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Jan 13, 2009


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Good post Michael. An important distinction.


"Frankly, some anti-consumerism activism is merely factions of the church diverting blame to the economy for the church’s failure to have effectively integrated economic life with our Christian discipleship."

Yes, this is right on. As I heard a pastor say once, "We will tell the church how we've misused our genitals, but not how we've misused our wallets." This is of course a direct result of the church not teaching us how to use our wallets, so that many do not even know they are misusing them.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Phil.

Darren, in one of Henri Nouwen's books he talks about his experience as counselor. He found that people would freely discuss many aspects of their lives with him, including the most intimate aspects of their sex lives. But when he would probe into financial concerns, people routinely would get defensive and want to know why he was getting into their private lives. :-)


I think your distinction between consumerism and consumption is absolutely correct, and very important. Consumption is at least as important as production; receiving is as important as giving. But the sinful orientation of humanity is toward receiving more than what is fair, and consuming more than what is necessary, so the cultivation of virtue requires the emphasis of production and giving.

Accordingly, we don't "all draw the line on our spending according to our means." Not even close. The American economy of late has been built on a bubble of credit, which in some cases, essentially amounts to a Ponzi scheme. You're right that this can't be blamed on consumption, but Cowan's comment does reflect a naive view of the players in the system.

Also, I think you've rightly identified the real economic problem as one of relational isolation. However, one inherent problem with market-exchange is that the objective valuation of goods and services represented by cash is designed, partly, to free people from subjective obligations. If you say your item is $10, I pay you ten dollars, and our relationship need not continue. There are no lingering obligations or loyalties that ensure ongoing mutual benefit (or abuse), unless they're engineered by other tactics (such as credit, or planned obsolescence, or manipulative marketing). In this way the market-economy actually discourages relational connectedness and encourages independence. I'd say that's a distinctive flaw that tends to push people in the system, because of the sinfulness you've mentioned, towards the polar extremes of relative poverty and wealth.

Moreover, all systems reflect the values of the players, not just market economies. Even systems engineered to impose certain values will eventually break where those values compete with the actual values of the players. "Kingdoms are ruled by consent," that's how authority works. That's why you're spot on when you say it's dangerous, "if the people in the marketplace are not equipped with virtue and wisdom." Any competent system populated with virtuous people will work, but every system, no matter how brilliant, will break if it's populated with non-virtuous people.

I guess what I'm saying is, there's nothing inherently virtuous about a market-economy. True, it tends to be more free than many others, but that feature brings it's own severe drawbacks.

Ultimately, I couldn't agree more that the church is largely responsible for failing to produce "virtuous players," so to speak. Our problem is grassroots, and the solution must be too.

Michael W. Kruse

Great comment, Jason. Thanks.

I had a couple of thoughts as to your relational isolation. There is no question that markets create economic independence from each other. I don't see that as an entirely bad thing. I think it is essential to widespread abundance in society.

The challenge is that for the first time in history we have entire societies with broadly shared abundance. All of our theologies over the first 1800 years or so of the church originated from (and assumed) hierarchically oriented societies with patronage-like (feudal) relationships in which most people barely lived at subsistence. Our economic transactions and relationships occurred in that context.

Now we live in flattened horizontally oriented world. We are no longer connected through patronage-like structures. I think what we are wrestling with is what does community look like in the midst of abundance where economic necessity is no longer what binds us together.

I don't think there is any going back but we also don't know what should be.

I'll also add that it is because of the issues you raise here that I break to some degree from the more libertarian friends. Free market assumes well-informed players in the marketplace. Due to the complexities of modern economies and dizzying quantity of transactions that must be made, there is no way an individual can well-informed about all the market decisions she makes. Thus, there is a place for government in ensuring that significant costs of economic transactions are not being shouldered by those not a party to the transaction and there is certainly a place for industry watchdog organizations that bring to light injustices.


These two references describe the "culture" created in the image of the now, world dominant, consumerist mentality.



Plus the meaning of the word consume is to destroy.

Michael W. Kruse

Nature is made up of endless cycles of consumption and production, with what is produced finally giving way to consumption by a future production. Without consumption, nothing would die and the eco-system of the entire planet would die. There is no life without consumption. Destruction is a necessary and good thing. Destruction is needed for construction.


Michael your last commen is poignant.

I sometimes sense a sort of horrid aversion to the notion of destruction esp. amongst fellow christains. This philosophy (that loss = destruction = bad) also helps fuel the reliance on a literal interpretation of Genesis at the expense of a biological system that produces life through death (the cycle you note). However, even IF we accept a literal Garden of Eden type scenario, we still have biological loss. after all, were not Adam and Eve commanded to consume/eat fruit? What happens to fruit in the stomach of a human? Decay and re-use was always going to be part of life.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks Phil.

John Steinsvold

An Alternative to Capitalism

The following link, takes you to a "utopian" article, entitled "Home of the Brave?" which I wrote and appeared in the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:


John Steinsvold

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks John. I'll take a look.

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