Spending Money and Social Relationships

Victorian evangelicals
believed in an
orderly universe
and saw the
economy as
the fulfillment
of God’s plan.
–Gordon Bigelow

The last couple of days I’ve been part of a conversation in which a small group attempted to understand what the words “health and wholeness” mean.

Of course there are dictionary definitions that define health as the physical state of the body. But health–a healthy life–is much more.

And that gets to the meaning of the word wholeness. What exactly does it mean to speak of wholeness, as when we strive to live a “whole” life? These questions are not just philosophical exercises removed from the realities of everyday living. In a time when more people are reporting increased levels of stress, less time with their families, greater pressures to increase performance at work and striving to achieve the “American Dream,” these questions take on particular connection to day-to-day life.

We live our days in a culture in which extraordinarily well-funded, creative and competitive forces seek to attract us to buy, and then buy more. Consumption is reinforced by the culture and it’s remarkably strong reinforcement. The culture of consumption has become our way of life.

Gordon Bigelow makes an intriguing case that evangelical Christianity is at the root of the idea of economic free markets in his article in the May issue of Harper’s, “Let There Be Markets.” (As I write this it has not been posted on the web, so I can’t link to it, however, it’s available on newsstands.

Victorian evangelicals believed in an orderly universe and saw the economy as the fulfillment of God’s plan, Bigelow says. This put the emerging theory of economics into an individualism that it has never escaped from. What is missing from the economic view of modern life “is an understanding of the social world.”

The great weakness of traditional economics, Bigelow says, is its reliance on the belief that individuals make decisions to buy things based on their own individual choice. This is rooted in evangelical theology which greatly influenced free market advocates in the 1820’s who needed moral justification for their own wealth and the stark suffering of the poor. This was the era of industrial transition that is chronicled by Charles Dickens.

With this foundation, Bigelow says economic theory embedded individual choice as a foundation. But we don’t live as individuals. We live in a modern community that is buffeted with hundreds of thousands of messages, with cultural values and with class affectations that all bear down on us when we make economic decisions.

we buy things
partly based on
who we are,
but at the
same time we
believe that
buying things
makes us who
we are and
might make us
into someone
different.
–Gordon Bigelow

Thorstein Veblen said in the 1890s that consumption and work are carried out within boundaries set by class and culture. But this has not penetrated economic analysis, probably because it doesn’t serve the purposes of traditional economists, nor those who benefit from the myth that wealth is the reward for individual acumen and hard work.

This view of why we buy actually distorts us as human beings, and that is the connection I see to the definition of wholeness. Bigelow says “we buy thing partly based on who we are, but at the same time we believe that buying things makes us who we are and might make us into someone different.” This excludes the better part of us, as Bigelow writes, the part that makes us human; our social interactions and our irrational desires. It excludes our inner spirit and our outward-reaching spiritual concern. It excludes our understanding of ourselves as created for sacred purpose in a creation that is the work of a loving God. It excludes our understanding of responsibility for each other, and it leaves us alone as individuals rather than included as parts of vital, encompassing communities.

In short, we are more than consumers. Consumption cannot make us whole. We are more than our plastic can buy.

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