Identities Bought and Sold, Identity Received as Grace: A Theological Criticism of and Alternative to Consumerist Understandings of the Self
Fulmer, James Burton
This project analyzes the effects of consumerism on identity and consumerism’s misunderstanding of freedom and identity. The dissertation argues that identity cannot be easily defined because paradoxically it does not abide continuously but is rather given anew continually; it is not the subsistent essence of the individual but rather the self’s complete dependence on an external source for its foundation. The dissertation draws primarily upon three Christian thinkers: René Girard, Søren Kierkegaard, and Saint Augustine. Each contributes to an understanding of consumerism through his analysis of the human desire for self-sufficiency. According to Augustine, all sin is rooted in pride and the desire to be like God, that is, responsible for one’s own being. Kierkegaard discusses the human tendency to judge oneself based on endless comparisons with others, as if one might become like God by outdoing other human beings in competition. Girard describes a common belief in the divine auto-sufficiency of one’s models and the hope that one can share in their divinity through imitation. All three thinkers believe that the Christian is one whose desires are transformed by grace, who becomes like God not through self-glorification, but through humbling oneself before God, and who imitates not the desires of those this world glorifies, but rather the desires of Jesus Christ who was ridiculed and murdered. The dissertation proposes the gratuitous bestowal of identity by God as the true understanding of identity’s source. The Church should make clear that identity cannot be earned or purchased; it can only be given. To look for the source of identity in some possession, accomplishment, or trait (as is the norm in consumer society), is to look among particular items of difference for a common, universal organizing principle. An other must bestow it; the agent concerned cannot orchestrate it for such orchestration would simply be one among other actions in need of organization. The self-given identity would always fail to incorporate the very act of identity bestowal.