Forgiving Dualism

We are all accustomed to lament the stark dualism of many pre-modern theologians and to advocate a much more holistic, “incarnational” approach to the Christian life.  N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope is one of the most recent, most lucid, and most thoroughgoing of recent critiques of Christianity’s otherworldly tendencies, and summons us back to the New Testament doctrine of the resurrection of the body rather than the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  Those of us who have embraced the contemporary call to “incarnational” Christianity often find ourselves taken aback by just how deep the dualism seems to run in the Christian tradition, and find ourselves frustrated at times when we encounter starkly dualistic statements that seem to evince a Gnostic contempt for the body.  (I, for example, have often been frustrated by such statements in Reformation political theology.)

Perhaps, though, we ought to be more forgiving, as Margaret Miles pointed out in a lecture at the recent St. Andrews conference on Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture.  Her observation was not original, I’m sure, and once stated, it was blindingly obvious, but I confess I had given it very scant attention before: when pre-moderns speak of the body as weak, corrupt, prone to decay, as a prison to be escaped, when they seek to focus our attention on the life of the soul and to draw us away from affairs of the body, much of this reflects the very simple fact that for them, the body really was all these negative things. 

Until the past couple centuries, the vast majority of illnesses could not even be diagnosed, much less cured.  The cures that there were were often extremely painful and debilitating, and anaesthetics were not available for injuries or for surgery, nor were most of the medicines we now rely on to alleviate the symptoms of our own relatively minor illnesses.  Chronic pain and illness were the norm for many European adults, and death was ever-present, often coming from minor infections.  Those that had the fortune to avoid death themselves lived only to experience the death of all those around them, including half of their children and generally two or three wives who might die in childbirth.  Most of the pleasures we rely on to ease our bodily existence were of course unavailable.  Is it any wonder then that pre-modern Christians often sought to distract themselves from the sufferings of bodily existence and seek solace in the life of the soul?  When we read of them seeking to purge themselves through suffering, we think they’re masochists, forgetting that, since suffering was inevitable, they figured they might as well embrace it and use if for spiritual growth.  For them, it was self-evident that the soul was better than the body, and it was a focus on the soul that provided the only means of transcending the sufferings of bodily existence.  

This being the case, it is surely no coincidence that the turn to a more thoroughgoing affirmation of the body, and the consistent attack on body-soul dualisms, has burgeoned just in the last two centuries, as medicine and science finally began to push back the domain of death and ease the travails of life in the body.  In a time when bodily existence, despite its lingering weaknesses, is often downright liberating and exhilarating–indeed, often more so than the life of the soul, which is still prone to all the emotional agonies that flesh is heir to–it is no surprise that we should take to calling for an “incarnational” embodied theology, one that situates God’s work in our bodies and not merely in our souls.  

This is of course not to in any way deny the Biblical roots of the anti-dualist turn, nor to claim that an anti-body dualism characterized all pre-modern theology, or is the inevitable result of bodily suffering.  Indeed, some of the most resolutely anti-dualist Christian thinkers struggled with long and exhausting bodily tribulation (such as John Nevin, for instance).  But this simple historical observation may help explain the stubborn tendency of past Christian theology to veer in a dualistic direction, and may help us to read this move much more sympathetically.


Embracing the Fall

One of the most frequent motifs of Reformed pseudo-theo-economics is that of human depravity, and Hall and Burton are no exception.  Chapter 2 of their book is called “The Fall,” and is essentially dedicated to telling us that Calvinism has done the world the service of recognizing that man is fallen and depraved, and therefore we should not expect him to act otherwise.  We all know where this is going, right?  Capitalism is the best economic system because it assumes fallen men and sinful desires, and seeks to balance such sinful desires against each other rather than pretending they don’t exist, like utopian socialism.  This is, predictably enough, Hall and Burton’s argument.  

Yet how often have we paused to consider just how singular this ethical move is?  Man is sinful, and therefore we as Christians should seek an ethical system that works with man’s sin, rather than against it.  Huh.  But isn’t it redemption, rather than fallenness, that is the core of Christianity?  Plenty of pagans have been able to figure out that the world is a fallen and sinful place; what they haven’t been able to offer is any account of how it might be redeemed.  If Christianity’s main ethical contribution is the observation that man is sinful, then we might as well pack our bags and give up.  Just to get an idea of how bizarre Hall and Burton’s move is, let’s imagine another sphere of life–sex.

As Christians, we know that man is depraved, and this means that he is characterized by all kinds of distorted sexual desires.  Lust, pornography, rape, and infidelity are the norm in human societies after the Fall.  We need to think not about some utopian ideal of sexual fidelity, but about how to realistically work with a world of sex-crazed humans.  We should expect all these things, and we shouldn’t deny them, but accept them.  Sure we should put some limits to preserve order and restrain these fallen impulses a bit–perhaps we should say that as long as you keep all sexual acts consensual (or if pornography, private), so no one gets harmed or taken advantage of, then it’s fine.  Realism is better than utopianism.  

When put this way, we immediately see the absurdity.  But we accept this rhetoric in economics all the time.  Here’s what Halll and Burton say: 

“Confiscation, violence, theft, and prodigality may occur, but seldom does philanthropy of a scope larger than the family appear in primitive society.  That may be a commentary on the fallen nature of man.  It may also be a clue for businesses and economies, indicating how they will best function in reality….Due to the fall, an economic golden age in which all humans glorify God with their wealth is not anticipated prior to the establishment of the New Jerusalem.  Instead, we expect selfishness, conflict, theft, destruction of property, and strife in economic and business sectors.  Rather than living in denial of such realities, we should seek enduring solutions that take them into account.  Anyone who begins with the expectation of a utopia will quickly become frustrated by the fallen nature of our universe.  Realism in business and profit sectors is a better beginning point than utopianism.  Thus, Calvinism explains what and why to expect in the marketplace because it has a realistic understanding of the nature of man.  The children of Calvin will be profoundly and inevitably dystopian.” 

In every other sphere of life, we recognize that Christian ethics involves first a sober diagnosis of man’s fallen condition, second, a proclamation of hope that it need not be this way, but by virtue of Christ can be otherwise, and third, a demanding call to transcend these sinful desires and have them remade in imitation of Christ.  Why is it that only in economics, we abandon this basic structure of Christian ethics, and suggest that there is this whole area of life in which we are to more or less accept our fallen condition as normative, with a few gentlemanly constraints to keep us from descending into hedonism?  Perhaps there is a good reason, but if so, I would dearly like to hear what it is.    

I should perhaps add as an aside that, as elsewhere in their book, Hall and Burton do not convincingly enlist Calvin in their project.  They offer no quotes in which Calvin suggests that, as a result of his doctrine of depravity, we should embrace an economic system that institutionally accepts depravity.  Rather, his doctrine of depravity serves as a means for him to diagnose our sinful propensities to geed in the economic sphere, greed that is to be confronted and resisted, not institutionalized.  



A Primer on Christian Citizenship

I was invited to give a talk at my church’s Away Day yesterday, on the subject of “Christianity and Public Issues,” so I took the opportunity to distill my current political theology, such as it is, into something suitable for the ordinary British layman’s consumption.  Although it is necessarily very oversimplistic, sometimes simplicity can be refreshingly clarifying.  So I offer the manuscript version of my talk here, in two installments: 1) A Primer on Christian Citizenship and 2) A Primer on Christian Economics.  These are very much mere outlines of a position, so if you’re interested, please push me for clarification and expansion–I’m sure it will be very helpful.

