The Divine Economy – The Eggplant
One of my favorite series of books right now is the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, in which he has built an intriguing world around the insight that, at some level, religion is transactional. From this perspective, humans praise and worship gods, offer them sacrifices, and donate their time and wealth to the gods’ institutions, all of which increase the gods’ power and influence; the gods in turn use their power to bless their worshipers, offering tangible and intangible benefits both generally and to specific worshipers (in response to prayers or other petitions). With this insight, Gladstone then builds a world in which humans have identified and quantified the soulstuff that serves as the means of religious transactions, which in turn allows for the union of the religious economy and the purely human monetary economy.
The books take place in the aftermath of the God Wars, cataclysmic battles between the old regional divinities and Craftsmen and Craftswomen, humans who, having attained the power of gods through their study and accumulation of soulstuff, sought to replace divine authority with human power. Most of the surviving gods are in hiding or bound to humankind and the human economy by contracts far more quantified and detailed than the old covenants between gods and their worshipers. The post-war world is ruled by Craftsmen and Craftswomen who are simultaneously wizards and lawyers of the most careful sort.
The five novels of the Craft Sequence are thus an unusual but compelling mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller. In Three Parts Dead, the first published, a junior Craftswoman and a grieving acolyte team up to investigate the death of a god whose demise was engineered through manipulation of his contractual obligations. Another, Full Fathom Five, deals with strange happenings on an island where new idols with no native worshipers are used like offshore bank accounts.
Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable reads (where else are you going to find an amusing and plausible answer to the question of what happens when a caffeine addict is turned into a vampire?*), Gladstone’s novels are particularly thought-provoking for us as Christians. They force us to confront the possibility that we are treating religion as transactional rather than relational. Do I pray in the hope that God will do something for me or because I hope to deepen my relationship with God? Am I giving of my resources to help ‘the least of these’ in an attempt to love them as Jesus loves me, or to “score points for the afterlife” (as Weird Al phrased it in “Amish Paradise”)? Do I think of storing up treasure in heaven as the less tangible equivalent of saving money for retirement? And how might we be misunderstanding God if we treat worship in this way?
In a particularly resonant scene from Four Roads Cross, the leaders of a church confront this issue. Kos’ beloved consort Seril (the moon goddess to his sun god, as it were) was thought killed in the God Wars but has recently emerged from hiding, alive but greatly weakened. Kos has been covertly strengthening her with gifts of his soulstuff, but the human concerns to which he is contractually obligated have noticed something amiss and are threatening Craft action that will essentially lobotomize Kos if he doesn’t desist. During deliberations, Kos’ cardinals invite the novice who communicates directly with Kos to testify as to why he advised the god to continue aiding Seril despite the possible consequences. He says:
Last night, he led me to understand himself: Lord Kos loves, and he must fight to defend those he loves. He would not be himself if he let Seril fall, any more than I would be myself if I abandoned my friends, or my church. To turn from that truth is to turn from him – to deny our living god and satisfy ourselves with the worship of his dead image, of a picture on a wall that does not change or ask us to change. We must accept that he needs her, that he was less in her absence. You say I have endangered our god. I say I have grown to know him, and the greater danger lies in deafening ourselves to his purpose, in abandoning his truth for a version of him that may seem comfortable. Faith is a state of constant examination and openness. In faith we must be vulnerable. Only in this seeming weakness do we live with god.
We run a similar risk: it is too easy for us to follow a dead image of the divine that demands church attendance, tithes, or certain behaviors in exchange for wealth, health, and power. But the nature of our living God is to love, to give love freely in the hope that we will be similarly free in loving one another; the economy of divine love operates very differently from the monetary economy. That creates potentially scary uncertainty: there’s no price sheet telling us that a certain gift to the church will result in us getting a raise, handing this many sandwiches to the poor will bring victory to our football team, or saying so many Our Fathers will shave a year off our time in heaven’s waiting room. We can do everything right and still suffer bad things.
In that vulnerability and uncertainty, we must treat God as something more than an ATM which cannot help us if our account is empty. We cannot act as though Gladstone’s insight is true for us, that our religion is transactional, if we hope to deepen our faith during our journey through life. It is only in relating to God as a friend rather than a store clerk that we truly grow to know God.
*According to Four Roads Cross, it isn’t pleasant. Unlike those addicted to recreational drugs, who can drink the blood of human users to get their fix, coffee-loving vampires have to put up with the headaches and muscle cramps because “by the time I wake up, most of you have metabolized your caffeine.”
The Rev. John Adams