Christian Practice, Part 2: The Practices of Stuff

We live in a world of stuff. And that stuff ("resources" from the basic--food, clothing, shelter--to the complex--cars, diamond rings, computers) can cause us problems. Consequently, Christian practice will involve actions to manage our stuff in holy ways.

Stuff causes two big problems:

1.) Stuff is distributed unequally. Some people live with vast excess (way more than they need to survive) while others live in want, many facing starvation. If the well-off group refuses to share, we call this "injustice." Thus, acts of "social justice" seek ways to enact some sort of redistribution of stuff so that all people can have enough stuff to survive and thrive.

2.) Stuff is used to signal status and hierarchy. Much of our stuff is a signaling device, a way to inform strangers (in personal life and the world of work) that we are "high status." This point was most forcibly made by Thorstein Veblen (pictured above) in his Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen observes that many of us engage in "conspicuous consumption"--essentially wasting money on non-essential stuff--to display to others the vast resources at our command. Christians are concerned about this status display for two reasons. First, it's a waste when people are starving in this world. Second, Christians consider hierarchies as forms of violence. Hierarchies create "classes" of people where those of the "higher" class are awarded more privilege and respect. Christians are repeatedly commanded in the NT to refuse to do this.

Given these twin problems with stuff, I believe Christians should practice three things: Charity, hospitality, and simplicity. Or, more concretely, giving, sharing, and non-accumulation.

The NT seems very clear that the acts of charity, hospitality, and simplicity are key Christian practices. These practices are vital in that they get at the twin problems of stuff: Injustice and hierarchy. Giving and sharing help with the redistribution of resources and simplicity attacks the issue of "conspicuous consumption."

I think most Christians would agree with me on the practices of charity, hospitality, and simplicity. The controversial issues involve implementation. How much should we give? How much do we share? How simple is simple enough?

Clearly, Christian traditions differ in how they implement the "practices of stuff." Some Christians drive Hummers while others prefer public transportation (on theological grounds). Who is practicing correctly here?

I can't answer that question. But I will humbly offer two principles of discernment that I think all Christians should subscribe to:

Principle 1: Your choices must be affected by charity, hospitality, and simplicity.

If you give me a tour of your life and allow me access to your choices about stuff, you must, if you claim to be practicing Christianity, show me multiple examples of how a given choice was solely made to practice charity, hospitality, or simplicity. For example, you would have to show me something like this: "I had a choice between A and B. I really wanted A, but chose B because I wanted to practice simplicity." If you have many examples of this in your life (think about your house, car, cloths, electronics, books, jewelry, etc.) where you consciously chose to practice something like simplicity (you are currently living in a simpler house or driving a simpler car or wearing simpler cloths than you could have had) then I say you are practicing Christianity (in this particular area).

Principle 2: You are becoming more charitable, hospitable, or living more simply.

Our attempts to practice Christianity have a goal: To conform to the image of Jesus. Thus, your choices regarding stuff must be changing over time. Let's say you didn't make a simple choice last year or gave $ last year. What about this year? Will your choices now be more simple? Will you now give $$$ instead of $? The progress will be slow, perhaps glacial. But there must be some commitment to grow and change over time.

To conclude, many Christians start the practices of charity, hospitality, and simplicity at different places (theologically and socio-economically). For each, the practices of stuff involve allowing Christian commitments to shape their choices today and to allow those commitment to increasingly dominate their life as time goes on.

So, to summarize my list of Christian practices from last post to this, we have the following:


More to come.

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5 thoughts on “Christian Practice, Part 2: The Practices of Stuff”

  1. Maybe you've covered this in a previous post, but what has the greatest call on a Christian's life? Is it charity, hospitality, and simplicity, or is it God? Does one follow a laundry list of moral qualities, according to one's own judgment, or does one trust God to order one's life?

    An example of this is the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Many people write of how they strive to follow these, believing that this is what God wants. Yet my experience is that while the Spirit is usually patient, sometimes the Spirit hurries me to act. Sometimes the reason becomes clear later. Sometimes it doesn't. Either way I've learned to trust God to lead me. I understand the approach you're taking. Paul wrote the same way in terms of what someone should look like if the Spirit is living in them, but Paul was an extreme dualist, having grown up with concepts like clean or unclean, nothing gray in between. Can't such a thing be overdone, in which case it becomes legalism?

    Of course people can try to escape being godly with this argument, but I look at my life in your terms, and I only see problems if someone wants to judge me. I volunteer at a charity. One might say that hospitality requires me to take my clients home with me, yet I signed an agreement with my charity not to do that (they fear lawsuits if volunteers even give rides to clients). There are times when moral qualities conflict. Who's going to decide what's more important then? Me? I don't trust me for that. If I have a conflict, I'm going to pray and wait for God to answer, which isn't long since the Spirit lives in me. Paul says this is the only way to be a Christian (Romans 8:9). Do you disagree?

