Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Have We Come Full Circle?

Running forward

Falling back

Spinning round and round

Looking outward

Reaching in

Scream without a sound


Leaning over

Crawling up

Stumbling all around

Losing my place

Only to find I've come full circle

-          Octavarium, Dream Theater

The Question

A friend posed this series of questions.

·         Materialism without Capitalism?

·         Capitalism without the West?

·         The West without Christendom?

·         Christendom without Christianity?

·         Christianity without Christians?

·         Christians without Christ (i.e. "spiritual but not religious")?

How connected are these?  Is it necessary that each is preceded by the one before?  I don’t know.  And I don’t know if I will know any better by the time I finish this post.  But scratching the surface is a good start.

Considering these questions, the first thing that strikes me is that these is a string through history connecting these; one did follow the other in the history of the West.  Christ came before Christians, Christians came before Christianity, etc.

While it is so that one followed the other, I guess the question is: must one had to have preceded the other.  It is easy to answer “yes” for each specific question; how could there be Christians without Christ, Christianity without Christians, etc.?

But does this suggest that Capitalism (let alone, Materialism) could not come to exist without Christ?  I am not familiar with a well-developed capitalism coming organically out of any other tradition (whereas Materialism has been built on many foundations).  So, history, at least, presents a hurdle to the possibility – or probability.

Two clarifications: I will define capitalism as respect for property and life.  This seems to me the most fundamental necessity.  Second, consider that this is a very rough work-in-progress; I look forward to feedback, to help shape my views and deal with these questions in a more substantive manner.

The Foundation

I guess I will start with a couple of concepts, concepts that are unique (as far as I know) to Christianity.  Something is telling me that I must start with these.

Genesis 1: 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

All men and all women are made in the image of God.  This suggests, rather strongly, a proper means of respecting the dignity of each individual.  It does not suggest equality – certainly not in the modern sense of the term.  But if I am to treat others honestly – a necessary pre-condition for capitalism to form – it helps to keep in mind that all men and women are made in God’s image.

John 1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Jesus was God and the Son of God.

Hebrews 10: 10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

We don’t have to keep finding a scapegoat.  For shorthand, God sacrificed Himself.  There is no higher sacrifice we can offer.

Ephesians1: 7 In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace

There is no sin too large that His sacrifice cannot forgive.  (Yes, I know there is one – but examining this is beyond the scope of this blog and outside of the questions raised.)

What does all of this have to do with the questions raised?  I don’t know if we get to capitalism without Christ.  (I will examine the last step – materialism – shortly.)

The Caveat

It should be noted: I included no verses touching on the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection.  Clearly, there is no Christianity without these.  Christ is not Christ without these.  But are these necessary for Capitalism?

I don’t think so.  I think the argument made above – and on the concepts identified above – are sufficient.  That these (as a group) are found only in Christianity remains true, and necessary for Capitalism.  But I cannot connect the Virgin Birth or Resurrection to Capitalism. 

Could Jesus have come to earth in another way?  I don’t see why not, but this is beyond my theological depth.  Did He have to be Resurrected for His sacrifice to count?  Again, I don’t see why; but this, too, is beyond my theological depth.

However, it seems to me that for Christianity to be sustained, a sufficient portion of the population must buy into these claims.  Otherwise, what is Jesus but a failed revolutionary?  So…maybe even these are necessary for Capitalism – but for now I am willing to suggest only that a sufficient portion of the population holds onto the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, else Christianity cannot be sustained (from where we would gain hope – another necessity of capitalism).

As I think about it, how do we get capitalism without consideration for the future – a future beyond our lives?  Again, this may not require Christianity, but it doesn’t hurt.

The Connections

So, what do I take from these verses?  If all men and all women are not made in the image of God, why would those not so blessed be afforded any consideration in life or property?  A majority of those under Greek or Roman rule were slaves; certainly, something well below the status of citizen.  They were not so blessed in the time of the Greeks or Romans; they were not anywhere else in history either.

Sure, I know the objections: “slavery existed in the Christian West until the nineteenth century!”  Slavery existed everywhere until the nineteenth century – and it continues in many parts of the world today.  It was only in the Christian West where the active role of Christians brought this practice to an end. 

