Sacred Economics


 

This week, with some of the RS team off the grid at the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nevada, we'll be presenting highlights from the archives. The following article first ran on Reality Sandwich on February 22, 2010, and is a adapted from the introduction to the upcoming book Sacred Economics. The purpose of the book is to make money and human economy as sacred as everything else in the universe.  

Today we associate money with the profane, and for good reason. If anything is sacred in this world, it is surely not money. Money seems to be the enemy of all our better instincts, as is clear every time the thought "I can't afford to" blocks an impulse toward kindness or generosity. Money seems to be the enemy of beauty, as the disparaging term "a sellout" demonstrates. Money seems to be the enemy of every worthy social and political reform, as corporate power steers legislation toward the aggrandizement of its own profits. Money seems to be destroying the earth, as we pillage the oceans, the forests, the soil, and every species to feed a greed that knows no end.

From at least the time that Jesus threw the moneychangers from the temple, we have sensed that there is something unholy about money. When a politician seeks money instead of the public good, we call him corrupt. Adjectives like "dirty" and "filthy" naturally describe money.  Monks are supposed to have little to do with it: "You cannot serve God and Mammon."

At the same time, no one can deny that money has a mysterious, magical quality as well, the power to alter human behavior and coordinate human activity. From ancient times thinkers have marveled at the ability of a mere mark to confer this power upon a disk of metal or slip of paper. Unfortunately, looking at the world around us, it is hard to avoid concluding that the magic of money is an evil magic.

Obviously, if we are to make money into something sacred, nothing less than a wholesale revolution in money will suffice, a transformation of its essential nature. It is not merely our attitudes about money that must change, as some self-help gurus and "prosperity programming" teachers would have us believe; rather, we will create a new kind of money that embodies and reinforces our changed attitudes. Sacred Economics describes this new money and the new economy that will coalesce around it. It also explores the metamorphosis in human identity that is both a cause and a result of the transformation of money. The changed attitudes of which I speak go all the way to the core of what it is to be human: they include our understanding of the purpose of life, humanity's role on the planet, the relationship of the individual to the human and natural community; even what it is to be an individual, a self. This should not be surprising, since we experience money (and property) as an extension of our selves; hence the possessive pronoun "mine" to describe it, the same pronoun we use to identify our arms and heads. My money, my car, my hand, my liver. Consider as well the sense of violation we feel when we are robbed or "ripped off," as if part of our very selves had been taken.

A transformation from profanity to sacredness in money, something so deep a part of our identity, something so central to the workings of the world, would have profound effects indeed. But what does it mean for money, or anything else for that matter, to be sacred? It is in a crucial sense the opposite of what sacred has come to mean. For several thousand years, increasingly, the concepts of sacred, holy, and divine have referred to something separate from nature, the world, and the flesh. Three or four thousand years ago the gods began a migration from the lakes, forests, rivers, and mountains into the sky, becoming the imperial overlords of nature rather than its essence. As divinity separated from nature, so also it became unholy to involve oneself too deeply in the affairs of the world. The human being changed from a living soul to a mere receptacle of spirit, a profane envelope for a sacred soul, culminating in the Cartesian mote of consciousness observing the world but not participating in it, and the Newtonian watchmaker God doing the same. To be divine was to be supernatural, non-material. If God participated in the world at all, it was through miracles — divine intercessions violating or superseding nature's laws.

Yet, paradoxically, this separate, abstract thing called spirit is supposed to be what animates the world. Ask the religious person what has changed when a person dies, and she will say the soul has left the body. Ask her who makes the rain fall and the wind blow, and she will say it is God. To be sure, Galileo and Newton appeared to have removed God from these everyday workings of the world, explaining it instead as the clockwork of a vast machine of impersonal force and mass, but even they still needed the Clockmaker to wind it up in the beginning, to imbue the universe with the potential energy that has run it ever since. This conception is still with us today as the Big Bang, a primordial event that is the source of the "negative entropy" that allows movement and life. In any case, our culture's notion of spirit is that of something separate and non-worldly, that yet can miraculously intervene in material affairs, and that even animates and directs them in some mysterious way.

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 21st 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). Soon, perhaps, we will blame the priests themselves.

What we call deflation, an earlier culture might have called, "God abandoning the world." Money is disappearing, and with it a third 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. Yet all the human and material inputs to operate them still exist. There is still fuel, there are still raw materials, and there are still human beings in abundance who know how to operate the machines. 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. It is as if God had forsaken the world. Even beyond the mechanical realm, 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 the soul from the 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. 

My understanding of sacredness is secondary to my feeling of sacredness, or to put it better, to the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred. I cannot define that feeling, nor need I define it, because I am sure that you have felt it as well. In the presence of the sacred, we are moved to the very core of our being, we feel reverence and awe, humility and amazement, and a profound sense of gratitude. Even though, intellectually, I know that I am in the presence of the sacred all the time, only rarely do I actually feel its fullness. When I do, I feel like I have returned to a home that was always there and to a truth that has always existed. It can happen when I observe an insect or a plant, hear a symphony of birdsongs or frog calls, feel mud between my toes, gaze upon an object beautifully made, apprehend the impossibly coordinated complexity of a cell or an ecosystem, witness a synchronicity or symbol in my life, watch happy children at play, am touched by a work of genius. Extraordinary though these experiences are, they are in no sense separate from the rest of life. Indeed, their power comes from the glimpse they give of a realer world, a sacred world that underlies and interpenetrates our own.

What is this "home that was always there, this truth that has always existed"? It is the truth of the unity or the connectedness of all things, and the feeling is that of participating in something far greater than oneself, yet which also is oneself. In ecology, this is the principle of interdependence: that all beings depend for their survival on the web of other beings that surrounds them, ultimately extending out to encompass the entire planet. The extinction of any species diminishes our own wholeness, our own health, our own selves: something of our very being is lost. We can feel this sense of loss directly, as an emotion, as well as indirectly through the multiplying health crises of our time. This book will draw from ecology to help describe a sacred economy. For example, in the planetary ecosystem there is no such thing as waste: the waste of one creature is the food of another, creating a sacred gift circle. For an economy to be sacred, it must be the same.

If the sacred is the gateway to the underlying unity of all things, it is equally a gateway to the uniqueness and specialness of each thing. A sacred object is one-of-a-kind; it carries a unique essence that cannot be reduced to a set of generic qualities. That is why reductionistic science seems to rob the world of its sacredness, since everything becomes one or another combination of a handful of generic building blocks. This conception mirrors our economic system, itself consisting mainly of standardized, generic commodities, job descriptions, processes, data, inputs and outputs and, most generic of all, money, the ultimate abstraction. In earlier times it was not so. Tribal peoples saw each being not primarily as a member of a category, but as a unique enspirited individual. Even rocks, clouds, and apparently identical drops of water were thought to be sentient, unique beings. The products of the human hand were unique as well, bearing through their distinguishing irregularities the signature of the maker. Here was the link between the two qualities of the sacred, connectedness and uniqueness: in their uniqueness, objects retain the mark of their origin, their place in the great matrix of being, their dependency on the rest of creation for their existence.

In this book I will describe a vision of a money system and an economy that is sacred. In other words, I will describe an economy that is no longer separate, in fact or in perception, from the natural matrix that underlies it. I will describe a reunion of the long-sundered realms of human and nature. The human economy will no longer be something separate from nature; it will be an extension of nature that obeys all of its laws and bears all of its beauty, wholeness, and enchantment.

Within every institution of our civilization, no matter how ugly or corrupt, there is the germ of something beautiful: the same note at a higher octave. Money is no exception: its original purpose is simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so that we might all live in greater abundance. How instead money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, competition rather than sharing, is one of the threads of this book. Yet despite what it has become, in that original beauty of money we can catch a glimpse of what will one day make it sacred again. We intuitively recognize the exchange of gifts as a sacred occasion, which is why we instinctively make a ceremony out of gift-giving. Sacred money, then, will be a medium of gifting, a means to recreate the gift economy of a hunter-gatherer or village society on a planetary level. A sacred economy will be an economy of the Gift.

Sacred Economics describes this future and also maps out a practical way to get there. Long ago I grew tired of reading books that criticized some aspect of our society without offering a positive alternative. Then, I grew tired of books that offered a positive alternative that seemed impossible to reach: "We must reduce carbon emissions by 90%." Then I grew tired of books that offered a plausible means of reaching it, that did not describe what I, personally, could do to create it. Sacred Economics operates on all four levels: it offers a fundamental analysis of what has gone wrong with money; it describes a more beautiful world based on a different kind of money and economy; it explains the collective actions necessary to create that world and the means by which these actions can come about; and it explores the personal dimensions of the world-transformation, the change in identity and being that I call  "living in the Gift." 

The economic crisis we face today is just one of many crises that are converging upon us all at once: crises in energy, education, health, water, soil, climate, politics, and the environment. My previous book, The Ascent of Humanity, traced the origin of each to a common root, millennia old, that I call Separation. Their convergence is a birth crisis, in which we are expelled from the old world into the new. Unavoidably, these crises invade our personal lives, our world falls apart, and we too are born into a new world, a new identity. This is why so many people sense a spiritual dimension to the planetary crisis.

I dedicate all of my work to the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible. I say our "hearts", because our minds tell us it is not possible. Our minds doubt that things will ever be much different than experience has taught us. You may, as you read the forgoing encomium to a sacred economy, have felt a wave of cynicism, contempt, or despair. You might have felt an urge to dismiss my words as hopelessly idealistic. Indeed, I myself was tempted to tone down my description, to make it more plausible, more responsible, more in line with our low expectations for what life and the world can be. But such an attenuation would not have been the truth. I will, using the tools of the mind, speak what is in my heart. In my heart I know that an economy and society this beautiful is possible for us to create, and indeed, that anything less than that is unworthy of us. Are we so broken, that we would aspire to anything less than a sacred world?

 

Image by brionv, courtesy of Creative Commons license.