The Economics Of Spirit

Spiritual economics as an exchange of energy
to enhance the potential for creativity

One of the articles in Economics In An Intellegent Universe (IC#2)
Originally published in Spring 1983 on page 47
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

So far we have been approaching the question of re-envisioning our economic system from a largely analytic perspective. Of course there have been all sorts of values woven through this, but they have not been our primary focus. In the following article, David provides some balance to this by approaching these same issues from a philosophical perspective rooted in the world’s spiritual traditions. David is a member of the Lorian Association in Wisconsin and author of Emergence, a soon to be published book about our changing culture.

WHEN WE THINK of economics, we usually think of the exchange of goods, services, and money. The goal of this economics is often seen as enrichment. There is a spiritual economics as well which is the exchange of energy to enhance the potential for creativity. Its goal is empowerment.

Both economics seek to create a condition of abundance, but the nature of that condition – even the definition of abundance itself – is different for each. In an economy of material goods, abundance is a quantitative idea: we have abundance if all our needs can be met and we have a surplus left over. The extent of our abundance can be determined by evaluating or counting that surplus. In the economy of spirit, abundance is a qualitative image: we have it when we have no obstructions within us to the presence of God and to the empowering and creative flow of life. Physical abundance may come through hoarding and accumulation; spiritual abundance comes through utilization and giving away.

These two economies are sometimes seen in opposition to each other: to be spiritually rich, for example, one should embrace material poverty, or, on the other hand, to accumulate wealth one may need to compromise certain spiritual ideals and "live in the real world." However, in the development of a sustainable planetary culture, these two economies need to be seen as complimentary.

The economics of physical life is based on the fundamental need of all organisms to survive and to grow, both as individuals and as a species. Growth itself may be seen as having two aspects: the growth necessary to achieve a certain basic level of functioning required by survival itself and the growth that unfolds and fulfills the deeper potentials of the organism and perhaps leads to breakthroughs of behavior and possibilities.

An example of the first instance is the development of the child to the adult and the growth into the sexual abilities necessary to the survival of the species. The second instance would be illustrated by a person who, his basic needs for food and shelter having been met, can now focus on developing his subjective self through education, the arts, religion, and so forth. The gap and sometimes the tension between these two forms of growth is wryly summed up in the song from the Broadway play Fiddler on the Roof: "If I were a rich man…" I could have time to read the holy books, pray, and gain wisdom.

To spirit, which is eternal, survival is not an issue, but growth is. The function of life is perceived as creating the conditions that allow life to unfold and express with even greater power and fulfillment – in a phrase, to manifest God more fully. Thus, Jesus said, "I come that you may have more abundant life." This is an issue of empowerment.

In the sphere of the marketplace, an individual ideally is paid according to his work, so much per hour. The governing principle is that of the balance sheet: the wages received should equal the amount of work done and the quality of goods and services produced. As actor John Houseman says in the commercial for the Smith-Barney investment firm, "They get their money the old-fashioned way…they earn it!"

The benefits of the spirit – such as serenity, love, an enhanced creativity, joy – are not so much earned, however, as they are received as gifts. In the Twentieth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives the parable of the workers in the vineyard, some of whom work all day and some of whom arrive close to closing time and work only a few minutes, but all of whom receive the same wage. Here, payment is obviously not based on any quantitative value system such as the amount of work done. It is based on the quality of being there in the vineyard, of having responded to the call of the owner for workers no matter how late in the day that response may have come.

In the value system represented by this parable, earning and working are separated from each other. Payment is a gift springing from God’s love. It comes to us regardless of whether we have earned it in the traditional meaning of that word; indeed, it cannot be earned. It is ours by virtue of being part of the whole, part of the vineyard.

What, then, is the meaning of work? To work lies at the heart of being human. It is a gift itself, the gift of being productive, of honing our talents, of expressing our creativity, of enriching the whole of which we are also a part. To work is to be brought into contact with our world and with others; it is to form connections. It is the necessary condition from which growth occurs. In a physical economy, we seek work as necessary for survival; in a spiritual economy, work is necessary for growth.

There is another image from the bible that offers a further insight into the workings of a spiritual economics. That is the image of the communion and of the mystical body of Christ. In the communion act, Christ offers his substance and energy, his body and blood, to others to empower them and to co-create with them a larger whole, a mystical body that he and his disciples may share. He does this freely. He does not say, "Pay me a certain amount and I’ll donate my blood to you." Again, it is a gift, a life-giving gift.

