Finding Your Identity By Asserting Yourself

While reading Thomas Merton’s classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, I came across a passage that might be the most powerful passage on identity and self-assertion I have ever read. He writes:

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all.

They can only conceive one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. They do not know that reality is to be sought not in division, but in unity, for we are “members one of another.”

The man who lives in division is not a person but only an “individual.”

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death…

The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream. And when he dies he will discover that he long ago ceased to exist because God, Who is infinite reality and in Whose sight is the being of everything that is, will say to him: “I know you not.” (47-48)

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(By the way, I am starting a podcast. The Thinking and Believing Podcast should launch at the start of June. I am already working on the first episode. It will be about topics that I’ve written about over the years on this blog — theology, philosophy, politics, etc. — but with an approach that is quite different than the one I take on this blog. Stay tuned for more updates about it.)

Theaetetus, Simple Relativism, and Gurus

I’m rereading Plato’s Theaetetus, which has long been my favorite Socratic dialogue. The discussion of what constitutes knowledge has long fascinated me.

The section I read this morning concerned Socrates, Theaetetus, and Theodorus’s discussion of Protagoras’s idea that “man is the measure.” Socrates describes this as the idea that what each person perceives to be true is true. (Socrates applies this to what we perceive with our five senses, but he even applies it to geometric proofs or city governance. So “perceive” does not seem to strictly mean sense perception.) There is more sophistication to Protagoras’s view, which gets developed in the next section of the dialogue. But, at this point in the discussion, Protagoras’s view appears to be simple relativism about truth.

Socrates’s response to this basic version of relativism is interesting. Socrates says:

Or what are we to say, Theodorus? If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is true for him; if no man can assess another’s experience better than he, or can claim authority to examine another man’s judgement and see if it be right or wrong; if, as we have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge of his own world, and what he judges is always true and correct: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras was a wise man, so wise as to think himself fit to be the teacher of other men and worth large fees; while we, in comparison with him the ignorant ones, needed to go and sit at his feet–we who are ourselves each the measure of his own wisdom? Can we avoid the conclusion that Protagoras was just playing to the crowd when he said this?…To examine and try to refute each other’s appearance and judgements, when each person’s are correct–this is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense, if the Truth of Protagoras is true, and not merely an oracle speaking in jest from the impenetrable sanctuary of the book.

Think about this point. Why would a relativist seek out gurus, teachers, or advice-givers? If the truth is merely what the relativist perceives it to be, then he would not need a guru, teacher, or advice-giver. After all, one major reason we listen to a teacher or guru is to learn from them. They have truths that we want (and sometimes need) them to impart to us.

Why do we want them or need them to impart to us? Usually, because we have a jumble of false beliefs that we want to be corrected. (Of course, we don’t know which beliefs are false. But we know some of our beliefs are false.)

Think about common scenarios:

  • A doctor tells you which of your beliefs about your health, diet, or medications are wrong.
  • A good teacher often corrects false beliefs you have about, say, history or political theory or psychology.
  • A financial adviser shows you that your beliefs about your retirement savings being adequate are, in fact, false.
  • A real estate guru tries to convince you that your beliefs about the difficulty of investing are wrong.

We seek out the advice and thoughts of a lot of people because we want them to correct our beliefs (even if we do not characterize a doctor’s visit this way). A simple relativist cannot consistently go to these people for these reasons. They hold no false beliefs to be corrected.

Of course, I’ve never met someone with this simple version of relativism about truth. (I’ve only ever met one person with a similarly simple version of moral relativism.) Relativism was one of the great boogeymen of my childhood. I grew up hearing about the dangerous relativists who threatened my faith and nation. But I’m thirty-three years old, and I’ve spent the last fifteen years around state universities. And I’ve never met anyone with this view of simple relativism. It’s just not a popular view. Protagoras, despite his fame and brilliance, really hasn’t convinced many people that “man is the measure.”

There is more sophistication in Protagoras’s view, which Socrates goes on to explain. But the simple relativism that is initially described doesn’t seem to make sense of human behavior, as Socrates argued. We seek out advice. We seek out gurus. We seek to learn. We aren’t merely to seek new perspectives. We want false beliefs corrected.

And I bet all those rich personal gurus are happy that Protagoras’s view didn’t catch on.

