Can We Please Stop First-Worlding Spirituality?
I think very few people would openly suggest that greed is a valuable characteristic to cultivate. Most people see greed as dangerous, or at least unpleasant. And yet, there are many churches, ministers, philosophers, healers, mystics and teachers who are promoting greed as a spiritual practice, and feeding their own greed doing so.
We don’t always recognize greed for what it is when in raises its ugly head. Truly, we’d prefer not to recognize our own greed at all. Many of us are happy to have a spiritual excuse to be selfish and self-absorbed.
It’s true that there are many religions that find grace in poverty and austerity. This can be damaging, too. Perhaps this new wave of “Prosperity Gospel" and “Law of Attraction” ministries (“Greed Ministries” as I call them) were borne of our need to heal from the idea that if we become professional artists we have to starve, or if we love God we can’t drive a nice car.
There’s nothing wrong with financial success. It’s also true that the focus and clarity one can achieve through spiritual dedication can aid us in creating our worldly success. But that is not the same thing as saying that we can achieve success by currying favor with God, or by creating good karma, or by simply setting our intentions to do so.
There’s a difference between being motivated toward success and being greedy. Greed is a response to fear. That is, fear that we aren’t secure, fear that we can’t be happy without certain possessions, fear of hard work, fear of not having enough.
Greed also suggests that we are more worthy, or have needs that are more important, than other people.
There are spiritual teachers and organizations that prey on our fear and narcissism, and then entice us with promises of that luxurious good life they convince us we so richly deserve. They teach extreme and unrealistic versions of solid practices like the Law of Attraction. In the Christian community, there is an actual “Prosperity Gospel” that teaches its congregation that God wants to reward them with money and health, if they are worthy of that reward.
Until recently, I had thought of the adherents of these philosophies as the fringy few – those who are easily misled by greed and false hope, and those who are greedy enough to give that false hope to others at a hefty price.
The other day, I read something that suggested that this concept of material gifts from a Higher Power is not just present in these extreme, fringe philosophies and “Prosperity Gospels”. This concept is ingrained in our western culture.
Scott Dannemiller recently wrote a great piece for the Huffington Post Religion section entitled, “The One Thing Christians Should Stop Saying.”
According to Dannemiller, the thing Christians need to stop saying is that our good fortune is a blessing from God. He points out how quickly and easily we say things like, “God has really blessed me with a great job.” Or “My new car is a great blessing”.
I think it’s appropriate to be grateful, and to acknowledge and appreciate the good things in our lives. Dannemiller’s point is this. In the Western world, we say God blesses us with jobs, raises, new cars, and beautiful homes. In some parts of the world, “God’s blessings” just aren’t the same. He reminds us that thousands of people are blessed with only a dollar a day on which to live. How can our shiny new car be a blessing from God, when our neighbor is blessed with homelessness and unemployment, or famine and disease?
Dannemiller’s wise repudiation of Christian first-worldism can easily translate to Pagans, New Agers and the spiritual-but-not-religious. We can all be guilty of assuming our good fortune comes from a Higher Power. When we do, according to Dannemiller, we are turning that Higher Power into a fairy godmother who only answers the prayers of the privileged few.
New Age philosophy borrows from Hermetic wisdom to tell us that we only need want something enough, and set our intention correctly, to attract the thing we desire. But how can this be, when the citizens of nations like Burundi and Eritrea desire food every day, and continue to not attract it? You can’t tell me it’s because they haven’t visualized it correctly, or don’t really want to eat!
You also can’t tell me that the Universe grants the wishes of wealthy western women and gives them jewelry, but refuse the wishes of impoverished African women for clean water and food.
This is a hard topic to ponder, because it calls in to question the very nature and purpose of spirituality. If our spiritual faith can’t make us prosperous and preserve our health, does it still contain value for us? Do we still desire a relationship with a Higher Power when we truly understand that no spiritual practice can shield us from our basic vulnerability inherent in life on planet Earth?
