Going beyond 'cash values'

Whenever it is half-way to my next payday, I keep on being reminded of money and the lack of thereof. It seems that the world today revolves around it and given its place in our modern life I believe that it deserves serious reflection that goes beyond the ‘biblical stewardship’ that is often peddled in contemporary churches.

Reflecting on the ethical implications of Matthew 6:19-34 Craig Gay, encourages his readers to transcend and rediscover meanings and values that go beyond the Christian response to the impasse that money poses to believers:

There are many things that we would need to say if we were to properly exegete this remarkable passage, but there are several points we can mention briefly in light of our discussion. The first is that Jesus describes ‘mammon’ not simply as a possible object of worship but also as a kind of ‘master’ to whom service must be rendered if it is to be worshipped. The second is that Jesus suggests that we are moved to worship mammon primarily out of anxiety and fear of not having our basic material needs met. And the third is that our anxiety and fear disclose a fundamental—and to—Jesus’ mind almost ridiculous –lack of trust in the goodness of God.

The Christian religion teaches that anxiety, fear and mistrust have entered the world through sin, which is to say, through the prideful desire to be gods unto ourselves, as the evil serpent in Genesis puts it, ‘as God, knowing good and evil.’ From a Christian point of view, we expect to find pride and desire for autonomy very closely bound together in a kind of anxious search for security apart from, and all too often over and against the living God. This, according to Christian teaching, is the way of our fallen world.

Surrendering to anxiety and fear and choosing to serve mammon, while perhaps resulting in a measure of material security, further blinds us to the goodness of God, rendering us all the more incapable of placing faith in him. This is why we cannot serve both God and mammon, for trusting in the latter blinds us even to the possibility of trusting God. Service to money insidiously empties the world of grace, leaving it full, as Buber put it so memorably, of ‘unbelief and caprice, positing ends and devising means’. It declines our hearts to cynicism and indifference.

‘When we claim to use money,’ Ellul commented, ‘we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims.’ In light of our previous discussion of the unintended consequences of modern capitalism’s ‘exaltation of monetary unit’, it is clear that Ellul is quite right about this. Money has become much more than simply a tool within bourgeois culture. Rather it has become a kind of end in itself and indeed the final purpose for a great many people. It has essentially become a ‘god’ to whom service must be rendered and for the sake of which all sorts of sacrifice must be made.

But assuming that we do not want to serve mammon, what would our refusal to serve money look like? Most of us, I think would know intuitively what it would look like, at least negatively: we would not be gluttonous and miserly look like, at least materialistic and so forth. For the most part, Christian moral instruction pertaining to money and possessions has stressed just these sorts of moral failings. But how can the refusal to serve money be construed more positively? After all, the ethic informing our use of money and possessions cannot simply be framed in the negative. Along this line, and for lack of a better word, I think the hallmark of such a positive ethic ought simply to be ‘lightheartedness.’ This point was brought home for me a number of years ago by Richard John Neuhaus in a short article intriguingly titled ‘Wealth and Whimsy. Neuhaus wrote:

The point is that weal –having it or producing it –really does not matter that much. This point is missed by both the avaricious, who become captive to their possessions, and by religiously driven ideologues promoting designs for a just economic order. Both are in danger of attributing an ultimacy to something that is, at best, pre-penultimate. Both take wealth altogether too seriously. A theologically informed appreciation of economic life and the production of wealth should be marked by a sense of whimsy and wonder in the face of the fortuitous, contingent, chancy and unpredictable realities of economic behaviours.

I believe Neuhaus is largely but not entirely correct about this, for our ‘lightheartedness’ should stem not simply from admiration for all the things free economic agents are able to create but also from –indeed primarily from –our trust in God. A theologically informed appreciation of economic life, in short, must be marked by a decided lack of anxiety. For rendering service to God over and against ‘mammon’ is, by large to trust him, to believe that he cares for us, and to rest in his promises to provide for our needs.

Spelling this out in terms of our analysis, we might say that over and against the fearful modern suspicion that the universe is cold and indifferent and possibly even inimical to our best interests, we should as Christians, affirm the gracious goodness of the living God as well as the deep goodness and giftedness of being. This is perhaps the most basic witness we can have within a culture that, as we have seen, has been moved to rely upon the alchemy of monetary commodification out of the deep fear that the world must somehow be mastered and possessed if we are to survive within it. Indeed, the single most subversive and ultimately redemptive idea that we can set loose within the capitalist world today is the simple recognition that life is a gift.1
Having said that human life is a gift, it follows now that life in all its facets which includes money, possessions etc. and its utilization now moves further than merely practicing ‘values’ that are based on stewardship as it is commonly referred to in contemporary Christian jargon, that is: practicing it because God functions as a cosmic landlord upon whom we will give an account to; rather we are to look at it more from the point of view of a gracious parent who has chosen to give us the gift of life which we are to live in its fullest expression in simplicity which expresses itself in our lifestyles. It is about being focused on what really matters in life and that is life in the context of community –that can be found in the web of human relationships. It means realizing that relationships are always, always, more important than our cares, money and other material things.

1 Gay, Craig. Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today's Society (Grand Rapids: Eedermans 2004) pp. 88-91

No comments: