I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Off into the woods for a few days

As of today, Saturday, I'm off into the woods for a few days of camping, reading, writing, etc. I shall return next Thursday, the 4th.....but that will not keep me from posting, of course. I have a scheduled post set to pop up in a few days.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Love and Divine Union: Exegetical Notes on Ephesians 3:14-19

For this reason I bow my knee before the father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, in order that he might give to you according to the riches of his glory/divinity (doxes), empowering you to be strong through his spirit in the inside person (eso anthropon), Christ living in you (katoikeo) through faith in your hearts, being firmly rooted and firmly established in love (agape), in order that you might be able to fully understand with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, to know the surpassing knowledge (gnosis) of the love (agape) of Christ, in order that you might be filled to all the fullness of God.

In this post, I would like to share a few exegetical notes here, commenting on specific phrases, etc. In the next post, I will provide a few summary thoughts on the passage taken as a whole.

Exegetical notes of interest:

Verses 14 through 19 are are all one, long sentence, a continuous prayer made by Paul on behalf of the believers in Ephesus. Paul prays that the believers in Ephesus might experience a union with God through Christ and a comprehension of divine love.

The family of God the Father (v. 14-15)
In these verses, Paul suggests that every "family" takes its name from the "father." This brings the entire cosmos into the family of God.

"The father, then, is the Creator and Lord of all family groupings; their existence and significance is dependent on him." (A.T. Lincoln's Word Biblical Commentary, p. 203)

Clearly Paul is speaking here, not just of those who believe but of the entire cosmos.

"The God who is Father of all families is the same God who is Father of Jesus Christ and who is at work to redeem a cosmos which has become alienated from him." (Lincoln, p. 203)

Compare Ephesians 1:10 as the plan in the fullness of time, to unite all in Christ, those in heaven and on earth.

Whether Paul is making a universalist claim here in his letter to the Ephesians is not really the point. What is the point, I think, is that he presents a powerful and positive vision for a time when all things might be brought together in Christ. In other words, universalism is clearly the end goal and vision of the Gospel: uniting all things together because all things already "derive their name" from God the father.

Giving of the divine glory v. 16
God is giving. To me this is one of the most basic truth of the Gospel: that God gives. The Gospel is the gift. In verse 16, Paul is praying that God’s gift would be of God’s own self.

The NIV translates the doxes of verse 16 as "glorious riches," but this seems as though it entirely misses the structure of the Greek, unless perhaps I am missing something. I translate this (as do most of the other translations) as "the riches of his doxes"; that is, Paul is praying that God would give out of the richness of God's own glory and divinity.

Some of us may perhaps be used to thinking that this doxes, this glory and divinity of God, belongs to God alone. For example, in Romans 3:23 Paul says that all of have sinned and fallen short of the "glory/divinity" of God. And "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen." (NRS, Romans 11:36) However, in this verse, Paul's prayer is clearly that humanity would share of God's divinity and glory.

Paul suggests something similar in 2 Corinthians 3:18 "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (NRS)

Also note that in 2 Peter 1:4 humanity can "participate (or "partake," "share" koinovos) in the divine nature (Theios phusis). John speaks repeatedly of "abiding" in Christ and records Jesus' prayer in John 17:22, "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one" (NRS, emphasis added).

The “inside person” v. 16
Paul prays that God would give of his/her own glory and divinity. The gift of God’s divine nature is for the purpose of empowering the “inside person” (eso anthropon). To me, this language implies the “self” that we have discussed. As Kierkegaard says, “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself.” There is a sense in which we have an inner self (or spirit or soul) that we relate to and with. A self has a certain consciousness of being a self. As human beings, we contemplate our place in the universe and the cosmos, we form a sense of identity, we look for meaning, try to discover our purpose, and we reflect on ourselves. We ask the “who am I?” questions.

Paul affirms this existential sense of ourselves with the interesting term, the “inside person.”

