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  • The 2003 Meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies
  • Frances S. Adeney

The 2003 meeting of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies was held in Atlanta, Georgia, 21-22 November 2003. This year's theme was "Overcoming Greed: Christians and Buddhists in a Consumeristic Culture." During the first session panelists Paula Cooey, Valerie Karras, and John Cobb, whose paper was read by Jay McDaniel, presented Christian views and Stephanie Kaza gave a Buddhist response. The second session mirrored the first with panelists Kenneth Kraft, David Barnhill, and Judith Simmer-Brown presenting Buddhist views on the theme and Paul Knitter responded with a Christian analysis.

Cooey began the discussion by outlining her thesis that overcoming greed depends on overcoming fear. She asserted that people buy out of fear thus perpetuating a system of greed. The consequences of fear support the cultural myth of upward mobility—there is no way to go but up. The exploitation of fear then produces goods benefiting those at the top of the economic system. This system also produces consequences for human rights as cultural fear leads to laws that thwart due process, for example, the Patriot Act.

An alternative Christian view understands desire to be culturally produced—sin upsets the natural order; God redeems. Christian transformation requires dissent against the underlying greed that supports the cultural system.

Christianity arose as a movement of dissent, a countercultural movement. That trajectory of dissent has continued through the centuries. Although early Calvinists were noted for linking personal wealth with election, the Mennonites and Anabaptists created better models for practicing dissent. Those communities are based in an economy of grace, supported by an underlying ethic of the ability to give as a gift of grace. This economy, for Christians, is mediated by Jesus of Nazareth and allows for transformation toward becoming greedy for God.

Valerie Karras illumined the differences in Christian traditions by her analysis of the difference in anthropology between Eastern and Western Christian theologies. The community model of Eastern Christianity is hostile to the individualism of Western consumerism. Instead, in this model, greed is recognized as a fallen passion, the consequence of separation from God. The two aspects of greed in this view are [End Page 231] acquisitive lust: the desire for control, and desire for the physical acquisition of things.

Karras used Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom as examples of theologians that criticized the rich and encouraged Christians to use their wealth for the poor. In this view, overcoming greed involves a spiritual process. Virtue can be cultivated by a proper use of wealth, which in itself has no moral content. It is the misuse of wealth that indicates deeper spiritual problems. Some of those spiritual problems can be alleviated by asceticism: celibacy, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. Such exercises can provide a means to master the vices—greed, in this case, being the vice at hand.

John Cobb's paper argued that a theology of consumerism is deeply embedded in our culture. That theology runs counter to traditional Western Christian teaching that consuming more deprives others. The question one must ask is, Does consumption enhance or detract from the common good? Traditional arguments that too much consumption deprives others were rendered obsolete by the industrial revolution. The new problem is how can demand keep up with production. The argument here is that increased consumption benefits others by preventing downturns in the economy.

Unfortunately, Cobb argues, the spiritual costs to this pattern of consumption are tremendous. A class of exploited peasants now produces more goods, but has a better society been created? Increasing poverty in two-thirds of the world, global warming, dehumanizing advertising, and the unsustainability of keeping production at current levels press the issue. Human survival depends on changing consumption patterns. The elite must be forced to give up control and we must recover and emphasize the traditional Christian interpretation of greed as a cardinal sin.

To accomplish this, Cobb recommends rejecting consumerism in our personal lives, developing local sustainability projects, and demonstrating another world possibility—another way to live that leads to human flourishing. Buddhist and Christian emphases on overcoming consumerism are complimentary and together can make possible the deep changes that are...