Note: This post offers further thoughts sparked by my podcast episode with Rev. Dr. William Trench. 12s6e2 - Mo'Money, Mo'Money
To what end? To what end do we do what we do? To what end do we take on certain actions, tasks, and responsibilities? To what end do we follow different avenues of life?
While these may seem to be philosophical, existential questions that one muses on after times of deep, prolonged thought, I would also describe them as questions of economics, of gathering and earning, and concerning money.
First, my disclaimer: I am not an economist. I have not had any formal or official training in economics. I am a theologian with a strong bent towards philosophy (as opposed to those non-philosophical theologians who keep quoting scripture again and again as if the Bible can be read in some kind of ahistorical vacuum… splitters!). So do not keep reading this post in hope that you will find some kind of “get-rich-quick” scheme or money management advice. I can barely manage my own money, and will not presume to offer any advice to anyone else on the matter. I am not a financial consultant, an account manager, and in no way can offer any kind of professional advice as to how one should handle money.
Now that I have covered my hind-side, I return to the question, “to what end?” It is, in a way, a question of worth and value. I could say that I am going to ride in a brand-new, red, Radio Flyer wagon down Bleachery Hill (a steep hill in East Greenwich, RI where a bleachery used to be), and people may ask me why and wonder to what end I would engage in such an action. Why would I try to cram my 40-year-old body into a well made, but not indestructible wagon and let it fly down a busy hill in the midst of traffic? I could answer that it is fun. I could say that it is for the sake of experiencing life at its fullest. The reason would speak to the purpose and the end for the action; because it is fun, I am bored, etc. You would hopefully convince me that I would have just as much fun riding the wagon in Goddard Park (a much safer area in RI for daredevil rides in the brand-new, red, Radio Flyer wagon) and would probably survive the experience. You are asking me what it is that I hope to gain from the experience and then showing me a way to gain similar ends in a safer and easier way. With me so far?
Now what if I was offered $100 to ride down Bleachery hill in my brand-new, red, Radio Flyer wagon. Now it is a decision of economics. You may again say that you are willing to give me $100 to ride in the park instead of on Bleachery Hill, or even $90 and my decision to take your money and go for my midlife crisis wagon ride becomes an economic one (as well as one of self-preservation). The purpose, the end of the ride is for money.
Do you see how the question can be considered economic? (I realize that it has economic implications even before money is brought into the equation… again, not an economist.)
To what end do we do what we do? When someone considers spending thousands of dollars on a college education they ask, to what end. When someone considers a college major, often times part of what drives the consideration are job possibilities and earning potential. Again, the question is asked, to what end. When you take a job, you are asking about the value of that job. Not only if it will be the type of job that you will find fulfilling and enjoyable, but what the pay might be. To what end do you take that job?
Let’s get a little broader, a little more Meta. To what end do we look to earn and save money? It may be for the sake of housing, clothing, food, and other basic life essentials. We no longer work on a basic barter system (except for the people in Northern New Hampshire – they are always in the frontier), we need to have legal tender to trade for shelter, clothing, food, and the all important Wi-Fi. We need the basics. So we get a job and earn money so that we can live in the way that God and Thoreau intended. Yet, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote in his treatise, The Function of Reason, humans want to live, live well, and live better. Whitehead is arguing (and I think he is right) that there is a basic human drive that pushes us to try to better our lives, and to continue to better our lives. So we need money to get the bigger shelter, the nicer clothes, more food, and faster Wi-Fi. Yet we will not be satisfied and will continue to drive and push to get more and more, bigger and bigger, and so on. What happens is that the “end” of working, earning, and getting money will move from simply having enough to get by, to having enough to live comfortably, and even more comfortably, and on and on. We have a house and would like a bigger house with a nicer car, and then we need to save enough to cover expenses of the things that we accumulate. For those who have read Walden this critique/lament should sound familiar. The end to which we live and work becomes our living and working and we find ourselves stuck.
Some may say that this is why we can’t have nice things.
Others may say that this is why we need to not have nice things, and that we should share the things that we have so that we will not be sucked into a vortex of commercialism and materialism and thereby loose our souls (if there is such thing as a soul… thank you Hellenistic Dualism).
Consider again the end towards which we work, accumulate, and earn. Walter Rauschenbusch wrote in his “Case of Christianity against Capitalism” (a chapter of the longer work Christianizing the Social Order) that the largest problem with Capitalism is that the end and aim is not human need, but profit. He argues that in such a system the private interest is placed before the human good. I think Rauschenbusch makes a good argument, and I am weary to speak out against such a great Baptist. Rauschenbusch is critiquing what he was seeing, and his critique was valid. Yet in a podcast episode with Bill Trench we discussed the possibility that perhaps capitalism is not wholly and completely evil. It is not good when there is a great disparity between the richest and the poorest, but there may be some hope and good in a capitalistic system. There may be hope when we consider the ends towards which we earn and work.
What if people worked and earned not for the sake of profit, but for the sake of human flourishing?
Clement of Alexandria wrote in his treatise, The Rich Man’s Salvation, that wealth is an instrument that can be used rightly. We can use the resources that we earn and gain to help others. He is stating that goods earned, that wealth can be seen as a gift from God if that gift is used to help others. The end of our earning can be to help those in need.
This would suggest that we should work, earn, and save so that we can help others. It would suggest that the end towards which we work would be to raise the totality of humanity. Obviously I would suggest that you start by supporting your local congregation or religious community. As a pastor I am always encouraging people to be gainfully employed and to do well so that they can well support the church. Lets have a “support your clergy with monetary gifts day.” No self-interest there.
The trick is to be sure to share. If you need something to work with the 10% tithe it a pretty good measure and place to start. It would suggest that if you make more than you should share more. The more you earn, the more people you can help. This could (and should) be the end towards a personal economics.
This also suggests that we all should strive to live a simple life so that we will have more to share. Austerity for the sake of charity might make for a good bumper sticker. (on the podcast Bill Trench noted that this was a basic approach to life that John Wesley, Mr. Methodist himself, embraced… “make all you can, save all you can, give all you can”)
It also means that we need to be aware and careful that we are earning our resources through ethical practices. It means that we need to be sure (to the best of our ability) that we are not harming others through the ways in which we are earning and working. That may mean making less money, but if the purpose of working is to ensure human flourishing and you are harming people in the process then you are in effect running in place (if not running backwards).
The thing about this end is that it is, on one level, more difficult. It does mean that we let go of a lot, that we sacrifice many of the luxuries that some may assume to be entitled to (like that heated, indoor pool). It also means that we need to be aware of and connected to people who are struggling and hurting so we have an idea of how we can help. We are called to be in relationship with others so we know how to help and in what ways.
To what end do we work? For the sake of the hurting, starving, and crying. We work for the sake of the flourishing of all of God’s children. And maybe to have that one nice thing.