On the Dangers of Money

September 21, 2015

On Labour Day I began to write up the beginnings of an exploration of the thoughts of the Fathers on political economy. I started with a reflection on the nature of work and wealth, referring to the Early Church Fathers and the social teachings of the Orthodox Church. In light of one quote from His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus’, I promised I would then write another essay, expanding somewhat on a Patristic understanding of money. As I mentioned in that essay, the topic of money is a rather difficult one to broach. When attempting to mount a Patristic treatment of the subject, one is immediately confronted with a vast array of quotes on the dangers of money to souls, especially those of the rich! The exhortation in the Didache to ‘not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own’ – money being very much included in this – is echoed repeatedly, incessantly, by the holy Fathers and Saints of the Church.

Photo by Richard Avery
Says S. Augustine of Hippo, ‘That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy.’

Says S. Gregory of Nyssa: ‘Grasping after money and superiority engenders either anger with his kith and kin, or pride towards his inferiors, or envy of those above him; then hypocrisy comes in after this envy; a soured temper after that; a misanthropical spirit after that; and behind them all a state of condemnation which ends in the dark fires of hell.’

Says S. Aurelius Ambrosius, Archbishop of Milan: ‘Nature, which begets all poor, does not know the rich. For we are neither born with raiment nor are we begotten with gold and silver.’

And once again, S. John Chrysostom puts things in the starkest possible way: ‘The desire of money, when it is set before one, permits not to hear the word concerning almsgiving; and malice when it is present raises a wall against the teaching concerning love; and some other malady falling on in its turn, makes the soul yet more dull to all things.’

The first way money is talked about amongst the Fathers is as a danger and a ‘tyranny’ to the soul, and that desire for it arises from, again in the words of S. John Chrysostom, ‘vainglory and extreme slackmindedness’. But what is it about money that makes it so dangerous to the health of the soul? The key to this question lies in understanding what money does and what it is used for. Many people – indeed, many Christians – will say that money is harmless in itself, that it is a mere medium of exchange, a measuring-tool meant to stand in for wealth, and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with or wicked about a person having wealth. This line of argumentation is particularly popular on the American political right, when seeking to provide not so much a theological justification as an excuse (often assumed rather than defended) for various existing forms of inequality.

In some sense it is true that there is nothing wrong, first-order, with being a wealthy person; the Fathers did not condemn anyone solely for being wealthy. But we must bear in mind the Fathers’ understanding that, in a post-Edenic reality, all of man’s senses and abilities are darkened by sin, and even the nature of wealth itself has changed. In the wake of the Fall, the nature of work shifted from a primary emphasis on glorifying and praising God, to a primary emphasis on self-preservation and sustenance – ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’. We may therefore also say that the nature of wealth has shifted along with it. Because work and wealth are teleologically related to each other, when work became something primarily earthly, wealth did so as well. When work is undertaken for the sake of bodily survival, wealth becomes that which sustains, enriches or pleases the bodily human life, ‘the flesh’ (σάρξ).

Theologically speaking, then, there is something very, very dangerous about wealth, and this danger is tied, again teleologically, to the wrongness of understanding work as only that which is undertaken for personal gain, rather than that which is undertaken for the glory of God. This attitude is best demonstrated by S. Isaac the Syrian when he says, ‘These are the causes of sin: wine, women, riches, and robust health of body. Not that by their nature these things are sins, but that nature readily inclines towards the sinful passions on their account, and for this reason man must guard himself against them with great care.’ The kind of moral neutrality, even nonchalance, evinced by all too many American religious about wealth – the glib, convenient gloss that it is not wealth that is dangerous but rather overvaluing it emotionally – is simply not in line with Patristic thinking on the subject. Once again, S. John Chrysostom puts it best: ‘in the matter of piety… wealth becomes an obstacle even for those who do not devote themselves to it’.

This is the first of money’s spiritual dangers. But, some clarification must be made before explaining the second. It must be rightly understood that Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians use visual representations – ikons and statuary – to give glory to Our Lord Christ and with him the Holy Trinity, to the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, to the Saints and Mothers and Fathers of the Church; we use these representations of the holy image and likeness of God to help us do the work of God in prayer. As S. John of Damascus says in defence of the use of holy images: ‘with the material picture before our eyes we see the invisible God through the visible representation, and glorify Him as if present, not as a God without reality, but as a God who is the essence of being.’ We honour God not only through thought and idea, but also through the senses, through sight, touch, smell and taste. This is not idolatry, because we direct our prayers and veneration not to the wood and paint of the ikons, nor the stone of the statuary, but to the real persons which are represented by them. The senses are the windows of the soul, and worship happens through the senses.

The same senses, though, and the same propensity for worship through them, can be turned to wrong uses. ‘In like manner thou, though thou worship not the gold, yet thou worshipest that devil who springeth on thy soul, from the sight of the gold and thy lust for it. For more grievous than an evil spirit is the lust of money-loving, and many obey it more than others do idols,’ so preaches S. John Chrysostom, who knows full well the idolatrous uses to which money could be put. Money is indeed a medium of exchange, but it is also a visual representation of wealth, and is therefore dangerous in another way. As a visual and tangible representation of earthly wealth, which for all its worldly power is still something more conceptual than tangible, money has the danger of being used as an idol of wealth, and being ascribed an a priori ontological weight, a fetishism of ‘intrinsic value’, which it does not deserve. The same goes for the material from which money is derived. Again, as S. John Chrysostom said: ‘the value of a substance does not come from its name but from what we think about it… gold brings nothing useful into our lives, but iron serves countless arts and supplies many of our needs’.

The idolatries of money and wealth are, unfortunately, heavily embedded in all too much of present-day economic thinking and theory; and these idolatries obscure wealth’s teleological connexion to work, warp our understanding of what money and wealth actually are, and pervert them to serve ends other than those they should rightfully serve. It is important to note that when we speak of questions of work and wealth, we are not speaking only of matters of private concern, or of choices between morally-neutral options to be made from behind a veil of ignorance. We are speaking of whom (or what) we individually and as a society choose to worship and glorify, and Our Master Himself said that we cannot serve two at once.  

Matthew Franklin Cooper

Matthew F. Cooper is an AmeriCorps alumnus, ESL teacher and policy analyst currently based in Rhode Island, where he makes up about a third of the bass section in the choir of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Pawtucket. He has done some policy writing for PlaNet Finance China, as well as for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council; the opinions he rather haphazardly scribbles elsewhere are very much his own, however. He is a contributing editor at the Solidarity Hall thinkerspace, and maintains a blog at The Heavy Anglo-Orthodox, where he meanders about theology, geopolitics, economics, and heavy metal.