Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Ultimate and Penultimate Currencies

Note: I started writing this in January 2010, and apparently put it away for some time. The basic theorem is an idea that has stayed with me and that I think on not infrequently. I actually thought I had published it here already. Oops.

In reading Cardinal Ratzinger's Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life on the evolution through salvation history of the notion of our reward from our Creator, a point that I've been mulling for some time struck me powerfully. As everyone knows and as is well attested in the pages of Sacred Scripture, the earlier conception of our reward was long life and worldly prosperity. Many are the Patriarchs given their farewell encomium by cataloging the preternatural number of their years before their passing, their great worldly wealth, and their long and lasting memory in their many descendants.

The Single Penultimate Currency Theorem

As I mentioned in my previous post, our concern for ourselves, our well being centers primarily on our bodily existence. All other wealth (jobs, money, possessions, children; even to some extent honor or reputation and education) is wealth to the extent that it succors our bodily existence. Hence, all good boils down to a single "currency"—our lives.

Yet it is also apparent to those who take the time to reflect on life and its meaning, that this life is not everything. The most evident manifestation of this truth is that this life ends. What payment does one receive at the end of life? It is all the same. And when one is dead, how does a happy memory profit the deceased? He is clearly beyond caring. And to top it off, this condition last far longer than one's life.

People can use whatever evil means they can to acquire the wealth that enhances and preserves life. But is a dishonest life truly worth living? People with integrity, who are truly worthy of respect, will say "no." But what good can we cite that would be worth living and dying without the goods of this life as long as one keeps one's honesty? One doesn't have to name it to recognize it must exist if justice is to prevail and goodness and happiness go together (NB: for many ancient philosophers, virtue was its own reward, so it needn't be eternal life). So, there must be another currency, one that is more ultimate than our corporeal existence.

Life is a currency, but it is thus only the penultimate currency.

Two Antepenultimate Currencies

But there are more immediate currencies (goods that humans work for) that become evident when we reflect on the sterotypical differences between what motivates men and women. Men tend to work for outward recognition, things like status, honor, and money. Women tend to work for love and personal connection. It's almost as if the “masculine” world of “achievement” and the caregiving world were two independent economies. (I think this is the reason caregiving is so poorly remunerated: the true currency here is not money.)

They aren’t truly independent of course. In truth these two economies are interlocking, two sides of support for human existence. Traditionally the masculine economy is seen as bigger and more important: naively it seems to provide the context for the caring economy, but really the two provide the context for each other. It’s been the Christian genius to reveal how the caring economy is in many fundamental ways more important; it is closer to the ultimate currency (according to Christian lights), without being identical to it of course.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Justice and gratitude

A friend recently reposted on Facebook a tweet that made the very worthy point that people who build accomodations for the handicapped in churches shouldn't expect effusive thanks from the people they've helped, since the act was a simply the duty of justice. It's a great point! But it made me reflect more deeply on the tension between justice and gratitude.

Justice of course is mandated by God. We need to treat our brothers and sisters justly. But gratitude is also mandated by God, and in fact is arguably the central Christian virtue. We need to give thanks, not only for what is granted us gratuitously, but also for what we receive that is simply our due.

These days everyone has rights. But (to vastly simplify) back in the day, all the rights belonged to one man (typically male), a monarch, or a small set of people, an aristocracy. Everyone else served them and received at their will. Whereas most people had to express gratitude for everything, the rulers got whatever they wanted, as their right, and thus had no need to express gratitude. The latter had no need to build the virtue of gratitude. So a small subset of people were designated with a tendency to lack a key virtue necessary for salvation, but the bulk of the population was given to exercise this virtue often.

These days of course, everyone is equal: we have all been elevated to the level of the rich rulers of the past. But our wealth is not primarily in money or real estate, but in rights. We all have equal rights, and thus we all equally are handicapped in the virtue of gratitude. Modernity has damned us by giving us nothing to hope for.

And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:23-24)

So while there can be no argument that everyone should have justice, it is also clear why we moderns have such difficulty with Christian faith.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Heavenly families?

The epistle from St. Paul for yesterday's solemnity contains the following clauses that I've often heard:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named... (Eph 3:14-15)

But something struck me for the very first time yesterday. Apparently there are two different domains for families, heaven and earth. Earthly families we're all very familiar with. But what's a heavenly family?

Most likely it's not an earthly family whose members have made it to heaven. Such earthly families are already named on earth, not in heaven. Besides, Jesus communicates to us very clearly that such fleshly relationships don't have much weight in themselves in the world to come through the parable of the seven brothers who married one wife on their successive deaths (Mt 22:23-33, Mk 12:18-27, Lk 20:27-40). When we humans make it to heaven, we will be like angels, Jesus says, which begs the question: can angels have families? So the question remains: what is a heavenly family?

Coincidentally I recently started re-reading The Silmarillion and on the solemnity I turned to the "Valaquenta." The latter speaks of some of the Valar (the gods or highest angels), who are all created by Eru-Illuvatar (the One God) and effectively his children1, as being siblings2. What makes them siblings? Certainly it isn't parentage, since they are all equally created from the thought of Eru. Is there some other sort of grouping that's analogous to family relationships?


1. Though of course not "Children of Illuvatar" (i.e., elves and men).

2. Námo and Irmo are said to be brothers, whose sister is Nienna. And Vána is younger sister to Yavanna.