Frivolous spending is out in our current economic crisis. High-end restaurants are hurting. McDonalds is thriving. The government is capping excessive pay for top executives. Trips to the Bahamas are being scrapped (Citigroup instead paid its 1,900 Primerica Financial Services brokers a total of $5,000 each). Rahm Emmanuel said you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Recovering from our crisis will require inventive minds. If however we vilify frivolity, we’ll likely waste this one.
Our current crisis is the result of “a disengagement from reality” that marks all economic bubbles, writes Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the May 20th edition of The New Republic. Reengaging with reality requires rethinking how reality works. For starters, is necessity the mother of invention? Most people assume that crises catalyze innovative thinking. Miles Orvell, a professor of American Studies at Temple University, says this crisis will spark “a rethinking of the fundamentals.” “Stress brings new ways of thinking,” he writes. It “will have a profound effect on culture from people at the bottom to people at the very top.”1 But is this reality? New studies indicate otherwise.
In a recent New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik notes that scarcity “encourages people to hold the rites of scarcity sacred.” Necessity narrows the mind and limits innovation. Inventors, for example, didn’t make a better mousetrap until mice populations were in decline. The first mousetrap patent didn’t appear until 1894, after the rodent was already in retreat, a victim of improved sewer systems and more stringent public-health measures. The same phenomenon can be seen in bird populations. Terence Deacon, a professor of biological anthropology and linguistics at Berkeley, has observed that birds brighten and their songs grow elaborate not in conditions of scarcity, where birds fight for every seed, but in landscapes of plentitude.2 In periods of plentitude, people play. They can be frivolous. They become inventive. Frivolity, not necessity, is the mother of invention.
This is exactly what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches. The creation story isn’t about necessity. “The first vision of material human existence is not of just “getting by” on a diet of “daily bread,” a counsel of “just enough,” John Schneider writes.3 It is instead a picture of affluence and frivolity. It wasn’t necessary, for example, for God to create humans. It wasn’t necessary to create colors, fragrances, senses, and the thousands of species of fish, fowl, flora, and fauna. He could have just as easily made a monochromatic universe that would sustain life. Instead, God made an incredibly frivolous world because the goal is human flourishing, not sustainability. That’s reality.
Reality is reiterated in the Proverbs. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is alongside God in creation as a master workman. “I was daily his delight, playing always before him, playing in the world, his earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.” People don’t play in hard times. They don’t tend to be as inventive either. That’s important, for in the creation story, the capstone is God calling us to be creative and inventive. Innovation is enhanced in environments of luxury and frivolity, not scarcity. This is why, since 1839, the Trappist Monks of St. Sixtus Monastery have been brewing what is widely considered to be the best beer in the world. Westvleteren beer sells for upwards of $15 a bottle. You can only purchase two 24-bottle cases a month through the monastery’s front gate. For many folks, brewing expensive beer in a recession would seem to be a rather frivolous pursuit. The monks, however, see it as part of promoting human flourishing.
The sad truth is that too few faith communities promote a proper view of affluence and frivolity. I know people who won’t drive their sports cars to church – it’d draw stares. Faith communities tend to treat plentitude as suspect and poverty as spiritual. “Christian tradition going back to very ancient times has been mainly negative in its judgments on the morality of affluence,” Schneider writes.4 In ancient times, poverty was widespread, so that is what theologians addressed. The church did not develop “a similarly advanced tradition on what it means to be rich.”5 St. Augustine said it was good to use material wealth but not to enjoy it. As a result, many people in the today’s church have adopted the Greek idea of the “spiritual” being superior to the “material” world.
There’s no question that materialism can get out of hand. We’ve seen that over the last two years. But a bias against frivolity and affluence can bias us against material possessions. There is nothing wrong with material possessions as long as they are not our treasures. Poverty is not more spiritual, as Dallas Willard writes. “We must never forget that the riches of this world, whether they are to be regarded as good or evil, are realities that do not just disappear if we abandon them, they will continue to exert their effects. Possessions and use of them will occur. Someone will control them, and the fact that we do not possess them does not mean that they will be better distributed. So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself. Our possessions vastly extend the range over which God rules through our faith. Thus they make possible activities in God’s power that are impossible without them.”6
The goal of faith communities is to extend the range over which God rules. At present, how is this working out in our current economic crisis? Are the views of faith communities being taken seriously? The realities of our crisis will not just disappear if we continue to be against material possessions and frivolous spending. We need innovative solutions drawn from inventive minds. If faith communities understood that frivolity is the mother of invention, they might make a meaningful contribution to this crisis and gain a place at the table. Otherwise, they risk wasting this crisis.
1 Paul Harris, “Frugal is cool in cash-strapped US,” The Guardian, January 4, 2009.
2 Adam Gopnik, “The Fifth Blade: On razors, songbirds, and starfish,” The New Yorker, May 8, 2009, p. 53.
3 John Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), p. 59.
4 Schneider, Affluence, p. 2.
5 Schneider, Affluence, p. 2.
6 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 202.