Greed as a religion

The second of Brian Rosner's observations from the 2008 Happiness Conference

CPX sent Brian Rosner to the ‘Happiness Conference’ in Sydney. Here is the second of his reflections on the conference.

  'There are many people who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only a few are not enslaved to things.’
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Doubts about Western materialism

One thing every speaker at the happiness conference agreed on was that 'money can’t buy happiness.' Some just repeated the clichés. Others offered more detailed explanations. The first 10% of your income purchases 90% of your happiness.  Habituation, the act of becoming accustomed to something through prolonged exposure, means that that new computer or sofa or car or holiday house supplies ever-diminishing pleasure. Even lottery winners eventually return to their previous default level of happiness.  

In recent years a number of academics and social commentators have in fact questioned the rampant materialism of the Western world. They argue that if people are trying to get rich in order to be happy, it isn’t working.

Elizabeth Farrelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that 'Western happiness has declined precisely in tandem with the rise of affluence.'  Similarly, Ross Gittins claims that there is actually 'evidence that those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower wellbeing.'

Why then do material ambitions still dominate so many of us? What explains the delusion that makes us think, given material plenty, we would feel differently?  Why is contentment so elusive? Affluenza, a book by Clive Hamilton, who spoke at the conference, compares materialism to a disease. In his view the Western world is in the grip of a consumption binge that is unique in human history. We are addicted to excessive consumption.

This plausible diagnosis is one that Christians have in fact made for centuries. In the Middle Ages theologians regarded greed not only as a deadly sin but also as a deadly illness. Greed was commonly thought to be the spiritual equivalent of dropsy, a malady that provoked an insatiable thirst for water even though the body was already filled with fluid. The more the sick person tried to satisfy their thirst, the more it was stimulated until finally death ensued. The comparison with the negative impact of greed is apt.

Other critics of greed have compared it to a religion. Two newspaper stories about materialism used religious rhetoric in their headlines: 'In greed we trust' (instead of 'in God we trust'); and 'A city obsessed – Through its worship of land and buildings, Sydney has found the stories that tell us who we are and what matters in life.' Another example is an obituary for high profile stockbroker Rene Rivkin that spoke of his ‘once-loyal entourage of supporters who worshipped their high priest at the altar of wealth.’ One review of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad commented that it 'isn’t just a wealth creation manual, it’s a religious tract.'

As it turns out, the comparison of greed with a religion is hardly original. The New Testament warns not infrequently of the religious power of money. Jesus charged that people either serve God or Mammon (i.e., possessions; Matthew 6:24 / Luke 16:13). The apostle Paul believed that some people’s god is their belly (Rom. 16:18 / Phil. 3:19) and he condemned greed as a form of idol worship (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5).

When greed becomes a religion

What are we to make of the comparison of greed with religion?  Is it just a case of exaggerated rhetoric, or is there more to it?

The task in understanding any metaphor is to consider the nature of the comparison. In what ways are greed and the worship of idols (idolatry) alike? Over the centuries three answers to this question have been suggested. Whereas most contemporary interpreters of the Bible see love as the point of similarity, the Reformer Martin Luther identified trust and the Church Father Chrysostom service. Do the greedy person and the idolater love, trust and serve their money and their idols respectively? All three suggestions may in fact be correct.

The Bible underscores love, trust and service as three core responses of the believer in relation to God, and faults both the idolater and the greedy person for foolishly misdirecting these same three.  Both idolaters and the greedy ‘set their hearts’ on inappropriate objects.  Both ‘rely on,’ ‘trust in,’ and ‘look to’ their ‘treasures’ for protection and blessing.  Both ‘serve’ and ‘submit to’ things that demean rather than ennoble the worshipper. 

Greed is idolatry in that, like the literal worship of idols, it represents an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love, trust and service

The mammon saying in Matthew and Luke confirms that the figurative versatility of greed as idolatry allows for the three interpretations. In its immediate context the warning that you cannot serve both God and Money uses both the verbs ‘to love’ and ‘to serve.’ With respect to love, the synonym ‘devotion’ and the antonyms ‘hate’ and ‘despise’ are also in view:

  No one can be a loyal servant to two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot faithfully serve both God and Money (Matt. 6:24; TNIV).  

Significantly, the third response of trust is evident in the following context of Matthew 6:25-34 which supplies a negative judgment on trusting in wealth.

  25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life [a]? (TNIV)  

Jesus aims to inspire trust in God’s providential care and to calm anxiety about material things that provokes us to seek them obsessively: ‘the pagans (those who do not know God) run after all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them’ (v. 32).  

Greed is idolatry in that, like the literal worship of idols, it represents an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love, trust and service. Material things can replace God in the human affections and set us on a course that is opposed to him, even arousing his jealousy.  

Idolatrous greed today

Is greed a religion today? It does seem that for many of us material things hold a place in our lives that was once occupied by belief in God.  The economy has achieved what might be described as a sacred status.  Like God, the economy, is capable of supplying our needs without limit.  Also, like God, the economy is mysterious, dangerous and intransigent, despite the best managerial efforts of its associated clergy. If once our most vivid experiences were religious, today they involve money rituals. For example, the modern day equivalent of the city cathedral is the shopping complex. Shania Twain, on her Up! album, sums it up well when she sings: ‘We’ve created us a credit card mess. We spend the money that we don’t possess. Our religion is to go and blow it all. So it’s shoppin’ every Sunday at the mall.’

Economists may recommend greed, politicians rely on it and celebrities flaunt it, but in the end like all idols money fails to deliver on its promises

As we noted above, the very things Christianity claims God expects of believers, namely love, trust and service, may well characterize our relationship with money. A glance at the palpable glee on the faces of game show contestants confirms our love of money. These days you can literally buy securities and futures.  Most disturbingly, as the French ethicist Jacques Ellul put it, ‘We can use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims.’

That idolatry provides such a good analogy for greed indicates that the latter, as well as being a psychological, sociological and economic problem, may also be understood theologically, with reference to God. The ultimate solution to the insatiable grasping for, and obsessive hoarding of, material things that marks our age is not simply to say no to something of limited value, but to say yes to something better. Jesus’ concluding exhortation on the subject of greed in the Sermon on the Mount is essentially a call to redirection of desire: ‘The pagans run after such things.  …  But seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matt. 6:32-33).

Economists may recommend greed, politicians rely on it and celebrities flaunt it, but in the end like all idols money fails to deliver on its promises. If the root cause of materialism is misdirected religious impulses, then the ultimate solution is still faith in God, who alone gives the security and satisfaction that each of us craves.  

Brian Rosner is the author of Greed as Idolatry (Eerdmans, 2007) and Beyond Greed (Matthias, 2004)

1. Jacques Ellul Money and Power (Downer’s Grove, Il.: IVP, 1979), p. 76.