God and Mammon

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed here in Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is one of the basic tenets of our economics. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how we’re going to get people borrowing and spending again. We have to “grow the economy,” they say. And, as much as ever, the great majority of Americans believe that they should be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means taking everything apart, examining it in detail, and living solely by principle. The deeper meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth—never doing anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus encouraged his disciples to leave their jobs and to become beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

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18 Responses to “God and Mammon”

  1. Thoma Lile Says:

    Mark, you’ve written well before, but I must tell you that this latest post is profoundly meaningful. I really appreciate this.

  2. Pastor Curt Says:

    I would agree that there are many professing Christians who seem to dearly love the material realm. I also agree that a nation is not Christian, nor religious. Those distinctions should be applied to individual people, not a country. I would even agree to question how many people who call themselves Christian, are truly a part of the Kingdom of God; although that is not ultimately for me to judge.

  3. Sarah Says:

    Absolutely agreed, Mark.

    In general, I think that Americans are not a spiritual people; competition, rather than community, is the main characteristic of life in the U.S.

    I’d recently read an opinion somewhere (perhaps in this very blog?) that, generally speaking, many congregants in U.S. churches do not exalt god, even when they appear to do so. Instead, many congregants are actually exalting themselves and the American way of life. The blogger expressed this point more articulately than I have, but I think you’ll get the idea.

    I also think religions offer hope to people when they have no hope.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes. Competition destroys all religious feeling. (I did not write the bit about exalting oneself and the American way of life, but I do agree with what the person said.)

  4. Karen Says:

    There are so many contradictions in American culture.

    As one example, some Christians proudly proclaim that they are “rugged individualists”; but how can they be both a follower of Jesus, who told people to care for each another, and a rugged individualist where it’s every-man-for-himself?

    The sad part is that they can’t see the contradictions. Professor Altemeyer (University of Manitoba) did research on this and wrote about it in his work, “The Authoritarians.”

  5. Karen Says:

    On Page 120 of the book, Professor Altemeyer writes: “C. The Bible Is Always Right, Unless…” ”…Most of the fundamentalists stuck by their guns and insisted no contradictions or inconsistencies existed in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, no matter what one might point out…”

    This explained to me why some people will not change their minds with regard to global climate change even when presented with increasing scientific proof that it is happening.

  6. markbittner Says:

    At the same time, fundamentalists are highly selective about what parts of the Bible they care about. “If a man should strike you, turn the other cheek.” How often do you hear that one?

  7. Sarah Says:

    In retrospect, I realize that I’d omitted a few words. I should’ve said this:

    In general, I think that Americans are not a spiritual people; overwork or un(der)employment and competition, rather than community, is the main characteristic of life in the U.S.

    How can a person have the luxury to be spiritual and thoughtful if one is too busy or too poor to look beyond ones need to survive?

  8. Suzy Says:

    Mark, you posted: “The deeper meaning of “you cannot serve God and mammon” actually means abandoning one’s materialist existence and following truth – never doing anything simply to make money”.

    According to the PBS documentary about Buddha he originally tried this –eating only one grain of rice per day – until he almost starved to death. But when he became enlightened he realized that was NOT the way to live.

    I understand that Jesus encouraged his disciples to stop the fishing that they were engaged in at the time & to follow him to become fishers of men & that he encouraged them not to worry about their provisions, etc. But I do not think that he meant for them to never work or try to provide for themselves ever again!

    In order to support ones self there are times one must work simply “to make money”. You sell your books. That means when you are writing you are doing something “to make money”. Working to support ones self is not serving mammon. Living just for the sake of accumulating wealth is serving mammon.

    In order to start speaking more frankly with each other we need to start being more honest with ourselves: realizing that truth needs to be taken in small doses & should be tempered with kindness.

    I didn’t like the outcome of the elections any more than you did. But it’s not fair or honest to put unkind labels on all of those who did not vote as I would have preferred. Spirituality starts with kindness & sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to agree to disagree.

    • markbittner Says:

      You’ve misunderstood some of what I was trying to say. Maybe it’s the limitation of language, or maybe it’s the limitation of my ability as a writer. I don’t spend as much time working on the nuances of a blog post as I do on my book. By “never doing anything simply to make money” I meant doing work that is not related to one’s path through life. A job. One of the things that all real religious people talk about is that on a true path, you’re always provided for. Buddha was provided for. But by eating only one grain of rice a day he was refusing that help. For a time he was too extreme, off to one side, so it didn’t work. As far as what exactly Jesus meant, we can’t really know. But he clearly wanted to get those people away from their regular work. Why? Sure, we have to work. But the work has to be meaningful and it has to grow organically out of your life, or it isn’t meaningful. I’m not writing books simply to make money. (You don’t make much money writing books anyway.) I write because I feel called to it. It grew naturally out of what I was following. You say, “Living just for the sake of accumulating wealth is serving mammon.” Well, that precisely what I’m saying. But you also have to ask where the full implications of that idea lead. We’re tempted by the luxuries available to us to water it down.

      As for the election: The folks who did well in the election generally claim to be religious. But they aren’t. I know they’re not. And if they gain enough power they will try to force their ideas of religion on the rest of us. And so if it’s all I can do, then I will stand up and say, “No. You can’t do that. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s not unkind. They need to be discredited before they start causing real harm.

  9. Pastor Curt Says:

    II Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”

    Over the years I have worked a variety of jobs to provide for my needs, the needs of my family, and to be able to contribute to others. Most honest work can be done by people of faith without compromising their values.

    The point is to realize that the things of this world are not our primary focus.

  10. Pastor Curt Says:

    Experience is a wonderful thing, but it can be misleading.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, experience can be deluding. But without it, religion is merely speculation, something hoped for. It’s a real struggle to find what’s true. You have to cut a real fine line. Or, you might say, walk a straight and narrow path.

  11. Pamela Maurstad Says:

    Your work with parrots was truly beautiful! Right down with the birds, and nature, just absolutely inspiring and lovely! Loved your story! So sad when you had to leave; although, very happy when i saw you cutting your hair! very moving! All the best to you! You are a good soul!

  12. RW Says:

    In Judaism there is a minimum standard set for keeping the balance between altruism and self-indulgence: 10% of income. The rabbis of the Talmud (some of whom were contemporaries of Jesus), encouraged people to give more, but set this as the standard. Interestingly, they said that poverty did not exempt one from this obligation: even if giving 10% means that you need to ask others for charity, you should still yourself give charity to others. I think this is an incredibly insightful prescription for communal and psychological health in 3 different ways:

    1. Constantly seeing oneself as needing others’ help is corrosive to self-esteem and often leads people to develop a protective sense of entitlement to others’ donations. Giving oneself no matter how poor one is averts this problem. Indeed it may illuminate why studies show that poorer people tend to give away a higher percentage of their income than the more well off–not only empathy, but also a desire to preserve self-image.

    2. People tend to compare themselves with their economic peers or with the group that they aspire to belong to. They also tend to adjust their ideas of what is normal vs. luxury or deprivation, according to their present circumstances. Surveys show that no matter what income level Americans have, they believe that they would need double that income amount in order to feel financially secure. These feelings lead people both to spend more on themselves and to save more for their own and their family’s security. “Charity begins at home–and often ends there too” (source unknown to me), but a concrete 10% obligation mitigates this very human tendency.

    3. A significant minority of people, like the Buddha, never feel that they have given enough, and always feel guilty or at least torn between the contrast between their own material comfort and the knowledge that others in the world do not have enough to eat, a place to live, clean water, etc. A 10% obligation allows them to feel better about their giving and more able to enjoy their own material circumstances.

    I believe that Islam has even more stringent standards, requiring people to give away a portion of their net worth every year.

  13. Chandani Diaz Says:

    We were so lucky to go to a beautiful Interfaith Symposium last week in Upstate NY – it was hosted by a group of Muslims DEDICATE to peace – they are called Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Imam Naseem Mahdi was their representative; he was excellent….has spoken before U.S. Congress and before a Canadian Paliamentary Session, yet very down-to-earth. I am a Hindu and the Hindu representative compared us all to frogs who are trying to cross the ocean (God), which is so vast that none of us can truly comprehend, but JUMP we must. The Christian representative (a Chaplain of Hospice) was wonderful – he said “I’ve never heard exactly to WHICH religion God belongs to”. We need so many more of these symposiums. My husband and I are members of the Interfaith Community in our town; our President is a Baha’i and we keep reelecting her year upon year because she is so fair and inspirational. Each Hindu temple is different – in ours, no-one, NO-ONE is a paid employee and we have a box that is called a “hundi” box – what we give is between us and God. Each of us has taken a vow of “ahimsa” (non-harm to any living creature be it plant, animal or human). I have one sister who has decided she is an athiest. I really do try to understand her point of view as well and respect her right not to believe, but when I spoke to the Chaplain who attends to Hospice patients (he attends to all the dying, athiests included) he mentioned that the athiests are the ones who have the most fears, who suffer the most and have most apprehensions of leaving (leaving is what ALL of us must do, just as we arrived). He said the athiests were the ones who grabbed on to his hand in the end as if to express a fear of the unknown. There was an elderly guy who sort of grabbed the mike (it was was not planned) and got up to talk about his battle with prostate cancer and told everyone in the audience that the ONLY way to God was thru Christ. Everyone felt embarrassed, and I felt badly for the Christian Chaplain who definitely did not wish such a comment at an Interfaith gathering. At our own Hindu temple we have (in the inner sanctum) symbols of ALL faiths: the word Allah in Arabic, Jesus on the cross, the Mother Mary & Child, Lord Buddha, Guru Nanak, the Star of David and more…..we HAVE to get along uwith one another.

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