Photo: WORLD magazine
Last Thursday night Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, addressed the student body of The King's College on the subject of avarice. He was the the keynote speaker for the 2010 Interregnum, the college's annual three day recess from classes when we explore a fruitful theme and a related great book.
Stanley Hauerwas is an odd man, but the sort of oddball that is good to know. He is an Anabaptist Anglican from Texas, now living in North Carolina. He is too conservative to be acceptable to liberals (he believes the Bible and thinks sodomy is sin), but he is too liberal for the comfort of conservatives (he's a pacifist and he's married to a Methodist minister). He is pleasant company, and a stimulating thinker.
Over the course of the day with Prof. Hauerwas, between a morning conversation, a lunch discussion, the evening address, and the question and answer time that followed, I gleaned these nuggets of insight and provocation. (These are either quotations, or, more likely, fairly reliable near-quotations.) For another brief exposure to the man, you can read Marvin Olasky's 2007 interview with him, "A Playful Mind."
Evangelicals know the Bible and they know today...and nothing in between.
Evangelicals are people who have a relationship with God, and attending church worship services is just how they express that. [If you don't see the point, the joke is on you.]
We don't hear sermons on greed (which is odd given that it's such a prominent theme in the New Testament.) We know what lust looks like--but greed?
There was an increase in attention to greed by theologians after the rise of the money economy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
America can never have enough power.
America runs on fear.
We cannot imagine anything but an endlessly growing economy--that says something about our greed.
People have always been greedy, but now we have made it into a moral quality necessary for economic growth.
Whether or not we are possessed by our possessions is measured by our willingness to give it away.
We want to be forgivers, not forgiven, because we want to remain in control. Learn to accept forgiveness without regret.
If in giving alms you think you are giving what's yours, you are possessed by greed.
Greed is a deadly sin because it prevents faith.
What would New York City look like if it were shaped by the virtue of temperance?
Another name for money is loneliness.
You should not have a personal relationship with Christ. You should share him.
No monasticism? No Christianity. The Protestant rejection of it explains why we have no resistance to being bourgeois.
Jesus never worked a day as far as we know. He must have begged. We need to learn how to beg. If you get money, you must always get it as a beggar. (He meant you must view it, even as you are making it, as a gift from God, from outside of your control. But he also spoke highly of actual begging.)
American democracy is a plutocracy. ...The middle class doesn't care who rules as long as they don't lose their stuff.
Every American has a sign around his neck that says, "Notice me!" (but I don't have to notice you). It's a form of greed.
I was impressed by the breadth of his learning, and the fertility of his mind. (Why should I be impressed? He's a prominent theologian of high reputation.) His discussion of the moral management of prosperity, being possessed by our possessions, the ease with which we justify and even sanctify our avarice, and the many forms this sin can take when concealed within other sins as well as within virtues like generosity was a feast for reflection. But I was struck with how injudicious his judgments were in applying his learning.
Professor Hauerwas finds greed in all human business like dust in a rug, but he uses this exposure as a basis for condemning modern life itself. Of course modernity has serious problems. That's why it spawned post-modernity. But a more sober use of his considerable research and original insights would have been to recognize what good there is in modern liberty, and then caution us against the many and subtle forms of greed for which modern life gives such historically unprecedented opportunity. It is one of the blessings of modern political and economic liberty that the sons of bricklayers, people like Hauerwas, can become great theologians. Yet, necessarily alongside that and deceived by what our hands have done, we feel we are masters of our own fortune in the making of it, the spending of it, and the giving of it away. But Hauerwas seems angry that the eschaton has not come more quickly, and he seems to blame us for the delay.
It is true that we are all too comfortable in our wealth and all too blind to our greed and the extent to which we are possessed by our possessions. Hauerwas was good at exposing the finer roots of this sin in our hearts. But he went beyond that. His condemnation of all things modern and middle class was sweeping. It was irresponsible. He tossed an intellectual hand grenade into the crowd of people's thoughts to shatter their way of thinking about work, possessions, prosperity, and giving. But he put nothing in its place. At the end of the lecture, he seemed to prepare us for "an alternative to a world shaped by greed." But then he just said something vague about Jesus. When a student pressed him for a suggestion as to how then we should live, he threw up his hands and complained that we have no idea how to live any other way, and that this itself indicates how possessed by greed we are.
