Depart in Peace, Be Warmed and Filled (Good of Affluence #9)

So we have seen that Schneider explains Amos’s attacks upon the unjust rich as first of all an attack on those who have direct responsibility for the poor and for unjust policies that are harming them, not as an attack on third parties who just happen to be rich.  His second line of argument is that what Amos is attacking is not the enjoyment of wealth per se, but a bad attitude toward wealth.  This is a very common sort of claim among divine right capitalists like Schneider–wealth isn’t evil; it’s a bad attitude toward wealth that is evil.  The implication is that their opponents disagree; they think that wealth itself is evil.  Generally, however, that’s not the case; their opponents rather insist that attitudes issue in actions, and so a good attitude toward wealth requires certain concrete just and charitable uses of that wealth, whereas a bad attitude toward wealth can be identified through certain greedy or unjust uses of that wealth.  So I can agree with Schneider’s general statement; however, I will then ask him to flesh out what this bad attitude looks like for us today, and what a corresponding good attitude would entail.  Unfortunately, he gives us little to go on–here, and in the rest of the book.

 So let’s dig in to this section a bit and see what he does have to say. 

He begins by reminding us that the ancient Hebrews had a very high view of creation, the goodness of the material world, and the godliness of rejoicing in it.  Therefore (quoting Gerhard von Rad), “it can only have been extreme indulgence which necessitated the raising of such complaints about the enjoyment of material things.”  “Extreme indulgence,” Schneider goes on, “is a very different spiritual and moral behaviour than merely having and enjoying prosperity in the extreme.  I propose that the important contrast is not between extreme wealth and some properly moderate level of enjoyment, but is between extreme indulgence on the one hand and true delight on the other.  But the question arises: when is the enjoyment of material affluence indulgence, and when is it delight?”

In other words, the problem is not quantitative, it’s qualitative.  Any amount of wealth, however exorbitant, can be delighted in in a godly manner, while even a very small amount can be indulged in an ungodly manner.  There is something to this, of course.  A godly posture towards wealth is not in unerring direct proportion to the amount one possesses.  One can clearly be a miserly pauper.  But I do think it is ethically risky to disclaim any quantitative judgments.  Attitudes exhibit themselves in actions, and I think it would be safe to say that a godly attitude toward wealth must entail some kind of quantitative moderation–even just for the sake of one’s own character, and even more so in the fact of indigence that one is in a position to help.  But let’s hear more about what Schneider thinks the qualitative difference is.

“The root of their [those who Amos condemns] evil is exposed by the second allusion in the last words: ‘but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.’…Their whole spirituality expresses a lack of proper, sacred grief for the suffering around and about them….They identify themselves with the majestic power and glory of King David.  But they know nothing of the passion and sacred grief for the nation and its poor, to which his songs and music attest.  They have lost touch with brokenness and so they have lost their own souls.  Their celebrations have become frivolous, disgusting, and pathetic displays of self-indulgence.”

What is the solution to this hard-hearted self-indulgence?

“Amos wisely does not fall into the trap of legalism, seeking to pinpoint some politically correct substance to use for bed making, or perhaps whether, in this world of need, beds might not be necessary at all.  For the prophet, it is a matter of finding one’s true humanity.  It is a matter of becoming a mature person with a vision from the Lord and a heart for people, especially the poor and powerless.  The rich must be liberated not from riches but from the selfish mind and heart of the serpent….As Jesus knew, there must always be a certain sacred grief in the joy of God’s people: ‘Blessed are those who mourn.’  This, I think, is the starting point for affluent people in modern societies today: we cannot be righteous unless we have a proper sense of grief.  What exactly this entails is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”