  2. This post reminds me of one of the only chapels I actually remember from 220 credits worth of chapel. It was delivered by a graduate student, Mr. Parker, entitled: "The Zenith of Coolness." In it, he spelled out several things that should cause concern for Christians. One of which was driving a Hummer to Church. Of course people got upset, but I saw him as prophetic-- so of course people were going to get upset. Good to have you back.

  3. Davidd,
    A couple of responses,,,

    First, you ask: "what has the greatest call on a Christian's life? Is it charity, hospitality, and simplicity, or is it God?" My response is how do you know where God is? That is, a Christian (via the Spirit) has to locate God somewhere in life. Otherwise, "God" is a free-floating concept I can attach to just about any pursuit of mine. To prevent this free-floating notion of "God" and, hence, preventing a free-floating notion of "Christianity," these posts are trying to identify core practices that God wishes us to engage in. These practices help us locate God in a morally confusing world.

    But I agree with you that this approach can lead to a kind of legalism. I hope, however, you've noticed that I've not been very specific with regards to implementation. I think that, if I were to be specific (e.g., Christians must be vegetarians, Christians must give away 50% of their income), then I could be accused of being legalistic. Questions of implementation are important, but that isn't what I'm trying to do here. However, if a person should want to implement a Christian practice my suggestion would be for that person to get with a group of like-minded Christians, to pray and discuss the issues, and, finally, to make some group commitments that each holds the other accountable to.

    Finally, regarding the Spirit, I'd make a similar point to my first point: How do you discern the Spirit? Too many times I've seen people do things because "the Spirit" prompted them when, in actuality, they were just pasting religious language onto a selfish wish. So, how do we know an inclination is the Spirit or a "religious" justification? Well, posts like this can help. By identifying core Christian commitments we can place our inclinations alongside and ask if the prompt/inclination is truly pointing toward holiness. But some definitional activity needs to take place beforehand. This is what I'm attempting to do here.

    I've heard of that chapel talk but missed it. People still talk about it.

  4. Ah, so if these are practices "God wishes us to engage in", then you must have some idea of who and what God is to wish that. Have you covered this somewhere in this blog?

    My favorite definition of God is that God is who answers when I pray, "God help me!" I find that I understand that better than those who begin with metaphysics or creation, where I cannot exist to observe anything. Such a focus on being helped can be found in the Bible, where the gospel of John and almost all the letters of Paul address the help one can expect from the Spirit. I am a liberal, so I don't just take their word for it, but over the past twenty years I have found my experiences match up well with their description of God and Spirit. So I have a different take on identifying the Spirit than you do.

    I believe that when I detail my experiences about the Spirit, most people believe I'm expressing pride or insanity. I suppose this is our cultural norm, as well as being the concern you express, because there is some truth to it. But that's not the only truth there is to it. The Spirit declares the real God, actively, almost tangibly. Individual bias can get this wrong, but communities aren't a good enough substitute. They can go wrong just as an individual can go wrong, as I have seen you describe in this blog.

    I would like charity to be more widespread for my clients where I volunteer. I have some anger each time I see them at what a hodgepodge of a system we have to help, often missing some client of mine completely. Moral appeals to charity are nothing new. Matthew 25: 31-46 is a strong one with a powerful threat of punishment, but many types of communities find ways to excuse themselves from that or just ignore it. I have no hope in what you're doing to improve charity. It's been done.

    I do have hope in God. Now all sorts of people can say that such a God doesn't exist, both theists and atheists. I believe He does. My experiences have proven that to me. Perhaps atheists are right that everything I experience of God is just a better part of me. Perhaps evolutionary psychologists are right in describing a God-shaped void in our brain arising purely from our nature, needing to be filled with power, knowledge, love and goodness, which you are trying to help fill with your practices, while denying that there is a reliable way for God to fill them directly. I disagree. I've seen a reliable way, no matter how much we lack good role models for this in the modern era.

    I don't mind that atheists might be right. If the direction, strength, and comfort I receive from God is something natural, it is just as powerful, mysterious and underutilized as God is. I mind more that theists dismiss the idea of a personal God so quickly. Have you never learned to pray well? Maybe that's not it. Maybe God really is that selective in whom He lives. But if He lives in no one, then all these Christians in the Bible were all nuts, and none of this matters.

    My hope for my clients is in what Marcus Borg described in The Heary of Christianity, the transformation by the Spirit that comes from Christianity, one person at a time. If someone has that, charity comes easily. If not, all the moral appeals there ever have been have produced only limited benefit.

  5. Davdd,
    In the end, I resonate with much of what you have to say. At the end of the day faith is based upon our own mystical experiences with God. Juxtaposed with that what I am doing here will seem dry and lifeless. Yet, for the reasons I cited earlier, I do see value in an intentional and communal approach regarding spiritual discernment. True, it is no replacement for those personal encounters with the divine, but I think there is some value in the project.

    I appreciate all your comments.

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