The Privation of Creation (Good of Affluence #4)

In chapters 2-4 of The Good of Affluence, Schneider launches into an Old Testament theology of affluence.  The main burden of his narrative is to show that God has created the material world good, and intends for his people to delight in its bounty.  The Garden of Eden, with its rich provision of fruits for Adam and Eve to enjoy, serves as a paradigm of the blessings to which God calls his people throughout the Old Testament, blessing Abraham and the patriarchs with great wealth and then inviting his people into a land flowing with milk and honey.  In short, God calls his people to an excessive material delight, not merely to the bare necessities, and so we must not, like Ron Sider, decry affluence as ungodly, something to be repented of or guiltily given away. 

Along the way, Schneider displays an actually quite impressive willingness to grapple with Biblical material that would seem to contradict his case.  He acknowledges that concern for the environment is an important part of a Christian doctrine of creation.  He does not pretend that Exodus and Deuteronomy prescribe some kind of unrestrained capitalism, but acknowledges that concern for the poor, and a legal system that institutionalises that concern, is Biblical.  He does not pretend that Amos and other prophets do not decry wealth and luxury in the strongest of terms. He says that all these things must be taken on board, that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight [Schneider’s shorthand term for the enjoyment of materiality that he is arguing for].”  This is all greatly to be appreciated; and indeed, in discussing these points, Schneider offers some thoughtful exegesis and some helpful rebukes of more careless uses of some of these texts by social justice advocates.  The problem is simply that in the end, Schneider does not think these concerns alter the basic picture he is advocating.  To be sure, they must be kept in mind, they must be taken on board, they cannot be ignored, he tells us, but it is not clear to me just how they are to be kept in mind or taken on board in the lifestyle that Schneider wants to recommend to us.  

I’m going to engage this material in four posts.  First, this post will survey Schneider’s general Old Testament argument, and a couple of large-scale objections to it.  Then, I will have three posts (which I may sprinkle in later, since I am eager to move on in covering the broad sweep of the book) addressing a particularly interesting discussion from each chapter–environmental ethics, the Jubilee law, and the application of Amos’s rebuke to luxury.  The latter two will raise key ethical principles that Schneider is concerned about: the issue of “moral proximity” in discussing the Jubilee law, and the concern over legalism in addressing Amos.  

 

 So, what about the big picture?  Well, truth be told, the core message that Schneider is trying to get across here, particularly in the opening chapter, is not all that different from that of N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.  Which is to say, an anti-Gnostic argument for the fundamental materiality, and gloriousness of that materiality, that characterises redemption, and God’s blessing of his people.  We were placed into a bounteous creation in Eden and invited to enrich it still further by our labors.  Although we lost Eden, God’s plan is to restore us to it, first by leading Israel into the new Eden of the promised land, to make the whole world into a new Eden, flowing with milk and honey.  This provides a basis for rejoicing in and glorying in creation.  All of this is thus far quite salutary, especially when one compares it to something like David VanDrunen’s Living in Two Kingdoms, which I’ve also been reading.  Whereas Schneider can treat Israel’s sojourn in the Promised Land as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and a paradigm for our own redemption, VanDrunen is forced to treat this as some weird anomaly, an 800-year interruption in God’s normal pattern of redemption.  But let that pass for now–VanDrunen will have his own blog post (or several).  

But of course, the problem with this lovely picture is that, if it really is at core much the same point that N.T. Wright is making in Surprised by Hope, it should be readily apparent that this does not get us, in and of itself, to where Schneider wants to get us–a materialistic embrace of modern capitalist hedonism.  After all, Wright uses the same basic starting point to arrive by the end of Surprised by Hope at an urgent call for Third World debt relief, to my mind a much more plausible conclusion.  Whence this difference?  Well, so as not to sidetrack into the details of Surprised by Hope, which is an extraordinarily rich piece of theology, let me just say that the key question, which Schneider doesn’t really appear to face, is “Who is all this bounty for?”  If the answer is “for everyone,” as it seems it surely must be, then this bounty must be enjoyed by everyone.  There is, it seems, a hidden premise in Schneider’s argument–the assumption of primordial private property.  

But of course, all through the first sixteen centuries of the Church, theologians assumed that the bounty of the Garden of Eden was common property, and the main question of economic ethics was how close we could or couldn’t get to realizing this primordial condition of shared bounty.  To get from Eden to an endorsement of Bill Gates, you have to assume that the privateness of property is in no way a privation, that each individual is encouraged to enjoy his own personal Eden of billions of dollars even while billions of people perish outside its lush borders.  This is why I have been convinced for some time that an intelligent theology of property is essential to these kinds of discussions.  It may not be possible for everyone to have equal access to the world’s bounty, but if you accept the principle of common use as the original condition of creation, then you have to say that it should be our goal to realize common use and equal access as much as possible (though this of course need not entail anything like precise equality).  But it’s not that Schneider says, “Yes, this should be our goal and our aspiration, but in this fallen world that’s simply not achievable, and so we need private property, and should accept that sadly, this created intention will simply not be realized until the new creation.”  That would be a defensible position.  But Schneider does not show any awareness that there is a problem, or that the massive affluence of a minority of private individuals is anything other than the fulfillment of God’s created purpose.  

