Monday, November 09, 2009

Capitalism, Greed, and God

Last evening I was reading Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture—specifically chapter five, entitled "Living In The Future." Thus far I have been amazed at Berry's insights and ideas. One idea in particular resonated deeply with me, and with ideas that I've been writing about on this blog for many months—namely greed, capitalism, and agriculture.

Berry muses on how the modern men have usurped God's authority by overturning the created order. We have abandoned the search for Eden, the lost garden, by attempting to re-create it for ourselves. This is surely not a new phenomenon, as many are familiar with the Tower of Babel, the story in Genesis in which, the people said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4) Upon visiting the city, the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech." So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city." (Genesis 11:6-8) The ESV Study Bible is instructive:

"This episode is significantly more important than its length suggests. It presents a unified humanity using all its resources to establish a city that is the antithesis of what God intended when he created the world. The tower is a symbol of human autonomy, and the city builders see themselves as determining and establishing their own destiny without any reference to the Lord. (The tower story may also be a polemic against Mesopotamian mythology. Eridu Genesis, a fragmentary text found at Ur, Nippur, and Nineveh, describes the goddess Nintur's calling for humanity to build cities and to congregate in one place. Her desire, according to this text, is that humans be sedentary and not nomadic. Yahweh demands just the opposite, so that the earth would become populated."

Berry continues, attempting to explain the phenomenon, recognizing that what is occurring in modern men is new, in that men have been successful in usurping ultimate sovereignty. He writes, "We have indeed learned to act as if our sovereignty were unlimited and as if our intelligence were equal to the universe." Yet, as he writes, we have succeeded in this task, the results have been "catastrophic." So just as at Babel, God has foiled our designs.

Yet we persist in our machinations against our creator. Berry wonders how it is that we have not only succeeded in deluding ourselves into believing ultimate sovereignty belongs to us. He writes, "It is necessary to account for a new intensity of greed—a greed newly empowered, under no constraint to see itself as evil, allied (so it believes) with a manifest destiny and the way of the world. There must have been no just a shift of basic assumptions, not just a motive, but also some kind of vision or dream or psychic lure."

What can account for this "psychic lure?" Berry believes it is "the future." He explains, "What has drawn the Modern World into being is a strange, almost occult yearning for the future. The modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven. The great aim of modern life has been to improve the future—or even just to reach the future, assuming that the future will inevitably be 'better.'"

This isn't a wholly satisfying explanation in my mind, but it is a great insight and a very useful one. What is most important to recognize is the idolatry of modern man. "The modern mind longs for the future as the medieval mind longed for Heaven." This is idolatry, though Berry doesn't use the term.

To be continued…

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