Discerning Motivation

Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.” Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? And you say, “If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.”

Matthew 23: 16-18

Some have said that the primordial American philosophy is pragmatism. What matters ultimately is the result of our actions. Why we do what we do is less important than its outcome. It is the result that is the important thing. In this sense the measure of the human person lies in the functional dimension of human personality.

In the spiritual traditions, however, intention is most important. Why we do what we do is the measure of our soul and of our fulfilling of our destiny in the world. In today’s gospel Jesus challenges the scribes and Pharisees. He tells them if their motivation is wealth, or status, or self-promotion then any convert they make will be but a reflection of themselves.  Whatever “apparent” good that is done will, in the long run, prove hollow or destructive if it is done for the wrong reason.

This teaching is difficult to understand and apply because we, in our complex natures, are at least potentially no less “blind” than the scribes and Pharisees. Our own deeper motivations are often hidden not only from others but also from ourselves. We are formed not only by our faith tradition but also from the the formation traditions in which we have developed. Wealth, power and success are prime values for those of us brought up in the relatively affluent countries of the north and west. In fact, both overtly and subtly, closeness to God and prosperity have come, in the actual religious practice of many, to be indistinguishable. Even in religious communities of faith “success” is measured by what we have to show for our efforts, for example, the size and competitive success of our institutions.

In the gospel today, Jesus warns that in even the most sacred of endeavors we must be on the watch for our complex motivations. It is possible for us, as St. Paul tells the Corinthians, to give our bodies to be burned without love. And if we do so, it profits us and the world nothing. Far too often, people passionately devote their lives, and even sacrifice them, on the altar of success and status. It is possible to build huge economic empires and to achieve positions of power over others, and yet to have no sense, once the position is achieved, of what the power is for. There can be no sense of serving others because one has never developed the motivation of living one’s life in service to someone or something greater than oneself.

As our technological capacities rapidly develop, for example in the realm of medical technology and genetic manipulation, we and perhaps the entire human race are faced with the question of whether or not we should always do what we are able to do. If any, what are the boundaries around human power that are to be respected? After the test of the first atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the bomb said: “. . . the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” It is common knowledge that Oppenheimer spent the rest of his days attempting to reverse the outcome of the work that he and his colleagues had produced. Humanity is now on the verge of what is potentially the greatest medical breakthrough in history, the ability to reverse genetic markers for deadly and chronic conditions before these conditions ever occur. Yet, the debate around this has already begun. Does it mean we should or must do something because we now can?

The teaching of Jesus gives us no specific answers to these questions. To think that it does is to reduce these foundational teachings to “recipes for living” that destroy their significance. What they do is to remind us, in the deepest sense, to ask ourselves the question. As we do our work in the world, are we swearing by the temple of the gold in the temple? Is our focus, our intention, service to the Divine reality at the heart of all creation, or is it the pragmatic furtherance of our own advancement as our culture measures it?

This challenge of the gospel applies in both the large and small decisions of our lives. There are practices in every spiritual tradition that are designed to remind us to pause before we act and to remember the reason behind our action. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord alone.” (Deut. 6:4) Perhaps one of the greatest dangers of being formed in a secular culture is that we lose a consciousness of our own context. We are not separate and autonomous beings whose every action does not have an effect on the whole. What we do and say, how we act toward others and how we treat our world effects all of reality for good or ill. The measure of our action is not merely the status of wealth or power it procures for us in the moment. The way we treat each other today; the way we do our large and small tasks; the footprint we leave on our planet in each of our actions today; all of these things will have an effect that long outlasts us. This awareness of reality, however, depends on our knowing the difference between the temple and the gold of the temple, between the faithful and humble servants that we are created to be and the institutions that we build, between the apparent success that we have and the self-sacrificing love that we offer.

Among the devotional prayers we said in my early years in the Community was the “Offering of Works.” In that prayer, which we repeated often throughout the day, we would say, “Lord, I am about to perform this action for the love of you. . . . Grant me the grace to do it so as to render it acceptable in your sight.” In his inaugural address John F. Kennedy famously said that we were to remember “that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” We must remember, however, that our work must also be God’s work. As free, we can do what we want to do. To be all that we are meant to be, however, we must first of all, as Jesus says, do the work we have been given to do, that is, God’s work. What we call the harmony of action and contemplation, what makes us, in the understanding of Jan van Ruusbroec, the “common person,” is when our actions come from a place in us of contemplation, from doing, as Jesus says in John’s gospel, “only what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19).

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me. It goes back to that moment of its creation, Zuckerberg at his keyboard after a few drinks creating a website to compare people’s appearance, not for any real reason other than that he was able to do it. That’s the crucial thing about Facebook, the main thing that isn’t understood about its motivation: it does things because it can. Zuckerberg knows how to do something, and other people don’t, so he does it. Motivation of that type doesn’t work in the Hollywood version of life, so Aaron Sorkin had to give Zuck a motive to do with social aspiration and rejection. But that’s wrong, completely wrong. He isn’t motivated by that kind of garden-variety psychology. He does this because he can, and justifications about ‘connection’ and ‘community’ are ex post facto rationalisations. The drive is simpler and more basic. That’s why the impulse to growth has been so fundamental to the company, which is in many respects more like a virus than it is like a business. Grow and multiply and monetize. Why? There is no why. Because.

John Lanchester, “You Are the Product,” London Review of Books, 17 August 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*