Friday, June 27, 2008

Tribute Paid: At the Intersection of Spirit and Money

Tribute Paid: At the Intersection of Spirit and Money

The realms of spirit and religion, as engaged as they are with the non-material world, still have to find a way to work in a world that trades in money. That religious organizations can be tax-exempt in the United States is proof enough of that. And in Germany, tax dollars actually flow through the government to support the churches. While this is definitely not an essay on the separation of church and state, it is about the intersection of religious or spiritual practice, a private matter, and the world of money, which tends to be a public matter. Cultures treat these matters in ways that reflect their belief systems and political agreements, and there are many variants. While one could make a life study of this topic, my hope is that two perspectives, conveyed in two paintings and a poem, will shed a little light on those differences as stimulus for considering our own inherited or consciously developed assumptions, beliefs, and agreements.

I will open with an episode from the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew 17:24, Peter, confronted by the tax collector, tells him that they are planning on paying their tax. When Peter reports this, Jesus establishes through logical inquiry, that he and Peter have no real obligation to pay the tax. However, in order “not to give offense to them,” Jesus instructs Peter to catch a fish in whose mouth he would find a coin to pay their tax.

This scene, Tribute Money, was famously rendered by Masaccio as one of his many frescos in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria della Carmine in Florence, 1426-1428. In this panoramic rendition, Peter is on the left taking the coin from the fish’s mouth. We also see Peter paying the tax on the right side of the painting in a kind of time-sweep of narration. The aesthetic magic of this filmic representation served as a pale reminder of the quiet miracle in the biblical sequence. That the coin was found in the mouth of a fish is laden with Christian symbolism. But at the time Christianity was nascent. Jesus understood the revolutionary nature of the new religious impulse he was bringing to humanity, birthed as it was out of Judaism an in the context of the, not yet Holy, Roman Empire. He knew that he had his enemies and detractors in both camps, and was careful to distinguish political treachery from more innocent spiritually-motivated behavior. In this frame of reference, money and taxes are the stuff of politics.

The politics of taxes comes up again later in Matthew in 22:17-22. But this time, the outcome is quite different. When Jesus is approached by another tax collector, he responds to the disingenuous question of whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, by first asking to see the money-piece (as illustrated here) required for the tax. He then asks whose likeness and inscription is on the coin. The tax collector answers that it is Caesar’s. After castigating the collector for being a hypocrite, Jesus then speaks his oft quoted line: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He could identify the hypocrisy because he knew that the collector’s own religious practice would not really have him subject to Caesar’s tax, but that he and his fellow Pharisees and Herodites had in some ways already sold out to the state. Jesus also knew that the question was part of an entrapment scheme to frame him as an enemy of the regime. The collectors, caught off guard by the validity of his statements, were disappointed in their attempt and left him. Jesus understood the distinction between matters of state and spirit, and understood that each has different terms of engagement.

In this oil painting from 1518 (now in the Dresden Gallery, Germany), Titian renders the moment of the transactional conversation from 22:17 in a highly editorial manner. The Herodian character is painted in a darker smokier palette and the distribution of light does not follow pictorial logic. Jesus seems to emanate his own light. Neither is he actually touching the money (filthy lucre as it became). What strikes me as essential, however, is that Jesus is looking directly into the other man’s eyes and thus establishes an energetic dynamic quite separate]from the hand-to-hand transaction below. This kind of intense eye contact is not a common part of financial transactions, as far as I remember or practice. It speaks to a quality of engagement that directly touches the other party (for better or worse) and, in doing so, validates the level of relationship essential to bringing a new consciousness to money. As Titian portrayed it, Jesus’ gaze was disarming and served to unmask the deceit of the other—the power of spirit over the power of money, the rule of moral law over the laws of the state.

This moral force looks a little different in the poem Deciding by William Stafford. He wrote from a far more modern and less doctrinal vantage point. Further, he was awake to a nuance of an Americas consciousness that moves beyond the duality of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, even good and evil, as played out in the scenes from the Gospel of Matthew. Here is Stafford’s poem:

One mine the Indians worked had
gold so good they left it there
for God to keep.

At night sometimes you think
your way that far, that deep,
or almost.

You hold all things or not, depending
not on greed but whether they suit what
life begins to mean.

Like those workers you study what moves,
what stays. You bow, and then, like them,
you know—

What’s God, what’s world, what’s gold.

To make the comparison between money and gold requires an imaginative leap; but in the context of the poem, gold is a kind of currency. It clearly has value as a precious metal. In the myth of Midas, in which everything he touches turns to gold including his daughter, gold is a deep materialistic curse. But, it also has an equally long history of representing consciousness as an alchemical transformation from the base metal lead. Stafford takes us past the duality into a kind of triptychal configuration that identifies the spiritual (God), the material (world) and, then, a third place (gold) that actually embodies the potential for both in its physicality and aura. It is the genius of this poem to name an inner capacity of the miners for knowing how to transcend the simple duality, and instead to exercise being in both places at once—and thus in the third place. Jesus was an exemplar and teacher of this conscious capacity to see both what belongs to the world and what belongs in the realm of spirit, and beyond that to be able to discern and name when the two are out of integrity. This kind of knowing is intuitional in nature, and worthy of being emulated even in if one is likely to fail.

