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Wealthy Saints: Economic Flourishing and the Cross of Christ by Dan Scott

 

Wealthy Saints:

Economic Flourishing and the Cross of Christ

Dan Scott

Christ Church Nashville

for

The Oikonomia Network Faculty Retreat

Costa Mesa, CA

January 24-26, 2013

 

Christians often seem anxious when trying to define the meaning of money. The reason for this is probably because Holy Scripture contains various threads on the subject, leading some to view money as spiritually dangerous while leading others to view it as a means of promoting goodness, truth and beauty in the world. In other words, Christians are ambivalent about money because the Bible and Christian tradition seem to say conflicting things about it.

One might think the Bible’s nuanced view of money would not lead to such different opinions.  After all, ours is a faith that does not think of unity as being synonymous with uniformity. Rather, we view unity as something that may contain difference and distinction. Centuries of Christian debates on the nature of God and Christology developed a theological language that describes unity as something other than uniformity. This theological language was a codification and expansion of Biblical concepts.  When Christians read the Bible, they encountered ideas that contrasted with one another rather than pointed toward one single and simple conclusion.

For a people who are both “in the world and not of it[1];” who are “wise as serpents and harmless as doves[2];” who worship “One God in Three Persons[3];” and who follow a man who is “to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεὸν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ[4];” the acceptance of nuanced and moderated views ought to come naturally. However, human beings are often uncomfortable with paradox and nuance and prefer ideas that behave themselves by remaining within clear and predictable boundaries.

For these natural reasons, Christians tend to take either the Sermon on the Mount or the Book of Proverbs as their guide for economic life rather than accepting the tension that results from accepting both. The problem is, basing one’s life on the Sermon on the Mount without regard for the Proverbs may lead one to embrace and defend poverty as a sign of (and even as a means to) godliness. Doing the opposite may lead others to embrace and defend the accumulation of wealth for the same reasons. The result is that equally sincere and intelligent believers can end up in quite opposite economic camps.

This is particularly true of Christians in the United States.

The same ideological forces that divide secular Americans divide their Christian neighbors. American Christians, just as their secular friends, are divided over whether the country should embrace a mixed economy governed by the state – such as many European democracies have adopted – or radical libertarianism such as that championed by the likes of Ayn Rand, in which the individual is left utterly free and responsible for himself and shares little collective responsibility for the well being of his neighbor.

We have been divided about this for some time, of course. However, of late our positions seem to have radicalized in ways that make it increasingly difficult to maintain any sense of the common good or to effectively manage our common economic structures. This type of political division furthermore is not merely the fault of ill-tempered individuals who refuse to get along. It is due to the fact that our national leaders, including Christian leaders, differ about what constitutes the nation’s common good and how best to achieve it.

In the absence of a model for political and economic life developed from the fundamentals of Christian faith, American Christians have largely embraced secular ideologies and baptized these with spiritual terms and sentiments.  Shrewd political operatives have become quite adept at building coalitions with people of faith in just this way.  So that, with each election, the continued use of selected biblical ideas for political aims has developed into something like non-official right wing and left wing catechisms that seek to teach believers how to think, how to vote and how to feel about social and political life. These catechisms threaten to divide Christianity into mutually unrecognizable camps but so far we seem incapable of offering an alternative to them.

We desperately need some Christian economic models to give us alternatives for our bitterly divided nation.

That implies that I believe there is such a thing as Christian economics and, therefore, such a thing as a Christian economist. But what would these look like?

 

Christian Economists

By calling a person a Christian economist, we may mean that someone who happens to be a believer is a professional who works in the field of economics. We may also mean that this professional has developed (or is at least an advocate of) an economic system intentionally derived from Christian ideals.  The likes of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Abraham Kuyper are Christian economists in this second sense. Although economics was not their main focus, and this is especially true of the first two, each developed economic theories that have been applied to various social situations. We can learn from those experiments. We can apply the lessons they offer to contemporary life. We can also consider how the experiments and theories of non-Christian thinkers conflict with or add to our understanding of how an economy works.

