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The Good of Affluence

“We are going to see a revival in this country, and it's going to be led by rich people.” — Michael Novak, cited in Dinesh D' Souza's Virtue of Prosperity

The title of my forthcoming book, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth, might raise an eyebrow or two. Readers who are at all familiar with contemporary Christian scholarship on the subject of economic life under capitalism will immediately catch that my approach is not typical, to say the least. Some may even be incredulous that any serious-minded person would dare to write a book stressing that affluence might be good, much less that God might be found amid the consumerism and materialism that is infectiously widespread in the culture of modern capitalism. (I have already received very sincere complaints from fellow scholars about the title.) Nevertheless, that is what I do in this book. Its larger purpose is to offer a fresh Christian understanding—a theology—for people seeking to express Christian faith and life in the depths of their involvement in the culture that has grown from modern high-tech capitalism. Obviously, I must believe that there is an affluence that is good, and that the conditions for it exist in modern capitalism.

One part of the thesis (building on the pioneering work of others, most especially Michael Novak) is that modern high-tech consumer-credit capitalism (as distinct from older forms) has given birth to kinds of affluence that are dramatically new. They are “new” in purely economic terms, to be sure. But, more important, these kinds of affluence are also new in a broadly cultural sense. The habits of heart and life that they engender constitute a vast improvement over anything that has ever existed before in human economic history.

The other (larger) argument is that this extraordinary turn of events all but cries out to Christian theologians to rediscover certain narratives and teachings in the sacred Scriptures that have for a very long time been all but banished from academic theology. These are narratives that provide the makings of a strong doctrine of Creation as it relates the divine vision for human beings in the physical world. In fact, these writings show that material affluence of a sort is absolutely essential to God's creative vision for all human beings amid the flourishing that he has in store for his entire creation. These texts about material abundance and blessing—particularly the narratives of Eden and the Promised Land—are thus anything but incidental trappings to the Christian perspective on economic life that we are seeking. On the contrary, they are quite paradigmatic (or typological, if you like), and so it is past time that scholars get over their embarrassment at the vulgarities of the “Prosperity Gospel” and treat these texts as paradigmatic in theology.

The Moral Theologian's Suspicion of Capitalism

Novak wrote in his Spirit of Democratic Capitalism that “democratic capitalism is not just a system but a way of life.” But what kind of “way of life” is it? Most Christian moral theologians seem to think that it is not a very good one—at least not for Christians seeking to be true to their faith. This generally negative attitude toward affluence under capitalism grows from powerful influences that are now as antiquated as they are influential among Christian intellectuals. One is the moral analysis of Marx, who taught all good people to believe that capitalism could work only by means of social injustices in the intolerable extreme. While everyone now knows that Marx was mistaken about the certain doom of capitalism, his moral analysis of capitalism as a social system remains strangely intact in Christian moral theory. A second great influence is the grand thesis of Max Weber, famous for his theory that the unique virtues of European Christians (most especially Calvinists) gave birth and life to modern capitalism. The terrible irony, Weber judged, is that these virtues (somehow) inevitably evolved into a culture thoroughly animated by vice. Thus, according to Weber, the poor unwitting Christians had manufactured for themselves what he called an “iron cage.” As long as they immersed themselves in the self-seeking, self-gratifying world of capitalism, there was no escape from its stronghold. As long as they lived under capitalism, they simply could not be faithful Christians.

However, there is a third factor that may be an even more basic influence on Christian theologians and ethicists than the moral theories of Marx and Weber. In Christian history, almost all spiritual and moral teaching on affluence has been quite negative. This is slowly changing, especially in Roman Catholic teaching, but on the whole, it is true that contemporary Christian thinkers have almost no models in their tradition that might encourage a more favorable disposition toward the condition of affluence. Historically, the people who have stressed the goodness of riches are generally (and rightly) considered villains in the story—one thinks of the aristocratic clergy after Constantine, the Renaissance popes, and now our own television evangelists. On the contrary, our heroes are almost one-sidedly people who have delivered prophetic judgments against the rich. Who can but admire the strenuous discipline of the Benedictines and Franciscans, the moderate counsel of an Aquinas or Luther or Calvin, the austerity of a Wesley? When one considers such heroes together with the cultural judgments of Marx and Weber, it is no great wonder that Christian theologians focus on the evils, dangers, and burdens of wealth under capitalism and can barely bring themselves to say anything good about it.

But as Pope Leo XIII observed in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), the modern revolutions in Europe, Britain, and America wrought radically “new things” requiring equally “new” responses from the church. Old wineskins were bursting, and new ones needed quickly to replace them or all the world would be lost to the Gospel. Since 1891, Christian thinkers have made remarkable progress in engaging the “new” realities of democracy and modern science, but they have lagged behind in the creative engagement of the social economy. It is time for Christian thinkers to reckon more seriously than they have with at least three new things (even newer than the things with which Leo XIII concerned himself).

