An exploration of abundance in a world of scarcity.
Rev. Clay Nelson.
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Clay Nelson © 23 November 2014
Sometimes a chosen sermon topic doesn’t lead me where I expected to go. This is one of those times. When I committed to speak on “When is enough enough?” I had in mind that for Americans Thanksgiving is coming soon, a time of celebrating abundance represented by an overflowing cornucopia and loosened belts after the feast. I thought I would be putting forth the virtues of a theology of abundance. I did begin there in my thinking but that is not where it ended. So I’ve decided to share with you my journey from the sermon I thought I was going to give to the one I am giving.
I began with these thoughts by UU minister Kathleen McTigue. “Which secret garden will you tend today? The garden of dissatisfaction or the garden of abundance? I’m gonna guess no one here this morning will say, ‘I prefer to tend the garden of dissatisfaction. That’s me at my best.’ Or, ‘I prefer whinging and complaining.’ Or, ‘I love that feeling of not being able to get out of bed in the morning, of being overwhelmed, of always rushing, always reacting, always feeling like everything is urgent and there’s never enough time. Please give me more of that!’ I’m guessing—I could be wrong—none of you prefers to tend the garden of dissatisfaction.”i
We prefer not to, but most of us do tend it. This is Rev McTigue’s point and I agree: “We return again and again to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favourite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whinging vigour.”ii There are often good reasons for this. Sometimes our lives suck. We have good reason to be dissatisfied and complaining is our best and only option. And there are days when we really don’t want to get out of bed because our burdens feel too heavy to bear. But when sitting in worship and the minister asks if you’ll tend the garden of dissatisfaction or abundance, I’m gonna guess you’d prefer abundance. “This garden,” says Rev. McTigue, “grows easily, it blossoms freely, and its richness awaits us each time we open our[selves to it]: life, breath, kindness, friends, love…. All the bounty given to us by every unfolding day.”iii She suggests that this other garden is “growing right along-side [the garden of dissatisfaction], and just a small shift in perspective tumbles us into its grace.”iv
I was with McTigue up to the suggestion that living in abundance only requires an attitude adjustment. Certainly her suggestion has lots of biblical support. God is portrayed as a God of abundance from the Garden of Eden, to manna from heaven, to a land of milk and honey; to the feeding of the 5000.
Church growth gurus and stewardship consultants also push a theology of abundance. They suggest that we go about doing church wrong. Instead of worrying that we don’t ever have quite enough resources (that is, money), we, should as a people of God, be trusting more in an abundant God to provide and open our wallets.
This goes along with similar thinking in the culture, which has had a helping hand from Oprah. She pushed a book called The Secret by Australian author Rhonda Byrne, which became a bestseller around the world. She defines The Secret as the law of attraction … the principle that ‘like attracts like.’” According to Byrne, “We attract into our lives the things we want … based on what we’re thinking and feeling.” If we’re experiencing scarcity, it’s because we’ve been thinking about scarcity. If we want abundance, we just have to change our thoughts and feelings.
Oprah is convinced Steven Spielberg invited her to play the role of Sofia in The Color Purple because she really wanted the role and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She didn’t tell anyone she wanted the role. She didn’t know Spielberg. But her thoughts led Spielberg to her. Byrne says, “Whatever feelings you have within you are attracting your tomorrow. Worry attracts more worry. Anxiety attracts more anxiety…. Joy attracts more joy. Happiness attracts more happiness….Your job is an inside one. To change your world, all you need to do is change how you feel inside. How easy is that?”v
While all this sounds appealing, it also sounds like magical thinking. I suspect that the only ones who can move from the garden of dissatisfaction to the garden of abundance are those already living in abundance, but just forgot to count their blessings during a difficult time.
You are probably aware of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid of needs. At the bottom, we need food, water and warmth before anything else. Next we need housing and security. Then we need to belong, that is, to have family, friends and community. Then we need the self-esteem skills, achievement and recognition provide. At the top we need to be able to pursue our talents with creativity to be fulfilled human beings. I should note that his pyramid has been updated for our new age. Before we need food, water and warmth, we need Wi-Fi to connect to Facebook.
What his hierarchy of needs is saying is we cannot meet our full potential as human beings without reaching the prior levels first. It is a reminder that we live in a world of scarcity. Not everyone achieves even the first level of sufficient food, water and warmth. Not everyone has a roof over his or her head in a safe neighbourhood. Not everyone has a community or the support of a family. Not everyone is able to get the education or training to have meaningful employment and sometimes that isn’t enough in a difficult job market. Scarcity is real and magical thinking isn’t going to put those struggling to climb the pyramid in the garden of abundance. To hold on to that thinking will never change things. Worse, it blames those competing for scarce resources for not having the right attitude. They didn’t do it right! They didn’t shift their attitude correctly. We can blame their lack of abundance on a character flaw, on the fact that they didn’t want their lives to change enough. If not a character flaw then they didn’t trust enough in a God of abundance. They weren’t faithful enough. If we think it’s their fault, then there’s no obligation for us to ask about the often very legitimate reasons why they’re living in the garden of dissatisfaction.
