Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and to the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 3)

August 15, 2017

Is there a way to resolve this? Observation tells us that both reflect reality. The Torah tells God’s people how they should live, and promises that if they do there will be no poor; it does not, however, seem to be saying that no one would ever be even temporarily in need. Rather, its provisions, such as the year of jubilee and freedom for slaves, allows that those who have fallen into crushing debt should not be permanently impoverished; eventually they, or their families would be reinstated as free people and property owners, able to contribute to the economic life of the nation. The Prophets tell us that all too often human beings ignore God’s law and its call to give opportunity to the poor; when this happens, God judges the nation that has sided with the rich and powerful oppressors and destroys it. Those books such as Psalms and Proverbs, known collectively at The Writings, depict both what is and what God wants to be. These were composed on a long period of time, from the days of David until the return from the Babylonian Exile, and reflect the people’s evolving understanding of how God works among us. As Calvin says, God “condescends.” To our ears that sounds snooty, but the literal meaning of the word is joyful; God comes down to us to be with us on our level. God gives us God’s truth as far as we are able to understand it, and may reveal more to us tomorrow than we were able to handle yesterday. When people needed to know what being a godly people could mean and should mean, the Torah laid out an ideal vision of social harmony. When people needed to know how to live their personal lives to be the best they could be, writings such as Proverbs taught personal standards to follow, including both lessons on avoiding laziness and on practicing generosity towards the poor. And when people needed to know that their society had gone astray, that the rich were using the promises of the Torah to justify their own oppressive greed, and what God was going to do about that, God sent the Prophets with words of judgment and promises of redemption.

To be continued.  Next:  New Testament perspectives.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt 2)

August 7, 2017

The prophets testify that the people did not, in fact, obey, and that there were poor in the land and often they were terribly oppressed. We read that, despite what they were commanded, merchants kept dishonest scales that would read light when weighing the grain they bought from the farmers, but heavy when selling the same grain later. The rich felt no guilt sleeping in cloaks seized from poor persons as collateral on a debt, or seizing the children of debtors as slaves and not releasing them when the jubilee year came. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others announce God’s judgment on those who oppresses the poor; but most relentless is Amos. The book of Amos starts out like it must have been a well-received sermon. He follows a pattern, “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not withhold punishment, says the LORD:….” Again and again he calls out the sins of Israel’s hated enemies, the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Philistine, Gaza and so on. His audience must have been cheering him on. “Preach it, brother! Tell it! Give’em hell, Amos!” And then he gets to his own nation, Israel: does he say, “We will crush those wicked people, because we’re the good guys”? No, he does not!  Amos preaches:

 

 

 Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

 

Amos warns the Israelites that God is angry with them, angrier than at the Philistines or the Edomites for their war crimes, or at Judah for its religious failures; God is angry at the Israelites, because they have oppressed the poor, their own neighbors and kin, and grown rich and happy off their injustice. No matter how righteous they may be in their own eyes, no matter how bad their enemies are, they will be punished because they have gotten rich by impoverishing their countrymen.

If we stopped with Deuteronomy, we might think that every rich person is being rewarded by God and every poor person punished. If we stopped with the Prophets, we might assume that every rich person was someone who hadn’t been punished by God yet, but would be. John Calvin taught that when we read Scripture, we need to read it entire, and bring the unclear passages in conversation with the clear ones. In saying this, he recognized that there would be points like this that were unclear, either because they contradicted our expectations or seemed to contradict each other. Even in a single book, like Proverbs, we see this sort of tension. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice;” while Proverbs 20:13 states, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” So Proverbs tells us that poverty is caused by the laziness of the poor person, but elsewhere says it is because of oppression and injustice. We sin if we ignore either possibility, since both are the word of God.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 1)

August 1, 2017

 

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything

 

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,  and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”  have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.  Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?  Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                   You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors

—–James 2:1-9

 

I read on the internet that nostalgia for the 1980s is stronger than ever; and if it’s on the internet it must be true. (I’m still waiting for that miracle hair tonic I bought to work, but the Nigerian prince I’ve been chatting with assures me that it will.) I am never one to question a trend, so I would like to take a moment to remember Cyndi Lauper, a singer whose vocal range was only matched by her far-ranging hairstyles. You may remember that she, like all girls, just wanna have fun, but I always preferred the song “Money Changes Everything.” It’s a bouncy tune, but the first verse tells an old, sad tale: we said we would love each other forever, but I’m leaving you because I found someone new. We loved each other once, but money changes everything.

I said it was an old tale, because it is as old as the Bible. When Moses led a group of escaping slaves into the desert, no one had very much. Each had what they could carry, if that. And God led them forty years in the wilderness, and they lived day to day on the manna they gathered, which would not last and could not be hoarded but had to be received from God a day at a time, so that they could learn that one does not live by bread alone, but by relying solely on every word that comes from the mouth of God. They were equal in their need of God’s faithfulness. But the Torah warns the people not to become complacent when they enter into the land of milk and honey and become comfortable or even rich, not to become self-assured and to think that their own intelligence and industriousness has brought them all this wealth and that they deserve it, when really it is a pure gift to be received with gratitude as a gift.[1]

A good parent prepares and educates the children before they come into their own money, so that when they do they will know how to handle it and not waste it on things that are harmful, or use it to hurt others. In the same way God gave the people laws that would guide their business lives when they settled into towns and became farmers and traders. In Leviticus 19:35-36 we read that God’s people are to be honest in business, and not to cheat each other by having fixed scales to use when they were weighing out grain and produce to be traded. In 19:9-10 he tells them to leave a little something in the fields when they harvest, so that the poor and the immigrant can gather food for themselves. (Imagine that: treating foreigners the same way they were to treat their own citizens! But that’s another sermon.) Every seven years, creditors were to forgive all debts owed to fellow Hebrews (Deut. 15).  There are strict rules for lending to protect the rights and the dignity of the poor person, limiting what the rich lender can take as collateral and what measures the lender can take to collect on the debt (Deut. 24). In Deuteronomy Moses promises, “There need be no poor among you, for God will richly bless you if only you obey;” but later he says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Why did God say “there need be no poor among you,” and then “There will always be poor people”? Is it because God knew the people would not obey?