 

At least one other serious blind spot afflicts this narrative, appearing at one of the frequent but ultimately inconsequential concessions about how wealth is potentially dangerous: 

“the root of evil in responding to material affluence is also primarily spiritual.  The text expresses it in those fall-like terms of autonomy, the attitude that ‘by my own hand’ I have got this wealth.  This is not the spirit of blessing, dominion, and delight.  It is the spirit of self-serving arrogance and pride of the worst sort.”

 This sort of statement appears repeatedly in these pages, without any sense of the crushing irony.  After all, how did Schneider begin his book?  By declaring how God has poured out, by free and inexplicable grace, bounteous wealth on America and the West, and we should be overwhelmed with gratitude?  Well, no.  By declaring how the brilliant ingenuity of this new human idea–capitalism–has given us bounteous wealth, liberated whole nations, restored us almost to Eden.  (Although as I said, this rhetoric was comparatively restrained in this book, it was still bad enough, and Schneider has said much worse elsewhere.)  How is his attitude, how is our attitude in the modern West, not “by my own hand I have got this wealth”?  (Not, I should add, that I am very comfortable with the attitude that insists we simply attribute all our Western prosperity in gratitude to God, since this encourages us to ask no moral questions about how we came by this wealth and others didn’t.)  In short, even if Schneider’s broader argument about the good of affluence were solid, we would still seem to be left with the sense that the modern Western attitude toward our affluence (and Schneider’s own) is one of extreme moral peril, warranting all the warnings of the Christian writers that Schneider is opposing in this volume.  

And I would argue that this not a simple matter of attitude adjustment, but intrinsically so.  We live, to an unprecedented extent, in a human-engineered world.  The products we consume are mostly not the fruits of the Garden or wine from the vineyards of Israel, but are products created largely by human artifice.  This is true now even of the food we eat–even if it is completely free-range and organic and all the rest, it still most likely comes to our table with the aid of all kinds of modern technology.  This is not intrinsically bad (although I think there is much to be said, and I will say something below, for regaining a more natural lifestyle in some areas), but it is clearly perilous.  If Israelite farmers had a good year and were able to feast on the new wine and oil, it was easy enough for them to attribute it to divine grace (although still easy not to, so wicked is man’s heart).  But if I made my fortune investing in Apple, or worse, by inventing Apple, the temptation to see this wealth as self-created, and hence (tying back to the first point above) to treat it as essentially private, rather than a shared blessing, is enormous.  This doesn’t mean we have to all become Diggers and Levellers, but I’d like to see a little more awareness of these perils on Schneider’s part.

 

This consideration suggests a possible answer to what Schneider calls “the hermeneutics of affluence.”  Is it possible that Abraham’s affluence, for instance, could be good affluence, and ours be bad affluence?  Perhaps Abraham was very affluent by the standards of his own day, but not remotely like Bill Gates or even a mediocre modern millionaire.  Perhaps then the former wealth is great, and should be received with gratitude toward God, but the latter is problematic.  Schneider spends a couple pages (pp. 74-76) addressing this objection, although he considers it essentially vacuous.  This would mean that the Bible’s ethical guidance becomes obsolete as soon as its social circumstances are transcended, so that, for instance, one could Biblically justify the technology of metallurgy, but not that of microchips.  Having made this counter-argument, Schneider moves on, satisfied that he has silenced the objection.  But I am not so sure. 

Aside from the quantitative issue, which I have touched on before and will again (is there really no point at which superfluity becomes absurd?  What reasonable use could someone possibly find for $100 million?), there is a qualitative angle worth considering.  For the affluence of an Abraham consisted in having the full capacity to enjoy natural goods.  Abraham was perhaps able to eat as much as he wanted, including some delicacies, no doubt.  He could clothe himself as much as he needed, and perhaps in some level of finery.  He was housed comfortably.  He had the means to travel when he wanted.  He was, in short, equipped to enjoy the normal bounties of God’s creation.  And this is the vision of the promised land, as well.  Up to a certain point, modern affluence enables us to do that as well–enough to buy all kinds of excellent food and drink, to have some land to enjoy, clothes for all kinds of weather, a car to take me to see the Grand Canyon, etc.  But beyond that, much of this wealth is spent on increasing artificial and unnatural pleasures (again, the jacuzzi with the built-in sound system).  This is not to condemn technology, or to say that artificial=bad and natural=good.  However, it does suggest that something may be distorted in Schneider’s vision.  For if the point is delight in the bounty of creation, then not the most, but the best kind, of wealth is best.  

