The recurring economic theme throughout the Bible is that God is owner of all that exists. We were created to be stewards (corporately and individually) of God’s resources and God intends for his stewards to live in community-wide abundance. Human rebellion entered the equation and that intention has been terribly marred. Part of the Good News of the coming shalom of the Kingdom of God is the realization community-wide abundance. It seems reasonable to conclude that the foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom in this age would also include improved material abundance in the world.
Yet the scripture is very clear about the perils of wealth and abundance. There is the ever present danger of finding our identity in our wealth and placing our trust in our abundance instead being in relationship with God. Our simplicity of focus is lost and our priorities drift out of alignment. We begin to distort justice in favor of preserving our abundance and we become callous to the needs of the poor, when we should be seeking justice and looking for ways to expand abundant living to others.
Exactly how this temptation to idolize wealth evidences itself has varied across time and culture. Throughout most of history, only a small minority of human people could expect to amass much wealth. The events of the last 300 years have led to an unprecedented expansion in both the quantity and distribution of wealth in the world. I noted in an earlier post the worldwide real per capita annual income doubled between 12,000 BCE and 1750 CE, from $90 to $180. Since then it has risen to more than $6,600. The percentage of people living on $1 a day has shrunk from about 84% in 1820 to about 15% today and is still falling. This expansion in material abundance is a good thing but how it has come about has sown some problems. A brief history review.
Some will argue that technological innovation (particularly the harnessing of steam, petroleum, and electrical power) were key to the rise of Western capitalism. There can be little doubt that such innovations were essential but they were not sufficient in themselves. In retrospect we can see that two profound cultural changes were necessary for modern capitalism to emerge from Medieval Europe: The flattening of hierarchies and moves away from notions of fate and providence.
Medieval European society had a highly stratified and rigidly maintaine hierarchy. God was at the top of the hierarchy with everything neatly arranged in a status pyramid down to the peasant. It was very similar to the highly stratified Greco-Roman world. Each person had a responsibility to care for those under him in the pyramid and total allegiance was expected to those above him. This arrangement effectively dampened the development of horizontally oriented relationships like voluntary associations and economic trade.
The notion of fate and providence also presented a barrier. The modern idea of risk and risk management really did not begin to emerge until around the fifteenth century. Until that time, good or bad “fortune” encountered on a trade journey would simply be attributed to fate, the will of the god’s, the work of sorcerers, or providence. In one sense of the word “risk,” you could say that risk has always been around because people have always known the travel involves uncertainties. This is not what I’m referring to.
By risk I’m referring to making studious evaluations of trade journey’s that have been taken. We learn that merchants traveling route A often far exceed what merchants on route B and C earn but merchants traveling route A are more frequently robbed. We learn merchants with certain types of character and track records perform better than others. We learn that traveling at certain times of the year has greater trade advantages but a higher likelihood of weather related problems. We take all of these considerations (and more) into account and assign a statistical probability of success for any given trade adventure. Then we set about finding ways to allocate our resources to maximize return while minimizing loses.
As long as events are in the hands of fate and providence, our experience is one of things happening to us that we can not control. What emerged in the Middle Ages was the idea of a rational God who created an orderly universe. By discerning the order God had created we could effectively manage future outcomes. This simple concept that is so ubiquitous to us today is really only a few centuries old. It has its roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage.
I maintain that this leveling of hierarchies into more horizontally based orientations and the abandonment of excessive ideas of fate and providence in favor of reasoned risk assessment, were good and needed developments. The rigid status hierarchies of the Greco-Roman world and Medieval Europe were contrary to the fictive-family notion of being brothers and sisters in Christ. The growing realization about the orderliness of the universe, and the attempts to learn about God and his world through applications of reason and observation, seem to me to be wonderful expressions of the image of God at work in humanity. However, the emerging forces that brought about these changes, from the Renaissance on through the Enlightenment and Modernist eras, ushered in new set problems concerning economic life.
By the time of the Enlightenment, the agenda had become one of creating human autonomy over the created order through application of reason. Progress via reason would render God useless and material abundance (among other things) would be the reward for shaking off past religious superstitions. An equality of humanity as God’s image bearers, lovingly seeking to understand the world in faithful response to our mission as household managers over the earth, was supplanted by a vision that cast God out of the picture and elevated humanity as masters of their own destiny. Reason and science (of which the modern academic field of economics is just one expression) would save us.
The Enlightenment and Modernism, with much of the Judeo-Christian heritage employed by them, have had great success in achieving material abundance. But in doing so, they have made materialism and consumerism idols. With God effectively (even if not formally) removed from the equation, Westerners have been taught to define themselves by their material progress; to find their very identity in their material quality of life. We have exchanged falsely finding our identity within a rigid hierarchy of Medieval social order with falsely finding it our material status.
Unfortunately, many who correctly sense the idolatry at work here, have mistakenly turned against the economic freedom that creates the abundance at precisely the time when billions around the world could most benefit from experiencing economic freedom and exchange for themselves. The challenge is not to halt the production of abundance. The challenge is to involve everyone possible in the abundance while reorienting the values we feed into the economic system by simplifying our focus to be totally upon God.
But what about the environmental impact of pursing abundance?