I am in continued amazement that my life turned out so well. Why me? Why are things so good? Are they always easy? No. But overall, I am blessed. I am grateful. Beyond grateful. By any reasonable metric of global human success, I am rich. However, I’ve found myself lately calling myself a Christian, or something like it, which begs the question: can you be rich and a Christian?
I have a house. A home! And someone to share it with. Who loves me deeply. How wonderful! How special! And my job? How lucky I am to make so much money doing so little, all from the comfort of my own house.
It is pretty incredible. I cannot really describe the good feelings that come with financial security, which The All has, for whatever reason, decided to bestow upon me.
I know, “spiritually,” we are not supposed to be selfish and egotistically interested in gathering more physical resources.
But there is something very primal, deep within my animal soul, that cares about physical resources because when I have them my nervous system is calm and happy, and when I don’t have them, or when the ones I have are at risk, my nervous system gets quite upset.
So for me, being very closely related to my nervous system, and generally unable to override the anxieties of my nervous system, it all seems so natural to worry about money, paying my mortgage, and trying to make me and my little family happy and secure.
But is this compatible with living a spiritual life? Or an ethical life? Can I call myself a person inspired by Christ when I also care about how the stock market will impact my 401k?
Is this the best way to live? I don’t know. Probably not. Probably living in some radical egalitarian community would be better because the risks of life are spread out into society and there’s a safety net and everyone isn’t acting as if it’s every man for themselves.
Things probably really would be better if we went back to living more as small tribes or villages who acted as a community to take care of the community. As the saying goes, “it takes a village.” And we are greatly missing out on that village wisdom.
But in order for village wisdom to go into effect for a community, that community must actually be a community i.e. they must know each other intimately and be involved in each other’s lives.
But that only really works on a small scale. Anthropologists have studied what’s the maximum number of people that could be in a social group before that village wisdom breaks down and people turn into strangers: 150. This is called Dunbar’s Number.
But now we live on a planet fully aware there are 7 billion strangers on the planet. Sure, we have the internet, which is great as far as it goes. But it has brought us no closer to a global village wisdom. In fact, it seems to have made us collectively insane.
But as a blogger, it would be a bit ironic if I complained about the internet. I am no Luddite. But it seems as if the global phenomenology of technocratic alienation and existential loneliness is here to stay. We are not returning to the forest village anytime soon and the days of the savannah are long gone.
So although as much as I recognize the wisdom of egalitarian living, there is a sense in which its beneficial effects only fully kick-in when taken to its radical conclusion. Which entails a radical shift in society. Call it a revolution, if you will. Well, not to be too cynical, but I am not confident that revolution is forthcoming anytime soon.
The powers at large have cemented the current system of technocratic capitalistic individualism pretty firmly into the consciousness of the Western mind, which seems to have brought us great wealth for the few, and great poverty for the rest.
Are things better along some dimensions? Yes, arguably. But can we thereby conclude we are living in the best of all systems? Hardly so.
And so, yes, there is a desire for systematic change. Getting really deep into the nooks and crannies of the system and affecting change at the molecular level.
But part of me always wonders: how much would we have to change ourselves in order to change the system in order to bring about such a radical change? What is the system anyway if not the collective action of individual humans going about their business?
And are we sure human nature has what it takes to lead the way forward into a revolution? Sometimes I have great hope and optimism in human nature, other times it scares me.
And yes, it’s all a great spectrum: from good to bad, and everything in between. That’s part of the cliche of humanity: we’re messy and black-or-white answers or frameworks are pretty much never accurate.
And as such, having gotten ourselves into this great mess of a society we call 21st-century capitalism and selfish Western individualism, I wonder how it is I am supposed to live up to the moral demands of selflessness that has been common to religions like Christianity.
I seem to have the empathy and compassion in spades, but when it comes to selflessness it seems a challenge to go beyond the bare minimum of duty. For that is the great question: what defines our duty?
The philosopher Peter Singer famously argues it is our duty to give away 90% of our income to charity. Others see that as going above and beyond the call of duty. But where do we draw the line? 80%? 50%? 30%? 10%? 5%?