Schneider throughout suggests that his opponents, calling for Christians to live simpler lives, are ascetics and world-deniers.  He, unlike them, is calling for us to enjoy the goodness of creation.  But this reminds me of the people who insist that the organic, natural food people are ascetically refusing to enjoy the bounty of creation in the form of fast food and processed foods.  (Unfortunately, I am not joking—I have heard this argument repeatedly.)  What if living more simply actually means positioning ourselves so as better to enjoy God’s creation, instead of merely our own creations?  This gets back to the second point above.  Human inventions can be great, and can be a means of enhancing our appreciation and use of God’s creations.  But what about the kind of affluence that buys a big suburban house with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, and well-manicured yard, that climbs into an air-conditioned Lexus listening to satellite radio to drive to the mall, walks across the parking lot while checking Facebook and listening to music on his smartphone, shops for DVDs and computer games, and returns home to try them out on the flat-screen HDTV that drops from the ceiling?  Is it possible that at some point, we are using our wealth in ways that actually decreases our delight in God’s creation and leaves us feeling increasingly empty as we try to entertain ourselves with more and more creations of our own?  In short, without saying that we all need to try to be like Wendell Berry, I would bet you that he experiences far more Biblical “delight” in the material world than Bill Gates does.  

 

And of course, this leads back to my first point as well.  For what if the best way to have true “delight” in the world is by experiencing and celebrating it communally?  What if ever more private wealth actually makes it harder and harder for us to experience Edenic delight?  Schneider, alas, is too oblivious to such questions to even ask them, much less answer them.


5 thoughts on “The Privation of Creation (Good of Affluence #4)

  1. Donny

    Huh. The natural vs. artificial stuff… you have something there, but honestly, I think the distinction continues to confuse more than it helps. Thinking out loud here, but the more I learn about and work with technology, the more I question the distinction. I mean sure, there's something to what you're saying; I just don't think natural/artificial helps.You could also say it's not so much about natural vs. artificial but technology that works with nature and natural orders/systems as opposed to technology that covers it up or replaces it – basically, what Brad talks about in his farming piece. Of course, not even that makes any sense if you really break it down, since technology is still working with nature, just on a smaller level. It's not so much about working with larger biological systems, but coming up with cool ways to use the small systems (electricity, x-rays, micro-waves, and on and on).Maybe you could say good technology works harmoniously with nature on every level – biology, chemistry, and physics? I don't know. Still feels weird.But the point you made at the end, I thought that was much more helpful. Community as the basis for delight and joy is a much more interesting way to go about things. But even that brings up further problems? At what level is it considered communal? I mean, enjoying a nice dinner with your wife is "communal" and excellent, but if you never put on a nice meal for someone else, but instead blow all your riches on lavish dinners for the two of you, that's probably crossing some sort of line.Again, though, that doesn't eliminate the nice dinner between the two of you, as long as it's in the context of other, wider communal enjoyment. The same should go for private enjoyment. I personally prefer to enjoy good liquor among friends; it actually makes it more enjoyable. But that doesn't mean I don't enjoy scotch on my own, or that I shouldn't enjoy it on my own.So I suppose that gets back to the issue of context. Take your jacuzzi example. That sounds great. Actually, I'd prefer a jacuzzi with a big screen tv and surround sound. Oh, and a minifridge.Is it greedy for me to want that? It depends. If it's in the context of relaxing after other communal enjoyment, other communal service, a sort of winding-down vacation and enjoying the fruits of your labor, then that's one thing. If it's self-enjoyment in the context of communal-enjoyment and communal giving, it sounds fine. In fact, I'd say that those who have received great and glorious gifts from people who are more well-off actually want the givers to enjoy themselves, to give to themselves. Take my wife. When she goes through a rough day with Aidan, I want her to relax. I want her to enjoy herself. She's given, so she should receive in kind. Now extrapolate to a billionaire, a billionaire who has become so legitimately and ethically. If someone like that saved me from poverty, gave me an education, and gave me a job, I'd want them to enjoy themselves. I'd want them to have that jacuzzi. It's sort of like giving back to them; only I can't give anything to them, so I want them to give it to themselves.Again, thinking out loud, and I think this is pretty consonant with what you're saying. It's just very interesting to think about legitimate self-enjoyment, even lavish self-enjoyment, in the context of service and gift.

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Donny. Yeah, I was a little leery of the kind of artificial/natural distinction I was trying to draw as well. Of course, I don't think it's necessarily right to say that it's impossible to make distinctions when you really break it down, because all technology is harnessing natural forces. "Nature" is not a mere aggregation of force and matter, each constituent part of which can be treated as "natural" on its own. These forces and materials have been created to work symbiotically in large-scale processes. That doesn't mean that things like X-ray machines are wrong, just that it is a meaningful distinction to say that they are artificial, not natural. And if we rely on something artificial to do something that natural processes can already do quite well, that's where we can start getting ourselves into trouble.But there were really two distinct points I was trying to make there, I think, though they may have gotten blurred together. The first was simply more isn't always better. Calls for a "simpler lifestyle" do not mean a denial of what Schneider calls "delight"–they may mean considerably more delight. The issue of overindulgence in artificial pleasures of technology is a distinct issue, and here the biggest danger, I think, is idolatry.Regarding communal enjoyment, well, I think it has to go broader than that. I mean, most people like to party–like to enjoy their affluence with a group of other people, instead of off on their own. So I don't think there's any particular virtue in that. I mean, sure, sharing a bottle of Scotch with friends is better than hoarding it all to yourself, but I'm not sure that's enough. Jesus picks on rich people for hanging out with other rich people and only inviting them to their parties. So enjoying the bounty of creation communally ought to mean enjoying it together with those from all stations of life, inviting them to share in the experience of affluence. What does this mean? Inviting all the homeless people to the church dinners? I don't know. Seems like it, though I'm not saying it's easy, or that I really know how to do it. Nor, presumably, does this mean that you can never enjoy a fine meal with just your wife or with your friends or whatever. But it doesn't seem like it can be only that.Finally, the gift thing. I think this is really interesting. For this sort of reason, I'm not so anti-monarchist as most people are. There've been plenty of societies with tyrannical greedy rulers, sure–no doubt the majority. But there've been a number of societies in which the people really did love their ruler, and thought he had done fantastic things for them, and they wanted him, accordingly, to live a kingly lifestyle, with palaces and feasts and all. If the king had tried to live like a commoner, they'd be insulted; inviting him to enjoy his affluence was a way of giving back to him what he had given to them. This may sound idealized and all, but there are plenty of settings in which this happens. Like you say, a modern businessman might really do well for his employees, earn their respect and loyalty, so that they felt like he was entitled to live in a fancy house and drive a nice car, and would not envy him. The exception, no doubt, not the rule. But this is a reason why there's no reason to make complete equality the ideal. Some people use their wealth very well for other people, and those other people, in return, want them to get to enjoy part of it. So yes, I think this is an important angle that needs more thought.

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  3. Donny

    Thanks Donny. Yeah, I was a little leery of the kind of artificial/natural distinction I was trying to draw as well. Of course, I don't think it's necessarily right to say that it's impossible to make distinctions when you really break it down, because all technology is harnessing natural forces. "Nature" is not a mere aggregation of force and matter, each constituent part of which can be treated as "natural" on its own. These forces and materials have been created to work symbiotically in large-scale processes. That doesn't mean that things like X-ray machines are wrong, just that it is a meaningful distinction to say that they are artificial, not natural. And if we rely on something artificial to do something that natural processes can already do quite well, that's where we can start getting ourselves into trouble.

    I'm not sure I completely know what you mean. It seems that interrupting the "natural" process as a whole process is exactly what we're supposed to do as humans. Can you elaborate some? How does that get us into trouble?

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  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Let me illustrate with a bio-ethics issue: A geneticist might try to make the claim that in splicing together human and animal genes to create hybrid embryos (currently an issue of major controversy in the UK), he is not doing something "artificial" but is merely reorganizing nature, since the constituent pieces he is working with are "natural"–real bits of DNA. Hardly any, I think, would even try to make that argument, and no one, I think, would take it seriously. We would rightly describe such intervention as doing something unnatural or artificial, even those who wanted to defend it as legitimate. The "naturalness" of DNA, I think we would want to say, does not consist in each individual gene, but the whole code that makes up human DNA. So the point is that while humans are called to rearrange the products and processes of nature to some extent, interference beyond a certain point, that does not respect the holistic integrity of natural processes, is destructive and can be immoral. "Natural" is, as Bradley says, a relative term, but relative terms are still very useful. "Godly" is a relative term, but that does not mean that we don't recognize and discourage ungodliness. So, to get back to the main point and how this relates to Schneider. Obviously Schneider isn't endorsing human-animal hybrids. He's not advocating immoral artificiality. My concern here is a more subtle point, and that is that the further that human processes alter nature and impress man's image upon it, the greater is the danger of idolatry. If I pluck an apple from a tree, I'm much less likely to idolize it and forget the God who gave it to me than if I buy an Apple device from the Mac store. Living in a world that is increasingly full of our own inventions, so that we lose all contact with the natural world that is God's gift that makes it all possible, means we are very likely to make the mistake Moses warns of and say "By my own hand I have gained all this wealth."

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