Of course, the doctrine of common grace, in which we affirm all that is implied by the statement, “it rains upon the just and the unjust,” encourages us to give any and all products of the human mind a fair hearing and to evaluate these in the light of grace. Nonetheless, a Christian economist develops an economic theory that is compatible with the teachings of Holy Scripture and with those foundational beliefs that have at all times and in all places been believed by the whole people of God. This, in turn, requires that the economist be intentionally trained in the basics of Christian thought; the responsibility of those called and trained to lead Christian churches.

In other words, a Christian economist must be a disciple. He or she must be catechized; that is to say intellectually and spiritually trained in the habits of mind and heart that prepare one to understand the world in a uniquely Christian way. If we have few Christian economists, it may be because we have few Christian pastors, few leaders who actually focus their efforts on delivering spiritual care and catechesis to the flock they serve.

Naturally, we cannot expect our pastors to be professionally trained economists. However, we can expect them to know enough about the history and thought structures of our faith to teach these foundational Christian principles, making it possible for believers to construct a Christian theory of economics, or for any other discipline for that matter. We tend not to expect such things now from our pastors because we have largely transformed pastoral work into a form of therapy or a type of leadership for directing religious corporations. We may still offer certain kinds of comforting spiritual experiences to the people we serve but these often lack biblically based intellectual formation. As a Charismatic Christian, I do not say this to denigrate the value of spiritual experience. I do however insist that authentic pastoral work includes the intellectual and spiritual formation of disciples, without which no Christian economics or Christian anything else is possible.

A pastor is responsible to study and communicate Christian intellectual life then, to the best of his ability. He must at least know that some of history’s most brilliant and saintly people have given their lives teaching and applying the principles of Christian faith to the issues of the societies in which they lived. He should know that they often did this during times of great challenge and change. They met the challenges of late Greco-Roman antiquity. They met new ones during the near collapse of civilization and its recovery through the long medieval centuries. Then came Islam. Later, came the Enlightenment.

The result of all this Christian experience is what we call orthodoxy. It is the responsibility of Christian leaders to know about this body of reflected upon revelation and to connect present and future generations to it.

The reason it is important to be aware of orthodoxy and its implications is so we can work through the challenges of our own globalized, post-modern culture. This includes how we think about economic life because our faith implies certain things about economics.  It leads us to think that an economic system should be fruitful for both societies as well as for the individuals who make up those societies. It implies that a healthy economy should both advance the common good and protect the rightful aspirations of individuals. Above all, it should remain faithful to the whole witness of the whole people of God of all times and of all places.

A Christian economy then is built upon certain unique concepts that Christianity has brought into the world; such as, personhood, the understanding that unity may contain difference and distinction, that human labor is a divine vocation, that all human beings, of every station of life, possess an inalienable dignity, that fallen human beings thrive where there are both accountability structures as well as guarantees of individual freedom, and so forth.

A Christian economist is a person who understands these things. He or she is a person who seeks to honor God by contributing to the advancement of human beings, who are made in God’s image and likeness and meant to be the crown of creation.  He will understand that “a productive economy lifts people out of poverty and helps people flourish.” (The Twelve Economic Maxims, Kern Foundation.)

 

Economics is Too Important to Leave to Economists

The reason economists often mystify the rest of us is that we believe their discipline is mostly about money. However, money is the fruit rather than the root of economic life. Financial life is a current of energy, made visible and tangible by the various financial instruments we invent to process that energy. That is, of course, where we get the concept of currency in the first place. Our financial instruments may reveal, conceal, facilitate or hinder the flow of financial life but they cannot create it. What creates financial energy is human intelligence. When human beings creatively manage visible and invisible resources for the benefit of individuals and communities, they become sources of great energy that may sustain and advance human well-being.

