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Bruce Rittenhouse

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Bruce Rittenhouse received a 2006 Dissertation Fellowship award for his project Shopping for Meaningful Lives: A Christian Existential Reinterpretation of the Moral Motivation of Consumerism Through the Theology of Paul Tillich. Bruce shares with us about his book Shopping for Meaningful Lives: The Religious Motive of Consumerism (Cascade Books, 2013).

LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?

BR: Scholars in philosophical and religious ethics spend a great deal of time arguing about the ideal form of life, or the ideal society. As my students often tell me, this kind of conversation can seem irrelevant to the real world because almost nobody that one meets is attempting to live by these ideals. When I worked as an economist for a Fortune 500 company, every one of my co-workers—economically comfortable people who appeared devoted to their families and faith communities—considered it absolutely necessary to act without regard for ethics when they saw an opportunity for slight economic gain. So I set out to ask: Why was that incremental wealth so important that most would sacrifice their professed values to obtain it?

What would you like us to know about your book Shopping for Meaningful Lives?

BR: Why does the opportunity for marginal gains in economic consumption override consciously-held moral beliefs for so many persons in our society? The answer that I propose in Shopping for Meaningful Lives is that consumerism functions as a religion in Western cultures. By that, I mean that the ability to present the signs of material well-being to one’s peers and be recognized as a person who matters is how most Westerners assure themselves that their individual lives have meaning. Consumption has become vitally important because maintaining a sense of one’s own significance is an existential necessity and Western cultures no longer make it easy to find meaning in national identity, ideology, or traditional religions.

Now, why do we need another theory about consumerism? Research in philosophy and religion is often criticized for being speculative or inconclusive. So part of my project was to describe the most important competing theories of consumerism and to test these theories alongside my own using economic and sociological data. I demonstrate that understanding consumerism as a strategy to secure meaningful life explains Americans’ economic behavior over the past several decades and the competing theories do not.

Critics of social injustice and environmental degradation can be quick to point a finger at the behavior of corporate executives and wealthy shareholders. But they often fail to recognize that executives and shareholders are responding to the incentives created by Western consumers. Our social and environmental problems are largely the product of our consumer lifestyles. In Shopping for Meaningful Lives, I show that if we want to stop contributing to social injustice and environmental degradation we have to find a way to give our lives meaning that does not rely on displaying the signs of material affluence.

Christian faith, if it is existential trust in the promise of the Christian message, can ground a sense of meaningful life that avoids the ethically troubling effects of consumerism. All too often, however, persons who attend church and identify as Christians live lives that reflect a sense of meaning grounded in the signs of material affluence. In Shopping for Meaningful Lives, I argue that recognizing consumerism as a rival religion that dominates Western cultures—and often Western churches—should compel church leaders to acknowledge the depth of the religious problem that it is their task to address. If the churches want to make a contribution to solving the world’s social and environmental problems, they must begin by addressing this religious problem which is their particular responsibility as churches.

LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.

BR: I am presently dividing my time between teaching philosophical ethics at Aurora University and sharing caregiving responsibilities for my two young children. In my teaching, I enjoy challenging my students to live more consciously and intentionally in their ethical and existential commitments. As for research, I foresee my inquiries extending from Shopping for Meaningful Lives in two directions. The first is to identify more explicit connections between the religious-existential commitment to consumerism and the lifestyle and political choices that impede progress on environmental and social problems. The second is to investigate what Christian communities can do to sustain a distinct existential Christian faith among congregants who inhabit a culture that reproduces the religious-existential form of life associated with consumerism.