The Importance of Charity in the Bible: Deception and the Parable of the Rich Fool

This is the final post in a short blog series through Gary Anderson’s book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. Though I don’t believe everything that Anderson argues, the book had enough insights that I wanted to share it with my readers. You can read part one here. You can read part two here

Photo Credit: Karl-Heinz Kasper Flickr via Compfight cc

The Deceptions of Wealth

In the last article I mentioned that Anderson thinks a big obstacle to charity is that we feel financially insecure if we give our money away. Why? Because money deceives us. It gives us a false sense of security. So we horde it, hoping for security and joy.

We falsely believe that money provides security. Of course, we don’t see money as deceptive. We think it is morally neutral. Anderson writes, referencing the character from Tobit:

“Ben Sira does not believe that money is necessarily evil. As Bradley Gregory observes, what is morally significant is how one values it. But at the same time money is not an inert substance, indifferent to the one who possesses it. Rather, wealth exerts an almost eerie power over its possessor such that it is nearly impossible not be possessed by it.” (kindle location 1069)

A wealthy person can be generous. But it’s hard to be truly generous when wealthy. Money can steal your soul; it can make a strong claim on your attention and affections. But you are often not aware of it doing so.

Anderson concludes:

“Having money is tantamount to a spiritual ordeal whose outcome is determined by whether one has the courage to give it away.” (kindle location 1076)

So not only is money not a neutral object, but money can end up being a spiritual test for us. Our money tests where our faith is, where we put our security and hope. We will be much more willing to give the money away if we don’t have our faith, security, or hope in it.

What if you saw your money as a spiritual test or ordeal, testing your courage and faith to give it away? This is what we see in one of Jesus’s better-known parables: the Parable of the Rich Fool.

The Rich Fool (Luke 12)

Anderson’s exegesis of the Parable of the Rich Fool might be the most eye-opening part of his book. In fact, his exegesis is not just of that parable, but he shows how much of Luke 12 comes together to provide a rich view of money and almsgiving, a view that Anderson labors in his book to support.

Anderson wants to us to see Luke 12 in its full context. He writes:

“To interpret the parable of the Rich Fool properly it is important to see how it fits into its larger literary context. Jesus gives two important teachings in this section: first, he addresses the gathered crowd with a parable about the Rich Fool (unit B) who hoarded his money, and then he turns to his disciples and exhorts them not to worry about what they will eat or wear (C). Though these two units are different in focus, Jesus brings them together in his conclusion (D).” (kindle location 1155)

Go ahead. Read Luke 12 and notice these sections:

  • Unit B: Luke 12:13-21
  • Unit C: Luke 12:22-31
  • Unit D: Luke 12:32-34

One thing I appreciate about Anderson’s treatment about the rich fool is that it provides a convincing explanation of the failure of the rich fool. Why was the rich man foolish? The scriptures provide very little that we would consider foolish. There is no description of a lavish lifestyle or a relentless greed; we get no details about the needy or poor being ignored like Jesus’s earlier parable in Luke about the rich man and Lazarus. Instead, we only learn that the rich man had build more storage for goods and rested comfortably in his savings (in a state similar to what we would call “retirement”).

Reread the parable if you have not read it recently. Luke 12:13-21 says:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

So what is the problem with the rich fool? The two sections that follow the parable — Units B and C — explain

Before we look at that, notice a couple of things about the parable:

  • In verse 20, God’s criticizes the rich fool because his stored goods will worthless when he dies.
  • In verse 21, Jesus says that what is true of the rich fool is true of everyone who stores up treasures for themselves. The problem that Jesus is pressing is how and why we store up treasures for ourselves.
  • In verse 21, the solution to the foolishness is being rich, but being “rich toward God.”

So we need some explanation that ties these three threads together. So let’s look at Luke 12:22-31.

