*Ok, well not deadly and strictly speaking not sins but definitely seven things you should try to avoid doing.
It’s almost the end of the year, so what better time is there for us here at the Hub to reflect on some of the most common student queries and missteps we have encountered over the past few months in an effort to stop you bringing those bad habits back with you in September. How many of these have you been guilty of this year?!
7. The ‘How Many’ Question:
I’m starting with the question that I’m sure you’ve probably all asked at one point or another and that is ‘how many?: how many books do I need to read, how many sources should I look at, how many historians do I need to refer to and so on. In the vast majority of cases, you may as well be asking your tutor ‘how long is a piece of string?’ – yes, it’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true. Now, there may be occasions where the number of books, sources, or types of sources are specified and that is a different matter, but on the whole, how much you should read and how many things you should refer to is impossible to quantify.
This is a question that is particularly common with people starting their dissertations – ok, this needs to be based on primary sources, but how many? Well, is your main source base political cartoons from the Daily Mirror or the novels of Leo Tolstoy? Are you analysing pacifist tendencies in the lyrics of Bob Dylan or exploring the theological thought of Martin Luther? Your source base and how many sources that base is comprised of will differ dramatically depending on what your topic is; the important thing is that it is sufficient for you to offer a reasoned and detailed examination of whatever your subject matter is. This is never something that we can give you as a neat little number.
There is perhaps a slight difference when it comes to reading secondary texts for essays generally, but only slight. Most tutors will have a rough idea in their head as to what constitutes a reasonable length bibliography for a 2,000 word essay, depending on what level you are at in your degree. For example, I say to my first years if asked that I would expect to see 10-12 items on their bibliography. However, there is a big difference between reading 8 specific items that are closely related to the question you are attempting to answer and 20 items of the ilk of Joe Blogs’ A History of the Modern World, 1485-2001. Again then, it’s not so much how much you read, but what you read and ultimately how well you process and engage with what you read that is going to make a good essay.
Whether you are carrying out primary research or reading secondary scholarship then, don’t get hung up on ‘how many?’.
6. Dictionary Definitions:
Trust me when I say there is little that makes your tutor’s heart sink like seeing ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines…’ as the opening line of an essay. The only time it is really appropriate to use the OED in your work – at least as far as I’m concerned – is if you’re writing an essay on the history of the OED. This is not the same as saying that discussing definitions is a waste of time – in many cases it’s not, and in some cases it’s essential. Big ideas such as toleration, globalisation or total war, and particularly slippery concepts such as class or ethnic cleansing can often benefit from some discussion of definition. This can be because the idea has been the subject of much academic debate, sometimes it is just so that the person who is reading your work knows exactly what you mean when you use a particular word or phrase. However, the place where you go for definitions should not be the dictionary but the secondary literature – how have scholars used the term? What are the points of contestation? Whose definition do you want to use or do you actually want to take points from a number of people and create a usable definition of your own?
There is a caveat here though: by all means define what you think needs defining but don’t go overboard and don’t let it consume your entire essay. Now there may be occasions where wrangling with definitional fuzziness is actually at the crux of the issue you’re discussing, but in the majority of cases it won’t be. Make your definitions clear and concise right at the start of the essay – either the introduction or first paragraph – and then get on with actually tackling the question. Don’t do what one of my friends did in her first year essay on the Peasants’ Revolt, which was spend half the essay defining what a peasant was and the other half discussing the difference between a revolt and an uprising. I believe that her tutor asked her at the end of her degree whether he could use that as an example of exactly how not to write an essay…
5. Stylistic Sloppiness:
At some point here at HE History Hub we will tackle essay writing in-depth and I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of reading material selection, structuring and effective argumentation here, I just want to talk about stylistic issues. Obviously presenting a piece of work that is well-written and error free is a very good starting point, but what about going beyond that? Now I may be alone in my pedantry about this, but I doubt it! I really dislike seeing things like font changes in students’ work, either in the main body of the text itself or in footnotes and the bibliography. Your essay and references should be in the same font, if you copy and paste from the library catalogue, it needs to be in the same font, if you copy a quote from an online source it needs to be in the same font – are you spotting a theme here?! The same goes for changes in font size, text alignment and spacing, italicisation, capitalisation and so on – be consistent.
