The Journey series
Wealth and Autonomy
This week's Mustard Seed examines the idea that wealth affords autonomy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines wealth as an abundance of valuable possessions or money. Many people strive for wealth believing it will buy freedom to do as they choose.
We constantly produce and consume wealth. We are more certain to consume than to produce. Illness, injury, or misfortune may reduce, interrupt, or end our capacity to produce. A prudent person saves a portion of what they produce to tide them over any interruptions. Savings offer security. They allow a person to remain self sufficient rather than reliant on the good graces of others. Savings allow one to retire comfortably once work becomes onerous. At some point, however, savings switch from prudence to folly.
There was a man who became obsessed with saving. He didn't go out except to work, he didn't have friends, and he didn't take holidays. He ate meagre meals, dressed in second-hand clothes, and lived in a one-room apartment. His savings grew large as he grew old.
One day he realized that he had more savings than he could ever use. He prayed that he would be able to take his savings to heaven. After months of agonizing prayer he begged, "For the love of Jesus, have mercy on me!"
"Since you've begged for my mercy I'll let you into heaven," God replied, "and, since you're so set in your ways, I'll let you bring one suitcase with you – filled with whatever you want."
The man went out and bought the biggest suitcase he could find. He bought all the gold bars he could afford and filled the case half-full. He scrimped and saved all the harder, determined to fill his suitcase. He bought more ingots whenever he could and packed them tightly in the suitcase.
On the day he filled the last bit of space he died. The miserly hermit lugged his suitcase with him up to the Pearly Gates. St Peter found his name in the Good Book. "It says you're due for Purgatory, but you'll have to leave that outside."
"There must be some mistake," the man protested, "God said I would go to heaven and promised I could bring one suitcase filled with whatever I want."
"Well, you will go to heaven after purgation," St Peter said, "but nobody brings anything with them."
"But God promised," the man insisted. "Ask Him."
St Peter went off to ask God about the man's claim. He returned a short while later with a furrowed brow and rubbing his chin. "I'll be darned," he said. "This has never happened before. May I see what's in your suitcase?"
The man opened his suitcase and St Peter began laughing so hard he cried. "Now I understand," St Peter said, once regaining his composure. "You're slated for the road crew. God has let you bring some paving stones!"
Next post: Serious Wealth
Then he said, ‘This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’
This week's Mustard Seed examines the odd claim to autonomy in sexuality. The free love movement began in the 19th century. Its proponents wished to remove state control over sexual partners, birth control, marriage, and promiscuity. They believed mutual love was a better guide for sexual unions than were legal or economic bonds. A partner could be freely chosen and, if love ended, the relationship could be freely dissolved. Their relationship would be monogamous and committed for as long as their love endured.
With the pill and more readily available legalized abortion in the 1960s and 70s, free love was coopted to mean a noncommittal, sexually active lifestyle with many casual partners. In theory, anyone could sleep with anyone with no repercussions. In truth, there are considerable psychological and emotional traumas and, more than occasionally, unplanned pregnancies. The pro abortion chant, my body, my choice attempts to maintain the enlightened feminist's conception of sexual autonomy. Any rights of the father and unborn child are summarily dismissed.
The original concept of free love understood objective moral standards but argued there was a higher level of morality in freely choosing to adhere to those morals than in being coerced to do so. The latter version argues one is free to choose what is moral.
Similarly, autonomy, as conceived by 18th and 19th century philosophers, proposed morality must be universal, no act can at once be moral and immoral. Morality does not depend on outcome. Free will was requisite for merit or culpability, but did not determine morality. The latter version of autonomy claims morality is determined by our free will. What's moral for me today may or may not be moral for me tomorrow. What's moral for me may or may not be moral for you. Morality is dependent on circumstances.
Secularists today view morality as a social construct that evolves. People and groups naturally act to maximize their own gain whilst minimizing their costs. Morality evolves to resolve conflicts that arise when the needs and wants of individuals or groups within a community run contrary to the needs and wants of other members of that community. Moral rules balance rights. Regarding sexuality – the gains are pleasure, children, and emotional attachment; the costs are sexually transmitted disease, children, and emotional attachment. Which side of the equation children and emotional attachment fall depends on current circumstances. Autonomy over one's own body is the trump card.
Christians view morality as conformance to God's will. Each person comes from God and their ultimate end is to reunite with God. It is wrong to use people as a means. People may cooperate to achieve a goal, but each is a co-agent – never a means. We are to steward the rest of creation. We may use things as a means to pursue unity with God. A means should not be squandered, used contrary to its nature, or counter to pursuit of unity with God. The nature of sexuality is pleasurable, procreative and unitive. Its proper context is between spouses within a family. To use sex purely for pleasure is to squander it. To deny its procreative potential is contrary to its nature. To practice sex outside the marital union will harm, and may destroy, its unitive nature.
Sexuality, properly practiced, is both a creative and cohesive force which forms strong family units as the basic units of a strong community. Sexuality trivialized to mere entertainment fractures society. By its very nature, sex can't be autonomous without brutalizing its intimacy.
Next post: Wealth
What is Marriage
It may seem ironic to include a marriage blog in my series on autonomy, but this week's Mustard Seed includes an autonomous definition of marriage. One that conforms marriage to the will of those who wish to call themselves married rather than any objective nature. Confusion and disagreements arises in discussions about marriage because, although they use the same word, people are discussing very different concepts.
A common secular view of marriage is as social recognition and legal protection for people committed to living together in a loving, long-term, and mutually consensual romantic (read sexual) relationship. It is something more than roommates, but the participants are free to determine their own rules. Heterosexual or homosexual; monogamous or open; couple or throuple (is there a limit?). The wedding is a public announcement of intentions that is recognized by the state.
A utilitarian view of marriage is as a cultural custom that evolved to regulate procreation, socialize the young, and provide for the dependent. Its purpose is to make humans more effective in the competition for survival amongst rival species. Scientific advances and social reforms change its nature. Contraception, abortion, artificial insemination, divorce, childcare, public education, apprenticeships, welfare, old-age homes, euthanasia, and other social programs may soon evolve this form into extinction. The wedding is a ceremony which exacts social pressures for the union to endure.
A religious view of marriage is as a covenant ordained by God. After creating Adam, God saw it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18). God created Eve from Adam's rib as a suitable partner. In marriage, husband and wife become one in a bond that can't be severed. One man and one woman give themselves freely and exclusively to the other, in good times and in bad times, in sickness and in health, until death. Marriage is the cradle for the creation and nurture of new life. Since marriage is created by God, its form can't be altered by man. The wedding is a covenant vow that invites God's grace to strengthen the union.
Though all three are called marriage, they are clearly not the same thing. In theocentric marriage, we discern and obey God's will. In Sociocentric marriage, rules change to optimize competitiveness in Darwin's survival of the fittest. In egocentric marriage, participants set their own rules – marriage is what they say it is.
Most people recognize marriage as good and desirable. It is good and desirable largely because it places limits. When one relaxes the restrictions to suit their desires rather than restricting their desires to suit the limits, goodness wanes. The more the legal definition of marriage changes to accommodate the desires of the people, the less willing people will be to curtail their desires to accommodate marriage. The true goodness of marriage lies not in getting what we want, but in complete gift of self to spouse and family.
Next week: Chastity
“Charles’ dad says give and take doesn’t work; it only works when it’s give and give,” Jason said, remembering. “Pops said husband and wife both get more than they give, but they’re not allowed to take it. He said the only time you should take anything is when you forget to give; then you’d better take cover because bad things are coming at you!”
— excerpt from The Last Bachelor of Ales
This week's Mustard Seed examines how we make decisions. Every choice we make, whether consciously or not, balances perceived costs against perceived benefits. We spend our time, talent, and treasure where we expect to gain the best blend of peace, pleasure, possession, power, and prestige.
While attending college in California I took a Career Development Course. The first month entailed a battery of experience, interest, aptitude, and ability inventories. Then we studied a World of Work map which plotted careers according to the activities they require. An asterisk showed where my test battery results placed me on the map. The authors of the exercise proposed we would be happiest in the careers nearest our own plot.
My asterisk lay amidst orthopedic surgeon, college professor, and Church minister. What I wanted to be – eccentric philosopher – wasn't on the map. I notice many other things missing as well (mother, father, ditch-digger, garbageman, toilet scrubber). Chefs were there but short-order cooks weren't.
We were in the same class discussing the same lessons but our perceptions were far from the same. Our professor saw us each being guided toward a suitable career. Most classmates saw an easy A. My group knew this exercise wasn't for our benefit. Instead of finding a beacon guiding us to a satisfying career, we saw a beacon warning us away from shoals that would ground us somewhere in The System. We recognized Big Brother molding us into cogs for Big Business. We were enlightened youth preparing to battle a brave new world. Experience held no sway. Older and Wiser was a euphemism for submissive to a mysterious them.
Even though I eventually decided to follow the lessons learned in my Career Development Course, my life never did. Faith, family, and fate led me in much different directions. I sometimes think of things that might have been had I been a little less of a rebel in my college days. Those on the outside looking in might have thought me more successful. I – as the person I might have been – might have thought myself more successful. From my perspective as I am, I wouldn't risk the blessings I've received for any potential other life.
Now that I'm much older and perhaps a little wiser I see things differently. The course tried to predict which career would offer each student the most satisfaction, best security, and highest income. Its test battery reduced years of experience to a few hours of psychometrics. With no need to trudge through years of low-paying menial jobs to find our way, we could progress directly to high levels of productivity and income. How can one argue with that?
It set the wrong priorities. It set one's career as their end. One's career should support, not rule, one's life. There was no discussion about family, faith, or friends. We live within a family, a community, and an environment at a particular time. Any one of them is likely a better master than one's career.
Neither the costs nor the benefits of our choices accrue solely to our self. What we want must be tempered by the needs and wants of others. Discerning how we might best serve God, family, and community whilst protecting our environment will leave everyone better off, including our self, than seeking to maximize personal gain.
Goals focused on self have a short life and small impact. The things really worth doing have a much bigger aim. A group of Barcelonans began building a cathedral in 1882 though no one knew all the costs, nor how they'd be paid. They proceeded toward their goal in faith. If no one started, no one would finish. When Antoni Gaudi agreed to accept oversight of construction the next year he understood it would not be completed in his lifetime. When an interviewer pointed that out he replied, "My employer is not in a hurry." Still awaiting completion, la Sagrada Familia has already become one of Spain and mankind's greatest treasures.
Next week: Limits and Consequences.
This week's Mustard Seed examines justice. Justice is good but not sufficient. Justice exists between individuals. Just as no man can be truly autonomous, neither can justice exist isolated from other goods.
The fundamental good that precedes all else is to be. Without being, all else is moot. We can't autonomously bring our self to be – we exist by the grace of God, our mother, and our father. For our first nine months we live inside our mother's womb and are completely dependent on her. For the next several years we are dependent on our community, primarily our family. We observe and mimic those around us. Those around us observe our progress and form us according to the talents they recognize in us. Original actions or thoughts are extremely rare. When they do occur, they are interpolated or extrapolated from observations of that which lies outside our self.
Despite the current demand for autonomy, no one truly wants it. Rather, we each produce an abundance in areas we excel, contribute our excess to a common pool, and draw from the common pool according to our needs and desires. We are considered independent once our level of production meets or exceeds our level of consumption.
That independence, however, is dependent on a sufficiently functional society. Ideally, all needs will be satisfied and there will be an equitable distribution of what remains. Our society relies primarily on a mix of free market, taxation, and regulation.
The free market recognizes the right of ownership by individuals. Wealth is created by applying effort to resources and ideas to change their form and/or their location. Wealth is consumed by existence and recreation. Every individual is free to keep, consume, or trade their possessions or effort as they choose. Value is set by mutual agreement between the giver and receiver.
Taxation pays for common goods such as administration, education, transportation networks, water and power distribution, etc.
Regulations promote communal benefit and curb abuse. Because some costs and benefits accrue not to individuals, but to the community, equitable transactions can't be fairly determined solely by the individuals directly involved. For example, we all share our environment. It is the concern of the whole community who extracts how much of which resource from where, and in what manner. How will the resource be sustained? What compensation is due to the community? How and where may waste be disposed of? Some regulations restrict monopoly and collusion from distorting supply and demand, while others purposely distort supply and demand to compensate for local anomalies. Other regulations codify socially acceptable behaviour.
These things, when properly conceived and applied, create a just society. But justice is not enough. Even the most just society cannot flourish without love. Justice is transactional, good given for good received. Love is charitable, good given for the sake of the other.
No society can survive without charity. Continuance begins with the free gift of each spouse to the other in the conjugal act. A mother bears nine months of gestation with no thought of recompense from her child. Parents nurture their children without counting a return. What manner of citizen would emerge from an upbringing absent their parents' love? How could the physically or mentally challenged, the sick or disabled, or the young and the elderly survive without charity from the community? How could anyone survive the vagaries of life without the ebb and flow of charity?
Likewise, no society can survive without mercy. None of us are perfect. Each of us fails at times and needs mercy. Look at the frenzy of cancel culture. Statue after statue is toppled at the discovery of one fault. All the good done by our heroes is negated by one misstep. Who would remain standing under such scrutiny of their own life? Not me. All would be outcasts. Can we not celebrate their virtues while acknowledging and learning from their errors.
We travel many crooked roads to reach our destination. If we find potholes in the road, we do not erase it from the map. We patch the potholes. If we simply erase our forbearers from history we will be left wandering. We will be doomed to repeat their errors. We can't chart a proper course unless we know where we are, where we've been, and how we got here. Mercy does not condone or excuse bad actions. It recognizes and seeks to amend imperfection.
God created us from love for love. Yes, justice is good and necessary. But it is not sufficient. It must be tempered by love. Justice divorced from charity and mercy begets tyranny and chaos.
Next week: What is Marriage?
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
Peter T Elliott