Economics 101, The Alternate Economy

To all my friends who are living for toilet paper

* This is Part 2 of the series: Economics 101:

  1. Syllabus day
  2. The Alternate Economy: why you should invest in eternity.

In The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, a group of people boards a bus, which then takes them on a strange journey (it grows larger and larger) to the outskirts of heaven. But, rather than clouds and harps, they find themselves in a rather earthy landscape. When the passengers exit the bus, they encounter a familiar yet strange world. The visitors can hardly bear to walk, even though the ground is covered in lush grass. You see, these travelers discover they are actually quite pale, even a bit translucent, in this new landscape. Contrasted with themselves, everything around them, even the grass, seems somehow harder and more solid - more . . . real. As a result, many of them cannot tolerate this world, which seems all too real compared to their ghostly selves.

This strange heavenly world had something these people couldn't understand; it had a certain quality about it, a quality they lacked. It was solid, permanent, real. The world was eternal.


I not only believe this eternal world is real (though perhaps not exactly how Lewis imagined it in his book), more real in fact than anything on Earth today, but I believe something still more shocking: I own real estate there. That world has it's own economy, quite independent of our terrestrial economies. God himself created and controls that economy. And here's the kicker: He allows us - no - he commands us, to work for the currency not of these temporal economies of Earth, but rather for something real; something itself eternal. An eternal currency.

Simply put, it would seem that I am telling you that I live my life for pretend money in some magical land you can't see, instead of for this solid, tangible, my-stomach-is-hungry place where we live and move and breathe. But that's not really the idea at all. That's the point Lewis was making. Eternity is not some cloudy, nebulous, spiritual idea. It is more solid, more tangible, more real, and of more consequence, than anything in our temporal, worldly existence. I am telling you to live for that kind of stuff. 

Think of it like this: people in ancient Mesopotamia dealt in minas, like we do in dollars. Now the minas are gone, and aren't worth anything - nobody buys bread with minas. But those Mesopotamian people are not gone. Not in a final sense. They still exist somewhere. They are still conscious, still real, and in some way, still hungry. How many of them wish they had spent their time earning some eternal currency, useful to them over the last several millennia? 

I'm not joking, and here's the proof: You are going to die, and soon. We are all going to die soon - yet we all know there is meaning, purpose, and justice. How can these things be, if we are to live 60 to 100 years, only to disappear forever (a forever which doesn't even exist)? If you don't believe me, then at least believe yourself. You can feel it in your bones: you are going to last forever.

Thus, you ought to be investing in eternal currency, not only because it will benefit you for eternity (that's not reason enough?), but also because it will provide you with happiness untold, even in this life. 

Let me quote a few people who have said it better than I can:

In his book, Money, Possessions, and Eternity, Randy Alcorn writes: "Material things just won't stand the test of time . . . they cannot stand the test of eternity." Alcorn quotes John Wesley as saying: "I value all things only by the price they shall gain in eternity."

It is simply a question of investment: do you want to invest in temporary currency that will expire as quickly as ancient Mesopotamian culture (actually, your own wealthiness expires when you do)? Or would you rather invest in something eternal, solid, and permanent?

Or, if poetry is your preferred teacher, look at what rap artist Trip Lee wrote in Fantasy:

. . . We're living in la, la, la, la, la, la, land
. . . You're tryna live the dream, ain't ya?
The cream, esteem, supreme paper
. . . Your imagination's runnin' wild
Your main goal is to stack a couple hundred thou
Then mo' money, plus you want it now
You be huntin' for them hundreds till you run 'em down . . .
I ain't runnin' game, I ain't got nothing to gain
'Bout lyin' to you 'bout this life, but something is strange
If the highest joy is found in created things
Instead of something greater but I gotta make a claim, it's fantasy . . .

 

That's not just some rapper writing what he thinks sounds cool; he really believes that, as do I. As do you. You long for purpose, meaning, and happiness. You are hunting for joy. These systems of cash and power and politics we set up here are of no more lasting weight than the dream you have five minutes before waking. When you awake from the dream, your dream-goals and dream-hopes quickly fade, but you remain. What's going to happen when you die? Don't tell me you believe you are just going to stop when your heart does.

