Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Ransom of the Soul - study materials

Study Group, Monday, January 21, 2019, Pasadena
Hosts: Dean Thompson and Tom Eggebeen
Study: Tom Eggebeen

Reading Peter Brown's book, "Ransom of the Soul" (2016) - the first six centuries of Christianity, with a focus on the place of wealth in this life, and as a bridge to heaven.

Enhanced further by Brown’s, “Through the Eye of a Needle.)

Personal note: I wish I had read all of this 40 years ago … but neither of these books then existed. As I read, I kept jumping back to the Bible, seeing, I think, how much of the New Testament especially, was written in the light of Empire values and behavior - I think of the Banquet Parable. Brown is a remarkable writer, often taking issue with “traditional” scholarship on the Roman Empire, and incredibly generous in praise for a new generation of scholars. There is so much here, I cannot begin to do it justice, but, for me, this is some of the best reading I’ve done in years. My initial interest was tweaked by a brief review of the book, “Ransom of the Soul.” I then secured from the library, “Through the Eye of a Needle” which is Brown’s “big fat book.”

Let’s begin:

Then, or now, nothing is ever really settled. 

Rising stars and people of influence, each with their own take on things, some prevailing, enduring, both for the cogency of their ideas, and when the powers-that-be decided that some ideas were likely to enhance their own place of privilege, while adding to the civic good. Then or now, privilege, power, wealth and influence, religion and rhetoric, flow together like some kind of a huge, muddy, river, feeding the land, sometimes flooding it, and always moving along, carrying history with it.

Some voices, like, Tertullian and Cyprian in Carthage, and later, Augustine in Hippo and Ambrose in Milan, achieved a degree of lasting influence. But for every voice in one direction, there were others moving contrapuntally.

The move to Christianity, in spite of Constantine’s conversion, was neither immediate nor widespread. But in bits and pieces, here and there … in the meantime, before the final “victory” of Christianity, Pagans, Jews and Christians lived together much of the time without distress (post Constantine, of course), often in dialogue with one another, sometimes in agreement, and sometimes not.

In all of this, Christianity emerges with some unique ideas that were to shape ultimately the Western World.

In the quest for justice (ideas shared by both Jew and Christian) ... much of the writing and preaching of the fourth and fifth centuries was an effort to promote alms-giving - to remember those so easily forgotten, the poor. 

The Pagan focus was primarily on caring for one’s own kind, not only those of one’s own social status, but of one’s community, i.e. a rather profound civic mindedness, but one restricted to “citizens,” only rarely crossing the boundary to do something good for the rabble.

For Christians, the question of wealth remained a challenge, and ultimately wealth, rather than being rejected, was linked to heaven, the afterlife ... something that Pagans, Jews, and Christians pondered, with alms-giving a tool in the remission of sins, and then also a means of social security for the poor. Both categories of people, the poor and the dead ought not to be forgotten, and wealth was the means by which the memory of the dead and the living poor could be “kept alive.”

In the mix of all of this, the parable of the Rich Young Man played a vital role, to sell all and give it to the poor.

Some took this be a universal dictum for the rich, and some, in fact, divested themselves of their wealth, but even then, unloading a vast fortune of estates, material wealth in ivory, gold and silver, and villas wasn’t easy. As best as we can tell, such “divestiture” likely involved selling to family members and friends of similar social standing, or, giving it to a church, all to secure treasure in heaven, while still receiving some income from distant estates, not so easily divested. Some then founded their own monasteries, and while living austere lives (especially the emphasis on owning everything in common and being humbly dressed), they did so in the comfort of villa-like buildings. What was built for God was to be glorious, even as were the villas they once built for themselves and their image in the community.

Treasure in heaven was a reality that few of us can imagine. 

But it moved money away from the usual display of wealth expected by Roman society into the coffers of the church, and much was done to relieve the suffering of the really poor, the non-citizens of the Empire, people on the bottom of the economic heap.

A perfect system?

Clearly not, but a system that addressed two concerns: the afterlife, and life here-and-now, with a special focus on the poor, not so much to change the conditions creating poverty, but as a means by which the wealthy, and the not-so-wealthy, could secure their salvation through alms-giving, to relieve immediate suffering. "Lay up alms in thy storehouse; it shall deliver thee from affliction" (Ecclesiasticus 29:12). 

