Much of contemporary spirituality, from forms of Christianity known as the Prosperity Gospel, to distortions of New Thought, to more contemporary forms of spirituality, have as either a primary or a principle goal the accumulation of wealth. If you follow the path, supposedly you will get rich, though honesty compels me to say that is not the experience of most people following this path. Is this a legitimate spiritual goal? Of course, that’s a different question than asking if the accumulation of wealth is a legitimate personal goal. In terms of accumulating wealth as a personal goal, I say go right ahead and knock yourself out. Truly, best of luck to you and I hope you succeed. Keep in mind that, as a group, wealthy people experience less sense of personal satisfaction and contentment than the population at large, so don’t expect it to be a panacea.
In truth, wealth brings with it a host of new concerns. If I am wealthy, I worry about maintaining my wealth. I am deluged by new “friends,” very interested in divesting me of my wealth. Given the human tendency to evaluate ourselves against each other, I wonder if there ever is enough wealth. Only one person can sit at the top of the wealth pile, which means that most people who have that as their goal are going to fail – and failure seldom brings happiness.
Does wealth come our way by virtue of living a spiritually virtuous life? There is no reason to think so. Most of the people we would hold up as paragons of virtue – Mother Theresa, The Dalai Lama, The Pope (I know, I know, but let’s be charitable here), Gurus, Lamas, and others – have renounced wealth. Not all of them, but clearly most of them have done so. There are also examples of religious leaders who have in fact amassed wealth and lived opulent lives, but most of them are criticized for doing so, not adored. To be sure, some of that intentional poverty comes out of a spirituality of asceticism that I don’t endorse, but even in a more horizontal spirituality of non-attachment (e.g. The Dalai Lama) it is recognized that to build wealth is almost inevitably to become attached to money. Attachment is always a barrier to spiritual growth.
The truth is that most of the people who claim that they have prosperity as a result of spiritual development are the very people who teach that faithful people become rich – and they got rich by selling their message. So if prosperity is not the result of spiritual practice, can it be considered a valid goal of spiritual practice? I believe that depends on whether it is a primary or a secondary goal. A primary spiritual goal is what it sounds like – the main focus of our spiritual practice. A secondary goal is a goal that is achieved as a secondary result of working toward the primary goal. Suppose that I resolve to engage in a spiritual practice such as meditation that will help me to take a step back from intense situations and look at them more objectively. As a result, I begin to see that much of what I used to believe were direct personal attacks were actually just people responding out of their own pain and brokenness. This allows me to become more patient, more compassionate, more forgiving. I become a kinder, gentler person at work and my customers and co-workers begin to see me as someone they can trust. As a result, my performance improves and I do more business, get a raise or a promotion, and become more valued. In this scenario, I will certainly be better off financially – not because I set out to become prosperous, but rather because I set out to travel the spiritual path.
Years ago, I heard the story of a bishop in the Independent Sacramental Movement who would dress up in his bishop’s vestments, sit in his church on his episcopal throne (that is the proper, if unfortunate, title for a bishop’s chair in a cathedral) and send people to stand in front of the church like carnival barkers inviting people in to see the bishop. Not surprisingly, he didn’t have many takers. Of the few who did poke their heads inside to see him sitting in his finery, holding his crozier (bishop’s staff), sitting on his throne, most of them asked who this guy thought he was – a very good question, indeed – and left without approaching him. If he had taken off his ecclesiastical drag show attire and gone out into the streets to actually meet and work with people in need, perhaps people would have wanted to speak with him. I believe he would also have lost his desire to sit on his throne offering “audiences” to passersby.
I relate that story because it is very relevant to the notion of having prosperity as a primary spiritual goal. Both situations are all about me, myself, and I. My money, my wealth, my fame, my recognition, and the honor and respect due to me. There is no valid spiritual goal that is all about me! “Me” is nothing more than an ego trip, no matter how well we dress it up and attempt to disguise it, and ego trips are inherently counter-spiritual. Whether it’s ecclesiastical finery or a promise to use our prosperity to help others, such proposals all ask for payment up front (so to speak) based upon a future promise of doing good deeds in return – not exactly a trust based arrangement!
The spiritual path should be about my spiritual growth and development so that I can benefit all living beings. That means that the development of compassion, altruism, patience, and the ability to love wastefully should be primary goals. If money comes along the way, great! There’s nothing wrong with money – or anything else – unless we become attached to it and start worshiping it as some sort of lesser god. The truth is that if money does come, we won’t know how to handle it responsibly unless we have developed the virtues listed above.