Now, unless the presentation of your work is particularly poor, these are not things that are necessarily going to result in marks being docked, but they create a good impression. You want your tutor to think that you’ve put thought and effort into creating a polished and accomplished piece of work rather than making them think that you knocked it off in the early hours of the morning it was due whilst strung out on Red Bull; even if the latter may be true, don’t let the presentation of your work testify to this.
And obviously what goes for an essay in terms of consistent and polished presentation perhaps is even more important when you’re using something like PowerPoint in oral presentations, when you’re projecting your work to an entire classroom of people who will, believe me, be silently judging you if it’s full of stylistic blunders.
Think about the longer term implications of this; when you’re applying for a job along with potentially hundreds of other people, a slapdash CV – regardless of its content – may mean the difference between being read and taken seriously and being instantly binned.
Presentation is just one small part producing work of a good standard but it is a part that can too often be overlooked by students.
4. The Half-Arsed Essay Plan:
It’s fairly common now for students to produce a plan of some kind before writing their essays and even if it isn’t an requirement for your module, most tutors will be more than happy to discuss a plan with you, if it’s produced in good time of the deadline. What can be rather frustrating is when students don’t maximise the opportunity that this presents – you can essentially show your tutor what it is you intend to do, get their reaction to your approach and their feedback on what it is you might also want to consider – surely this is a good thing?! It is a waste of both your tutor’s and your own time to produce an essay plan that is nothing more than bare bones, a few lines of generalised comments or broad themes.
Ok, an essay plan should not be your essay converted into bullet-points but at the same time it needs to be substantial enough that your tutor has a good idea of what you intend to do. You will want to give specific details about your proposed structure, your line of argument and what evidence you plan on using to substantiate this argument. Like so many things when it comes to your work, being able to produce a relatively detailed essay plan in good time depends on having actually starting working on your essay in good time. Most tutors will want plans in a minimum of a week in advance which means that you probably should start reading 4-5 days before this. Submitting something too late may mean that your tutor doesn’t have the chance to provide you with feedback or that there isn’t enough time for you to act on the feedback they do give. Manage your time in a way that allows you to really exploit this opportunity to get advice and guidance on your work.
3. Untimely Exam Anxiety:
More and more I am finding that students are stressing about exams right from the start of a course, so let me take this opportunity to put your minds at ease somewhat. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that you are being daft about worrying about exams or thinking about what questions you may face on the paper when you turn it over, but for several reasons you should try not to let the prospect of sitting an exam colour your whole experience of a module.
First of all, cast you mind back to the start of this semester, if your tutor sat down in week one and went through what kind of question you might face on the exam, would it actually have been any use to you at that point? Probably not. By all means familiarise yourself with the format – seen or unseen, open or closed note, how many questions in how many hours, is there a gobbet component or are they all standard essay questions, etc. – but don’t worry about the specifics of the question type or themes before you’ve even started the course.
Secondly – and don’t ever forget this – your tutor wants you to pass the course. We never sit down to write an exam paper and deliberately pick mean questions or try and think of ways we can trip you up. We want you to do well – we have also invested much time and effort into delivering the course just as you have in studying it and, believe it or not, we want you to succeed! Your tutor does not suddenly take on the persona of Dr Evil when it comes to putting together the exam paper, and even if they did, there are rigorous internal and external checks to ensure that examinations are in line with the material that is covered on the module.
