by Howard Hain
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
What has value? What has true, lasting value?
And how do we distinguish between arbitrary and absolute value?
Good questions. Meaningful questions. Questions with great relevance since the first moment of man, and questions still very much relevant today—maybe more so than ever before—as cultures become increasingly pluralistic, governments increasingly complex, and economies, natural resources, and “manpower” increasingly intertwined and qualitatively and quantitatively obscure.
And perhaps nothing better expresses this uncertainty than the incredibly difficult task of evaluating the meaning of money—something that for so long has been so generally accepted—but now a question our present day begs us to ask anew.
What then is the role of currency within our ever-increasing global complexity?
Does “currency” still mean what it meant in its most basic form: A medium of exchange, generally accepted, and possessing integrity with regard to accurately representing the goods, services, and/or resources involved in an exchange?
Complex times, complex questions. I’m sure polished academics, investors, and politicians have complex answers—if they’d even recognize such a naive question in the first place.
Though I have a hunch that if we ask the common man and woman—those who are the actual “human resources” bundled together, broken apart, and tossed back and forth like various sizes of sacks of potatoes—we’d hear a common concern.
I bet the consensus is a growing sense of separation between the real connection between “currency” and the actual “items” being evaluated and exchanged—that the “general acceptance” sees a serious disconnect—no matter how simple or straightforward the words or expressions used to describe it.
Maybe we should follow their common lead. For it just may be our common sense that best suggests the level road. Let’s then move forward by asking a simple and straightforward question: What is made by man and what is made by God?
Such a question quickly restores a humble perspective—one in which the questioner is once again seen as part of the question—viewing God as the Uncreated Creator of all creation, and viewing man as part of it, not the cause of it.
Such a question also reminds us of a comforting reality, one that helps build up our view of humanity, not devalue it: For in God’s eyes, man always has a certain, absolute value, as do animals, plants, and all the earth’s resources: air, soil, water, minerals, metals…every nook and cranny. For God made it all. And what God makes He values. And what God values He values absolutely.
On the other hand, the price we place on them—the fluctuations in “perceptive” worth—is most certainly arbitrary value—completely man-made. In fact, without man there can be no arbitrary value: No man, no human perception, therefore no arbitrary value.
It is worth noting that there seems to be nothing inherently wrong with arbitrary value. But we also know through real experience that freewill and temptation continuously battle it out. We’ve all seen firsthand how arbitrary value can be used quite negatively. It can be manipulated. It can be unjust. It can be a weapon man uses against his fellow-man.
Absolute value is not the same. It never undergoes corruption or discriminates. It never hurts life or creation.
But why do we ask these questions? Why should we wonder about such issues?
Because without big questions—the panoramic views—we ironically lose sight of the intricacies and peaceful beauty of day-to-day reality. In other words, we need philosophers. We need those who ask questions from mountain-peak perspective in order to properly value even the smallest creature within the deepest valley.
It’s about divine perspective. About wisdom: Knowing there’s One Source of all creation, and that all creation—no matter how seemingly infinite and minute its manifestation—is always a reflection of the totality and unity of the One Source.
For the enterprise of philosophy—literally the “love of wisdom”—is not narrow or shallow. It is neither micro nor macro. It is never “either-or”.
Philosophy is not a specific knowledge of a specific something. It is not a specific science encompassing a specific field or a specific mastery of a specific craft or trade. Philosophy is not even a specific art expressing itself through a specific medium.
Philosophy is a relationship. A specific relationship. A love-propelled relationship with wisdom itself. And wisdom is not merely a word existing solely of sound waves and vibrations, nor is wisdom merely a concept existing solely in man’s mind. No, wisdom is beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond ideas. Wisdom is the Ultimate Idea, the Only Concept, and the Unspeakable Word.
Wisdom is. Always. Purely. Absolutely. No starts or stops. No lines, no boundaries. It possesses no arbitrary or man-made qualities.
Wisdom is God Himself.
The philosopher is therefore a lover of God. A lover of the Incarnate Word. Of Incarnate Wisdom. The philosopher is a lover of Jesus Christ—in all His manifestations—in all His creation.
This is why we ask such questions.
True lovers never lose sight of the Beloved. We therefore must never lose sight of true worth and the source of all that has worth. We must correctly identify reality and all that is rightly extracted from it. Leaving behind the rest. For all experience runs through the philosopher’s fingers as if sifting for precious metals—knowing that even what is priceless is not yet our possession.
The philosopher is also a child of faith. And therefore a descendant of the patriarch Abraham, our father in faith, who was promised descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore. We must therefore be willing to lift up and cherish every “worthless” grain. A task we can hardly achieve. But God who created us shows us how.
The answer is quite absurd—making little logical sense—but it is certain and perfect nonetheless. We must recall Christ’s suffering. And we must partake. It is the only way. For by His Cross and Resurrection, Christ sets us free. Free to use freewill properly. Free to distinguish God’s worth from that which disordered man imposed.
And how does that translate into a more pragmatic approach, into a “practical philosophy” that helps “order our days“?
Hope tells us we must stay grounded. Our toes in the dirt. The nitty-gritty of day-to-day life filling our sensitive nose. Our arms stretched wide, unafraid of having our wind unexpectedly knocked out. And all the while, our chins slightly tilted up and away. Our eyes fixed on the Light of Creation—the One Source that burns away all artificial value.