To be continued.  Next:  the prophets.

[1] Deuteronomy 8

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

July 15, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Those Ain’t Your Friends

A reading from the book of Job, chapter 42, verses seven to nine.

After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.

 

 

One of the first things I learned in college was that I could save a lot of time in the morning if I stopped shaving. Another thing I learned was that Caymanians hate beards. When I started meeting my Caymanian relatives after I grew my beard, I heard many complaints. My grandmother said to my sister that seeing me with a beard was the greatest tragedy of her life. She was a widow. I’ll let that sit there a bit.

My great-uncle Dillon was more direct. He told me directly that I should shave. I told him that many of my friends at school thought it looked good. He replied, “Those ain’t your friends, they’re your enemies!”

Now, Dillon was a bit of a jerk, and despite what my Caymanian relatives thought or think, I saw several of my friends trying to grow beards after I grew mine so I still think I was onto something. But what I want to focus on today is not my choice of facial styling. I’m interested in that saying. Dillon was PROBABLY not saying that those people who I thought were my friends were really wishing me harm. What he meant was that they were giving me bad advice, they were misinformed, and they were harming me when they tried to help.

Our scripture for today is about three of the best-meaning, least-helpful friends in the whole Bible. We should pay attention to this, both in what they do and what they fail to do. I believe this book has much to teach us today, because we humans are slow and still haven’t learned all the lessons of the book of Job.

First, let’s be clear that they really were good friends. Job 2:11-13 says that they each heard that Job had suffered many calamities, and met together to comfort him. When they saw him, he was so sick and so miserable, having lost his wealth, his children and finally his health, that he was unrecognizable. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I can barely manage a few words of consolation at a funeral; they sat with their friend seven days! They didn’t just say they were sorry he was sick; they stayed and shared his pain with him. They didn’t speak until they were spoken too. The writer wants us to understand both the depths of Job’s suffering, and the depths of his friends’ suffering for him. It’s important both for providing us with the emotional background to feel the story, and the information to interpret what happens next.

Finally, Job breaks the silence and curses the day he was born. It is an expression of despair and anguish, an expression of Job’s feeling that his life is miserable, and meaningless. In death, he says, the rich and the poor, the prisoner and the taskmaster, the wicked and the good are all together, and whatever happened before no longer matters. Suffering is bad enough, but meaningless suffering is worse; we need a sense of meaning or a goal to help us keep going through the rough times. Job says he sees no meaning in his life, or in life at all. Perhaps that is why Job’s friends thought a little theology would help. The bulk of the book is a series of admonitions from the friends, and replies from Job. Initially, the eldest friend, Eliphaz, seems to have thought that he was comforting Job. He assured him that life does indeed have meaning. If one is suffering, it is because one has done something wrong. No one suffers meaninglessly or unjustly; God would not be so callous. Therefore, Job need only repent of his sin, and his prosperity will return. Job insists that he has done nothing to deserve misery and suffering; it has just happened to him, and there is no reason why. Later speeches by the friends become more insistent; not only do they seem determined to reveal Job’s supposed guilt for his own good so he can repent, but they begin to get a little angry at him because he seems to be finding fault with God. Their intentions seem to drift from comforting their friend, to analyzing his situation and instructing him, to rebuking him and defending God. What they are saying was, in fact, a common theology of the time. As stated in the book of Deuteronomy, God punishes sin. If Israel lost a battle or was oppressed by an enemy, it was because the nation had sinned. If an individual was sick, that person had sinned, or maybe someone close—God was said to visit the sins of the fathers on their children. And likewise, if someone was well-off, it was because that person was blessed by God, and thus was both virtuous and pious. We see claims like Proverbs 13:4: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” We see this sort of reasoning even in the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written down, when Jesus encounters a man born blind and his disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

It is an idea that is as old as the earliest written Scriptures and carried through even until today.   Today we call this thinking “the Prosperity Gospel,” and it has been particularly well-suited to the American character. There is certainly Biblical justification for this idea, although many of today’s Prosperity preachers don’t make much use of Scripture. And in some ways, it can be a very comforting idea. If I am feeling miserable, I can do something about it; I can work harder, I can pray more, I can tithe and show my faith and faithfulness, and then God will reward me with wealth, health and happiness. And if I am feeling great, then I can feel even better because the Prosperity Gospel tells me that my good fortune shows that I am not merely lucky or merely blessed, but smarter, more industrious, more virtuous, more devout, more worthy than other people. It is no wonder that Prosperity preachers, from Norman Vincent Peale to Paula White, have been so popular with the rich and powerful, and why they in turn have been so enamored of those worldly celebrities. Unfortunately, as Job’s friends show us, this theology has a dark side: it is very easy to move from “if I obey God, God will bless me” to “God has cursed you, you are miserable, therefore you must have done something wrong; you deserve to be miserable, because God would not allow undeserved suffering.” Often today we take it a step further than Job’s friends did, moving from “you deserve to suffer” to “I need not care about you, because you deserve to suffer.” The great evangelist Jonathan Edwards, preaching nearly three hundred years ago when this country was still a group of British colonies, opened this door a crack when he said that after the Last Judgment the righteous in Heaven would look upon the suffering of the wicked in Hell, and rejoice at seeing justice done. Edwards did not, however, say that we should love our living neighbors any less, even if they are wicked, for they are still loved by God and forgiven sinners like us, and Christ died that they too might repent and be saved.[1] But too often today we get ahead of ourselves and are quick to turn away from those who have done wrong in our eyes. And Edwards knew that not all who suffer in this world are sinners, and not all who are at ease are righteous. He did not say we should cease to love our neighbor who was sick, or whose crops had failed, or who otherwise was suffering. But too often today, Christians do say such things. We are so obsessed with stopping the unworthy from getting a “handout” that we are willing to deny many more whose need is genuine and undeserved. And we are quick to assume that everyone who is rich has worked hard and done well and must be smarter and better and more worthy than the rest of us, when our only reason to believe this is the fact that they are rich. There’s much less interest in requiring the undeserving rich to help the deserving poor than there is in requiring the poor to contribute to the welfare of the rich. It gives us comfort to believe this, because the alternative is to admit that we don’t control our own lives, that God alone rules and rules in ways we might not understand, and that we can’t assure ourselves of wealth and health simply by tithing and working. And it gives us comfort to think that we deserve what we have and that those who lack have no claim on us because they deserve to suffer.

The writer of the book of Job wanted us to see the problems with that sort of easy equation of material comfort with spiritual worth. Even decent, well-meaning and godly men like Job’s friends, people who I think might have otherwise been better men than I am, were led astray by this idea that worldly suffering is always deserved. Their theology conflicts with their sympathy. And furthermore, they begin to rebuke Job for insisting that his suffering is not deserved, and that therefore God owes him an explanation. Job says he has searched his heart and can find no sin; he has not neglected to sacrifice and show his devotion to God, nor has he failed to show kindness and to give aid to the poor and unfortunate when he had abundance. His friends say that his current state is all the proof they need that Job has failed somehow, and that to believe otherwise is to disrespect God. No evidence that the other side can give will convince any of them. Only God’s appearance can answer the unanswerable questions raised by inexplicable sufferings. God speaks first to Job, and in fact God’s answer to Job seems a little strange. He never tells Job why he has suffered, that it was all a test to prove that Satan’s charges against Job were false. Job seems satisfied simply to realize that God is so much more than he had realized before, and that even his suffering has a place in God’s plan; he doesn’t demand to know what that place was, but humbly acknowledges his ignorance. But God is much more direct to Job’s friends, saying to Eliphaz “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is only when Job prays to God for his friends that they are forgiven, and it is only after Job forgives his friends and asks God to forgive them that his good fortune is restored.

The book of Job was written both to comfort the suffering, and to discomfort the well-off. Things happen for reasons we cannot understand from our human perspective. Because of this, we are all together, both the rich and the poor. Job comforted the suffering when he was prosperous; when his world fell apart, he found comfort from his friends, but also judgment. The attitude of the Hebrew Scriptures towards wealth and poverty is, as we have seen, mixed. If it were not, we would not need the book of Job, because there would be no unexplained or undeserved suffering. Instead, we find again and again through the ages that we do need Job, both to give voice to our mourning when we are in distress, and to remind us of our place when we are the ones who are well-off and witness the suffering of others.

[1] http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/contemplated.htm

Boredom, Anxiety and Envy: a Kierkegaardian Attempt to Understand The Trump Question (pt.4)

July 6, 2016

CONCLUSIONS

In Two Ages, Kierkegaard compares the present age to a Roman emperor, fat, bored, wandering through his palace and through life looking for something to amuse himself. He isn’t evil, exactly, so much as simply sullen, lethargic and self-centered, and desperate for something new to stimulate his senses. He torments others simply out of boredom. Likewise, Kierkegaard says, the present age delights in having a tabloid press to torment and humiliate the best and brightest, anyone who stands out from the crowd, simply so the rest of us can watch and be entertained for awhile. Kierkegaard started his authorship with a discussion of boredom, and here when he is beginning a new phase in his career he is returning to it. Boredom and envy are connected, in a way neither is to anxiety, leading Kierkegaard to mention them both in the same breath.

The connection is passion. This seems to be an easy concept to misunderstand; in The Logic of Subjectivity Louis Pojman, who is normally a pretty sharp cookie, compares Kierkegaard’s discussion of passion to Hume’s notion that “reason is a slave to the passions.” This is clearly off target, since Hume’s point is that we have no real freedom to act against our desires while Kierkegaard is saying we should strive to free ourselves from just that sort of bondage to our whims and appetites. Taking what Kierkegaard says about passion in various references and bringing it together, it is clear that the essential quality of the life of passion is that the individual feels that what he or she does matters. Don Juan, lost in the moment of pure pleasure, feels absolutely alive.[1] He is totally immersed; no part of him stands outside what he is engaged with; he is passionate. However, that sort of passion cannot survive reflection or even self-awareness; it starts to collapse as soon as it is put into words. The pre-moral, esthetic life described in Either/Or is a life lived for arbitrary goals, and thus is essentially meaningless; the more one becomes self-aware and reflective, the more one finds oneself standing outside oneself, unable to fully immerse in whatever arbitrary project one has chosen. It is simply too small. And being essentially meaningless, it is essentially boring. Don Juan can pull it off mostly because he is a fictional character in an opera, and exists only in imagination and music; a real person is never safe from the threat of self-reflection. Kierkegaard thus depicts the egoistic, pre-moral life of the esthete as something of a willful self-deceit, where the esthetic person either invests his or her life in some petty project or rotates between petty projects, and avoids boredom mostly by luck if at all.

In the age of revolution, people are swept up in a shared passion. That may not be a good thing; the same passion that led to the overthrow of tyranny also led to The Terror and to the destruction of the Napoleonic wars. Passion, in and of itself, may not be moral; but it is at least alive. People feel that things matter. Without reflection to go along with that passion, you can have wildness, irrationality, and a loss of sense of individuality; but at least you have the vital force. With both reflection and passion, you have liveliness together with self-awareness, and you have a community of moral individuals. With reflection and no passion, as in the present age, you have triviality. Nothing matters, and what’s more, we feel clever because our reflection has shown us that nothing matters so we are not being fooled. We don’t fight for the good or against the evil, because we don’t feel that either matters; we simply don’t think those words apply to us. We might temporarily flare up in some passing enthusiasm, but it soon fades because it is as arbitrary as anything else, and we lapse into bored triviality. I think of how outraged we all were when Cecil the lion was killed, for awhile, but how little most of us think about the extermination of the world’s most majestic species. No one really cares about the moral principle; they just wanted to be part of the moment and part of the crowd gathered to mourn Cecil. If anyone had actually acted on all that outrage, either to avenge Cecil or to dedicate his or her life entirely to saving Earth’s endangered animals, we would have considered it madness. It is acceptable to get angry and to tweet death threats even, to sign a petition and to talk about it endlessly on Facebook for two weeks; but then, really, you have to get on with your life, right?

In an early journal entry, written when Kierkegaard was merely a perpetual student, he wrote that he was seeking “the cause for which I can live and die.” That is what it is to live a life of passion! And that is what is lacking in the present age, according to Kierkegaard. No one has a cause. In the age of revolution, everyone has a cause, whether you are a revolutionary or a reactionary; either way, you are part of the same passion, and the revolution matters. People in a revolutionary age don’t all agree, but they all care about the same thing; even if some love it and some hate it, “it” is the same. In the age of reflection without passion, we have no cause, and those who do seem strange, even fanatical.

In this boredom, when nothing matters, our attention has no common focus and no higher focus than one another. That reflection that tells us that nothing matters turns on our neighbors, as we determine to prove that any claim to “matter” is arrogance. Therefore, we level. Leveling is the prime social expression for passionlessness, which is the literal meaning of “apathy.” The leveling society is the apathetic society, knocking down the highest out of sheer boredom.

The escape from boredom, which Kierkegaard traces through Either/Or to the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, is to choose to live a life where things do matter. As his pseudonym The Judge says, it is not to choose the good, but first to choose to allow the concepts of “good” and “evil” into one’s life. As Ron Green points out in Kierkegaard and Kant: the Hidden Debt, Kierkegaard starts with a very Kantian notion of what “ethics” means: that one lives according to the moral law that one discovers with one’s own moral reason. Just as logic is a purely mental law that dictates what is rational or irrational thinking, so the moral law is a purely rational principle that dictates what is moral or immoral action. To reject either logic or morality is certainly possible; in fact, few of us live totally logical or moral lives. But insofar as a person is not a slave to whims and appetites and irrational impulses, one lives according to these laws of rationality and morality that one finds within one’s own reason. The only way one can escape being determined by the essentially meaningless pursuits of the egoist is to choose the ethical life. When one does this, one has something far more important to deal with than whether one’s neighbor is getting too uppity; so the moral passion of the ethical life can be the antidote to envy.

Thus, the escape from boredom and from envy is the same: reject apathy and embrace the life lived for what matters. However, at this point anxiety rears its head. As Kierkegaard says, to live with the knowledge of good and evil is to live in anxiety. One first becomes aware of the distinction by becoming aware that one has done the evil, and cannot undo it, and might even do it again. The more one tries to escape from anxiety through one’s own power, the more anxious one becomes. Eventually, since anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom,” the only escape from anxiety is to try to escape from one’s own freedom. For this reason, says The Concept of Anxiety, the person may be tempted to try to immerse himself or herself in the trivial and philistine life of social conformity. I find myself to be desperately bored; I realize my life and my concerns are meaningless, and seek to find what really matters, that is, what is good; when I find it, I realize that I have in fact done what is worthless and evil, and that it still remains a tempting possibility; the more I try to live a meaningful life the more stressful and anxious I find this constant threat of falling again into what I now know to be the evil; and finally I choose to simply embrace the soulless conformity of the passionless, reflective society. Thus boredom and envy are not just the problems of those who know nothing more in life; they are much more the characteristics of those many who are actively choosing to live lives without a relationship to what is truly good.

The only true escape from anxiety and envy, according to Kierkegaard, is to choose the religious life. Again, this is a claim that is likely to be misunderstood by postmodern Americans. Most of what we typically call “religious”— social conformity and judgmentalism, blindly following a charismatic leader, allowing others to tell us the moral rules and convincing ourselves that using our own minds is somehow wicked and rebellious—- this is actually what Kierkegaard would consider more of that anxious, envious, self-immolating life that Kierkegaard labels “objectivity,” “idolatry” or “demonic.” True religiousness starts with the attempt to find the good: that is, with the ethical. For Kierkegaard, the attempt to live an ethical life by following one’s moral reason serves much the same function as the Law in Paul’s epistles and Luther’s theology.[2] One must first try to live according to the ethical, and fail, and in failing realize one’s need for grace. At the same time, grace is not there to free one from trying to live a good life; it is there to free one from the burden of one’s past failures, so that one can try again. Grace allows one to finally be free from the overwhelming burden of anxiety, which otherwise leads one to flee the whole attempt to live a life as a morally directed individual.[3] Particularly in Concept of Anxiety, but consistently throughout Kierkegaard’s authorship, “the good” is individuating; to pursue the good is to be an individual, and to try to evade the personal effort of being an individual moral agent before God is to choose the evil.

The irony of envy is that from the religious perspective, it is right. Envy says, “You are no better than me;” the religious person says, “Indeed, I am no better than you; we are both individuals before God, dependent entirely on grace.” Accepting this is what allows the truly religious person to escape the bondage of envy. The faithful person has the complete security of being worthwhile and even loved by God, despite knowing himself or herself to be morally unworthy of that love. The faithful one thus has no need to enviously tear down others, and can rejoice in their value before God as much as in his or her own. Therefore, if you see someone whose sense of self-worth is dependent on asserting superiority over others or tearing them down, you can be sure that this is not “religious” zeal but is in fact faithlessness.