It is important that we acknowledge this intentional human role in economic life. Although nature is the handiwork of God and the essential foundation for all human sustenance, it does not, on its own, ensure human flourishing.

Far from being offensive to Orthodox Christianity, this acknowledgment lies at the very core of a Christian anthropology and spiritual expression.

Consider this prayer:

We thank Thee, Lord God, King of the Universe, for this bread and this wine, which you have created and which human hands have prepared. It shall be for us the body and blood of Christ.

Here we acknowledge human dependence upon the creator and upon His creation. However, we also affirm the vocational role of human management in developing these natural resources for the glory of God. When we manage visible and invisible resources in cooperation with grace, we produce items of spiritual value for the entire human family. The prayer I have just quoted continues by asking for God’s blessing upon human labor through what we call the epiclesis; a spiritual event in which grace descends upon material objects made by God, prepared by human hands, and offered as vehicles through which grace may facilitate human flourishing.

Here, in essence, is the core of a Christian view of economy. For whether or not we consider ourselves sacramental, for the Christian, economic life necessarily consists of the use of material and immaterial resources, in obedience to and in cooperation with the Creator of the universe, to advance human sustenance, redemption, healing and growth. An economy exists to help us become functioning persons, help us reach the purposes for which we have been created, and capable of living in community with God and with our fellow human beings. Although some of us may neither desire nor be called to manage large financial sums, we acknowledge that some of us are and that all are called to be good stewards over what has been given to each of us to manage.

A healthy person, from a Christian point of view, develops a certain kind of character. It makes him trustworthy over little or much. It makes him able to cooperate with others. It makes him able to prudently and capably use what he has to provide for himself and to bless others in God’s name.

In the words of Kern’s 4th economic maxim

“a productive economy comes from the value-creating work of free and virtuous people.”

Our view of economics then is based upon the belief that God has called us to live as unique and independent persons within healthy communities. As Kern’s 6th economic maxim says,

“Economies flourish when people have integrity and trust each other.”

This maxim makes the claim that healthy economies require both real community and the dynamic interaction among the responsible individuals who make up that community. This maxim is consistent with our view of God whom, or so we confess, is “One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, without confusing the persons or dividing the substance.” (Athanasius)

Our faith thus suggests a third way, a way that is at times complementary and at other times in conflict with either collectivism or libertarianism. We accept the likelihood that communists may be offended by our uncompromising belief in the dignity and the worth of the individual. We accept that Libertarians may be offended by our equal commitment to the common good, which includes a reasonable concern and sense of responsibility for those who suffer and fail to thrive. We accept the paradox created by the fact that the same Bible that says, “those who do not work should not eat,” also tells us that God rejected Cain for the sarcastic question, “am I my brothers keeper?”

Kern’s first economic maxim states that

“a productive economy lifts people out of poverty and helps people flourish.”

Here then is material to offend nearly everyone in our present culture. However, here too is a call to accept the creative ideological tension that calls Christians away from unsustainable political polarization and toward the kind of informed saintly living that can advance our own lives as well as the lives of those we serve.

Victor Hugo understood this.

Throughout Les Miserables, Hugo describes the conflict brewing between France’s aristocracy and its poor.  He presents the upper class as largely unconcerned about the suffering of those beneath them.  As a result, there is brewing proto Marxist revolution threatening to overthrow the government. This sort of literary cliché might have failed to attract our attention had Hugo not also subtly introduced another possibility, a third way if you will, through the character of Jean Val Jean.  In his descriptions of Val Jean, Hugo seems to suggest that neither revolution nor reaction would make a long-term difference in the lives of the poor. What the poor needed, he seems to say, are informed saints.

