May 10, 2013

The Value of the Priceless


Text: John 14:27b: “I do not give you as the world gives.”

I work among a number of researchers. They come from a variety of fields and disciplines. A fairly significant share of them are economists. I count them as my colleagues, although I am sure most of the time they are not quite sure what to think of me.

I studied just enough economics as an undergraduate and graduate student to be able to read the Wall Street Journal without resorting to a dictionary. My colleagues who live and work in that field are usually distinguished by quantitative talents that range from exceptional to truly profound. They have a gift for remodeling much of the world around us, things we don’t even think of as involving economics, in the terms of utility calculations and transactional exchanges.

There is a tired old line about economists being the sort of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Actually, I don’t agree with that. And in any case it’s a line of Oscar Wilde’s, and he wasn’t talking about economists—he was talking about cynics. Although it is true that there are a good number of cynics to be found among the ranks of economists.

One thing I have picked up from being around such colleagues is the discipline of their focus on a particular way in which we humans navigate our way through the decisions we make. The are almost exclusively interested in how we come to an understanding of the usefulness of one option over and against another. The idea behind this is that we always seek to maximize utility in the choices we make.

So if you bought a cup of coffee this morning then you found more utility in the coffee than in the two dollars and fifty cents you spent to buy it. Or if you decided instead to keep the money in your bank account, then you decided that the two dollars and fifty cents had more utility than the coffee, at least in the moment of decision.

This is the thinking behind a basic rule of experiments in economics, which is that choices have to be incentivized in order for an experiment to explain something useful about how people decide. What that means is, something of real value, specifically money, actual cash money, has to be at stake.

It’s an elegant way of looking at the world, and of understanding why we make the choices we do. The problem comes when it escapes the safe corral of experimental science and becomes a kind of life philosophy, a worldview, a moral compass. Because then it becomes something else, something called “economism,” an idea that reduces all social facts, all human relationships, all ideals, all actions to economic transactions.

In that world there is no altruism. There is no charity. There are no public goods—the things we all contribute toward to make available for everyone. Or, at least, there shouldn’t be; nothing should exist without a transactional value.

That sounds like a strange kind of imaginary place, except that it is closer to the reality of our culture than you might want to think. We live in a world in which the value of something is determined by its worth at exchange.

The simplest example I can come up with for what I’m talking about is Antiques Roadshow. I confess I am completely hooked on this show. And if you’ve ever seen that show even once, you know that each and every encounter between an appraiser and the person who lugged in their mother’s hope chest or their father’s early-American anvil is absolutely formulaic: What can you tell me about this object? Now let me tell you about this object. Have you ever had it appraised? What do you think it’s worth? Well, here’s what it would sell for at auction.

Everything, absolutely everything follows the same logic. It’s interesting, and it holds to the very end the thing we’re most interested in—the price. But that tells you something about how we see the world. Imagine a world in which the conversation started with the estimate, because the thing we most wanted to hear was the story behind the object. Wouldn’t that be odd? We’d probably get tired of listening to all of that.

•  •  •

We live in a world suffused by the constant assessment of value. And in the midst of that world we offer a message that has absolutely nothing to do with value calculated in such a way. We offer something of immense value that has no price, that cannot be estimated in terms of its value at exchange. Because it cannot be exchanged. It can just be given away.

Just to frame it in the terms of Antiques Roadshow, we actually believe that the conversation itself is the point. For us, the price of the item is uninteresting and irrelevant.

That by itself makes us something of an oddity to most of the world around us. There is often a fear that the church is becoming irrelevant or outmoded or anachronistic or out of step with the world us. And to some extent we certainly are out of step.

But that is not only, not even mostly, because there is something stiff or stubborn about the church. It is because over the years of our lifetimes the culture in which we live and move and have our being has been moving at speed in the direction of a narrow kind of economism.

So why would anything we have to offer be at all interesting to the people around us?

When we lived in a place called “Christendom,” when the stores were always closed on Sundays and you could never buy alcohol then, when the school sports practices and games were never scheduled on Sunday mornings and the social norm was for everyone to be a member of a church somewhere of some sort, we never really had to figure out an answer to that question.

But now we do. And the answer we have is elegantly simple. It’s that we have learned that being fully human, living a life as deeply and richly lived as possible, is only possible when you live in constant awareness of the possibility of the sacred in every aspect of this world. It is only possible when you live in service to something greater, larger, more uplifting than your own utility. And it is only possible when you escape the isolation of calculation and risk the possibility of being a part of a community of people who are trying to figure it all out along with you.

That is what Jesus gives those of us who try to earn the title of disciple. That is the offer on the table. It has no price; in the fullest sense of the word, it is priceless. It comes to us not just despite our deserving-—or lack of it—but without any expenditure. And all we can do with it once we find it is give it away, because even though it is the thing we have that is most valuable it can’t be sold for anything.

Two thousand years ago, Tertullian wrote in defense of the earliest Christian communities by pointing out that they had learned something of profound value: “nothing of God can be obtained by money.” If we do not seem to easily to translate into the terms of the world around us, that is why. But that doesn’t matter. We have a pearl of great price, a treasure of incalculable value, given to us by the love that made us, and offered to us only for the cost of truly and fully accepting it. Amen.