Christian Doctrines And Wealth Creation

A properly developed theology of wealth, however, does not just depend on returning to earlier and hitherto neglected or forgotten passages of the Bible in order to supplement what teaching we have in the sayings of Jesus and the early Church. It becomes a matter of developing and appreciating a fuller theology and doctrine of creation, and of noting how considering or reconsidering this doctrine can throw light on various aspects of contemporary living, including how Christians should relate to exploiting the potential of the earth's and humanity's resources to meet and satisfy the economic and other needs of God's human creatures.

Christians, however, subscribe to other major doctrines alongside that of creation, and it is interesting to note how the influence of such other doctrines can powerfully affect the ways in which Christians, whether as individuals or as groups in society, can look on the activity of creating wealth. Indeed, Christian attitudes towards wealth and riches provide an interesting illustration of how major Christian beliefs may in general be considered to have ethical implications and to seek expression in Christian behaviour. For what may be considered the central beliefs of Christianity—creation, sin, incarnation and fulfilment—can have, and have had, significant impact on how Christians regard wealth and riches.

Thus, concentrating on the idea of God's bringing his creative enterprise to completion at the end of history can give rise to two contrasting basic attitudes towards the present life. One is to view it as of little significance by comparison with the life to come which God will bring about in due time, and consequently to consider it wrong to become immersed in the affairs of this passing world and ignore one's true future in the world to come. This emphasis can be seen most clearly in traditions and attitudes of quietism and sectarianism, which regard with suspicion, or at least with moral reserve, all secular or worldly activities, including the accumulation and possession of wealth, engaging in business and the whole enterprise of wealth creation, particularly so far as Christians are concerned.

Concentrating on the Christian doctrine of completion can, however, also take the form of viewing that divine work as already in process, and as a result Christians can consider it a duty for human beings to cooperate with God by working to create conditions in society which enable all people to live even now lives worthy of their destiny. This application of the Christian belief in completion can be found in various social reform movements, liberation theology, and other critiques modelled on the denunciations of their society by the Hebrew social prophets. Its attitude is not one of hostility towards wealth or riches as such, so much as one of radical opposition to what are considered unjust economic and social structures which enable some sectors and individuals within society to profit at the expense of others. It is the achieving of this social purpose of wealth which has become so dominant today in Christian preaching, in the face of the glaring economic disparities which exist, and may be increasing, not only among individuals within the same society, but also between countries and the different regions of the globe.

Both these ways of interpreting the Christian belief in a divine completion, the quiescent and the impatient, have this in common, that they regard the present condition of society as falling short of what it will be, or of what it could be. In order to explain the present unsatisfactory state of human existence they rely on another of the four major Christian beliefs identified above, that of human sin and sinfulness, which many Christians also view as the outstanding characteristic of society. There is no sharper ethical divide among Christians, both in history and in the present, than in the prominence which they attach to the presence and influence of sin in all areas of life, including those connected with riches or wealth; that is, in the degree to which they view all human behaviour as subject to, and expressive of, a profound predisposition to moral wrongdoing, whether this is understood in terms of disobedience to the commands of God or of inflicting harm on one's fellow human creatures. As was noted above, it is the alluring potential of wealth and riches to entrap individuals and cause them to succumb to greed, pride and self-sufficiency to their spiritual destruction which figures prominently in the teaching of Jesus on wealth. Yet it also has to be asked, as was done at the beginning of this chapter, whether such a negative attitude exhausts a Christian evaluation of riches and wealth. In fact, behind such influential New Testament perceptions may lie not only a foreshortened view of human history with its lack of concern for the future of society as such, but also a stress on human sinfulness which requires to be balanced by giving due significance to other Christian beliefs, including belief in the incarnation and the actual achievement of Jesus.

For in its strongest form an emphasis on sin would lead to despair of humanity, were it not for the Christian belief in the incarnation; that is, in God's gracious mercy in bringing forgiveness and hope to human beings in the life and passage through death to new life of Jesus Christ. As with the Christian belief in divine completion, however, this belief in the incarnation can give rise to two contrasting attitudes to life in the present state of society, and towards wealth and riches as one manifestation of such living. For many Christians what is central to a concentration on this belief in the incarnation is not just the fact that Christ has saved humanity from its sins, but also the fact that humanity still stands in recurring need of being forgiven for its inherent self-centredness, its proud trust in its own resources, and its continual proneness to succumb to the allurements of worldly goods and worldly success. As a consequence, in the view of such Christians, who are largely representative of the Protestant tradition, human reason and motivation cannot be a trustworthy guide to human moral behaviour, since they remain infected by sin and are inherently suspect. The sole reliable source of proper human behaviour is to be found only in biblical revelation and above all in the teaching and example of Christ. This interpretation of the incarnation as not dispelling the prevalence of sin or the propensity to sin and as therefore requiring powerful dependence on the moral teaching of Jesus can obviously result in stressing the negative nature of such dominical teaching and at the same time in confirming a Christian suspicion of the malign seductions of much in modern life, including riches and wealth, together with any social activities which are connected with them.

By contrast, other Christians take a more positive and optimistic view of the effects of sin in the lives of individuals and society. They do not consider the presence and effects of human sinfulness as so pervasive and destructive as we have been considering, and thus are enabled to emphasize confidence in the continuing creational goodness of humanity and of the world. They are more disposed to trust the reliability of human motivation and of human moral reasoning as developed, for instance, in the tradition of a natural moral law, to which all humans, and not just Christians, have access. They also stress the constructive and honourable nature of many occupations in society, rather than concentrating on their occupational ethical hazards. In particular, they view the creation and use of wealth and riches as in principle a positive cooperating by humans with God in the ongoing creative work of developing the earth's and humanity's resources for the common benefit of all.

Such a less destructive view of the effects of sin on the human constitution then sees the work of the incarnation as continuity and confirmation rather more than as rehabilitation, and it finds its positive appreciation of the basic creational trustworthiness of human intelligence and enterprise enhanced by belief in the incarnation as not just a remedying of sin but a reaffirmation and enhancement of the goodness and potential of creation by the divine identification with it. This strong perception of the effects of incarnation is shared also by those who believe that, even granted a more cataclysmic effect of sin on humanity, the saving and healing work of God in Christ is even now capable of having some positive, and even widespread, influence for good on the attitudes and behaviour of all human beings, including even those who may be unaware of it. In this more typically Catholic approach, what belief in the incarnation adds to the doctrine of creation, apart from any remedial consequences it might have, is an enhancement of the radical goodness of creation by the Creator's deigning to identify with it in such a way that 'the Word became flesh' (John 1:14).

If Christianity, then, can be summarized as centrally concerned with beliefs about creation, sin, incarnation and completion, and with the ethical implications of living out those beliefs, this helps us realize that historically, as well as in the present, the placing of. particular emphasis on one or other of these beliefs by individual Christians or groups of Christians shapes their attitude to human behaviour in all walks of life, including the possession and creation of wealth. There thus exists a variety of Christian attitudes towards wealth depending on whether Christians give particular weight to one or other of the basic beliefs outlined above. Yet, to have a complete Christian view of wealth, alongside the spiritual aspect of its risks for individuals, which is the main message of the New Testament, and alongside the social aspect of its proper distribution, which is the main thrust of social prophecy both in the history of Israel and in the present, there is a need also to put in place its creational aspect: the increasingly complex ways in which wealth is produced and possessed in society and in which further value is added to the creation with which God continues to gift his human creatures. Without that third creational element a spirituality of wealth runs a Manichaean risk of treating it as evil and as no more than a material source of temptation without regard for its positive purposes. And without a creational theology of wealth the social view of wealth distribution incurs a Utopian danger of disregarding the necessary conditions for creating the wealth to be distributed. Perhaps the continual challenge for Christians is to give due weight to all their basic beliefs, in what can be termed a form of dynamic equilibrium. When this balanced tension is applied to the human activity of possessing and creating wealth, Christianity can then address to those who possess wealth words of encouragement and approval on the one hand, for what they are capable of doing and to some degree actually are doing with their wealth, and also words of criticism and impatience on the other, for what they may not be doing or not yet doing sufficiently with it. This can perhaps be summed up from the Christian viewpoint in acknowledging a continuing moral tension between the God-given goal of humans cooperating to develop the earth's resources for their common well-being, and the historical reality of a human inclination to pursue individual interests at the expense of others and thus frustrate the ultimate purpose of God's work of creation.

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