and the concept of flow will be illuminative to ethicists and consumers who are non-religious as well.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Consumption, Robert Adams, Capabilities Approach, Flow, Consumer Ethics
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