Scarcity and the Limits of a Theological Response
Notes Toward Becoming a Traitor to Concepts of Need
This is part of an ongoing series for paid subscribers on the role of scarcity in the moral life.
When Theology is Not Enough: A Brief Argument
In the previous issue, we spent time with Howard Thurman, asking what it means to begin to reckon with the role that scarcity plays within our lives, shaping and framing our decisions. Thurman helps us, I suggested, by turning our attention away from the conditions of scarcity, and turning our attention toward God, in that it is only by doing so that the fear which scarcity produces begins to loosen. There’s a body of psychological literature which indicates that when a person has a transcendent purpose (however nebulously defined), it enables them to have the fortitude to move forward amidst difficulty.
So far so good, even if I think it’s important to nitpick at the definitions here. But it’s not wrong as far it goes: the way in which scarcity operates is by focusing us intently on the deficit at hand so that we almost focus too much on it, unable to conceive of a possible future where this particular deficit isn’t the most important thing. Prayer reframes our entire world as an invitation for our lives to be grounded in something other than our own perceptions: God.
We’ll pick up some of those threads this time by asking some critical questions of Thurman, who I find to be both correct and yet insufficient on his own in this way:
To reckon with the ways in which scarcity shapes us, we have to begin to see that theology is important, but not everything.
What I mean is this: it’s increasingly common when, faced with questions of scarce resources, for theologians to gesture toward a doctrine of God’s provision, or to emphasize (rightly!) the false sense of the world that scarcity imposes upon us, but without recognizing that this recognition alone does not change us. Having an alternate idea to the one currently dominating us is important—we can’t change unless we have some inchoate sense of what an alternative might be—but it’s not enough.
These affirmations are right and good to make, as we talked about last time, but absent some way to broaden this affirmation into something more wide-scale, the affirmation of God’s benevolence will stall out at the level of an intellectual alternative. The result is either that we feel ourselves failures for not trusting enough, or that we become full-blown materialists, saying something like “we’re the answer to our own prayers”. Both of these are banal: human agency is not the same thing as God, and collapsing one into the other is at the root of many a theological problem.1
To begin moving the needle from an affirmation of God’s work to being changed, we need to become traitors to what Ivan Illich called “manufactured needs”. And that means asking different questions than the ones theology is used to asking.
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