Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Theology of Things

The current economic crisis is responsible for untold distress both at home and around the globe. Home values have plummeted; retirement accounts have shrunk to a little over 60% of their value just a few short months ago; the stock market has given up an astonishing 34% of its value in the last twelve months. About the only numbers going up, it seems, are the unemployment statistics and the federal debt.

We should have seen it coming. Seventy percent of the American economy, 70%!, was built on consumption. Only thirty percent of our economy was dedicated to production. As a people we consume more than twice as much as we produce. We have become a nation of consumers. In nature, there is a name for that – an organism that consumes more than it produces. It’s called a parasite. Our economic habits, our management of the material, have become parasitic. It was only a matter of time before the host was consumed.

Somewhere on the way to the 21st century, from the Great Depression and World War II, we became a nation of debtors, and credit moved from a “necessary evil” to a way of life. A generation or two ago about the only thing a family would go into debt for was their home, and that reluctantly. Today, the idea that one must already be in possession of the money needed to make a purchase prior to the purchase seems almost quaint. The economic engine that drives our economy is credit and debt is the fuel on which it runs. The average American family today is drowning in debt and they’ve mortgaged their future to pay for it. “Buy it today; worry about how to pay for it tomorrow” is the mantra by which we’ve lived now for nearly half a century, and the bills have come due. It was inevitable. Sooner or later, among all those creditors out there lined up to lend the consumer a “financial fix” to support their parasitic habit, it was bound to happen. Someone was going to say: “Show me the money!” The American debtor had “bet the farm,” sometimes literally, on the hope that that day would never come. But alas, it has, and the “house that credit built” has collapsed like a house of cards – credit cards!

More disturbing than this, however, is the fact that we Christians too got hooked on “credit crack.” We too have become “conspicuous consumers,” despite the fact that conspicuous consumption and the credit that finances it are about as anathema to the Christian’s perspective as anything can get. It was Jesus, I remind you, in his Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) who says to his disciples, then and now, “Watch out for greed; for a person’s life does not consist in what he owns.”

It can happen so easily, living off credit and financing our fix for stuff by mortgaging our future. I know; it happened to me. Then, about five years ago, my wife decided to take a course sponsored by Crown Financial Ministries, a financial educational program that teaches Christians to develop a healthy and appropriately Christian theology of things. When she completed the course, she promptly announced to me that we were done with mortgaging our future to buy stuff now. Moreover, we were going to get out of debt – completely! She said: “It’s just not very Christian to be in debt for stuff we neither need nor can afford. Besides, there’s a world of good out there that we could do in Christ’s name if we had the resources with which to do it. We’re going to do it; starting today!”

Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely, not just because it got us out of debt, but more importantly, because it helped us to recover a Christian theology of things.

And what would a Christian theology of things look like? Three things, I think.

1) A Christian theology of things recognizes that everything we “have” really belongs to God. It never was ours to begin with; we simply manage it for Him. Of course, the Christian word for that is “stewardship” (Greek oikonomia, from which our word "economy" derives); but alas that word has largely been reduced to a synonym for tithing. Even worse, churches have forgotten the theology behind stewardship (if indeed they ever knew it!), and in its place have substituted a kind of institutional pragmatism that is self-serving at best and sub-Christian at worst. A Christian theology of things isn’t so much concerned with what you do with the “10%” that “belongs to God” because it all belongs to God! A Christian theology of things is about being Christian with what you do with the other 90% that you manage for God.

2) A Christian theology of things, recognizing our mandate to manage what God has entrusted to us, never mortgages the future merely to finance a “consumer fix” we just have to have today. A Christian theology of things distinguishes between “needs” and “wants,” and recognizes that building one’s life around the latter turns one into a miser, a materialist, or worse, a worshipper of Mammon (see Matt. 6:24ff.).

3) A Christian theology of things, recognizing that everything we “have” really belongs to God, regards every good gift we have been given as a potential present that we can share with someone else.

And that just may be the “silver lining” in the economic cloud that hovers over us right now. A Christian theology of things suddenly makes not only good theological sense; it makes good economic sense. The hard work, fiscal frugality, aversion to credit, and the responsible money management that enabled our parents and grandparents to build the most productive economy in the history of humankind suddenly doesn’t seem quite so quaint anymore.

Who would have thought that the longest way ‘round would turn out to be the shortest way home?

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