Thursday, March 29, 2018

Is Greed Implicit in Christian Theology?

In Business Ethics for Dummies (p. 123), greed is defined as a basic desire for more. The authors posit a “reasonable greed,” which in business “fuels growth,” which in turn “creates jobs and adds value to a society [and] economy” (p. 124). The authors conclude that “in terms of this social and economic growth at least, greed is a good thing” (p. 124). This sounds like a partial affirmation of Gordon Gekko’s claim that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Wall Street). As long as greed proffers good consequences—the greatest good for the greatest number—the desire for more is ethical, or “reasonable.”

In terms of Christianity even where the religious thought has allowed for profit-seeking and the holding of wealth (e.g., for the virtues of liberality and magnificence), greed itself has been excoriated as sin. That is to say, even though Christianity contains different takes on the relationship between wealth and greed, the religion has never approved of the desire for more.

Theologians have typically assumed that the fundamental desire for more is for lower goods, such as wealth, rather than for higher ones, such as God. Greed thus represents misordered concupiscence: the placing of a lower good over a higher one. Such greed is thus desire in excess to what the object deserves. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed” (p. 316). The desire is thus sordid in that it is selfish and excessive, regardless of the object being desired or any beneficial consequences for others.

Undoubtedly, the basic desire for more can be directed to many objects. According to Business Ethics for Dummies, people can be greedy “for power, status, influence, or anything else they desire in excess” (p. 316). One might ask whether a desire for God can possibly be selfish and in excess.

Augustine, for instance, writes of his yearning for God as though a lover pining after a beloved. His language evinces an obsession of sorts, hence possibly capable of excess. “You are my God, and I sigh for you day and night,” Augustine declares in Confessions (7.10.171). “You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you and I hunger and I thirst for you. You have touched me and I have burned for your peace” (Confessions, 10.27.254-55). If it is the limitless nature of the desire for more that is responsible for Christianity’s long-held aversion to greed, then what of Augustine’s sighing and burning for God?  If Augustine’s higher passion is akin to lust, is not selfishness and excess possible? Augustine’s more may be higher, but it is still more, and he wants the object without limit.

To be sure, God is without limit, being omnipotent and omniscient as well as omnipresent, so it could be argued that a desire for God can be unlimited without being excessive (given the nature of the object). If so, Augustine’s sublimated eros being directed to God can be carved out as an exception and labeled as “holy greed” to distinguish it from the commercial “reasonable greed” that issues in economic growth and jobs. The nature of the object and beneficial consequences are the respective justifiers of these two manifestations of greed. However, this path of carving out exceptions can lead to greed itself being deemed good in itself.

I contend that the desire for more is troubling even if the desire evinces a proclivity to vindicate more and more of itself. In being selfish and subject to excess, the desire for more can be said to resemble an addiction, regardless of the object and unintentional beneficial impacts on others.

In terms of excess, the desire innately sets aside any possible restraints such as a desire for equilibrium (e.g., “enough is enough!”). Furthermore, in being self-centered, the desire warps one’s perception to enable still more. For instance, something just ascertained is suddenly viewed as a given, and thus to be augmented rather than accepted as sufficient. If the amount gained had been a good deal, this is taken for granted as an even better deal is sought. Hence, the desire does not diminish out of a sense that enough has been gained. Lest a declining marginal utility arrest the desire in terms of consumption, still more is desired in terms of savings either because 1) you can never be certain that you won’t be able to use the still more or 2) the addiction to more is too captivating. The question is perhaps whether the human desire for more is itself subject to declining marginal utility as a motivation.  Does one become tired of feeling it or is it self-perpetuating?

Even though the desire is innate and self-perpetuating, it need not dominate a person’s motivation and behavior. I suspect that the key to setting aside the desire for still more is seeing it for what it is—that is, being able to recognize it as one is in its grip. A person noticing the cycle can instantly see that the good deal one has just achieved as sufficient. In other words, once the desire is recognized, a bracketing counter-motive can be applied. The promise of freedom from the otherwise all-consuming desire for more is superior to even “reasonable” and “holy” greed.  


Norman Bowie and Meg Schneider, Business Ethics for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011).

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance. 

An Interfaith Declaration of Business (Ethics)

Released in 1994, “An Interfaith Declaration: A Code of Ethics on International Business for Christians, Muslims, and Jews” is comprised of two parts: principles and guidelines. The four principles (justice, mutual respect/love, stewardship and honesty) are described predominantly in religious terms, devoid of any connection to business. In contrast, the guidelines invoke the principles in their ethical sense, devoid of any religious connotation. The disconnect in applying religious ethics to business is not merely in books; the heavenly and earthly cities are as though separated by a great ocean of time.

