An Environmental Excursus (Good of Affluence #5)

Schneider’s second chapter, on the book of Genesis, naturally contains some interesting discussion of environmental issues.  Of course, I say “naturally,” but I was in fact pleasantly surprised, so accustomed am I to conservative doctrines of creation that simply dismiss the notion that we need to be environmentally concerned (perhaps this perception is a bit unfair, but it does feel that way at times).  Schneider’s discussion will not satisfy anyone who is convinced that our current lifestyle is simply unsustainable and is destroying creation, but he does at least face up to the issue.  Although he defends a robust theology of “dominion,” instead of pretending that the word doesn’t mean that, he is clear that our dominion is to image God’s dominion, and he has these fine words about how God rules his creation: “the God of power in Genesis is also a servant of his creatures. He rules. But he also serves with great passion and compassion. His rule empowers and magnifies his subjects. It does not oppress or diminish them. The spirit that moved Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet did not originate there and then. It goes all the way back to the first moments of creation.”  So we must rule creation for its good: “Whatever human dominion is in Genesis, then, it ennobles us for the purpose of ennobling everything else.”

The modern West, he acknowledges, does have a nasty track record of exploiting and raping the land, in ways that traditional, non-Christian cultures clearly do not–but he doesn’t think this can be blamed on Christianity, which rightly understood is against such things.  It must be rooted, he says, “in the metaphysics of some other, utilitarian sort of worldview.”  One would wish for a more thorough explanation and genealogy of our environment dysfunctionality, but understandably, Schneider considers this beyond his present scope.  He does acknowledge that the affirmation of capitalism might seem inherently in conflict with environmental concern.  So how is this to be resolved? he asks.  

He spends a couple pages on the Christian green solution that envisions “the existence of a kind of capitalism that is entirely different from what we have now.”  Unfortunately, throughout the brief discussion, he barely disguises his contempt for what he considers their “utopian fantasy.”  They contest, he says, “the modern economic dogma that societies must consume at high rates in order for economies to sustain growth and create wealth. One might have thought that this was among the safest assumptions anyone could make about the economic essentials of successful capitalism–for (as noted in the first chapter) it is the emergence of the consumer economy that has unleashed the wealth-creating powers of capitalism since the 1950s. There has never been a non-consumer form of capitalism that has managed to work.”  This is a rather hasty pronouncement, given that I’m not sure that a non-consumer form of capitalism has been tried before, so one can hardly accuse it of failure, and that Schneider has never really defined what he means by capitalism or consumer capitalism.  Of course, there is a question of fundamental presuppositions here.  If one supposes on theological and ethical grounds that a consumerist lifestyle is dangerous and ungodly (as I am tempted to think), then it will follow that there must be a workable way to live and prosper without consumerism, since God would not require of us a lifestyle doomed to failure.  

Schneider goes on to summarize what two representative Christian green thinkers, Walden and Cougar, call for: “a world in which energy sources are renewable, farming is all organic, recycling is the norm, manufacturers produce mainly durable products, the economy is decentralized to scale, and society adopts non-material definitions of success” (to which Schneider snarkily adds “this may be a good thing, because I think in this set-up there won’t be much of any”).  “In addition they pile on high tax rates for ‘resource depletion’ and tax reforms ‘to aid the restructuring process.’  We will also have to have ‘shorter work hours’ for ‘community purposes,’ a scientific understanding that society ‘cannot continue on its present course,’ and a social ethic that finds fulfillment in ‘living together’ rather than in separate units.”

Now, all of this, when you break it down, is not that ridiculous.  As a platform to try to vote into office tomorrow, it may be ridiculous, but as a long-term vision for where society needs to get, almost every one of these sounds prudent and desirable, and therefore, since I’m a postmillenialist, ultimately realistic.  Schneider simply dismisses it out of hand, however.  “Redesigning entire societies is fairly difficult under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of completely redesigning our own (as well as implementing the “new order” elsewhere in the world) is practically zero. Why would anyone seriously believe that anything like this could happen in the real world? I do not know. I only know I find this sort of thinking unrealistic, and, in its Christian form, messianic.”  