Each of us exists as a result of the life-gifts of others. This is literally true biologically, for we each are the product of two cells surrendering themselves in order that a new, combined cell may emerge, and we each nourish ourselves from the lives of other organisms, whether plants or animals. The happiest and most successful people are often those who give themselves – their energy, their time, their ideas, their joy – to others without counting the cost or demanding equal recompense. Such people embody the essence of communion, being sources of nourishment and empowerment for others. The result is not diminishment of their resources, however, but the generation of a wider wholeness which is in turn nourishing and replenishing for them.

The economics of spirit deal with the challenge of expressing the infinite through the realm of the finite. It is the challenge of the person who has inherited a million dollars but is not organized to make use of that money. A friend of mine used to work for the Canadian government. His job was to give money to charitable organizations and to support innovative projects. Because of his own interests, he often funded "new age" organizations but soon discovered a strange phenomenon. Most of these organizations collapsed after receiving the grants because they had no internal policy-making mechanism to determine how to use the money; thus, their sudden wealth led to disagreements, conflicts, confusion, and eventually, disintegration. He solved this by giving such groups very small amounts of money and then working with them as a consultant to strengthen their decision-making and financial skills. As they developed these skills, then he would donate increasingly larger amounts of funding.

Analogously, the evolution of human consciousness and behavior may be seen as a training program in giving skilled expression to greater degrees of creativity. We are learning how to manifest the power of the infinite within a finite world without destroying it. The mechanism for this is connectedness and community. As we come together in mind and hearts and learn how to enable each other, how to act symbiotically and synergically, how to give each other support and strength, we generate a "field" of goodwill and consciousness that both invokes the spiritual force of the universe and gives it an adequate vehicle through which to manifest.

In this sense, the growth that spirit supports is not that of becoming bigger but of becoming more accessible to each other. It is a growth in connectedness and in love. It is a qualitative, not a quantitative expansion. This context defines abundance accordingly as a process of deepening the quality of clarity and empowerment that can flow between us to enhance our embodiment of the spirit and perspective of God.

In spiritual and new age circles, one hears much of the laws and principles of manifestation. Usually these are techniques of positive thinking designed to attract to us what we image ourselves as needing. Often lacking in these descriptions is the idea of the manifestation of qualities rather than just things and of manifestation as an act of giving, as well as of receiving. Yet, manifestation is not the magical appearance of something from nothing. It is fundamentally the act of sharing. It depends on the willingness to be open to be a manifestation for someone else, as well as on the faith that our own needs and desires will be met.

The economics of the spirit, then, are qualitative for the most part, based on giving, on communion, on connectedness; their objective is not simply survival but growth and empowerment. Does such an economic approach have any relevance to the economies of the material world?

If anything is becoming apparent, it is that for a sustainable society to emerge, there must be economic justice. This does not mean that everyone must have the same amount of money, the same number of goods, and so forth. It does mean that everyone needs an opportunity in which their unique gifts and talents can be developed and contributed to society. It means that the needs of survival and growth must be met, where growth is not the simple aggrandizement of the individual or the group but the honing of the skills of communion and empowerment.

There is much being written at the moment about the emergence of an "information" economy which will largely supplant the older industrial one. Where information is wealth, abundance takes on new meanings. I remember talking once with a friend of our family, a man who was the coordinator of all scientific research at Arizona State University. He said that amidst all the information that had been generated by thousands of laboratories around the country investigating cancer, there probably was a cure for the disease. The problem was the lack of interdisciplinary communication, a lack of people trained to make connections between previously separated areas of knowledge and research.

In an industrial economy, it may make sense to be protective and competitive with one’s goods or services. In an information economy, such an attitude only decreases the potential wealth. Information grows and is enriched through sharing. In such a context, abundance does not mean how much one has, nor even how much one knows, but the richness and openness of one’s connections, which can generate new insights. It is a measure of one’s capacity to be part of, and to contribute to, a system of mutual empowerment.

We live in a finite world but in contact with an infinite spirit of creativity and potential. We often limit this contact by putting our own restrictions upon it. We say, "I could be creative if…" and list conditions. However, many men and women have found their most creative and empowering moments during times of severest physical limitation, such as being in prison. One need only think of Gandhi, whose life is once again being held up before us as a timely example. The number of his possessions could be counted on the fingers of both hands, but he was a source of richness for humanity.

In a sustainable society, abundance may manifest in physical ways as part of a material economy, but it is rooted in a spiritual reality. It is based on our ability to develop a sense of accomplishment, to develop skills that honor our individual creativity and allow us to give to our world. Abundance and love are reinforcing commodities; as Shakespeare put it, the more we give, the more we have. Abundance exists as a function of community; to pursue an isolated, individual abundance is ultimately to pursue a mirage.

The one resource we do have in abundance, one that renews itself through being used, is the resource of the innovativeness of the human mind and heart. This resource we can nourish in each other, which is the core of a spiritual economics. By so doing, we may insure the success and the prosperity of our material economy as well.