A Review of Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life by William Schweiker and Charles Matthewes

[1]If property is a relation among persons with respect to things, as Morris Cohen says,[1] possession in the human realm is a relation among persons and things commonly called having. The distinction is as important as their connections. Both notions and their relations are explored in this welcome collection of essays coming out of a collaborative project of scholars from diverse backgrounds and interests who wrote and discussed their papers together.

[2]Welcome, I say, because seldom do property and possession receive sustained treatment in a religious and theological context despite their obvious importance in our individual and social lives. In a contemporary world where chronic poverty and hunger engulf billions of people while many others live in relative comfort-if not always economic security-and the global economy has become a growing reality, serious attention to these matters by religious scholars is needed. It was, in fact, partly with an eye to these realities that these scholars did their work.

[3]The editors describe the project as a whole as “a material hermeneutics of culture.” (5) The focus is on “the interaction between cultural meanings and values and the universe of things that demarcate the arena of property and possession in a tradition or society.” This focus involves exploring “cultural artifacts, practices, and processes.” (5)

The essays are grouped in three parts:

[4] Part One, “Biblical Trajectories and Theological Meanings,” includes significant biblical studies on property and possession in Scripture in light of the commandments (Patrick D. Miller), in the Pentateuch (Andreas Schuele), and in the connection of property and possession to sexual shame in Ben Sira (Claudia Camp). A fourth essay by Margaret Mitchell examines John Chrysostom’s arguments against wealth and possessions. And Michael Welker engages in contemporary theological reflection on the modern subjectivist notion of “having faith,” which he traces to the locus classicus in Kierkegaard’s Cartesian move to characterize faith in Sickness unto Death. Welker is highly critical of the subjectivist understanding of faith, which he says collapses into self-reference, fails to promote knowledge of God or truth, suppresses the joy and ennoblement of the faithful, and withdraws from religious expressive religious life, among other things. (131) He goes on to consider conditions for the recovery of a more adequate theological understanding of faith.

[5]Part Two, “Having and Using the Body and Material Meanings,” presents studies of “The Body and Projects of Self-possession” (Jean Bethke Elshtain), of Catholic social thought on consumption and material sufficiency (Christine Firer Hinze), of the notion of “using the world” (Charles Matthewes), and of the notion of “material grace” (David Klemm). Each is thought-provoking. Elshtain perceptively explores contemporary implications of the use of notions similar to Locke’s problematic conception of the individual having property in his or her own person for taking advantage of our growing capacities for biological and genetic enhancement. Hinze not only reminds us of the economic ethical thought of Father John A. Ryan, but also gives us a model study of how to use the lenses through which he saw economic reality to address contemporary issues of economic sufficiency. Matthewes critiques notions of “enjoying the world” as creating excessive expectations that burden the world, and argues that an Augustinian understanding of using the world is more appropriate and more sustainable for the world. Klemm argues for a theological conception of property as material grace, rather than as commodity, gift, or understanding.

[6]Part Three, “Property and Possession: Greed and Grace in the Social, Cultural, and Religious Imagination,” gives us studies of greed (William Schweiker), a critical analysis of competition for attention in the media (Günter Thomas), of the Israeli “yearning” for Jerusalem (David Gunn), of the importance of the bourgeois virtue of prudence in the economy (Dierdre McClosky), of the moral economy of ownership (Arjo Klamer), and of the “economy of grace” drawing upon themes from Reformed theology (Kathryn Tanner).

[7]This survey gives a glimpse of the richness of this hermeneutical approach, but it also suggests the difficulty of maintaining focus. In opening up this broad approach with its multiple cultural and theological perspectives, it is unclear what all we really do learn about property and possession. How much of what the editors saw as the promise of this approach is actually realized? What lessons do we learn? What, actually, do we gain that will help address the urgent dilemmas of the world situation they kept in view? What is suggested by these essays for future work? One wishes that the editors had ventured some kind of concluding essay to assess the effort and suggest directions for the future. On the other hand, that they did not do so only opens an invitation to scholars and readers to let these essays engage their imaginations and follow in thought and action where imagination may lead. Having opened up this hermeneutical territory, one hopes they and others will continue to explore it.

[8]Another approach that would help readers and scholars in any project such as this would be something that reflects the discussion and debate among the participants, or which gives the authors a chance to assess the issues-both substantive and methodological-raised by the project. The occasional reference in some of the essays to the work of other scholars in the project only makes the reader more curious about what went on in the writing process. One example of such an approach is Roger Willer’s “Threads from a Conversation,” which summarized the key issues and points of agreement and disagreement from a recent interdisciplinary ELCA consultation on human cloning.[2] Another example is the table talk on Lutheran ethics from a collaborative effort of scholars to reflect on the contemporary scene either with or about the themes of Lutheran ethics.[3]

[9]We began this review with the observation that notions of property and possession are both distinguished and related. One of the problems with this collection is the recurring tendency to confuse property with possession, although not all the writers do so. A careful reading of the essays suggests however, that the theme of possession is somewhat more prominent than the theme of property in the collection as a whole. That is fitting because not everything we may possess is property in any strict sense. Appropriately, we are treated to more than one excursion into virtue theories of ethics to address the proper relation of persons and things. The metaphorical sense of “property” is also in evidence from time to time. That is also appropriate in a hermeneutical project such as this in which part of the intent is to address cultural meanings and values.

[10]One feature of significant value to the reader is a helpful and rich basic bibliography about some of the major areas addressed in the essays with a commentary by Jonathan Gangle. One will inevitably quibble with what gets left out of such bibliographies, but choices always have to be made. (For me, the most serious omission is Locke’s First Treatise of Government, which these days deserves to be read-by biblical interpreters among others-along with the Second Treatise, given the body of Locke scholarship in recent decades.)

[11]This is a rich, imaginative, and significant group of essays. I encourage those interested in these themes to read and ponder it whatever their field of interest. I hope that it stimulates additional work on these themes. I applaud the editors and the other writers for their vision and their bold attempt, even if their success may be hard to gauge.

Morris R. Cohen, “Property and Sovereignty,” in his Law and the Social Order, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933), 45.

Roger A. Willer, “Threads from a Conversation,” Human Cloning: Papers From a Church Consultation, Willer, ed., (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2001) 83-86.

“A Table Talk on Lutheran Ethics,” (edited by Karen Bloomquist), The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, eds., (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 151-175.

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.