 Are these religions applicable to business?    Wikipedia

The full essay is at "An Interfaith Declaration of Business."


Related paper: "Religion in Strategic Leadership: A Positivistic, Normative/Theological and Strategic Analysis," Journal of Business Ethics (2005) 57: 221-239.

Related book: God's Gold  The text goes through the history of Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth and profit-seeking, and proffers an explanation for why the historical shift was from anti-wealth to a pro-wealth dominant stance. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Christian Films as Distinctly Theological: A Theological Project

Should films with a distinctively religious theme and narrative water down the theological dimension so to be more acceptable in modern, secular society (i.e., a broader range of movie-goers), and thus profitable? The success of films like The Last Temptation of Christ, The Nativity Story, The Passion of the Christ, and Son of God suggest that theology should be embraced rather than tempered if box-office numbers are at all important. The genre should thus be distinguished from historical drama. Screenwriters and directors engaging in the religious genre would be wise, therefore, to distinguish the theological from the historical even in handling religions in which the historical is salient in the theological.

The full essay is at "Christian Films as Theological."

Monday, March 26, 2018

Differences between Two Living Popes White-Washed in Fake News

People in glass houses should not throw stones. Or, the person who is without sin casts the first stone. Lastly, a house divided cannot stand, at least in the long run. Yet houses are so rarely as fundamentally divided as the one in which I grew up. Regarding religious institutions, theological differences can be allowed to blow up into major, life-threatening disputes, or papered over by sins of omission pertaining to just how deep a fissure goes. Conflicts, in other words, can be exacerbated or mollified, depending on the temperaments.
On February 7, 2018, Joe Ratzinger, a former pope of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote a letter pertaining to a multi-volume book on the then-current pope’s theology. Reading from the letter at the book’s presentation the next month, Dario Vigano, the prefect of the Vatican’s communications office, said that Benedict, the  former pope, confirmed that Francis, the current pope, had a solid theological and philosophical training and that the book showed the “interior continuity” between the two papacies.[1] This “left the impression that the 91-year-old retired pope had read the [book] and l endorsed it, when in fact he hadn’t.” The retired pope had not read the book!
Vigano was guilty of bearing false witness; he lied. He also conveniently left out the last two lines of the first page of Benedict’s letter, and the Vatican went so far as to blur the lines in a digitally manipulated photo of  the page released to the public. The former pope noted in those lines that the author of one of the volumes—a progressive theologian by the name of Peter Huenermann, “had launched ‘virulent,’ ‘anti-papist’ attacks against [Benedict’s] teaching and that of Pope John Paul II.[2] But is criticism of the theological interpretations of two popes in particular the same as criticizing the papacy itself? It apparently felt so to the retired pope, who consequently decided he had insufficient time in a retirement confined to the Vatican to read the book. He had not read the book, so he could not possibly have found in it an “interior continuity” between him and Pope Francis.
As if bearing false witness were not hypocritical enough for the Vatican, the Secretariat for Communications made reference to the “presumed manipulation” of the letter even though the office had just released the entire letter, in focus, publicly, which clearly showed that manipulation had taken place. Indeed, the Vatican admitted that it had blurred the final two lines of the first page of the letter. The Secretariat “said its decision to withhold part of the letter [had been] based on its desire for reserve, ‘not because of any desire to censor.’”[3] Recalling the detective Perot reacting to the old countess in the film, “The Orient Express,” I answer in a similarly raised, shrilled voice, obfuscation and another lie!
The inherently irresolvable, Kierkegaardian sort of irony can be found in Pope Francis having dedicated his annual message for the church’s social communications day to fighting fake news and the distortion of information. That pope had “frequently criticized journalists for only giving half of the story.”[4] Francis probably had had the United States in mind, and deservingly so, for the splinting of network news had resulted in some very partisan news networks, and, perhaps relatedly, U.S. President Trump had presented his country and the world with a gaping loophole: the possibility that lies can slip through with impunity such that truth itself becomes, as Nietzsche had urged, a problem rather than a given.
As bad as fake news is in the media and government, the added element of hypocrisy in a Christian church that recognizes the Decalogue as truth renders the Vatican’s lapse much more severe. Alternatively, the Vatican could have produced the entire letter and mollify any perceived cleft between the two living popes as that which exists between theology and pastoral care. A woman who thought I might make a suitable pastor at her church, said to me when I visited her church, “I know you got the theology down, but can you care for the people?” I answered affirmatively; she should have asked about my theology instead, for I am indeed a deep thinker who transcends reigning assumptions, sometimes treating them as problems rather than as given. I suppose folks could make my propensity into a big deal, or not, depending on their penchant for conflict.
Certainly the two co-extant popes could be said have differed. I submit that they were closer on Catholic social ethics than people who conflate style for substance have realized. Both popes resisted the institution of women priests, and both men maintained that homosexuality is a sin. Perhaps Benedict put more emphasis on God’s judgment while Francis pointed to God’s mercy. Is such a “division” worth fighting over? Can it instead be transcended? I submit that a focus on transcendent, religious or spiritual experience, which is oriented beyond the limits of human cognition, sensibility, and perception, can relegate differences of emphasis on theological and pastoral matters. Put another way, the people invested psychologically in turning mole hills into mountains with troops digging in on both sides are not transcending in a religious sense. This includes Vatican officials, for time devoted to lying and manipulating could otherwise be more focused on what really matters in a religious organization. The worldly, our realm of quotidian activity in which we live, can be viewed as merely a surface that can be transcended in a distinctly religious sense. What I remember about Pope John Paul II was images of him kneeling whether in prayer or raw yearning for God. His views on women or gays in the church pale in comparison. So too, his anti-communist view and work similarly have fallen aside. A religious organization is primarily about religiosity. Perhaps both Benedict and Francis could emulate their common predecessor in this respect.

