All That Glitters: Teilhard de Chardin on Money

So does money have a spiritual dimension? If you're in a hurry, the answer is "Yes!" But if you want to know what a more eminent authority than I though about it, read on.

I recently ran across this striking passage written by the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).
The French thinker is well known for his bold attempt to integrate a mystical Christology with the insights of modern evolutionary cosmology and anthropology. But North Americans most likely would have learned of him when the urbane and well-read Diane Chambers quoted him on an episode of Cheers. (Sorry, I can't find the quote or episode online, and I don't remember what she said. All I remember is that she made Sam look like a real doofus in that episode.)

This passage, quoted by one of Teilhard's major biographers, comes from a 1930 lecture, wherein we learn that even Jesuits, poverty vow notwithstanding, can have a taste for bling:

We may declare first of all that gold is something very beautiful in itself, something sacred, even.

(Right. I seem to remember that a story in the book of Exodus deals with that.) He explains:

Why so? Because everywhere it represents, to human beings, material energy in an easily handled form. Gold, then, equals oil, or coal, or art, or books, or a library.

(That last bit seems a little dubious to me, but I happen to know when he wasn't on scientific expedition in Cairo or Mongolia, Teilhard liked to read a bit here and there as well. When we hear Teilhard extolling the beauty of gold, we have to recall his lifelong passion for geology, the first area of study that really moved him as a child. So we'll let him continue.)

It is therefore, both the symbol and the medium of exchange of all these articles, and is thus the elementary factor of our economy. And so long as it is this, it is something wonderful.

(Nice. Something of a throwback to William Jennings Bryan -- just months after the stock market crash even.)

And yet the more it can do, the more wonderful it is, the more too...does it require caution.

(Finally. Thank you! Now I'll stop interrupting Teilhard so often.)

Gold, which is blameless so long as it is busy in service and so long as it helps along the current of humanity, becomes corrupt as soon as it stands still. It is lack of motion that makes gold -- a thing good in itself -- first fester and then infect other things. The moment that a man arrests this energy to make it serve himself, or turns it aside from its normal flow--the moment one renders it stagnant--it corrupts and becomes evil.... To abuse riches, to hoard riches, to make bad use of riches--this, I say, is not only a sin of injustice against your neighbour in need, but a sin against mankind, since for its proper life and development humanity has need of this material means in order to produce the spiritual....

The metaphor is interesting -- and telling, in the context of Teilhard's philosophy, which has a certain aversion to anything static. The meaning of cosmic and human evolution, in his view, is that it is going somewhere -- that all these processes, which now have become self-directed in human technological and cultural development, find their consistence and coherence only as they converge toward their ultimate goal (which he names the "Omega Point").

So, according to Teilhard, the positive spiritual value of money consists in the positive, other-centered uses to which it might be used. I'm not sure how this squares with current economic theory and I have some doubts about the philosophy and theology that underpin this passage. But Teilhard does seem to have articulated an insight here that resonates, at some level, with the way money is interpreted with the Gospels.

That is to say: Greed is bad.

Source: Claude Cuénot, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Translated by Vincent Coldimore, edited by René Hague. (Baltimore, MD: Helicon) p. 28.



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