I'll share another passage, this one from the prophet Isaiah:

"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourself in rich food."  - Isaiah 55

You see, if you are looking for satisfaction, for joy, you have to stop dealing in the wrong economies. I realize that Isaiah has spiritual nourishment in mind, but check this out: in eternity, there is no spiritual/physical dichotomy. At least, not in the sense we have now. That's the point of Lewis's hard grass. If you get one thing about the "alternate economy," get this:

Eternity is not the realm of spirits, the land of ghosts - this is.

What I am saying is I plan to be a real human in eternity. I also plan to spend my life now storing up treasures for that future existence. Why? Because eternity is permanent. Life as we know it now is temporary. It carries an expiration date. It will not last - that is why Paul can say: ". . . this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison . . ." See that? It's a simple investment decision. You have maybe 80 years here, and infinite years there. You can either spend your efforts here to enjoy (kind of) the final 20 years relaxing on Earth (and that's just for us first-world types - what does a poor "untouchable" in India look forward to?), or you can spend your efforts here sending eternal currency ahead of you, and thus enjoy eternal wealth eternally!

I can't help but share a couple more pertinent quotes before moving on:

He who provides for this life but takes no care for eternity is wise for a moment but a fool forever
— John Tillotson
He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose
— Jim Elliot

Here's a silly joke, in case I still have not communicated my point:

A man spends his entire life amassing wealth. When he gets old, he prays to God, asking permission to bring his wealth into heaven with him. God grants permission. When the man dies, he arrives at the pearly gates dragging with him a suitcase full of gold bricks. St. Peter greets the man just outside the gate.

St. Peter tells him:
"Sorry sir, you can't bring anything with you into heaven."
"But I have a special exception," the man replies.
"Very well. But I will still have to check your luggage before you bring it in."

"No problem!" The man says, as he happily unzips his suitcase.

"Everything looks fine," says Peter, "but, why did you bring pavement?"

Get it? In the light of eternity, all your worldly wealth, whether Mesopotamian Minas, or US Dollar bills, or acres in Texas, is of no value. No consequence.


But a guy's got to eat!
And it's nice to have a car, too. And also, I don't mind a little recreation now and then! And what about my kids' sports? 

I'm not arguing for an ascetic lifestyle, or saying you should join a monastery. Instead, I am suggesting a paradigm shift, a new perspective, a different set of priorities. This alternate economy idea is not about money; it's about our hearts. We could make four categories of people, based on their relationship to worldly money - dealing with our hearts:

richandpoor.jpg

How much wealth we amass here is of little consequence, because wealth itself is of little consequence, remember? The important thing is not to live for worldly wealth - not to be greedy. So we are stuck with a bit of a puzzle: if I am supposed to focus my efforts on storing up eternal wealth, what does a wise life look like today? How can I live for eternity while stuck in time?

We will spend time exploring those questions in future articles in this series. For now, here is a little taste of where we are going.

There are two questions to explore: 

  1.  How can I enjoy life now, work a normal job, "bring home the bacon," and still live for eternal currency?
  2. What is eternal currency, and how can I earn it?

There are two easy answers that I will not be condoning:

The monastic model says, to the first question: you can't. To the second question: by praying all day, punishing yourself, working within the monastic system, and various rites and habits. Besides the fact that I don't think anyone reading this blog is ready to renounce everything and take monastic vows, I also don't believe that kind of thinking represents a sufficient view of eternal currency, or of human nature.

The current cultural model (the one being drilled into us in the post-reason West) answers the two questions a little differently. To the first question: you are nothing but chemicals without purpose, and there is no meaningful eternity for you as a conscious entity - therefore, enjoy life to the fullest, whatever that means for you (but don't break whatever current rules the other chemicals are making up on the fly). To the second question: see the answer to the first question.

We will explore the answers to those questions in the future,

But for now, let's let God say something for himself:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:19-21

I think it's fair to say Jesus would approve of our two questions.


For your information, here is a map of this little series, Economics 101.

  1. Syllabus Day. [last week]
  2. The Alternate Economy: why you should invest in eternity. [you are here]
  3. The Alternate Economy: how to invest in eternity. [next week]
  4. Work as worship: who owns you? 
  5. Autonomy, entitlement, and the American dream: why my friends are miserable.
  6. A biblical picture of work and rest.
  7. Glory hunger, and the meaning of life.

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