*****

The last ten years, it seems, have seen America and Britain lurching from one crisis to another–the stock market collapse of 2000 was followed by the traumatic terrorist attacks of 9/11 (and later 7/7 here in the UK), the wrenching divisions of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and most recently, a devastating economic crisis that we are still trying to recover from.  In Britain, the era when the Christian Church and British politics went hand in hand is long gone, and although many American Christians seem determined to politicize their faith, they have lost a lot of their credibility after the disaster of the Bush years.   

The ongoing economic crisis, while it might seem to afford Christians an excellent opportunity to preach the Gospel against greed and point toward a more just economic order, threatens instead to weaken the Church’s witness still further, as Christians are deeply divided among themselves on economic issues and on how to engage the public sphere.  Many Christians (particularly in America) have bought into the ideology that the market, left to itself, always provides the best solution, and any restraints upon greed that are imposed by society or government to reduce inequality are destructive.  For them, the Church has no distinctive contribution to make, save perhaps to encourage honesty and charity among its members.  Other Christians are convinced that economic inequality today is a scandal, and one that needs urgently to be remedied.  The biggest, strongest institution around that can remedy it is the government, and so these Christians aggressively lobby (either in the name of the gospel or in secular terms) for more and more legislation and taxation to bring “social justice.”  But, if the government is the solution, then again we might ask whether the Church has any distinctive contribution to make to the problem.  Many Christians will say that the Church’s contribution is simply to convert people–that’s the only real way to help people, and the only task the Church has; economic and political disputes are not really the Church’s business, although Christians can engage in them as ordinary citizens.  

 

But are we ordinary citizens?  That is perhaps the fundamental point that we must establish if we are to provide a compass for Christian engagement with political institutions and particularly economic problems.  So, are we ordinary citizens?  The Apostle Paul doesn’t seem to think so, in Phil. 3:17-21:

“Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern.  For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”  

So we’re citizens of heaven?  Are we not then citizens of earth?  How do we make sense of this relationship?  

 

Countless answers have been suggested through the history of the Church, but I’m going to look here at three general models that have been proposed.

1) First, there has been a common tendency at many points in Christian history to diminish or forget the gap between the politics and the societies of this world and the heavenly kingdom of Christ.  In the period after the conversion of Constantine, many Christians mistakenly imagined that Christian Rome was now the visible expression of the kingdom of Christ, and was sure to continue forever. This may seem like an obvious mistake in hindsight, but it is remarkable how frequently it has cropped up in the history of the Church.  Many British Christians were tempted to think this way during the heyday of the British Empire and I can assure you that many American Christians continue to think this way.  This model is often called a “Christendom” model.  

What are some of the problems with this way of thinking?

  • it leads to false confidence and false despair; we begin to walk by sight and not by faith
  • it attaches eternal significance to limited, relatively insignificant earthly matters, such as changes of government; it mistakes where the action really is happening
  • it confuses the tools of the kingdom with worldly tools, and begins to imagine that the Gospel is best advanced by force and defended by law.  
  • for all these reasons, it poses a great temptation to ethical compromise, since if we are sure that the progress of Christ’s kingdom depends on political events in the here and now, we will do everything possible to bring about certain events, no matter what it takes.  A case in point was American evangelicals’ support of John McCain in the 2008 election. 

 

Many Christians, seeing the weaknesses in this approach, have reacted in one of two ways.  Both of these reactions respond by emphatically asserting the dichotomy between our citizenship in Christ and in the world, laying stress on Paul’s words that our citizenship is in heaven, but they go in somewhat opposite directions.  

 

2) One, which we might call the modern secular model, although it has been around since at least the 1300s, believes in the possibility of dual citizenship.  John Locke is perhaps the most famous representative of this approach.  To the Christian, Locke says, “Of course you can be a citizen of the City of God, but remember that this is a heavenly, invisible city, on a different plane from real cities and kingdoms.  So you can be a perfectly good earthly citizen too.  Just do your duty to king and country, which consists in things like fighting wars, paying taxes, obeying laws, and to your society, which consists in things like engaging in business, participating in sports, etc., and these will in no way conflict with your spiritual duty, which is to do things like pray, worship, give alms, etc.”  Many Christian thinkers have happily endorsed this dual citizenship model, assuring Christians that there is no conflict between their sacred and secular duties; these occupy different spheres, both of which are perfectly valid.

But what are some of the problems with this way of thinking?

 

  • is there really no conflict?  is this kind of schizophrenia really possible?  How can I be committed to peace as a Christian and yet committed to war as a citizen of my country?  Obviously, there are plenty of occasions when there will be no obvious conflict, but quite frequently there will be, and we’ll have to decide which citizenship takes priority.  Locke recognized this, and despite his supposed favoring of religious freedom, argued that religious convictions must be suppressed whenever they conflicted with good citizenship of the state.  
  • it doesn’t really seem possible then to have a dual citizenship; if you were really a citizen of the Church as visible body with another allegiance, you couldn’t be a full citizen of the state.  Locke realized this, and made churches nothing more than voluntary societies like chess clubs; “citizenship” in Christ, for him, happened only at an invisible and individual level; it was not a corporate identity.
  • doesn’t this seem to minimize the scope of the Gospel?  Did Christ really come just to save a little sliver of our lives and to leave society to basically operate the way it always has?
  • this model holds great temptations to ethical compromise; if we are citizens of the earthly kingdom, shouldn’t we be good, loyal, faithful citizens even if that means perhaps fighting wars we shouldn’t fight?

 

 

3) Fearing the temptation to compromise in these first two options, other Christians have insisted on a sharp distinction between citizenship in heaven vs. in the world, but have denied that dual citizenship is possible.  You can only be a citizen of one city, and that is the City of God.  The earthly city is headed for perdition, and we must remain outside of it, serving God in the Church but not in the world, lest we confuse the kingdom of Christ with the world, or be tempted to compromise.  This approach is often associated with Anabaptism, though there are other forms of it.  Like option 2, this view takes the distinction between the two cities in spatial terms–if we are citizens of heaven, then we are not of earth, and we need to hold ourselves aloof from many of the trappings of the earthly kingdom. 

What are some problems with this approach?  

 

  • well for one, it’s open to a similar problem as option 2–namely, that it doesn’t really challenge the power structures of the world in the name of the Gospel.  Whereas option 2 lets them remain as they are and lives with them, option 3 accepts them as they are and lives apart from them.  But the end result is the same.  
  • also, this viewpoint is often criticized for “irresponsibility.”  Christians are, like Christ, to be characterized by responsibility, taking on responsibility not only for their own sins and problems but those of the world.  This third approach tries to distance itself from the problems of the world and leave the world to perish in its sin.
  • this viewpoint can tend toward individualism as well.  Whatever binds us together in society with others can often be seen as earthly and as something we need to escape into a pure private communion with God.
  • also, this viewpoint tends toward hypocrisy.  Most are not really able to separate themselves from life in this world (most do not become monks), and so they simply deceive themselves into thinking they are living spiritual, unworldly lives, when usually it just means that they have chosen to ignore aspects of their lives that must be brought under Christ.

 

 

None of these, then, seem like the best way to approach the problem.  In response, I want to propose a return to an age-old approach suggested by St. Augustine nearly 1600 years ago.  Augustine’s proposition proved enormously influential in Christian political thought, and many theologians now are trying to make sense of it again as a paradigm for our own day.  Augustine confronted the problem of a “Christendom” mindset, as Christians equated the progress of the kingdom of God with the prosperity of the Roman Empire.  But in responding to it, he managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of the secular and Anabaptist approaches.

 

Augustine insisted that, since the Fall, there have been two “cities” or societies, the “City of Man,” characterized by self-love, “lust for domination,” and violence, and the “City of God,” the assembly of the righteous, who love and serve Christ, and are characterized by peace and love of others.  Both cities exist side-by-side in the present world, and have a visible institutional form–the City of Man governs itself in states and empires, and the City of God is the Church, a body of believers made visible by their exchange of peace each week in the Eucharist.  They live by different rules and employ different tools.  We must not therefore identify the City of God with a political form that borrows its tools and its goals from the City of Man.  But neither city is completely contained within this visible institutional form, and neither city completely lives up to its nature; the City of God is not perfectly peaceful–that is clear–and the City of Man is not always violent.  It consists of good creatures created by God, characterized by desires that, although distorted, are not all bad, and so the City of Man is not altogether useless, nor is it altogether without peace.  Augustine knew that the Roman Empire did preserve a kind of peace and order, despite its godlessness, although not the best kind of peace and order, and it did promote a certain degree of progress and civilization, although not the best kind.  The City of God should recognize, make use of, and build on these successes. 

Augustine, then, refuses to collapse the two cities, like the first model, which suggests that a kingdom of this world might be identical with the kingdom of Christ.  He recognizes that the earthly city is too much at odds with the City of God to permit us to be dual citizens, as the second model would have it.  However, he recognizes that the two cities are not perfectly separable, and that to belong to the City of God does not mean abandoning the world altogether; we can still recognize and make use of the imperfect goods the world and its structures have to offer, just as a traveler passing through or temporarily staying in a city may happily shop in its markets and enjoy the protection of its police, although he never mistakes the city for his home.  Augustine, in other words, helps us to see ourselves as “resident aliens” within the societies and social structures of this world.

 

But we must not here put the emphasis on the word “alien,” as we have often tended to do, but on the “resident.”  Augustinianism should not be used to portray us as pilgrims only, detached from the world and somewhat careless about its fate, taking from it for our own purposes but not giving back.  

To gain a fuller perspective, I want us to look back at that passage from Philippians.  After all, when Paul talks about our citizenship being in heaven, that sounds to us like we are just strangers and pilgrims, detached from this earth.  But is that what he meant?  Not exactly.  The Philippians, to whom Paul is writing, were a colonial city of Rome–they were Roman citizens living in Macedonian surroundings.  Their Roman citizenship did not mean they were only temporarily in Macedonia, and would soon be summoned back to Rome their true home, but rather that they were to spread the rule of Rome and the culture of Rome where they were, and make it reflect the lordship of the Emperor, for whose occasional visitations they were to be prepared.  Paul clearly intended to evoke the same symbolism.  The Philippian Christians were colonists of heaven; they were citizens of heaven, not earth, but this did not mean they were only pilgrims; rather, they were to stay there as an outpost of heaven, making earth more like heaven, and preparing for the return of their King to take full possession of earth.  

This suggests an important additional dimension to Christian involvement in the world, in society and politics.  Christians must make the City of God more visible here in the world, must work to expand its foothold here amid the kingdoms of the world, must work to make the Church a true embodiment of the City of God it is meant to be, modeling a new way of life in front of the world, and summoning the world to join up.  

This, however, can smack of triumphalism too much: “We’re the true city, we know how to do things right, you’re on the losing side, so give up or join up!”  You don’t win many converts that way.   And that would be inconsistent anyway.  The Church is a different kind of city practicing a different kind of politics.  Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.”  If we want the City of God to become great in the world, then we must live as the servants of the world.  Archbishop William Temple once said, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of non-members.”  

Although it’s important to emphasize that the Church is thoroughly separate from and even in many ways opposed to the structures of the City of Man, we must not forget the call to pray for the peace of the City we are in, and to work for it.  Remember that in Augustine’s scheme, although the City of Man was limited, destined to pass away, and always liable to fall into idolatry, self-glorification, and the desire for domination, it was not useless.  Augustine and most of the early Church Fathers recognized that the peace and order that Rome preserved, despite its injustices, was a lot better than having barbarians looting left and right.  And so the Church put itself at the service of the just ends of the empire it inhabited, and did not seek the complete downfall of Roman society, but its preservation, improvement, and conversion.   

