The Sacrament and the Commodity

Today I took a walk through the woods as I do most Mondays. I went to Lake Acotink, which is a little more beautiful and a bit longer hike than Burke Lake. I find it exciting to follow a creek as it gets larger and larger and becomes a river that opens out into a lake. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t matter how many times I do this hike — my heart always leaps when I reach the point in the trail where I see the lake for the first time.

There is something about water that declares the unequivocal goodness of God. Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me. Augustine spent several pages of his commentaries on the Psalms contemplating the metaphorical possibilities of these two lines from Psalm 42. They describe a mysterious beauty about creation that my heart knows but my mind fails to describe conceptually.

The word sacramental refers to the way that creation exudes the spirit of its Creator. Something about God is expressed through that strange delight every time I reach the point in the trail where I see the first glimpse of Lake Acotink. The lake is what it is to me because of God’s sacramental presence within it. Today the world of sacraments was just as beautiful as it is every other day. Nothing changed.

However, there’s a different world sharing the same physical space as the world of sacraments but viewed through an entirely different lens: the world of commodities. Whereas a sacrament is an object whose value is intrinsically derived in its expression of its Creator’s design, a commodity is an object whose value is extrinsically derived through its perpetual exchange and evaluation in the marketplace.

The same object can be both a sacrament and a commodity. Wood may tell us something about God through its smell and touch; lumber is wood reconceptualized for profit and exchange in the market. The world of sacraments is a stable equilibrium held together by God’s perpetual act of creation (as opposed to being a world somehow controlled by “scientific principles” that an absentee watch-maker Creator left behind; those “scientific principles” attest to the equilibrious creative force behind them). The world of commodities on the other hand has an order that is about as reliable as the legion of demons that Jesus cast out of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5 who ran a whole herd of pigs off a cliff to their watery death.

Our stock market fell today by 630 points or at least some arbitrary number called Dow Jones did. What does that even mean? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reason the stock market falls is because investors see that it’s falling and they make it fall. The game is to sell before everyone else does and buy back before everyone else does. I’m not any different from anybody else. When the debt ceiling negotiations got sour a couple weeks ago, I sold off some of my more profitable stocks while the Dow was still up in the 12,000’s. I anticipate using the cash to buy back the same stocks for 50-60% of their value whenever this thing bottoms out. So does that makes me a scoundrel or someone who’s just trying to be a good steward of my kids’ college money? If it’s evil of me, it’s an evil that is legion. I’m just playing my part in the demonic order.

What a pathetic world to put our faith in: this world of commodities. It’s so comical when all the “experts” come out to list the reasons why investors “get nervous.” If everybody stayed put, there would be no stock market crash no matter what the unemployment rate is or how many homes sold last month or how high the national debt is. What really blows my mind is when the capitalist ideologues try to say that this abominably fickle world order driven by self-interest comes together magically in an “invisible hand” to fulfill the common good. They want the world of commodities to be analogous to the sacramental natural order and it’s not.

I’m a creationist, not in the sense that I incorrectly define the six yoms of Genesis 1 as solar days. Yom signifies an indeterminate amont of time; it can mean epoch; it can mean instant. Furthermore, Genesis 1 uses Hebrew perfect which can be either present or past tense. In Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1, “in the beginning” does not refer to a beginning in chronological terms but rather ontological terms, since Augustine says that all creation is an eternal, perpetual activity on the part of God. “At the core of each instant of time, God creates the heavens and the earth and divides the land from the waters, causing every combination of two hydrogens and one oxygen in the universe to push and pull at exactly the right intensity as well as every other molecule, every other symbiosis in nature, every food chain, every metabolic process, every ecosystem, etc.” This is the sacramental understanding of the world we are insinuating when we refer to it as creation. All that believing in Genesis means is believing that God is the source of all being.

We are deluded into thinking that an amalgam of human self-interest could replicate the equilibrium of nature when we assume that there is no Creator perpetually at work in nature. Darwinism is dangerous because of its insistence that the universe cannot have and does not need a unified purpose or architect, but is simply a perpetual struggle between self-interested beings. Just because the scientific method requires withholding speculation about the purpose behind the phenomena we observe does not mean that we should automatically presume that nothing in nature has a purpose. If there is no purpose or architect for nature and it holds together as well as it has, then we assume that human community does not need a unified purpose either but can magically generate social harmony through a marketplace that perfectly organizes self-interest into a virtual altruism. What is truly remarkable are the fundamentalist Christians who fight Darwin tooth and nail in the biology classroom but love Darwin when it comes to economics.

In any case, it seems that one of the salvations we receive as Christians is to discover that the world is an order of sacraments that reflect their Creator rather than a warehouse of commodities which depend upon our frantic buying and selling to be worth anything. Even though the stock market crashed today and the number that I see when I open up my etrade account went down significantly, it was still a beautiful day hiking around a lake that was filled with the presence of God.

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