For more on religion and leadership, see "Christianized Ethical Leadership," and "Spiritual Leadership in Business."

1. Nicole Winfield, “Vatican Bows to Pressure, Releases Retired Pope’s Letter,” Religion News Service, March 18, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Is Scientology a Religion?

I contend that other domains have encroached on religion, or religion on them, such that the native fauna in religion’s own garden is scarcely recognizable. In this essay, I distinguish psychology from religion using Scientology as a case in which the two domains have been obfuscated. In other words, I want to remove the troublesome category mistake that allows psychological matters to be reckoned as religious. 
After living on the Divinity School quad at Yale for a year, I ventured off-campus to a small apartment. The contrast was stark; as I was unloading my mattress off the U-Haul truck, an old prostitute came over and offered to help me. “And then we can use it,” she said. I politely declined. Once I had moved in, the building’s janitor introduced himself and informed me that the building was owned by Scientologists and he was one as well. Hearing that I was a divinity student, he quickly came up with a thick book on Scientology for me to read, which I did. My reaction was that the substance of Scientology is psychological rather than religious.
The core practice in Scientology is the audit, in which one person helps another in getting rid of hurtful memories. The aim is freedom. Scientologists would say that such freedom is spiritual, but I contend that being free from the pain of certain memories is a psychological freedom because the freedom is mental—of the mind. My aim is not to be critical of Scientology; helping people to dissolve traumatic memories is highly laudatory, even though it is not religious.
Part of the problem has to do with getting carried away with wording. In advance of the launch of Scientology’s television network in March, 2018, a promotional video featured an e-meter. This piece of equipment is described in the ad as ‘the cutting edge of spiritual technology.”[1] The expression, spiritual technology, seems odd, even oxymoronic. “According to Scientology’s website, the electronic instrument is used by auditors in sessions with members to check [sic] they are addressing ‘the correct area in order to discharge the harmful energy connected with that portion of the preclear’s reactive mind.”[2] In other words, the device measures how nervous a person is while bad memories are being targeted for dissolution. Lest energy signal something spiritual, the correct categories are physiology and thermodynamics (i.e., natural science).
Even in terms of cosmology, God is believed to be the source of the universe, including its energy, rather than the energy itself (which would be pantheism). God, in other words, transcends the limits of the universe, rather than being its energy. The harmful energy being picked up by the meter is a physiological effect of a psychological state or change. Such energy, and the audit process itself, lie wholly within the created realm and thus do not satisfy the divine attribute of transcendence. Not even “getting deep” psychologically counts as transcendence theologically speaking, which involves yearning for a beyond that lies beyond the limits of human cognition, perception, and sensibility. The latter term includes emotional feeling. So Augustine’s very emotional erotic pining for God can be reckoned as human, all too human, rather than of a wholly other quality reflecting the transcendence that is distinctly theological. In other words, theological love is not emotional feeling. I suspect that we are so used to conflating psychology with theology that the nature of distinctly theological yearning eclipses our understanding and practice. To transcend emotion, being free of it, may be a freedom surpassing that of the emotional freedom from bad memories.

For more on weeding category mistakes out of religion, see the booklet, Spiritual Leadership in Business.

