Faith is not a market

Naked Questions/9 - The horizon of gratuitousness - for God not to be reduced into a fetish

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 03/01/2016

Logo Qohelet"He is born in vain, who having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realise God in this very life."

Shri Ramakrishna, Searching for God

The religious universe, since it can enable the most powerful energy of the human soul, is the place where higher and more noble feelings and actions can be found. But in that same space great dangers are lurking, too, when the healthy cells of faith go mad, poison our heart and stultify us.

History and the offer an endless review of this inevitable ambivalence. The Bible contains the remedies, too, to prevent and cure diseases arising from the religions and ideologies. Many of these remedies are preserved in the Book of Ecclesiastes, which, as a spiritual vaccine, continues to prevent and cure, if we are ready to "take it" and endure a little fever initially.

“Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools... Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5,1-2) In his research Qoheleth is not limited to observing the vanity of civilian life "under the sun". In this chapter of his discourse he makes us enter the temple of Jerusalem, and sifts worship, prayers and the main religious practice of his time, sacrifices, through his wisdom. He is still in search of vanity concealed beneath things.

And so he begins with a warning: be careful, “guard your steps” when you leave your house to go to the temple because it is a place full of pitfalls and traps. Religious life requires attention, care, safekeeping: "shamar". Here we find the same word ("shamar") that Genesis used to express the command of care-safekeeping-nurturing of the earth that Elohim trusts to Adam (Genesis 2,15). We shall find this same word when Cain, as a non-answer to the question of Elohim: “Where is Abel[Hevel]?”, uttered the terrible phrase: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4,9). This care- "shamar" placed as the first word of the first discourse of Qoheleth on religious life can already tell a lot to us: the Adam (man), if he does not want to become Cain, should take care of the earth and of his brother, but he also has to take care of his relationship with God. Religion is above all a "taking care of God so that he is not turned into an idol," it is attention paid to our words, safekeeping of the places, taking care of the heart. And when this care is lacking, religions are gradually turned into idolatrous worship, or simply to stupidity, as Qoheleth likes to say.

For Qoheleth, taking care of religious life means first of all silence, listening and economy of words. In front of the religious "machinery" that led to "filling up" the temple of words and sacrifices, Qoheleth proposes to "empty" it, to clear it, to free up space inside and outside of it. Religions have been and are interwoven by the conflict-dialogue between two different cultures that are usually opposed to each other. It is the one that believed and believes that religion consists in the "production" of words, sacrifices, offerings and rituals, in a placing, adding, and taking up of the space of the encounter with the divine with artefacts. The culture to which Qoheleth belongs, however, believed and believes that the main if not the only work of the faithful is to safeguard the space of the divine, protecting it from many words, saving it from the blood of the sacrifice of victims; an art of removing, a safekeeping of a clear, unfilled space.

The first culture - necessarily - tends to transform God into the golden calf, because it needs to see, touch and hear a God that day after day becomes more and more like the human words that express him. The second religious culture is likely to live in an eternal waiting for a God who never speaks. Qoheleth is a great enemy of the calf-type religion because in order to live the presence of the true Elohim he considers the custody of an empty space much wiser than a temple too full of things. If the places of God are not emptied, it is God himself who ends up being emptied; if the number of words "about" God is not reduced then the word "of" God will be consumed. Qoheleth prefers a God who is far away to a god who is too close - "God is in heaven and you are on earth". It is better to remain in the state of waiting for God than to meet a stupid fetish every day.

Among the main causes of sacrifices in the temple there were the unkept vows. In ancient times, and even in Israel, it was very common to make vows, promises, commitments with God – on which the Bible expresses an ambivalent judgement: think of the "unholy" vow of Jephthah, which led him to sacrifice his daughter (Judges, 11). Qoheleth says, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (5,5). In fact, the original meaning of those Semitic verses is now far away, also because editorial changes softening the naked criticism of the temple and the priests cannot be excluded when considering the Book of Ecclesiastes. If we wanted to try to make a more effective teaching of Qoheleth on vows and their reparative sacrifices, then we could summarize it as follows: do not make vows as they are stupid practices, but if you really want to make one then try to respect it. This way, at least, you will not feed the foolish and idolatrous trade of sacrifices.

The core of his discourse on the temple is becoming more and more clear. Vows and sacrifices were the most popular expression of the commercial and retributive religion of his time. By offering sacrifices and libations one entered in an economic relationship with the divinity. By making vows one could gain "merits" before God (which is a very ancient word that they want to prove new to us nowadays). In front of these practices Qoheleth says that the relationship between man and God is not of the mercantile type, market exchange is not worthy of him and that we should not apply the economic logic to faith, because - and here is the point - this is the religion of the idolaters and of the many forms of magic and superstition. The logic by which God is at work in history remains veiled to us; but, Qoheleth says, one thing is certain: it cannot be that which governs our affairs "under the sun", because it would be too stupid.

This argument against retribution, which is also present in Job and in a lot of the prophetic tradition and wisdom, was very valuable among the Jewish people that has always been tempted to read their experience with YHWH-Elohim through commercial categories, starting with the very structure of the Covenant.

The faith of Israel is born within the cultures of Mesopotamia, where it was normal to see religion as an exchange relationship with a sovereign-God. Religious practices, in their archaic origin, normally arise as idolatrous practices of a commercial type. Those that manage to evolve and break free from their primordial forms, gradually abandon the logic of do-ut-des with respect to the deity. Much of the effort that the people of Israel has made was generated by the process of liberation from a merchant God who gave grace and indulgences in exchange for vows, sacrifices and offerings. Without the prophets, without Job and Ecclesiastes, this process would have imploded, and the religion of Israel would remain one of the many Canaanite cults. But the temptation of an "economic" religion is inherent in every religion, and without the necessary care and attention one may end up back in the ancient idolatrous cults, turning Elohim to a King hungry for offerings and submission statements to grant protection.

So religion becomes a "double game" between the faithful and the gods again, where the sacrifices and vows become the "currency" (not only in a metaphorical sense) of this business. An economic religion that has always had (and has) many followers just because it is much too easy, is simply stupid, says Qoheleth - "the sacrifice [is] of the fools".

The believer is happy to purchase "merits" and compensate faults by simple sacrifices, and the administrators of religion draw much economic advantage and control over consciences by fuelling this vile trade. It is not a coincidence that the episode of Jesus with the merchants in the temple (John 2,14-16) is placed at the very beginning of his public life, we can understand it clearly if our point of departure is from these pages of Ecclesiastes. Christianity has had to fight a lot in its early phase to announce a religion of full gratuitousness, and whenever it stops this fight it always falls back to being an ancient idolatrous cult. We need a lot of work and a lot of care not to exit from the horizon of gratuitousness, falling back in the registers of merit and fault.

In the wide range of sacrifices in the temple, Qohelet focuses also on the so-called "unintentional sins" or inadvertencies (mistakes): “Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger (priest) that it was a mistake.” (5,6) The creation of the category of unintentional sins is great, comparable to the most sophisticated products of our finance. This way a "stock market" and a "price system" were created for not-real actions, too, that are neither intentional nor desired. The perfect market. Artificial faults are invented to be then erased by very real and expensive sacrifices. A market with a potentially infinite demand, and with it its profits, too, all managed by the "temple" and its accounting. Ecclesiastes unmasks this great "vanitas", too, and reminds us, still in unison with Job (22,23), that even mercy needs truth: it is smoke, it is false mercy to create sins "in order to" forgive them.

The existence of a "place above the sun" where relationships are not regulated by contract, by symmetrical reciprocity, by market exchange was a crucial precondition for businesses and affairs "under the sun" to make sure they remain human affairs. It was this heaven inhabited by gratuitousness that we have been allowed to imagine and achieve civil economies and good democracies. But what kind of economies, what kind of democracies will we be able to imagine in the era of meritocracy and incentives without gratuitousness?

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