Trust, Christianity, and Economics.

There is one story, supposedly originating from Buddhism but, to me, forever associated with Christianity, as I had originally heard it in a homily when I was young:  Heaven and Hell are, in terms of physical configurations, exactly the same–people are dining using extra long chopsticks.  The difference is that, in Hell, everyone is trying to feed themselves to no avail because the chopsticks are too long, while, in Heaven, everyone is happy because everyone is feeding each other.

Indeed, to me, this is at the core of Christianity, or, indeed, any organized religion that works well.  Religion, if done right, provides a focal point for a society, a set of basis on which communal trust is built on.  Christianity is not, to me, fundamentally about God or Christ, but being able to trust one’s fellow humans.  God, in this sense of Christianity, is the God of Kierkegaard.  Trust in others IS irrational:  the outcome where everyone feeds each other even if they cannot feed themselves, under most configurations of payoff structure, is not an equilibrium–it is far easier to exploit others’ goodwill while contributing nothing for sake of others.  With no one contributing, what might have seemed heavenly to begin with descends rapidly to hell.  The necessary condition for the Heavenly equilibrium, then, is the willingness of those who would contribute to do so even at loss to themselves.  Not everyone needs to make that kind of sacrifice:  once there are enough of them to change the norm, the magnitude of “sacrifice” is reduced for all.  Even if you are making the endeavor to feed others at your expense, others will feed you to make good your losses.  But in order to keep the equilibrium going, to prevent it from sliding down the slippery slope, at least some people need to be of “true goodwill.”   This is the story of Bishop Myriel from Les Miserables, in a sense, but also the basic story of Christianity, perhaps:  the Christian message, as far as I see it, is not so much about faith in God as much as faith in other humans and their goodwill because God commands that faith–and hopefully, maybe, may even offer a reward not of this world for doing so even if others humans might not.

Is religion strictly a necessary condition for the existence of such people of true goodwill?  Perhaps not.  But some sense of “community,” the sense that there is something greater than one’s selfish well-being is, I think.  Religions that offer a reward not of this world can only help.  In a sense, offer of reward to those of goodwill–i.e. those who would willingly make the sacrifice for others–is a common feature of most religions that win over many sincere adherents.  Perhaps it is part  of human nature as social beings that fosters such religions after all, countering the evolutionary evils of the “selfish gene” at the individual level.

But faith is hard, precisely because it is so irrational.  Bishop Myriel offers Jean Valjean the other candlestick, after the latter stole the first one is caught red-handed, seemingly proving his faith in humanity wrong.  Bishop Myriel persists in his irrational faith, and turns around Jean Valjean instead:  Jean opts to steal because he feels that the only way to get by is to try to feed himself, because he resides in hell.  But in so doing, he met the Buddha in Hell. (actual Buddhist story:  Dizang Buddha refuses paradise so that he can help redeem souls trapped in Hell.)  Unfortunately, Bishop Myriel is a rarity, even among those who think they believe.  I can certainly attest to trying hard to believe, not in God, per se, but in basic goodness of the people–myself included–and always having trouble doing so.

The basic message of economics, at least of classical economic theory, with its emphasis on “selfish rationality” starts to deviate from that of Christianity (and of old “irrational” religions in general) from this point on.  Ultimately, the assumption is that people do what is good for themselves, for their own sake.  There is little or no room for “faith,” irrational as it is.  It is not so much that people who respect rationality cannot respect faith:  Tocqueville wrote admiringly of the people who believe and the power of religion in sustaining societies, as did Marx–who, after all, lived in an era that appreciated the good that opiates bring to the suffering.  But, in the end, they could not believe–and Tocqueville tried very hard to foster faith in himself–and, especially in case of Marx, bet their view of the future on a “rational” worldview.  Even in game theoretic terms, as long as there are enough people who would persist in behaving irrationally out of faith, a Heavenly equilibrium can be maintained, by at least not discouraging others from actively offering their now reduced sacrifice for the common good (even if not actively discouraging it).  The problem is that it offers no obvious reason as to why anybody should do so in the first place.

This is something that I was trying to explore in my novel-writing venture about Judas Iscariot–which, I suppose, has always been about myself and my own search for that faith.  Judas’ betrayal, as so many have pointed out, is an essential component of the Christian story of Redemption and not something for which he should be condemned for–and perhaps, his true sin was not that he betrayed Jesus, but he lacked faith.  And an extraordinary faith that would have taken–that, against all that is obvious, the act of betrayal is a good thing and that he should do so happily.  The story of Judas in the aftermath, in the Gospel of Matthew, is that he took it badly, that he threw away the 30 pieces of silver–the reward that he did not need or seek–and hanged himself out of shame and guilt, and perhaps it is this shame and guilt that was Judas’ central sin, much more than his betrayal.  In a sense, a New Testament version of the story of Job–God did not simply take away Judas’ possessions, health, and family, but He directly subverted the focus of his faith, and this challenge Judas could not overcome.  But how many mortals could keep their faith in face of such adversity?  Faith is irrational:  you believe in and put trust in things that make no sense, and perhaps, even things that you should not in good sense do so.

One person that I wonder who actually understood this contradiction is Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune series.  One scene, towards the end of God-Emperor of Dune, that always stuck to my mind, is how Leto, the near-immortal superhuman-Sandworm hybrid emperor who is the object of the cult, dies:  one of his own worshippers, confident in her faith that she is doing the right thing, obeys Leto’s command to destroy the bridge that causes him to fall into water–the only thing that could kill him.  In a sense, same action as Judas–an act of betrayal that leads to the death of the object of worship–and, in the storyline of the Dune series, leads to an analogous outcome, for Leto’s death leads to re-emergence of sandworms, in each of which resides “a pearl of his consciousness,” and, in the grand scheme of things, part of the same larger plan for the redemption of humanity (you need to follow the entire Dune series for this to make sense.)  But fundamentally different, at the same time, perhaps, because Judas, when confronted with his test of faith, obeyed at the cost of his faith–well, at least, that’s my novel and story.

In the end, the Heavenly equilibrium is where people do the “right thing,” without asking for reward–i.e. feed others with their extra long chopsticks–relying only on the faith that, in the end, God will provide.  When they ask “what is in it for me” and try to stipulate conditions, the path is set for a descent to the Hellish equilibrium when the arrangements start breaking down.  But without faith, or at least, enough people with strong enough–i.e. completely irrational–faith, Heavenly equilibrium cannot sustain itself.  Beneath this simple characterization is that what “the right thing” constitutes is hardly obvious:  is handing the other candlestick to Jean Valjean the right thing?  Is betraying Jesus Christ without questioning it the right thing?  Is creationism and other forms of religious extremism the right thing?  Is it simply doing your utmost as you see fit, or is it trying to find out what others want from you and trying to adjust everything to their sense of what they see fit?  Perhaps it is none and all of these things, and that the thing to do is to just place trust in the unknown and let things be while doing what you can, without trying to be too “rational”–that brings the point back to Kierkegaard’s original argument, that you “believe in” things that you do not understand, things that make no sense.  Perhaps Pangloss was right, after all–not because the world is objectively the best that it can be, but because cynicism subverts faith, and without faith, the world is set on a swift path to the Hellish equilibrium.


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