China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2009/Feb

Confidence in things unseen and the economy

Faith is the realisation of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 12:1 refers to faith in God, but now that confidence in the economy has been badly shaken, this is a good time to look at the need for faith in worldly aspects of life.

Matter or spirit?

One day, a young Chinese priest got on a bus. Someone noticed his Roman collar and started a conversation with him. The non-Christian was puzzled and asked, “Did you go to high school?” The priest replied, “Yes.” “Didn’t you study materialism?” “Yes.”  “Then how can you believe in God?” That is not an easy question to answer during a ride across town. How would each reader of China Bridge reply? Remember, the curious passenger was assuming a contradiction between being even moderately educated and being Catholic.

In Chinese, “materialism” is “only matter–ism” (唯物主义). Reality is out there, objective, waiting for us to discover and exploit. Science can analyse and explain everything with detachment.

The opposite term, “idealism” is “only xin discourse, or thesis” (唯心论). Xin usually refers to the heart or feelings, not to the brain or rationality, but it also can refer to one’s inner life in general. One school of Chinese Buddhism from over a 1,000 years ago is translated as Consciousness Only. George Berkeley (1685-1753) was a western philosopher who would have had an easy time grasping Consciousness Only. He traced all reality, everything we can possibly perceive, to ideas in the mind of God.

This is rather abstract. Recently some western atheists have made a distinction between “reality-based” (meaning scientific) and “story-based” (meaning religious or mythical). They make this either-or distinction in such a way that they come out looking intelligent.

But is real life either-or? Catholics give serious consideration to both spiritual and material reality, both God and matter, both faith and objective facts. We resist being forced to choose only one of each pair; we reject false dichotomies.

Money now talks less

Let’s get down to money. We can pull a large banknote out of a wallet, stare at it and feel the texture of the paper. Is its value reality-based or story-based? After verifying that it is not counterfeit, most people would say, “This is real money, true wealth.” Yet those who worry about inflation put their trust in silver, gold, platinum and diamonds instead.

A copper coin can disappear by falling to the ground and rolling away, or by the skillful hand of a pickpocket. Either way, that is not a big loss. But in 2008, trillions and trillions of dollars in stocks, derivatives and real estate value disappeared. Where did US$30 trillion ($232.660 trillion) go? The explanation from the experts is that the market value of a stock or a house is how much people are willing to pay for it.

When potential buyers bid up the price, then it increases in worth. When the housing bubble burst and bulls replaced bears on Wall Street, then wealth decreased, first in the United States of America (US) and, shortly afterwards, around the world. On paper, in cyberspace and in human minds, the world was enormously wealthy a year ago. The same physical assets are now worth far less.

What basis for the economy?

To what extent is the global economy reality-based and to what extent is it story-based? For people who are now unemployed and for retired people whose incomes have fallen, this is not an abstract metaphysical question.

Dozens of governments have announced plans to stimulate the economy and create jobs by building or upgrading infrastructure. Pouring concrete and upgrading from copper wire to fibre-optic cables are physical activities. At the same time, officials urge the public to be confident and resume shopping. This is an inclusive, both-and approach, not an either-or dichotomy. Both Wall Street and Main Street, also called “the real economy” have been hit hard. The cure will have to be psychological as well as physical.

Loss of hope, loss of life

When people lose hope in the future, the results are deadly. Already the suicides of several people who were extremely wealthy have made the news. Most of them still had large sums of money in the bank, or at least prestige wristwatches to take to the pawnshop. They were in no danger of sleeping on the street in three months or even three years.

However, when their net wealth shrunk, so did their joy in living. Ordinary people will not get their pictures on television by ending it all, yet they are far more numerous. The suicide rates always rise after a bubble bursts. What did Jesus say? “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal” (Mt. 6:19).

From 1930 to 1935, during the Great Depression, the US birth rate dropped by 12 per cent. This was the time when two-child families first became common in the US. There are couples today who wonder when they will finally be able to afford even one baby.