New Things Demanding a New Approach

The first new thing is that, since the end of World War II, the forecasts of Marx have proven to be as wrong as they could be. In no less than twenty-five nations, capitalism has liberated entire societies from all but the smallest traces of poverty. At breathtaking speed, modern high-tech capitalism has been the greatest liberating force in human history: One billion people now live in conditions of enduring relative affluence. Influential Christian writers (such as Stanley Hauerwas, among others) rightly resist the inference that this feat is a moral good. (Their point, roughly, is that the Anti-Christ will perform works so great as to deceive the very elect.) But surely we would be right to ask such writers, Does Satan cast out Satan? It certainly seems an unlikely trick for the god of oppression.

At any rate, we now know beyond controversy that modern high-tech economies do not work in the same way that the ancient orders did in the days of Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. Nor do they work in the ways that the capitalism observed by Wesley, Marx, and Weber did. Modern high-tech capitalism (in contrast to mercantile and industrial economies) works primarily by means of the creation of wealth, not by its seizure from others. Of the many studies that now prove this to be so, perhaps the most intriguing is Hernando De Soto's Mystery of Capital. A Peruvian economist who is mainly involved with Third-World development, De Soto is no blind advocate of capitalism. Nevertheless, in explaining why capitalism works (in the instances that it does), he makes a fundamental distinction between mere “assets,” on the one hand, and real “capital,” on the other. Contrary to common opinion, assets are not synonymous with capital, which exists if and only if political and legal conditions enable dead assets to come to life in new and creative forms. To use De Soto's analogy, it is like the difference between a hydroelectric power plant (asset) and the electricity it generates (capital).

This model helps one to see that the entire moral situation of affluence is as different as it can be from that of previous times (or in non-capitalistic systems of our time). And it furthers the point made in such readable form by Dinesh D' Souza in his recent book, The Virtue of Prosperity. The nature of modern capitalism is normally to reward and encourage good ethical behavior in doing business. Of course, it does not guarantee good moral behavior, nor does it invariably punish bad behavior. No order of freedom (not democracy, not even science) can guarantee as much. But the point is that, unlike anything that has existed before, modern capitalism commonly does reward and encourage people to be better than they otherwise would be. All these are truly new things; our ancient and modern moral traditions do not posses adequate resources to understand them, so we need a new theological response that allows us to see into these new things more deeply.

Taking the “Lord of the Banquet” Seriously

Such a theological response should be rooted in a doctrine of Creation. Most moral theologies are rooted in the doctrine of redemption, and, frequently, they fail to capture the biblical manner in which the very notion of redemption is sensible only in the terms established by the divine vision of life that is given in the narratives of creation. That vision is clearly incomprehensible without material abundance. This truth comes forth in the narratives on Eden and their vision of plenty and delight. It emerges again in the fundamental narrative of the Exodus, as God does not merely redeem his people from oppression and poverty (as widely observed) but also establishes them as a nation in a land “filled with milk and honey.” The legal, and later prophetic, commands and obligations of Scripture do not renounce this vision; on the contrary, they follow quite directly from it and use it as their visionary aim. All these teachings—especially the most severe ones—are directives for rich people of God on how to be rich in a godly, rather than an ungodly, way. In no way do they exonerate poverty as “blessed”; on the contrary, poverty is the very evil that God means (through rich people) to eliminate. Poverty is to humanity as chaos is to cosmos.

One must be sensitive to the typological function of these texts to discern how their vision is also (darkly) manifest in the narratives of Christ in the New Testament. There is no radical departure from the Old Testament paradigm of “wealth as blessing”—only a profound repetition of that theme in a radically new (incarnate) form. Contrary to widespread supposition, Jesus' narrative life was not one of poverty. Nor were his ringing judgments and severe teachings against the rich a denial of that original divine vision for human beings. The incarnation, vocation, and teachings of Jesus must be placed in quite different terms. In his incarnation, he clearly did not choose literal poverty as his condition, for he was an artisan for most of his life. Furthermore, he clearly did not adopt a lifestyle of anything resembling poverty during his public mission, nor did he make divestment of property a condition of discipleship. Close scrutiny supports the view of New Testament experts (such as Luke Johnson) that Jesus' behavior and ethical teachings grew consciously from the models of the prophets. That explains why he did not eschew the enjoyments of material life but instead opposed the godlessness of his rich contemporaries with a style of “eating and drinking” that was his own. So wild and unguarded did his lifestyle seem to them—and not least to Judas Iscariot—that they deemed him “a drunkard and a glutton,” and they wished him dead. Contrary to what we generally hear, in his public manner of life he was “the Christ of delight” and “Lord of the Banquet” (to cite the phrase of David Moessner). He was the very incarnation of that Messianic Feast, which was his constant theme and promise.

Modern globalism is another new thing, which, in my view, has unleashed some very unfortunate confusion in Christian thinking on the subject of moral obligations that weigh upon the affluent. (The prime example is the influential book by Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.) My book contains a running argument with him on almost every level of the view he defends. But, alas, in order to see these ideas in developed forms and to make informed judgments on their merits, I am afraid that one must in the end read them in the book.

In conclusion, Jesus Christ is, among other things, the incarnation of affluence as God envisions it for human beings. Of course, he was not affluent in the way that modern people in advanced socities are affluent under capitalism. But on the noted assumption that the cultures these societies give forth are open to Christian faith and life, and not in the least closed to them as Weber's Iron Cage implies, Jesus Christ thus is a living light by which to seek an affluence that is good.