Scarcity and Abundance
September 17, 2015
In recent decades, Western culture has developed what the business analysts might call a 'scarcity mindset'.
There are good reasons for this of course. For a long time, we've been behaving like a teenager in a bedroom, consuming non-renewable energy sources, polluting the planet, and degrading the soil from which we then expect another bumper crop. Now we notice that the Chinese and the Indian economies are industrializing, too, and that they see the privilege of prosperity as being able to be as reckless as the West always has been.
There has been an assumption that growth would always come, that nature would always bounce back, and that the future would take care of itself.
Despite readily available contraception and abortion on demand in many countries, the human race is breeding very successfully, and population growth is rising at an exponential rate. With growth in population has come, not unsurprisingly, a series of wars in which ideology and religion have provided the rhetoric for what is in many ways a struggle for the finite resources of the earth. This has meant, as we have seen in recent weeks, the catastrophic uprooting of millions of people who now seek shelter, food, and security.
The national anthem of my country, Australia, has a rarely sung second verse which says 'for those who come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share'. But we don't have them, and we won't share them. Those plains are dry as dust. And successive governments have made it clear, we are defending our limited resources of water and our harbor views and our great weather to the hilt, against all comers.
A scarcity mindset is what you must have if you believe that nature is a closed system, with a renewing power of course, but only a limited one.
However, a theistic worldview, and in particular the Christian one, has at the heart of reality the three-personed God of Love, whose creative energy made everything from nothing at all by his Word, and who makes a great nation out of the fruitless loins of Abraham, and who gives life even to the dead. His grace abounds; his abundance overflows. He enters into, blesses, and renews the earth. The Old Testament testifies again and again to the renewing power of the divine breath upon the earth.
The emblematic episode was the Exodus: a feeding in the wilderness, in which God reminded Israel of the title that Abraham had given him when he provided a ram to substitute for Isaac: yhwh yrh, the God who provides. The manna from heaven was not a natural co-incidence. It was miraculous. It wasn't supposed to be there - it exceeded nature's fruitfulness, and enabled survival in the wilderness, where nature was in fact barren.
The feeding of the five thousand is the New Testament counterpart to the feeding in the Exodus. The 5000 who gathered in the desert ate from two fish and five loaves, and were satisfied. And, in excess of the Exodus miracle, there were twelve baskets of left overs! The miracle was a provision beyond necessity, to excess.
Of course, as with all the miracles, it's an object lesson. This is a great extraordinary picture of what the world, when God rules it once for all, will look like. And it isn't a world in which things will run out. It's a world in which things overflow, because that's the character of the God who made it. This is the God who made everything from nothing, not with any strain, but by a word; and the God who gives life to dead. This is the God whose artistry fills the heavens at night, and who has filled the earth with so many creatures that we haven't counted them all yet. And this is the God, who, despite our willingness to believe that he has our good in mind, gives us even his own Son to supply what we need.
There is then, an abundance mentality rather than a scarcity mindset with the God of Jesus Christ. And yet, this is different to the abundance mentality that has got us into this mess. That was a faith not in the God who supplies our need but in the endless bounty of nature. That was not the right response to the gracious abundance of God in the overflow and beauty of the natural order. It was a squandering of the gift, like the prodigal son, being prodigal with the inheritance he demanded from the Father. We now choke on the fumes of that prodigality.
Rather, as the sacrament of the Lord's Supper teaches us, the right human response to the divine graciousness displayed in creation is gratitude - as we hear in Romans 1:18ff, it is lack of gratitude that marred humanity, and set us on our self-destructive path.
A former politician and public commentator who attends my parish, queried me as to whether this mentality of abundance could have any real world application. Could it help a government make policies? Surely the scarcity mindset is at least a sensible one?
But if we understand the humanizing possibilities of gratitude, then we can see how a Christian witness to governments and policy makers in the face of diminishing resources, and growing populations, might proceed. Thanksgiving honors the gift, and the giver. It cannot be destructive or reckless. It does not presume on more, but it knows that the world as we see it is open to the creative and transformative power of the Lord God. And we know that that includes the hope for the New Heaven and the New Earth, in which God's abundance will flow.
Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology