The Spirituality of Money

by Rt Revd Peter Selby

Posted: 25 Sep 2013

St Paul's Institute was proud to host a Dome event in 2012 as part of the launch of Michael Sandel's book What Money Can't Buy, and the interaction with an audience of nearly 2000 was remarkable. The event demonstrated that the issues the Institute is set up to explore are high on the agenda of many people; certainly staff and students from the London School of Economics, with whom the Institute jointly staged it, responded vigorously to the opportunity to engage in 'public philosophy'.

For myself there was a particularly memorable moment: as a member of the responding panel I paid tribute to Michael's book, and his presentation in the debate, by suggesting that it could be described as a 'secular critique of idolatry'. I was naturally pleased when he responded to that comment with 'I accept that', and went on to say that he thought such a description of his book was evidence that the line between 'religious' and 'secular' commentary was perhaps more fluid than we often supposed.

I have thought about that exchange often, and in particular during recent weeks when I have been preparing to conduct a retreat in Northumberland in which the predominant theme is to be money. As it is a silent retreat, rather than a conference or debate, the question uppermost in my mind has been, 'If money presents itself as a god (Mammon), does it have a spirituality, a prayer life which it enjoins upon its worshippers/followers, devotees?' Does it have rituals, acts of worship, festivals as the God whom Christians worship also has, and how are they different.

Certainly it seems to have its equivalent of 'saints', the heroes of the money world are not hard to find: they are well rewarded, with a lifestyle reflecting their successful following of the 'discipleship' money commends. Money also has its festivals too: the grand sale, when money gives you more than at other times, when shop windows are ablaze with news of price overwhelming any news of the quality, utility and design of the goods, in a great festival of 'buy because it's cheaper', not 'buy because it's good/beautiful/fit for purpose'.

That may be harmless enough: but to watch the regular Lotto draws is in another way to be present at a holy ritual celebrating the emergence of money ex nihilo, where the random outcome of spinning balls has the miraculous capacity to change people's lives in exactly the way we associate with the miracles recounted in religious narratives.. This ritual offers to a mass audience a modern extravaganza, replacing in popular consciousness other ritual moments in which the money divinity is given due honour - such as when the Chancellor of the Exchequer emerges on Budget Day with his red box held high as though it were (perhaps rather, because it is) the sacramental manifestation of his stewardship of money, and his power to enrich or impoverish.

If money has acquired an array of 'saints', 'festivals' and 'rituals', what kind of discipleship does it enjoin upon us. Here we notice remarkable changes in recent decades. The virtues of prudence and discretion which once were required of us in our dealings with money have been replaced by an exalted sense of the possibilities of manipulation and the virtue of ostentatious wealth. 'Taking the waiting out of wanting', as the launch slogan of Access (the predecessor of Mastercard) is no longer the imprudent and impatient act of a fool; if money now makes its own disciples it is the clever and adventurous risk-taker who is rewarded with the unimaginable wealth which is money's equivalent of the heaven to which we are to aspire.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the 'prayer life' required in the service of money has its own distinct characteristics: our daily bread is the news of the value of our house, our bonds, our equities - if we have them. The reality of the lives of those who do not have money is not allowed to detain us long let alone influence our decisions, lest they disturb us in the task of contemplating what money has to offer by reminding us of the penalties of exclusion from the money-kingdom.

This is a divinity without mercy, measuring human flourishing by the numbers on computer screens, summoning us daily to take the steps which will avoid poverty at all costs, the poverty which is the judgement money brings upon failure.

It is hardly surprising that the exponents of money's arts do not speak in this way: theirs is a secular language of commonsense, of there being no alternative, of a rationality that makes growth, indebtedness to future generations, resource depletion and climate change the price we simply have to pay - or our grandchildren more likely - for the further enrichment of the wealthy. Michael Sandel was right: there is no great distinction in meaning between the language of secular rationality and the quasi-religious way in which money is allowed to present itself.

That is all the more reason why those who wish to deploy the claims of God the Father of Jesus Christ should make allies to themselves the better secular language of the common good, of human flourishing, of co-operation and compassion that translate many of the religious realities that have lost their power to persuade in the modern world. If we do not, those who propound their money-faith in the language of economic necessity will lead us - again - into the disasters we have lately seen.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby was President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring Boards from 2008 until 2013 and the former Bishop of Worcester. He is currently part of the Interim Directing team for St Paul's Institute.

Andrew StuddertKennedy - Posted: 18 Nov 2013

Thank you for a terrific piece. Regarding the final paragraph, we might even say that traditional religious language gains less and less 'purchase'. How money gets everywhere!


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.