Don’t Worry

In Luke 12:22-31, Unit C, Jesus says:

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Jesus’s comments that follow the Parable of the Rich Fool address his disciples’ relationship to money and possessions. They should not worry. Which means that in the parable, Jesus is probably addressing a person’s relationship to money and possessions, a relationship that can often turn to stress and worry. If fear is one of our greatest obstacle when it comes to helping the needy, then it makes sense for Jesus to address this fear in addressing the disciples’ relationship to money. Anderson writes:

“The second address, given to the disciples alone, goes a little bit deeper. Since they have given up everything to follow Jesus (unlike the individuals in the crowd, whose attachment to Jesus is not so all-consuming), they have ample reason to worry about the future. It is one thing to put false hopes in accumulated wealth, quite another to give it all away and greet the future without a penny to your name. Jesus assuages the disciples’ fears by returning to the imagery of the storehouse.” (kindle location 1178)

So, in addition to Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about money and clothing, he explains to them why they shouldn’t. As Anderson writes in the quotation above, Jesus explains it by using the “imagery of the storehouse” (or the treasury). But to see this, we have to see Jesus’s conclusion.

Jesus’s Conclusion

After Jesus addresses their relationship to money and possession, he concludes his teaching. His conclusion is important for our understanding of the Parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus concludes the parable in a way that makes sense of our earlier observations about the parable. In Luke 12:32-34, Jesus says:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Notice a few things about this conclusion:

  • Jesus concludes by addressing the disciples’ fears and assuring them that they will receive the Kingdom.
  • In verse 33, Jesus encourages giving to the poor. (While the Parable of the Rich Fool does not directly mention the man’s charity to the poor or lack thereof, this shows that the parable has to do with charity to the poor.)
  • In verse 33, Jesus’s command to give to the poor is explicitly connected with storing up “treasure in heaven” that we will always have access to.

Anderson further observes about these verses and their connection to the parable:

“For at the end of that parable, Jesus made a contrast between those who “store up treasures for themselves” and those who are “rich toward God.” The term that is used to describe the destination of one’s alms in our summary statement, “[unfailing] treasure” (thesauros, v. 33), is the same word that describes the fool’s hoarding of his resources, “who store up treasure for themselves” (thesaurizo, v. 21). Because being “rich toward God” is the opposite of laying up treasures for oneself, it must refer to the act of distributing goods to the poor. Moreover, the contrast between storing treasure for oneself as opposed to God recalls the antimony that was so basic to the way in which Proverbs 10:2 was read in both Ben Sira and Tobit.” (kindle location 1163)

So Anderson points out that the same for is used for the incorrect storing up of money on earth and the Jesus-approved method of storing up riches: giving to the needy.

This connection shows us the issue with the rich fool. There is no indication that he was greedy or ignored the plight of the poor. Those aren’t what make him foolish. He is foolish because he found his security in his stored goods. What gave him his sense of security in the future? God? No! His storehouses full of goods. So the problem was his misplaced sense of security.

What is interesting, though, is that the rich man is a fool not because he had riches or because he had stored up riches. The problem is (i) the type of riches he has and (ii) where he had stored up the riches. Jesus teaches his disciples that they should aim for the wealth that comes from helping the poor and that he stored up the wealth in his barns rather than the heavenly storehouses.

But why was the rich fool tempted to trust in his storehouses of earthly riches rather than a heavenly treasury of riches? Because he wasn’t thinking enough about the world to come, the world he’ll inhabit when he dies. Anderson writes:

“But he has forgotten to ponder the world to come. What value will wealth have for him there? Better to be rich toward God through charity than to have “stored up” (thesaurizo) many goods for oneself.” (kindle location 1213)

So the Rich Fool is not thinking enough about the world to come; he doesn’t realize the benefits that charity can have. He could store up for himself eternal treasure instead of his temporary, worthless-in-eternity treasures.

Conclusion

The Parable of the Rich Fool is, I think, a good place to end my overview of Gary Anderson’s book. Most of the main threads of his book come together in this parable: the false security that money gives; the treasury of heaven; the eternal value of giving to the poor; the way one’s faith is displayed in one’s generosity (or lack thereof).

Many Christians, myself among them, are ignoring the full biblical teaching on money. We are comfortable largely emulating our culture’s relationship to money. But Jesus himself taught that giving to needy Christians is giving to him. And he further taught that, in some way, giving to the poor wasn’t a loss of our treasures but a deposit of those treasures into a heavenly treasury.

The full biblical teaching on charity is convicting, because it speaks not just to our moral failings but also to the psychological reasons for those failures. Giving to the poor secures us more than storing up our money, since our charity lays up treasures for us in heaven, treasures that benefit us for eternity.

How many doctrines have we Chrsitians built around a verse or two? Anderson gives us more than one or two verses for a strong, full-blooded, and convicting view of charity.