1. Erin Jensen, “Scientology Makes Debut with Its Own TV Network,” USA Today, March 13, 2018.
2. Ibid.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Liturgical Vestments as Doorways into the Divine: On the Importance of Transcendence

In the Book of Genesis, God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve and clothes them. Gianfranco Ravasi, a Roman Catholic Cardinal and de facto cultural minister of the Vatican, reflected on the meaning of liturgical vestments while he was in New York with prominent designers to preview the upcoming exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fashion could point to the transcendent would seem to go against the ostensibly fundamental  dichotomy between the superficial and the significant.  The religious quest can be understood in such terms as transcending the image to the underlying ineffable mystery that must characterize the transcendent.

The items lent by the Vatican “feature exquisitely crafted clothing and accessories, with intricate patchworks of gold and silver thread embroidery, as well as bejeweled tiaras and miters.”[1] On one level, silver and gold represent wealth, which until beginning with the Commercial Revolution in Medieval times was assumed to be indicative of an underlying motive—that of greed, the love of gain itself.[2] The ornate vestments in this sense represent the crowning glory of the pro-wealth paradigm as evinced by  the prosperity gospel.
On a deeper level, however, the liturgical vestment “represents above all the transcendent dimension, the dimension of the religious mystery, and that’s why it is ornate,” the Cardinal explains, “because that which is divine is considered splendid, marvelous, sumptuous, grandiose.”[3] These adjectives essentially point to the supremacy of value that is placed on the divine; it’s value relegates even ethical goodness. Plato’s sublimated love of eternal moral verities becomes for Augustine love (caritas) of God. To declare the value of the divine to be the highest is, however, merely a starting point, beyond which transcendence beckons—the experience of the sacred that relegates the ascetics of ornate beauty for unobtainable, ineffable mystery. The temptation is to hold on to the pretty vestments rather than to transcend them. The source (and value) of the divine lies beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, so the vestments themselves should not be allowed to become the point; their value is only relative. Optics draws the eyes in, but must ultimately be let go for the yearning to be transcendent in nature, and thus in line with the nature of divinity. It is a marvel of human nature that ornate beauty can be appreciated at all, yet even more astonishing that an instinctual urge is oriented to going beyond the limits of our perception and cognition.[4] Hence liturgical garb is to be grasped only as a starting point rather than a focal point. The animus (mind, spirit) is capable of transcending itself as well as its realm in yearning for the invisible and unknowable transcendent called God.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Church Scandals in a Secularizing World

A religious institution can least afford scandal involving highly unethical and illegal activity when the world is secularizing; the headwind alone requires a lot of energy just to stay in place, let alone move forward. The trail of child-rape scandals and cover-ups had by 2018 made a dent in the number of Roman Catholics in Latin America, yet other factors also accounted for the declines in church membership, and thus obfuscated estimates of the fallout in particular.  I contend that the gravity of the sexual abuse and related cover-ups by clergy warrants more than just being reckoned as one of several factors, even though the actual exodus was muted relative to the severity of the crimes.
“The number of Chileans who described themselves as Catholic dropped from 74 percent in 1995 to 45 percent [in2017], according to a poll by Latinobarómetro. The decline of Catholicism in Argentina, from 87 percent in 1995 to 65 percent [in2017] has also been significant.”[1] These are significant drops, and they exist in other countries in the region too. What factors lie behind this downward trend?  The New York Times pointed at the time to increasing secularity in “prosperous nations, including Chile and Uruguay. . . . In countries in the region troubled by violence, stark inequality and entrenched poverty like Brazil, evangelical denominations have cut deeply into the historical base of the Catholic Church.”[2] Fallout from sexual-abuse scandals by priests and covering bishops was also doubtless in the mix. Such abuse by religious men in a religious organization is unlike these other factors, for neither secularity nor economic inequality is so closely associated with, and thus pertaining to, the Roman Catholic Church. The downward effect of the personal failures and indeed hypocrisy of religious functionaries, especially in a denomination in which liturgy is so important in the process of sanctification, should arguably have been more pronounced that it actually was.
To be sure, during his visit early in 2018, Pope Francis “angered Chilean Catholics by defending a bishop who critics [said] protected a pedophile priest.”[3] Victims of Fernando Karadima, “Chile’s most notorious priest,” accused Bishop Juan Madrid of complicity in the crimes. The pope stated that “there is not one single piece of evidence. It is all slander. Is that clear?”[4] Ouch! Juan Cruz, one of the victims, had written, “As  if I could have taken a selfie or picture  while Karadima abused me orothers and Juan Barros stood there watching it all [before being elevated as a bishop by Pope Francis}.” Dismissing such an account was a good way for the pope to throw gas on a fire. “The pope’s comments set off a storm in Chile, raising questions about his commitment to repairing the damage from sexual abuse scandals and improving the decline in the church’s image and adherents” in Chile.[5] From the  standpoint of Jesus’s message, hypocrisy by the vicor of Christ is not a good thing. It is telling that a spokesperson of the Chilean government was closer to Jesus’s  message in stating, “Respecting,  believing  and supporting victims of sexual abuse is  an ethical imperative. No  institutional defense can override this basic principle for a fair society, one that is empathetic with those who most need it.”[6]  Empathy with the most vulnerable is one of the pillars of Jesus’s depicted life and teachings, whereas denial in defense of  the powerful sounds more Roman than Christian.
So I ask: why, even at the time of the pope’s visit to Chile and Peru, hadn’t more Catholics walked away from the Church? Why not a major exodus worldwide after the press reports of the reason for the pope’s chilly reception in Chile?  Imperfect information is doubtless part of the explanation. The short lifespan of moral outrage even at hypocrisy combined with the sheer force of routine in the human psyche is another. Even so, I submit that the importance of taking part in the Church’s sacraments—believed by the faithful to be important to salvation—kept even disgusted Catholics in the pews.  
Most important to a Catholic’s process of sanctification—the gradual transformation into being Christlike and thus fit for full reconciliation with God—is taking Communion at the Mass, which is presided over by clergy. They are a necessary part of a layperson’s return to God, according to Catholic belief. Historically, the Church decided the Donatist controversy by declaring that the moral lapses of a priest does not invalidate his concentration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Moral and presumably even criminal faults may give rise to hypocrisy, but saying the liturgy is nonetheless sufficient in the consecration. Think of the liturgy of the Eucharist as a recipe of sorts; if said correctly, the consecration is, hocus pocus, accomplished. Whether the presiding priest was rude to someone before Mass is of no consequence. In a secularizing world, such a rationale is difficult to accept, yet Catholics socialized into the importance of attending Mass for their very salvation have a very different framework of belief. Even though that belief may be sorely tested when clergy misconduct arises, the way to salvation is held to be more important to the individual believer. In this perspective, the pursuit of salvation may appear selfish relative to taking a stand against a rapist priest or corrupt bishop by no longer going to Mass in empathy with the victims. By which of these two alternative courses does a believer become more Christlike—literally taking in the deity via Communion, or following Jesus’s example and teachings on how to live so as to enter the kingdom of God? A tough theological problem to be sure!
The sex scandals have been just one of several factors that together have doubtlessly been perceived by the Vatican as just another headwind that the long-lived institution will doubtless survive as it has survived other set-backs and challenges. Relativizing a current scandal by assuming a two-thousand-year perspective wrongly presumes an infallible coat of armour built up by centuries of existence. That the Catholic Church—any religious institution in fact—has responded so imperfectly (or not at all) is a testament to the human nature involved. Yet this is no excuse. The instinct for greater accountability within the Church is of course valid, for the ongoing need of a clergy so consecration can continue to be done does not justify retaining child-rapists and corrupt bishops who cover up the heinous crimes. For example, the Vatican could remove the rotted clerics and seek replacements. Lest it be objected that bending on the issue of clerical marriage would be inconvenient, the close tie between the Church and the crimes and cover-ups suggests that an inconvenient course-change is called for—that suffering costs due to external actors rather than one’s own volition is insufficient as payment by the institution. Such internal accountability is difficult, given the conflict of interest in an organization being tasked with voluntarily taking a hit (rather than merely taking a hit due to the actions of external actors, such as laity giving less financially). The laity and even the societies within which the Roman Catholic Church exists need not accept such institutional self-serving inertia.  Taking the road less convenient is something clerics ostensibly for agape (i.e., self-emptying) love should not have to be pressured into taking. Perhaps more Christians are needed in the Vatican, and fewer comfortable hypocrites in sheep’s clothing.

1. Daniel Politi, “As Pope Heads to Chile and Peru, Argentines Feel Snubbed Again,” The New York Times, January 14, 2018.
2. Ibid.
3. Marcelo Rochabrún and Pascale Bonnefoy, “Pope Leaves a Furor in Chile, and Later Defends the Indigenous in Peru,” The New York Times, January 20, 2018.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.

On how Church leaders might lead, see Spiritual Leadership and Christianized Ethical Leadership. On the secularization of the Church historically in terms of how wealth has been viewed in relation to greed, see God’s Gold.