Lincoln has some interesting commentary on this term:
The strengthening through the Spirit is to take place in “the inner person,” a notion in popular use derived from Hellenistic anthropology of a dualistic variety. Plato had talked similarly of “the person’s inward person” (Rep. 9.589a), and Philo wrote also of “the person within the person,” which he equated with “the mind” (Congr. 97; cf. also Plant. 42; Deter. 23). In the Corpus Hermeticum this inner person is held to be imprisoned in Adam’s earthly body (1:15; 9:5; 13:7, 14), while in later Gnostic anthropology, according to the church fathers, it is used as one of the terms for the divine spark within humanity (cf. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.21.4, 5; Hippolytus, Ref. 5.7.35, 36; cf. also K. Rudolph, Gnosis, tr. R. McL. Wilson [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983] 88–113). The terminology is found in Paul in 2 Cor 4:16 and Rom 7:22, and R. Jewett (Paul’s Anthropological Terms [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971] 391–401) has in fact argued that Paul took over the term from Corinthian Gnostics. It is just as likely, however, that he was familiar with the phrase “the inner person” from its popular usage and chose to use it for his own purposes—in 2 Cor 4:16 in connection with the believer, and in Rom 7:22 in connection with the Jew under the law. In 2 Cor 4:16, it stands for the inner part of a person’s being, not accessible to sight, where the renovating power of the age to come is now in operation. It appears to be equivalent to the term “heart” used in the surrounding context in 2 Cor 4:6; 5:12. Elsewhere, in Rom 12:2, it is the mind, in particular, that is said to be renewed. In Rom 7:22, the inner person is equivalent to the mind (cf. vv 23, 25), and the focus is on the ability to make value judgments. Of course, context determines whether the use of such language conveys dualistic connotations. In Paul these are not present, for the inner person appears to be that part of a person which is accessible to God but which, in the case of the person under the law, is ultimately in bondage to the powers of the flesh and sin, and, in the case of the believer, is being constantly renewed. Here in Ephesians the concept is used in a similar way. It is not to be equated with the new person or new humanity of Eph 4:24 (contra Schlier, 169), but is instead the base of operation at the center of a person’s being where the Spirit does his strengthening and renovating work. In the parallel clause in v 17a its equivalent is again the heart, and in 4:23 it is the spirit of the mind which is said to be renewed. 1 Pet 3:4 has an interesting variation on this terminology when it speaks of ὁ κρυπτὸς τῆς καρδίας ἄνθρωπος, “the hidden person of the heart.” (p. 205)

For more on Kierkegaard’s view of self, see Kierkegaard and the self as well as Kierkegaard and the Self: The Fantasy of the Infinite

"Christ living in you" (v. 17)
This continues the theme of union with the divine. Christ “living” in/with us. “Living” (katoikeo) is the common word for a person’s physical dwelling place. In the Gospels, this word is used from time to time to describe the houses, residences, or cities where Christ would stay. Here in verse 17 it is used to describe how Christ lives in the souls of human beings.

It is interesting to compare this with Acts 7:48 and 17:24, where it is suggested that the most high does not live (katoikei) in temples made by human hands. Yet here in Ephesians, Paul suggests that Christ does in fact find his home in the human heart.

Also of interest is Colossians 1:9, which speaks of the Father being pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ. The fullness of God in Christ and Christ dwelling in the human soul. Similarly in Colossians 2:9, Christ is the one in whom the fullness of the deity (theotetos) lived in bodily form.

As verse 17 continues, Paul prays that the “living” of Christ might be “through faith in your hearts.” A.T. Lincoln comments, “As in the OT, so in Paul and now here in Ephesians, the heart is understood as the center of the personality, the seat of the whole person’s thinking, feeling, and willing.” (p. 206)

Love v. 17-19
After speaking of union with the divine, Paul quickly moves into a prayer for love. Union with God is manifested through love: being firmly rooted and firmly established in love, being able to fully understand the love of God, fathoming the vast dimensions of love (the width and length and height and depth), and knowing the surpassing love of Christ.

Love is at the heart of union with God.

Filled to the Fullness of God v. 19
The closing prayer to be filled to the fullness of God builds on the knowledge of love. Knowing the surpassing gnosis of the love of Christ, in order that one might be filled with all the fullness of God.

This idea of being filled to the fullness of God is remarkable for its scope. It is not merely a prayer for having a bit of God or drinking of an ounce or two of the divine. The prayer is for the “fullness” (pleroma) of God.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The System

We are beyond purpose. We arise from an infinite love for infinite love alone. There is no purpose that is big enough to account for us.
—James Finley

Before breaking for discussion on Kierkegaard’s view of the self, we had been discussing the relationship of economics and spirituality. In the first post, my position was that American economics is based primarily on economic expansion, which translates into profit. Economic expansion is at the heart of our entire American system. If the economy stops growing or if there is a recession, then this is a sign of “bad times.” No one questions it. Each party in the prior election agreed: we’ve got to get the economy going again. It is an unquestioned assumption.

In order for corporations to manufacture profit (and to expand the economy), consumers must buy more and workers must produce more. This produces a culture of discontentment and dissatisfaction, the subject of my second post You are your dollars. We have to find our identity in the products and services that Corporations produce. In this society and in this culture, we are most fundamentally economic units. As workers, we have the pressure to produce goods and services—we must produce more to grow the economy. After work, we put on our consumer hats and go off to make our purchases, the reward of contributing to economic growth, and now as the consumer it is our patriotic duty to buy goods and services and keep those dollars flowing through the economy.

We work, we spend.

If you would like to dispute the point, I am open to alternative thoughts, but as it is, I would say that we perceive of ourselves at a most basic level as being economic units. In this disposable society where discontentment and dissatisfaction are normative and even patriotic, this means that so many (if not all) of our relationships are mediated by the monetary system.

Jesus gets at this basic concept when he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, what we invest in determines our self, our nature, our souls. So, the one who “gains the whole world and yet loses his own soul” is the self who has invested himself into the economic system of the world. The self is equated with being a worker/consumer. The treasure is in the system, so by definition the self is lost.

The heart of the Gospel is reconciliation. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5)

The system defines us as economic units. We define ourselves as economic units. Everything is mediated by money. And this leads me to my primary contention in this post: the system defines itself as disconnect. I have used the term “the system,” and now I am defining it strictly in terms of the disconnect. Or more to the point, the system is self-defined as disconnectedness. This is the level that is most basic to its core, to its being.

This is not to say that “the system” in all of its disconnect does not produce good. Neither do I mean to suggest that there are no meaningful connections within the system. We are so fundamentally relational beings that meaningful relationships still occur. They always break through. But consider: deeply profound relationships are the exception that proves the rule. We notice meaningful connections because they happen so infrequently. The rule is disconnect. The system’s survival is at steak. A content, connected society isn’t interested in economic expansion as its highest priority. A discontent, disconnected, and disposable culture will continue to work harder and buy more. This is good for the economy and feeds the system.

Another clarification: there is no Wizard of Oz.

When Dorothy & Co. showed up to present their queries to the Wizard, they found a man behind the curtain, pulling the strings and operating the big mechanism. All it took was the little dog to pull back the curtain and reveal a weak and comical old man. But this is not the system. The system is disconnect, so there is no one person to blame. The big bad CEO’s are not to blame. In fact, those with the most wealth are the most embedded within the disconnect, so in a very real way, my most basic disposition toward those with wealth is love.

Because there is no one person behind the curtain of the system, we can say “fuck the system” in love, kindness, gentleness, respect, and goodwill. The system is the disconnect. To say “fuck the CEO’s of America” is to perpetuate the disconnect by reacting with a violence that deepens the disconnect.

In a fucked up system, everyone who participates is fucked.

The Gospel is about reconciling all things with each other: ourselves with each other, ourselves with nature, ourselves with our selves, and our selves with God.

Fuck the system.

In Jesus’ name.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Kierkegaard and the Self: The Fantasy of the Infinite

We have been discussing Kierkegaard’s notion of the self. In the prior post, we saw that Kierkegaard defined the “self” as “spirit.” Theologically, this the “soul” or, I would suggest, the imago dei, the image of God. It is a beautiful gift, and one that must be cultivated and explored. We must treat this gift with care and love because it is so easy to lose ourselves in the world—in the busy activity, in the various roles we fulfill, and in the general fragmentation that is characteristic of the post-industrial world dominated by the desire for economic expansion.

Protestant theology of self with its emphasis on total depravity, tends to imagine that the self is completely beyond hope and in need of divine intervention. When this theology gets translated at a popular level, the result tends to be that people are looking to escape themselves with wistful thinking about the divine, or one might potentially look to a quick and easy religious experience as something that has “transformed” them.

The problem with popular Protestant theology in this regard is that it ultimately serves as an escape from truly facing our self; it also can cheat us out of the beauty and joy of exploring the “inward person” (Cf. Ephesians 3:16, eso anthropon).

To know God deeper, we must know self deeper. We must discover our uniqueness and cultivate our own awareness of our selves. “Self-consciousness is decisive with regard to the self. The more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. The person who has no will at all is not a self.” (p. 29, Sickness Unto Death, Hong translation)

As I mentioned in the last post, to emphasize the beauty of the self is not to say that the relation to God is any less important. This is not true, at least in part because God is in and through all things. (Cf. Acts 17:28 and Ephesians 4:6) To truly understand the creation and its interconnectedness simply is to know God. (Cf. Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”)

For Kierkegaard the God relation is important: “The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done through the relationship to God….the self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God.” (p. 30) Kierkegaard in this regard stands true to the Protestant tradition; however, I think he still is able to recognize something very crucial: that the relation to God is warped if it leads us away from the self. Kierkegaard calls this “the fantastic.” The fantastic is a way of thinking about God (“the infinite”) in such a way that disconnects us from the self.

“The fantastic is generally that which leads a person out into the infinite in such a way that it only leads him away from himself and thereby prevents him from coming back to himself.” (p. 31)

Kierkegaard describes this state of being as an “intoxication.” The idea is that when one disconnects from self, no matter how good the intoxication may feel or no matter how “truthful” the doctrine/dogma may be, the result is still despair; the result is loss of self. When the connection with self is lost, the relation to God is perverse. Indeed, such a state of being is quite serious and alarming, because for Kierkegaard, this fantastic state can consume a person and leave them permanently disconnected from the self.

“When feeling or knowing or willing has become fantastic, the entire self can eventually become that….The God-relation is an infinitizing, but in fantasy this infinitizing can so sweep a man off his feet that his state is simply an intoxication….he cannot come back to himself, become himself.” (p. 32)

I think that Kierkegaard’s discussion of losing the self in a God-relation fantasy has good explanatory scope when examining the religious fundamentalist zeal of the contemporary world, especially in regards to the violence that such fervor can produce. The violence of religious fundamentalism varies in degree, from the terrorist suicide bombings to the subtle but no less damaging forms of judgmentalism, elitism, exclusivism, and isolation. Yet in its many violent forms, one can also detect that the violent religious zealot is also doing violence to their self. The self is alienated and disconnected from itself, lost in the fantastic.

As I discuss this, I wonder about the possible connection between violence and loss of self. Specifically, I am wondering if there is a sense in which the loss of self, the disconnection from self, is such a violent violation that it necessarily results in violence perpetrated toward others.

In closing, we return to Kierkegaard…..to be lost in the fantastic does not always manifest itself in ways that are obvious to the masses. It is in the context of discussing the fantastic that Kierkegaard discusses how easy it is to get along in the world without a self.

“But to be fantastic in this way, and thus to be in despair, does not mean that a person cannot go on living fairly well….It may not be detected that in a deeper sense he lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.” (p. 32-33)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Let me touch him

I got this from Peter Rollins' blog. It's the Minister's Quartet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Kierkegaard and the self

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation.” (Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, p. 13)

I am taking a brief respite from blogging on the spiritual/psychological/human consequences of our American economic system. The purpose of this hiatus is to discuss Kierkegaard’s notion of the self. “Self” is a term I use quite a bit in my blogging, so it seems worthwhile to discuss and dialog on what I mean by “self.” Kierkegaard is a great place to start. For Kierkegaard, “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself.” This carries with it the idea of a self as a process of understanding itself. A self has a certain consciousness of being a self. As human beings, we contemplate our place in the universe and the cosmos, we form a sense of identity, we look for meaning, try to discover our purpose, and we reflect on ourselves. We ask the “who am I?” questions. This capacity represents our capacity to be a “self.” In Heidegger terminology, we are beings for whom our very being is an issue. However, my understanding of Kierkegaard is such that even though we can begin to ask ultimate questions and contemplating existential issues of our individuality and personhood, this only represent the beginning of the possibility of discovering our self.

