The allegation that Christianity worships money has a deeper meaning than the truism that the church is after money. Actually, it is the institution of money that needs the church.
According to Walter Benjamin, Christianity has reached the point where it has turned itself into cultic Capitalism. Contending against Weber’s thesis that Capitalism draws from protestant ethics, he held that, on the contrary, it is now Christianity that has become incumbent on Capitalism. “Capitalism has developed as a parasite of Christianity in the West…”, but now “Christianity’s history is essentially that of its parasite”. Walter claims that Capitalism as religion is purely cultic, and, therefore, capable of accommodating every particular dogma.
One has only to watch the ubiquitous ritual of tithe and offerings in order to ascertain Walter’s intuition across sectarian differences. The passing up of the collection plate mimics the passing down of the communion plate. Just like with the sacramental bread and wine, the money is consecrated by prayer and liturgical reading into an external sign of grace. The offertory is a parody of the Eucharist.
According to Emile Durkheim, the hidden purpose of any religious ritual is to seed the political ideals of the establishment into people’s minds. Far from being a response to grace, and a participation in its ministry, liturgical giving aims secretly at reinforcing faith in money as an absolute. Money is the Incarnation of God.
Back to Walter Benjamin: “Capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” Nevertheless, in the era of bubble economies and shaking currencies, Capitalism can no longer accomplish this purpose without the aid of explicit religion. That is because, contrary to the classic thesis that Capitalism has substituted immanence to transcendence, a return to transcendence and faith has become essential for Capitalism today.
In order to understand this shift, let us first return to Weber’s classic definition of Capitalism as as the historical product of Calvinism. His favorite example was a quote from Benjamin Franklin:
Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.[…]Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature. Money can beget money, and its offspring can beget more, and so on. Five shillings turned is six, turned again is seven and three pence, and so on, till it becomes a hundred pounds. The more there is of it, the more it produces every turning, so that the profits rise quicker and quicker. He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.
“Time is money” sounds like an ontological parody. After all, living in time is the very essence of being human. The same goes for the sentence: “Remember, that money is the prolific, generating nature”. Money is extolled here as a creative power, with an allusion at the original blessing of Genesis: “be ye fruitful, and multiply”. Money is attributed the ontological predictions of God.
And yet, too many of our problems spring from that “prolific, generating nature” of money, so enthusiastically expounded by Franklin, briefly: Capitalism. The analogy that comes to our mind today is rather that of a virus attacking its host, rather than the Genesis blessing of all creation. Capitalism is destabilizing society and destroying nature. It is a virus that has infected the very core of human existence: time. Time is no longer the experience of conscious living. Time is money.
Paradoxically, it is exactly this new ontology that has turned economic discontent into existential anxiety. Far from satisfying “the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion”, Capitalism is now the object of doubts and blasphemies once reserved for God. A simple Internet search for the keyword phrase “does money exist” will show that demonstrating the existence of money has become as elusive a task as demonstrating the existence of God. Every argument for the existence of money goes down to the so called ontological argument, which relies on metaphysical reasoning rather than hard facts. Consequently, criticism of Capitalism is no longer the criticism of free market economics, but of its metaphysics.
Let us review briefly the ontological argument. The classic version was elaborated in the eleventh century by the Benedectine monk and Archbishop, Anselm of Canterbury. It consists in a syllogism based on the premises that, first, God is the highest being to be conceived and, secondly, whatever exists must be necessarily greater than its concept. The syllogism added up to the conclusion that God must be necessarily greater than what we conceive of him. So God cannot not exist.
Anselm was aware that the theological argument made no sense from the perspective of simply common sense. Therefore, he warned against using such reasoning outside the realm of pure ontology.One has to master the scholastic distinction between contingency and logical necessity. Something may or may not exist contingently. Ontologically, something is either logically necessary or logically impossible, like in Euclidean geometry. God is an ontological concept.
Now, let’s draw the parallel. First, money is defined as the highest desirable good. Secondly, money is argued to be pure necessity, beyond tangible currencies and fluctuations of buying power. Money cannot not exist. Capitalism is an ontological concept.Therefore, It is not by accident that Immanuel Kant substituted “money” for “God” as the variable in Anselm’s equation, as part of his demolition of metaphysics. “A hundred real thalers do not contain the least coin more than a hundred possible thalers” contented the German philosopher. Critics have accused Kant of ignoring Anselm’s distinction between the necessary and the contingent. Actually, he might have chosen his example exactly because money blurs such distinction. As Franklin says: “He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds”. Unlike Kant, Franklin thought that the real one hundred thalers represented much more more money than the contingent one hundred pieces.
Kant’s pecuniary illustration shows that, just like faith in God, faith in money cannot rely on metaphysics. The medieval Church did not preach the ontological argument but reinforced its beliefs through sacraments and rituals. Similarly, modern Capitalism needs a cult of money to reinforce faith in it. “Compare de holy iconography of various religions, on the one hand, with the banknotes of countries, on the other”, argues Walter Benjamin in Capitalism as Religion (1921). According to St. John of Damascus, an icon is a “channel of divine grace”. However, an icon is not an icon until consecrated by the church. The purpose of the ritualised collection of tithe and offerings is to consecrate money as channel of grace. In other words, the accidental dollar bill becomes consubstantiality with ontological money.
This sacrament of money is actually the reenactment of the dark side of the Lord’s Supper: the betrayal of Judas. The consecrating words would be in this case: “quod facis fac citius” (“that thou doest, do quickly”). In other words: “be ye entrepreneurial”. Just like in the gnostic Gospel of Judas, where Judas is selling Christ in obedience to his secret instructions, the entrepreneurial church performs the rite of betrayal as an expression of the Capitalist gnosis.