And I find this sort of thinking ironic, given that Schneider has presented to us in the first chapter just such a messianic vision of society being redesigned entirely–the birth of capitalism.  Remember that Schneider considers capitalism to be a very recent development, and one that took a conscious effort to implement, not as something that was simply inherent in the structure of human society that grew very slowly to fruition.  This being so, why should we consider an equally revolutionary shift away from current forms of capitalism inconceivable.  In this, as in so much else in his book, Schneider shows himself to be almost entirely void of imagination, unable to conceive of any way of enjoying and successfully using the world except by virtue of the latest technological toys and tools.  

And so his solution to environmental problems, given in a single sentence, “lies in the advance of both wealth creation and high technology.”  Now, it’s not clear exactly what he envisions, but the gist of it is that we can continue our current lifestyle of mass consumption, but control the harmful effects by means of smart technology–you know, cleaner energy, safer chemicals, etc.  This is essentially the American approach to health–it doesn’t matter how many harmful things you put in your body, since we’re getting better and better at the technology to keep you alive anyway.  While of course better technology may help us ameliorate environmental harm, it’s hard for me to see that we will succeed in the long-run if we refuse to address the underlying trajectory.  If part of our problem up till now has been the effects of technological addiction, then is recommending more technology as the solution really likely to fix our problem in the long-run, or will it simply perpetuate our arrogant posture to the natural world, too confident in the cleverness of our inventions to pay genuine respect to creation?  

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.  

Making All Things New (Good of Affluence #2)

In his first chapter, Schneider sets out to explain why it is that modern capitalism is not in fact open to the kind of objections routinely leveled against it by modern theologians, and why modern affluence is a good thing, free from the condemnations that have been typical of the Christian ethical tradition.  Believe it or not, I actually have some positive things to say about Schneider’s approach, and, to keep these reviews from having too negative a tone, I’m actually going to organize this post around three things that Schneider does right (under each, though, I will discuss the weaknesses and shortcomings that relate to each of these strengths).

First, briefly, the basic structure of the chapter: Schneider’s main argument consists of claiming that modern capitalism represents a fundamentally new achievement in human history.  As something “new,” he will suggest that older critiques of wealth and acquisition do not necessarily apply to capitalism anymore; as an “achievement,” he will argue that, far from being critiqued, capitalism should be celebrated for the enormous good it has done in the world.  Then he will address moral critiques of capitalism–that it is founded on injustice–followed by spiritual objections–that it leads to materialistic vices.  All this being done in just the space of 27 pages, one should not expect him to do any of these things very thoroughly–the purpose is merely to clear the ground somewhat, attempting to establish a predisposition in favor of capitalism and affluence before embarking on his theological vindication.

Of course, this does pose rather a problem for the rest of his book.  For Schneider is honest enough to acknowledge that many of the objections he canvasses, if true, would thoroughly undermine his case and necessitate a very different evaluation of capitalism and affluence, and a very different use of the biblical material he is going to look at.  So to the extent that most of these objections are left relatively unaddressed, he embarks on the remaining seven chapters with a very shaky foundation indeed.  More on that below.

What is Capitalism?

Now, the first thing that Schneider deserves compliment on here is his relative restraint in praising capitalism’s accomplishments over the past couple centuries.  Of course, the key word here is “relative”–there is a real tendency to idolatry in some literature on this subject, even among Christians, hailing capitalism as the savior of the human race in terms that seem appropriate only for Christ himself, and suggesting that it has transformed the world for good more than any other development in history–surpassing, it would seem, even the preaching of the Gospel and the birth of the Church.  Schneider generally avoids that sort of rhetoric, though he does make fairly dramatic economic claims for capitalism’s success in liberating the human race from poverty. 

And of course, this leads to a potential objection: what exactly do we mean by “capitalism”? As I feared in the introduction, there simply is no real attempt to answer this question.  Schneider appears to mean something like “the advance in technology and economic development originating in the late 18th-century,” but if that’s what’s meant, then one might ask whether or not we should credit the Industrial Revolution, rather than capitalism per se, with all these accomplishments.  (Presumably Schneider would reply that the Industrial Revolution depended upon capitalism, but that merely continues to beg the definitional question.)  Adam Smith is, as usual, identified as being somehow or other at the root of all this, but there is no real engagement with his work or analysis of what, if anything, he did to create “capitalism.”  At one point Schneider says that, prior to the nineteenth century, “Except in Adam Smiths’ book, the concept of [economic] development did not exist” (20).  But that is manifestly false, ignoring the fact that Smith’s work stands at the end of a long discussion among eighteenth-century proto-economists on the rapid economic development they were witnessing.  Schneider, thankfully, does not use the term capitalism in the vacuous sense so often employed by its right-wing defenders–“respect for private property,” “economic freedom” or something like that (although at one point he does say that capitalism stands for fundamentally Christian ideas like “the validity of private property, the primacy of the individual, the importance and dignity of work, and the basic character of freedom”).  Indeed, in his emphasis on the newness of capitalism (see below), Schneider stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from co-belligerents like David Hall, who sees “capitalism” beginning with the Reformers, or Rodney Stark, who sees it as the legacy of the Christian Middle Ages.  I appreciate Schneider’s honesty at this point, but in the absence of clearer definition, it leaves us with the impression that “capitalism” might mean merely “modern technology and industry,” in which case its accomplishments might be achievable under a more just system of production.  

But the problem with this lack of clarity is that Schneider apparently has something very specific in mind, even though he never tells us what it is.  For he is confident enough of what capitalism is that he can inform us that, whereas in 1941, there were only two capitalist countries in the world, the US and the UK (huh?), there are now precisely twenty-five, no more, no less (though he doesn’t say which twenty-five).  This is, to say the least, mildly maddening.    

Moreover, when he credits capitalism with enriching not merely the rich, but also the poor, it is important for us to understand exactly what it is he is talking about.  For it may be plausibly argued that the dramatic decline of real poverty in the US and Britain in the twentieth century, which Schneider makes much of, is actually the result of governmental restrictions upon industry, protections of labor, and redistributive programs–otherwise, we would have a few Rockefellers and a bunch of paupers.  Schneider himself seems to confess as much when, after describing how well off the “poor” are in modern America, explains that this is due to “welfare, food stamps, unemployment provision, and rent subsidies, all of which supplement the earned income of the poor.”  If all this may be described as an achievement of capitalism, then Schneider’s capitalism is clearly not the government-free free-marketeerism that most Christian capitalist literature endorses.  


Nothing New Under the Sun?

Second, I appreciated Schneider’s emphasis (already mentioned) on the newness of modern capitalism.  This means (as I mentioned in the introduction) that he does not ignore the fact that the Christian ethical tradition is against him on most of his core arguments, nor does he try to argue that the Bible gives us a model of a capitalistic system, as is the rule in similar literature.  On the contrary, he maintains that since we now have to do with a fundamentally new phenomenon, the concerns voiced by Scripture and tradition, while they should be listened to respectfully, may be set aside as antiquated–they just don’t really apply to current economic realities.  Whatever you think of this, it is better than distorting Scripture to fit your script.  Of course, at this point, it might be easy to score cheap rhetorical points by labeling this as a kind of liberal relativism, but I won’t do that–Schneider’s argument here is in fact potentially legitimate.  It follows the same logic by which we might argue, for instance, that I no longer have a duty to marry my brother’s wife and “raise up seed to him” if he should die childless.  But Schneider will have to demonstrate that the relevant changes have, in fact, occurred.  And here, I think, is one of the weakest points in his argument.  

Essentially, this is the change that Schneider identifies: in the ancient world, wealth was all based on land, and hence static.  The only way to increase one’s wealth, then, was (according to Schneider) by means of war, taxation, or outright theft.  Nowadays, however, the rich do not make their fortunes at the expense of the poor, says Schneider, but by wealth creation.  So when Augustine said that the rich had a duty to give all their surplus to cover the necessities of the poor, he was quite correct, since there was no way to create wealth for the poor, and the rich had probably come by their gains by injustice.  But today, things are quite different, and we can safely disregard these concerns.  There is actually perhaps something to this, and I found some of what Schneider said here helpful in understanding the shocking rhetoric of the early Church Fathers.  

Unfortunately, it would seem that Schneider has to give both an unjustifiably negative portrait of ancient economic realities and an unjustifiably positive portrait of modern economic realities in order to make his dichotomy hold.  For it is simply not true that in the ancient world, the only way you could get rich was by outright forcible annexation.  Of course, that was common enough, but often, I expect, it worked something like this.  Your neighbor has a small farm, and you, by fortune, inheritance, whatever, have a somewhat bigger and better one.  Your neighbor has a stroke of bad fortune–say, his milk cow dies–and so you decide to take advantage of your superior position and offer to sell him milk at a very high price.  You thus grow somewhat richer and he somewhat poorer.  Similar things happen from time to time, and gradually you increase your competitive advantage over him, which enables you to make better connections, sell more produce than him, etc.  Finally, he falls on such hard times that he offers to sell his farm to you and work on your land in order to make ends meet.  So he becames a day-laborer and you a landlord, and you pay him minimal wages, thus growing richer and going through the same process toward other small farmers.  

In other words, a process not very different from how many modern rich people and large corporations got to be so prosperous.  

But of course, it’s also rather worse than that, for Schneider is frightfully naive if he really thinks that the modern West’s affluence doesn’t come at the expense of anyone else.  Modern technology and industry does allow for wealth-creation, to be sure, but except in industries like finance (which has its own perils), this has to be primarily based on underlying natural resources, just like in the old days.  And unfortunately, these resources did not simply land in the grateful lap of the US, or the UK before it.  Does Schneider really think it is a coincidence that the US’s vast economic expansion has occurred over a century in which it has been almost constantly at war and has deployed its military all over the world (in over 150 countries as of current count)?  Or that the nineteenth century expansion of British GDP that he raves about occurred at the same time that it was conquering India and South Africa (to name just two of the colonies with the most extensive natural resources)?  One gets the feeling that Schneider doesn’t know the first thing about modern geopolitics.

On this point, it’s also worth noting that Schneider’s attribution of the whole Christian tradition’s stance on wealth to “ancient economic realities” is rather difficult to sustain.  After all, he himself notes that this tradition includes Aquinas (13th century), John Calvin (16th century), and John Wesley (18th century).  As Rodney Stark notes in The Victory of Reason, trade, commerce, and technology (in short, the instruments of Schneider’s “wealth creation”) were advancing rapidly already in the time of Aquinas, and it’s a joke to pretend that an ancient Near Eastern models dominated the economy of John Wesley’s England.  The fact is that Aquinas, Calvin, and Wesley were all well aware that it was possible to get wealthy without directly stealing or killing.  But, however one became wealthy, they were very concerned about the moral implications of remaining wealthy, especially while others were poor.

Of course, there is another dimension to Schneider’s “newness” claim, though it is much less clear than the first part: that the capitalism we face today is fundamentally new even compared to nineteenth-century capitalism, so that Marx and Weber’s assessments really don’t apply anymore.  Unfortunately, though he makes a great deal of this point, it really isn’t clear what he means by it–all it seems to boil down to is that now we are even richer by far than the nineteenth century was.  But why that makes older objections to capitalism outdated is not clear.  For myself, I am largely convinced by Benjamin Barber’s thesis that modern capitalism is fundamentally different from that of Weber’s day–but in ways that make it much worse.  Barber argues that capitalism is no longer about producing necessary and highly useful tools and resources, and making basic necessaries more obtainable, as it was in the nineteenth century, but instead about trying to persuade people (through a constant and overwhelming barrage of marketing) to buy things they don’t really need.  Interestingly, Schneider actually appears to concur–what we are now witnessing is the rise, he says, not of a middle class but of an “overclass”–a group of phenomenally wealthy people who spend almost all of their income on luxury items.  And this, he seems to think, is a great thing.


This, then, is my third compliment to Schneider.  He does not beat around the bush, and pretend that what he is arguing for is an obvious good–like the end of poverty, or minimal prosperity.  No, it is not capitalism’s ability to produce these that he is out to defend (although he does give it credit for this as well).  He is out to defend affluence–the existence of multi-millionaires and billionaires, of Mercedes and jacuzzis, and of an economy ever more geared toward such people and such products.  This is courageous of him, I think, but it also of course raises the bar enormously of what his theological argument will have to demonstrate.  But this will have to be discussed at more length in a follow-up post.

The Rich People’s Revival (Good of Affluence #1)

Over the next few weeks, as I research for and write a chapter on the theology of private property, for a forthcoming edited book called Render Unto God: Christianity and Capitalism Reconsidered, I’ve decided I will have to spend some time scoping out the enemy, so to speak.  I determined a couple years ago that I’d heard everything intelligent (and it wasn’t very much) that the conservative Christian apologia for capitalism had to say and there was no point wasting much more time on it.  In particular, I’d opted not to read a couple books that were very popular in my circles–The Good of Affluence by John Schneider, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay Richards–having heard from reliable friends that they weren’t worth my time.  But now, in search of useful quotes that I can use against them in my chapter, I’ve decided to foray back into enemy territory, and actually read these books.  And I’m sure that they will provoke plenty to blog about.  

 So here’s the first post on Schneider’s The Good of Affluence, which I have just started into.  A few years back, I read a truly terrible article of Schneider’s offering, so to speak, a capitalistic soteriology.  So I approach this book with trepidation, but will try not to be more prejudiced than I can help.

The introduction, from its epigraph quoting Michael Novak, “We are going to see a revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people,” to its penultimate paragraph, arguing that rich Christians in the West should feel no moral obligation to help the global poor, was certainly an unpromising start.  That said, in the Acknowledgments, he voices his admiration for “the great Kierkegaard,” which could be a mark in his favor. 

The purpose of the introduction is threefold–to explain why he wanted to write the book, to explain his theological presuppositions, and to summarize what he intends to cover in the book.  The first is quite brief, the second (which essentially boils down to, “I am an orthodox Christian and believe the Bible, even if that is unfashionable”) need not detain us, and the third, since it covers material that we will encounter in full later on, I will not dwell on, though I will flag a couple things to watch out for later.  So this post should be brief, though if you know me, you know it won’t be. 😉

First, then, a few remarks on the section explaining why he wrote the book.  The gist, he says, is that many Christian people today in the West are involved in business, often at very high levels, are making a lot of money, and want to know what they should do about it–what does their faith have to say about it?  (Now, it would be very tempting at this point to simply interject that that’s precisely what the rich young ruler wanted to know, and Jesus had a very straight and simple answer, “Go, sell all that you have, and give it to the poor”–why need we any other answer?  But I will resist the temptation, and grant that, yes, it may be a bit more complicated than that.)  And he is concerned that there is very little guidance for rich Christians on the subject, since, he says, most historic Christian teaching on wealth has been aimed at Christians who were predominantly poor.  Moreover, most Christian theological voices addressing the question today have had, he thinks, very harmful answers to give on the subject, very negative answers, based on antiquated theology and inadequate analyses of capitalism.  He wants to emphasize the positive, based on “the fundamental biblical theme that material prosperity is the condition that God envisions for all human beings” (3).  This is not, he says, the Prosperity Gospel, because it acknowledges that God often has good providential reasons for wanting people to be poor–but it is closer to the Prosperity Gospel, he says, than the radicalism that considers wealth negative.  


Now, I want to flag just a few things at this point.  First are some definitions that I hope he will provide as he goes along, though I doubt he will.  First, is he going to define “capitalism” for us?  He tells us “that the majority of [Christian] writers interpret capitalism and the unique culture to which it gives rise in terms that are quite antiquated.  These are largely the terms received from social theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber” (2).  A large part of his re-evaluation of the theological status of capitalism, he goes on to imply, stems from new and improved understandings of what capitalism is.  It appears that he’s planning to handle that in ch. 1, though, so we don’t have long to wait to see if he satisfactorily analyzes the capitalism he plans to recommend to us.  

One thing that I don’t think that he is going to deal with much if at all is the morality of the money-making itself.  He is interested in the ethical status of the end product–affluence–not the details of how it came about.  He tells us that he is writing to “corporate professionals…who spend the better part of their days producing goods and services in the context of making money.”  But of course, if a “good” is supposed to be something that does someone good, and a “service” is something that helps them out, then “goods and services” like, for instance, cigarettes, addictive junk food, collateralized debt obligations, and predatory short-term loans are nothing of the sort.  But many Christians make their money producing such things.  This needs theological and ethical attention–we cannot accept the lie that the money-making process is morally neutral, so long as it is minimally legal.  But I digress.  

He says on page three, “It is very widely presumed in Christian theology today that the economic condition of affluence is not a very good one for Christians to be in.  It is widely presumed that this condition is almost inherently a bad one for hearing and responding with faith and integrity to the Gospel” (3)  This, he will argue is wrong because oversimplistic.  Yes, there is a way of being rich that is bad, but “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  I merely note briefly that these statements are actually not in contradiction.  Those who believe that the condition of affluence “is almost inherently a bad one” for faith could still very well hold (and many probably do) that “there is a way to be affluent that is good.”  What Schneider really has to do, then, is not to show that “there is a way to be affluent that is good,” but that this goodness so outweighs the risk of being affluent in a bad way that it justifies treating affluence as basically good, instead of choosing to focus on, as Jesus does, the potential pitfalls.  I also want to note a potential equivocation, which I noted repeatedly in Calvin and Commerce.  There are some no doubt who think that wealth ipso facto is bad.  But I don’t think they are as many as they are made out to be–at least, as long as we’re not talking about exorbitant, luxurious wealth (which, come to think of it, Schneider may be).  Most, I think, who are portrayed as such as actually think that wealth itself is good, but that it is bad for someone to be in a relative position of wealth over against others who are decidedly poor.  So to say, “the Bible says riches are a good thing” gets you nowhere that Schneider wants to get to, if the Bible says that riches are a good thing for sharing, rather than holding onto for oneself.  Schneider will have to upfront about arguing not that merely that affluence is a good thing, but that inequality, affluence in the face of poverty, is a good thing.  Thankfully (if that adverb is appropriate), it appears that he is willing to be upfront about this, given his remarks at the end of the introduction about why rich Christians shouldn’t feel any obligation to help the global poor.  

A final thing to note in this section.  Schneider is also upfront about the fact that he is going to be arguing against the general consensus of historic Christian teaching.  I’m glad to hear it.  Many writers of Schneider’s persuasion seem blissfully unaware of what St. Basil or St. Chrysostom or even the ever-reasonable Aquinas had to say about wealth.  Schneider is confident enough in his biblical exegesis to set aside the witness of these, suggesting that historic Christian testimony on wealth is “as much a product of ancient economic times [does that go even for Martin Luther and John Wesley, I wonder?] as it is of the full biblical narrative” (3).  Very well, but this means that his biblical exegesis must meet a very high bar.  Let us go ahead and turn to that.


Schneider spends the last few pages of the introduction summarizing the argument of the book.  The first chapter will discuss “the workings of modern capitalism,” but after this, it will be all biblical argument.  Chapter two will cover creation, chapter three exodus, and chapter four exile–all of these narratives of Scripture, he will argue, show us that God wants his people to prosper materially–affluence is a good thing.  I merely flag again the fact that if God wants all his people to prosper, then the affluence of some at the expense of others is not necessarily a good thing.  

Chapters five through seven will cover Jesus and his teaching–here Schneider promises to argue that Jesus was not really poor, as generally asserted, nor did he particularly identify with the poor in his ministry–he identified with all equally but differently.  Nor did he call for his followers to become poor.  This should be interesting stuff, to say the least, and Schneider certainly has his work cut out for him.   

Chapter eight will focus on the book of Acts, in which he will argue that the portrait of the early Christian social life functions as no more than a narrative ideal that is not necessarily normative for us.  He will then look at Paul and James’s teaching on wealth, and again argue that their “moral arguments must be used very cautiously in our day”–or, to be more blunt about it, “they do not provide a normative framework for spiritual and moral teaching in our day” (11).  Well, at least he’s honest about it–you gotta give him that.  I think it would be fair to summarize all this by saying that he’s going to use the Old Testament, with its affirmation of affluence, as an interpretive grid by which to show that the apparent criticisms of wealth in the New Testament cannot be taken seriously as they stand–which seems to me precisely backward as a Christian hermeneutical posture.  But that is, of course, to oversimplify–we’ll wait and see the details of the argument.

Finally, in his epilogue, as I’ve already mentioned, he says he’s going to deny that “the world-shrinking effects of globalism generate strong obligations for any wealthy person in an advanced society to any poor person in an underdeveloped one” (11).  It’s rather bold of him to come right out and say this, though depending on what he means by “strong obligations,” it might be a truism, or it might be reprehensible.  I’ll be curious to see, though I can’t say this kind of statement at the outset wins him much sympathy from me.


Well, that’s all for the introduction.  Hopefully being this wordy at the outset will help me be more concise later, but I wouldn’t be too optimistic about that.