The Kingdom of God is Like Money

51Sn8PEXwcLAlmost everything that makes us human occurs at the nexus of fiction and faith. This is the most important thing I learned from Yuval Noah Harari’s much-lauded book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It isn’t the author’s main point, and he probably wouldn’t even agree with the way that I phrased it. But these two attributes–the ability to make up stories and the ability to believe them–strike me as the defining characteristics of humanity.

Homo sapiens are storytellers. This does not appear to be unique. Other, now-extinct human species probably told stories too. But our stories are different because they don’t have to be true. Any old Homo neanderthalensis could tell a story about a bear they saw crossing the river. And an especially clever one might even lie about the bear in order to scare another Neanderthal away from a food source. But they don’t appear to have been able to tell stories about things that weren’t exactly true but might be.

As it turns out, though, almost everything important about human civilization comes from stories that aren’t exactly true but might be–a category that includes cities, nations, empires, ethnic identities, kings, emperors, religions, collective histories, corporations, human rights, democracy, and justice. None of these things exist in nature. We can never go out on a walk and see any of them crossing the river with the bear or falling from a tree like an apple. They exist only in the stories that we tell about them.

But when we all agree to believe these stories, our collective belief creates a shared reality that is every bit as real as a bear. “Canada,” “Chrysler,” and “the First Amendment” are all, in the strictest sense, fictions. But when enough people believe these fictions, and act as if they are true, they become true. This, I believe, is as good a definition of “faith” as I could ever devise. Faith is a shared belief that creates a reality.

As an example of how faith can create reality, consider the way that money works in the modern world. Money can be anything that people agree to treat like money. For thousands of years, it took the shape of shells, beads, or small pieces of metal—tangible objects that people agreed to use as media for exchanging goods and services in a complex market. Things like gold and silver acquired value far beyond their actual utility simply because people believed that they had value. This is how belief creates reality.

In the modern world, however, only a small fraction of what we call “money” exists in the form of precious metal. And only about 10% of it exists in pieces of paper or anything tangible at all. Harari estimates that the total wealth in the world is around 60 trillion dollars of which 10 trillion exists in coins and banknotes. The rest of it—$50 trillion dollars—exists only as pieces of electronic data that gets passed around via computer transactions. It exists because we all agree to believe that it exists. Our shared belief in something we can’t see or touch has created more than 80% of all of the monetary value in the world (p. 108).

But is this faith like religious faith is faith? I think that it is—and not just because religion is one of the categories of “mass-cooperation networks” that Harari sees as the major competitive advantage of Homo sapiens sapeins. If I read the words of Jesus in the New Testament correctly, he is telling us that our faith can create a new spiritual reality that he alternately calls “the Kingdom of God” “paradise,” and “heaven.”

It is no accident, I believe, that Christ speaks to us so often in fictions. He does not present, nor are we meant to believe, that there was such a person as the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. These are fictions that form the basis of a kind of faith.

And a surprising number of Christ’s parables come in response to some version of the question, “what is the Kingdom of Heaven”? It is a mustard seed and a fisherman’s net. It is a pearl of great price and a treasure hidden in a field. It is a field of wheat and tares. It is a marriage feast and a vineyard full of laborers. But most importantly, Christ tells Peter, “the Kingdom of God is within you” (Peter 17:21).

What Jesus is telling us with all of these fictions, I believe, is that heaven is not something that we should believe in because it is true; it is, rather, something that we should believe in because our belief makes it true. It is like money: if everybody believes in it, and acts according to that belief, then our faith creates the very thing that we have faith in.

The Kingdom of Heaven, then, is like justice, and human rights, and peace, and 50 trillion dollars—a beautiful story that becomes true only to the extent that we believe it possible. It is not an otherworldly thing, but here-and-now thing—and an intensely human thing. And, like almost every human thing of importance or value, it is something that we must call into existence through our faith.

Comments

  1. Chris Kimball says:

    Yes, twice over. First, that useful fictions is a key learning from Sapiens. And second, that in weird but happy coincidences I’ve been working over my own “Kingdom of Heaven is a here and now” reflection today.

