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Jewish World Review June 11, 2001 / 21 Sivan, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

Shamanic gewgaws -- BERKELEY, Calif. | It should have been easy, accessing and answering my Web-based e-mail from my sister's computer in her home here.

But the first time I hit the "send" button, the screen flashed a system error message and my out-going e-mail dissolved into the e-mysteries of cyberspace. The same thing happened on the second effort after I had rebooted. Frankly, I was annoyed.

I shut down the computer and went on to other matters. One of those matters was to tell myself what crazily affluent -- almost embarrassing -- problems I have. Middle-class blues, for sure.

In a world in which more than half the 6 billion-plus population doesn't have reliable access to electricity, I'm upset about a badly functioning piece of high-tech equipment that I'm using for a nonessential task.

I should get a life.

The standard sermon for this situation is delivered by a mother who tells her reluctant children to eat their vegetables, gratefully remembering all the starving children in India.

My problem with making fun of that guilt-bestowing mother is that I once lived in India and I saw starving children. Things are different when you look people in the eyes.

I'm here in California for both pleasure and business, and while I'm here I'm trying to picture what it might be like to live in a state that has stumbled into an energy shortage and experiences rolling blackouts. I must report that I'm having a hard time being very sympathetic.

My failure to be terribly moved by California's troubles is directly related to my embarrassment at getting annoyed with my sister's computer: In the cosmic scheme of things, a shortage of electricity here is insignificant compared with the much more fundamental and profound problems experienced by so many people in the world -- a shortage of food, clothing, shelter and peace.

Beyond that, of course, at least part of the cause for such trouble -- not only here but elsewhere in the industrialized world -- is that many of us have bought into a bogus notion of what life is all about.

We have distorted our freedom and perverted our place in the world by embracing the ruinous idea that our primary purpose is to consume and acquire. California is a comparatively efficient user of energy, but it's also true that parts of the state are accurately known for wretchedly excessive consumerism.

This acquisitive, covetous approach to life represents aberrant thinking that produces aberrant, oppressive results.

Pope John Paul II got it right some years ago when he wrote this: "It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward `having' rather than `being' and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself."

What we seem to have lost track of is the question at the epicenter of the great faith traditions: What does it mean to be created in the image of G-d? In an essay in a recent issue of Theology Today, Jean Bethke Elshtain, an ethics professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, calls this the essential "anthropological question" that "looms as central."

Well, it should loom as central -- or at least some question very much like it should. But, instead, the question rarely gets asked. Or, if asked, rarely gets answered seriously because too many people have replaced the spiritual center of their lives with a spiritless material center that leaves them silent -- or, at best, deeply inarticulate -- about questions that go to the heart of life's meaning.

So instead of wrestling with the question of what it means to be made in the image of G-d, we spend our time asking who wants to be a millionaire. We create an economy utterly dependent on consumer spending. Spending on what? On what sucks up electricity, gasoline and time, things that eventually leave us gasping for energy and feeling bereft of meaning because we have lost track of who and whose we are.

In this misdirection of life, Californians are no different from the rest of us, though the peculiar energy problems here make the state prominent now. Everywhere in our culture we spend prodigally on shamanic gewgaws and wonder why they give us no joy. It's because they cannot possibly answer the anthropological question we won't even ask.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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05/07/01: Killing McVeigh will wound us all
05/01/01: Dubya reinforcing negative GOP stereotypes?


Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved