Beliefnet
Designer clothes, cell phones, SUVs, mutual funds--modern materialism seems the enemy of all that is spiritual. Advertising screams out insatiable consumption. Movies and television blast us with images of runaway wealth, instilling the notion that too much is never enough. New books such as Luxury Fever and The Overspent American lament that the cycle of work and spend is sapping away all that matters in life. And prosperity continues to increase: we have more stuff each passing year. If materialism and spirituality are inversely proportional, it would seem that the soul is doomed. Where Nietzsche, Darwin, and Freud failed to destroy spiritual belief, perhaps Nike, Disney, and American Express will succeed. As Jonathan Twitchell argues in the provocative new book Lead Us into Temptation, losing themselves in fashion, cars, electronics, and other forms of consumption "is how most of Western young people cope in a world that science has pretty much bled of traditional religious meanings."

That's the conventional wisdom, anyway. Yet a nationwide increase in religious and spiritual interest is happening at the very time America enjoys unprecedented physical prosperity. Perhaps the upsurge in concern for the sacred is not happening in spite of materialism, but because of it.

Consider that Rev. Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, Florida, a mega-church that is among the country's largest evangelical houses of worship, notes, "People today find that the things they're buying and turning to are not fulfilling. Interest in spiritual subjects is the highest it's been in the 35 years that I've been preaching, and I think disenchantment with consumerism has a lot to do with that." Henry's church, being in Orlando--home of Disney World and its satellite parks and hotels and malls and stores--sits at the epicenter of runaway consumption. This fact seems to be driving people toward the church, not away from it; First Baptist draws almost 10,000 worshippers per week.

Scholars see the same trends nationally. Robert Fogel, an economist at the University of Chicago and a leading free-market conservative, is already projecting that the 21st century will see another "Great Awakening" of spiritual concerns in American life, as people turn toward faith and questions of higher purpose to escape the emptiness of commuting, the career ladder, and shopping.

Thoughts of the sacred surely do seem to be on the increase in contemporary life, leading barometers being the popular "spirituality" movement; the rise of evangelical Christianity; the growing membership of Roman Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and traditional Islam denominations; and the end of the decline in membership in the mainstream Protestant churches; the growth of retreats and hermitages; the width of the religion and spirituality aisles at any bookstore.

When such trends are noted, a common explanation is that "baby boomers are coming back to God" after discovering they have children to raise and realizing that no matter how many vitamins they take and how long they pump the Stair Master, mortality will come knocking.

But equally important may be a much less noticed aspect of end-century society, that prosperity increases both the time available for spiritual reflection and the number of people who may avail themselves of it. Every year more Americans acquire the means to be materialistic, and discover that materialism does not satisfy the soul. Every year more Americans advance enough into the middle class that they have the time or money to read books on spiritual subjects or attend meetings or classes. A century ago, there were at very most a few million Americans with enough material security to wonder whether the buy-and-spend life was really worth it. Now there are 100 million, or more. This suggests that as prosperity keeps increasing, in the century to come belief may become more important, not less. The signs of increasing national affluence are everywhere. Though the boom economy has not lifted all boats (a shocking 13 percent of American families remain at or below the poverty line), as a nation the United States "has become so rich that we are approaching saturation in the consumption not only of necessities but of goods recently thought to be luxuries," Fogel said in a 1999 speech. Think about your holiday gift shopping list: how many friends or relatives are "hard to buy for" because they already possess every material thing that a person could reasonably require--and then some?

Each person needs to be materially secure, of course: America of the present is historically favored in that regard, and the majority of its citizens who enjoy material security should give daily thanks for that fact. But does the onrushing saturation of consumer items bring anyone a sense of satisfaction in life? Andrew Delbanco, in his new book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, notes that the cycle of consumption leaves us with an "unslaked craving for transcendence," the desire to find the larger connections to life and purpose that no material thing can ever offer. For some, consumerism is the new opiate. But for most men and women, the better off the country becomes, the greater the chance we will step back and ask, "Is that all there is?"

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