Originally published in 1981, Luke Timothy Johnson’s sharp, readable, and effective text remains relevant and helpful, not only for its treatment of a particular topic but also its description of the overall approach to Scripture that Johnson has continued to pursue throughout his distinguished career. The new edition reproduces the original text, with added “comments” at the end of each chapter, and (more substantially) an epilogue where Johnson deals extensively with the reviews of the book and its conclusion, with the perspective of thirty years of further work.
Johnson’s book is a model of clarity. Its first chapter demonstrates the inadequacy of reading the Scriptural witness on possessions looking for “clear and unambiguous” norms or commands (11). Instead of satisfying our “secret desire” to find a rulebook in scripture (23), we instead find a group of different practical possibilities at the very least in tension with one another. This diversity leads Johnson to his key move, “from the level of command to the level of symbol” (27). The second chapter then argues for this “symbolic” approach to possessions. Johnson argues that “[t]he way we use, own, acquire, and disperse material things symbolizes and expresses our attitudes and responses to ourselves, the world around us, other people, and most of all, God. And since there is reciprocity here, as well, the disposition of material possessions not only expresses but affects our response to the world, other people, and God” (37). Thus, a “theological” treatment of possessions means placing our use of possessions in the context of our response to “ultimate reality” (78), one that is either faithful or idolatrous. Since this response is first and foremost personal and interior, the mistake Johnson is keen to highlight throughout the book involves displacing the problem from the “heart” into the possessions themselves, and therefore attempting to create “structures” to “solve” the problem of possessions. This not only doesn’t work – his fourth chapter is a pretty scathing indictment of both Christian and classical “utopian” attempts to embody a community-of-goods ideal – but even short circuits the “more serious” (109) demands of real discernment when one actually holds and uses possessions. Moreover, such ideologies lead to “a certain spiritual violence” (113), as community control is inevitably invested in certain leaders, who then in practice have the very means of survival of community members in their control. Many of the critiques Johnson handles in the epilogue deal with his relatively strong criticisms of the community-of-goods ideal – which for him, in 1981, was clearly wrapped up in a concern that monasticism was not an ideal, but which he then admits he further understood to cut against the political leanings toward forms of socialism characteristic in biblical studies at the time.
However, the argument about particular practice should not overshadow Johnson’s larger point: is that scripture should be read in terms of the existential, individual drama of faith and idolatry, and that only this hermeneutic can make sense of the diversity of biblical witness on possessions. While such a reading “does not lead immediately to a plan of action” (105), it does lead to awareness of how “[t]he things of the world are the raw material for the fashioning of my idol” (78), especially in a competition for worth and status in relation to others. The Gospel, by contrast, maintains that “[b]ecause our worth comes not from what we can grasp, but from the gift God has given to all without stint, we are freed from fear; and since we are freed from fear, we are able to share” (80).
The book remains the type of study that would work well with undergraduate students, and even adult parish groups, treating not only an issue of daily relevance, but also describing in an accessible fashion an overall biblical worldview. If anything, the book is frustrating from a scholarly perspective because of the lack of any indication of sources for Johnson’s overall approach. The second chapter is footnote-free, and one can only speculate that Johnson has fashioned this spiritual anthropology from Gabriel Marcel, the only non-biblical source mentioned in the “further reading” section. I particularly found myself wondering whether the theory of “fundamental option” was assumed here – there are certainly resemblances – and the text gives no indication of whether Johnson was familiar with such debates in moral theology at the time of writing. As an ethicist, I could wish for further justification of this view, and particularly the question about whether this view leads to a kind of “spiritualization” of the Bible and the moral life generally. While Johnson is correct that the Bible cannot be read as a rulebook, might it be read as a handbook of community formation, which inexorably intertwines individual spiritual response and communal practice, especially in light of the eschatological mission of the Church? Johnson’s cautions about the potentials for abuse in structural solutions are fair – but the tendency here is to be less candid about the possibilities for abuse involved in this more personal approach, especially within a culture dedicated to an absolutism about private property and individual rights, which the Bible obviously does not share. Johnson points out in the epilogue that “[o]ver the thirty years since I wrote this book, I have had the growing conviction that the single greatest deficiency in the theological and moral engagement with Scripture among Christians is the failure to exercise sufficient care in engaging ‘what is’ in present human experience,” and he commends Allen Verhey’s Remembering Jesus for taking “the time to actually look at the human phenomenon and get some handle on the shape of the question before asking what Scripture might have to say about it” (146). True enough, but the theory-laden encounter with “what is” may also need to be challenged by “the strange new world of the Bible,” and surely it remains the case that the supposedly stable, “advanced” economies which “we” take for granted are in fact still not a reality for most in the world. Put more carefully, Johnson’s concern for the priority of individual discernment in the case of possessions would need to be more fully engaged with all the ways in which the economic realities of individual lives are complexly intertwined. Both the meaning and the use of possessions involve complex relationships, which is why they cannot be easily “commanded” by a centralized socialism (Johnson recognizes this) nor simply “individualized” as pure market ideology suggests.
Still, Johnson’s book is valuable precisely because he sidesteps the endless debates about political structures that characterize economic ethics, and instead takes extremely seriously the biblical “mandate” to use possessions not in service to the idol of the self, but for God and for others. Whatever quibbles one might have about structures, Johnson is right that personal responsibility and discernment is urgent and necessary. It remains a valuable work whose message is, if anything, more relevant today than in 1981, and it also reminds us of the reasons why Johnson’s work has proven so valuable to biblically-based Catholic thought in the intervening years, a voice richly informed by both biblical scholarship and intense personal faith commitment.