The Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, created something of a stir this week by appearing to assail the shining virtues of one of the great guru figures of the modern world, the late Steve Jobs. Among much else (to which we shall return), he said this:
The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.
When you’re in an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about “i”, you don’t do terribly well.
Rather less strikingly (though this is of course translated from the Italian, maybe in the original it’s just as memorable as Lord Sacks’s speech) Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State said something very similar:
The economic crisis highlights the unsustainability of a market totally self-referential and, while raising new questions about the responsibility and ethics of financial processes, represents a fundamental question with compelling importance about the meaning of fate, dignity, and the spiritual vocation of the person.
I wish our great prelates would learn to talk to people in language they can relate to. This is how Chief Rabbi Sacks said more or less the same thing: “The consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.” That’s what Cardinal Bertone is on about, isn’t it? The tablets of stone of modern consumerism teach us to say “i, i, i”, says Dr Sacks; the market is “self-referential” says the cardinal. Either way, it means that we are living in a culture in which individuals are cut off from each other, in a world in which we don’t even listen to music together with other people, we just walk down the street listening to sounds no one else can hear, in a bubble which cuts us off from everyone else walking down the street, who if they are not also listening to their own private music are talking to someone who is not there, or texting them, just as much in a “self-referential” private world.
Cardinal Bertone went on to say that one consequence of this “self-referential” materialism was an intolerant secularism which abuses the principle of non-discrimination to build a dictatorship of relativism that clashes with Christian values, and which is “against the marriage between a man and a woman, against the defence of life from conception to natural death”.
Cardinals, I suppose, representing the great architectonic completeness of Catholic moral teaching, pronounce in a grander way than the chief rabbi, who simply concentrated on what is certainly intimately connected with the central theme of Cardinal Bertone’s oration, the family. And this is certainly a focus we need to return to in this time of near-recession and the misery it has caused so many. It’s much easier to condemn bankers for their greed than to ask ourselves whether we have cut ourselves off from reality by our own materialism. Lord Sacks says, in great simplicity, that if you have faith and family you are very much more likely to be happy:
Therefore the answer to the consumer society is the world of faith, which the Jews call the world of Shabbat, where you can’t shop and you can’t spend and you spend your time with things that matter, with family: unless we get back to these values, we will succeed in making our children and grandchildren ever unhappier.
The family, of course, is precisely one of those institutions which has been undermined by ideology and politics over the last 30 years, ideology and politics of a kind that is also responsible for the crisis of materialism in which we all now find ourselves. How to build up the family (and only the so-called “traditional family” based on marriage between a man and a woman has – we know – the stability that society needs) is a subject for another time (though one I have addressed before this). But that’s where we need to start; thank you, Lord Sacks, for saying so.