“Thou shalt not have other banks before me…”

Mooby the Golden Calf

Ours is an age that’s grown comfortable with its idols, for the most part, and so God’s insistence, so central to the Old Testament, on pre-eminence over all other things sounds just a little needy and insecure to contemporary ears. We’re happy to avoid golden calves (really who wants one of those anyway?) but surely it’s enough simply to acknowledge that God’s, you know, God, without having to go and actually destroy our other idols. Can’t we just compromise and find room to fit them in? So it’s surprising to find that over at Slate, of all places, they are warning against idolatry and pushing for a comeback of the jealous God … sort of.

Until the recent financial crisis caused us to question our faith, the financial industry was treated with awe and reverence usually reserved for the sacred. Only a few people really understood exactly how complex financial instruments worked — so Wall Street and the City of London were a necessary priesthood, managing the ritual details that kept the economy running, much as sacrifice to ancient idols kept the rain falling. We sent our earnings to the finance-priests, and they returned them, enhanced and multiplied into more and more money, everyone’s favorite graven image. But since 2008, there’s been reason to be suspicious about the cult of Wall Street.

Edward Hadas writes that it is time to debunk the sacred rites of the dollar.

The [financial] industry needs what students of religion call desacralisation.  The modern incarnation of the Israelites’ golden calf should be stripped of the trappings of holiness. It is better for finance to serve the genuine economic good on earth than to aspire to an unmerited place in heaven.

This is not to demonize the financial industry, Hadas insists. A complex economy such as ours needs the financial sector. What must be remembered is that money is for people not people for money — we must remember what’s really sacred and made in the image of God. What’s most surprising and gratifying about the piece is Hadas’ use of Pope Benedict’s recent address to Roman seminarians for inspiration. Along with many other thinkers in the Catholic social tradition, Benedict and his predecessors have been wary of the exultation of money since well before the recent financial difficulties made such caution trendy. If Hadas and the Pope are right, and I think that they are, it’s not golden calves we have to worry about, but money for money’s sake, or “‘Mammon,’ the real false divinity that dominates the world.”

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