As most of you know by now, I moved to the Chicago area last month to pursue a PhD in Educational Studies with a focus on Women’s Ministry. The field of Educational Studies is wonderfully relevant for ministers–it examines the many factors that shape how we think and live, not just in the classroom but in churches, politics, media, etc. Throughout our entire lives we are in the process of learning and growing, and what I want to study in my particular degree is what that means for women. How are women being shaped by the influences around them? How do women learn, and is it different from men? And what does that mean for how the church disciples them?
As I study this topic over the next 3 to 4 years, I hope to share with you some of what I learn. It’s important to me that I keep my philosophical studies grounded in real life, so I’m aiming to use my blog as a means to that end. With that in mind, this post serves as the first installment of this new phase in my writing!
So here goes…
There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.
– Proverbs 16:25
Today I was reading a secular book that examines the dominant worldviews of our culture, and how we are shaped by them in some unexpectedly negative ways. In particular, the book examined what it means to live in a capitalist society and how that affects the way we see the world. What struck me about this topic is that some philosophers have made a surprising connection between our capitalist economy and the state of marriage today.
(If you just zoned out at the sight of the word “capitalism,” stick with me! Whether you’re an econ buff or not–I most definitely am NOT–your daily life and the way you see the world is profoundly affected by what I’m about to stay, so hang with me a bit longer!)
Most conservative Christians offer total endorsements of capitalism and the virtues of having a free market that encourages excellence through competition. While I am not trying to have an argument here about the pros and cons of capitalism, this wholesale embrace of the capitalist way of life has had some unintended consequences. Specifically, it has infiltrated our worldviews and shaped the way we approach life in a more general sense. Consider these excerpts from two different philosophers on the relationship between capitalism and marriage/intimacy:
“Under the exchange economy, we view a loving relationship as ‘a mutually favorable exchange,’ with love as something existing outside our core, a commodity we trade with others for a fair return. Love under capitalism is governed by the ethic of fairness, ‘the particular ethical contribution of capitalist society.’ Where love is concerned, ”I give you as much as you give me’ is the prevalent ethical norm in capitalist society.'” (Excerpts from Erich Fromm in Brookfield, p. 178)
“We treat relationships as profit-making activities to which we can apply a cost-benefit analysis of emotional dividends that accrue to us. In this way of thinking, a relationship is successful if its participants enjoy a good rate of return on their emotional investment in the form of ego aggrandizement, sexual favors, or receipt of unconditional positive regard.” (Stephen Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory, 2004, p. 257)
As a result of this mindset, our marriages and our capacity for intimacy suffer:
“The most personal relationships are subject to this drive for exchange…This is true even when talking of those who claim to be in love. In Fromm’s view people ‘fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange value.’ When love is conceived of as an exchange, then true intimacy–‘union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity’–is impossible.” (Brookfield, p. 162-163)
Sound too harsh? Sound too cold and analytical to be a realistic description of human beings? While most people probably don’t make a formal cost-benefit analysis chart of a relationship before deciding to marry or divorce, the basic mindset is all there. I see it quite clearly in my own life! For instance, I sometimes find myself tabulating how much my husband has done for me and then measuring it against what I’ve done for him. If I perceive a discrepancy, I suddenly feel disappointed and dissatisfied with the relationship, entitled to more than I’ve been given. And of course this language is all of the place in divorce proceedings: “He just wasn’t making me happy anymore,” or “It was too hard. It wasn’t worth what I was putting into it.”
I see this mindset in other areas of my life as well, such as friendships. Have you ever contemplated spending time with someone based upon whether it’s worth the effort? Perhaps you decided whether to pursue a friendship based on how much they entertain you or make you laugh? That is a carry-over from living in a thoroughly capitalist society, and while that type of thinking may be appropriate on Wall Street, it is unfitting for the Body of Christ, and certainly our marriages.
All of that to say, I am not intending to launch an all-out attack on capitalism, but this is a very stern caution for sure. There are a number of Christians who have, in so many words, described capitalism as “God’s best:” If God were to design an economy, this is what He would lay out! When we begin using that kind of language we have strayed into VERY dangerous territory. Any time we equate a secular institution or construction with the Gospel, our doctrine will start to slip and our lifestyles will soon follow. We will no longer be oriented by Gospel-centered principles but will instead be compromised by competing allegiances.
What is the take-away lesson here?
It’s about guarding yourself against worldviews that compete for the Gospel’s primacy in your life. Our marriages aren’t falling apart simply because of the hyper-sexuality we see on t.v. or the moral pluralism that has infiltrated our culture. Those factors are devastating to marriage, to be sure. But we must also consider that Christians have whole-heartedly embraced a system that examines everything according to how it profits us, a mindset that can quickly sabotage a marriage. Such a wholesale endorsement of any belief-system other than the Gospel is bound to give us far more than we ever bargained for.