Now, all of this might be pointing in a good direction.  Perhaps what Schneider is saying here is not unlike what I said in my previous post on him, where I called for mercy and generosity to be pursued not in a spirit of legalism, but in the freedom of the justification by faith, and by seeking to grow into a virtuous mind and heart that would guide us into the right uses of our wealth, instead of trying to lay down a priori rules for what we should do with it.  Of course, there I was assuming that this heart of compassion would entail some quantitative limits to our enjoyment of affluence, whereas Schneider does not seem to think so.  It might appear then that Schneider is actually saying that the difference between indulgence and delight is only internal.  The ungodly man thinks only of himself while eating his caviar, while godly man grieves in his heart for the poor while he eats it, but they both eat it just the same.  It would not be hard to give a cynical reading of Schneider’s “sacred grief” which sings hymns of compassion for the poor in church, prays for them, and “has a heart for them,” but never actually does anything for them, lest such sacrifice impede its delight in the affluence God has given.  We can easily imagine this affluent man characterised by “sacred grief” saying to a beggar on his doorstep, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled.”  

Perhaps this would be overly cynical.  No doubt, Schneider would protest that this is not what he means.  Of course this compassion must issue in actions, he would say, only these should not be actions of asceticism or legalism.  Very well–then what should they be?  This, he tells us, “is a matter we shall pursue in due course.”  If he did pursue it in due course, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  It’s fully legitimate for him to give the negative side of the argument (“not legalism”) at one point in the book, and the positive side (“true compassion”) later on.  However, on my reading of the book, he never actually does so.  He gestures vaguely at considerations of “moral proximity” and “vocation” and then ends the book without providing any real moral guidance.  This is perhaps inevitable in a book that is protesting what he sees as unhealthy and intrusive burdening of consciences by Christian leaders; he instinctively shies away from offering any real moral direction on the proper use of wealth, lest he should burden consciences.  The problem is that Scripture does not shy away from this.  The Bible clearly thinks that wealth, for all its goodness, is terribly dangerous, and we have to be warned against it over and over.  It is morally irresponsible to address a society that is more confronted with the idol of Mammon than any other in history and to persuade it not to take these warnings too seriously, but to just enjoy every bit of affluence with a dash of “sacred grief.”  

 

Schneider will have much more to say, much of it helpful, much of it unhelpful, in his chapters on the New Testament, and I will try to cover these as time allows over the coming weeks–but the gist is much the same.  We are told over and over that the problem is an ungodly attitude toward wealth, and the solution is a godly attitude, but then we are given precious little indication of what form this godly attitude should take.



How Much is Too Much? (Good of Affluence #8)

Before turning to consider the attitude that Amos is critiquing, and what this might mean for our attitude toward wealth, Schneider takes some time to critique what he considers to be irresponsible and unjustified uses of Amos-type rhetoric.  He complains that people like Ron Sider suggest that people’s eternal salvation is on the line if they enjoy too much of their wealth, instead of giving it to the poor.  Not only do they make such harsh accusations, but they do so on a hopelessly ambiguous basis.  For how much is “too much”?  Schneider suggests at first that Sider and others (he includes John Wesley here) appear to operate on a utilitarian basis, whereby we are to seek to maximize happiness for the greatest number, and so, presumably, to keep giving away any resources we don’t need as long as there are some people that are poorer than us.  But then he points to what seems like an inconsistency or hypocrisy in Sider’s approach, by which he equivocates on the meaning of the word “need.”  “‘Necessities,’ he writes, ‘is not to be understood a the minimum necessary to keep from starving.’  It rather means, he explains, what is ‘necessary’ for a standard of living that ‘would have been considered [in ancient Hebrew society] reasonable and acceptable, not embarrassingly minimal.” 

