Even in progressive Christian circles, I frequently find myself applauding a position a writer takes while I cringe at the path they take to get there. To use an example from not-progressive circles, I’m glad that more evangelicals are opening their churches to queer people. However, I often hear phrases like, “We’re all sinners.” Or, “Jesus died for all of our sins.” That is, rather than saying that queer people are a beautiful example of the diversity of God’s world, they are saying that we’re all just as terrible as queer people and deserve divine punishment just the same. I can’t fully explain here why that is a problem, but suffice it to say there are alternative ways to think about sin, redemption, and belonging in the life of God. In the past 2000 years, we have made some serious theological missteps. In reading Inhabiting Eden this week, I found myself unexpectedly face-to-face with one of those missteps.
As I said, I like where Patricia K. Tull ended up. Her overall point was that the world as we know it encourages consumption as a way of finding contentment. Instead, she proposes we should find our contentment in God. Such a move would be better for us and better for the environment. With that, I can agree. However, to get to this point she leverages a very dangerous line of thought in the Christian tradition.
She begins with a discussion of pride. Pride, in Tull’s view, is trying to find our contentment in ourselves rather than God. It is going our own way instead of God’s way. Humility has always been a hallmark of the Christian ideal, from finding our place in the majesty of the first creation story to the Beatitudes. The great mystics speak of humility as the path to God. Unfortunately, this has become a tool for the powerful to shore up their position. Many a gold-bedecked pope has admonished the poor to be like Jesus and accept their suffering. Many a white man has exhorted women and people of color to stay in their place, lest their pride doom them. So I get nervous when people start to talk about pride.
Ironically, Tull nibbles around the edges of the problem a couple of times. Right off the bat, in talking about Jesus’ wisdom that “No one can serve two masters,” she says: “In a culture that knew too well the ubiquity of masters on all levels from the household to the empire, Jesus had no need to say, ‘And don’t even think you can avoid serving any masters at all!” Perhaps Jesus didn’t. Perhaps the idea would have seemed so alien in his time and place that he couldn’t say it without losing everyone. Maybe he didn’t even think it. But we can say it. Maybe there is an alternative to the whole master/servant system. Our faith can move mountains, but it can’t push aside a hierarchy that enslaves?
Then Tull cites Proverbs 16.18-19, but focuses entirely on the first part: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is indeed the problem, but by ignoring the second part of the proverb — “It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” — she misses the point. “The proud” in Scripture are contrasted with “the poor.” The poor are not just those without money, but those who have been excluded from social systems, leaving them to be exploited and oppressed by others. Those others are the proud.
By missing this, Tull’s argument about idolatry is impoverished. Her contention, again, is that we try to find contentment in the works of human hands rather than God. This is certainly true. But that class dynamic of the poor and the proud can powerfully inform that critique.
One characteristic of the proud is that their accumulation of things is not even for the sake of the things themselves. It is what Tull points to as “conspicuous consumption,” consumption intended to communicate to others something about our social standing. The proud like to, for example, build buildings and put their names on them, but the coming of God into the world will bring down “every tall tower.” (Isaiah 2.15) These idols, these works of human hands, will pass away.
I began to wonder what other works of human hands, what other constructions, might also pass away. What is it that we really idolize? What do we idealize? The truth is, all the stuff about which Tull is rightfully concerned is just the trappings of the values we hold. The American Dream is to advance in our careers, get married, and have kids. The houses, cars, and clothing, the vacation photos on Instagram, the check-ins on Facebook, are all just the visible signs that we are moving toward that ideal. Even if we’re not. Pride is an illusion and our idols are our props, but behind all that is an ideology of progress, achievement, and accumulation that is rapacious.
We probably love our stuff too much, but we don’t love ourselves enough. Because we don’t understand ourselves and others as keepers of the divine light, because we don’t understand that we are each created in the image of God, because we don’t understand that the breath of God flows in and through us and everything else, we forget who God is. If God is a power over us, indeed, our only choices are to obey or rebel. We can probably even construct a theology that tells us obedience to God is bowing to God’s power while exerting power over others and over the earth. But if God is a power within us, we need not lord over others just as God need not lord over us. There is no need for the structures that stratify us into “the poor” and “the proud.” Power within is equal and shared, not externally granted to or taken by the few. If God is within us, we can feel content because contentment is found, not in power, but in relationship; not in obedience, but in belonging. The pride found in that belonging is the confidence that we are enough and the world is enough without the need to strive for more and more.