Thursday, 8 August 2013

Who Can Afford Sanctification?

or, Can We Get There From Here?

In my last post, in which I wrote about Terry Eaglton's Why Marx Was Right, I shared Marx's claim that we cannot really engage in praxis (that is, activity that we do for its own sake and not as a means to our economic ends) and cannot really actualize our potentials (I'm not always sure what the means, but bear with me) if we are unable to meet our material needs, or even uncertain in our ability to do so. This leads to a pretty simple conclusion: the bourgeios are able to self-actualize and the proletariat are not. Further, the bourgeios are often able to self-actualize through their work and the proletariat cannot; while a CEO could very well work as hard as the person bussing tables at three different jobs, the CEO is working on themselves and not just at their job, which can't be said so easily for the serving staff.

Abraham Maslow has made a similar observation in his hierarchy of needs: meeting basic needs like food and physical security are preconditions for self-actualization. Pure Land Buddhism also contains a similar idea: true enlightenment is not available in this world, but there is another world in which a meritous practitioner can be reincarnated called the Pure Land in which our material needs are all met, allowing us to focus on attaining enlightenment without the distractions which weigh us down here. There are traditions, then, both psychological-sociological and Vedic, that ask what precisely the material conditions of enlightenment are.

All this stands in stark contrast to my experience and understanding of Christianity. The Beatitudes, which are generally considered to be part of the heart of Christianity, bless the poor rather than the rich, and Jesus tells us that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Indeed, there is a tendency in Christianity (or, anyway, progressive Christianity) to conflate Christ with the poor, likely because Jesus tells us that we are treating him as we treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned. I'm fully aware that there are other trends in Christianity, which conflate wealth 'n health with divine favour, but the sort of Christianity with which I am familiar suggests that Christ-likeness might look a lot like homelessness (cf the Franciscan and Benedictine monks). I do not mean to deny the close ties between Christ and the poor, or the serious challenges wealth can present for spiritual well-being, but I do want to suggest that Marx's insight--that pursuing activities for their own sake rather than for your stomach's sake (and this probably includes a lot of religious transformation) is a whole lot easier when you aren't starving--is one that it might help us to remember.

I think that I can pretty uncontroversially identify "becoming Christ-like" with praxis and self-actualization. Given that, I have a few ideas, but I don't know how or if these ideas work together.

On the one hand, we Christians can maybe celebrate the fact that we have strategies for acheiving praxis without having all of our material needs secure. Indeed, it's perhaps easier for progressive Christians to imagine sanctification among the poor than among the rich. I'm also reminded of Hinduism's provision for the labouring class, in which they can shed karma through their work (the yoga of labour). At least for the moment, it would be incredibly prudent for us to consciously develop what it means to become Christ-like when we have urgent material needs calling us in other directions. Even in the most successful communist society imaginable, we would still have material needs and we would still be vulnerable to illness and injury, so these strategies for praxis-in-privation will still come in handy. I should say that lots of folks are already working on exactly this project, but I think we would benefit from recalling Marx's insight more explicitly.

On the other hand, we Christians are called to feed the poor--that is to say, help them meet those material needs. Now, Jesus didn't say to what ends we should help them meet those needs; it certainly doesn't say we should feed the poor because it's easier for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for poor people to do so. The trouble is that when I was reminded of the yoga of labour, I was also reminded of how the yoga of labour was used as justification for serious economic and social inequalities in the caste system's later incarnations. So, sure, on the one hand it's probably a good idea to find ways for poor people to work out their salvation which don't rely on the luxuries of wealth, but that work can often be a distraction from the other work we should be doing to help the poor not be poor. I'm not saying it's inevitable that one leads to the other, but it's awful tempting.

The way forward might be the one I expect you're thinking of already: one of the things we do to become Christ-like is feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, etc. My becoming-Christ-like, my self-actualization, consists at least in part of helping out poor people. Hopefully, if we're taking sanctification/praxis/self-actualization seriously enough to tackle the self-actualization-for-the-poor thing, we will automatically be working on the helping-the-poor-not-be-poor thing. (But maybe that's excessively optimistic.) It might be disconcerting to think that we have one kind of praxis for the rich and another for the poor, since by definiton the poor cannot help themselves not be poor and call it praxis, and bending down from our privileged pedastals to dictate a strategy for praxis-in-privation could become paternalistic and patronizing really quickly, but it's probably squeamishness that's freaking me out on this inequality rather than actual concern for justice. The poor have to roll differently because their lives really are different. So I still think there's a link here, where helping other people pursue Christ-likeness or praxis is, itself, the pursuit of Christ-likeness or praxis. At any rate, I promise to think more about it.

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