Sunday, July 12, 2015

Pope Francis on the World’s Economy Idolizing Profit: A Theological Self-Idolatry

During his trip to South America in July 2015, Pope Francis appealed to world leaders to seek a new economic model to help the poor, and to shun policies that "sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit."[1] This line reminds me of the ancient Greco-Roman religious practice of sacrificing animals on altars just outside temples dedicated to particular deities. Doubtless no thought went into the animals’ suffering. In the Jewish Bible, God spares Isaac just before Abraham implements Yahweh’s command to sacrifice Isaac. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Abraham constructs an altar for the purpose. In Christianity, Jesus Christ is sacrificed on an altar, which typically doubles as a table given the institution of the Eucharist in the Last Supper. This sacrificed lamb personifies God as agape, or selfless divine love, which manifests as benevolentia universalis, or neighbor-love. Sacrificing the needs of others is antipodal to serving them; hence the Roman Catholic pope’s preachment. Missing, however, was the subtle bias within Christian theology ironically in favor of money. 
   
To be sure, the pope criticized "the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."[2] Idolatry is a strong word; it implies that something or someone in Creation is being worshipped—which is to say, being treated as if it were God. According to the second-century Platonic philosopher Plotinus, the nature of God lies beyond the limits of human perception and conception (even as God is immanent in Creation). Hence God is mysterium.[3] This transcendent essential quality of God is not in my view metaphysical, for otherwise theology would simply be philosophy and the sui generis (i.e., of its own genus, or type) “native ground” of religion would be as void as outer space (although even space presumably contains dark matter). At any rate, to treat anything or anyone on Earth as an idol is to overstate the object’s religious significance. Such an object need not be corporeal in nature; an idea or ideology, for instance, is not beyond the limits of human cognition.

In his The Natural History of Religion, David Hume takes an expanded view of historical religions and finds what he takes to be a natural tendency in the human mind to successively render that which is worshipped in more familiar (i.e., “earthly”) terms. Our brains have trouble holding on to a pure notion of divinity as simple and invisible, so we tend to cloth it with stuff from our world (i.e., not transcendent). By analogy, or Christmas trees become so littered with artifacts that we come to appreciate, even worship, them rather than upholding the tree as it would exist naked and natural. In other words, we fashion God increasingly in terms of our world—the world we know and experience—because it is so difficult for our minds to grasp eternity. The earthly garb can obviously be idolized, and from that it is a slippery slope to treating stuff like money as an idol.

In my view, a way out of the cycle of increasing idolatry is to shift the focus from the nature of the divine as an object to the nature of the sui generis religious experience. In other words, God as love—Augustine’s key phrase—can be taken to refer to the experience rather than to God as an object. Such loving would be transcendental rather than emotional (or eros) in nature. In his Confessions, Augustine’s love for God is sublimated lust—I pine for your scent—and is thus human, all too human.[4] Loving the transcendent is, I submit, a qualitatively different (i.e., unique) kind of love—a different kind of yearning. I further submit that such yearning naturally (i.e., automatically, without intention) renders a person more sensitive to others (i.e., compassionate), and thus more inclined to serve rather than exploit them. As Kant posits, it is ethical to treat other people as ends in themselves rather than only as means.[5]
 
Treated as an end in itself, economic gain functions like heroin or alcohol to an addict, who finds it easy to dismiss the needs of other people and violate their personal boundaries and even dignity. The addict treats other people as means, hence without having boundaries worthy of respect or even acknowledgement. The malignant narcissism is in Scott Peck’s view a defense mechanism that stems from an inner sense of void, or emptiness, at the person’s core. Like Aquinas and Leibniz, Peck takes the lack of being as evil—God being perfect being. Hence we are worthy of compassion, including benevolentia universalis, because we have some being. Sadly, some people feel they have none deep inside. I submit that such people are particularly inclined to treat money as an idol.

In my view, the idolatry of money reduces to idolatry of self, or self-idolatry because economic gain is none other than the person gaining, or expanding his or her reach and thus being. That is, increasing wealth is a sort of expansiveness of the self and its power. The malignant narcissism wants everything for itself—everything under its control. To treat an object within the sphere of our experience as a religious idol is convenient from this standpoint, as such an object can be controlled.

In God’s Gold, I argue that Christian thought on how greed is related to wealth (money) shifted through the centuries from the dominance of anti-wealth stances to that of the pro-wealth stances. In this shift, the sin of greed became decoupled from profit-seeking and wealth, so the latter two could be deemed even salubrious (i.e., without the taint of greed and in fact good!). I suggest that this shift completed in the Renaissance, and that the major Reformers failed to hold back the momentum of the pro-wealth theological attitude (and values). To explain all this, I posit a theological bias, which is rooted in self-idolatry, subtly fueled the shift “from within” the religion. After all, both Luther and Calvin lived in the same commercialized Europe of the sixteenth century.

Therefore, whereas the pope was pointing to profits as the idol, I contend that the idol behind the idol is self-idolatry. He would doubtless agree. However, he would not likely see a bias toward it nestled in Christian theology itself. In other words, the pope may unwittingly have been facing a headwind from both the pro-wealth stance being dominant in Christianity at the time and the underlying theological bias in favor of the corporeal, or earthly, of which wealth is a species.

Turning now to a solution to the culture of greed and the related idolatry of money, the pope was cognizant of his limitations. In place of unbridled capitalism, he called for a new economic system that puts wealth in service to humanity rather than vice versa. “Human beings and nature must not be at the service of money.”[6] “Let us say no to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.”[7] Faced with this daunting problem, the pope was realistic concerning himself and his Church. “Don’t expect a recipe from this pope. Neither the pope nor the church [has] a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or the proposal of solution to contemporary issues. I dare say no recipe exists.”[8] That is to say, humanity had become so inured to serving as the instruments of profits that scarcely any ideas existed at the time to turn the arrow around.

The reference to social reality is interesting, for the Catholic Church historically had hardly been silent in furnishing one. For instance, people were to view themselves as the center of the universe—the Earth lying at the center. Furthermore, slave-owners could cite Paul’s dictum that slaves should obey their masters. The more a religious functionary focuses on social reality, the less he or she is oriented to the transcendental experience—and thus the less he or she is naturally apt to be compassionate. Abstractly speaking, reality is metaphysical rather than religious, and the social dimension of human experience is hardly transcendent, even if regular transcendental experience, or yearning, naturally stimulates compassion as a byproduct.

Regarding the reference to Mother Earth, the pope meant that humanity had no idea as to a global system compatible with solving the climate-change problem. So used are we to the international geo-political system of sovereign nation-states that even the design of a global governance infrastructure capable of enforcing reductions in CO2 emissions eludes our intellectual grasp—to say nothing of how such a system could be implemented.

In short, the pope was calling for a new world order welling up from those people whom Jesus had paid particular attention to—the poor. In the contemporary context, the people to whom the pope was addressing were much broader than the poor; he was addressing the 99 percent and asking us why we passively stand by as an evil system built around the idolatry of money, and ultimately of self, spreads around the world, taking from us the very air that we breathe. Besides people coming up with ideas and becoming politically active, Christian leaders and laity alike could take a look at how Christian theology subtly enables the idolatry of greed manifesting in money or wealth as an end in itself that encompasses not only Creation, but lends transcendent purpose as well.

caritas naturalis seu benevolentia universalis



[1] Philip Pullella and Daniela Desantis, “Pope Francis Condemns Corruption and ‘Unbridled Capitalism,’ in South America,” Reuters, July 12, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] See Rudolf Otto’s book, Idea of the Holy.
[4] Augustine draws on Plato’s Symposium wherein sublimated lust is directed to love of the eternal moral verities. Augustine replaces them with God. I am suggesting that such love, or caritas, is too much of our world and experience to serve us in a transcendent capacity. Calvin is similarly critical of caritas.
[5] This version of Kant’s categorical imperative is known as the kingdom of ends. It is typically likened to the Golden Rule. See Kant’s Practical Critique of Reason.
[6] Jim Yardley and William Neuman, “In Bolivia, Pope Apologizes for Church’s ‘Grave Sins’,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.