A Hindu poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), wrote, “Every time a baby is born, it is a sign that God still has hope in the world.”

Hope in the economy disappeared in a few days in mid-September 2008. Add 40 weeks for human biology and births in July 2009 could well be down sharply from a year previously. If births drop in February and March, it can only mean one sad thing: a jump in the number of abortions. Many couples will decide to postpone their weddings also. It will require great faith in 2009 and maybe even in 2010 as well, to say, “God will provide.”

Different kinds of predictions

Will there be a total solar eclipse over central China on this July 22? Yes, definitely! There are websites mapping the moon’s shadow and listing the times for different cities along the path to 0.1 second. Before computers, the calculations were tedious and astronomers using pencil and paper toiled away 400 years ago to predict solar and lunar eclipses to the minute. One of the most impressive skills of Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century was their ability to predict eclipses better than the court astronomers in Beijing.

During the eclipse, will the weather be sunny or cloudy? God knows! Tourists will fly halfway around the world with their cameras, but some will see only clouds. Weather records from earlier years give the chance of sunshine in this and that place, but eclipse chasers know they are taking a gamble. To improve their odds, they will check the weather forecast hour by hour as the eclipse approaches, ready to tell the driver of the tour van to rush 10 or 20 kilometres to where there will be a break in the clouds.

What will be the numbers of major stock indices around the world on July 22? Anyone who knows the answer to that question should be investing in the stock market now, not writing newspaper columns. A year ago, experts were feeding data into supercomputers to predict the market. They got burned as badly as everyone else. Instead of saying, “Science is all-powerful,” or “stock analysts are all-knowing,” a little humility would seem to be in order now.

The three examples above involve two different types of predictions. Eclipses and the weather are “independent of human will,” to use an old Marxist phrase. History’s first recorded eclipse occurred on 22 October 2134 BC, in China, but no one had predicted it. The sun began to disappear without warning and everyone panicked because a dragon was swallowing it. After the dragon spat out the hot sun, the shaken emperor ordered his two incompetent astronomers beheaded.

Since that day, no astronomer has been drunk at the beginning of a solar eclipse. Whatever people think or feel, whether they are alert or asleep, the sun, moon, stars and clouds will do what they will do. This is objective reality, a major part of life.

But if most people think the market will go up, then they will buy stocks. If they panic and sell, then the market will go down. A big part of life hinges on subjective opinion, mass psychology and self-fulfilling prophecies. An either-or approach does not do justice to the complexity of our world.

Economics and ethics

Not every plan to stimulate the economy is good. On January 12, Taiwan voted to open three casinos, not on the main island, but offshore on Penghu (澎湖). This is an attempt to create jobs while confining gambling to one tiny island. Buddhist monks, sisters and laypeople protested with signs reading, “Gambling will pollute the mind,” and “A gambling devil can turn into an angel.” While casinos have a way of attracting other social problems, compulsive gambling is harmful enough by itself. Legalised gambling has never driven illegal, untaxed, gambling out of business.

Last October, Pope Benedict XVI commented on the financial turmoil, “He who builds only visible and tangible things like success, career and money, builds the house of his life on sand.” The Holy Father was alluding to Mt. 7:24-27, the choice between the easy way of building a house on sand and the hard work of digging into rock for a solid foundation. Jesus spoke of wind and rain, storms that hit everyone at least occasionally in life.

The Japanese word tsunami does not appear in the bible. There is archeological evidence that an extremely rare eruption of a volcano in the Mediterranean and the ensuing tsunami devastated the island of Crete around the time of Moses. Last year’s new term, “financial tsunami,” is as contemporary as today’s headlines and any greed, deception or self-delusion that contributed to our current recession is at least as old as Moses.

To recover from the financial tsunami, people have to pay serious attention to both material and spiritual realities, while hoping for better days.