I’ve been thinking a lot lately about faith, and the manner by which our society appears to be designed in such that it rewards people and their corporate proxies for resisting (if not openly corrupting) the original spirit and intent of faith, as the word itself was originally conceived.
Faith is not religion.
If you dig into the origin of the word “faith,” its original meaning is markedly different than how it’s used today, and is steeped in humility rather than ego.
The word “faith” in Greek: (“πίστις”) was originally defined as a gift from divine guidance, and never something that can be produced by people.
In short, “faith” is “God’s divine persuasion,” and therefore distinct from human belief (confidence), yet involving it.
Quoting I James 2:14–16 (NIV, emphasis mine):
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith (πίστις) by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
In summary: faith (God’s divine persuasion) absent action is nothing.
And so, faith is rooted in action, without any concrete assurances that a particular aspired outcome will materialize, and while it doesn’t hurt to be educated, one cannot achieve faith through human endeavors alone.
As the word was originally conceived, faith is only possible through divine intervention, and therefore necessitates the “leap of faith.“
And so I think about reward mechanisms within our society, which frequently invites me to consider the role of money and other forms of capital through the lens of how they might incentivize people to continue certain habits or behaviors which may no longer make sense.
Let me rewind for a moment.
I believe that capital (inclusive to money) serves as an allegorical “social pheromone” which can serve to indicate the value of a culture or society.
I use pheromone as metaphor because it’s oddly applicable; there are plenty of species which make use of chemical pheromones to indicate rewards or warnings to others in the best interest of the greater good, and humans are no different.
Our pheromonal reward mechanisms take the form of capital, inclusive to hard capital, (otherwise known as money), and soft capital, (more commonly associated within what are called “gift economies”).
Given the current reward mechanisms within our society, people have come to believe that given enough money, one can purchase a life without uncertainty.
This assumption has worked for a very long time, although I wonder if that’s not diminishing in efficacy.
I consider the accumulation of money to be indicative that a person (or an entity, such as a corporation or a church), may have chosen to live a life without faith, which is historically defined as taking action in pursuit of a belief or conviction without any assurances that said action will work, according to planning or expectations.
Viewed thus, those who have chosen to accumulate huge quantities of hard capital (money) are prone to resemble something like a social cancer who have chosen their own vehicle for achieving a particular outcome, absent a dependency upon faith, above and sometimes despite that which might be in the best interest of the greater good.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this.
I meditate constantly, which is nothing more complicated than being constantly aware of every thought and emotion that crosses my mind, and endeavoring to identify their precise point of origination, and in this “autotelic” (flow) state, there are certain things that come to me, certain ideas or notions or suggested logical and sometimes algorithmic relationships between abstract objects.
One such construct is delightfully complex, suggesting that there is something like an exchange rate which exists between hard capital, (otherwise known as money), and its ability to secure a particular deterministic outcome, without a dependency upon faith, which again is defined as action without assurances of an outcome, with explicit assistance from the divine.
That’s a hard-core paragraph, so let me deconstruct it.
In much the same way there exists an exchange rate between the US dollar and other forms of currency, (such as whichever currency the nation state of China utilizes), there is likewise an exchange rate which might exist between money and its ability to purchase a deterministic outcome.
If one entertains that such a “subjective exchange rate” exists between money and faith, what comes to mind are fairly tantalizing possibilities.
The first thing that comes to mind is that the perceived subjective valuation of soft capital (gift economies) tend to increase in terms of subjective valuation, relative to the low liquidity of availability of hard capital within communities.
In other words, for some, the less money is available down on Main Street, the more gift economies are assessed as valuable, because while there’s benefit in money, its availability has historically proven to be unreliable, and likely even diminishing.
Sure, people will leap at the opportunity to acquire money during times of uncertainty or scarcity, but this is accompanied by diminished confidence in the monetary reward system, inviting people to consider alternatives through the lens of self-preservation.