“I know: Question 7, Discuss with specific reference to both Habermas’ theory of the public sphere and Plato’s The Republic, the ontological and epistemological construction of power in the Third Reich using a non-teleological approach’ Mwah-hah-hah”
Thirdly, just step back for a moment and think of all the questions that you have been asked to discuss over the course of a particular module – there will be dozens. While questions are a way of structuring a seminar, they are at their heart the key way that you engage with the major debates, themes and issues related to any particular topic. While they may not frame it explicitly in this way, by asking you questions in the seminar your tutor is not only training you to be a historian generally, but also exposing you to the range of questions you may encounter on the exam paper throughout the entire module. Whether we say so or not, we are always aware of the fact that you are examined in some way on the material we set. So when it does come time to revise then, don’t just look to past papers for guidance but go back over the discussion questions for each session as they are also likely to be a great barometer for what you’ll face in the exam hall.
Finally, and I know that this can be tricky, try to enjoy the module while you are studying it out of the pure love of learning cool new stuff. Thinking things like ‘I’m not going to bother reading this source because I’d never answer an exam question on it’ will ultimately inhibit your learning experience. Yes, don’t lose sight of how you are assessed on any given course – thinking about assessment is important – but don’t let it dominate your approach to your studies.
2. Module Evaluation:
I’m sure over the last few weeks that you’ve filled in some kind of feedback form, where you’ve had to assess everything from library resources to how interesting your seminars were to what skills you feel were enhanced on the module. As tutors, getting module evaluation is often a very useful process and it can be quite lovely as well to read about how much a student has taken from a course you’ve put a lot of effort into. In some institutions module feedback is also used officially in staff career progression so it is a serious matter. But it can also be really frustrating and the key frustration for myself and other colleagues I’ve spoken to is when the evaluation process is used to flag up issues that we weren’t aware of but could have possibly rectified. The end of the module is not the time to say that a key text was missing from the library or that a particular document on the VLE wouldn’t open – ok, we can take action on that for next time, but what good does it do you? If there is some problem with the mechanics of the module – things missing, files corrupted, something not working as it should on the VLE, don’t wait until the end of the course to tell your module leader! Some things, like missing library books, they may not be able to do much about in the short term but they won’t be able to do anything unless someone actually tells them there is an issue.
In a slightly different vein, also don’t be afraid to flag other things up to your tutor as you go along – do they speak too fast or too quietly in lectures, do you have difficulty deciphering their comments on your work, is there a problem with the group you’re meant to be presenting with? Some of these just require a simple politely-worded email, others require a face-to-face chat, but these are all issues that should be broached during the course of the module. How is your learning experience enhanced by sitting in lectures you can’t really hear and then commenting on it at the end of the semester? Clearly there is a right way to go about raising some of these issues with your tutor, but we would rather know about these kinds of problems as we go, than find out at the end of the course.
And my number one ‘deadly sin’ is…
1. Going Off the Grid
For most History students, there will be at least one piece of work where you’re allocated a supervisor and are then pretty much left to your own devices. For many, this will be a dissertation, for others it may be some other kind of independent study module. Whatever the format, you will undoubtedly be given tons of advice both generally from the department and specifically from your supervisor about what they are expecting of you.
We will be coming back to look at this issue of supervision in the new academic year but I’m going to give you my top tip right now – stay in touch with your supervisor. I am not exaggerating when I say that without fail every year I have been doing this job, I have had at least one piece of work that gets a far lower mark than it ever needed to because that student completely stopped coming to see me. Sometimes it’s because their structure is completely unsuitable, sometimes it’s because they’ve strayed away from the parameters of the assignment, sometimes it’s because they’ve overlooked something hugely significant, sometimes it’s because they’ve made glaring errors – any and all of which could have been at least limited, if not completely rectified, had they at any point come to see me or shown me a draft of their work.
Often time management is at the heart of why many students stop seeing their supervisors – they feel they haven’t made sufficient progress or put as much effort into the project as they should have – and clearly this is something that you have to figure out for yourself. Part of doing an independent research project is the independent bit, as well as the research bit! And the cold hard truth of it is that you are adults and we are here to supervise. We are not going to chase you up if you don’t come to see us, you have to be proactive in seeking out the supervision you require, so please do it!
These kinds of mistakes don’t do you any favours and there is nothing more frustrating for us as tutors in seeing a piece of work that has been compromised, not because the student was lazy or didn’t try hard enough, but because they have gone wrong somewhere in a way that we could have helped with had they only come for a chat. Plus, as historians we are naturally nosy, I mean curious, and genuinely want to hear about what you’ve discovered, so come and tell us!
Avarice is a timely topic. It is increasingly common today to hear people talking about greed grown out of control as fundamental cause of our world's woes - economic and otherwise. We are suffering because some became too greedy - or so we were told. We continue to be troubled, moreover, that some make millions in bonuses without any reason to assume that there is a connection between the bonus and the work they have done. Greed seems to have no limits or shame.
That we are able to make such judgments presumes we know what we are talking about when we talk about greed. I think, however, that presumption may be just that - that is, presumptive.
The desire for money may be an indication of greed, but I hope to show that greed is a much more subtle vice than simply the desire to be rich. It is interesting, however, that even if avarice is understood primarily as the desire for wealth, Christians are seldom warned about greed. This is exceedingly strange because, at least as far as the New Testament is concerned, greed is considered to be more of a threat for the ability to follow Christ than lust.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says quite clearly "you cannot serve God and wealth" (Matthew 6:24). Paul confesses in Romans 7 he would not have known sin, he would not have known the many forms of covetousness that possessed his life, if the law had not said, "You shall not covet."
In 1 Timothy 6:10 Paul even suggests that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil leading some to wander away from the faith because of the self-inflected pains they have suffered due to their desire for money. At least one of those pains greed produces is identified with idolatry in Colossians 3:5.
In the book of James, Christians are unrelentingly chastised for thinking they can delay doing God's will in order that they can go to this town or that town to do business and make money. Such people simply fail to realize that their wealth will not save them from miseries or death (James 4:13-5:5). James is very blunt:
"You want something and you do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts."
Scripture is clear. If you are a Christian who is wealthy or desire to have wealth you have a problem. Yet in our day greed is seldom identified as a major problem for Christians.
Lust, which is usually associated with sexual misconduct, seems to have become the sin that Christians worry about. It is not clear to me why that is the case, but it may be we think we know what it looks like when we are under the power of lust. For all the changes alleged to be characteristic of our sexual ethics, it is still assumed that we can spot promiscuity or adultery.
We assume, moreover, that such behaviour can be attributed to lust understood as out of control sexual desire. Yet I suspect that greed grips our lives more than lust. But we fail to focus on greed because we are not sure we know how to identify what greed looks like. Indeed, I am of the opinion that what is often identified as lust may actually be a form of greed.
The very fact that the lust that grips so many lives is never satiated suggests that lust has become a form of greed. For if any one characteristic is to be associated with greed it is the presumption that no matter how much we may have we need "more." We need more because we cannot be sure that what we have is secure. So the more we have the more we must have in order to secure what we have.
As Bill May observed, the vices in traditional catalogues of sins were often associated with various body parts - lying with the tongue; lust with the genitals; gluttony with the throat, pride with the chest, conceit with the turned head, and avarice with the arms and legs. The person possessed by avarice reaches and grasps the goods of another. Things come into the possession of the greedy by reaching and holding. Mastery and possession are the marks of a person who is determined by avarice.
That greed names the felt necessity to have more may help explain the seeming paradox that greed seems to become a particularly prominent challenge in economies of plenty.
It is quite interesting, for example, that with the rise of money economies in Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries there is a distinct increase in references to the sin of greed by theologians and bishops. Money, it seems, allowed more people to manifest signs of wealth which meant the more wealth they had the more wealth they needed to sustain the wealth they had. For the rich there is never "enough."