We should note that after his conversion, Val Jean, himself a product and victim of French poverty, becomes wealthy. His wealth in fact becomes the means by which he advances healing and goodness in the world. Nonetheless, he is persecuted and harassed both by those who embrace the status quo and by those who embrace revolution. His way seems wrong to both of these great forces of French society. In fact, both misjudge him by claiming that he belongs to the other. Neither the aristocrats nor the revolutionaries seem to recognize that his path of saintliness is anything more than a pretense.

This was the case with Jesus as he faced the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Because Jesus seemed to not fit within either camp, he found himself rejected by both.  This is the often the case when a culture becomes so radically dichotomized. The partisans of both sides often become blind to other possibilities. They see their own view and the view they characterize as belonging to their enemy but cannot envision any way out of the impasse. Both camps often become increasingly incapable of nuance, leading to the ideological calcification of each side and to their mutual justification of intransience and incivility.

Jean Val Jean is a wealthy man who sympathizes with the poor and who champions their cause. But he is not a socialist. He follows another way altogether, the way of the cross, in which one both suffers and flourishes. As a result, he appears alien. He irritates those whose mind is already made up. None of this keeps him from flourishing however, or from causing those around him to flourish.

Hugo would have agreed with Kern’s 2nd maxim:

“we have a stewardship responsibility to flourish in our own lives, to help our neighbors flourish as fellow stewards, and to pass on a flourishing economy to future generations.”

Here we reach the central problem for a Christian when it comes to prosperity. How do we reconcile our embrace of the cross with the call to flourish and thrive? Obviously, we cannot accept any view that makes these things incompatible. After all, it was Jesus who tied the two together: “you will have tribulation but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world,” he says. Jesus does not view joy as incompatible with suffering or suffering as incompatible with joy. It was “for the joy set before him that he endured the cross.”

This spiritual paradox suggests that we should expect to both flourish and suffer as a result of our faith. Indeed, this paradoxical condition becomes the central sign of God’s presence among us. Just like the revolutionaries in Les Miserables, we identify with the poor. We too work to relieve poverty. However, we do so without despising the wealthy or even by rejecting financial prosperity for ourselves if that is God’s plan and calling for us. We join neither the side of revolution nor reaction. We step out of the old dance altogether by asking, “what is my calling and stewardship” rather than “should I be wealthy or poor?” Wealth, for the Christian is always a means rather than an end and he must constantly give an account to God for how he defines those ends.

Christians therefore pray, study and work that all may flourish, each in the unique ways in which God has created and gifted him or her. We honor and respect individual difference because, as our view of God has taught us, we are all called to become fully conscious and responsible persons in community with God and other persons. This means that we learn to create and maintain those structures that uphold those things that work for the common good. For all these reasons, Christians both honor individual freedom and the communal structures required to sustain and nourish healthy economic life for all.

In the end, if Christianity is a comprehension of truth about the universe — and is not merely a comforting escape from real life —we should base our economic theories, as we do all else, upon the principles of our faith. This will sometimes place us in the position of Jean Val Jean, appearing to many of his contemporaries as neither fish nor fowl. He is too wealthy and comfortable to be accepted by the revolutionaries. He is too concerned about human suffering, redemption and the common good to be accepted by the reactionaries. He is something other than either. He is, in a word, a saint.

This is the unique thing Christianity offers the world: saints, those sorts of fallen human beings who have set their affections upon God and who have answered God’s invitation to be personally transformed by Him. What Victor Hugo suggests is that people undergoing such a transformation affect the economy in which these saints live and work. They lift their society, at least for a season, beyond the twin evils of either entitled sloth or entitled indifference.

Of course, Jean Val Jean is a fictional character. It would hardly be wise to base our economic life on fiction, (although one could argue that economists do that on a fairly regular basis.) So let’s conclude with a look at an example from history.

Spiritual Renewal as Economic Transformation.

A few centuries ago, the English aristocracy trembled at the news from France. Dukes were being decapitated and the wealthy despoiled of their goods. The poor were rioting. France was wallowing in anarchy.

What would keep the same things from occurring in England, where conditions were similar?  In England too the poor shivered in the cold as ladies danced at balls and bishops discussed philosophy at Oxford. In England, as in France, the class divide had become unsustainable. The wealthy didn’t have enough money to hire enough soldiers or build high enough walls to keep out people who were hungry and desperate. Catastrophe was coming. The aristocrats knew it; they just didn’t know when.

Then, something unexpected happened.

An Oxford doctor of theology went to a prayer meeting where he experienced the presence of God. Gradually, he embraced a call to preach the gospel to England’s poor. In time, coal miners and farmers, street vendors and orphans were crowding to hear John Wesley preach and to sing Charles Wesley’s songs.

In a few years, twenty percent of England’s population would become Methodists. They too would experience the presence of God, the social lift that comes with understanding the gospel, and the intellectually transforming energy that comes from wrestling with Holy Scripture.

Wesley preached a gospel of hope.  It encouraged poor people not to remain where they were. He gave them a ramp upon which they could walk out of poverty and ignorance and into dignity and productivity. He loved them as they were but loved them too much to leave them where they were.

We need to pay attention to this history.

George Barna recently noted that the poor are the most un-churched group in American society, and that this is particularly true of poor English-speaking Whites. His research shows that White poor people are actually falling away from the church in great numbers. In the younger generations, the statistics become even more alarming.

A recent edition of Time magazine focused on the accelerating pace at which American culture is shrinking its middle class. There are many factors to blame, not the least of which is a native working force that is now largely uneducated and unskilled compared to that of other industrial nations. In other words, too large a proportion of our middle class young adults don’t know the basics of Western Civilization. They can’t read at adequate levels. They don’t know geography. They can’t speak a language other than their own and may not do even that well. They have inadequate math skills. They are not aware of the basic scientific discoveries of the last many decades.

For all these reasons, American workers are having an increasingly difficult time competing with their Polish, English, Spanish, Russian, Indian, Korean, and Brazilian counterparts in a globalized economy. Corporations can often get more for their money elsewhere.

America’s poor need a ramp to climb out of these challenging circumstances.

The solution is a spiritual one, although at present few of our churches are offering it because too many of them are too focused on lesser things.

This was true in Wesley’s day as well. The Church of England was about doing well rather than about becoming good. The rabble was staying away from church because there was nothing there for them. The English church had become a bastion of the status quo.

The only alternative visible to the English church leaders was a French-style revolution, which they were prepared to fight to the death.

Then came a God size solution, and with it, a massive economic rebirth for Great Britain, in which all classes of society ultimately participated and from which they all ultimately benefited.

Wesley’s message was good news to the poor. For the first time in their lives they had no hurdle to jump. They could get into the club simply because they breathed air. Each generation of Methodists could walk up another rung of Wesley’s ramp to ever-higher levels of virtue, knowledge and skill.

That’s why the French revolution never reached England.

Jesus got there first. He arrived through committed and informed believers who dedicated themselves to serving others in his name.

The aristocracy sneered at the Methodists. They kept enjoying their port and their cigars, as their humble neighbors became citizens of another world.

But their poor neighbors no longer cared.

They had forgotten how to view themselves as poor.

They also did not view their neighbors as rich. They saw them as lost. They no longer hated their lost wealthy neighbors. They had pity for them and preached to the upper classes that same gospel that had liberated them.

The Methodists won the class war by simply ignoring it. They were too busy flourishing to give it much thought.

It is a hard sell to both the poor and the wealthy to suggest that the solution to our economic woes is a spiritual renewal that calls men and women to saintly life. However, that is, in the end, the only alternative to either a perpetual class conflict or to Karl Marx’s classless society, in which everyone surrenders everything of personal value and preference in order to achieve a society in which there is equal misery for everyone.

 


[1] Gospel of St. Johns 14:17

[2] Gospel of St. Matthew 10:16

[3] Athanasius

[4] Chalcedon