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The Gods Our Fathers Bought Us for Christmas

December 21, 2016

Some time ago I was planning an article on the non-religious “priesthood” of the modern age.  In a series of articles nearly a year ago I addressed a series of claims about gods and discussed the ways in which people worship gods other than the ones they claim to (or worship gods they rather explicitly claim not to believe in).  If people have simply swapped out portions of a complete spiritual life with poorly thought-out semi-modular substitutes in one area why not other areas?  Do we continue to have the social and cultural role of the priest in our society even when many of us have no religious priesthood that we look to?

Originally I had thought that the obvious replacement for this role were scientists.  There’s plenty to work with there, including the way that scientists reveal mysteries to us that are supposed to inform the way we live our lives.  But soon I realized that I needed to include technological innovators as well and that our culture, with its rather pathological obsession with the notion of progress, often looks to the makers of the latest gizmos and gadgets to lay out a vision for the human future as well.  But something was missing.  There was another element, at least, and perhaps more, a plethora of non-religions.  I was head down in a pile of bureaucratic paperwork trying to force the changing reality of my job to look like an orderly progression through a series of preset assessment targets in the middle of an election where one candidate was talking up his business experience when it hit me.  Business is the other priesthood.  Or at least one other priesthood.

If you don’t live in a world where this is happening it may be less clear, but I live in a non-business world (academia) where administrators love to discuss what business does and then implement similar procedures.  Business is the shining exemplar of efficiency that can be exported to academia or government or perhaps your church or home.  Businessmen are the priests of efficiency, the people who learned the lessons of efficiency and survived in a cutthroat marketplace.  But business is not a priesthood without a religion.  Right from the get-go it seems obvious that the central virtue of the business-priest is efficiency, a word I cannot find the in the Bible, and so its seems likely that the priest of business preaches a virtue-ethic outside the bounds of Christian tradition.

Around Thanksgiving I was standing in line downtown with some members of my church when I noticed a sign in front of a store that said, “Retail therapy – it always works!”  I leaned back to my pastor and said something along the lines of, “Oh look, the most anti-Christian sign I’ve ever seen is over on the sidewalk there.”  We laughed, but both of us understood it wasn’t really a joke.  A foreign system of values with its own anthropology and its own cures for the human condition was on brazen display in front of this store.

At this point you may be forgiven for deciding I’ve gone off the deep end.  After all, the author of the sign did not mean to suggest anything deep about human nature and probably did not even mean the sign to be taken seriously.  However, the idea that there is a foreign system of values tied to a foreign anthropology and suggesting novel (and deleterious) cures for the human condition is not at all frivolous.

Let’s start with anthropology.  What are humans?  In Christianity humans are beloved images of God, tragically warped by the Fall but redeemable and loved.  The measure of a human in Christian thought is, more or less, that they are human.  Obedience to God’s will is preferred but Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to find the sinner lost in the wilderness.  Can we articulate an anthropology for a religion of business?  Humans are consumers and workers.  The measure of a human is how efficiently they transfer goods and services.  A human who produces more and consumes more is better.  The measure of a man is a series of economic connections with dollar values.

What about values and cures for the human condition?  For Christians, if humans are meant to be images of God then all values and cures are tied up with this.  It is valuable to act as God’s servants and the cure, in the long run, is God’s own loving redemption and restoration.  In the short run it is to approach this by becoming ever more a creature of heaven.  For this alternate religion we are discussing the system of values is about economic activity and the cure for the human condition can only be more economic activity – either more production (normally through higher efficiency during productive hours, but also through longer hours) or more consumption.

I have, elsewhere (OK, elsewhere multiple times), commented on the extent to which consumerism swallows the Christian holiday of Christmas.  Here (in an article that has only been revamped with a Christmas theme when I realized when it was being published) I wish to complain that there is an entire alternate religion of consumerism that threatens to swallow our lives.  What ails us is (for most people who can read this article on the Internet) not a lack of things.  When we attempt to patch the bleeding holes in our very selves with new items we risk ending our lives as empty people who proverbially cannot take any of it with us.  When we look to new things to cure our world we forget that it is our broken wills that guide our technologies.  What Jesus offers us is harder in the sense that it asks us to change ourselves and not (or not just) our circumstances but both better and easier in the sense that it is available to everyone – to, fittingly, the least of us.

One final complaint: if businessmen are the priests (or perhaps saints) of a religion that reduces humans to economic activity, that prizes efficiency, production, and consumption as its core values, what god do these priests worship?  My best answer is that the dread god of this religion is named the Economy and his priests cast auguries and divine his terrible will through a series of statistical indicators.  And so my final complaint: Jesus, in his mercy, reaches to each of us as valuable.  The economy, like so many aspects of our world, treats us only in aggregate.  In some real sense Christianity does not recognize the existence of these aggregates – there are only people.  Billions of people, yes, but God has time enough for all of them.  The economy is almost the other way around.  The economy exists but individuals are just data points without trend or average.

None of this must be this way.  It is perfectly possible to re-enslave our economic activity to God’s good designs.  It just seems that for much of our world the trend is running the other way.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve S. permalink
    April 15, 2017 2:12 pm

    Frankly, you’re dancing around the point here… it’s not “businessmen” or “the economy” that are problematic; both are descriptors that cover a wide array of practices and realities.

    It’s capitalism, in the modern sense and usage; it has become a genuine faith, a religion without any god or moral code, except profits and efficiency. The modern “Western” world has more “religious Capitalists” than “religious Christians” and those who follow both religions, frankly, all too often follow Capitalist teachings when they are in conflict.

    The “Invisible Hand” has become an article of faith — people believe in Capitalism as a Good even when it’s demonstrably not.

    • Eric permalink
      April 17, 2017 4:59 pm

      I totally agree and I appreciate the clarity of your points here. Well said.

      The only reason I chose the economy is that some of these issues are problems with the way economic analysis (capitalist or not) treats the value of humans (as economic inputs and outputs). Also, some people (religious capitalists) will assume that if you say capitalism is the problem that you mean that socialism would be better when I am actually arguing against the worship of economic systems. (Many communist countries have elevated their own economic systems to the level of state religion, so clearly the issue isn’t the specific system.) The discussion about the suitability of economic systems is one for Christian economists who are placing Christian values first and attempting to meet these demands through properly structured systems.

      One of these days I intend to look at what the Torah says about economics which, I think, is instructively non-capitalistic (without mapping cleanly on to any other modern economic system either). However, that needs to wait for me to be less than constantly busy.

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