As I have asked before: do we expect God to force several thousand years of cultural change on us in a day?  This is what is being forced on us today, and it never goes very well.  It is what was forced by Lenin, Stalin and Mao – and that didn’t go well either.

Next, if we are not afforded the understanding that we are blessed with a sacrifice that cannot be surpassed, that can cleanse all transgressions no matter how large, how can we live in peace with one another – the peace necessary for property to be accumulated and for trade to flourish?  We see today that we cannot.  There is no sacrifice large enough to satisfy today’s grievances.

Am I stretching this?  Maybe.  But where else in history do we find the concepts as presented in Christianity (depicted by the verses above) and capitalism (rights in life and property) developing organically?  I haven’t found another example.

The Diversity

This does not mean that everywhere Christianity went, capitalism followed.  We know it did not.  There was something about the West that was different.  Here, Germanic tribes brought their culture and tradition into the mix.  Which raises an interesting contrast.

Aryan tribes from the southern Russian steppes went both east and west in the third millennium BC.  To the west, Greece, Scandinavia, Italy, and Germany.  To the east, India.  They brought with them a culture.  Karen Armstrong states that “Aryan” was not a racial term, but as “assertion of pride,” something like “noble” or “honorable.”

These tribes had some characteristics that we might consider “Christian.”  We can also see in these characteristics some necessary conditions for capitalism: binding agreements were made, sealed by solemn oath; characteristics of loyalty, truth, and respect; the spoken word was like a god; once uttered, a vow was eternally binding.

So, where am I headed?  In the East, these Aryan characteristics did not develop into anything approaching capitalism – rights in property and life.  In the West, they did.  I can think of two significantly meaningful differences, one or both of which could be factors: first, the influence of the Greeks, second, the influence of Christ.

As for the Greeks…not all men were considered as created in God’s image.  So, despite all of the wonderful contributions given us by Greek thought, toss them out for rights in property and life.  That leaves us Christ, for the reasons above.

To continue with this point: why not the Christian East, and why only the Christian West?  I imagine here again I can point to the Germanic (Aryan) tribes.  Byzantium took with them the Greek, but they did not have the German.  The culture of the region was not similarly influenced – albeit I have read little of this history.

The Material

So, to make a long story short, I don’t think we get to capitalism without Christ.  But what of the last step, materialism?  It strikes me as a desire to hold on to capitalism (or, in the Marxist case, the fruits of capitalism, being production) without the foundation on which it was built. 

Do we get to materialism without capitalism?  Perhaps not.  Capitalism gives us the luxury of ignoring the transcendent; it affords us a means to reduce suffering; it focuses us on goods in this world, as it is deemed the only world.  So, maybe the answer here also is yes – the luxury of materialism is possible only because of the abundance of capitalism.


Or the abundance of slaves.  Materialism as we know it is a recent idea with roots in the Renaissance, but taking full root in the Enlightenment.  It is best (and worst) exemplified in Marxism.  But there was the idea of materialism long before Christ – in ancient Greece and in India.  I am wondering if this means we have come full circle; I am also wondering if it means the cycle might repeat. 

Will the cycle start with Christ, or with an anti-Christ?  I don’t mean in an apocalyptic, Armageddon sort of way.  I mean in terms of the direction our culture might take.

I don’t know.  But either way, I am afraid that we will have to first walk through the valley of the shadow of death.


  1. Interesting sequences. Maybe substitute consumerism for materialism and see what that reveals?

  2. Materialism as you describe really started in the Enlightenment when reason was broken away from Jesus. For that reason alone I don't think Materialism comes from Christianity. It may linked to Capitalism in a timeline because that is how scholars have recorded, but ideologically it is different.

    To Materialism has 2 parts. The first part is the actual belief system. Materialism is a philosophy which believes there is only the material world. It is atheism or a subset of atheism. In no way do any of the other items require their to be only material, no spiritual or super natural. This predates Christianity. Humans forever have believed there is no god or that no god is involved in their lives. Not all or even a majority. But the idea is an early one. Pagan religion in a sense is a retreat to the natural world, found in Romans 1. In that way Materialism maybe gained popularity because of Capitalism but it is a divorce from Christianity by definition.