Schneider goes on to subject this new, relative definition of “necessity” to a withering cross-examination, seeking to reveal it as hopelessly relativistic, ambiguous, and self-serving to the point of uselessness.  Is having a car necessary?  Is flying trans-Atlantic necessary?  These are “reasonable and acceptable” within our society.  Couldn’t Bill Gates contend that his level of affluence is “reasonable and acceptable” in his immediate culture?  Any attempt to impose norms of “sufficient” and “too much” will thus become arbitrary and legalistic, says Schneider.  He goes so far as to mock a former student who

“had finally decided it was ‘all right to have a care, but not a big or very expensive one.’  So he judged for all of us.  But he did not like my next question, which was simply, ‘How big and how expensive a car will you let me have?’  Of course what seemed quite acceptable to me seemed morally reprehensible to him.  But on what grounds did he make this severe judgment (even as he drove around in his Ford Escort, as I believe it was, to and from activities linked with his Christian liberal arts degree at a cost of about eighty thousand dollars in the end)?”  

Now to this, at least three things must be said.  


First, I think Schneider is absolutely right to attack harshly judgmental or legalistic rhetoric.  The average American, while perhaps not wholly innocent in his wealth, is clearly not morally culpable in the same way that the rulers of Israel were.  Those directly responsible may need to hear dire warnings, but it is not constructive, I don’t think, to suggest to the average suburban churchgoer that they might go to hell if they don’t rev up their giving (that said, I’m not sure if Schneider isn’t distorting Sider’s approach here; certainly others I have read on similar themes, such as Shane Claiborne, don’t speak this way).  The doctrine of justification by faith should come to our aid here.  In dealing with these issues, we are speaking to justified people who ought to be looking for how best to share the gift they have been given, not wringing their hands in fear as to whether they’ve done enough to meet God’s standard.  

 

Second, Schneider uses the “utilitarian” slur against Sider and others repeatedly, but he’s always quite imprecise about it.  Utilitarianism is one of those things that is dangerous not because it’s the dead opposite of the truth, but because it’s so darn close to the truth.  Clearly, in very many circumstances, we should seek to maximize the greatest temporal happiness for the greatest number.  But utilitarianism breaks down because in some circumstances, this principle is overruled by other considerations, considerations that guide us to eternal happiness.  The fact that Sider thinks that those with more than enough ought to give their excess to those with less than enough does not make him a utilitarian, unless you want to call Thomas Aquinas a utilitarian too.  The use of this language is simply rhetorical bullying.


The third point is that Schneider’s attempt at a reductio is an example of the so-called “Beard Fallacy.”  The “Beard Fallacy” example imagines that you line up a bunch of guys in a row, the guy at the right clean-shaven, and the guy at the left with a full beard, with everyone in between in a spectrum, gradually becoming more stubbly and at last bearded.  If you asked someone to pinpoint where the first guy was who had a beard, you could critique any point he chose by saying, “Yeah, but what about the guy just to the right of him?  His facial hair is so close to that guy’s so as to be almost indistinguishable.”  And then, able to dismiss any attempt to distinguish where a beard began as arbitrary, you could triumphantly declare that the concept of “beard” is hopelessly relativistic, useless, and meaningless.  But clearly it’s not.  Clearly, you can recognize in most cases what counts as a beard and what doesn’t.  Same thing for “relative necessity.”  Schneider overplays his hand when he suggests that Bill Gates could justify his affluence as reasonable within his immediate culture and social setting, or as “necessary” for what it is he wants to do.  For Sider does not say that it’s one’s immediate culture that determines what is reasonable (e.g., the narrow country club high society within which you spend your time), but one’s broader society.   

Now clearly, what Sider is proposing is a very flexible standard, but he is on fairly firm ground in taking this approach.  Had Schneider cared to consult it, he might’ve found that this threefold distinction between “absolute necessity,” “relative necessity” and “superfluity” is deeply embedded in the Christian moral tradition.  It is, for instance, carefully spelled out by Aquinas and his scholastic followers.  The gist is this.  Absolute necessity is what’s needed to keep oneself and one’s family alive.  Relative necessity is roughly (I’ll paraphrase since I don’t have either Aquinas or Finnis in front of me) “that which is necessary to keep up one’s station in decency.”  Now, this obviously needs some unpacking and qualifying, because this does not mean simply conforming to social expectations.  You can be in a sub-culture with very questionable social expectations, that one should not try to conform to.  Rather, the idea is one of vocation.  If you are legitimately called by God to be, say, a lawyer in, say, Philadelphia, then you’re going to need a fair bit of money, even if you aren’t being extravagant.  You will need to be well-dressed, to have a good computer, perhaps a smartphone, a means of transportation–car if that’s most efficient; he will need to have access to lots of legal journals and books, to pay fairly high urban housing prices, etc.  Also, this second level of “necessity” allows for more substantial expenditures on food and housing so as to ensure not merely survival but robust health, hygiene, and reasonable comfort.  Resources beyond this are superflua.  Now, Aquinas would say that all superflua must be shared with anyone below “relative necessity,” but that resources necessary to maintain “relative necessity” only need to be shared when it’s a matter of life or death–that is to say, if one is in a position to help someone below the level of absolute necessity. 

Now, to be sure, there is a great deal of room for debate about precisely where these lines are drawn.  But this is only a problem if one is seeking to impose a legalistic condemnation on individuals.  This is where not merely justification by faith but virtue ethics can come to our aid.  To some extent, one can only figure out what is necessary and what is superfluous by seeking to live it out, by growing into a way of life characterized by shunning superfluity, by asking oneself, “Do I really need that?  Will I really use that?  Am I just coveting?  Am I just wanting to show off?  What else might I do with the money I save by not buying that?”  And this must be done in a spirit of Christian liberty–from the joyful standpoint of justification, not the fearful standpoint of trying to earn righteousness.  Done with this attitude, such a lifestyle need not result in asceticism–it will result in renunciation of some things, but as I have already suggested, this may make one more, not less, happy, since cluttering one’s life with ostentatious or wasteful things really does not bring “delight.”  In short, Schneider’s former student may have had the right idea.  Perhaps a car would have been very useful to him, but there would’ve been little point in buying a Lexus or Hummer.  Since this standard will be different for different people, and guilt-tripping legalism is not constructive, it generally will not make sense for me to decide for any other Christian just what sort of car they should buy, unless I’m called upon to give them guidance, or see them really going overboard.  But the existence of flexibility and ambiguity does not make this affluence morally irrelevant, anymore than the need for flexibility in other areas of moral debate implies the absence of relevant moral norms.



Defanging Amos (Good of Affluence #7)

In his fourth chapter, Schneider turns to consider the testimony concerning wealth and poverty in the Prophets and Wisdom literature.  Again, his boldness in the way he handles this material must be applauded.  He does not seek to hide behind the purple coattails of Proverbs, as many conservatives do, citing its platitudes on the God-given blessings of wealth or on poverty as a result of sloth to justify the wealthy lifestyle.  Eventually he does turn to look at Proverbs, and when he does, he is remarkably balanced, recognizing the diversity of its teachings on wealth and poverty, but it is not his starting point–Amos is.  

Of course, anyone who remembers what Amos is about is sure to recognize this as a courageous maneuver.  Amos is the book that unrelentingly bashes the Israelites for their oppression of the poor and callous enjoyment of a lavish lifestyle while the needy suffer.  Amos reads like a 8th-century BC liberation theologian.  Oh sure, you can try to say that what Amos is really worried about is idolatry, and that he really wouldn’t have any complaint against the people of Israel if they were worshipping Yahweh and enjoying their wealth, but this hardly seems sustainable when you actually look at the text, and Schneider doesn’t even try to take this route, at least not initially.  So, how does Schneider sustain the “good of affluence,” the good of enjoying as much wealth as you can and not feeling the need to give much to the poor, in the face of the book of Amos?  

Let’s take a careful look.  Schneider appears to employ two distinct evasive strategies: one focusing on responsibility, and another on attitude.  Under the first heading, Schneider seeks to show that Amos’s critiques apply to those directly responsible for the suffering of the poor in a way that we are not.  Under the second, Schneider seeks to argue that the real problem isn’t how much you have, but how you view it.  (Unfortunately, though I was hoping to cover all this in one post, it looks like it’s going to be two or three, if they’re to be of readable length.)

 

In looking at the issue of responsibility, Schneider does not pretend that Amos critiques only those who “deliberately exploit or oppress anyone”–that is there, but there is also a second evil that is targeted: that of the wives of oppressors, who are guilty simply for enjoying the fruits of oppression that they did not themselves commit, revelling in ill-gotten gains.  Schneider asks us to look closer, and see whether this is really a fair comparison to the affluence that the average American suburban Christian enjoys: “It is very important to notice and to understand that the prophets all aimed their diatribes first and foremost at the king and at the ruling classes that extended the arm of his rule.  For they were the ones who were uniquely charged by God to protect and to promote the welfare of the nation.  They were especially to take care to protect the poor and defenseless members of society, who were otherwise completely defenseless.  When these rulers instead used their powerful positions to exploit, to impoverish, and to oppress the very people they were responsible to defend–and did so merely for their own self-gratification–they obviously committed sins that were very evil indeed.”

“Given the nature of the political and social economy, there was very close, direct moral proximity between the rulers of the nation and the people that God called them to rule.  Being responsible for the people–especially their economic welfare–went with the job.  In a word, it was their job.  Their responsibility for the economic conditions of the poor in society thus could hardly have been greater or more direct than it was.  And what about the wives of those rulers.  True, they may have lacked the direct power their husbands wielded, but by marriage they wedded themselves to the entire moral situation.”

In short, Amos is not condemning people who simply happen to be rich while people around them are poor; he is condemning people who have a direct responsibility for the poor and who have abused that position for their own benefit.  In short, it is not failure to be charitable toward a neighbor that is condemned, but failure to rule justly.  The proper parallel is not the American suburbanite, Schneider says, but the petty dictator of a Third World country that lives in a mansion atop a pile of cash at the center of a web of corruption while his people starve.   

Now, all this is quite interesting.  And I think Schneider has a point.  Moral theology has a responsibility to make careful distinctions, and not simply to slap the same damning label on all circumstances of economic inequality.  The distinctions of proximity and responsibility are certainly relevant.  The bystander who watches a woman get beat up in an alley without intervening is not guilty of the same sin as her husband who runs away when the thugs arrive, and he is not guilty of the same sin as the thugs themselves.  Of course, you will note that by using this parallel, I have cast some ambiguity on Schneider’s approach even while affirming it–for surely the inactive bystander is still guilty in some way, at least, if he has real power to intervene and does not.  Schneider may be right that Amos’s direct condemnations are not aimed at the person who just happens to be affluent while others are poor, and who does nothing to help them, but that does not mean that that person is free from any moral ambiguity.  But let us leave aside that question for a moment and ask a two more questions to complicate Schneider’s account.

 

First, Schneider lays great stress on the fact that it was the “job” in a very literal sense of these wealthy landowners in Israel to care for the poor.  They were the equivalent of governors and mayors, entrusted with the well-being of their citizens.  But are they de facto rulers, or de jure rulers?  Are they rulers who just happen to be rich, or rich men who just happen to be rulers?  That is to say, are they not in fact simply men who have made themselves very rich, and thereby become men of power and influence, so that they can be called “rulers,” even if they are not really supposed to be?  I do not know Amos or the social history of ancient Israel well enough to answer for sure.  But if this is true, then it means that one cannot simply say, “Oh, I’m not the president of Haiti (or whatever), so this isn’t aimed at me.”  An American executive may turn out to be functionally one of the “rulers” of some Third World nation, and hence quite directly responsible for how his policies affect its people.  