What does all this mean for us today?  It means that as inhabitants of the city of Edinburgh and of the United Kingdom, we must always remember that we are not full citizens of these earthly institutions, but are citizens of a different kind of society, the Church, which establishes different kinds of communities, communities based on grace, peace, and forgiveness.  We will beware of hastily identifying our own good, and especially the good of the Church, with the good of the surrounding society–in a war, for instance, we will not necessarily cheer for the United Kingdom to prevail; perhaps Christ’s kingdom would be better served by its defeat.  Knowing that we are colonists of heaven, we will work to make the Church a true embodiment of the heavenly kingdom, here on earth, to make it a model to the world of how a community should live, how people should do business together, how people can resolve disputes, how people can care for the weakest.  Whatever our other callings in life, this will always be our first goal and duty, since this is where our citizenship lies.  However, we will remember that this calling to build the city of God is on behalf of the cities and countries that we live in; we labor not for our own good but for the good of the City of Edinburgh and the United Kingdom.  Thus we work not only for their conversion, but seek to discern ways in which, within these and other earthly institutions, justice may be improved, peace may be advanced, the weak may be cared for, evil may be rebuked, and the Gospel may be propagated.  Our policy toward any worldly institution, political or economic, should be one of suspicion, to be sure, but also one of “selective collaboration”–identifying areas in which these structures are capable of doing limited good and putting ourselves at their service to accomplish as much of that good as possible, never forgetting to keep pointing them toward the only source of ultimate good–Christ and His Church.  

 

Note: I am indebted for many of these thoughts to James K.A. Smith’s lecture, “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?”


And God said, “Let There Be Private Property”

In Chapter 1 of Calvin and Commerce, we begin with the doctrine of Creation, and Hall and Burton’s use of the doctrine reflects the common conservative presupposition that private property is a direct institution of creation.  This, I say, is a presupposition–it is never a conclusion they argue for, and I for one have no idea how one might argue for such a proposition.  But it has dramatic consequences.  It means, for instance, that the fundamental problem of economics–the relationship between private and common property–is never addressed, nor the issue of the just distribution of wealth.  For Hall and Burton, the great debate in economics is over whether wealth is to be viewed positively or negatively, and they see modern society as falling into the error of viewing wealth negatively, as something “inherently evil.”  

I must confess that this seems a very bizarre diagnosis for our materialistic, money-obsessed culture, but that’s what Hall and Burton think.  Of course, the problem is that their invisible opponents have nothing against wealth per se, but against unjustly distributed private wealth.  Our authors, however, take no note, throughout the 50 pages of this chapter, of such subtle distinctions as the existence of wealth vs. the distribution of it, and go on stubbornly repeating that since “wealth is part of creation,” it is basically good, not evil.   What might this statement mean?

Right at the beginning of the chapter, we have the statement, “Money is–and every will be–a creation….Like the creation itself, it has a place and is useful.”  Now this is a bit confusing, because money is clearly not part of the original creation, any more than toilet paper is, or perhaps more analogously, any more than the internet is.  Money is a human invention, devised using wthe material things God created, and the conceptual capacities with which he endowed man.  It is a human creation, a social creation, not part of the simple physical creation per se.  Now, this seems like an important distinction.  However, our authors never clearly make it.  For instance, at the end of the chapter, they return and say, “wealth is a part of creation,” but then in the next paragraph, “money is a fundamentally good human invention.”  (Note that this does not reflect a careful distinction between “wealth” on the one hand and “money” on another; these are used interchangeably in these paragraphs and elsewhere.)  On page 10, wealth is discussed as a very direct creation of God: “If wealth is a creation, then there is no reason that it may not be fruitful and multiply.  Yet, just as ‘the sun is still a servant, and the moon a handmaid,’ so again wealth as a creation is designed to serve or assist, never to be worshiped as or confused with the creation.”  Let’s try to untangle this web they have woven for us.   

