I attended a meeting this week which included a priest who is also a certified financial planner. Someone asked him how he described what he did to people. He said he considered himself a financial theologian, and that his role was to help people examine their finances in such a way as to make their lives “a consistent witness” to their values.
This idea of making one’s life a consistent witness has stayed with me, and it reminded me of a phrase in the New Testament Letter of James, where the author talks about being “double-minded”. James, unfortunately, uses that term to talk about having doubts with regard to one’s faith (and, personally, I don’t think having doubts in the journey of faith is necessarily a problem). But that idea of being double-minded seems an apt description of most human beings at least some of the time, and some human beings nearly all of the time. To be double-minded is to maintain an allegiance to one set of values but live your life in a way that is inconsistent with those values.
Sadly, we are treated all too often to very public demonstrations of such double-mindedness. Politicians who publicly carry the banner of what they define to be family values, only to have it discovered that privately, they live their lives in ways that are completely inconsistent with the public image they carefully cultivate and with the values to which they claim allegiance. The theologian Marcus Borg once observed that 90% of Americans say that they believe in God, but that it doesn’t seem to make a difference to 90% of Americans in terms of the way in which most people live. All too often we find churches and religious leaders preaching one thing, yet doing something very different.
While we sort of enjoy the public disgraces and scandals that result when such double-mindedness is exposed, the reality is that we probably are afflicted by double-mindedness, as well, though I hope not as spectacularly and scandalously. The truth is that it is difficult, and requires some effort, to align our lives with our values in such a way that we do make a consistent witness.
That same Letter of James also takes a rather dim view of the rich, of whom James says, “in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” I think he’s probably on to something. The more busy we become, the more easily we slip into double-mindedness because we become overwhelmed. We are less likely to take time and opportunity to reflect on our own double-mindedness and to have the energy to take steps to bring our lives more into line with our values. We become so caught up with things, we lose track of the more transcendent and enduring aspects of life, we become disconnected from God and from community, our relationships suffer, and we begin to wither away. In our preoccupation with the material aspects of our lives, we forget the spiritual aspects — and the spiritual is where we are meant to be rooted, and without it, we wither.
Of course, when James uses the word “rich”, we often don’t think of ourselves. We think of people like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey, the folks who populate the list of the super rich. The reality, however, is that everyone who will read this article are among the richest people in the world. If you want to know your ranking, you can visit http://www.globalrichlist.com. There, you choose the currency you live by and then enter your income. It will tell you where you rank in terms of your wealth compared to the rest of the world. When I did this, it turns out that I am among the richest 1% of the global population. Over 99% of the world’s workers make less money than I do.
When you realize where you rank wealth-wise in terms of the world’s population, it makes you think about the values you espouse, how consistent your life’s witness is, and what one’s responsibility to the rest of the world really is. The Baptismal Covenant of The Episcopal Church calls upon us to respect the dignity of every person and to strive for justice and peace. We commit ourselves to these ideals several times a year in church. But do our lives really reflect these commitments? From a global perspective, most Americans are quite wealthy, and with that comes a greater responsibility for the world’s welfare. The values enshrined in our Baptismal Covenant are rather counter-cultural. All you need to do is watch a few TV ads to realize what the dominant cultural message is: it’s your money, you worked hard for it, and you should reward yourself by buying lots of cool stuff. But how much cool stuff is enough? And is it possible to have a few less cool things, and instead, use that money to serve God’s purposes in the world? Would that help our lives to be a more consistent witness? Would it help us to align our lives more with the values we claim allegiance to?
James bids us to beware double-mindedness and to beware getting so caught up in our material lives that, in our busyness, we wither away. Words to think about that may lead us to make some changes not just in how we think but how we live.