From the introduction of his new book Sacred Economics:
IT IS HUGELY IRONIC and hugely significant that the one thing on the planet most closely resembling the forgoing conception of the divine is money. It is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an “invisible hand” that, it is said, makes the world go ’round.
Yet, money today is an abstraction, at most symbols on a piece of paper but usually mere bits in a computer. It exists in a realm far removed from materiality. In that realm, it is exempt from nature’s most important laws, for it does not decay and return to the soil as all other things do, but is rather preserved, changeless, in its vaults and computer files, even growing with time thanks to interest. It bears the properties of eternal preservation and everlasting increase, both of which are profoundly unnatural.
The natural substance that comes closest to these properties is gold, which does not rust, tarnish, or decay. Early on, gold was therefore used both as money and as a metaphor for the divine soul, that which is incorruptible and changeless.Money’s divine property of abstraction, of disconnection from the real world of things, reached its extreme in the early years of the twenty-first century as the financial economy lost its mooring in the real economy and took on a life of its own. The vast fortunes of Wall Street were unconnected to any material production, seeming to exist in a separate realm.
Looking down from Olympian heights, the financiers called themselves “masters of the universe,” channeling the power of the god they served to bring fortune or ruin upon the masses, to literally move mountains, raze forests, change the course of rivers, cause the rise and fall of nations. But money soon proved to be a capricious god.
As I write these words, it seems that the increasingly frantic rituals that the financial priesthood uses to placate the god Money are in vain. Like the clergy of a dying religion, they exhort their followers to greater sacrifices while blaming their misfortunes either on sin (greedy bankers, irresponsible consumers) or on the mysterious whims of God (the financial markets). But some are already blaming the priests themselves.
What we call recession, an earlier culture might have called “God abandoning the world.” Money is disappearing, and with it another property of spirit: the animating force of the human realm.At this writing, all over the world machines stand idle. Factories have ground to a halt; construction equipment sits derelict in the yard; parks and libraries are closing; and millions go homeless and hungry while housing units stand vacant and food rots in the warehouses. Yet all the human and material inputs to build the houses, distribute the food, and run the factories still exist. It is rather something immaterial, that animating spirit, which has fled.
What has fled is money. That is the only thing missing, so insubstantial (in the form of electrons in computers) that it can hardly be said to exist at all, yet so powerful that without it, human productivity grinds to a halt. On the individual level as well, we can see the demotivating effects of lack of money. Consider the stereotype of the unemployed man, nearly broke, slouched in front of the TV in his undershirt, drinking a beer, hardly able to rise from his chair. Money, it seems, animates people as well as machines. Without it we are dispirited.
We do not realize that our concept of the divine has attracted to it a god that fits that concept, and given it sovereignty over the earth. By divorcing soul from flesh, spirit from matter, and God from nature, we have installed a ruling power that is soulless, alienating, ungodly, and unnatural. So when I speak of making money sacred, I am not invoking a supernatural agency to infuse sacredness into the inert, mundane objects of nature. I am rather reaching back to an earlier time, a time before the divorce of matter and spirit, when sacredness was endemic to all things.
And what is the sacred? It has two aspects: uniqueness and relatedness. A sacred object or being is one that is special, unique, one of a kind. It is therefore infinitely precious; it is irreplaceable. It has no equivalent, and thus no finite “value,” for value can only be determined by comparison. Money, like all kinds of measure, is a standard of comparison.
Unique though it is, the sacred is nonetheless inseparable from all that went into making it, from its history, and from the place it occupies in the matrix of all being. You might be thinking now that really all things and all relationships are sacred. That may be true, but though we may believe that intellectually, we don’t always feel it. Some things feel sacred to us, and some do not. Those that do, we call sacred, and their purpose is ultimately to remind us of the sacredness of all things.
What do you think about our relationship with money? Share your thoughts in the comments.