Why not 1%? Or 100%? It all seems arbitrary trying to formalize this too precisely. One suspects that we’re all just thinking in terms of vaguely defined intuitions and emotions.
But it’s an important question. Can I really walk about calling myself a spiritual and religious person while I simultaneously worry about my retirement portfolio?
Living in this capitalist world, it seems as if I must take such measures if I want to not work until I die, or if I want to protect myself against the bust-and-boom cycles of modern capitalism. I recognize that the idea of a cushy retirement is a great privilege relative to world history, but now that it’s a possibility at least how can I not pursue that?
This is where those animal instincts kick in. I feel this deep urge to horde resources because it helps me deal with financial anxieties about paying my bills and keeping a roof over the head of me and my family.
Duty is a tricky thing. The ego is a tricky thing. It allows itself to think of itself as selfless and spiritual and religious while also doing pretty much the opposite of what religion demands.
Christ commands us to give the shirts off our backs. Christ teaches us that spirituality for the rich quintessentially involves giving to the poor. There is no question about that. And yet we who are rich try to convince ourselves we are “Christians” even though we don’t even really bother living up to our Master’s own teachings.
We convince ourselves that those teachings are really more like exaggerated best practices, easy for a God to live up to, but difficult for us mere mortals, so we’ll just utterly fail to be Christ-like, call ourselves sinners, and beg for forgiveness once or twice a year in socially-sanctioned rituals and call that our religion.
That is not Christian. It is Christian only in name. But it is not Christ–like. Us wannabe mystics are no better. We delude ourselves into thinking that our selfishness is justified because we have some awareness that our egos are illusions. But somehow that knowledge never seems to make its way to radically altering our own egoistic desires.
Maybe I am projecting. Maybe it really is just me who struggles with all this. Especially now that I am so blessed with a good job and a mortgage. It seems pretty common that when people become beneficiaries of a system they become less inclined to radically change that system.
At worst, we become merely selfish hypocrites. Others would call it simply privilege. Others would call it downright evil.
And yet, strangely, even the thought that some would see me as evil is not enough to ignite a desire to liquidate my 401k and give it away to the poor. My ego is able to retain its opinion of itself as being “a decent person” and simply ignore these greater calls to give away all my money.
It’d be easy to simply point to those who are far wealthier than myself and proclaim them to be the truly evil ones. I can count myself as part of the 99% then.
But what if I am part of the 10%? Can I still consider myself immune to the criticisms of Christ? Sure, I am doing right by the standards of my own immediate family; I’m fulfilling my duty to take care of my partner.
But what about my duty to my neighborhood? My city? The homeless? The hungry? By their standards, I am failing. Absolutely failing to listen to the message of Christ in Matthew 19:21:
21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Far from selling my possessions, I seem to be accumulating them. Although I give a bit of money here and there to various charities, I am by no means following the spirit of Christ in its most basic, radical form.
And I do not like the excuse of “being human.” Even worse do I like the excuse of “being a sinner.” Focusing on the sinful nature of humanity seems like an excuse to maintain the status quo.
I don’t know why I am writing all this exactly. I am not trying to humblebrag. I am not trying to make myself out as some self-aware moralist in the crisis of self-contradiction. I guess I would call this an exercise in existentialism: an exercise in recognizing the absurdity of this world, and the empty promises of morality when it comes to making a fundamental difference.
Perhaps that is too cynical. And again: it might just be projection. But I am also an optimist. Both about myself and humanity. For was Christ not Himself fully human and would he therefore not be fully empathetic to my situation as a human: messy, complex, and imperfectly Good?
And perhaps that is the point of the Incarnation. To remind us that our imperfection has been and still remains divine. That humanity and divinity are not mutually exclusive. That it is possible to be 100% human, and thus flawed, and 100% divine, forged from the blueprint of Logos.
Indeed, perhaps the Incarnation is there is to remind us that it will always be a mystery how human nature relates to the nature of the Divine and that living in this mystery is a source of power, wisdom, and understanding.