Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Five “Forgettings” Essential to Faithful Living and Thinking (5): Money



          A spiritual exercise I intentionally practice every few years involves “forgetting” what I think I know about God, faith, and faithful living.  Of course, I don’t really “forget” these things but I do my best to identify and bracket these things and try to read the Bible again with fresh eyes and clear heart.  It is always good to do this with other similarly committed believers.  You can hold each other accountable, help us identify each other’s blind spots, and share the hope of growth and new life.
   
          In North America most of us are shaped by the western tradition of thought and life.  This tradition has its great strengths, to be sure.  But it has blind spots as well, debilitating blind spots.  We do well to focus on these blind spots as exercises in “forgetting” to open ourselves to a fresh reading and reflection on scripture.

          Five of the central planks of theology done in the western tradition that negatively impact faithful Christian life and thought are its view of God, its view of reality, its view of a reason, its view of a Christian life, and its view of money.  To “forget” these influences involves bidding adieu to Aristotle, Plato, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and Adam Smith.  Today we say good-bye to Plato.

“FORGETTING” Adam Smith

          Does the problem of money/wealth for the church in North America need much introduction?  Does anyone really believe with Jesus that money/wealth is a “spiritual power” that far more often than not enslaves us and induces us to worship it as the “de facto” or real “deity” of our lives?  I mean, if we truly thought Jesus was right about money/wealth, and were intent on following him, our behavior would be very different indeed!  Who among us reads our Bibles as intentionally and intently as we do the stock reports?

          Adam Smith (18th century) is a convenient cipher for this hegemony of money/wealth in our world.  He believed that wealth creation was the engine that drives the world and that the “market” was the invisible yet invincible deity that maximized such wealth creation.  His views have prevailed in our part of the world and we struggle to be followers of Christ in the shadow of his valorization of wealth, capitalism, and the market.

          All that comes to roost for us at the level of our own desires and dealings with money/wealth.  As we bid adieu to Adam Smith, let us consider a recent study that addresses this issue, How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  They try to probe why it is that we are never content and always want more and more.

The rise of money economy is where we begin.  The Skidelskys maintain that the effect of the rise of money is a blurring our ability to distinguish needs from wants.  As this line grows less and less distinguishable we want more and more.

          How does this happen?

Before modern money economies value was determined by use. Value was tied up with function. A shovel helped one dig and, therefore, had value. A bucket had value because it helped one carry things. And so on.

When use-value (“what’s it good for?”) governs our imaginations the question "How much is enough?" is easier to answer. For example, how many forks do you need? How many cars? How many shoes? How many chairs? How many lawnmowers?

It’s useless not to mention foolish to have more than enough forks, cars, chairs, or lawnmowers.  There’s no use-value in it.  It adds nothing to life. Most of us need only one of these kinds of items.

This is why ancient moral philosophers could rightly see and condemn persons who acquired more things than they had use for. Such hoarding, such greed looked irrational!  Why would anyone want 1,000 chairs or shovels?

All that changed, however, with the rise of money. Now exchange-value became the dominant way of assessing value.  Money has no particular use or function beyond purchasing power. Now we acquire money that can be used to purchase other goods (liquidity). In modern economies liquidity is what makes the world go around. But liquidity makes is hard to determine how much is enough.

How much money is enough? If one has 1,000 forks, it is easy to see he or see has a fork-problem. How many forks do you really need? You only need as many as you have use for. But it’s not so easy with money.  How much is enough?  $1,000? $10,000? Or is $100,000? Or $1,000,000?

This kind of question doesn’t really make sense to us. After all, you can never have enough money, can you?  Money is about exchange-value. Money can get you anything with a price, anything you need or desire.  Therein lies the root of the problem. When our desire becomes focused on money rather than goods and their use-value, we lose our ability to distinguish clearly between need and want.

Money facilitates hoarding. Someone with a million forks is clearly insane. But someone with a million dollars? To be sure we've tried to make a connection here. Misers are those who hoard money like a crazy person hoards forks. We think of someone like Ebenezer Scrooge here, a miser counting his money, hoarding it, having too much of it.

But the term miser assumes a use-value framework which is not relegated to the dustbin of history.  It would sound weird today to call a millionaire a miser, a hoarder of money.  Or charge any of us with hoarding.  We can never have enough money. And this drives greed, materialism, consumerism, and insatiability.

It’s the liquidity of money, its exchange-value that hides our hoarding

The rise of money has cost us the ability to ask "What do I really need?" Instead we have been schooled to ask that other question:  "How much can I buy?"

And with that Christians need to hear again the apostle’s apt and even prophetic words:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  Were we to internalize Paul’s view, we could “forget” Adam Smith and recover some of our integrity as followers of Jesus.  May it be so for us.

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