At the end of the question period, he eventually suggested that instead of walking around with a sign around our necks saying "Notice me!", as he said all Americans do and which is a form of greed, in its place we should learn how to live as friends. Lovely! Aside from being a hideously unjust caricature of American life--there is a great deal of friendship and community in America, and even fellow feeling toward strangers, even in New York City!--it is an almost comically unhelpful suggestion, both institutionally and theoretically. A healthy political community will be knit together by ties of affection among people that resemble those of friendship, and the more like friendship they are (remembering that you cannot be literally "friends" with 100,000 people), the healthier the community will be. Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam's fall and New York City in the 1970s and 1980s are notorious examples of political friendship deficits. But to suggest that friendship replace the market economy, perhaps along the lines of universalized monastic life or the separatistic Anabaptist communities of rural Pennsylvania, lies somewhere between philosophical fantasy and over-realized eschatology.
If he is genuinely flummoxed over how we might organize and conduct our life together in a way that is not fundamentally avaricious, he should be much gentler in his rebukes and humbler in his accusations.
People's understanding of property has profound political implications, and gifted thinkers should be cautious in what they say about these things. One is quick to remember the degrading and bitter sting of near universal poverty before what Hauerwas reminds us was the rise of the money economy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But we should also call to mind what politics looked like at that time, i.e., how power was distributed and used. Hauerwas told us that American democracy is plutocracy--the rule of wealth--in which the middle class doesn't care who rules as long as they don't lose their stuff. But a populace of beggars and the materially indifferent would soon be once again under arbitrary government. It would soon return to the government of men in their unrestrained, unmediated greed and glorious domination, rather than the government of laws that is the limited, constitutional government of a commercial republic like ours. Yes, a commercial republic, with all its attendant spiritual pitfalls. Anyone who thinks that poverty under tyranny is the better choice because it is better for our souls should move to North Korea or Zimbabwe. They are still taking applications.
But Prof. Hauerwas was not suggesting that we revert to medieval peasant life under the indifferent hand of hereditary lords because it would free us from such culturally pervasive and institutionalized avarice. Actually, it's not clear that he wasn't. He celebrated begging. As he pointed out, the Franciscans begged. The Franciscans begged and so should we. He even claimed that we have no evidence that Jesus ever worked, so he must have begged. Thus, Christians should follow in his steps. The experience cultivates in us a recognition of our poverty and of our material dependence on God. To round out the judgment, he criticized Adam Smith for redirecting our economy, and with it our hearts, in a way that would clear the beggars from our midst. A rising tide lifts all paupers. But he says we need beggars for our sakes, i.e., to give us occasion to give. The beggars might consider that an overly selfish view, perhaps even greedy, and opt for Adam Smith. Nonetheless, there will always be helpless people among us, the disabled for example, who give us occasion to give.
Hauerwas went far beyond suggesting that Christians pick up the habit of quitting their jobs and adopting the mendicant ways of Franciscan monks. He condemned the very foundations of the modern economy. "We cannot imagine anything but an endlessly growing economy--that says something about our greed." "People have always been greedy, but now we have made it into a moral quality necessary for economic growth." But you cannot separate the modern hope of prosperity, both personal and shared, from modern economic liberty. And you cannot separate economic liberty from property rights. And you cannot separate security in one's property from security against arbitrary government, which is political liberty. To desire one without the other is like saying you want modern life, but without the invention of nuclear weapons. The one entails the other. You cannot maintain a society-wide medieval attitude toward possessions and acquisition in isolation from an otherwise modern attitude toward nature (conquerable), one another (equal politically), and political power (accountable to the people). These attitudes are all part of a civilizational package.
If Hauerwas wants all the benefits that come with widespread begging, he has to take filth, plague, crib death, famine, and oppression along with it. You cannot have the conquest of nature by science (consider penicillin) and the attitudes of personal assertion over fortune that underpin it, without also the ambitious creation of wealth by countless entrepreneurs, great and small. In other words, you cannot have Francis Bacon's New Organon without his essays "Of Riches," "Of Usury," and "Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates."
It's easy to get well meaning Christians stirred up with calls for a purer heart with respect to riches. Following through on the implications of your revolutionary call for a society of friends and an economy of temperance would surely expose, however, both the impossibility and the horror of your brave new world. It would also sober your audience into considering a more temperate critique of modernity and a less monkish view of prosperity.