    I think it’s a more challenging argument than the short last paragraphs imply. Mormon “plan of salvation” discussions have made such a big deal of kingdoms and degrees and entry requirements that a tangible Kingdom in the hereafter is engraved in our vocabulary. It’s like a jolt into a new reality to use the same phrases to refer to the here and now.

  2. dlorenzen says:

    This was even better on an even more meta level – in your paragraph about money, that is not at all how money arose or how it came to be used, but a pious fiction we are more comfortable believing. But it only adds to your point!

  3. Shy Saint says:

    I’ve just started the book but it was revelatory how he outlined religion as a useful organizing fantasy right off the bat.

  4. If you liked this book, another, maybe even more astonishing, is “Who We Are and How We Got Here” by David Reich. It is about the DNA history of humanity using ancient DNA augmented by anthropology. As much as I enjoyed “A Brief History…” this book is much more enlightening and even more breathtaking.

    The sweep of this book is the migrations and invasions of humanity over the last 150k years, but more generally in the last 50k years. Reich talks a lot about sexual dominance of the invading races. This is a subject which particularly interesting, especially concerning the caste structure of India. Likewise a genetic linkage from 20k years ago between Western Europe and Native Americans. Same group that created the caste system, apparently. Thus the ability of H. Sapiens to organize around fictions has led to real conquest and intrasexual selection.

    Although, from Harari, I have remembered that gold is as useless as paper, generally speaking.

  5. Let me add, since I read “A Brief History” some time ago. The more I think about it the more I see that Harari is just using arm-chair speculation. Interesting, non-the-less, but speculation. He points out that the fabulous cave drawings in the Lascaux cave were something unique. Not so. What was happening there was happening everywhere, for example. The real action was happening in Central Asia, as always.

    Reich is using actual data to make factual connections. Science is based on fact.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    Michael, sorry, I can’t get on that train. The biggest flaw in your theory I see is that, if heaven exists only through faith, then the moment we die, heaven ceases to exist, much like Canada, money, and Canadian money (Beavers on coins? How gauche.). If you can articulate some theory as to how consciousness continues after death and our consciousness is then transported to that heaven-made-substantial, then maybe it makes a bit of sense. But when Christ tells the criminal at His side that today he will be with Him in paradise, I can’t help but read that to mean a physical location, not merely a comforting idea.

    Of course if one doesn’t believe in life after death (and I have no idea what your views are on the subject), then Christian faith loses a large portion of its professed utility. Regardless, while I appreciate your thoughts on the issue, the post reads like a retconning of heaven.

  7. Not a Cougar,

    Thanks for your thoughts. To do my best at an answer: I am drawing a sharp distinction in this post between “the afterlife” and what Christ describes as “the Kingdom of God/the Kingdom of Heaven.” It is a distinction that, I believe, already exists in LDS theology. Latter-day Saint belief includes a variety of afterlife geographies–Celestial, Terrestrial, and Telestial Kingdoms; Outer Darkness; the Spirit World (Paradise and Prison), and so on. But it does not contain a concept called “Heaven” or one called “Hell.” That is a traditional Christian eschatology that Mormons reject.

    I believe that the LDS position here is in line with the teachings of Christ. After a lifetime of reading the New Testament and trying to take Christ’s words as seriously as I possibly can, I have come to believe that, when he talks about “The Kingdom of God,” he means what Joseph Smith meant by “Zion”: something created on this earth by believers who enact their belief to create a community. This does not mean that there is no afterlife–just that, in my reading, the state of the afterlife is not what Christ was trying to describe with his many parables and teachings about “The Kingdom of God.”

  8. Not a Cougar says:

    Michael, thank you for the clarification. I think using the terms “heaven” and “Zion” interchangeably causes some confusion here (or maybe I’m just slower than most), but I get what you’re trying to convey, and I have no argument with the idea that Christ was focusing mainly on the earthly establishment of the Kingdom of God.

  9. I love the way you think, Michael Austin! This is a fascinating view of the topic.

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