I do not mean to suggest that avarice only became a named vice with the development of moneyed economies. The rise of monasticism clearly was the crucial development necessary for the articulation of the seven deadly sins.
Augustine would identify pride as the cardinal or original sin, but the monks who inhabited the Egyptian desert thought greed to be the sin that birthed the other sins. According to Rusty Reno, "They observed a deep human fear of dependence on God that manifested itself in a perennial desire to accumulate some small margin of protective, sustaining property."
That monasticism preceded the identification of avarice as the primal sin is a nice confirmation that our very ability to name our sins is a theological achievement. In other words, the very presumption that we can name our sins and declare that we are sinners prior to God's grace is an indication that we are possessed by sin. For we are only able to confess that we are possessed by sin on our way out of sin.
Accordingly a community must exist that makes possible the identification of the subtly of sin. That is particularly true when you are dealing with a sin as subtle as greed.
I think, for example, it is not accidental that you needed a Saint Francis for the discovery by Christians that we had lost the ability to recognize how greed possessed our lives. The subsequent development of the Franciscan order was crucial for the acknowledgment by the church that the church itself was possessed by possessions.
Yet the very Order that had at its centre the discipline of begging was soon able to make holiness a commodity subject to greed. William Langland in Piers Plowman depicts the friars' ability to turn their alleged sanctity into a means to acquire money.
Langland characterized the friars, in the words of Kelly Johnson, as "hawkers of holiness," who are "all the more prone to simony because of their practices of poverty and begging." Thus in the "Prologue" to Piers Plowman, the dreamer says:
"I found there friars from all four orders, / Preaching to people to profit their gut, / And glossing the gospel to their own good liking; / Coveting fine copes, some of these doctors contradicted authorities. / Many of these masterful mendicant friars / Bend their love of money to their proper business. / And since charity's become a broker and chief agent for lords' / Confessions / Many strange things have happened these last years. / Unless Holy church and charity clear away such confessors / The world's worst misfortune mounts up fast."
Langland's suggestion that the "worst misfortune mounts up fast" might well be a description of our situation. That a poem like Piers Plowman could be written suggests that the poet could still draw on the tradition to show what greed looks like and why it is such a threat to Christians.
But it is unclear if that is the case with us. For greed has become the necessary engine to sustain economic growth. We are obligated to want more because if we do not want more then we will put someone out of a job.
Most of us are familiar with Gordon Gekko's famed celebration of greed in Oliver Stone's film Wallstreet. But the virtues of greed found its most original and persuasive form in Bernard Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees:
"Vast Number throng'd the fruitful Hive; / Yet those vast Numbers made 'em thrive; / Million endeavouring to supply / Each other's Lust and Vanity / Thus every Part was full of Vice, / Yet the whole Mass a Paradise."
From Mandeville's perspective "frugality is like honesty, a mean starving virtue, that is only fit for small societies of good peaceable men, who are contented to be poor so that they may be easy; but in a large stirring nation you may soon have enough of it."
Deirdre McCloskey has tried to qualify Mandeville's account of the necessity of avarice for economic growth by arguing that markets live in communities of virtue for which economists often fail to account.
William Schweiker even suggests that because "property" is a cultural construction entangled with arrangements for human identity and worth may mean that what we call "greed" should be better understood as an appropriate desire necessary to sustain market driven economies.
I am not convinced, however, that McCloskey's and Schweiker's language transforming proposals to understand greed even in a limited way as a good is a good idea.
For example, Alasdair MacIntyre observes that for those shaped by the habits of modern societies it is assumed as a fundamental good that acquisitiveness is a character trait indispensable to continuous and limitless economic growth.
From such a standpoint it is inconceivable that a systematically lower standard of living can be conceived as an alternative to the economics and politics of peculiarly modern societies. For such societies prices and wages have to be understood to be unrelated so that desert in terms of labour, notions of just price and just wage, makes no sense.