The desire to tear down scientists and scholars and “the elites,” while adulating some self-promoting huckster whose only claims to superiority are the purely mathematical ones of wealth and popularity, is an expression of faithlessness and the bondage of sin, as Kierkegaard understands it. This is true whether the would-be idol is a political demagogue or a religious charlatan, or some combination of the two. It is a sign of an age that has, in Kierkegaard’s words, “annulled the principle of contradiction.” It is an age that fears to let Yes be Yes and No remain No, and wants to eliminate all ultimate distinctions between true and false, good and evil, logical and irrational, so it can avoid having to make a decisive choice. The present age says that all truths are partial and relative and based on perspective, so there is no need to rationally discuss or to question one’s own views; the reflective and passionate view is humbled by reflection but inspired to seek truth nevertheless, admitting that the quest for truth is never-ending while remaining devoted to the quest regardless.

When “the principle of contradiction has been abrogated,” as Kierkegaard said using the language of Hegelian philosophy, there is no absolute truth. Every concept is simply one side of a larger reality. Hegel still had an historical optimism underlying his annihilation of the distinction between truth and falsehood, good and evil; he believed history is progressing towards a state of greater human consciousness, and eventually the race will attain an apprehension of reality that encompasses all of the various perspectives. But for Hegel, that day is not yet; in the meantime, your moral values are simply expressions of your culture’s values and your own class interests. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the French Revolution was succeeded by the Munich Putsch, that optimism was harder to sustain. Today we have even more thoroughly abrogated the distinction between true and false, epistemologically and ethically, in what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is no truth, so anyone who claims to know truth is simply an oppressor trying to impose his (maybe her) will on others; thus the only morally proper and epistemologically correct option is to admit all views are equally valid, even contradictory ones. The problem with that is that the “tolerance” and “honesty” that supposedly demand this admission are themselves moral and epistemological virtues, and thus themselves become victims of reflection. What we end up with is moral nihilism and a contest of irrational wills. As Harry Frankfurt discusses in On Bullshit, today we have a whole category of verbal behavior that is neither truth nor lying, because the speaker is simply unconcerned with either sharing or avoiding the truth. And this may explain Trump’s method and success. Donald Trump does not lie; he bullshits. He says whatever will serve his purpose, and is not concerned with whether what he says is true. Much of the time he does not even know. And to the morally and intellectually vacuous public today, this seems entirely appropriate. In a world where no one can “dictate” truth, and where truth itself cannot dictate, every single person can believe whatever he or she wants to believe. If I want to believe that slavery never happened, or that solar energy sucks heat out of the air and will freeze us all to death unless we burn more coal, or that most American Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers even though I don’t actually even know how many Muslims there are in America, then I have a right to my opinion. Truth and goodness are replaced by the language of “rights,” and the stupidest and most selfish has as much right as the wisest, for we are all equal. The ability to get others to agree with you is seen not as a triumph for fact over fantasy, but just as a victory of one will over the others. From the point of view of the postmodern person, there is no truth and the best leader is merely the best bullshitter; and the bullshitter who has persuaded the most people to give him or her the most money is clearly the best. From the point of view of the one who is religious in Kierkegaard’s sense of the word, the wisest is the one who recognizes that there is truth, who loves the truth (particularly moral truth) and who attempts to live according to the truth so that his or her life might have some real meaning, but who knows that human existence is always to strive for truth, never to possess it completely. That person will know that anyone might have a piece of truth, and thus anyone is worth listening to, just as Socrates listened to politicians and slaves alike as he went around Athens asking questions. And just as Socrates seemed more than a little odd in a society dominated by demagogues and Sophists, so today any real truth-seeker seems goofy at least, if not absolutely insane. The popular teachers in the days of Socrates were the ones who said “man is the measure of all things, what is that it is, and what is not that it is not;” and the popular leaders were the ones who did not try to make their citizens better morally or better informed, but took them where they were and pandered to their appetites. And in the days of Socrates, that sort of relativism led to moral and epistemological nihilism, leaving nothing to guide the society but the naked ambition of its politicians; and themselves being unguided either by moral principles or factual truth, they led the nation into defeat and destruction. The age without faith is the age without truth, without a love for truth, and thus without guidance how to live or what to choose, a mindless herd following the loudest voice without knowledge of whether it is being led to the sheepfold, or to be sheared, or to the slaughterhouse.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” in Either/Or, v. I, edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) pp. 45ff

[2] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 76-107

[3] see W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) pp. 40-57

 

Notes on “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues”

March 3, 2016

Cochran, Elizabeth Andrew.  “Jesus and the Cardinal Virtues:  a Response to Monika Hellwig.”  Theology Today Volume 65 (2008), pp.  81-94

  1. Looks at the idea that Christians should explore how a consideration of the cardinal virtues can help the church to understand and articulate its public witness.”
  2. If the virtues are, as Aristotle says, rooted in an understanding of human nature independent of faith, this would give the church a natural common ground with moral thinkers outside the Christian faith.
  3. By contrast, Augustine is committed to the idea that we only understand the virtues by seeing them expressed in Christ.
  4. God is the Good, so any goodness must approximate God
  5. The virtues are those character traits that help us to lead a more faithful life, since a life spent in imitation of God is a “good life.”
  6. We know what God is like by looking at Christ, so a life lived in imitation of Christ is a life spent in pursuit of the good. We have no knowledge of what God is like, and thus no idea of how to live, apart from this revelation.
  7. So to fulfill our human nature, we cannot simply look at human nature from various angles and conclude that the virtues are those habits that fulfill our human needs; our knowledge gathered in this Aristotelian manner would be only an examination of fallen human nature by corrupted human reason. Instead, we must look to Christ; living the virtues as revealed in his life will fulfill our own lives.
  8. Aristotle is committed to the idea that the virtues are interconnected, but not simply one. Augustine believes the virtues are ultimately one thing, and thus vice is ultimately one thing.
  9. Humility is seen in God’s Incarnation; God humbled Himself in becoming a human being for our sakes.
  10. Humility is seen in the life of Jesus as a humble person who submits entirely to God

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

February 29, 2016

Notes on City of God, Book XIV, chapter 13

 

 

This is relevant to my paper because I am researching Augustine and Kierkegaard on humility. Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, argues that Kierkegaard did not promote any particular values or virtues, except a vacuous “sincerity” of commitment to totally arbitrary values chosen by the individual. In this, it provides an important step in his historical argument that the virtue tradition has collapsed, and with it all notion of good or evil, and that moral language cannot be salvaged except by adopting MacIntyre’s own communitarian version of secular Thomistic virtue ethics. But in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? MacIntyre offers a more detailed description of the Augustinian tradition, including a passing mention of Kierkegaard. Understanding the Augustinian tradition, and possibly Kierkegaard’s place in it, has several important possible consequences. First, if Kierkegaard is indeed part of the Augustinian tradition, that means MacIntyre’s depiction of the history of liberalism’s breakdown is seriously weakened. This in turn undermines his insistence that his philosophy is the only alternative. Furthermore, if Kierkegaard is a modern mediator of the Augustinian virtue tradition, that means that the 20th century successors to Kierkegaard, particularly the dialectical theologians, may offer a valid alternative for the postmodern world as well.

The scholars we have seen have pointed out the importance of humility in Augustine’s personal life. In the Confessions and in his sermons we repeatedly see him call on God for guidance and renewal, pointing to both a sense of personal humility and the importance of humility as a hermeneutical tool. This is reinforced when we see Augustine’s repeated references to the limits of human reason, including his own, and reason’s inadequacy to fully comprehend the vast treasury of God’s wisdom and truth. But the essence of the Augustinian tradition is that humility is not just a useful virtue, but the cardinal virtue; and pride is the original sin. Adam and Eve sinned because the serpent’s promise that “you will be as gods, knowing good and evil” was so flattering to their pride. As Augustine says, they wanted to stand on their own instead of relying on God. They wished, he says, to be “self-pleasers.” The irony, he argues is that as created beings only, they could only be “like gods” by participating in God, using similar language to how Plato describes a merely earthy triangle as having its triangular nature by participating in the Form of Triangle, or a good act or good person as participating in the Form of The Good. By turning away from God in pride and in a desire to be like self-sufficient gods, they became less godlike and fell away from God; had they remained humble and turned towards God they would have been more like God, and as much gods as their created nature was capable of being.

To use terms in keeping with MacIntyre’s description of a moral tradition, the “fulfillment” that the Augustinian tradition aims at is oneness with God. This is so because, in its understanding, God is Being, to be close to God is to exist fully and to turn away from God is to exist less. The act of will in turning one’s heart and one’s attention away from God makes the individual exist less, to have less being; but to exist at all is still to participate in God to some extent. Therefore, the proud person who turns away from God becomes a lower grade of being, less fulfilled, less “god-like,” but does not completely cease to exist. To be completely fulfilled (or “happy” in the sense of that first great moral tradition, Aristotelianism) one must be humble and turn to God, to “participate in” God (in Augustine’s words) or to be “grounded in” God (to use the metaphor of Tillich, a more modern and liberal successor). When thus grounded in or participating in God, one is more good and more fulfilled. This means that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O Lord.” It also means that God will make the tree good, and then the fruits will be good; when the humble person turns to God, that person’s will becomes more inclined to do good. Thus humility is the cardinal virtue, just as pride is the mortal sin from which all other sins flow.

Possible links Kierkegaard:

First, as discussed in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, the near-simultaneous release of the Fragments, the Concept of Anxiety and the upbuilding discourse discussing Adam’s Fall gives a picture of how sin leads to the desire of the individual to control his or her world out of a feeling of anxiety, how these efforts lead only to greater anxiety and to the complete bondage of the will, and how only the appearance of God in our existence in the person of Jesus can give us a way out of that anxiety so we can begin to turn back towards God.

Second, Hamann’s empiricist epistemology is based on his understanding of the revelation of Christ. The world gives itself, reveals itself to the senses, just as God reveals Himself to us through Christ. Truth must give itself, and the individual can only receive this truth if he or she is humble enough to accept it. By contrast, Hamann claims, the Enlightenment is a time when human pride led to attempts such as Descartes’ to found human knowledge on the efforts of human reason, which led only to greater confusion and disagreement; which is why Hamann saw this period as more of an “Endarkenment.” Kierkegaard shares Hamann’s empiricist epistemology about the world, together with his Augustinian/Lutheran metaphysical beliefs about God as Creator who reveals Himself in Christ.

Humility is necessary to understanding not only God, but also this world. First, without humility, we are tempted to fall into rationalism or other attempts to gain knowledge that is not revealed to us through our senses or to seek more certainty than the nature of our existence allows. Hume’s mistake (from Hamann’s perspective) is also a sort of pride, though different from Rationalism’s. Hume’s mitigated skepticism is too proud to risk error, and thus holds back from making any commitments. However, Hamann argues, to refuse to believe the truth is just as bad as believing an error: both are mistakes. Rationalism believes too much and tries to go beyond the world’s self-disclosure; Hume believes too little and refuses to accept the fullness of the world’s self-disclosure. Humility accepts the need for revelation while also recognizing that one’s own imperfect and limited nature means that one will never have a full and perfect revelation and will in fact sometimes make mistakes; but that is the price one pays for being open to the truth.

Notes on “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.”

