Economic Recovery … continued

I was just about to add a seventh addiction to the posting I wrote a few days back (Feb 9) … this one about our addiction to debt … Then I heard that the posting in question had elicited a response at The American Spectator.
So, I wrote a reply (below the jump) today … and maybe I’ll get to write more on debt-addiction in a few days.

My comments are inserted into Mark Tooley’s article

like this.

A Real “Economic” Recovery
By Mark Tooley on 2.13.09 @ 6:07AM
Do you remember how President George W. Bush was sustained in power by mindless Religious Right evangelicals, who zealously supported Bush’s wars because they knew he shared their not so secret theocratic dreams? Supposedly Bush would signal his solidarity and ignite these purported bumpkins by lacing his speeches with code words from Scripture or hymns.
President Obama’s own Religious Left constituency is now flaking for their man. Of course, advocating their religious agenda (Global Warming, larger welfare state, disarmament and subordination to the United Nations, multiculturalism) is not theocratic, but timeless and universal pleas for justice and global harmony.
“Emerging” church maestro Brian McLaren, who is a columnist for Jim Wallis’s Sojourners, has been a leading cheerleader for Obama among liberal evangelicals. (“Emergent” evangelicals emphasize post-modernity and stress community over doctrine.)

I’m sure Mr. Tooley is a good and bright man, but I hope folks won’t depend on him for a definition of emergent – or for an accurate description of my views, although at certain points in his article he is quite fair and accurate.

McLaren and other Evangelical Left organizers celebrate that strong majority evangelical support for John McCain last year fell somewhat from the historic tide for Bush, back down to more traditional Bob Dole levels. Supposedly evangelicals will increasingly abandon their concerns about marriage and sanctity of life in favor of climate activism and harnessing CIA interrogators. The Evangelical Left perspective is not populist, like the Religious Right. It primarily represents the elite voice of disenchanted evangelical academics and their student followers, plus some religious urban hipsters and their suburban wannabes, all desperately anxious to shed “Inherit the Wind” stereotypes.

I have no more interest in shilling (or “flaking” – a new term for me) for an Evangelical Left than I do for an Evangelical Right. My interest is in seeking to move beyond the left-right polarity that I believe has outlived its usefulness – and has become part of the addiction to “easy answers” I mentioned in my original piece. True, the kind of vilification inherent in terms like “elite urban hipsters suburban wannabe” and the kinds of covert elitism or nativism that may reside in a term like “populist” concern me … but I would be equally uncomfortable with parallel language (and attitudes) displayed by the so-called left. I should add that I am not one to overestimate Evangelical support for Obama. I think that it says a lot about the current Evangelical ethos to recognize – as Mark Tooley rightly does – that a strong majority voted for McCain.

McLaren’s own brand of post-modern emergent Christianity is therapeutic and post-theological, hoping to end the culture wars though a series of dialogues in coffee houses and meditation rooms.

This kind of mocking treatment is not only trivializing and inaccurate, but it misses the chance for serious engagement with what I was saying, and it may serve to re-energize the culture wars that I do hope can be resolved through honest reconciliation rather than violence, domination, or exclusion. This tone is surprising to me, because if I am as stupid as Mr. Tooley seems to think, I can’t imagine why he would take me seriously enough to write a response. But if he thinks there is substance or value to what I am saying, I can’t see why he would dismiss me so carelessly. Perhaps the piece is not intended to model the kind of dialogue that we need to raise the level of civility in our public square, or perhaps this kind of rhetoric is acceptable and expected in some circles, and I’m just not used to working in those contexts. At any rate, Mr. Tooley may disagree with my theological work, but that doesn’t mean my work is “post-theological” unless he wants to define “theological” as meaning “in agreement with his own views.”

In his latest column, McLaren excoriates hopes for a traditional economic recovery, based on materialistic expectations. Specifically, he was irked by an MSNBC Pat Buchanan comment about Obama’s recent Indiana town hall, with Buchanan sardonically noting that Elkhart, Indiana produces RV’s, and Obama didn’t explain how to revive the RV market.

