Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)


The Promise and Perils of Academic Blogging

The following is adapted from a talk I gave yesterday at the University of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference

The purpose of blogging for me (and what seems to me its most valuable use for students like myself) is both to brainstorm ideas for my reserch, and to reflect on issues lying at the intersection of my academic work and the interests and experiences of more ordinary people.  This latter goal is perhaps easier for me, given my particular field of study, than it would be for many young academics.  After all, I am working in Christian ethics and political thought, and almost everyone has occasion to worry about how to live ethically and to dispute about politics.  Perhaps a biochemist would have more difficulty blogging in this middle space.  But where it’s possible, it’s very useful, since it helps keep you from becoming the kind of detached, super-specialized academic that can only talk to other academics.  If you’re planning to teach, this kind of blogging is very good practice. 

But my first purpose now is not, of course, to teach.  Rather, my blog serves, first and foremost, as a thinkspace, a place for me to brainstorm ideas on questions that I’m thinking of researching or writing, as a place to post book reviews or interesting passages as I research key sources, which I might use later in my writing, or even as a place to post initial drafts of my thesis or other projects.  

But the blog also helps keep me from becoming so narrowly focused on my research that I can’t think intelligently about other issues, as too often happens to Ph.D students.  Attending conferences and talking with fellow students is of course one good way to maintain some breadth, but for many of us, there’s no substitute for writing, as a way of processing and organizing information, and indeed generating new insights.  Of course, many students try to publish journal articles on topics loosely related or unrelated to their research, as a way of keeping some breadth in their studies, but this can be a very demanding and time-consuming process, requiring a level of thoroughness in research and care in citation that one can rarely justify given the demands of one’s primary research project.  Blogging is a great way to solve this dilemma.  It gives one an outlet to reflect seriously and carefully on issues that one is interested in, but without demanding the rigor and time investment of a journal article or conference paper. 

 

Now what makes the blog a truly useful way of accomplishing both these ends is of course the presence of other people.  Naturally, I could sit and brainstorm and write up thoughts on my computer to my heart’s content, but this would not be terribly useful, for any number of reasons.  For one, it would be difficult to be sufficiently disciplined; the temptation would always be to stop writing when a thought was half-formed and only partially articulate.  The simple awareness that others may be reading compels you to organize your thoughts, to clarify them, to qualify them where necessary; to anticipate objections, rather than simply trusting in one’s first instincts.  And, if you are writing with a largely non-academic readership in mind, as I am, then you’re also forced to think about how to simplify complex ideas, how to communicate them in lucid language, rather than hiding behind technical terms, and how to make the thoughts interesting and compelling to a non-specialist.  Ph.D students often have woeful writing skills, and the exercise of writing a Ph.D is not one that tends to improve them much, since your supervisor has to read your work, no matter how boring it is.  Although blogging was perhaps once associated with loose, careless, and sloppy writing, nowadays, quality blogs are in high demand, and blogging can provide a great opportunity to practice writing well, really engaging people’s attention.  And of course, if hypothetical readers translate into actual readers, as they almost surely will do if you have anything worthwhile to say, you can get feedback–criticism of poorly-formed ideas, questions that invite you to reflect and explain further, suggestions of sources that you could use in further research.  Your posts may also lure in other readers–potentially other postgraduate students, or even established academics, with interest in similar issues, giving you the opportunity to learn from them and form relationships.  Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find regular interlocutors, with your same interests but somewhat different perspectives, who will consistently challenge you to rethink and refine your assumptions, often opening up space for great intellectual breakthroughs that reshape your research and make it far clearer and more useful than it otherwise would have been.  This has been my own experience, and I have been enormously blessed by it.

 

Now it is important to note at this point an important tension that has been introduced.  I started off talking about blogging as something I do primarily for myself, but its usefulness depends also upon its being done for other people.  Now this tension turns out to be a persistent and difficult one. It is important, I think, not to start out with a more altruistic concept of blogging–“I am writing in order to help share my wisdom with others, and illuminate them about all these important issues.  I will use my superior learning to help correct popular misconceptions on a whole range of issues.”  Such a posture is actually ultimately more selfish, because more arrogant.  You may in fact have many useful things to offer the world, but it’s best not to start off by assuming that you do.  It’s easy to get an inflated idea of your own importance in blogdom.  It doesn’t take much for you to find that a couple dozen folks a day are popping in to see what you’ve been writing, for maybe one hundred pairs of eyes to read each well-written post.  If you venture onto a subject of popular interest (as I did when I wrote a theological critique of the final Harry Potter movie), then social media could turn you into a temporary celebrity overnight.  This can quickly go to your head, and this is bad for any number of reasons.  For one thing, even if you have a truly wide readership, and one that is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean you really know what you’re talking about.  1000 hits a day is no substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article or positive feedback from your supervisor.  If your #1 goal is to be a successful Ph.D researcher, then you need to keep your eye on the ball and maintain due humility about the scope of your knowledge.  