January 31, 2016

Fitzgerald, Allan. “Naming the Mystery: An Augustinian Ideal.” Religions 2015, v. 6; pp. 204-210.

 

The author says this article grew out of his experiences teaching Augustine. Generally, the classes tend to center around “issues” such as whether unbaptized infants go to Hell or Augustine’s theory of predestination. Dr. Fitzgerald asserts that this is the wrong approach, because it misses understanding Augustine himself or his approach. When challenged about infants, his response was to rely on apostolic authority and to say, in effect, “I don’t understand this, but I am a mere human and no apostle. It is not my place to argue with God or to claim to understand everything; the riches of God exceed all human understanding. Even if it seems absurd to us, if Scripture says that salvation comes to those who are baptized in the name of Jesus and only to those, we cannot argue. If God so wills it, it makes sense to God even if it is beyond our comprehension.”

Similarly, his sermons contain claims like “I did not study this today, so that now I could be aided by your prayers and together God will reveal the truth to us.” In both cases, Augustine asserts his own limitations and denies any personal authority to pronounce dogma; it is all to the left to God to teach. He as the preacher is just as reliant on the Holy Spirit as are the laypeople listening to his sermon.

Critics have claimed that

  1. These examples, particularly relying on apostolic authority rather than trying to argue and prove his views, shows a lack of intellectual rigor.
  2. Some of this, particularly the sermons, may be just rhetorical ploys to draw the audience in and make them co-opt the message.

Fitzgerald argues that Augustine’s protestations of ignorance are neither feigned modesty nor intellectual laziness. Rather, Augustine is asserting that there is truth, seeking truth is necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to human understanding and that some important things are simply beyond us. In those cases, Augustine names the mystery, points out what it is and the general borders where the truth must lie, but by claiming it is a mystery asserts both that there is something there and that it is not within our grasp.

In Fitzgerald’s view, truth is something of a horizon for Augustine. We strive towards it, but we can never reach it. But that does not mean we abandon the quest, either. Augustine could not help but ask these questions, and he thought it was a human need to want and to strive for these answers. Doing so is a spiritual exercise as well as intellectual growth. And it is an exercise in humility. Humility recognizes one’s limits and dependence on other powers than oneself.

Relativism says there is no truth. This was intended to promote humility; the “dictatorship of relativism” came about as intellectuals told others that any truth claim was innately oppressive and that everyone has a right to his or her own “truth.” But in fact, relativism promotes arrogance. The rise of climate deniers, voodoo economics, anti-vaxxers and so on reflects a general trend in postmodern America, and indeed in postmodern society in general: the assertion of unfounded beliefs as “truth” even when those beliefs are contradicted by overwhelming evidence and ironclad logic. If indeed there is no “truth,” then my belief that the Freemasons manipulate the weather with chemtrails is just as valid as your belief that there is a general trend of climate warming beginning with the Industrial Revolution due to the burning of fossil fuels. I am free to believe and act on my beliefs, even if it means burning tires to stave off the Ice Age the Freemasons are trying to trigger.

By contrast, humility says there is a truth, and that we must accept responsibility for seeking it, and that we must submit to it. It also says that I admit I might be wrong, and you (if you have a realistic humility) admit the same. Therefore I have to listen to you and agree to test our views by every available means. We argue and debate.

Religiously, we see this humility in Augustine’s motto “I believe in order that I may understand.” God reveals truth; we can try to understand it as best we are able, but we don’t create it.

I see a parallel between this and Kant’s view of the transcendental ideas. It is useful, for example, to assume the existence of God as a way to tie all our experience together; such a belief can further investigation into phenomenal reality. If we assume that reality is simply absurd, we will give up sooner; having faith that there is a first cause or ultimate unity will cause us to push the boundaries of knowledge further and to discover connections we never would have otherwise. Still, Kant says, ultimately we cannot prove the transcendental ideas to be either true or false. Pushing for these truths may lead us somewhere and help us to grow, but ultimately these ideas are beyond our grasp.

Methodologically, Augustine invites his readers or hearers to join in the search for truth, rather than to simply passively receive. Humility denies authority. Augustine may feel his study and prayers have revealed some part of the truth and that he needs to share that, but he also places himself in the same place as the hearer of the sermon, relying on prayer to reveal the truth.

As Fitzgerald presents it, there are parallels to Socratic method here; the teacher does not claim to be the “wise one” but only to love the Truth, to be a fellow traveler, a co-disciple (condiscipuli). I am struck by how similar this is to Kierkegaard as well. In his discourses he renounces authority, and asks his hearer “does it not seem so to you as well?” His pseudonyms are entirely aimed at placing the reader at a point where he or she makes the discovery and the decision. But all of this humility does not mean Kierkegaard denies there is truth, or that it does not matter what truth one accepts. Just the opposite: it is the truth that humbles, and the esthete (who does not accept the existence of good/evil or true/false, but leaves everything to will) who is the willful relativist tending ultimately towards solipsism and derangement.

 

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1: The Hobbit

December 27, 2014

Theological Reflections on J.R.R. Tolkien, pt. 1:  The Hobbit

 

Tolkien confessed that, if he had been writing an allegory of the modern world, he would have been compelled to make the hellish consequences of war much worse than they are in The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would not have been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied.”

