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Monday, April 17, 2017

Is There A Spiritual Benefit To Poverty?

‘Blessed are the poor’, wrote Luke (6:20), ‘for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’, suggesting that there is a spiritual benefit to poverty.  Mark (10:25), recounting Jesus’ parable about the rich man and the eye of the needle and turning the wisdom around, suggested that it is harder for the wealthy to attain salvation than the poor.

Matthew (5:3), however, described an entirely different scenario.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, he said, implying that Jesus was not talking about poverty per se, but those lacking in spirit. 



What did Matthew mean?  Why should anyone lacking in spirit – belief, faith, and trust in the Lord – be heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven?  One would have thought just the opposite.

Albert Schweitzer felt that the addendum asserts that simply being poor is not a ticket into heaven, but rather only those who understand the nature of real poverty are blessed. To this group blessing is promised without qualification.



Another interpretation is that ‘poor in spirit’ refers to those who willingly surrender their belongings as a sign of piety – that is, because of a spiritual longing, they free themselves from worldly things. 
Other exegetes suggest a link between ‘spirit’ and The Spirit – the Holy Spirit who will guide mankind through his spiritual evolution after Jesus has returned to The Father. A person who is ‘poor in spirit’ is one who admits not to have sufficient embodiment of The Spirit. That person is therefore not pompous, nor does he take The Spirit for granted. He always yearns for more.

The Beatitude has important pre-Christian precedents, traced back to Socrates' notion of enkrateia, which explained that the philosopher was one who had no interest in wealth. This idea was adopted by the Cynics, who rejected wealth and saw poverty as the only route to freedom. This group, while small, had a wide influence and some of their ideas were embraced by some Jewish communities at the time of Christ.



None of these explanations satisfy.  Those who lack faith will never gain access to heaven.  Jesus made that abundantly clear in all the four Gospels.  While wealth can distract or even blind those for whom it is an end-all, poverty itself affords no special spiritual benefits or insights into the divine.

Schweitzer felt that  the poor are not to be envied nor is there any mention in the Gospels of a need or obligation to help the poor per se. Paul urges compassion, giving, and charity not for the sake of the poor but for the giver.  “It is better to give than to receive” was never meant to suggest an enhancement of the spiritual chances of the recipient of largesse, but of the giver.

Similarly wealth is not bad per se but can but not always must cloud one’s spiritual judgment.
The Bible therefore neither universally condemns wealth nor suggests that the poor are God’s chosen. 

The first Christians were relatively wealthy, privileged, and influential.  The first religious gatherings were held in the homes of the well-off – those who had spacious enough accommodations and resources to care for celebrants.   These householders were men of prosperity and of faith.   The Early Church Fathers were all renowned and respected philosophers, theologians, and lay thinkers – all of whom by nature of their intellectual professions were of the elite.  If not as wealthy as landowners or tradesmen, they were still among the ‘wealthy’. 

Thomas Aquinas, the son of Landulph, count of Aquinas, was born circa 1225 in Roccasecca, Italy, near Aquino, Terra di Lavoro, in the Kingdom of Sicily.  His mother, Theodora, was countess of Teano. Thomas's family members were descendants of Emperors Frederick I and Henry VI.



According to church tradition, Tertullian was raised in Carthage and was thought to be the son of a Roman centurion; Tertullian has been claimed to have been a trained lawyer and an ordained priest.  Jerome claimed that Tertullian's father held the position of centurio proconsularis ("aide-de-camp") in the Roman army in Africa.

There was little chance that they would have difficulty fitting through the eye of a needle or attaining the rewards of heaven.

The poor in Christ’s time were as marginalized, anonymous, penurious, and with little hope of economic progress as the poor today.  They, in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes indeed lived ‘a life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Neither they nor their modern counterparts who work two minimum wage jobs, live on the economic margins, and have little hope or even inkling of prosperity, have any chance of high spiritual evolution.  They are too tired, dispirited, and intellectually and socially limited to aspire to the heavens described by Augustine, Aquinas, or Tertullian.

If they have any spiritual ambitions, they are satisfied through fundamentalist Pentecostalism, charismatic evangelism, and store-front church ecstaticism.  From the perspective of the great theologians of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries; of the Catholic Church throughout its history, and especially of P0pes John Paul II and Benedict, they have no chance. 

