False Economies and False Gods

This morning I was re-reading my favorite Wendell Berry essay, “Discipline and Hope,” which has become an essential text for me in trying to understand the meaning and implications of Slow Church. I was struck today by a short passage on the ways we have come to idolize the present economy. Berry writes:  

“If the Golden Rule were generally observed among us, the economy would not last a week. We have made our false economy a false god, and it has made blasphemy of the truth. So I have met the economy in the road, and am expected to yield it right of way. But I will not get over. My reason is that I am a man, and have a better right to the ground than the economy. The economy is no god for me, for I have had too close a look at its wheels. I have seen it at work in the strip mines and coal camps of Kentucky, and I know it has no moral limits.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about economics, partly because it is election season, but also because there is still too much dissonance in my own life between what I say I believe about God’s abundant economy and the way I actually operate. Too often I’m ungrateful, inattentive, and consumeristic (Berry describes consumerism as that venerable American doctrine that says “if enough is good, too much is better”). I’m quick to submit to an economy that is sometimes in outright opposition to the “deep magic” that orders the universe. (My daughter and I are going through The Chronicles of Narnia, so I’ve been thinking a lot about “deep magic” too.)

The economic machine has as its goal limitless growth, which requires an infinity of fuel, separates the end from the means, and prizes abstraction, quantity, efficiency, and speed over mindfulness, quality, discipline, and relationships. (Over the last four years, we’ve caught a glimpse of what happens when the machine seizes up.) Many Christians who oppose the teaching of evolution in school accept unquestioningly an economic Darwinism that exalts competition, scoffs at cooperation, and leaves for dead the slow and straggling wounded.

“A better alternative is a better economy,” writes Berry. “But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.”

Quit deifying the present economy, yes, and start defying it too by living into the Great Economy. The Great Economy, Berry has written elsewhere, includes everything, connects everything to everything, comprehends humans but cannot be fully comprehended by humans, has no end, and cannot be violated for long. The metaphor that comes to my mind is one of an electrical system. When we quit deifying the present economy, we go off-grid. But when we submit our little economies to the Great Economy of God’s abundant provision – a choice we make one way or another, dozens of times a day – we’re plugging into the deep magic, so to speak, of loaves and fishes, of daily bread, of discipline and hope, of “do unto others,” of plenty to go around, and of sharing that begets not depletion but fullness.

  • http://www.anirenicon.com/ Allen O’Brien

    You’ve put into words an idea I haven’t found the edges of. I’ve been trying to imagine a world where the economy isn’t god, but I can’t. I think that’s why post-apocalyptic scenarios interest some of us so deeply. What does the world mean (what do I mean!) apart from the false-magic of the machine?

    It’s hard to tell.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.betts.9693 Robert Betts

    How about adequate, not abundant. Abundant is about excess. We have our daily bread, no more, no less.

    • erbks

      We use the term abundant intentionally here (and in the book)… God’s provision is abundant (as Gerhard Lohfink says “Nature Luxuriates”) but it is not for our selfish indulgence, rather it is for us to share generously as God has shared with us. What appears as scarcity in the world is a problem of distribution due to economies of greed. We ask God for our daily bread, but God provides beyond what we ask in order that we might share with others… ~Chris Smith

      • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.lundquist.76 Andrew Lundquist

        Fantastic perspective and eloquently articulated. There is a peculiar emptiness when lacking enough to share. However, “lacking enough” is most often a matter of perspective, and generosity is a decision to see and steward any amount of resources as abundance. Hence the Hebrew idiom “good eye” versus “evil eye” which Messiah used to confront the very types of economic interactions called out in this article. Self-indulgent excess in this life creates eternal poverty, whereas temporal sacrifice through love stores eternal treasure.


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