By Hari Kumar
Quick: what do you think of when you hear the word resources?
I was at a Stewardship and Spirituality conference on Saturday, with my pastor and a few other lay people from my church. It was a conference on how we as a church should be better stewards of what God has entrusted us with – and how we can live an alternative lifestyle that is counter to our cultures dominant materialism and consumerism. After starting the day with a couple of windy speeches against materialism and consumerism, and exhortations to embrace stewardship as a joyful practice instead of a dutiful obligation, we spread out into various workshops.
One of the workshops I attended was about a holistic approach to stewardship and spirituality – integrating spiritual practices with stewardship. During the session, the speaker wrote out a few definitions: quotations from various authors on what spirituality meant and what stewardship meant. She quoted one author (I cannot remember who) who defined spirituality as: the increasing sway and vitality of God in my life.
She then quoted Dallas Willard in defining stewardship as: the getting, having, controlling, and using of resources.
This is where my soul recoiled.
Now, to be fair, the speaker pointed out that this definition went well beyond most peoples common understanding of stewardship as giving money.
The speaker asked us to reflect on how Dallas Willard has extended stewardship to include not only how we give money, but also how we GET that money in the first place – how might we earn our living more responsibly and ethically? – and how we nurture that resource.
She also asked us to reflect on how Dallas Willard has extended the definition of stewardship to include not just money, but any resource. So, she asked us to list various resources, and people started voicing: time, talents, services, etc.
I sat there stewing and brewing Resources?! Thinking of stewardship and spirituality in terms of getting, having, controlling, and using resources strikes me as being an inherently materialistic and consumerist view of the spiritual life.
My problem with thinking of stewardship in terms of resources is that it totally dehumanizes people and relationships. How are we to be good stewards of our relationships? Given Willards definition, we would have to start thinking about that kind of stewardship as: getting, having, controlling, and using our friends and family.
How are we to challenge our culture to break free of materialism and consumerism if our primary language is in terms of the material consumption of resources? Might there be a different way to think of life than in terms of how we use resources?
I fear that we as a culture see everything as resources – including other people. When I discussed this with my pastor, the incomparable Reverend Todd, over lunch at the conference, Todd put it really well thus – thinking in terms of resources sees people as commodities and objectifies their use. Some people already live that way – have you ever felt used by another, only to be ignored when you become useless?
When linked with our cultures dominant materialism and consumerism, resourceful thinking spawns a mindset of usage: how useful are you to me? If you are not a resource for me to use, then you are, by definition, useless to me. I could ignore you, but if I were feeling charitable perhaps then I should be useful TO you. Perhaps my role as a responsible steward of Gods Resources would be to rehabilitate you into being more useful to our society, maybe by giving you money to go learn a vocation and get a job.
Suddenly social activities start getting evaluated under the lens of usefulness and relevance – if the church is going to hold an event, how useful is that event going to be for the community around it? If its not useful then why do it? This is such a dominant thinking pattern in our culture that it is hard to justify doing ANYTHING that is, by our definition, useless.
Which is why we see such a decline in the teaching of art and music in our schools. If you cant make money from it, why take a risk on art that will be seen as useless or perhaps even offensive? Which is why we see such a decline in the teaching of history and civics in our society. If history is a bunch of useless information about the past, why bother learning it? Unless you can recast history in terms that are useful to us for living today?
Which is why we see such a decline in meaningful news on our televisions – because news is produced by companies which are paid by other companies that want to tell you excitingly useful news about pills that cure your cat of erectile dysfunction.
This kind of thinking leads to us valuing useful people, productive people, over useless people. This kind of thinking leads to us judging everything and everyone by how valuable of a resource they are to us. And this kind of thinking falsely gives us a flawed sense of our own importance and value – we feel good when we are useful to someone else. Our culture of materialism and consumerism rewards us when we are useful. In contrast we feel bad about any interests we have that are useless.
Do you play a musical instrument? Why not? Because you dont think youre that good at it? How good do you have to be to play it? Do you have to be good enough at it to play well, play live, play with others, play for money? All those terms are ways of evaluating your skill, not your desire – if you have some way of deciding that your skill level in some artistic endeavor is not good enough, then you have decided that it is useless for you to pursue that endeavor. You have just killed your hearts desire because your brain said its not good enough. Not good enough for what?
Whatever happened to just playing music? You know, for the fun of it? Thats useless.
Kids dont just play anymore – they take part in organized sports activities, scheduled on weekends and evenings, with structured development managed by coaches who want to help them improve their skills. Whatever happened to kids just throwing catch together in the streets or in backyards after school? Thats useless. Kids need constructive developmental activities that teach them teamwork and cooperation in pursuit of defined goals and objectives.
Whatever happened to people hanging out at bars or in the town common? Thats useless. People need constructive activities to participate in collectively for some defined purpose with set goals.
Whatever happened to people being people? Thats useless.
Hari is an engineer-turned-educator and storyteller who is originally from southern India but grew up in Yemen. He lives with his reckless wife, Alexis, in western Massachusetts, and he writes about his Christian faith journey on his blog. He is currently in the process of changing careers, focusing on critical cultural studies at the graduate level. His goal is to become a college professor.