The self is a relation that relates itself to itself. But this process of understanding and becoming self is easily hijacked in the world. “Most men live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit—hence all so-called security, contentment with life, etc., which is simply despair.” (p. 26)

We recall that Kierkegaard uses “spirit” and “self” interchangeably. Self/spirit is a process of “becoming conscious,” a process that most do not truly engage. We might ask questions of purpose and meaning, but these frequently remain somewhat trite, and they are often insignificant when compared with the securities and entertainments that life has to afford. In other words, we are easily distracted from deep knowledge of self. However, knowing one’s self and engaging the process of self-consciousness and self-awareness does not simply mean that one becomes the stereotypical brooding existentialist. This kind of brooding does not mean that the self is relating itself to itself in any meaningful way. (It could be a meaningful process, of course, but not necessarily so.) In fact, a person might live “full” lives, experiencing the wide range of emotions that human existence has to offer and yet still remain very unconscious of who one is as a self.

“…only that person’s life was wasted who went on living so deceived by life’s joys or its sorrows that he never became decisively and eternally conscious as spirit, as self, or what amounts to the same thing.” (p. 26)

Consciousness is a key component of self. There must be a recognition of a deeper connection that one can have with one’s self, a sense that there is a “me” that is much deeper than merely cruising through life, experiencing it’s joys and sorrows. Theologically speaking, I think that “self” also has to do with the imago dei, the image of God in all of us—the sense that as an individual, each person has a beautiful and majestic self; that we are capable of connecting with something divine within us, the “Inward Light” as the Quakers termed it.

“The self is composed of infinitude and finitude. However, this synthesis is a relation, and a relation that, even though it is derive, relates itself to itself, which is freedom. The self is freedom….
“Self-consciousness is decisive with regard to the self. The more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. The person who has no will at all is not a self.” (p. 29, emphasis added)

Will, freedom, and self are connected. To understand one’s gift as the image of God, a reflection of the divine—to appreciate the wonder of human existence—it is necessary to engage the process of becoming self, of being aware of self. In some sense, one’s ability to be human is at stake. “The world” is the environment where the self gets forgotten, where the deeper exploration of one’s soul is lost in the economics of daily life and the indulgences of the ego. No one cares about the loss of self. “Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.” (p. 32)

In Kierkegaard’s philosophy/theology of self, God is an important aspect of self-hood, however, to lose one’s relation to their self means that the God relationship will be warped and perverted. To be related correctly with God means that one must be related correctly also with one’s self.

It is easy within the world to lose the self. It is quite common to get distracted from thinking and contemplating the self. It is often the case in this world, that we allow ourselves to become swept away and defined by the world, and to lose our sense of self and freedom. We lose our connection with ourselves, and we become fragmented. Or perhaps we define ourselves (by the standards of the world, of course), and believe we have some sense of identity. But the tragedy of the loss of self remains.

In the next post, we will look more closely about Kierkegaard’s insights about how a person’s relationship with “God” can become distorted if that person does not understand their self. That is, sometimes religious folk believe that they have escaped “the world,” but because they have still have no self/spirit, their view of God is, as Kierkegaard calls it, a fantasy of the infinite.

Part Two: Kierkegaard and the Self: The Fantasy of the Infinite

Friday, May 15, 2009

Through the looking glass

An ironic scenario these days might be to have a father criticize his son for having wasted his time playing video games all day, even though the father returned home from having spent his entire day staring at a computer screen.

Monday, May 11, 2009

You are your dollars

“For decades, Americans have been known as epic consumers, but it would be more accurate to call us epic upgraders….It is so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it…..

Forget the upgrade. The game now is avoiding the downgrade. This is grim and troubling, in part, because so much of our consumer culture is built around the enticements of the Better....

Entire corporate strategies target the bottomless American appetite for the upgrade.

In the United States, upgrade-mania has bred a sense of entitlement, which has only stoked upgrade demands.

