For our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.
In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.
We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.
In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.
As Stanley Hauerwas writes:
if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.
Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire.
Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.
That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.
Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.
They’re not freely chosen.
We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.
Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.
Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.
As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.”
Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.
Freedom so conceived is freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.
Freedom, in such a context, is not directed to any End, or rather it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.
For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.
Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something. Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom of God.
In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-driven) creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will.
Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.
When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.
Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’
Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?
Here’s why, according to Augustine.
Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.
However, when you’re no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.
They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.
As William Cavanaugh says:
“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.
A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom).
And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.
With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”
We tend to think of sin simply as an act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as a free act that violates God’s honor.
Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.
Sin is not a free act or decision at all.
That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.
Augustine would point out that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.
Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.