Moral Diversity

For a long time, I've held the opinion (implicitly at least) that it is a sin to have more wealth than you need. But building a tiny house is changing my perspective on wealth, and in turn, on the universality of moral imperatives.

As I wrote about on my other blog, I have depended heavily on others during the construction of my tiny house: My parents loaned me money, my friends Jeff and Melissa gave me a rent-free place to live and a truck to borrow, and many other people gave me tools and materials.

I aspire to a simple life in my tiny house - a life in which I own exactly what I need, neither more nor less. I believe fervently that the "American dream" - with its automobiles, big houses, manicured lawns, huge and numerous TVs, RVs, ATVs, industrial food, fast food, etc. - is devouring our health, happiness, and spiritual wellness; as well as those of communities all over the world, wherever the arm of our greed has reached. Not only do I hold this belief and feel called to live it out - I also feel called to preach it, taking part in the longstanding tradition of prophets and weirdos who live on the fringes of society.

Hopefully the irony is apparent - my transition to this alternative lifestyle is enabled specifically by people not living this lifestyle, by people who had more than they needed and gave some to me.

Does this invalidate my experiment or my message? I was forced to ask the same questions about Thoreau on reading Walden. He squatted on his friend Emerson's land. His mom and sister did his laundry. He routinely dined with friends in town. In his case I decided that the experiment would have been far less legitimate had it taken place in "laboratory conditions", in isolation from human community. Even supposing that the same moral imperatives apply to everyone at all times, and supposing that sin and virtue are as distinguishable as night and day, and supposing we have a moral imperative to maintain a hygienic distance from sin - a universe such as ours would never allow it. Total independence and insulation are never more than an illusion and self-deception. Anyway, all three of those suppositions are ill-founded.

For Christians anywhere on the spectrum of conservative to liberal interpretations of scripture, it's clear that what God specifically asks of humans varies at least across time (if not also across space and social landscapes). At various times new laws and commandments are introduced, and old laws and commandments refuted. The most explicit example is in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .", but many others appear in both Old and New Testaments.

We also know that judging, i.e. distinguishing sins from virtues (or sins from innocent mistakes), is infinitely complex, and in this matter mere humans are neither capable nor authorized. To take on the role of judge of souls is idolatrous and reductionistic - a failing both moral and intellectual.

And if we claim to follow Jesus, a man who dined with the corrupt and debauched, it is impossible to suggest that we must insulate ourselves from sin and sinners.

Yet the temptation on the other extreme is to believe that since we are incapable of precisely separating right and wrong, of remaining ritually pure, then we shouldn't bother to try obeying God's commandments. Most sins come in apparent opposite pairs (as C.S. Lewis points out in The Screwtape Letters), and this is no exception - the sin of disengaging from conviction may appear as legalism or as postmodern hedonism (in Christian contexts this is "cheap grace" as Bonhoeffer calls it), but both are at core one and the same, the avoidance of God. Deep down we know what the ancient Israelites knew - that no one can see God and survive. But we forget Jesus' words, that to lose one's life is to save it.

How does all this apply to my own situation? In my case, the opposite pair of sins just mentioned would manifest as either ignoring my convictions and calling, or on the other extreme legalistically judging those around me (on whose support I have been so dependent). Neither would involve the courage to see God and die to myself. Neither would involve taking action regarding that pesky plank in my own eye.

I don't expect to find a simple answer - one that would solve the dilemma through insight alone - but nonetheless I don't think it's a catch-22 either. To follow Christ in this situation, as in any situation, involves becoming the manifestation of a paradox - just as Christ did at the cross. I must become both more humble and more bold. I must show ever more grace and my conviction must grow ever stronger. I must strive after righteousness, yet never seek mere ritual purity.

The upshot is, maybe it is possible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Difficult, yes. But just as an artist or musician loses a sense of self and becomes a conduit for beauty, a wealthy person might die to the self and become a conduit through which material resources flow into God's economy.

The broader upshot is that in addition to the diversity of gifts in the Body of Christ, there is a diversity of passions and convictions. While I must follow my calling to live in intentional poverty, I must simultaneously seek to understand and value the (often apparently contradictory) convictions of others. The diversity of convictions reflects the creativity of God, just like the diversity of nations and races, species and biomes, planets and galaxies. Rather than impose an idolatrous and reductionistic uniformity on others, we should celebrate the beauty and mystery of this ecologically-ordered body of believers.