Yet, as MacIntyre argues, a community shaped by the virtues that would make greed a vice "would have to set strict limits to growth insofar as that is necessary to preserve or enhance a distribution of goods according to desert."
That we find it hard to conceive of an alternative to limitless economic growth is an indication of our spiritual condition. It is a condition well understood by the monks who thought the desire for honour and power to be an expression of the felt need to control the world around us so that we might be more godlike.
Thus Cassian saw anger as one of the forms greed takes in those who no longer cling to the One alone who can provide stability. Deprived of God we become self-absorbed seeking in external goods a satisfaction for our inner emptiness. When those goods fail we turn on others as well as ourselves as a way to hide the emptiness of our lives.
In The City of God, Augustine suggests that the Roman elites indulged in various forms of luxury and illicit pleasures to distract them from the inevitability of death. He observes:
"the essential context for ambition is a people corrupted by greed and sensuality. And greed and sensuality in a people is the result of that prosperity which the great Nasica in his wisdom maintained should be guarded against, when he opposed the removal of a great and strong and wealthy enemy state. His intention was that lust should be restrained by fear, and should not issue in debauchery, and that the check on debauchery should stop greed from running riot."
Augustine, according to Robert Dodaro, argued that the fear of death, the fear that their lives would not be remembered, meant the Roman elites lived in fear of the loss of status and comfort. They were greedy for glory hoping by glory their lives might have significance.
Empire was the means of sustaining status and well-being, but empire also produced an ever increasing social anxiety about annihilation. As a result the Romans became over dependent on military force. Dodaro observes that from Augustine's perspective the Romans were caught in a vicious circle that
"linked the threat of annihilation with an ever-growing political and military response to foreign threats, disseminating anxiety throughout the Empire to such an extent that even the inhabitants of Roman Africa are alarmed by the Visigothic assault on Rome."
Of course we may think that the Romans are Romans and we are not. We assume, therefore, we are not subject to the same death denying greed that characterized the lives of the Roman pagans.
However, in his book The Seven Deadly Sins Today, Henry Fairlie has given an account of how greed grips our lives - an account that echoes the suggestion in the book of James that there is a connection between greed and war - that sounds very much like Augustine's characterization of the Romans.
Fairlie suggests that we are a people harassed by greed just to the extent our greed leads us to engage in unsatisfying modes of work so that we may buy things that we have been harassed into believing will satisfy us. We complain of the increased tempo of our life, but that is a reflection of the economic system we have created.
We know, moreover, no other way to keep the system going other than the threat of war. We tolerate the world shaped by our avarice because that world in return temptingly and cunningly makes us believe that there are no alternatives to a world so constituted.
I do not mean to suggest that it is only with the development of capitalist economic systems that we have lost the ability to recognize greed or, even if we are able to recognize it, think it a moral liability.
For example, in a sermon on Luke 16:19-31 Luther observed that the rich and arrogant people of his day no longer heed the warning contained in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. They do not because the rich think of themselves as pious and without greed. They are able to do so because vice has been turned into virtue. Greed has come to be viewed as being talented, smart and a careful steward.
Therefore "neither prince nor peasant, nobleman nor average citizen is any longer considered greedy, but only upstanding, the common consensus being that the man who prudently provides for himself is a resourceful person who knows how to take care of himself."
Luther's suggestion, I think, points to a way that the subtle creatures that we are can turn greed into a virtue.
In his important book Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, Paul Griffiths provides a telling account of curiosity. We may not be able to imagine a world without avarice, but we still think avarice is a vice. According to Griffiths, however, though we think curiosity to be a commendable virtue that scholar and student should try to develop that has not always been the case.
According to Griffiths prior to modernity curiosity was universally thought to be a vice. It was so because curiosity was an ordering of the affections, a form of love, by which the knower sought to make that which they knew unique to themselves.
The curious desired to create new knowledge in an effort to give them control over that which they knew. By dominating that which they came to know they could make what they know a private possession. "Curiosity is, then, in brief, appetite for the ownership of new knowledge."
