Monday, 1 February 2010

Juxtaposition: Schmemann & Ruskin on Value

The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world . . . Man was to be the priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in this offering he was to receive the gift of life . . . When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence.

Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 1970.

The best and simplest general type of capital is a well-made
ploughshare. Now, if that ploughshare did nothing but beget other ploughshares, in a polypous manner, however the great cluster of polypous plough might glitter in the sun, it would have lost its function of capital. It becomes true capital only by another kind of splendour, when it is seen "splendescere sulco," to
grow bright in the furrow; rather with diminution of its substance, than addition, by the noble friction. And the true home question, to every capitalist and to every nation, is not, "how many ploughs have you?" but, "where are your furrows?" not "how quickly will this capital reproduce itself?" but, "what will it do during reproduction?" What substance will it furnish, good for life? what work construct, protective of life? if none, its own reproduction is useless if worse than none, (for capital may destroy life as well as support it), its own reproduction is worse than useless; it is merely an advance from Pisiphone, on mortgage not a profit by any means.

John Ruskin, Unto This Last, 1860.

For some time I've been thinking of a new category of posts, "juxtapositions", which involves setting side by side extracts from authors who are either thinking the same thought but expressing it in remarkably different ways, or dealing with the same subject but disagreeing.

This is the first, juxtaposing the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann and the English art critic and thinker, John Ruskin. Both are, in these extracts, concerned with basically the same subject, the life of the world in light of eternal verities, to be specific the concept of value and how it comes to be misjudged in the modern world because we have largely disconnected the world from God and forgotten our divine calling. Schmemann addresses the topic as a theologian and Ruskin as a social theorist.

A further reflection: Luther on Cupidity and Concupiscence
The disordered valuing of created things over the Creator is tied up with what theologians used to term "cupidity", and has its root in original sin. Luther does not discuss cupidity much, but he has a lot to say about concupiscence, a related term. As with many facets of the old catholic faith, Luther breathed new evangelical life into a term which under scholasticism was being subsumed into a neo-Platonic frame of thought; he extended the meaning of "concupiscence" from its original reference to sexual lust to include the disordered lust for created things in general which characterises fallen man (this was a definite advance in theology, freeing it from the ancient and medieval preoccupation with sex and widening its scope).

R.H. Tawney provides some interesting historical background to Christian attitudes to cupidity in the marketplace in his classic work, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1927). He sees Luther as a social conservative, wanting to preserve the medieval order, while Calvin he regards as providing a theological rationale for a "secular asceticism" that sanctifies business but only if it re-invests profit in the means of production and does not use it for conscpicuous consumption. As Calvinism receded in influence in Western societies, the religious constraints on consumption were removed, and thus we ended up with the modern economy, which is driven by consumption - or would it be more accurate to say cupidity/concupiscence? It is surely not accidental that today we see the lust for material things and the lust for sexual pleasure exploited to sell goods. Luther and Ruskin would have been as appalled at this as any medieval schoolman, had they lived to see it, and Schmemann presumably was, because he did.

Now, the really interesting thing here is that more recent studies have traced the origins of capitalism to the medieval monasteries, the home of the old view that concupiscence was the lust for sexual pleasures, and we know that religious orders and the church generally were the most conspicuous consumers of goods in the medieval period. Perhaps the monks' preoccupation with sins of the flesh blinded them to the more spiritual sins of cupidity and idolatry? Whatever the case may be - and it would be an interesting subject to follow up - it all goes to show that theology and the social life of human communities - how they organise their life together - are always closely related.

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