Ruth and I discussed this on a podcast about a year ago, (the Anti-Fragile Playbook podcast) observing that people will exchange money for elevated status within a gift economy, frequently through acts of generosity.
An interesting paradox exists whereas those most impoverished tend to be the most generous with their donations of hard capital.
Why is that?
This phenomenon is so persistent, it’s almost as if the “poor” are eager to convert hard capital (cash) into alternative expressions of wealth (soft capital) that are more highly valued within their hyper-local community.
For example, according to the media what distinguishes the rich from the poor is that the rich will take money and invest it, whereas the poor will spend it on gifts for their community.
“I just got my stimulus check! We’re going to Red Lobster!“
This observation on the part of the media reveals and betrays its bias towards the value of money vis-à-vis the value a person might place upon their communities ability to deliver in a more consistent, reliable, deterministic manner.
There’s an expression among the indigenous of Alaska that asks: how do you eat a whale?“
The answer: one bite at a time, make sure you invite a neighbor.
In 2020 people received a $1200 stimulus, and those of the institution were disdainful of the manner by which people almost immediately spent the money in ways that were considered unwise.
But was it unwise to exchange $1200 in money for soft capital, through acts of generosity?
I don’t believe it was.
People correctly assessed that these fleeting infusions of money were cynically calculated on the part of the government, overwhelmingly dominated by people posting a net worth thousands of times that of the average citizen, and in quantities too small to make much difference in the first place.
People aren’t stupid, there’s a lot of people who are ignorant, but that’s not the same thing.
They can “read the weather,” they can discern the direction of events as they are unfolding, and I would suggest that there is therefore an elevation in the perceived valuation of community relative to the perceived ability for money to fix people’s problems.
This sounds like a little thing, but it’s not, because it reveals that the primary pheromone used to promote a culture’s and societies’ aspired values is in a state of collapse.
And while it feels like it’s moving in slow motion, it’s not, because the issue is not speed, it’s: size.
This invites me to consider the role of memetics within our society, which is both related and not exactly the same thing as witty photos or videos you see on the Internet.
Memetic patterns are things that we believe to be true, existing almost entirely within the imagination of people in the aggregate.
When the social pheromone allegory diminishes in value, there is likewise a high potential that certain mimetic patterns will also collapse, and what will emerge in their place will be new patterns, more closely calibrated to reward mechanisms that actually work.
I haven’t really said anything that’s terribly groundbreaking, for what it’s worth.
Mine are just a bunch of ordinary words to describe how humans have deftly sidestepped true existential crises, and have proven to be a fairly robust species.
But as Ruth said, sometimes words can help create “sense-making” tools, and in turn: these tools can invite policymakers to consider contingency planning designed to minimize the negative consequences of widescale social change.
Which is why I like to share these ideas here and on other platforms; a lot of y’all are pretty smart, and I’m inviting y’all to consider how we might tap into our own creative and productive potential to bring about a positive, unanticipated outcome as we face into what some assess as catastrophe.
In summary, with introduction of money (hard capital) we have created a system and a set of mimetic patterns that invites us to live a life without faith.
As the waning efficacy of this particular system begins to make itself felt down on Main Street, individuals are invited to reconsider a system that has kept humanity alive for millennia:
Gift economy, which is ordinarily bootstrapped through acts of generosity among neighbors.
I should be clear and precise about this: faith is not the same thing as religion, often not even remotely close, as far as that goes.
I think the word that is technically used to describe an individual’s relationship with faith as originally defined is “gnostic,” which is defined as an individual’s (rather than institutional) relationship with mystic knowledge.
It’s sort of funny to consider that the era which might follow our current one might someday be referred to as the “gnostic revival,” which is deeply ironic on a few levels, primarily because the Christian church in its current form hunted and killed as many of the gnostic Christians as it could find as it consolidated the followers of Christ’s teachings into a centralized political institution.
Jesus wept…for the lulz.