Might it not be true that America, because of its immense global power and decades of control over large parts of the world economy (as well as regular interventions in the political organization of other countries), has a direct moral responsibility for much of what happens in Third World nations?  Notice that I speak here only of indirect responsibility.  I think that if Schneider cared to do much research at all, he would find that in fact the American government and American corporations have been directly responsible for brutal injustices and crushing poverty in many nations over the last century, and hence cannot in any way evade Amos’s condemnation.  But even aside from these, our country, and many of our corporations, have a great deal of influence in what happens in South Africa or Nicaragua or the Phillippines or Haiti.  In short, if Amos is critiquing the rulers who preside over injustice, then that’s not simply Pinochet or Duvalier or the Shah–that’s us.  

Second, in the current capitalist and democratic system, how much distance does the wealthy suburbanite have from all this?  Say I work for Monsanto and invested a lot of money in Halliburton and voted for George W. Bush.  Is Amos speaking to me?  I picked particularly pointed examples, but let’s be more general, and just saw that in a system where I formally have a direct voice in the government of the country, and in the government of corporations I invest in, how much responsibility do I have for injustices presided over by those entities?  Am I really just a bystander?  Does my wealth have any moral relation to Haiti’s poverty?  

Now clearly, even if the answer is “Yes,” it is a qualified Yes.  If a thug beats up a woman in an alley, and that thug is my brother-in-law, and I knew he had a drinking problem and was falling in with the wrong sorts, and didn’t do anything about it, am I implicated in any way?  Well, maybe, but obviously indirectly, and it would be wrong for me or anyone else to beat my conscience up too much about it.  The correct approach, in a highly interconnected world, hardly seems to be wringing our hands in guilt and asking just how much the injustice was our responsibility.  Rather, it is more constructive to turn the question around, and ask how much it is in my power to help.  The best way to figure out if you’re a culpable bystander or not is to stop being a bystander, and start doing something constructive.  What might this look like?  We’ll see what Schneider has to say on this in the following posts.


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.



Jacuzzis with Sound Systems (Good of Affluence #3)

With this post, we finally come to the heart of the matter.  Schneider’s main point is not, it should be emphasized, to defend capitalism.  I’ve mentioned this, but it took me awhile, given my previous experience with Schneider, to appreciate that fact fully myself.  Schneider’s goal is in one sense a much narrower one–his purpose is to argue that enormous private wealth is a good thing–and that it is a good thing to enjoy it privately, without feeling compelled to restrain one’s consumption on ethical grounds, or to share with those who don’t have enough.  Stated so concisely, that sounds pretty indefensible, but as a defense mechanism against legalistic guilt-manipulation, Schneider’s argument is somewhat understandable.  

In any case, his is an argument about the ethical status of wealth–the end product–rather than of capitalism–the process whereby it comes about.  Capitalism is highly relevant to his argument, for at least three reasons: first, because since he believes affluence to be really great, and he believes capitalism to be the cause of this affluence, he believes capitalism to be really great; second, similarly, since he believes capitalism to be the main way in which people can become affluent, he is able to argue that yes, we should care about the poor, but the best way to help them is not by charity, but by fostering capitalism; third, as mentioned in the previous post, since he believes that capitalism represents a way of becoming rich without it making others poor in the process, then we don’t need to be worried about the morality of where our wealth came from–we can simply accept the end product as an unqualified good.  The first is not important to his argument here, though of course, if he were writing a defense of capitalism as such, it would merit more attention.  The second is rather important, hence the frustrations about his vagueness that I voiced in the previous post; but as this theme is only an undercurrent until the epilogue, I will wait till then to discuss it.  The third is a very important assumption, for it is what justifies Schneider’s decision to essentially narrow his attention to the morality of the end-product wealth.  If this assumption turns out to be too optimistic, then his whole argument could turn out to be a moot point–that is, one might retort, “Sure, in theory it might be fine for Americans to enjoy fantastic wealth, but since, as a matter of fact, they are guilty of long-term exploitation of other countries, they have an obligation to make restitution rather than simply revelling in their jacuzzis.”  But, having noted this weakness (repeatedly), I will focus from here on on Schneider’s narrower argument on its own terms.

 

Having mentioned jacuzzis twice, I should perhaps justify what might have seemed like mere rhetorical excess. For, in defending the enjoyment of wealth, Schneider has to explain how it is that he is not defending simple greed and materialism.  What about all the critics, Christian and otherwise, who observe how consumerism is destroying the soul of American society, trapping us in a mindless unsatisfying addiction in which we are, in William Cavanaugh’s phrase, “Being Consumed”?  In response, Schneider quotes Dinesh D’Souza:

“This condescension, however, fails to take into account the genuine fascination, charm and delight that new acquisitions and toys give us.  Wouldn’t you like to have a Jacuzzi with a built-in music system in your bathroom?  How about a St. John outfit that makes you the very definition of elegance?  Or a TV screen that drops out of your ceiling?  Or a computer system for your car that talks to you and gives you street directions?  These are fairly cool items.”  

Well, there you have it!  What more rebuttal could you ask for?  Materialism is really cool, so it couldn’t possibly be bad.  Schneider flatly denies that such toys do not bring happiness.  How is the pleasure that many of his friends gain from driving a Lexus or Mercedes at all inferior to that which other friends gain from reading the great books? he asks with a straight face.  How could anyone impugn “the looks I used to see every year on Christmas morning when my kids woke up to shiny new bicycles, or to some brand new computer game station.  Only a pure curmudgeon could look into their delighted faces and see the spiritual corruption of pleonexia.”  Eh, call me a curmudgeon.  Maybe not now, but I fear that if they get a new bicycle or computer game station every year, they will end up spiritually corrupted.   

There is a good and appropriate way to enjoy affluence and luxury, I think.  At any rate, I hope so, for I dearly enjoy good Scotch, and it would be hard to argue that this is anything other than a luxury.  But if this is not to become a vice, it must be tempered at the very least by moderation, not to mention a deep concern for the poor and a readiness to help them.  But I see no criterion for moderation in Schneider’s account.  As I said at the end of the previous post, Schneider is not out to defend merely relative prosperity–the sort that can indulge in a luxury from time to time.  He is out to defend the sort of wealth that is so extreme that it can satisfy not only all needs but all normally conceivable wants (early in ch. 2, praising the achievements of capitalism, he enthused about its capacity to create billionaires and people like Bill Gates), and so has to go on seeking out every more preposterous frivolities for continued titillation.  E.g., the jacuzzi with a built-in music system or the TV screen that drops out of your ceiling.  Up to a certain point, more material resources can provide more possibility of happiness, but the vast majority of what we spend on in the modern West goes well beyond this point.  How long, I would ask Schneider, did that delight on his children’s faces on Christmas morning last?  Probably not very far into January.  

 

Of course, Schneider may be right that the materialism that afflicts modern Americans is not straightforward greed.  In a recent interview with Fermentations, R.R. Reno argues that it is something more like restlessness.  But it is no less dangerous for all that.  And Schneider, although of course routinely throwing in concessions about the need to beware of the spiritual perils of wealth, does not really seem very concerned about them–they form only a footnote in his account, so to speak.  And that seems very odd to me–even if Schneider’s basic point were right, isn’t this a subject where you would want to err on the side of caution?  What is the worst that would happen if we didn’t listen to Schneider?  Christians might be guilt-tripped into selling their jacuzzis and computer game stations and giving some of the proceeds to a church in Haiti, and might therefore gain fractionally less enjoyment out of their God-given affluence?  Would that really be so terrible?  

Again, there is another side to it–a more positive way to spin the whole argument–which is Schneider’s concern to shift the discussion from guilt to joy.  However, I think that this point of his, which has some value, to be sure, can be made within a framework of greater moderation, as I will discuss further as the review progresses.