The curious seek to know what they do not yet know. As a result that which they come to know ravishes them by enacting what Griffiths characterizes as a "sequestered intimacy." Griffiths uses the language of "sequestering" to suggest that the curious think that what they have come to know is for their exclusive use.
The curious assume they are masters of what they have come to know. Because they claim what they know is peculiar to them they seek as well as create envy in those who do not know what they know.
In a way not unlike Augustine's understanding of the place of the spectacle for the Romans, Griffiths suggests that the curious seek spectacles to distract them from the loneliness that is the necessary result of their desire to possess what they have come to know.
The desire for novelty, the desire to have knowledge that I alone can possess, produces a restlessness that "is inflamed rather than assuaged by the spectacles it constructs." Curiosity so understood is the intellectual expression of the greed correlative to an economic system built on the need to have those that make up the system to always want "more."
The alternative to curiosity, according to Griffiths, is studiousness. Studiousness, like curiosity, entails an ordering of the affections and is, therefore, a form of love. But the studious do not seek to "sequester, own, possess, or dominate what they hope to know; they want to participate lovingly in it, to respond to it knowingly as gift rather than as potential possession, to treat it as icon rather than as spectacle."
For the studious, what they know can be loved and contemplated, but not dominated by sequestration. The studious, therefore, accept as a gift what they have come to know which means they assume that which they know is known in a common making possible a shared life.
The contrast between the curious and the studious will be determined, according to Griffiths, by their willingness or unwillingness to share what they know with others. Whether we are or not possessed by our possessions can only be determined to the extent we are ready to give away that which we have.
Griffiths associates such a willingness to share our knowledge of Christ just to the extent that the degree to which any of us know Christ and what the gospel is, and demands, is the "degree to which we must share that knowledge by giving it away."
The studious Christian, therefore, seeks in Griffiths' words a "participatory intimacy driven by wonder and riven by lament" which makes it impossible for them to seek ownership of what they have been given. For Christians believe that all creatures have been brought into being by God out of nothing. Accordingly the studious recognize that only God possesses or owns any creature.
Only God, therefore, has the power to sequester any being into privacy or to grant it public display. Alms, and the sharing of what we know is a form of alms giving, is rightly understood not as our giving away what is ours, but rather is making available to others what was God's before we had a use for it.
Greed is rightly called a deadly sin because it kills the possibility of a proper human relation to the Creator. Greed presumes and perpetuates a world of scarcity and want - a world where there is never "enough." But, as Sam Wells argues, a world shaped by scarcity is a world that cannot trust that God has given all that we need; greed prohibits faith. But the contrary is true.
Wells reminds us that the problem is not that there is too little in God but there is too much. Overwhelmed by "God's inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love," we turn away finding such a God "too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand."
And so Wells reminds us it is in the Eucharist that we have the prismatic act that makes possible our recognition that God has given us everything we need. The Eucharist not only is the proclamation of abundance, but it is the enactment of abundance. In the Eucharist we discover that we cannot use Christ up.
In the Eucharist we discover that the more the body and blood of Christ is shared, the more there is to be shared. The Eucharist, therefore, is the way the church learns to understand why generosity rather than greed must and can shape our economic relations.
The good news is that we have been given all we need in order not to be possessed by greed. The good news is that we worship a God who, through our worship of Him, makes it possible for us to recognize that although we may be possessed by greed, through confession and repentance we can be forgiven.
Forgiveness, moreover, is the gift of grace that turns our lives of entitlement into lives of humility and gratitude. To learn to be forgiven, to be able to accept the gift of forgiveness without regret, is the condition that makes possible the recognition that all that we have we have through sharing.
There is an alternative to a world based on greed. The alternative to the world of greed is a people capable of participating through worship in the love of the Father for the Son through the Spirit.
Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University. His most recent books are Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian (Wipf and Stock, 2011), and War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, which will be published by Baker Academic in October 2011.