So what is to account for this trust in abundance when it is quite clear that in the real world we are surrounded by a scarcity of healthy food, clean air, drinkable water, and shelter? And many people don’t have access to decent education, health care, work that pays a living wage and on and on.
I would suggest that theologians are part of the problem. Let me give you two examples from theologians I actually respect. David Jensen in his book Responsive Labor: A Theology of Work, says, “The assumption of scarcity should be unsettling to Christians, for it clashes with a bedrock Christian assumption: God’s abundant and superfluous giving to creation, which enables us to share out of abundance.”
Walter Brueggemann in an article entitled A Biblical Approach to the Economic Crisis says, “Whereas…economics begins with a premise of scarcity, biblical faith is grounded in the generosity of God who wills and provides abundance. And here persons who are members of a covenantal [community] respond to divine abundance with generous gratitude, willing to share with sisters and brothers. Those who share, moreover, find in ways they cannot explain that more gifts from God are given. The bread multiplies and loaves abound, a miracle never available to the [individual alone]. In that world of abundance, covetous greed is inappropriate and incongruous. So Jesus can urge his followers: “Do not be anxious … for your heavenly Father knows you need all of these things.”
Jensen, Brueggemann and numerous others see the problem not as scarcity but distribution of abundance. Like manna from heaven, everything we need, from jet aircraft to pencils, magically appears. If there is scarcity, it is because someone hasn’t shared. The idea that we somehow participate in creating what we need through our labour is simply lost on them.
For economists the issue is not so much distribution but production. In biblical times, the frame of reference for theologians, the masses lived bare subsistence lives as slaves, landed peasants, or as subjects of overlords. Life was primarily devoted to agricultural production. Beyond the elite, non-agricultural trade was mostly limited to exchange between people in local communities. By modern standards, the variety of goods traded was very limited and the trade networks were rudimentary. The economy was largely devoted to production and consumption issues within the household. Retrospectively, we can see that labour was nearly consumed by simply generating a subsistence living. The biblical answer to scarcity was the injunction not to harvest ten per cent of the field that the poor might glean what they need.
All that slowly changed in the centuries of the Second Millennium in Europe, with increasing specialisation of labour and expansion of intricate networks of trade. The variety of items traded became more elaborate and the costs became less. Eighteenth Century people like Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus began to reflect on what was happening. Over the next century scholars turned to empirical analysis as their work became more focused on these developments. That gave birth to the modern discipline of economics, which at its core is about discovering how people and societies coordinate their activities given the reality of scarce resources.
I would like to suggest that those of us committed to helping everyone climb to the top of Maslow’s pyramid begin to understand economics better rather than looking to the experience of those who wrote the Bible in a very different age. We need to move beyond magical thinking offered by the culture’s self-styled gurus and celebrities to make a difference. We need to understand how trade creates wealth and the role of capital. We need to understand that economic laws are not immutable. They change with the times. We need to understand the role of labour in creating value in the marketplace. We need to understand that competing interests politically drive economics. Markets operate far from perfectly and are dependent on other institutions and values. We need to understand that economic theories are faith systems and not givens. There is no invisible hand of the market although it might feel like it to those trying to predict its behaviour. What there is is the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
There is a common misunderstanding of economics that it is driven by selfishness and greed à la Gordon Geko in the movie Wall Street, which isn’t to say the greedy and selfish don’t try to use the economy. In truth, at its most effective, it is driven by the self-interest of all the participants. Self-interest and selfishness are not the same. It is love your neighbour as yourself. It is a win-win for everyone. Adam Smith first proposed the idea. Unlike animals that mature into complete independence, human beings are dependent upon exchange. Benevolence was Smith’s highest virtue but, as there is a constant need to coordinate meeting each other’s needs, benevolence alone is insufficient. Smith’s position was that you served your self-interest when you served the self-interest of others. The idea of pursuing selfish, unrestrained desires would have been objectionable to Smith.
As an example, when we decide to recycle it is in our self-interest because we have less trash that we have to pay to be removed. It is in the self-interest of the community as we reduce landfill, which will reduce everyone’s rates and protect usable land, a scarce resouce. It is in the self-interest of entrepreneurs who find ways to process the recyclables in a profitable manner. It is in the self-interest of labour as it generates jobs. It is in the self-interest of local businesses because the employed frequent their shops. It is in the self-interest of the unborn who may live in a more sustainable world.
This is the web in which we participate and where we can ultimately make a difference. When we convince businesses and governments that it is in their self-interest to pay their employees a living wage, we are making a difference. When we understand that supporting unions is in the self-interest of not only the worker, but also our society as a whole, we are making a difference. When we support a progressive tax system to reduce income inequality, it is in everyone’s self-interest to reduce poverty and the social ills that accompany it. When we support investing in lowering education costs for students, infrastructure, public transportation, public housing and the like it is win-win for everyone.
I did not know that encouraging our becoming more knowledgeable about economics and promoting self-interest was where I was going to end up when I proposed the title for this sermon but, yet here I am. A theology of abundance and magical thinking would be easier, but not particularly helpful in a world where scarcity is our reality. While there is certainly more to say about all this, enough is enough for today.