Although humans imitate divine creativity (as Hall and Burton discuss at certain points in this chapter) we must of course distinguish between the products of divine creation and the products of human creation.  The former are not only “not inherently evil,” but are (before the Fall at least) unreservedly good.  The latter, however, may be good, may be evil, or may be neither per se.  Pornography is a human creation that is evil.  Apple pie is a human creation that is good.  What is money?  Well, it is a treacherous tool that humans have devised in order to better pursue the good of creation, but which often seduces them into evil and the distortion of creation.  It must be viewed, in short, with rather more suspicion and less resounding affirmation than a direct product of divine creation, like an apple (regarding which a certain caution is still valuable).  

Let’s leave “money” and talk about the broader term “wealth.”  In what sense might “wealth” be “part of creation”?  Well, in the sense of “the abundance of the world,” “the bounty of the earth,” or something like that, “wealth” was clearly directly created by God.  However, we very rarely use “wealth” in this sense; rather, in normal usage, it is only meaningful as a comparative term–to say that one person has wealth is to say that another person does not, or that he has less.  Now, this could not be true if wealth were the general bounty of creation.  No, “wealth” in our ordinary usage refers to private wealth, to private property, to the claim a person has staked over a certain portion of the bounty of creation.  And in this sense, wealth is clearly a human invention, not part of the initial divine creation–God didn’t divide Eden up into plots.  (Hall and Burton might disagree, however.   On page 18, they use the disturbing metaphor of creation as one big corporation, in which we all have shares, and for which God is like the board of directors, free to distribute the excess profits however he wants.) 

Of course, saying that it is a human invention doesn’t make it bad, but it makes it different.  It means that private wealth is subject to the other limitations on human inventions–it is only good insofar as it serves the good of creation as a whole, it is of limited use, tinged with the weakness and propensity to temptation of all things human, and prone to idolatry.  In other words, our attitude to it should be one of careful ambivalence, not resounding affirmation.  To transfer the properties belonging to something created directly by God to something devised by man is a rather careless and foolish theological error, but so far as I can tell, this error is made in discussions of creation and private property all the time.  Somehow we got it into our heads that private property was inscribed in the original creation, and by now, indeed, conservatives have managed to raise it to a level of sanctity even above that of all the rest of creation, since we are now told that people have a right to do whatever they want with their property, even if it’s injurious to the earth.

So, if it is correct that wealth in general is created, but private wealth is not, what might this chapter have looked like?  We might have begun with the affirmation that the material world is good, and God has given it for all to enjoy and invited us to enrich it still further.  We might then have asked how the bounty of creation is best maximized and how we can best  ensure that its benefits are as widely shared as possible.  We might have heard about what a distortion it is of God’s original design for creation if a few people seize all its wealth and use it for their own advantage.  All this might have led us to the qualified affirmation of some kind of free-enterprise system, though not necessarily “capitalism” per se.  

Instead, what do we get?  On page 43, a section entitled “Wealth is not morally evil” begins.  Wealth is not morally evil because it is part of creation, we are told, but puzzlingly, in this section, private accumulations of wealth are what is being discussed.  Indeed, because such accumulations of wealth are actually good, what is evil is actually any barrier to the free flow or accumulation of wealth.  This concern, it turns out, is not just your typical anti-big-government stance, because their particular critique in this section is aimed at the bad attitudes of society today toward wealth.  We live in an anti-wealth society, we are told, and this, Wayne Grudem says (they quote him extensively in this section), is a work of Satan, who is trying thus to overthrow God’s good creation.  

Is this a joke?  No, I’m afraid it’s not.  We then get a wide-ranging, bizarre, and very difficult to follow history of negative modern attitudes toward wealth, and then this remarkable paragraph:

“In the 1960s Christian socialists and theologians turned up the volume in their denouncements of the evils of abundance and wealth.  Citing Acts 2 out of its canonical context, they called for a simpler lifestyle, a feature often commended by collectivist theorists.  Even faced with the myriad benefits that capitalism brings to society–enhanced employment and liberty to mention only two–they still felt trapped in Weber’s ‘iron cage.’…The great twentieth-century social experiment needed villains who ostensibly threatened its ideals of free love, peace, social liberties, and unrestricted expression.  Fueled by a century of suspicion and attacks and gaslit by the new liberation theology, the 1960s and 1970s cemented the concept of the immorality of wealth, making it part of the mainstream cultural consciousness.” 

He then turns, believe it or not, to a defense of big oil, pointing out that the profit margins of ExxonMobil aren’t bad at all compared to many other S&P 500 companies.  Then it gets even better:  “Furthermore, ExxonMobil uses its wealth to reinvest in activity throughout the world, employing hundreds of thousands of individuals.  For example, twenty-two thousand employees are employed by Exxon in Chad.  Is not that national economic system bolstered by Exxon’s presence?  What is the ultimate value to thousands of homes in Chad because of the trickle-down effect of Exxon’s profits?”  Now, we could pause here to cross-examine these rather fantastic claims about the “enhanced employment” capitalism brings (though this is, of course, one economic good that capitalism indisputably does not bring) or of the wonderful blessings that ExxonMobil has shed upon Chad, but let’s stick to the big picture. 

The big picture is that, in a chapter devoted to economics in light of the doctrine of creation, the main point was to lead us to a defense of ExxonMobil as an embodiment of a Christian embrace of creation and its wealth, and a suggestion that those who oppose it are motivated by Satan.

 

 


Which King’s College?

I can always rely on Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical to post some great links, a blogosphere digest of sorts, and his recent post was no disappointment.  They were all interesting, but two in particular caught my eye.  On one, a little essay called “Love and Justice in Politics,” I have no comment, save to say: read it–it’s excellent and fascinating.  

Another, discussing the lates brouhaha over The King’s College’s, caught my interest even more.  The King’s College, an avowedly evangelical institution, turned heads and invited wide criticism among evangelicals for its recent appointment of Roman Catholic Dinesh D’Souza as their new President.  Of course, not being a Catholic hater myself, the idea of an evangelical college appointing a Catholic president doesn’t trouble me that much, and shouldn’t trouble most people given that D’Souza isn’t a very Catholic Catholic–heck, according to the article in Christianity Today, he attends a non-denominational church.  So, when Carl Trueman gets on his high horse about it, I would normally do little more than yawn.  However, Trueman made some very trenchant remarks that echoed my own initial reaction.  

According to Christianity Today,

“Trueman questioned whether D’Souza’s appointment meant that his commitment to conservative economic and social policies is the really important worldview at King’s, while disagreements over papal authority and justification are ‘mere sideshows.’ ‘If so, we can see this appointment as a certain strand of evangelicalism definitively coming clean: it is not the theological issues listed above that are considered critical; it is rather the conservative political and social vision of thinkers such as Marvin Olasky.'”

(Olasky, of course, is the provost at The King’s College.)

Trueman, I think, has hit the nail on the head.  D’Souza, of course, is one of the most outspoken representatives of the kind of right wing American Christianity that spends much more of its time (or at least, more of its radio airtime) bowing down to the gods of American liberty and capitalism than it does to the God of the Bible, and Olasky is another.  Their fundamental faith in right-wing politics and economics is a powerful enough glue to overcome any theological barriers.  This appointment will likely be taken by dissidents at TKC as a strong and demoralizing sign that the College leadership wants to continue to steer the college toward a right-wing political and economic agenda, a trajectory they made very clear last spring in their vehement opposition to visiting speaker Stanley Hauerwas.  For more about that brouhaha, see here.