    The 2nd part of Materialism is essentially greed, valuing things and only things. All of life is lived to enjoy creature comforts and look at pretty rings. Greed predates Christianity. It came about in Genesis 3 at the fall of man. Thou shall not covet is a pronouncement against greed or jealousy. Materialism as greed doesn't come from Christianity. It doesn't come from Capitalism either. It has lived in the human heart since the fall.

    1. "...I don't think Materialism comes from Christianity."

      This is why I somewhat separated materialism from the rest of the analysis. It isn't so much that the idea flows from Christianity, but that the capitalism (that seems to flow from Christianity) perhaps makes materialism inevitable.

      Capitalism affords us the luxury of not lacking in things, of minimizing pain and discomfort, of maximizing physical pleasures. We can make of ourselves what we want to become, we control our fate. No need for anything outside. I am independent.

      anyway, something like that.

  3. Does Capitalism require the freedom to contract one's labor?

    1. As I have defined it in the post, yes.

    2. a parable using the freedom to enter contract for one's labor
      Mathew 20

      a parable warning against greed and hedonism
      Luke 12:13-21

      afainst materialism
      Mathew 6:21, 33

  4. Well, it's not very seemly to talk about myself here, but it does touch on the topic, so...

    I'm hardly a Christian. The ultimate source of my spirituality, such as it is, consists of a desire to see humanity elevated to the top of its potential, both in terms of mastery of the physical universe and of self-knowledge. Very Star Trek-ish (before JJ Abrams).

    That is, I admit, nowhere near as... permanent... as the Christian promise of salvation or damnation for the soul. It is vulnerable to idiots and charlatans saying that they have a shortcut to achieve that potential by decree, or by changing human nature to do away with perceived flaws.

    But I like to think that one who understands the human system is aware of the elegance of the decentralized, redundant, competitive "design" and the drawbacks of the alternatives - even when they can be implemented, which our current level of tech is nowhere close to being able to do. Progressives for me are not exactly blasphemous, but rather fools who think they can improve humanity through "social" hocus-pocus - physicist wannabes, playing with human society, shortsighted and arrogant.

    As for Christianity, if I may ask for some help: my primary issue with it, I now believe, is that I don't really grasp the nature of Christ's sacrifice. I can certainly see the nobility of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others, but in Christ's case, how exactly does the "for the sake of" part work?

    My best guess is that it works by *showing* God's children that He loves them so much as to be willing to die for their sake, despite their glaring flaws, and indeed as a victim of those flaws. It's not the same as, say, a soldier staying behind to delay the enemy, dooming himself so that others can escape. Im Christ's case the act of sacrifice is more important than the precise manner of it. Through that demonstration of love, sinful Man finds the courage to carry on in the face of his own failings. He is told not give up on the spark of divinity in himself, obscured though it is by sin. Does that sound right?

    1. Cosmic Dwarf,

      You have been open and honest about your search for answers. I appreciate that. I hope this helps.

      First things first. You mention that you're "hardly a Christian." My response to that would be the same as to a woman who said she is "just a little bit pregnant." You either are or you're not. There is no middle ground.

      Christianity is a belief and has to be taken completely on faith. It cannot be rationalized nor bought. It cannot be arrived at by being a "good" person. There is no way to become Christian except to admit that you are flawed (a sinner) and that you cannot overcome your failings by your own efforts. You must make the conscious decision to submit your salvation to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and allow His work to pay for your inability to make things right.

      I’ll be honest. I don’t fully understand the nature of Christ’s sacrifice either, but it doesn’t matter. All I have to do is accept it and believe that it’s true. The understanding will come.

      This is, as you say, permanent. For the believer, it is rock solid. The promise does not shift, waver, nor disappear from view. It is always there and is something which can be depended on to carry one through the vagaries of life, in spite of his own failings. It can be held with confidence up to the moment of death, regardless of the circumstances of life. Even if the world around us is being torn apart, it can still be trusted to hold firm.

      You admit that your own belief structure, i.e., a desire to see humanity reach its full potential, is not the same and is vulnerable to those who believe they can change human nature by decree. Since you know this, perhaps you should consider changing the 'ultimate source' of your spirituality. From what I can see, your faith is grounded on a personal wish which will die when you do. Your source of truth is based on a mirage which can never be reached. Man has potential, because he is made in God’s image, but he will never be elevated to its fullest extent. No matter how far we progress, there will always be something which is beyond our grasp. The Christian belief asserts that God alone, as the Creator, is the source of absolute truth. The creation is not, no matter how much we wish it to be. This is where you should start.

      Your last paragraph is good. You’re headed in the right direction and I encourage you to embrace the truth in it as you develop it further. However, there is one thing which I think you have wrong—man does not have a ‘spark of divinity’ within himself. There is nothing divine about man. There are all sorts of ‘religions’ out there which proclaim that man is God, that he can become God, or that he will be God, but Christianity doesn’t make that claim. To paraphrase that old saying, God is God and Man is Man, but never the two will mix.

      It’s probably best. If there were any ‘spark of divinity’ within man, it could be fanned and manipulated until it became a blazing, all-consuming fire able to destroy anything at all. Or everything. Thank God there are limits to man’s potential.

    2. I will add two or three cents...

      I agree with much of Roger's reply. I will only comment on a couple of points:

      1) It seems to me that there are parts of Christianity that can be rationalized. That it grew to such a status at a time when both Rome and Jews were against it says something about both the converts and about those who converted them - especially the apostles. Admittedly, these are small parts, but they exist.

      2) I am not sure what is meant or not meant by spark of the divine. God did make man in His image. This does not mean physical features. So, what does it mean? How are we made in His image if it doesn't mean two eyes, a nose and a mouth?

      It may mean nothing more than our capacity for rationality, reason, etc. The consciousness we have that no other animals on earth have. It is a feature of God; hence, it is divine.

      I will add something about the meaning of Christ's sacrifice: He was the last scapegoat. None of us can offer a more meaningful or larger sacrifice, nor can we demand a more meaningful or larger sacrifice from anyone else. Hence, we have no need to look for scapegoats to sacrifice.

      It also means we should not be so stingy with forgiving others. Perhaps another reason that we do not have to take Christianity solely on faith. This characteristic makes peaceful life possible.

      There are those who argue for Christianity from a point of natural theology. None will ever get all the way to Christianity this way - hence, faith is required. But people such as these make good, non-faith based arguments.

    3. Thanks for the patience and good faith in answering, I now realize that my rationalist take on the nature of Christ's sacrifice can sound rather offensive to a Christian and for that I apologize.

      Roger, by "hardly a Christian" I was euphemizing my *not* being a Christian, I've no illusion to the contrary.

      And my phrasing was unhappy when I wrote that the "point" of Christ's death is to "show" the faithful that God forgives their sins. What I meant is that the sacrifice is its own end, as opposed to the self-sacrificing soldier I used for comparison (and yes, I'm aware that the there's no comparing the magnitude of the two.)

      And Bionic: yes, what I meant by "divine spark" was our self-awareness, capacity for rational thought, and being made in God's image. I understand how the expression can be dangerous.

      So, what I took away from this exchange is that the Christian view may be summarized as: Man is sinful; he cannot overcome this sinful nature by himself; his only hope of redemption is though Christ's sacrifice. The exact "mechanics" of this sacrifice is irrelevant and may be beyond our ability to grasp; what matters is that it was made for Man's benefit, to provide him with a means to repent and be forgiven.

  5. cosmic dwarf, the point of Christ's death is literal not metaphorical. You have sinned. I have sinned, like every human. God is perfectly holy. He judges all sin. We are all guilty, and therefore are deserving of punishment so that justice may be served. It is only served by the guilty dieing. The Bible says the life is in the blood. If you are guilty you must pay with the spilling of your own blood.

    Jesus sacrifice is significant because he spilled his blood for us. God the Father receives the sacrifice of God the Son, so that your sins can be forgiven. Jesus alone could make that sacrifice because He is 1) human, 2) God, 3) completely without sin. 1) means Jesus can pay for human sin. 2) means His sacrifice is infinite which means it can be applied to every human who believes. 3) means Jesus didn't have to pay for His own sin, He can substitute His payment for us.

    Then He was resurrected on the third day to show that sin and death had no power over Him and all those who place their faith in Him. It is a new life lived apart from sin in obedience to Him. We participate in that new life through faith which extends through our life into the next life. We also are resurrected to live eternally with Him.

    1. RMB, see my reply above - which is also partly relevant to your comment.