Okay, just how serious can we be about the relationship between theology and economics, discipleship and work? I have already noted in a couple of previous posts this theme and some of the efforts we have attempted at NTS. Now I am sitting at a retreat with around 30 theologians and administrators from over a dozen seminaries and universities exploring the theme. I left Kansas City and subfreezing temperatures for La Mirada’s 70 degree weather… but also rain, welcome to Southern California winter (just a note for my colleagues who think I am slacking :0-)
Greg Forster opened the conference last night with a thought provoking observation. He understands that both extremes of the national economic debate, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, revolve around a continuing concern. Each group asks the question: “if I work hard and play by the rules, will it mean something?” That type of economic anxiety, that desire for human flourishing through meaningful work, under gird the goals of the Kern foundation and might serve as a backdrop for the discussion this week.
Greg offered what he thought was the best example from history, Josiah Wedgwood. Dr. Forster noted that Wedgwood, a potter, and abolitionist who demanded excellence and freedom, was also the founder of the modern factory. What is fascinating is that Wedgwood (in the 18th century) offered the poor a highly structured framework designed to lift them from alcoholism and poverty through work with a deep expectation of and commitment to excellence. According to Greg, the factory of the 18th century provided accountability and a vision of the transformed life, all in an economic/manufacturing framework.
This morning Dan Scott, pastor of Christ Church Nashville, opened our session with the same call to a theology of economics that does not denigrate the poor nor despise wealth. Dan offered a missive that really challenged simplistic economic answers that embrace wealth as a sign of spiritual health (rather than responsibility) or romanticize the poor without providing both resources but also accountability to help them raise themselves out their poverty. Commensurate with the season he offered Victor Hugo’s (in Les Miserables) depiction of Jean Valjean as an example of one who experiences grace and responds by lifting up the poor through work… but then remains in the ambiguity of being despised at times by both the revolutionaries and the established social caste.
Rather than linger on fictional characters, Pastor Scott turned to the historical figure of John Wesley (the other 18th century JW to Josiah Wedgwood). Scott argued that Wesley’s efforts with the poor, combined with an accountable discipleship, created a social and spiritual lift that helped England avoid the ravages of the French Revolution. Now, I know that this assertion is often contested by British and Methodist historians (depending to who you read Methodism may have postponed the problem, not solved it… but less an issue for me). Instead I reflected how Wesley himself noted that the reclamation of people from a life of sin, included a prosperity that raised both positive opportunities and particular challenges. Regardless, the disciplined accountability of Wesley… and Wedgwood… might warrant future consideration.
What really caught my eye in the morning session is Scott’s use of this Eucharistic prayer: “We thank Thee, Lord God, King of the Universe, for this bread and this wine, which you have created and which human hands have prepared. It shall be for us the body and blood of Christ.”
The interplay of human “hands” and divine transformation hit me. Scott continued:
Here, in essence, is the core of a Christian view of economy. For whether or not we consider ourselves sacramental, for the Christian, economic life necessarily consists of the use of material and immaterial resources, in obedience to and in cooperation with the Creator of the universe, to advance human sustenance, redemption, healing and growth. An economy exists to help us become functioning persons, helps us reach the purposes for which we were created, and capable of living in community with God and with our fellow human beings. Although some of use may neither desire nor be called to manage large financial sums, we acknowledge that some of us are, and that all are called to be good stewards over what has been given to each of us to manage.
The Eucharistic image, combined with the two “JWs” of Wedgwood and Wesle,y, reminded me of my own work on Wesley’s efforts in discipleship as a kind of “liturgical eschatology” an attempt to create in everyday life a way of living consistent with the liturgy of worship in the worshiping congregation. After all, liturgy, leitourgia, is often defined as the “work of the people.” Could this be the lynch pin between economics and sanctification? Can we actually begin to think how the Holy Spirit transforms structures of economic practice through a disciplined “liturgy” that is at once a form of economic stewardship and also vocational expression of holiness of heart and life? Exploring this thread provides another way to think how our Wesleyan heritage might indicate how the participation of God’s creation, our human hands, and epilcletic Holy Spirit, results in a Christlike presence for the future.