The church soon realized that wealth was not going to go away, so the church found ways to tame that wealth, to keep the wealth from damaging those who possessed it. Roman philosophers shared this concern, and like the Christians who followed, often decried, not wealth, but avarice.

Much preaching was against the "Roman Games" wherein the rich would showcase their wealth and power by supporting gladiators and funding the carnivals. It was exorbitant, to say the least, but it secured the social position of the sponsor and also earned them the goodwill of the people (citizens: what we might call the middle and the lower-middle class), who sometimes protested when the “rich” failed to provide for the welfare and the entertainment of the city. 

Clearly, there was massive wealth throughout the Empire, and much competition among the rich to display it. Yet, it was governed by a sense of civic good deeds, an idea well-developed in the Empire with its philosophers. Reputation meant just about everything, and a person of wealth needed to secure his or her presence through magnificent buildings, bridges, public baths, and entertainment.

Christianity, with its broader focus on the poor, was able to enter into this Roman world of values and build upon it a specific Christian ethic regarding the place and function of wealth, and the need to include all people, all classes, all needs, material and spiritual.

Augustine centered in on alms-giving for the sake of the poor, rather than the “Games"  as a means of display, and, then, of course, in Rome (a growing clergy group) and Milan (Ambrose), monies were funneled into the churches, the tombs of the saints (special locations, sacred, where heaven and earth were bound together, where miracles occurred - even as the saints prayed for our salvation), and then the monasteries. 

None of this happened over night, but it happened slowly and surely as the church grappled with what the earlier Pagan culture did: i.e. what’s the place of wealth, and how shall the wealthy behave?

Then, or now, wealth was a conundrum - Pelagius suggested that the only way through wealth was for the Christian to give it all away.

Augustine suggested that wealth was a tool for good, and that a Christian could be wealthy, but only by alms-giving, a steady discipline throughout one's life: to secure "treasure in heaven" by providing treasure for the poor, through the the coffers of the church, it’s buildings and its tombs for the martyrs.

My reading makes clear just how challenging it all was ... to find the ways and means of dealing with the one thing that preoccupies most of humanity most of the time: money!

Today, Augustine would lament how the wealthy are inclined to build towers to themselves rather than securing "treasure in heaven" by providing for the poor. Augustine would likely see much of America as nothing more than a Roman Carnival, replete with all the trappings of wealth, clamoring for entertainment, while ignoring the plight of many who “really don’t count.”

Then or now, no system is flawless, but we can't give up the effort, and because the church is no longer the "central bank," so to speak, the government has to function in that regard, and taxation is the tool to bring about a humbling of the rich, and redistribution of wealth, even as alms-giving was the tool then.

And we needn't worry about the rich giving up their desire for wealth. It's in their character, and they'll do it no matter how much they pay in taxes, but in the end, taxes will "save their souls" (if high enough to actually be real giving), whether they know it or not, and in the end, the poor will be comforted, their lot improved, and society changed.


1. What is the place of wealth in the United States? How do we think about it? What’s the purpose of wealth? 

2. The WASP establishment seemingly had a sense of civic duty - what’s happened to this?

3. In Western Michigan, the VanAndels and the DeVoses poured tens of millions into the revitalization of Grand Rapids, including medical research and a host of other means by which the common good of the city is enhanced. I believe this was done out of the goodness of their hearts, and with a sense of Christ, and a commitment to civic good. Yet what I know of their political allegiances (for them, all tied up in their religion) strikes me as inimical to the foundations of democracy, and contrary to much of my Christian faith. What do we make of people such as this? And others of great wealth who dominate the world, who often show up in their “carriages” as did the ancient wealthy, on their way to parties held in honor of the Emperor, to display their wealth and privilege, competing with one another for the largest this and the most beautiful that. Can the church offer anything to this? Other than baptizing it, or condemning it?

4. Augustine and Ambrose were able to challenge people to think eternally - for the Pagan, to mount to the stars; for the Christian, to be with the saints in heaven with Christ. They spoke easily and convincingly about the “transfer of wealth,” from here to there, by giving it to the church, and the church, in turn, caring for the poor, which it most earnestly did, even as it acquired great wealth for itself. What, if any, tools are at our disposal to thinking about wealth today?

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