Money calls upon our lower or desire nature, what Stafford points to as greed, because it is associated with the realms of rights and power, and is synonymous with access to material goods and services. Through government issued currency, the state regulates the financial transactional sector to a degree, especially interest rates, and thus also gains denomination over taxation. Taxation is a material part of a citizen’s participation in the commonwealth, a required gift as a share of the cost of government. Further, because we are so dependent upon money and the marketplace to provide for us in our evolved citified culture, money carries with it dominion over our sense of well being, our sense of self-sufficiency—a place dangerously close to our identity and spirit.

Given this, it is not surprising to find a sense of well-being and abundance present in some of the so-called poorest communities, provided that the sense of community itself is intact; a gift economy is the true currency and taxes are irrelevant. This somewhat idyllic picture points to the presence of spirit in the care people have and practice for each other. The eye-to-eye gaze depicted by Titian is one level of communitas or communion that Jesus was already practicing with his disciples. How the money changes hands is another level, one often less attended to because of money’s the long materialistic history, and perpetuated by our own inherited assumptions about it. Like the alchemists and the miners, we have an opportunity to transform money, not by being ruled by our desire nature, but rather by seeing that it is connected to our intentions whether moral-ethical or disingenuous. Money is both material and spiritual. Our task is to find that third place where both realities are always present and potent, and yet remain integrated.

John Bloom

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Touchstone and the Labyrinth: A Step into the Mystery of Money

Classic labyrinth at Lifebridge Foundation, Rosendale, NY

The Touchstone and the Labyrinth: A Step into the Mystery of Money

There are occasions when a mix of metaphors actually generates new meaning, though I was scolded often enough the practice by my English teachers. In my recollection, though, they never mentioned that there might be value and meaning in understanding and finding language for a real spiritual world and my place in it as part of conventional discourse, as challenging as that might be. Of course, forgiveness is in order since I was being taught at a time when science held objective knowledge of the material world as an article of faith. So, I learned to live with that myth along with the ongoing wonder and mystery of experience.

Now, from a pathway through the visual arts whose purpose artist Paul Klee said is “to make the invisible visible,” I have come to recognize money as a medium of expression, as a social technology, and one that also makes the invisible visible by bringing together value with material goods. Money taps as deeply into the human interior as it circulates widely about the world. While it is not a hard stretch to see that spirit and matter coalesce in nature, it is a more complicated proposition to see that spirit and matter coalesce in human nature. As a human invention and intervention money is an exemplar of and living laboratory for this play between interiority and exteriority—one aspect of spirit and matter. Money is linked to our material needs and our participation in economic life, and yet what it represents is entirely abstract, non-material and, to a degree, faith based. Value is thus a big player in the mystery drama of money.

A mystery is by definition enigmatic, and tracing back to the invisible from the visible is an exercise fraught with ambiguity. However, I hope that a step, taken with humility may shed some light on the experience of money’s mystery. This inquiry explores two ancient objects, the labyrinth and the touchstone. Both have come to serve as symbols of and metaphors for the physical and experiential aspect of money. The labyrinth hosts the personal pilgrimage, the journey one takes reflectively while moving through one’s life path. The touchstone is used to measure the quality or purity of gold (as well as silver and other alloys) by applying dilutions of acid—the acid test, literally. Both objects denote material meaning and purpose, and both have come through connotation to be used as metaphors for experience. In combination they speak to me of the mystery, the inside out of money.

Those who have walked a labyrinth with an open heart know the power of the experience. Its path is a ritual journey from the threshold at the entrance to a more metaphoric threshold at the center—a path of discovery and self knowledge. Walking the path, one feels part of some deep archetypal world filled with energetic and intuitional processes. As one comes to the center, there is no further one can travel on the horizontal plane of the earth. Instead, the journey turns vertical traveling from the gravitation stillness of the feet through the earth and up through the uprightness of the spine toward the sky. It is on the vertical axis that one turns to commence the outward journey.

It is a beautiful and powerful moment, that merging of vertical and horizontal. It is a private journey in which my inner and outer self meet each other, and through integration make meaning together. The center of the labyrinth is, in concentrated and magnified form, an imagination of many moments I experience each day as I move about the world aware of myself and myself in relation to others, in conversations and interactions as I and we. Such transactions (and I mean this in the highest sense) happen parallel to or across the plane of the earth. However, there is another element to a transaction that has more of a vertical quality. As one is in conversation with another, meaning arises (or descends, both vertical actions) out of mutual understanding. It is almost as if it transcends the two individuals present. This meaning is carried inwardly as it is transformed into understanding, and then outwardly as it moves to action. In a financial transaction, the third element, the meaning so to speak, to the transaction is value. Again, it arises (or descends) at the moment of the transactional agreement, then disappears until such time as the object being traded is the subject of another transaction. Thus, like language, money is both a medium of exchange (horizontal) and a measure of value (vertical)—a kind of mathematical metric of meaning.

The labyrinth is an ancient form or figure found nearly everywhere in the world, across many cultures, and in many variations of design, scale, and formulation. The form is emblematic in and of itself, and serves as a framework for ritual; it is both container and contained, design and process. Labyrinths are remarkably simple in a certain way, as are many archetypal forms. There was a practical necessity for the simplicity. They were carved into stone as soft as sandstone and as hard as granite. These ancient petroglyphs look sometimes like a cosmic fingerprint, sometimes like a map of the human brain. Where they were constructed to be walked, they emanate an invitation to the journey.

Stone is a currency of labyrinths. Most are built with stone or stone tiles, thus each stone contributes to the energetic pathos of the form. The path of the labyrinth is one of consciousness, a spiritual journey bounded by the materiality of the mineral world. It is a fascinating relationship between the spiritual and the material; each requires the other to have whole meaning. And, it is through the physical and metaphysical uprightness of the human being that both are recognized and realized as a confluence of nature and human nature.

As much as the mineral kingdom has provided the stones of our architecture, walls and ways, it has also provided a vein of metals and crystalline stones that were deemed precious for their properties; their perceived value has played out in complicated scenarios throughout history. Gold, of course, comes to mind. It has been mined from ancient times and has always had great value attached to it, for its beauty, durability, stability, malleability, and rarity. The now long ago stolen capstones of the Egyptian pyramids were made of gold—gold placed at the intersection of earth and heaven, of the material and spiritual. Gold serves as emblematic representative of the power of the pharaoh, ruler over all things material and the only earthly embodiment of the spiritual world and the afterlife.

At the same time, gold was used as the material of some of the earliest money in the Dead Sea and Mesopotamian regions for the sacred power it retained, even as materialism was rising. And, of course, a measure for the quality and purity of gold was needed as forms of metallic coinage came increasingly into use as a storage device for value in trade and exchange.

The storied touchstone, a stone of fine grained schist or jasper, has a long history of use by the assayers of the value and purity of gold. It was used as early as the fifth century BCE, and continues to be used to this day for the same purpose. The method is straightforward. The gold to be tested is swiped across the stone, next to one from gold of known purity. After an initial comparison, the test strip is lightly washed over with dilute acid which dissolves impurity and alloy metals, but not the gold. Through a progression of increasingly concentrated acid, the quality of the gold is determined. This is the science of the touchstone. Its poetry is as a litmus test or standard bearer of quality or tone, a metaphoric benchmark of value.

Both the touchstone and the labyrinth have a sense of ritual about them, ritual processes leading to revelation of outer value and inner worth, an alignment of the outer and inner. So they serve well in harmony to characterize some of the archetypal aspects of the money mystery.

But money has changed in recent years. It has become much less connected to the human experience as exemplified by the touchstone and the labyrinth. Just as we may be coming to a place of understanding something of its mystery by exploring the world of stones, its physical and metaphysical aspects, money has essentially jettisoned all physicality. It has been reduced to electronic pulse, a pure currency that moves invisibly and speedily. Our bank accounts are mere way stations, and our on-line accounts and ATM machines nothing more than meters for the comings and goings, credit and debits. There is no relevant test for the purity of the medium of exchange, and no time to journey with it through transactions. The touchstone and the labyrinth are about real experiential value, much as money has been throughout its history.

Recent currency has no real value, no reference point as found with the touchstone. We live, instead, with fiat currency which means that it has no standard or reference tied to the mineral world or otherwise. The United States officially left the gold standard in 1972 under President Nixon. Today’s money is simply made legal by governmental decree, meaning that it is actually a fiction declared as fact. So I am left with the question: Post the experiential and metaphoric relevance of the touchstone and the labyrinth, post a material basis for money itself, how to we go about understanding money in relation the human psyche? Where, or even how, does money reside in the mystery of the human being? What tools and senses are needed when the work at hand is no longer about making the invisible visible? Instead what seems at work in the impenetrability of Wall Street transactions such as sub-prime loans and other “exotic” financial instruments, is keeping the invisible invisible. The process for this is to use the language of visibility and count on the habit of continued belief in its truth, because it may be too painful and disruptive to do otherwise. Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” comes to mind, a story in which all the wisest counselors and courtiers convince the king that the new robes being made for him are the most magnificent, even though they do not appear at all. Of course, in Andersen’s story, it takes the innocence of the child’s voice to call out the truth in public and to lift the veil of illusion from the emperor’s eyes.

Though there seems no need for the touchstone to measure the quality of the coin, to test our mettle so to speak, the essence of the labyrinthine journey may be more important than ever. As money is increasingly reduced to nano units and moves ever faster, it will become increasingly indistinguishable from the rest of our experience in the world. For example, there will be less time to exercise the kinds of choices that are now the privilege of the conscious consumer. The moment of purchase could be almost simultaneous with the thought of the purchase. Thus, the spiritual self we come to know through the journey with all its gifts and foibles, desires and needs, will be, completely visible in the economic self that buys, sells, invests, and gives. We may already be there; but we are still able to operate under the cloak of rationalized invisibility. Where is that innocent child’s voice? And, when will we hear it?

John Bloom