Our stuff isn’t just for private joy; we have things to share.
I felt the bulk of all my worldly goods quite forcefully a few months ago when I almost tipped over the two-ton moving truck that contained them. After sweating my way through the narrow streets of St. Louis and keeping my foot to the floor in order to keep up with flow of traffic on the highway, the most frightening moment of my time as amateur trucker came in the final two hundred feet, right outside our new house. We live in a rural area of the Ozarks in southern Missouri, and our home rests on the side of what we generously term a mountain. Our narrow, sloping gravel driveway terminates by curving between a ravine and a drainage ditch at a point that, as it turns out, is not wide enough for the largest truck you can get from Budget. Accordingly, as I pulled up to the house, I rolled one set of the rear tires through the ditch, tearing a large chunk out of the lawn and causing the fully loaded truck, and my heart, to buck and twist like a breaching orca.
I might have avoided this near-disaster more easily if I had followed the advice of Marie Kondo and the minimalist lifestyle movement. Instead of filling a truck with boxes of paperbacks, children’s toys, and kitchen utensils, my family should have tossed everything we don’t truly love. In addition to giving away some of the bulkiest and least useful of our possessions—our $50 third-hand piano, an old bed frame, homemade tomato cages—we should have effected a more radical purge. If we had done so, we would be happier, less stressed, and more spiritual. More importantly, we could have rented the much less terrifying sixteen-foot truck.
Our problem is not that we cling too tightly to things—it is rather that we are perpetually dissatisfied with them and detached from them.
Minimalism as Anti-consumerism
Kondo and other advocates of the less-is-more lifestyle offer their followers a self-help program tinged with the moral concern of anti-consumerist literature. Rather than simply offering to make me happier, it offers to make me better—this by helping me resist the corrosive effects of consumerism. It is not entirely novel in that program. Anti-consumerism goes back arguably as far as the works of Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen one new attack on consumerism after another, from Naomi Klein’s critique of advertising to the back-to-the-land proposals of new agrarian thinkers. Christians have frequently denounced consumerism as well, from popes to Reformed theologians and many other groups besides.
Minimalism offers its acolytes a means of self-improvement through organization, but it also inflects that program of personal benefits with social benefits: minimalists consume less and waste less, and thus contribute to increasing sustainability and social equity. The design group New Minimalism describes their practice as supporting “sustainable, intentional living.” So I not only avoid the bulk of an overloaded moving truck, on this account, but I avoid damaging the earth with excess consumption of resources.
The minimalist movement does distinguish itself from other anti-consumerist programs through its lighter tone. While anti-consumerists have often been strident, prophetic, or even dour, minimalist works tend to sound a more encouraging note. Kondo, as the guiding light of the movement, stresses achieving joy over feelings of shame, responsibility, or fear. Although this no doubt reflects to an extent the origins of the movement in popular self-help literature, for those genuinely concerned about the effects of consumerism, this change in attitude is not to be scorned. Those who cannot be motivated by the tears of the prophets may yet be provoked to act by the gentle encouragement and pleasing design sensibility of the minimalists.
Consumerism, however, is a subtle demon, and it may not be readily exorcised through the practice of what The New York Times Magazine called “the oppressive gospel” of minimalism. The minimalism of Kondo and the de-clutterers may help individuals lessen consumeristic behaviours, but it does not reckon with the spiritual or social effects of consumerism. De-cluttering, then, is a practice both shallow and narrow, falling short of a fully formed Christian attitude toward the stuff that fills our lives and our moving trucks. Christians must aim for a richer account of consumption and possession, one that reckons more fully with how we shape God’s creation through our getting, having, and disposing.
Consumerism as Spirituality
Christians must resist consumerism not because of its grasping attachment to material things, but in fact because of its detachment from a properly ordered attachment.
One resource for a thicker account of consumerism can be found in William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. In that work, Cavanaugh suggests that “what really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment. People do not hoard money; they spend it. People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things.” For Cavanaugh, our problem is not that we cling too tightly to things—it is rather that we are perpetually dissatisfied with them and detached from them. This is why, for Cavanaugh, “it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism. Buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies consumerism.”
Cavanaugh understands consumerism as “a type of spirituality,” a means of pursuing meaning and identity. We who engage in the consumeristic pursuit are not mere crass materialists; rather, we seek connection and identity through the search for newer and better stuff. We become Apple superfans or join the Patagonia family. Products created through Kickstarter or other consumer-backed platforms highlight this with special clarity, as a project’s “backers” root for the success of a product much as they might for their favourite baseball team.
So we can define consumerism as a spirituality especially characterized by a detachment from particular material goods and a restless search for new experiences and identities. Cavanaugh does not mean by this definition to defend consumerism, as if all spiritualities have equal value. Rather, he sides with Augustine and the Christian tradition, for whom “the solution to our dissatisfaction is not the continuous search for new things but a turn toward the only One who can truly satisfy our desires.” Rather than detaching from things in order to search out new ones, Christians should be attached to things, as long as such attachments ultimately point to God. For Augustine, Christians can achieve such a properly ordered attachment: in De doctrina Christiana, he cites Paul’s expressed desire in the Epistle to Philemon to “enjoy [him] in the Lord” (Philemon 20). Augustine comments (in the translation by R.P.H. Green), “If he had not added the words ‘in the Lord,’ and just said ‘I shall enjoy you,’ he would have been setting his hopes of happiness on Philemon.” A properly ordered attachment to things or people, however, leads to the enjoyment of the One who made them.
Christians must resist consumerism, then, not because of its grasping attachment to material things, but in fact because of its detachment from a properly ordered attachment. Consumerist spirituality encourages a restless detachment from our possessions when we ought to be resting in attachment to them, learning from them how to love God and delight in him.
Minimalism and the Self
Can minimalism, then, help Christians put off the detachment of consumerism? Kondo’s approach to de-cluttering, in particular, has more going for it than one might expect within a Christian understanding of materiality. She encourages the potential de-clutterer to take each possession in her hands and perform a kind of self-examination, intuiting whether that object still “sparks joy” in her. Anything that still ignites such a spark can remain; everything else should be discarded. Kondo therefore aims not so much at minimalism per se but at a life and a home in which every possession is truly wanted.
Kondo’s de-cluttering remains individualistic and thus insufficient. The process of examining whether objects spark joy locates that joy in one place alone: the heart of the owner.
Encouraging us to take joy in those things we already have might promote something like the virtue of contentment. In the face of consumerism’s attempt to keep us perpetually dissatisfied with everything we own—all the better to encourage us to pursue new things—Kondo wants us to experience joy when we look around our homes. If she does not go on to link that joy to enjoyment of the Creator God, we should not fault her for being an organizational consultant and not a theologian. It would seem that something redemptive clings in her method here, a spirituality healthier than that of restless consumerism.
As a response to consumerism, however, Kondo’s de-cluttering remains individualistic and thus insufficient. The process of examining whether objects spark joy locates that joy in one place alone: the heart of the owner. We are to give no thought to if or how these objects help us to love our neighbours, but only their emotional resonance for ourselves. It may be that keeping that chipped mug around helps you offer hospitality to a guest, or that wearing that tie you don’t care for anymore helps you serve your students or clients better. It may be that your children need a few of those plastic toys. Kondo’s method does not account for these social implications of our possessions.
More importantly, minimalism’s relationship to disposal verges on undoing the anti-consumerist impulse of the movement. Kondo goes so far as to recommend tearing your favourite pages out of books and throwing the rest away, and in general encourages her followers to toss possessions they no longer love without a second thought. Unfortunately, in our consumerist society, even disposing of things becomes complicated. Plastic waste has become an ecological catastrophe, and global solid-waste production has soared. Donating your goods to charity is no panacea either: even Goodwill struggles to keep up with the volume of cheaply made materials they receive. These social effects don’t mean that we should never throw anything away, but disposal requires careful consideration. Instead of trashing our unwanted possessions, we should consider how they can be repurposed or passed along: adapting old pots and pans into planters, or handing down clothing to our cousins. The minimalist philosophy does not encourage reuse, which does nothing to reduce clutter or simplify your home. But this may be precisely what loving our neighbours with our stuff requires.
Ultimately, minimalism mirrors the restlessness of consumerism. Rather than making peace with the clutter that comes with repurposing and sharing your stuff, it pushes toward the clean, convenient, smooth experience of buying that one perfect object in the Apple Store or IKEA. It disdains the patched up, the good enough, and the holy clutter of sharing our things with our neighbours. As such, it ultimately fails to be attached enough to the good things of this world and their reflection of the One who created all the odds and ends of this cluttered world.
I hope that a few of those things that brought me to the brink of disaster in the moving truck can provide a means for me to love my neighbours, whether by sharing a tool or offering a cup of coffee. And in that hope, I won’t be de-cluttering just yet. What I will be doing, should we move again, is hiring movers. I can’t face the driveway again in that twenty-six-foot truck.