Today we look at the response to the second law of theocapitalism as presented in Everything Must Change.
Theocapitalism Law #2: The Law of Serenity Through Possession and Consumption: “I believe in happiness through owning and using more.”
Jesus’ Law #2: The Law of Satisfaction Through Gratitude and Sharing.
McLaren opens this section reflecting on the behavior of Adam and Eve in the garden. They were given limits on consuming fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve were tempted because the fruit of the tree “was good for food and was pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” (Genesis 3.6) From the point of violating limits, alienation and disorder became the human context.
“How ironic, then, that consumption itself would be prescribed by the prosperity system as a cure for the disease of consumption. It is as if the snake of Genesis 3 is still whispering to Adams and Eves Everywhere: Consume more! You will not die! One more bite and you will be wise, like gods, without limits! (210)
I’m not on board with McLaren’s interpretation of the Genesis passage. I’m not sure the original recipients of this narrative would have seen over-consumption as an issue in the passage. Rather the issue was consumption of a forbidden object that would achieve a desired end. For the story to have a parallel to over-consumption, I think it would need to have Adam and Eve consuming ravenous amounts of food in the garden in attempt to gain some altered state of being.
Furthermore, I’ve often encountered people who are proud of their wealth or income but I can’t ever recall anyone being proud of their consumption in the abstract (although over-consumption may be a by-product of a wealth status preoccupation.) To the degree consumption comes into the equation, it is an indirect way of saying “See how much wealth I have that I can spend this much.” (ex. Spending $100,000 on a wedding.) I don’t buy McLaren’s emphasis here.
That said, I agree with the basic point that many try to find happiness through wealth and use of material things. McLaren quotes David Korten:
Comparative international studies…report that once a nation has achieved a moderate level of per capita income, further increases in wealth bring only slight increases in perceived well-being…Beyond the minimum level of income essential to meeting basic needs, the authentic relationship of strong communities are a far better predictor of happiness and emotional health than the size of one’s paycheck or bank account …” (210-211)
McLaren elaborates on this point and I think it is a critical one. But economic growth (i.e. technological improvement, increased worker productivity, and expanded trade with other markets) has benefits beyond just increasing income for consumption. It drives costs and prices lower, making goods more affordable to lower income folks. It provides financial incentives and resources for folks to develop better goods and services that may improve our lives (less polluting technology, safer equipment, better healthcare, more nutritious food, new technology like the internet, etc.)
Growth is an abstraction. And this is the irony of the prosperity system in the suicide machine. It is, in a sense, utterly Platonic. The material thing doesn’t count in itself: what counts is the abstraction, the immaterial idea behind it – number, status, coolness, youth, beauty, fashion, growth. The things themselves – cars, cosmetics, companies, songs – are just means to an end, which is an abstraction that is by nature unattainable. After all, when have you reached the end of growth, or youth, or fashion, or status, or power? (212)
McLaren is getting at the "material good" versus "positional good" distinction I made yesterday. Material goods are goods that satisfy a material need while positional goods are goods that give us status because of the relative exclusivity of owning them. A Ferrari fills a material need of providing transportation but owning it also brings status because so few can afford one. While some goods tend to exhibit more of one quality than the other, they can’t be fully separated. But McLaren is missing very a critical point in this above paragraph.
McLaren writes, “Growth is an abstraction.” Well of course it is! Value and price are abstractions, so growth in value must also be an abstraction. How much is the Hope diamond worth to me if I’m stranded on island with no other human contact? How much is it worth to me if I live in an affluent society and would like to live a lavish lifestyle? The economic value of a good or service is whatever a buyer is willing to give up to acquire it and the seller is willing to accept in exchange.
McLaren is precisely right, “The material thing doesn’t count in itself.” Without a valuer, the material world has no value. But since God created the earth, there is a valuer. Furthermore, God has created living images of himself to work the earth. Because of sin and rebellion, humankind’s values may not be in line with God’s values. It is as if someone got into a store and switched all the price tags around. But there is no sense in which we may speak of value without valuers. There is no such thing as intrinsic economic value.
Therefore, economic growth in a sinless world would be a very positive thing. It would mean resources are being transformed from less useful states to more useful states in perfect communion with ultimate valuer. But we do not live in a sinless world. Therefore, economic growth leads to a tangled mixture of good and bad. Our mission is to discern how best the world can function to achieve something that approximates God’s values and vision.
At the end of Chaper 25, McLaren turns to the parable of the Loaves and Fishes, noting that Jesus had his disciples count what they had (five loaves and two fish) and then he gave thanks for this provision. Afterward they clean up and find they have more than they began with. McLaren explains that he used to believe this was about miracles but instead he now sees it as being about what happens when we respond in gratitude. What he implies here is the interpretation that, upon seeing Jesus offering gratitude, the people in the crowd acted generously toward each other and shared their food they had among themselves.
All this is good and well, but from whence came the food that the people shared with each other? Did they not have to engage in economic labor to produce the food they had with them? Benevolence and generosity is not an alternative lifestyle to economic production and growth. They are virtues that can’t exist without economic activity (transforming matter from less useful states to more useful states.) Indeed, these virtues are able to flourish all the more with economic growth. Without economic activity the people at the meal would have had nothing to share.
Finally, McLaren writes:
There is a different economy, indeed – one based on contemplative gratitude and neighborly sharing, not consuming more and more, faster and faster. In the minds of some readers, at this point, I’m sure a thousand practical questions are coming to mind – legitimate questions, such as, “Is this guy a communist?” (no, I’m not) and “How could this kind of economic system ever be put into practice? What kind of detailed policies would it take? Isn’t the devil in the details?” But Jesus seemed unconcerned with those details; he left them up to people like us, I think, to work out. (214)
McLaren demonstrates over and over again that he has not made a serious effort to get his mind around the most basic economic principles, yet feels himself qualified to engage in vitriolic denunciations of economic systems. Christians have been working with these issues for centuries going back at least to the Scholastics (and even to the early church fathers with some of the rudimentary economic questions) yet McLaren writes as if we just woke up today and discovered Jesus teaching. Whatever shall we do with it? This behavior strikes me as hubris.