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Against Pride of Possession

The New Testament exists because people in overcrowded hot rooms in Mediterranean towns were screaming at one another over the remains of a meal. That’s why we have the New Testament.
Rowan Williams

One of today’s lectionary readings, from First Corinthians, raises the question of why the Corinthians were screaming at one another. Why did St. Paul have to ask them to “Consider [their] own call” and “boast” not of themselves but only “in the Lord”? In The Gospel and the Catholic Church, Michael Ramsey suggests the problem is any spiritual gift that draws our focus from what Jesus has done and fragments the body of Christ. A genuine spiritual gift is never a possession to be grasped as ours in isolation from Jesus and our siblings. Instead, it calls us to reflect the unity of God. However, this call must “overcome” us as it first “apprehends [us] through the Cross.” Ramsey even says, channeling Karl Barth, that through this call “the oneness of God triumphs over the whole questionableness of the Church’s history.” So, if we are to stop screaming and try to learn from one another, especially in the absence of crystalline commands — whatever we think of meat sacrificed to idols — the lesson has to involve dying both to self and what we might imagine as the self-sufficiency of the church. Here, Ramsey directs us to baptism (Rom. 6:3, 1 Cor. 12:13) and the Eucharist, through which we learn to “proclaim the Lord’s death” (11:26) and become “one body” (10:17), all at once.

Ramsey writes, “To possess a gift is to feel no pride of possession, for only in the life of the one Body is it of use or of significance; to lack a gift or function is not to feel hurt since the member’s selfhood dies in the one Body.” We, I think, dimly realize we should not be possessive. As Timothy Radcliffe once preached, “If you just keep the gifts for yourself, you subvert the web of gift-giving,” remembering the joke about the kid with the family heirloom: “My grandfather sold it to me on his deathbed.” But our gifts, both individually and within the church, still often serve as instruments of self-justification.

Andrew Blosser, channeling Thorstein Veblen, suggests we too often see spiritual gifts as “positional goods” that become valuable because others don’t have them. This sets up a zero-sum game: “For every satisfied owner of a positional good, there must be at least one other frustrated consumer who wants to possess it and cannot.” (This even leads to nihilism as it entails a desire for further scarcity — ontological decrease, so our rare books might become even rarer.) Thus, Blosser suggests that the Corinthian Eucharist became the site of positional display where those with something ate in an “unworthy manner” (11:27), visibly apart from those with “nothing” and their contrastive “humiliation” (11:22). Instead, Blosser suggests that the Eucharist must be an “intrinsic good” that increases as it is shared, much like friendship, a good joke, or family heirlooms passed down without charge.

For Blosser, we have become idolators when we think God is impressed by our “positional goods.” God desires the unrestricted sharing of “intrinsic goods,” like when we are told, “Let everything that has breath give praise to the <span style=”font-variant:small-caps;”>Lord</span>” (Ps. 150:6). Nevertheless, Veblen’s terminology doesn’t fully capture the danger of Ramsey’s “pride of possession,” because these days seem less openly competitive and materialistic than Veblen’s. There are fewer equivalents of walking sticks and corsets meant to conspicuously show that the gentleman and lady have no need to be productive.

We, however, still have gifts we consider spiritually ours. Elizabeth Currid-Halkett has written about an aspirational class that is less about acquiring material possessions and flaunting upper-class leisure than working hard to attain knowledge and a “higher social, environmental and cultural awareness.” The point is not to live expensively but — if one has less money — to play “an insider’s game of information on local subculture, hole-in-the-wall dive bars and the whereabouts of particular food trucks.” If one gains more funds, she knows to shop at a certain grocery store because of its story of “consumer awareness, an animal rights ethos, environmental consciousness.” More specifically, “Whole Foods allows us to consume our way to a particular type of persona.” After a description of the “religious ritual” of “cupping” at a specialty coffee shop (not Starbucks), Currid-Halkett says of the near-silent tasting of coffees brewed at different temperatures, “All of this is what makes the coffee taste good both physically and metaphysically.”

The problem isn’t with the question of how something tastes “metaphysically,” or the particular values, or that this quickly becomes comical, more about appearing knowledgeable than acquiring any real knowledge — “We will eat the smaller, sadder apples from the farmers’ market because we met the farmer and we know he didn’t put any nasty chemicals on his fruit.” It is that this becomes divisive, as members of the aspiring class assume their values are “shared by all Americans” and cultivate an “implicit sanctimony” that prevents them from recognizing others who cannot afford their knowledge. Poignantly, Currid-Halkett reminds her reader that an aspirational parent may self-consciously abstain from giving her child mass-market chicken nuggets, but “it’s not that low-income parents aren’t aware of the benefits of children eating vegetables and ‘healthy food,’ it’s that they can’t afford the waste if the children refuse to eat or throw it on the floor,” as the children will do with the first several attempts at “more virtuous foods.” A church may also exclude those who cannot afford entrée into the moral universe of authenticity, conscientiousness, nonchalant worldliness, and romanticized minimalism.

As Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood wrote, if we no longer recognize the poor, it is because “we have selected against them in the constituting of our consumption rituals and have declined invitations to join their celebrations.” (As Jonathan Malesic has more recently reported from Pennsylvania, “real solidarity is harder than it looks.”)

If it remains deceptively easy to celebrate exclusive rituals and subtly retain what Ramsey calls “pride of possession,” here of knowledge and culture, we require dispossessive rituals, such as baptism and the Eucharist. Christopher Wells has written that First Corinthians presents a “sacramental itinerary” in which we are reformed in Christ through an “ascetical curriculum,” first as we discover humility in being confronted with the “foolishness” of Christ’s cross (1 Cor. 1:23) and then as we are “baptized in his death” (Rom. 6:3). The Corinthians’ attention has to continually be drawn “back to where they began in the font,” especially as they navigate neuralgic quarrels that otherwise become stages for self-assertion and exclusion.

For Wells, we have been invited to be “remade” to become responsive to what God has first told us in Christ — “we are to think like Christ, and on that account to act like him: emptying and humbling ourselves in order to be obedient to the end.” This “design and redesign” means that as we speak “we curiously understand him still to be himself speaking as well — inviting, permitting, and even uttering our speech through us.” For Wells, this remains clearest in the ritual of baptism. After all, we are baptized “in” God’s name by saying it — “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and “we say God’s name endlessly thereafter in worship and prayer: ‘Holy Trinity, one God;’ ‘Jesus;’ ‘Lord.’”

Then, the Corinthians can only share in the Eucharist, “waiting for one another” (11:33), if they have come to see that the “meal’s communicants are bound to the Lord’s sacrifice, passion, and death,” and thus to one another, at long last reflecting the unity of God

The Corinthians were likely yelling at one another because they still considered themselves, in Ramsey’s words, “separate ‘selfhoods’ — (I, mine, he, his) — instead of knowing themselves to be nothing.” If, one the other hand, one realizes that, through baptism, she has at once been immersed into physical water, Christ’s death, and new life in a rather immersive form of belonging, perhaps she can no longer play zero-sum games with either possessions or her knowledge and culture. She no longer shouts at the other, because, as Rowan Williams would say, there’s a genuine desire to learn from what the other person has learned, however disturbing or promising, even about meat sacrificed to idols, because this other person too has been immersed and overwhelmed, and she finds herself “remade” to offer space, even for this stranger.

What she has learned, what this other person has learned, what I might be coming to learn, through what Christopher Wells would call our “ascetic curriculum,” is no longer just our own.

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