Actually, “irked” in the previous paragraph and “horrified” in the following paragraph overstate the case. If anything, I was stimulated by Pat B’s comment to think more deeply about the various meanings the term “recovery” carries for different people.

Naturally McLaren was horrified at the prospect of a resurgent America gunning gas gulping RV’s across the nation’s interstates, accelerating glacier melt, panicking the polar bears, and doubtless drowning many South Pacific islanders. That’s not the kind of recovery we want!

I might ask Mr. Tooley if this is the kind of recovery he wants: Would he purchase American prosperity at the expense of lives of Pacific Islanders, or would he see their long-term well-being as being interwoven with his own, and our own?

“For many people, economic recovery means ‘getting back to where we were a few months or years ago,'” McLaren sermonized. “That means recovering our consumptive, greedy, unrestrained, undisciplined, irresponsible, and ecologically and socially unsustainable way of life.”

Can I assume this means Mr. Tooley does not consider our economic lives in recent decades to have been characterized by overconsumption, greed, lack of restraint and discipline and responsibility, and a lack of concern for social and ecological sustainability?

McLaren may hope for a new world, or really just a re-creation of the old, pre-industrial world, where humanity abandons modernity and returns to the forest hut and the tundra igloo, subsisting on berries and ferns, living shorter life spans less destructive to The Planet.

I do in fact hope for a better world, but there’s no need to mock my hope that a better world is possible. Mr. Tooley may not be able to imagine a world in which people move beyond “igloos and forest huts” and beyond our currently unsustainable levels of consumption and waste production … but I can imagine such a world and believe it is possible, with God’s help, and with increased virtue and cooperation among people like Mr. Tooley and myself.

He suggested a different kind of “recovery” that would not include RV’s roaring out of Elkhart, but a “wiser way of life” that recalls the “experience of addiction.” Capitalism’s beneficiaries, like drug addicts, first must address the root cause of their avaricious consumerism: “unresolved pain or anger, the need to anesthetize painful emotions, lack of creativity in finding ways to feel happy and alive, unaddressed relational and spiritual deficits, [and] lack of self-awareness.”

Hmmm. I didn’t blame – or even mention – capitalism. I was naming the kinds of unresolved issues that my friends in recovery tell me they later identified as preparing the way for their addiction – I didn’t specifically link these conditions to an unhealthy form of capitalism, although perhaps I should have. Instead I was recalling St. Augustine’s insight about the restlessness of the human heart, and my belief that if we don’t find our rest and fulfillment in God, we will try to fill the void with other things – consuming them and damaging ourselves and our world in the process, and still remaining unsatisfied.

A true “recovery” would rescue and not restore consumerist addicts to their destructive habits, McLaren insisted. Firstly, of course, that means kicking our “addiction to carbon,” whose fossil fuels, like a “cultural amphetamine,” give us “speed” and “quick energy” while they “toxify” the environment and unbalance the ecosystem. But carbon is not modernity’s only addiction.

This paragraph quite fairly summarizes my concern, as does the following paragraph. Mr. Tooley deserves thanks.

There is “addiction to weapons,” which are among the “most addictive substances possible.” Like barbiturates, weapons generate a false sense of “well-being and security, removing our feeling of fear and anxiety,” while also making us “lazy and slow in the much more important work of relationship-building, justice, and peace-making, lazy in seeking the common good.” And barbiturate-like weapons fuel an “addictive cycle’ around the world, as increasing numbers seek the same drug induced reassurance.
Another addiction, according to McLaren’s pharmaceutical analysis, is the “hallucinogenic stimulant of fear,” which [conservative] religious and political leaders foment for dollars and votes. The targets are predictable: “By making straights afraid of gays, conservatives afraid of progressives, Christians and Jews afraid of Muslims, citizens afraid of immigrants, and vice versa, these leaders get a quick organizational high — crack for their unity and morale.” McLaren lamented that fear-crazed conservatives often slip from stimulation, to paranoia, to paralysis. Evidently the Religious Left, during the Bush years, never resorted to fear or paranoia, so far as McLaren recalled.

