Throw them out of the temple (but not too far)

For awhile my wife and I had a lot of disposable income.  We lived in Japan, and were fairly well paid and had no expenses beyond the obvious ones of rent, groceries and utilities.  It was rather nice.  Of course we, like most Japanese, also lived in a small apartment, so there was a limit to the kinds of things that you could buy.  You couldn’t buy furniture, or large appliances, but you could buy an awful lot of meals out, and clothes and books and CDs.  But Japan is a funny place.  Its modern culture is wasteful and consumer driven, but it’s traditional culture is simple and contemplative.  You might find yourself spending a week eating out, and a weekend regarding a zen rock garden.  Of course Japan is not alone in this contradiction, most societies have this conflict inside them, and I suppose that many people do too.  I certainly do.

About money I have two contradictory impulses.  It is as if inside me are two different people: a pretentious aesthete who quite likes beautiful, expensive things, and a puritanical socialist who wants to stand on the aesthete’s throat.  If I am contemplating a major purchase I would rather pay more for quality or aesthetics than save money and get something of lesser quality or beauty.  On the other hand I abhor junk, and mansions with endless rooms, and needless gadgets, and TV, and capitalists in private jets, and the inequities of pay for different kinds of work.  You know, the usual stuff.

These two people inside me fought their biggest battle when we came back to New Zealand from Japan.  We came home after visiting a few places in Europe.  One of those places was Rome.  In Rome we went to the Vatican, and this of course meant going to St. Peter’s Basilica.  One of my enduring memories of visiting that place was going up onto the roof above the entrance to look back across the Tiber over Rome and discovering that there was a little shop on the roof of St. Peter’s.  Inside the shop were piles of religious souvenirs, postcards, and rosaries.  It was staffed by three or four nuns.  We bought some postcards and sent them from the shop so that they could have the Vatican post mark stamped on them.  At the time I don’t remember finding this shop on the roof of St. Peter’s particularly shocking, but somehow it came back to me when we arrived home in New Zealand after our five years away and tried to set up house.

For all our disposable income in Japan I realised we had lived fairly simple lives.  We hadn’t had a car, and we had rented an apartment that had two small rooms and a bathroom.  We had a sofa, a coffee table, cushions for the floor and two futons that folded away during the day.  That was all really (aside from the books and CDs of course).  Coming home and facing the prospect of buying a mountain of things for an enormous house (actually, not so enormous, but it seemed that way to us at the time) was overwhelming.  My dominant thought was: “Why do people need so much crap?”  And then I was reminded of the shop on the roof of St. Peter’s.  If even at the centre of the Catholic universe there were some nuns flogging plastic statues of Mary then it’s no wonder that people have so much crap in their lives;  everyone is pushing it on you.

The spiritual and the worldly are always forced to sit together in the end, and they are always uncomfortable bedfellows. 

I heard Philip Pullman talking to Kim Hill yesterday and one of them said there was a terrific paradox about Jesus and the Church.  On the one hand without the church the message of Jesus would have been like water poured into sand, none of  it would have stayed, but on the other hand although the church provided the vessel that allowed the message to survive it has proven to be a very lavish vessel indeed and one that Jesus would not recognise as connected to his beliefs.  So the two go together, the otherworldly and the worldly, in an unhappy and permanent jostle for the souls of men. 

Because I was looking at this website in order to listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., I stumbled across Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address.  It is pipped into third place on the website’s ranking of great American oratory by I Have a Dream, and JFK’s inaugural address, which is probably fair.  FDR’s speech is terrific over its first two-thirds, but loses a bit of oomph towards the end.  However, judged by the criteria of which speech heralded the biggest changes coming to America, FDR’s speech certainly wins for it was the prelude to the New Deal, and a call to arms against the Great Depression.  This is the most famous section,

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

He goes on to outline the problem that faces America,

In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; and the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

And whose fault is this?

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

Unsurprisingly, FDR’s speech, like most American oratory, has recourse to religion.  In particular it draws on the famous scene where Christ throws the money-lenders out of the temple.

Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They only know the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.

Yes, the money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of that restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

It’s good stuff, but I noticed something as I read through the speech, and then read through his first few fireside chats: Roosevelt might appear to be raining fire down on the heads of capitalists like an Old Testament God let loose in Gamorrah, but he is not actually spelling out the end of capitalism.  He is talking about a massive expansion of the state and a massive reform of the monetary system, and he is also talking about jobs, and work, and industry.  In short, he is talking about the restoration of capitalism.

Wisely.  I grudgingly admit that he does this wisely.  Every now and then capitalism needs to be beaten back into its cave with a heavy stick, but do I think we could do without it altogether?  Unfortunately, not.  I don’t know why I say unfortunately.  Probably because aspects of capitalism make me sick, and in some senses it is a sick system, but it is also a system that has eased the suffering of a great many people, and, honestly, what is the alternative?  I have read Hayek and can admit the truth of many of the things he said.  Money does make you free.  If you have it.  And what would we get if the spiritualists took over from the money-lenders?  Its all very well to wander the country spreading your vision of the world, but someone has to tend the crops.

But then, but then,

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the end, I suspect that social idealism and capitalism are two great and mutually necessary competing forces within a healthy society.  If either one becomes overwhelmingly stronger than the other then society sickens.  If capitalism takes over then society’s sense of community begins to fail, and if idealism takes over the physical well-being of its members deteriorates.

Something about the soul of young men cries out for grand ideas that explain everything.  It’s always a bad sign when you think you have an idea that explains everything.  Much better, usually, to muddle through.  So kick the money-lenders out of the temple, because heaven knows they’ve screwed everything up again, but we better leave the door open because they’ll be back – around the time we want a flat screen TV for the tabernacle.

One thought on “Throw them out of the temple (but not too far)”

  1. So true.
    I wonder if Richard Dawkins would benefit from reading this post.
    I think he would.

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