Even aside from that problem, however, too much of a focus on your readership can pose a real problem.  For instance, suppose you get in the habit of posting about three times a week, and then you get to a phase of your Ph.D where you have to focus really intensively on some research, and you find you hardly have any time to post.  Well, if you fall into too much of the mentality that your blog is for your readers, then you will feel a lot of pressure to keep putting up posts.  Otherwise, readers might start getting restless–or stop following your blog altogether!  If the pressure to keep posting means you spend time on your blog that you should be spending on research, then the blog has shifted from being a useful servant to a cruel taskmaster.  Another way that this can happen is through comments.  The payoff of a successful blog is that it demands more of your time.  Lots of people read your posts, and they comment–they ask questions, or they argue with one another, or they argue with you.  Naturally, you want to engage their comments, especially if they’ve been hard-hitting in their criticisms, and you start taking it personally.  But they may end of having much more time to keep arguing with you than you have to spare; it’s not hard to find yourself spending up 10 hours a week blogging and replying to comments.  And there’s also the danger of becoming so worried about projecting a polished, all-knowing, omni-competent image that you’re afraid to actually think through difficult issues on your blog or be honest about questions you’re struggling to answer.  That makes the blog less useful for yourself and your readers.  

 

 Now, all of this might suggest that the best way to blog is to write as if nobody is reading.  But, for obvious reasons, this is not a suitable solution.  As mentioned above, one point of blogging, instead of just jotting down notes to yourself, is to compel you to write better.  A false humility that assumes that hardly anyone is actually reading can become an excuse for carelessness and flippancy.  This can become particularly dangerous when expressing controversial opinions or critiquing other writers.  Controversy and criticism are of course an inevitable part of academic life, but they have to be managed very carefully.  Within academic writing, there are a host of unwritten rules about how one engages in these, attempting to ensure that even the sharpest disagreements remain gentlemanly, respectful, and restrained.  There is naturally a bit more freedom in a blogging environment, which can be useful, but it is very easy to go too far, indulging in colorful rhetoric or blunt attacks that will hurt your own image and may come back to haunt you.  In fact, it’s remarkable how quickly one may be brought to regret the carelessness that comes from this false humility.  Once, when blogging about a prestigious visiting lecturer’s presentation, I made some carelessly-phrased joking criticisms in the midst of what I thought was clearly an attitude of good-natured appreciation, assuming that only a few friends and students would be reading my post.  But tones of voice do not come through in writing, and 24 hours later, my supervisor was asking me to explain myself, the lecturer in question having seen my post and angrily contacted the school.  Since then, I’ve made a point of trying to always write with the assumption that anyone could be listening, and to guard carefully in advance against possible misunderstandings.  If I do have anything to offer in my blogging, I don’t want to turn people off by the way I say it.

 

So, in order to blog successfully, it’s important to simultaneously be always aware of your possible audience, and yet not preoccupied with them, remembering that the blog is first and foremost a tool to aid you in your own thinking and research, and that you will likely be of much more use to the world, and any potential readers, in the long-term if you successfully complete your research than if you spend all your time blogging.  It’s important to try to project an intelligent and respectable image through your blogging, but not to be so concerned with image that you’re no longer being genuine–the key is to use the blog as a way to explore your own interests and clarify your own ideas.  By making this your focus, you may well find that, as a by-product, lots of people–even important people, even potential employers–do want to listen to you and talk with you.  Through my blogging, I’ve formed lots of great relationships and hopefully made lots of good impressions.  But important as this result is, it’s more likely to happen if it remains no more than a secondary goal, not the primary purpose of all your blogging. 


Fermentations on Technology

At the beginning of this month, Fermentations printed Vol. 2, Issue 2, “Technology,” featuring, if I do say so myself, a fascinating interview on theology and surveillance technology that I did last summer with Dr. Eric Stoddart of St. Andrews, and all kinds of other provocative and entertaining explorations of the subject.  

From the contents page:

“Like a fish in water, we are so surrounded by technology that we are tempted perhaps to take it for granted.  Nearly every fixture of our lives bears man’s stamp, the product of more technologies than we can fathom, some of them as old as the hills.  The few who do pause to reflect on our technological saturation seem prone either to flee in terror from ‘those dark satanic mills’ or to charge ahead with bravado, confident that we can invent our way over every obstacle.

But neither the posture of diffident nostalgia nor of heedless optimism represent the judicious stance of Christian maturity.  In the following pages, our contributors offer a qualified celebration of technology, exploring how we can harness the power of our inventions without being taken captive by them, whether that be in the sphere of farming, surveillance, or the internet.

And if you get sick of reading about technology, you can stimulate your taste buds with a recipe for mayonnaise, your taste for poesy with an ‘Epitaph for a Hurricane,’ and your taste for ecclesiastical gossip with an account of the SBC’s diversity blues.” 

Watch for upcoming content from the issue (or better yet, subscribe) on our soon-to-be-dramatically-enhanced website.


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.