In their view, poverty with its illiteracy, theological ignorance, and fundamentalist emotionalism, can never be a path to salvation.

Of course the Catholic Church will never admit it in such crass terms, it will always hold to Thomistic logic.  Only by understanding the fundamental principles of Christianity and the writings not only of the Gospels but of Catholic theologians and philosophers, can one have the proper logical and ‘emotional’ prerequisites for perfect faith. 

The Church is happy to have unwashed believers, but these will always be among the laggards, far from the spiritual elite.  Faith and grace alone are not enough in the Catholic Church.  Works – both the performance of them and the dutiful intellectual appreciation of their meaning – are essential.
‘Blessed are the poor’, then, is conditional.  Poverty has no claim on salvation; and wealth can be an enabling factor in spiritual evolution.

The suggestion that by becoming a mendicant – becoming poor – can be a step on the way to enlightenment does have some salience.  All world religions have prized the ascetic life for its rejection of worldly values and its focus on contemplation of the divine.  Yet to suggest that this is what Matthew meant is implausible – a stretch of English and Greek grammar.

If one believes in fundamentalism – that the Catholic Church’s teachings about the essentiality of logic, reason, and due consideration are hocus-pocus; and that a charismatic, emotional, and highly personal encounter with Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation – then poverty is handicapped well.  In fact it is the least-schooled, most illiterate, and least influenced by mediated religion who have the greatest chance of a life-transforming encounter with Our Lord.

If one is a devout Catholic – and a necessarily intellectual one who believes that a logical exegesis of the Bible, a serious consideration of Church history and tradition, and a rational contemplation of the nature of divinity – then ecstatic spiritualism is nothing but psycho-social mumbo jumbo.  Poverty is an inhibitor to true understanding, not an easy access to it.

Nothing in the Bible, Christian theology, tradition, or philosophical scholarship suggest that the poor have a leg up on salvation.  The Lutheran doctrine of grace opened the door to a more democratic salvation – one was chosen, and one’s devotion exhibited one’s faith in hope of recognition – and indeed invited all comers into church; but it dumbed down Christian faith.  It takes no more than faith and the hope for Christ’s beneficent consideration to belong. 



The Catholic Church, while publically advocating for the poor in the tradition of Christ, is essentially elitist, intellectual, and right in its insistence on logical exegesis and rational- based faith.  Of course not everyone can rise to the occasion, but the Platonic ideal must be respected.

Where does this leave us?

First la nostalgie de la boue or the romance of the lower classes, popular in late 19th century France, still popular now, must be relegated to fiction.  Then, as in many periods of literary and philosophical history, the proletariat was considered the repository for human good.  Man was created with a primal, instinctive sense of righteousness, good, and high sensibilities; but after millennia of neglect became a creature of animal instincts and human vanity.  In other words, there is still hope for the disadvantaged classes.

On the contrary, history has shown that the lower classes will always labor for the rich; will always lack the intellect, ability, ambition, and talent to compete with them; and will always be consigned to inferior socio-cultural and economic ranks.

The poor are a permanent, pre-determined, and inescapable, integral element of society.  The challenge is to offer them every possible opportunity to succeed.  Some will, most won’t but no one should idealize them as the Communists did during the Marxist-Leninist Soviet period or American progressives do today.  The poor have little to contribute other than their labor, their patriotism, and their good faith; respected for this, but never lionized.



Nowhere in the Beatitudes recorded in Matthew (5;5) are the poor per se given particular priority for access to God’s Kingdom.  If anything, it is ‘the poor in spirit’ discussed above.  ‘The meek’ are given special attention; but most exegetes and critics assume the conflation of ‘meek’ and ‘poor’ – otherwise powerless, marginalized, and dismissed – and revert to the previously-noted ‘poor in spirit’. 

Nor do the authors of the New Testament condemn the wealthy, but only give warning and admonition.

Thus those who are poor in material means but rich in spirit may have access to heaven as well as those who are wealthy, despite the distractions of riches and ambition.


The only conclusion, however, is that the wealthy – more educated, well-read, intellectually sophisticated, and exposed to the best thinkers of Greece and early Christianity – have a better chance of understanding the complexity of divinity, the Trinity, the Word, sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness, and salvation and therefore Christianity and Christ than the poor;and ipso facto a greater chance of acceding to the Heavenly Throne.

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