The sign and the flesh/11 - Abundance that is not lost and does not lose us is always a gift, gratuitousness.
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 13/02/2022
"Like individuals, nations will never do anything if they are not full of themselves, of self-love, of ambition."
Giacomo Leopardi The Zibaldone, 1728
The wealth of both fruits and talents can become a curse and push towards an idolatry that manifests itself in the multiplication of the altars at which we sacrifice. Hosea knows this well and explains its grammar.
The ability to see the deep pain of the world hidden in the innermost soul of people and living beings is a great wealth, even if, from the outside, it can appear as an added suffering. It allows those who have it to tap into a truer dimension of people's lives and nature, to enjoy more of the fruits of the tree of life. Past generations were equipped to a greater extent with this ability, which grew with the harshness of life - I saw it loud and clear in both my grandmothers, my mother and other women. It is a skill made up of empathy and piety, a little virtue and a lot of gift, which not only shows the secret pains of the hearts of others but also makes you feel, experience and share that same pain. The prophets receive this capacity along with their calling and therefore see, feel and share the pain that they themselves sometimes generate in the people with their words of truth. Without considering their special and different suffering, we cannot hope to understand the prophets, the Bible, or life.
«Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones» (Hosea 10,1). The theme of the curse or paradox of plenty has been recurrent in the comments we have made of the various biblical books over the years. Here, we find it expressed very clearly, even in the (difficult) chapter 10 in Hosea. Wealth and abundance of goods, which in many biblical pages are presented as a sign of divine blessing, show their dark side in other pages. When wealth goes from being a blessing into becoming a curse, because abundance plunges people and communities into a poverty trap. Wealth closes in on itself, people forget the true origin of those fruits and the deadly disease begins. In these verses, Hosea tells us that the generosity of the land of Israel, the land of promise whose extraordinary fertility was part of YHWH's dowry, has become a cause of betrayal. Those lush clusters were not just an economic thing; they were much more: the fulfilment of the promise, the sign that the word of God was effective because it was that of a true God different from other gods. Vines, wheat, figs, were therefore the sacraments of heaven, the new Eden recreated by the covenant with the Fathers after the sin of Adam. They were not the bricks of Babel, they were the fruits of the life saved by Noah, not the first fruits of Cain the fratricide, but those of Abel the just. Herein lies the mystery of the curse of abundance. Because it is precisely that blessed wealth, that nuptial dowry, that fulfillment of the promise of the only true God that becomes misfortune, a sign of idolatry and religious corruption, an indicator of a serious deterioration of faith and ethics - which in the Bible are the same thing: «They make many promises, take false oaths and make agreements; therefore lawsuits spring up like poisonous weeds in a plowed field» (Hosea 10,4).
The increasingly beautiful sacred stones or steles erected in honour of the wrong gods, the altars dedicated to the god Baal and the Canaanite idols, grew together with the wealth of the earth: the more abundant the fruits, the more spectacular the constructions to honour the gods of fertility became: «The people who live in Samaria fear for the calf-idol of Beth Aven» (Hosea 10,5). That wealth, an expression of God's blessing for his people, became the first means of worshiping idols and denying those who had blessed them. Wealth here is not an idolatrous sign in itself; it is not the "mammon" of the Gospels. The idol is not condemnable because it is golden; wealth has not become god in itself. Hosea already spoke to us about these sins in chapter 8. Instead, here, we are facing a different idolatrous process - Hosea is giving us an advanced course on the grammar of idolatry. We must never forget that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, generally does not have a negative view of wealth. Gold only becomes a problem when it is transformed into a god or when it is used to build altars to other gods. These two different forms that idolatry can assume, have their roots in the same sin: the progressive loss of contact with the true economy, that of the fruits. We forget that the wealth and the fruits of the earth are a gift and providence, and we begin to think that they depend on other causes, on the earth itself, and above all on ourselves. Thus, we become ungrateful, self-centered, and we no longer thank the giver of gifts. In fact, idols are never thanked; no gratitude can be exercised towards them because in these cults there is no charis, gratuitousness. The idol is adored only because of interest. Self-referentiality, closure to what is transcendent (idols are always immanent), the disappearance of gratitude, are the first steps of these idolatrous movements.