—from The Gospel According to Tolkien

 

 

Having completed a short study of Tolkien’s work and thought, I now look back and consider how his theology stacks up to the popular theological currents today. It is true that Tolkien was not a professional theologian was not really even “doing theology;” but then, neither are many of the most influential theologians in the U.S. today. In fact, modern American religious history, from William Miller to Billy Sunday to Bill Bright, has often shown the untrained theologian to be more influential than the “scholar;” and why not? Scholars tend to write for other scholars; at best, they teach somebody (a pastor or teacher or judge or whatever) who eventually goes on to translate the esoteric intellectualizing into some sort of life-philosophy or public policy. What is rare, though, is to find an “amateur” (in the true sense: one who practices an art for the love of it rather than for money) who has the insight Tolkien. As I look forward to the release of the final Hobbit movie, and as I anticipate the convening of a new Congress, I am struck by the contrasting theological themes that play out in Middle Earth and The Political Landscape. In brief, The Lord of the Rings can be fruitfully seen as a critique of Christian Zionism, and The Hobbit as a critique of the Prosperity Gospel; and together, they offer a valuable comparison to the dominant strains of The Religious Right.

Tolkien was not an ascetic. All the biographical discussions I have read affirm that. However, he does not equate money with virtue, or see comfort as automatically indicative of divine favor. Today, many (not all) of the largest churches are non-denominational megachurches preaching some variation of The Prosperity Gospel: if you tithe, and follow the pastor’s directions on social-political issues such as gay marriage, you will become wealthy and happy; if you are not wealthy and happy, you are sinning, and need to give more money, be more socially judgmental and more stridently anti-intellectual. There is a direct cause-effect taught in many of these megachurches; and this theology is spreading beyond the U.S. to Africa. Tolkien’s heroes, by contrast, know better. Bilbo is not a monk; he enjoys his six meals a day, his pipe and beer and comfortable home and nice clothes. And when we meet him, he probably does believe he “deserves” all that he has, since he has always been a good society man and never done anything unusual. But when he leaves his home, his views on wealth moderate. He becomes like Luke’s “Unjust Steward,” who uses his wealth not to make more wealth, but to make friends. He gives away all of the treasure he has rightfully earned from the dragon’s hoard; and when he is pressed to accept some reward, consents only to take as much as he can easily transport home. It is hard to tell whether he is really wealthier after plundering Smaug or not; he gives away all the troll hoard and spends much of the dragon treasure buying back his own belongings from his “heirs” after he has returned home only to find he has been declared dead. What has changed is that he holds his property more loosely; or rather, it holds him more loosely.

Tolkien’s characters show that some wealth is useful and contributes to happiness; but too much is perhaps worse than not enough. The Master of Lake-Town ends up dying alone in the wilderness with the dragon-gold he has stolen from the town. Thorin too ends up dead as a result of his greed. Smaug has literally absorbed much of his treasure, his skin embedded with countless gems; and in the end they lie with his carcass under the lake, considered cursed by those who know of them. The dragon hoard brings death to those who covet it most; but still, it proves to be a blessing to those who hold it lightly and pass it on freely. It is through trade, not theft or conquest, that prosperity returns to Dale.

Tolkien does not demonize wealth. He does not say that those who have comfortable lives are automatically “oppressors” who need to be overthrown. In fact, he points to the goblins’ hatred of the “prosperous” as one of their many unsavory qualities.[1] He shows none of the Marxist-inspired disdain for wealth and authority, which we commonly see in liberation theology; and he shows little of the Neo-platonic asceticism that appears in much Christian mysticism and monasticism. Pleasure is good, in moderation. His heroes often do renounce wealth, sometimes for many years (as did Aragorn when he became a Ranger); but when they do it is as a means to an end, and when that end is achieved they can enjoy the good things in this life again. What he does reject is the idolization of wealth. And here is where so much of today’s theology leaves the path of wisdom, which Tolkien has marked for us. The central, simple message of the Prosperity Gospel is that if you give up some money, God will give you more money. God becomes little more than a banker who pays extravagant interest on whatever you loan him. You are giving up something in this world, in order to gain something in this world. That’s not faith; that’s trading. When wealth is the primary motivation for worshipping God, the primary means by which you worship God (through tithing), and the primary or sole expression of God’s good will and the state of one’s God-relationship, wealth has in fact become God. This deification of wealth is what The Hobbit warns us against. To that extent, I would say the movies are a loss over the book; the book does not have so many side-plots or exciting fight scenes to obscure this point. Thorin’s lust for the Arkenstone echoes the acquisitiveness of this kin and forbearers who dug so deep that they claimed the fabulous heart of the mountain for themselves. Tolkien suggests that this was the event that drew the dragon to them. Too much wealth and too much adoration of their own wealth summoned the incarnation of Greed, which is what Smaug represents. Lust for his hoard destroys some, nearly destroys others, and is only truly a blessing for those who seem to desire it least. The wise and the good show themselves by surrendering their wealth when it is appropriate. In a material sense, Bilbo’s condition is little changed at the end of the book. While the Prosperity Gospel says that the righteous tither will grow more wealthy, Bilbo takes great risk, suffers great deprivation, and gives up most of his legitimate reward to help others, and in the end is right back where he started: in his own hobbit-hole, smoking a pipe and enjoying the company of Gandalf and one of the thirteen dwarves. Whatever he gained from his adventure, if it is measured in prosperity it was a very bad bargain; so much effort for so little gain! The famous Prosperity Gospel preacher Rev. Fredrick Price said in an interview that God wants us to be prosperous, and that if anyone believes in God and is not wealthy then he or she is “missing the mark.”[2] This is a fascinating phrase, since “missing the mark” is the literal translation of the Greek word “harmatia,” which is the word most translators of the Greek original tests of the New Testament translate as “sin.” Price is saying, essentially, that if you are poor then you are a sinner; that is the essence of the Prosperity Gospel. To be without money shows that you are without God, and to be with God is to be with money. It is this easy equation of God and Money that The Hobbit warns us against, not by thundering sermons against greed but by gently telling us a child’s fairy tale, and in the process showing us how one ought, and ought not, to be oriented towards the material goods of this world.

 

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill.”

[2] Interviewed by Dr. Randal Balmer, in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: a journey into the evangelical subculture of America; pt. 3, “Coming of Age”. Isis Productions, Chicago; 1993