But there has long been an on-again, off-again war in the American soul between the forces of consumerism and the countervailing force of austerity. The consumers have had the upper hand for decades, but we might have little choice now but to find comfort in the words of the philosopher and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, ‘Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.’”


In my first economics post, I discussed the economics of the American system. I grant you, there were oversimplifications, but I think the point is clear: the American economic system is based on an obsession with expansion. Corporations must turn profit, the economy must grow. I asked the question, What happens if we are over-extended?

In the next posts, I want to explore how this over-extension affects the self. More than that, I think we lose the self in the system. The self disappears. I find, my friends, that there are many reasons why we must say, “Fuck the system. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” The first way in which we lose the self is through discontent and dissatisfaction.

The American economy is based on sowing discontent and dissatisfaction. It is based on desiring the desire of the other. Others have it, customers have given it rave reviews on Amazon.com, a celebrity looks good in it, my friends love it, the neighbors just got a new one. In the American marketing matrix, we cannot be content. We cannot afford to be content. If our economy is in recession (i.e., it is contracting, not expanding), then people lose jobs. Politicians talk about our dire need for them to fix the economy and help Joe the Plummer. Why do we need to help Joe the Plummer, exactly? Truly. I wonder. Is it just so he can afford to get more stuff he doesn’t need? There is a real sense in which we screw those in the lower economic classes by doing our damnedest to help them acquire more stuff that they don’t really need.

Remember, the economy must expand, which means we have to dispose of old stuff and be continually buying new stuff. We have to define ourselves as consumers, always buying more.

When this happens, we lose most of our capacity to make decisions based on what is healthy or life-giving. Or, more to the point, we lose our capacity to make decisions based on what is healthy or life-giving for us. We measure our health and wellness based on our information about what everyone else is doing. But who controls this information, in most cases? It’s either the government or Corporations, which are one and the same, both working together to keep us discontented enough to keep buying more and to grow the American economy.

If our motivation is always for the next purchase, then we are only temporarily satisfied. The thrill of a new purchase, the feeling of newness, the tingling of being reborn, it passes. We find that the stuff gets old and less exciting. “When goods increase, so do those who consume them, so what is the advantage of the owner, but to look at them?” (Ecclesiastes 5:11) But there is always something else to buy. And here’s the thing: it is not a devastating cycle. It’s a cycle, but it can be a very pleasant one. We don’t notice that the self has receded deep into the background. We don’t notice the loss. Truly.

And, unfortunately, many contemporary churches don’t help. They preach/teach, of course, that we should be satisfied with what we have, but a quick scan of the church parking lots or the annual budget often tells a different story. For example, I have a question: why does every church bulletin I’ve ever seen always show that the church isn’t quite at its annual goal? Even our churches over-extend themselves financially.

Many churches have very important reasons why they cannot preach/teach the importance of the simple life. With budgets that are fully extended, churches quite literally cannot afford to alienate the affluent. So, rather than preach/teach about the spiritual significance of simplifying and severely downgrading, churches teach/preach that the “love” of money is the problem—it’s okay to have it.

So, then when we preach/teach on giving, we tell people that they need to give more. Maintaining the same over-extended, American standard of living and adding more ministry/church giving means that the church-goer must keep putting the hours in at work in order to pay for the Lord’s work. This is all contributing to sowing discontent among the religious. The result is a loss of self.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Even the “giving” of many church goers winds up going to support church buildings, church administrative expenses, or teen mission’s trips—in other words, all the “giving” comes back to benefit the givers, even if only indirectly.

Jesus talks about identifying our “treasure,” because what we invest in is where our heart is. But talking about the location of our “hearts” is really just another word for talking about the “self.” It’s about identity. It is as simple as saying we are our economic choices. Our “self,” our identity, is found in what we invest in. In a culture dominated by the corporate marketing of discontent, our identity is our dollars.

And what I mean to say is that even those of us who are insightful enough to write clever blog posts about the loss of the self are in the same boat. Anyone who participates is on the same ship.

You are your dollars. There is no escape.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The American Economy: Worshiping God 2.0

Fuck the system.

In Jesus’ name.


