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David Bentley Hart's Gospel of class division

Sitting down to write about the economic lessons Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart draws from the New Testament, friends encouraged me to look at what they described as the gnostic tendencies in his arguments. Apart from them, Acton’s Rev. Benjamin Johnson raised the question of whether there is “a strong contradiction between his rejection of Saint Augustine's view of the ‘unelect’ and his almost Manichean view of rich and poor.”

Fr. Ben’s characterization of Hart’s work is, I think fair. In Hart’s view, the poor are not just the special object of Christ's concern. As he writes, “Christ’s concern for the ptōchoi the abjectly destitute – is more or less exclusive of any other social class." And “the rich”? These Jesus “condemns as oppressors and revilers of the divine name, who should howl in terror at the judgment that is coming upon them, because the rust of their treasure shall eat their flesh like fire on the last day.”

In his reading of the New Testament – and Hart reads the New without reference to the Old, where references to the moral goodness of material wealth abound – wealth itself is “an intrinsic evil.” If only, Hart says, we were able to lay aside “the genius with which Christians down the centuries have succeeded in not seeing it, or in explaining it away, or in pretending that it does not mean what it unquestionably means,” we would understand that "the real text of the New Testament, uncolored by theological fancy” doesn’t just condemn wealth; it “is utterly perspicuous and relentlessly insistent on this matter.” Others have pointed out the economic and theological difficulties with this argument that Hart has advanced more than once (e.g., here, here, and here).

If Hart is correct, then the Gospel – in its rejection of wealth, private property, and economic and technological development – paves the way for deprivation and offenses against human dignity.

As for the charge of “Gnosticism,” this depends on what we mean by the term. Rodney Stark has argued that “Gnosticism” is something of a catch-all term. Quoting the French philosopher Simone Pétrement he says that Gnosticism isn’t “one heresy but a swarming ant-heap of heresies.” What seems to unite them is that they are markedly “anti-Jewish” and predicated on the conviction that “everything on earth was hopelessly corrupt, and ultra-asceticism was the only valid religious option.”

Hart is not “anti-Jewish.” His contention, on the other hand, that wealth is intrinsically evil does bear more than a passing resemblance to Stark’s characterization of Gnosticism. Unlike Gnosticism, however, Hart tends toward a more universalist view of salvation. In his reading of the New Testament, “formulations that seem to imply universal salvation outnumber those that appear to threaten an ultimate damnation for the wicked.”

It is here, in his soteriology, that Hart’s argument begins to fray. His assertion that wealth is “intrinsically evil” does not sit well with his contention that in the end, all will (very likely) be saved. It is hard to square Hart’s admittedly universalist tendencies with comments like those he writes in response to the stern words the Apostle James has for the wealthy:

James even warns his readers against the presumptuousness of planning to gain profits from business ventures in the city (4:13–14). And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above [5:1-6], which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad – any more than Christ did.

Let’s entertain a thought experiment.

What if Hart is correct? What if Christians and others of goodwill were to embrace his contention that wealth creation and acquisition are intrinsically evil? This is not, I hasten to add, a theological question but a practical question. Hart would have us dismiss the former without ever addressing the latter. This is a significant lacuna for a scholar of his caliber.

What would happen if, as he suggests, we were to do away with private property in favor of the (purely theoretical, non-Marxist, non-materialistic, Hartian) communism he says Christians are called to live? What would happen if accepted the practical implications of Hart’s theological theory? What would happen is that people would die, and die horribly.

If Hart is correct that wealth is “intrinsically evil” – and so must not be created or maintained – we all will die horribly as humanity’s accrued wealth evaporates and poverty spreads. Hart’s “voluntary” poverty would become involuntary as resources are consumed but not replaced. Economic and technological development will grind to a halt. We would starve as crop yields fell for lack of modern farming techniques and equipment. We would no longer have adequate medical supplies, air conditioning, or heat. Civil society and the Church would struggle to care for those suffering from the increasing material deprivation within, and the marked increase of violence from without.

His views are not just uniformed by economics and the history of economic development, but he seems overtly hostile and dismissive of what scholars in these disciplines might have to say.

If Hart is correct, then the Gospel – in its rejection of wealth, private property, and economic and technological development – paves the way for deprivation and offenses against human dignity. Is he willing to let the chips fall where they may? Or does he claim that the New Testament is able to speak truth to power, not to set up a sustainable system? The former is irresponsible, while the latter contradicts Orthodox ecclesiology.

One might argue that the modern levels of wealth are historically anomalous, that the resultant poverty would be no worse than during Jesus’ lifetime. Like slavery and genocide, abject poverty has been the norm for all but the smallest minority of the human family for most of history. In the ancient world, most human beings were born into abject poverty. This is why Jesus had, as Hart writes, an almost exclusive concern for the ptōchoi: Their poverty was not chosen but the result of our fallen condition.

The obligation of the wealth in the New Testament is to alleviate the material and social deprivation of their neighbors, and it is for their failure to do so for which they are condemned. That the wealthy in the ancient world did (or could do) little or nothing to alleviate the suffering of the abject poor was tragic.

What improved the lot of the abject poor was the spread of the free market. That the market brings with its own moral challenges doesn’t in any way detract from its benefits. It does, however, mean that Christians need to take into consideration the weighty burden of our new situation.

To his credit, Hart acknowledges that he can’t “pretend ever to have embraced poverty myself – except in the sense that an unguarded jaw might be said to embrace the fist that strikes it.” Nor is it his intention to bring about the material and social horrors of a world awash in poverty. What he is struggling with, as he says, is that he has “no good grounds for treating those prescriptions and judgments as mere hortatory hyperbole.”

What I think Hart is trying to do is provoke a conversation about how Christians (especially in the U.S.) may best use our material wealth and political freedom. Hart’s theological reflections are usually informed by a close reading of the Church Fathers and his wide knowledge of modern and post-modern thought. Unfortunately, in his arguments about wealth, he shows none of his usual care. His rhetoric is too sharp. Worse, his views are not just uniformed by economics and the history of economic development, but he seems overtly hostile and dismissive of what scholars in these disciplines might have to say – and the consequences his prescriptions would bring.

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Fr Gregory Jensen is the pastor of Sts. Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission and the Eastern Orthodox chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published articles in psychology, theology, and economics and is the author of The Cure for Consumerism. He is also an instructor in youth ministry at St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, Bound Brook, NJ.  In 2013, he was a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Bozeman, Montana-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC).