Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Dismal Science

Out on the bike trail this afternoon, I pulled up to the top of a hill overlooking a lake, where I met a man on a recumbent bike who had cycled up from the opposite side of the hill. "Nice bike," I said as we both stopped to admire the view and catch our breath. We struck up a conversation about the advantages of different styles of bikes, one thing led to another, and we exchanged first names and a little personal information.

What do you do? he asked. Well, I'm a Presbyterian pastor, I responded. Interesting my new friend remarked. "Are you finding more people coming back to church during this awful economic crisis?" he asked. Not in large numbers, I responded.

It was an interesting conversation up there on top of the dam, as we looked out over the lake.
How often do people speak about faith and the economy in the same breath? In my experience, not very often. Yet Jesus spoke about the stewardship of wealth in his parables and teaching frequently. In fact, "wealth and its stewardship" was one of Jesus' favorite topics. Someone once said that it's safer in our society to talk about sex, than it is to discuss one's personal finances. I don't know about that, but it looks like we are headed toward a social and economic crisis that may press us all to open up about personal stewardship and the fate of our collective economic condition.

One suggestion. Over at Sojourner's Magazine, in its online version, editor Jim Wallis has addressed the economy and faith on his personal blog "God's Politics" today. Wallis intends to open up an ongoing conversation on faith and the economy. It should be thought provoking.

My new friend asked, "Are people coming back to church to help deal with their fear and anxiety over the economy?" It's really too soon to tell, I think. But I wonder about this. What would people find if they did return to church. Would they find pastors and congregations willing to address this topic of our shared economic crisis in open forums and in sermons? Can you envision churches planning a learning series about the justice of our economy? I think that would be intriguing. Imagine planning a series with some local professors from nearby colleges.
And how about an ecumenical cluster of churches together sponsoring a forum in which local congressional leaders would be invited to address this topic. Finding a trained theologian/ethicist to speak about the topic from a faith perspective could add depth and breadth to an ongoing conversation.

"The dismal science"; that's what we have called economics. I wonder if we can afford not to learn more about the key elements of the ways in which nations and communities create, distribute, and conserve all the facets of wealth production and consumption. It is a justice issue. It is a crucial issue for human betterment that can no longer be ignored and left in the hands of Wall St. "masters of the universe."

For spiritual and theological reflection on our current crisis, consider the comments of
St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430 from the City of God (Book I, Chapter 20).
Here Augustine speaks about the crisis of the great city of Rome, in a parallel to our own times of anxiety. This is what Augustine wrote:

They lost all they had [in the sack of Rome]. Their faith?
Their godliness? The possessions of the hidden man of the heart,
which in the sight of God are of great price? Did they lose
these? For these are the wealth of Christians, to whom the wealthy
apostle said, "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we
brought nothing into this world, find it is certain we can carry
nothing out. And having food and raiment, let us be therewith
content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a
snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in
destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all
evil; which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the
faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."

Perhaps this could be a start in inviting people of faith to engage in conversation about our current spiritual and economic challenges.


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