“For decades, Americans have been known as epic consumers, but it would be more accurate to call us epic upgraders. During all those years of packing up and moving, we were headed to a bigger house, at a better address, perhaps for a higher-paying job. We were trading up, and that urge — to acquire something bigger or better, preferably something bigger and better — is a quintessentially American urge. It is so neatly woven into the double helix of our DNA that we hardly notice it.

Forget the upgrade. The game now is avoiding the downgrade. This is grim and troubling, in part, because so much of our consumer culture is built around the enticements of the Better....

Entire corporate strategies target the bottomless American appetite for the upgrade.

In the United States, upgrade-mania has bred a sense of entitlement, which has only stoked upgrade demands. In recent years, when anything went wrong in any transaction — the airline misplaced your luggage, Little Caesars sent you a medium with pepperoni and mushroom and you hate mushrooms — you were owed an upgrade. A business class ticket, an order of crazy bread, something.”

From http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/weekinreview/26segal.html

The American economy has been in recession. People are losing jobs. Politicians on all sides agree: we must “get the economy going again.”

Oh really. But why? And, is this what we really want? Is this what we want for the long term?

What if the economy is over extended?

What if participating in the American economy is damaging to the oppressed in other nations, the earth, and to our own souls?

A few thoughts in these next few posts of mine, a few thoughts from my reflections on working in accounting, of participating in the American economy, and of contemplating the place of the soul, of the human person, in the midst of the American economic experience.

The theme passage to reflect on will be Jesus’ words, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

American economics at work
The American economic system is based on profit. Whether it is explicitly stated or not, American businesses and corporations exist to make a profit. What is “profit”? In a highly simplified form, profit is the excess, the excess revenue over expenses. Profit is the excess that exists after all expense obligations have been paid, including paying workers, CEO’s, etc.

Profit provides the basis for corporate/business expansion. With excess profit, a business can expand itself: expand current production, branch out into new markets, get a better grip on their current market share, etc.

Profit is the American expectation. Investors are looking for returns on their investment…..no profit, no return. Profit is the payoff of the risk an investor takes when they invest their money.

At this point, Readers, I actually have no theoretical problem with capitalism. As I understand capitalistic theory in it’s early development, it was based on the premise that businesses exist to provide a needed good or service. Businesses would rise up to meet the demands of the market: if people need warm socks, a business would meet the demand. Harmless, really, in basic theory.

But with the industrial revolution and mass production, meeting the basic American needs was easy. These days, we actually throw away something like half of our food….this despite the hunger and starvation around the world; we dump our food in the trash and then write a check to World Vision or Compassion International….but I digress……As Americans, we have our basic needs met.

But the economy has still kept expanding and expanding. Expanding, that is, until recent days. What is the expansion based on?

Certainly there are some humanitarian aims that are being achieved that go above and beyond our basic life needs: improving treatments for the sick, etc. But most economic expansion is based on comfort, luxury, or entertainment.

In other words, American economic expansion has been based in large part on the fact that we need to have more and more stuff: bigger and better stuff. As the above article states, we live in an American culture where “upgrade” is an entitlement. It is the American Dream.

But this is something we all have to participate in together. American corporations have to sink billions and billions of dollars into convincing us that our lives will be better with more possessions and with stuff that is upgraded. Apple, for example, is a company that has continued to do well, despite the economic downturn. Well run business? Or is it just the ultimate example of an upgrade-obsessed culture. American corporations have to invest heavily in making us discontent, but in the end, we are the suckers who buy the shit, who upgrade to something better, and who either work jobs we don’t enjoy, work long hours at the office, or some combination of both.

As Tyler from Fight Club says: We work jobs we hate to buy shit we don’t need.

To summarize this my first post….the American economic system is inflated and artificial. It is largely based on the perception that we need to participate in the upgrade culture. In short, we must be spiritually discontent.

One might suggest that recession is what we need. And yet I have a lot of compassion for people who lose jobs and homes. There is a sense in which we are all suckers, betting against the house with the odds against us. So, in the short terms, all the politicians agree: we’ve got to get the economy on track.

I’m not so sure. And I want to talk about alternatives.

I want to ask if this American economic system is really what we want, if it is really life-giving to humanity. After all, the system wouldn't work if people didn't keep showing up to work each day, punch the clock, and do their best to look and feel interested.