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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 17–19 

Faulting the Simple Lifestyle

Response to “Case Study” by Louis B. Weeks 18/1 (1989): 13–16.

Arthur J. Block

Jeanne and Dalton Weiss face some serious ethical questions arising out of their commitment to the simple lifestyle and their daughter Susan’s request for a car.

I was impressed with the Weiss’s recognition of the complex nature of their decision. Their commitment to the simple lifestyle, Susan’s social pressures and aspirations, the need to protect the ecology, sharing economic benefits with others, are all factors that converge to highlight the ethical nature of their decision-making.

A simple lifestyle may . . . produce a horrendous depression.

Although they exhibit a thorough understanding about the various dimensions of their dilemma, they might reconsider their enthusiasm for the simple lifestyle for a couple of reasons. A simple lifestyle may be aesthetically satisfying: they “enjoyed participating in a simple lifestyle.” It may help reduce pollution and it may even help build good character, but if extended widely as an economic policy, it would likely produce a horrendous depression and thereby most certainly aggravate the plight of the poor.

I do agree that we need to qualify and prioritize our spending but our decisions should not spring from an irrational guilt based on an erroneous idea that {18} one person’s consumption is another’s privation. There is an inevitable link between consumption and production and, therefore, jobs. Consumption has also proven to be one of the best redistributors of wealth.

The greatest need of developing countries is to find markets for their products. In other words, they need consumers who will buy and use their products. In today’s world, nations are protecting their markets (consumption) with great care. Such protection gives clear evidence that consumption is part of building a sound economy which can support all the desirable social programs which benefit the poor.

Even though the Weisses are committed to the simple lifestyle, as Christians they need to examine their motivations. They profess to “enjoy participating in a simple lifestyle” and furthermore they agree with Ron Sider’s “call for conversion to simplicity.” They might ask, Do Christian ethics spring from our aesthetic sensitivities and our humanist concerns or do they come from a different wellspring?

C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, distinguished between a Christian and non-Christian motivation in the ethics of love.

I must now explain why I have found this distinction necessary to any treatment of our loves. St. John’s saying that God is love has long been balanced in my mind against the remark of a modern author (M. Denis De Rougement) that ‘love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a God’; which, of course, can be re-stated in the form ‘begins to be a demon the moment he begins to be a God.’ This balance seems to me an indispensable safeguard. If we ignore it the truth that God is love may slyly come to mean for us the converse, that love is God. . . .

Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us a total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done “for love’s sake” is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to “become Gods” is generally recognized. But family affection may do the same. So, in a different way may friendship, and, one could add, or even the simple lifestyle.

Ron Sider calls for “conversion to simplicity.” C. S. Lewis might question whether such a commitment could turn into a demon. Christian ethics can only spring from the presence of God in our lives. Christian ethics must find its roots in the grace of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to express God’s love toward others in all aspects of our lives, including consumption.

Arthur Block, a member of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary Board of Directors, is a businessman living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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