Does affluence fuel religiosity? Gregg Easterbrook answers this question with a yes. At a time of unprecedented prosperity, Easterbrook wrote, we are witnessing "a nationwide increase in religious and spiritual interest." The Wall Street Journal agreed, noting in an editorial that Americans are "the freest people in the world," and remain, "against all reasonable predictions, the most religious."

Whether or not the Journal (or Easterbrook) is right is an open question: One need think only of the impoverished Philippines and repressed Tibet, where faith and a sense of the immanence of the Other seem to flourish more healthily than in the shop-happy USA.

There is no doubt, however, that interest in religion is growing in America-but for reasons that may have nothing to do with wealth. Easterbrook himself suggests one. Baby boomers may be coming back to God because they realize, as he says, that "no matter how many vitamins they take and how long they pump the Stair Master, mortality will come knocking." Maybe death, not wealth, concentrates the mind.

Rising prosperity increases leisure, as Easterbrook says. This in turn increases "the time available for spiritual reflection." (And for many other things.) He also contends that more and more of us are finding for ourselves that materialism "does not satisfy the soul." This suggests that materialism is a kind of tunnel that we must go through before emerging into the kindly light of spirituality. It could take a while, though. One thinks of Sammy Davis Jr., who bought a Rolls Royce, grew bored, and then bought four others before (maybe) learning that there might be more to life than expensive cars.

Easterbrook and the Wall Street Journal are right about one thing: It does require a certain degree of material wealth to, say, buy oneself a weekend at the ashram. And the rich certainly stay out of more serious trouble than the poor. But to call this evidence of a heightened "religiosity" or "spirituality" entails a rather superficial definition of those terms, as though religiosity were no more than feeling good about oneself for a few minutes (in a church or elsewhere), then getting on with one's life in the world, one's life of acquiring still more material things.

By contrast, real (not weekend) Hindu holy men, Buddhist monks, and Christian ascetics renounce the world, because they know that the spiritual life is a serious and difficult one, and that material things are ultimately a distraction from, not a facilitator of religiosity. That was what Jesus taught. He said that riches are a spiritual hazard that "lure" and snare us. He spoke of the "deceitfulness of riches." In His parable of the sower, riches are the thorns that threaten to choke off the seed - the word of God - before it bears fruit. Elsewhere Jesus spoke of the "cares and pleasures and riches of life" in the same breath. Who today can doubt that riches are cares? Can God compete with the IPO market for the venture capitalist's attention, or that of the day-trader with eyes glued to the screen?

Jesus, then, has a very different view of the matter. He sees wealth as something that above all takes our mind away from the important things. He tells a rich young man that if he wishes to be "perfect," he should sell what he has and give to the poor.

If wealth indeed promotes spirituality, we might expect the creators and inheritors of great wealth to be among the more devout members of society: heiresses as abbesses, a holy Hollywood, a worshipful Wall Street. Rarely do we find this, however.

Furthermore, there is no suggestion in the Gospels that the poor are religiously disadvantaged in contrast to the more spiritually sensitive rich. In the parable of Dives and Lazarus in St. Luke's Gospel, it is the rich man who goes to Hades, while Lazarus, who lives off crumbs from his table, goes to Abraham's bosom. We are not even told that the rich man has done anything bad. He wore a purple robe! He begs for a chance to warn his brothers of their hazardous state as wealthy men-but that cannot be arranged

St. James says in his epistle that God has chosen "the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom." Yet last Sunday, at a Mass I attended in Washington, D.C., the priest urged the congregation to pray for those who live in "the darkness of poverty." Why darkness? Are they, too, in the tunnel of materialism? In a rich country, to be sure, the poor are tempted by covetousness. We all need to be reminded, rich and poor alike, that death comes to us all, and in not too many years.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad