David Bentley Hart is a brilliant Christian thinker whose intellectual ability far outstrips mine. He has written some of the best general books of Christian theological reflection of our age, including an excellent article, “Christ and Nothing,” which I used last semester to wrap up my class on the history of Christian theology from the Reformation to today. So I was happy to see him on Commonweal’s cover, taking on so forthrightly the challenge of the Gospel to our complacency about our economic lives. I am extremely sympathetic to his view that we (meaning most citizens of the rich late capitalist West) are nowhere near the New Testament's view on possessions. As the biblical scholar Richard Hays puts it, the Church would require “nothing short of a new Reformation” to take the New Testament’s teaching on wealth seriously. I doubt there is a question we are more apt to ignore when it is staring us in the face every single day.
So it is all the more important to state clearly that I do not think Hart's view of what the overall message is is persuasive. I can only do so briefly here, but I will point to further resources on this - my The Vice of Luxury outlines the scholarship at length some of the points made here.
Hart’s argument is positioned in a certain way, between what he takes to be the actual sense of New Testament texts taken as a whole and a conventional but problematic spiritualization of those texts. Hart is right to reject the all-too-common spiritualization view, a view that he likely hears often by spending time with those trading in what he terms to be "libertarian apologetics." A wave of the spiritualization wand neutralizes many a biblical passage, as we've probably seen often passing through Luke in Year C! (News flash: there is no “needle gate” outside Jerusalem to make Jesus’s message about the rich and the Kingdom less stringent, regardless of what websites say. Check the actual scholarship.) And the Chestertonian variant of this spiritualization, which Hart cites in passing, makes us all feel a bit too comfortable with our posh after-conference gatherings with expensive drinks. There is a place in the Christian life for feasting. The materiality that is more compatible with the Gospel is the sort of tender sobriety outlined by Francis in Laudato Si’ #223 or the deep, simple materiality celebrated in the works of Wendell Berry.
This positioning of rigorous-text-versus-spiritualizers, however, distorts his case by making it seem too easy to accept his alternative. It overlooks both extensive scholarship on the issue within the biblical canon as a whole and the developed tradition of Catholic social teaching, both of which converge on a third position, which avoids both spiritualization as well as the temptation to assume that completely common holding of goods is the supposed plain sense of the texts.
The third position does a better job with the biblical canon in two ways. It takes account of aspects of the Gospels themselves which Hart does not – for example, the evidence of sedentary (property-owning!) disciples of Jesus, the story of Zaccheus, and the fact that Jesus’s own disciples do not seem to display a radical material asceticism but are sometimes accused of the opposite. Moreover, the third position invites us to recognize that the New Testament culminates (rather than demolishes) the Old Testament witness, which has a much more developed understanding of right and wrong use of property. Craig Blomberg, in his study Neither Poverty Nor Riches, suggests the continuity of the testaments, though helpfully points out that one element seen in the Old Testament – the claim that material prosperity is a kind of reward for faithfulness – does in fact appear to be absent in the New. Perhaps no one better than environmental theologiuan Michael Northcott has read the Testament together deeply on the question of possessions and community, especially in light of the failure to respond to climate change. Northcott and Blomberg present deep challenges to our ways of life – but not of the sort Hart gives.
This third position can be (all too briefly) articulated in the following way. One, all with property bear significant moral responsibilities for all of it – none of it is “ours” in some unlimited, private sense. Two, the possession of property itself is a worldly preoccupation that easily gets in the way of our devotion to the Kingdom. This should not be spiritualized – “get in the way” is a matter of specific material activity bearing on both the possessions and the Kingdom. Three, because of these two points, those who actually qualify as bearing the label "rich" or "having many possessions" are in significant danger. They are apt to prefer the status quo to the advent of the Kingdom, and apt to settle for a comfortable present rather than yearn for an amazing but challenging future. Wealth generates, in the words of Sondra Ely Wheeler, “peril and obligation.”
Certainly radical renunciation and/or the formation of communities that hold goods in common, valuably witnessed throughout the history of the tradition, is one way of responding to this situation. But it is not the only way. For the rest, the economic ethic is no less demanding, but it is differently demanding. It involves a kind of dealing with possessions that makes distinctions along the lines of "necessity" and "luxury" or between "natural wealth" and "artificial wealth". This isn't a spiritualization, but neither is it a claim that wealth is an "intrinsic evil" (I'm not even sure I know what Hart means by this, since "wealth" is not an act description).
Such a reading does require us to reckon with a further discussion about who qualifies as “rich” or as “having many possessions.” Most studies of the ancient world in general and of 1st century Palestine suggest that a very small amount of the population could have been described in those terms. We must honestly attempt to make analogies with our own very different situation. Too often, we make those analogies by attacking “the 1%,” and I think Hart and I would agree that this is a dodge. How many of us do actually “tear down our barns and build bigger ones” when we have a good harvest (metaphorically)? A lot more than 1%. How many of us are counting, just like the 1%, on stock market returns from global corporations? Yet a serious discussion must also acknowledge that accepting an “acquisitive ceiling” (in the words of Brad Gregory) is not a condemnation of possessions per se. Nor is it a spiritualization. It has real teeth. And in some ways, it has more realistic teeth than does Hart’s interpretation, which consigns us to despair.
But isn’t Hart’s real target here not possessions, but rather capitalism? Again, it seems as though his conversation partners are ones who too easily assume that capitalism and Christianity are acceptable companions. But if the third position outlined above is an alternative, we could ask: is such an ethic of “rigorous, responsible ownership” - which I also take to be the authoritative current teaching of the Church as represented in the Catechism and encyclicals through Laudato Si in terms of the "universal destination of goods" - compatible with capitalism?
The abstraction “capitalism” require another distinction. Francis, as with Benedict, John Paul, and Paul VI before, clearly believes the current world economic order is diseased, that wealthy countries are plagued by a "superdevelopment" that is incompatible with the dignity of the human person (in the rich countries and poor ones), and that the system is harmed by unlimited individualism, which ignores the need of a "strong juridical framework" (Centesimus Annus) for market actors and the mandate that businesses themselves genuinely aim to serve the common good. The current system has big problems.
But it's hard to answer this question in the abstract in part because we don't really know what a market economy that took concerns about luxury and excessive wealth seriously would look like. There are reasonable positions, supported by reasonable economists, that suggest it MIGHT actually serve to de-escalate some of the problems that face the present form of global consumer capitalism, especially in terms of inequality and environmental degradation. There is a familiar but misleading cartoon version of economics which assumes that “buy, buy, buy” is “what keeps the economy going.” It is true that, to a significant extent, we have set up and run a system in which luxury demand is what keeps THIS economy going. But there are real problems – inequality, debt, and many others – that suggest this system isn’t stable and sustainable, even in economic terms. Can there a be a system in which property ownership and exchange via markets works in different ways? The short answer is: obviously yes, in the abstract! Then the problem is no one acts “in the abstract,” so the practical, prudential questions become: what actions – both individual and structural – might be taken to adopt and sustain more durable economic norms and practices? I wrote The Vice of Luxury because one evident and practical step would be to reinvigorate the social norm against habits of excessive consumption, display, and indulgence, especially among Christians, so that I was not compelled to express admiration for the shiny new car or kitchen of my neighbor and that I was encouraged to scrutinize seriously my own ordinary habits.
Hart wants us to realize that Christ was rabble-rousing on wealth. He’s right. But let’s pay attention to the obvious boards in our own eyes, rather than imagining the only responses to the Gospel are the ones chosen by St. Francis and St. Benedict.