I think Mr. Tooley here nudges the boundary between mockery and misrepresentation. First of all, I never used the adjective “conservative,” which he inserted. Second, by including the words “vice versa,” I am making it clear that in my view “liberals” too frequently use inappropriate fear tactics too. Third, I never mentioned, nor sought to defend, any group known as “the Religious Left.” So Mr. Tooley – unintentionally, I imagine – seems to take what was an attempt at civil and even-handed observation and turns it into something partisan and polarizing.
For what it’s worth, I know only a very few people who would be happy with the term “Religious Left,” and I don’t know anybody who would identify with an “Evangelical Left,” certainly not me. My call, as readers of A New Kind of Christian will remember, is to move “above the line” rather than defend any point on either its right or left side.

McLaren is also concerned about addictions to “stuff.” After all, “an economy that measures growth by the number of durable goods (resources) extracted from the environment and turned into non-durable goods that are bought, used, and then thrown away into a landfill,” is constantly “turning goods into trash” and pretending this destructive cycle is “success.” McLaren wants to move beyond “an extractive, consumptive economy” to a “sustainable” and “regenerative” economy, not dependent on “destroying the planet and exploiting people addictively.”
It is true that Christians traditionally warn against inordinate attachment to “stuff,” since their ultimate loyalty is to Heaven. But in their pursuit of Heaven, Christians are also called to provide “stuff” to the needy. Several billion people will never escape chronic poverty, illness, and early death until they too can “extract” durable goods from the planet, much of whose refuse will end in a landfill. According to the teaching of Christians, the earth is not itself an object of veneration, but was created to serve the needs of humanity. Living “sustainably” for McLaren’s suburban followers may in their minds just mean recycling and driving a Prius. But for much of the impoverished world, it threatens a permanent absence of hope for them and all future generations.

The preceding paragraph is fascinating. I wrote about these matters at some length in my book Everything Must Change, so I won’t enter into a lengthy rebuttal here. Suffice it to say that I do not believe the earth was created merely to serve the needs of humanity. Rather, I believe the earth was created to demonstrate the multifaceted and majestic glory of God, and humanity was created within that creation to (among many other things) care for the earth and exercise the kind of stewardship over it that would also honor God. That kind of stewardship would call rich human beings and poor human beings to come together to seek a sustainable and good way of life for us all … and for future generations … and for the fish of the sea, birds of the air, and flowers of the field. This approach, I think most would agree, is both more “Christian” and far more humane than the approach reflected in some of the comments to Mr. Tooley’s article.

McLaren is hoping to “sabotage” these addictions to “stuff” by redefining “recovery” to mean waking up from a drug-induced “comfortable, dreamy, half-awareness” into a new world of solar panels and Fair Trade coffee. But this post-industrial fantasy is itself hallucinatory, portraying the Religious Left as even loopier and more archaic than the worst stereotypes about the Religious Right.

I certainly am for solar panels and fair trade coffee, so Mr. Tooley got that right. Aside from some colorful name calling – fantasy, Religious Left, loopy, archaic — I’m not sure what this paragraph adds otherwise. Sadly, I don’t get the feeling that either Mr. Tooley or some of the folks making comments in response to his article are really interested in understanding what I was trying to say. Some of them seem, instead, eager to trivialize, discredit, label, and mock without listening. In fact, a few seem to reflect what I mentioned in my original posting: “… the more fear you pump into your system, the more fear you have, and pretty soon, you go from being stimulated to paranoid, seeing things that aren’t there and missing things that are.” Since I’m not an avid reader of the American Spectator, this may be unusual, and the level of discourse there may normally be higher … I certainly hope that either is the case already or will be someday.
In the meantime, I find it terribly sad and limiting that any option other than the “industrial status quo” or returning to “igloos and forest huts” is, to Mr. Tooley, considered a loopy fantasy. To me, the pursuit of better possibilities is a matter of faith, hope, and love.

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