‘I have made the tough decisions, always with an eye on the bottom line. Perhaps it’s time that America was run like a business’
‘Preoccupation with exchange value and market value tends to blind us almost totally to inherent value… Everything becomes priceless if it is sacred. And everything is sacred if the world is a temple’
The Trumpian universe
I have a confession to make. I have found the 2016 American Presidential elections compulsive viewing. There is so much at stake here, not just for America but also for the rest of the world. As I follow the debates and read the articles and commentaries I am both fascinated and horrified as the spectacle unfolds. I often wonder whether to laugh or cry at the antics of ‘The Donald’.
One of the traits that makes Trump so frightening is his ability to see the world in such black and white terms; with Trump everyone is either a winner or a loser. By winning he means triumphing in the game of wealth, power and status. In his book ‘The Art of the Deal’ he reduces the meaning of life to a business transaction where the aim is to clinch the deal and end up top dog.
If we have a Trumpian perspective on life, everything can be reduced to a monetary value. It then becomes difficult to enjoy such simple pleasures as a meal, admire a landscape or even a have an intimate conversation. The mind is inadvertently wondering; how much is this costing, how much is this worth or how can we impress this person?
It’s not just Trump though who suffers from this affliction. I can sometimes detect this habit in my own life. When walking in the Surrey Hills I have sometimes been inattentive to the natural beauty and have found myself musing over the costs and benefits of living in an amazing farmhouse or rustic cottage that I’ve stumbled upon. I’d replaced enjoying inherent value with market economics- a la Trump.
The Trumpian narrative of what gives life meaning permeates our culture. A few centuries ago the hero would be the rich kid who gives up his wealth to better serve his God and his fellow man. Nowadays, of course, the exact opposite is true. The hero starts off poor and ends up rich and happy. There’s no market for books about how to away your wealth; it’s success that sells.
Money and what it can buy can distort our decision-making, it is the fatal flaw in so many marriages and its deceptive power can drain the spiritual passion and joy from our hearts like nothing else.
So how can we understand what is truly valuable? We need to find a new starting point from which we can construct a worldview that makes the deepest human flourishing possible- without resorting to economics and the bottom line.
The cosmic temple
Maybe we should go back to where it all began.
The biblical picture painted in the first chapter of Genesis is of the cosmos as a glorious temple, filled with the presence of God. A pagan temple in the ancient Near East was seen as a microcosm of the entire cosmos. Genesis is using this imagery, familiar to the Israelites at that time, to show how the one true God is present and in charge. Controversies such as the meaning of the seven days or whether there was a literal Adam and Eve often side track us moderns, and we can miss what would have been obvious to the original hearers.
In the ancient Near East, temple dedications would typically take seven days at the end of which the idol or ‘image’ of the god would take up residence. The god would be understood as residing or ‘resting’ in the temple, as symbolised by the image. The word for rest wasn’t an indication however of doing nothing. It referred to the continuous influence and reign of the god whose presence now filled the temple. No graven image was permitted because we as human beings were God’s image, his likeness.
Everything is sacred
If the creation is filled with God’s presence as he rests in his temple, this means that everything is sacred and has an inherent value. This is especially true of God’s image, mankind, who has been tasked with the priestly role of working and caring for the creation.
When we grasp the significance of the biblical vision we soon realise the futility of thinking in terms of market value or the bottom line. Richard Rohr in his book ‘Everything Belongs’ says about this thinking; ‘It destroys inherent value and replaces it with an utterly false seeing: market value, the world of meritocracy and exchange rates. It destroys the soul’. Rohr points out that the only time Jesus got really angry and even violent was when he saw the temple becoming a place for buying and selling. Such thinking has to be driven out or there can be no temple.
To see the world as a temple, filled with God’s glory, where everything and everyone is priceless, requires a radical rejection of the assumptions that consumerism and the market economy impose upon us. We will need to discover a new way of seeing and thinking. We will need to rediscover our inner, spiritual vision, which is innate in all of humankind, though so often buried and ignored.
‘The purpose of prayer and religious seeking is to see the truth about reality, is to see what is’, says Richard Rohr. It is only as I connect with the God who is fully present in our world that I can grasp what is truly of value. ‘There’s no answer, no problem solving, simply awareness. You cannot not live in the presence of God’, says Rohr.
The road less travelled
Becoming conscious of the sacred within and all around is not something we can reason or think our way towards. We don’t reach this awareness by doing a course or reading a book. Singing worship songs, church attendance or saying our prayers will rarely prise open our spiritual eyes wide enough.
To enter the kingdom, Jesus said, we must become like a little child. This is a place of simplicity and trust where we forget our adult posturing and rationalising. We do not try and make something happen so much as become aware of what is always happening.
Contemplatives down the ages have found the following helpful:
- Make space for solitude, silence and stillness. ‘Be still and know that I am God’ is not just a religious platitude- there is no other way to meet the God who waits in stillness.
- Our initial experiences of stillness can be frightening as there are so many paranoid, agenda-driven or condemning voices intruding. But with practise and perseverance we can begin to tune into that other, deeper, quieter Voice
- Learn to live in the now, the present moment. Realise that everything you need is yours in the Presence. (See my blog here on practising the presence).
- We are not primarily seeking more knowledge or information, although that may sometimes come. The pearl of great price that Jesus spoke of is the realisation that we are known, valued and deeply cherished. The goal is to recognise and return his loving gaze.
- Repeating a simple phrase or verse of scripture can sometimes help us to focus.
- There needs to be a degree of letting go. We surrender our need to be in control, to have everything worked out or to keep God at a safe distance. We forsake all notions of status or significance based on being smart or wealthy or good looking. As Rohr puts it: ‘When we are nothing, we are in a fine position to receive everything from God’.
Back to the Garden
We in the west seem determined to drive the sacred out of our consciousness. Thanks to our dependence on technology and the Trumpish habit of reducing everything to market value we have lost what philosophers call our ‘ontological moorings’, meaning our contact with reality. In our heart of hearts we know that the meaning of life can’t be reduced to cash value, but it is incredibly hard to break out of the all-pervasive cultural mantra that money and happiness go together.
But all is not lost. The Lord is still in the house- we still live in his temple filled with his glory. In the language and imagery of Genesis, the Lord God is calling us back to the garden, to walk with him in the cool of the day. It is this awareness of the divine mystery within, beside and all around that can transform our hearts, our culture and save our planet.
So lets step into that divine stillness where the adventure can begin…