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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Quitting Money: Crazy in Christian Terms?

In 12 years, Daniel Suelo has not made a penny; neither has he spent one. In 2000, he left his remaining $30 in a phone booth (remember those?) and never looked back. He went on to live on public lands, foraging for food and accepting alms from others.  Mark Sundeen, who wrote The Man Who Quit Money about his friend, told an interviewer, “I assumed he had gone crazy or had some kind of mental breakdown. But that is not the case.” The key to unpacking Suelo’s life-choice is to view it as a spiritual journey.

Throughout the history of Christianity, theologians have expressed various views on the relationship between greed and profit-seeking (wealth). Suelo’s path is in line with the strict anti-wealth school expressed in the writings of Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, and Justin, and demonstrated in the lives of Paulinus of Nola and Godric of Finchale. Godric was a merchant-trader during the first century of the Commercial Revolution of the High Middle Age. He believed that any profit or wealth were utterly incompatible with salvation, so he gave his buried fortune to the poor and lived for fifty years as a hermit. By modern standards, Godric’s choice looks bizarre—even crazy. The key to understanding Godric’s choice is to view it as part of a spiritual journey.

One question for us moderns is whether an established though by now rare religious take on whether profit-seeking and accumulated wealth evince underlying greed is nonetheless a sign of mental illness. Even within Christianity, the strict anti-wealth stand has been moderated (Augustine and Luther). More broadly, moderated and full pro-wealth positions have been expressed by the likes of Clement of Alexandria (a hybrid stance), Aquinas, Calvin, and the Christian humanists of the late Renaissance. In fact, Ficino, a priest in Naples during the fifteenth century, wrote that love of gain is justified because humans are gods on earth by virtue of the control we have over natural resources. In modern times, the prosperity gospel has preached material wealth for the true Christians. Clearly, Christian thought has spanned a wide spectrum on whether profit-seeking and wealth intimate the presence of greed.

Given the span of perspectives just in historical Christianity alone, Suelo’s choice can seem extreme and therefore as bizarre and at the very least unnecessary.  However, it could also be the case that what had been an ideal in early Christianity preached by Jesus has been gradually undermined by greed whose gravity tends in the direction of wealth. If so, what is seems normal today may in Christian terms be rather decadent—even sinful—and what seems bizarre might be truer to form. My point is that it would be rather unwise of us to rely on the societal norms of our day—as if deviance from them automatically means someone is crazy. Just as a religion can falter, so too can a society. In such a context, it is only natural to suppose that false criteria are true—as authentic and valid—and therefore to look at people like Suelo through lenses that we presume are clear yet are like a dark, smoky glass.

See related essay: “A Preface to Godliness and Greed


He ‘Quit Money’ and Is Still Living a Happy Life,” MSNBC, May 2, 2012.