We have been fascinated by two seemingly contradictory ways in which religious people bring together money and spirit: through "radical simplicity" (turning away from wealth, to serve justice and be reliant on God) and through "stewardship of abundance" (gathering wealth and using it to express spiritual values). Each approach has drawbacks and benefits, both for a spiritual life and for the wider world.
If you believe that in God's eyes all humanity is as connected as one body, then holding on to wealth is as absurd as building a wardrobe of shoes for your right foot while your left foot trudges bare in the snow. Those practicing "radical simplicity" (not to be confused with involuntary destitution!) live in this reality, and express it with powerful integrity. Their lifestyle frees them to focus on community, love, service, and to experience daily their dependence on God.
Its drawbacks? Some adherents of radical simplicity, by self-righteously dismissing the majority who protect their comforts, alienate many who might otherwise admire their example. And even though people are inspired by the integrity of Mother Teresa and others who turn away from wealth, radical simplicity is still a path that few choose. As such, it has a limited effect on the poverty and injustice of the world.
What about those who are drawn to be "stewards of abundance"--to use their wealth to develop themselves spiritually, and to further love, healing and justice on the planet? Freedom from financial pressure allows them to engage in spiritual growth, to travel and visit with spiritual masters, to connect deeply with nature, and to pursue meaningful work and service regardless of remuneration. Actively using their wealth--to create jobs, to fund programs, and to build community--they experience money as a powerful way to express spirit in the world.
Yet the choice to gather, maintain, and use wealth has some spiritual difficulties. Many people who never get blatantly "corrupted" by money (e.g., lying, stealing, manipulating, caring more about money than people, etc.) still become spiritually undermined in subtle ways. Our interviewees named some of these pitfalls: developing an inflated sense of their own importance; expecting to always be in control; losing perspective about what's "normal" or "needed" because everyone around them also lives with oodles of comforts and conveniences; living as if unconnected to the bulk of humanity and the systems of life on the planet.
We believe that followers of each path might learn a great deal from the other, if they could step beyond judgment and defense and engage in open-hearted dialogue. The "simple livers" might examine whether they are depriving themselves of tools and resources that could enhance their work for social justice. Wealth stewards might question to what extent individual ownership of wealth enhances their good stewardship or gets in the way. And so through greater understanding, they might help each other reach their common goal: to live with integrity and enact their spiritual values in the world. .
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