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June 2020 Credo

It has been almost 30 years since Stephen Covey helpfully introduced into the business world the concepts of scarcity and abundance mindsets. An effective person, with a mindset of abundance, strives for a win-win situation, always rejecting a zero-sum outlook which breeds unhealthy competition, envy, and ingratitude (Covey 2013).

A quick Google search would show that this psychology of success has been uncritically co-opted by certain sectors of Christian popular writing. Disciples of Jesus are counseled to view the world not as a place of scarcity but abundance.

There is nothing theologically objectionable to understanding our infinite, generous God as the overflowing fount. But it is presumptuous and irresponsible to conclude that the world’s resources as non-zero-sum. Species extinction demythologizes that notion.

Much more hazardous is the modification of Covey’s oppositional pair into the poverty versus abundance mindsets. With such a stark choice, it is not hard to fall down the slippery slope of a first world, prosperity gospel.

Instead of pitting abundance against poverty, we should rather see this as a dialectic functioning within a theological anthropology. In the light of human beings created in the image of God (imago Dei), there are five motifs for reflection: property, agency, natality, receptivity, and poverty.

We begin with a brief comment on property we own. Nothing that we have accumulated, whether riches, reputation, or renown is freehold since our lease on life, though ordinarily 70 years, is really indeterminate.

If we concede with Job that “naked we shall return,” and so possess no thing in perpetuity, there might still be comfort in regarding what we own as the result of our agency. From a Christian perspective, the things we come to possess is not to be acknowledged as obtained through sheer effort, by way of our careers, jobs, or vocations.

Since it is God working in us that gives us both the desire and ability to work, this relativizes any fundamental appeal to meritocracy or self-making. For Christians, human action is a reflection of God’s action as the transcendent agent, the Creator who acts in history.

As agency follows from power to act, so human beings further image God in their ability for thought, will, emotion, language, creativity, among other things. These properties could be understood as innate abilities located in a human nature, essence, or substance.

There are at least two dangers, however, facing an essentialist concept of the imago Dei.

First, an abundance bias underlies the notion of the human being as an owner of properties. On such an account, just as we would weigh a person’s worth and utility by their material quantifiers, say, creditworthiness, we posit quotients for the intangibles as well – intellectual, emotional, social, or psychological. As with all possessions, hoarding comes to be regarded as a virtue; dis-ability and dis-possession become vices.

The second problem of conceiving the human as a property-bearer is the entitled individual with enduring rights. As creatures made in the divine image, God is unlike us. Just as it is proper for God to possess an overflow of abilities, so it is solely a divine right to have them perpetually. “In the beginning, God created …” and, therefore, abundance and eternity belong to God alone  (McFarland 2019).

We image God as sentient, conative beings as contingent creatures who derive such powers from the eternal Creator. Christian or human growth is founded on the truth that we are nothing in and of ourselves. We have abundance precisely because God brings us into existence out of nothing.

Our personal coming-to-being or birth is the event of natality, as Hannah Arendt put it. This capacity to have new beginnings is marked in human life by birthdays, and in the church, through baptisms and Christmases. Natality gifts us with human ability and agency. We have the right to have rights only because we are beginners (Birmingham 2006).

As the Christian spiritual writers remind us, a life of action overflows from a life of contemplation. This spiritual wisdom is found in the oft taken for granted fact that all human activity arises from a primal contemplative moment of receptivity.

This fundamental receptivity makes us who we are as a person, individual, ego, or [insert personal name]. Paul’s rhetorical question, “What do you have that you have not received?” could be understood as an interrogation of reality. As such, it may be parsed all the way down to the level of identity and being. The deeper we appreciate this givenness of being, the more we shall be disabused of our sense of entitlement.

Since we were created and continue to exist through Christ, we are wholly dependent on God as human beings and human beings. That we have existence and abilities not in and of ourselves frees us to admit our poverty of being. No matter how rich our human condition is, we are fundamentally beggars – a reality likely to be best appreciated in the face of mortality, as did Martin Luther.

Scribbled onto a fragment next to his deathbed was this pair of aphorisms: “We are beggars. This is true.” Nothing strange as last words go since a dying man can write whatever he wishes and get away with it. The odd fact was that Luther left us with these precepts in two different tongues. The one in his native German, the other in Latin – the language of the church of his time (George 1988).

Why the oddity? One conjecture is that Luther wanted to underline the fact that we are all born poor, in whatever ethnicity we enter this world. Independently, we are neither brimming with life, light, nor good deeds. In fact, we are dead in ourselves, full of untruth, and incapable of good.

But none of us is cognizant of this self-reality in our native condition. Only as we are found in the church do we realize that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” The right human posture is recognizing that all our property, agency, and natality arises from a primordial receptivity and poverty of being.

The proper polarity, then, is not of abundance versus poverty. Rather, it is the opposition and ordering between receptivity and right. Setting our sights on merely human property, agency, and essence will devolve into mere rights, whether legal or natural. But contemplating that, who, and what we are as pure gift will orientate our “right” to act and own for the sake of others.

The corresponding metaphorical pair for right/receptivity is closed fists/open hands. Do we grasp tightly onto things and contend violently with others? Or do we live with a constant awareness of our fundamental poverty, with gratitude to God and generosity towards others?

Wir sein Pettler, Hoc est verum.

Dr Tan Seng Kong is Lecturer of Systematic and Spiritual Theology at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST).