Blame It On the Reformation (Part 5): Channeling Schaeffer

In his chapter on economics and the “goods life,” Brad Gregory has a kvetch-fest about free markets and consumerism (that echoes Francis Schaeffer on Aquinas):

The earlier and more fundamental change was the disembedding of economics from the ethics of late medieval Christianity’s institutionalized worldview, in conjunction with the disruptions of the Reformation era. What needs explanation is how Western European Christians, whose leaders in the Reformation era condemned avarice across confessional lines, themselves created modern capitalism and consumption practices antithetical to biblical teachings even as confessionalization was creating better informed, more self-conscious Reformed Protestants, Lutherans and Catholics. Conflating prosperity with providence and opting for acquisitiveness as the lesser of two evils until greed was rechristened as benign self-interest, modern Christians have in effect been engaged in a centuries-long attempt to prove Jesus wrong. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Yes we can. Or so most participants in world history’s most insatiably consumerist society, the United States, continue implicitly to claim through their actions, considering the number of self-identified American Christians in the early twenty-first century who seem bent on acquiring ever more and better stuff, including those who espouse the “prosperity Gospel” within American religious hyperpluralism. Tocqueville’s summary description of Americans in the early 1830s has proven a prophetic understatement: “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.” (288)

To his credit, Gregory does not exempt the Roman Catholic Church from the guilt of avarice. He observes that the Renaissance papacy was not too bullish on self-denial.

. . . the popes and cardinals at the papal court, along with wealthy bishops in their respective dioceses — who, already long before the Avignonese popes and their courtiers intensified all these trends in the fourteenth century, so often sought to augment their incomes through simony, pluralism, and a deep participation in the monetized economy through the purchase of luxurious material things and the borrowing of large sums of money. (253)

At the same time, he credits the papacy with an effective rejoinder to modern acquisitiveness, the Church’s social teaching:

They reiterated the claim that the natural world is God’s creation, intended by God for the flourishing of all human beings; repeated that economics and the market are not independent of morality; reasserted that the right to private property is not absolute, but is rather subordinate to the common good; restated that unrestrained acquisitiveness does not serve but rather impedes genuine human flourishing and eternal salvation; confirmed the biblical view that the pursuit of affluence above love for God and service to others is idolatry; argued that minimizing workers’ wages in order to maximize profits is exploitative and immoral; and insisted that the poor and marginalized, as a matter of justice, have a moral claim on the more affluent to share with and care for them. (296)

What is missing from this social teaching and from Gregory’s account is where human beings, who are supposed to be dead in trespasses and sins, are supposed to summon up the reservoirs of virtue to carry out such social teaching. His summary does mention eternal salvation on the plus side and idolatry on the down side, but where is grace and how do fallen people become good apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit? Not even the best of the church’s sacramental system and all of that papal charism could prevent popes from padding their accounts, nor did the theology of the medieval church prevent the hierarchy from raising revenues through the sale of grace — as in indulgences.

If the Reformation contributed to modern acquisitiveness, at least it supplies a good explanation for why people are selfish and want to acquire lots of cheap stuff. It is called depravity. The Reformers also knew that the only genuine remedy and the only way for people to lead a selfless life is through the operation of the Holy Spirit. If we want the redeemed and lost to live virtuously, we need to redefine this notion of human flourishing, call it some kind of moral subsistence, and double-down on efforts to beef up the authorities — parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors — who create expectations that restrain human viciousness.

In the meantime, Gregory’s history needs to avoid the kind of sermonizing that follows from an assumed theology, or he needs to write his own version of How Shall We Then Live?

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