Last week we hosted a public dialogue about ‘God and Money’ at Durham Cathedral. A dialogue is like a debate but more polite – and it doesn’t assume that you have to polarize a subject to make it interesting to talk about. But I came away thinking that maybe there is something inherently polarizing about ‘God and Money’.
There is no need here to go over the argument which says that God and money are profoundly connected in the Bible – especially in the New Testament. Let’s take that as read and ask why it is that, nonetheless, God and money can often seem like oil and water.
During the dialogue I suggested that maybe we should think of our minds having two kinds of functioning – idealistic and pragmatic. And then wonder whether the word “God” activates the idealistic mode of perceiving, thinking and making judgements, whereas the word “money” activates our pragmatic modality.
I put the words in inverted commas because I don’t want to suggest that God turns us into idealists or that money makes us properly pragmatic. I believe that a functioning and flourishing person, indeed a wise and good person, knows how to blend together pragmatic and idealistic modes of thought, and that we need both when reflecting on God and on money. The problem is that “God” and “money” tend to polarize our cognitive activity in an either/or way, making us either idealistically unpragmatic or pragmatically unidealistic.
If I am right about this, it is part of the explanation of the much-observed phenomenon that we find it hard to think about God and money at the same time. It is because the words or the symbols “God” and “money” make our minds work in incompatible ways – extreme idealism or extreme pragmatism.
We have all seen this happen. When things are getting too idealistic someone will put on a financial hat and say, ‘This is all very well but unless we have the cash to pay the bills we can’t do anything.’ This is true enough. But the tone of voice makes a difference too and this can often be a lurch to the superpragmatist position which doesn’t say simply that the bottom line (or profit margin) matters, which is true – but that it’s the only thing that matters, which is untrue and the triumph of pragmatism over idealism.
Mention of “God” can have the opposite effect, casting all sensible and pragmatic considerations from the room and insisting that only the highest ideals can be countenanced. I suggested of a group of clergy recently that their leadership needed to be ‘good-enough’. ‘Oh no’, some protested, ‘Our leadership is for God and so must be the very best.’ We discussed the point for a while but one day the penny will drop – and it may well be in a finance meeting. Idealism always needs to be tempered. But so too does pragmatism.
All this is less a contribution to the debate about God and money and more a comment about why it is necessary and difficult. It also explains why it is true, as one participant suggested, that remarkably little attention is paid to questions of finance or economics when people train for the ordained ministry. You could add other phenomena to that – why there are so few good sermons about everyday finances, why it is so hard to have a sustained theological discussion about sending priorities … (please feel free to add to the list).
My hope is that my suggestion will help clarify that this subject is not difficult because people are being obtuse or negligent, lazy or stupid. It’s difficult because we are vulnerable to a kind of force-field created by “God ” on the one hand, and “money” on the other.
We need to wise up about this, cool down the ultra-idealism, step back from superpragmatism and work positively through the complexities that matter to practical wisdom which balances pragmatic concerns with idealistic intentions.