It’s easy to say that your neighbor became ill with a terminal disease because he didn’t please God as well as you do, because that gives you an implied measure of protection. We can feel smugly safe, while our neighbor suffers.
Greed ministries and prosperity doctrines allow us to live without straining our compassion. When you can blame the poor and the sick for their condition, there really is no need to minister unto them, is there?
I’ve always felt it was in that space of compassion, that place of ministering to those who are struggling, that we truly find enlightenment, and make a true connection to Higher Power.
There is a certain “Universal Flow” that one can attune to. This does not seem to depend on doctrine or dogma, but on mindset and practice. Once you feel that flow, success becomes easier to attain, whatever your motivation and challenges might be.
I practice magick, and know that magick works. However, magick has limits. I can’t cast a spell to feed every hungry person on the planet. I do cast regular spells for peace, and hope that the little energy ripples I send will help keep that precarious balance. I know others do this as well.
Whether you call it prayer, flow, magick or intention, we know there is real transformative power in these practices. We also know there are life coaches, pastors and intuitives that can help you learn to work with these energies. In many cases, the techniques and philosophies you learn will be absolutely beneficial.
On the other hand, beware of coaches, ministers and counselors who want to help you “fulfill your financial destiny” or “embrace your sacred financial destiny”. Think about it. Do people in Haiti also have a “sacred financial destiny”?
The idea that some of us (theoretically, the people who pay for the course) are destined to be rich but need help to fulfill that destiny is absurd. Money is an invention of humans, not of Spirit. None of us is “destined for wealth”. Sometimes wealth is an accident of birth, or the result of a little luck and a lot of hard work.
Sadly, there are enough people who want to believe that spirituality equals presents that they are willing to make teachers, authors and ministers wealthy in hopes that they, too, might share in that mythical wealth.
There are some spiritual teachers who are working the Law of Attraction in what I believe to be its most legitimate form. That is the simple understanding that like attracts like. For example, Armand and Angelina, who take their musical ministry all over the country, teach us that if you want more money, you need to be more generous. To me, that makes a lot of sense, and seems to be opposite of cultivating greed.
In my work, I also help people find their success; whatever success means to them. But do not come to me expecting to simply wish your way to your goals. I can lay out the steps you need to take to get to where you want to be. Prayer, meditation, gratitude and intentions are an important part of that journey. Energy work is real, and it matters. But all the manifestation work, prayer and magick in the world won’t create change unless you do the actual work that needs to be done.
God helps those who help themselves.
And if there is a God, Goddess, Pantheon, Great Spirit, Universal Consciousness or Higher Power that drives the Universe (I believe there is), then that Higher Power must be present on all continents, and for all people. The blessing of that Higher Power is life itself – the greatest gift of all.
Everything else in our lives is neither a blessing nor a curse. Everything else that makes up our particular set of circumstances cannot be attributed to a Higher Power without making God only an imaginary friend to the world’s most fortunate. Starving people need not apply.
When we, as Americans, view our circumstances in this way, we no longer need to think about whether or not God does or will “Bless America”. God has blessed every continent. What happens next is up to us.
If spiritual thought and practice has value, it’s value is in helping us find personal strength and inner peace. Our spiritual practices help us find the beauty that exists everywhere, even in the midst of tragedy.
Our spiritual practices are not an insurance policy against tragedy, nor are they a mail-order form for some Universal Santa.
Our spiritual practices can help us be and do the best that we can, in whatever circumstances we happen to have been born into.
Anyone who promises more than that is operating from a place of greed, and wants you to operate that way, too.
I’d like to see an end to first-world spiritual elitism, and to philosophies which conflate wealth with spiritual grace and moral rightness.
In his famous life-advice prose poem, Desiderata, Max Erhmann encourages us to “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune”.
There is no promise to avoid misfortune, nor to win reward. Our strength of spirit will simply help us get through our difficult times. Shouldn’t that be enough?