This is why the "paradox of resources" also explains many forms of anthropological idolatry, which, by analogy, can be described using the words of Hosea. Idolatry, in fact, is a religious and entirely human phenomenon, a disease that affects both religious and atheist people, and relegating it to the exclusive religious sphere of life prevents us from grasping many individual and social processes. We fall into idolatrous pathology when we begin to attribute our riches, talents and gifts solely and entirely to ourselves, to our strengths and to our merits, denying a deeper gratuitousness that inhabits the world and loves us - every meritocracy is ungrateful. Idolatry is a form of narcissism, where the greatest talent becomes an idol, which produces, even here, a neurosis of abundance (not poverty). We lose contact with the greater good outside of ourselves, with an external and higher principle, and we nourish ourselves by consuming our talents until the talent itself is exhausted.
However, in the idolatry that Hosea tells us about in this chapter, as we have seen, individual wealth does not immediately become an idol, instead, it is used as a means to create new divinities and then worship them. Here, the idol is not a talent of our own, it is something external: a person, an idea, a principle, to which we sacrifice all our psychical and spiritual energies. The idolatrous dimension is revealed by the relationship without gratuitousness that is established with the idol. In fact, the intrinsic inconsistency and vanitas of idolatry lie precisely in the absence of gratuitousness. Idolatry, in fact, fails to produce any real advantages for anyone. If I use my talent (intelligence, emotions, empathy...) to manipulate you (or an idea, or a value) and enslave you due to a personal interest of mine, and therefore do not respect you with gratuitousness in your transcendence and freedom, but only or mainly use you to my private advantage, sooner or later this lack of transcendence and freedom will end up making you banal and therefore unable to bring me any advantage. Manipulated people, ideas and values shrink in the hands of the manipulator, becoming petty in their turn and causing others to become petty. The idol becomes the image and likeness of its builder and vice versa, in a downward game of mirrors. This is the main self-defense device that gratuitousness possesses, which despite being highly fragile and exposed to many forms of abuse, nevertheless knows this law which guards it in its extreme vulnerability.
All of this applies to an even greater extent and more clearly on a community level. In the beginning, any charismatic community experience includes both a transcendent promise and gratuitousness: you believe in a free, immense and undeserved gift, and you start your journey following a calling voice. The charisma-gift becomes the springboard for a humanity that is much wider than the private horizon of your own interests. Comrades, friends, followers soon arrive and a charismatic community is formed around the first promise, continuing with the same experience of gratuitousness and infinity. Founders and members clearly know how to distinguish the charism from the giver of the charism, and life grows. Soon, the first abundant fruits arrive, and with them, the Bible tells us that the idolatrous phase can begin, which is an (almost) necessary step in the journey of a community. This can take various forms, including the curse of abundance. The fruits that arrive, which at the beginning were clearly and solely considered a gift, gradually begin to be interpreted as a merit of the charism. The community falls in love with the fruits it bears and the miracles it works, losing contact with external life, mixed and ordinary. While in the beginning it was the community that shaped itself on its external and higher ideal and changed every day, in the proto-idolatrous phase it is the ideal that increasingly begins to resemble the community it generated, an immobile community that becomes the form within which the ideal must fall. We already find ourselves in the phase of the altars and steles of Hosea, are created and maintained thanks to the abundant fruits.
As soon as the idolatrous process begins, however, the fruits begin to diminish, and the inexorable decline of the community begins, sometimes announced by its own prophets, who remain unheard. «The high places of wickedness will be destroyed - it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, “Cover us!” and to the hills, “Fall on us!”» (Hosea 10,8). The communal decline begins precisely at the moment of the maximum level of abundance of the fruits that generate the multiplication of the altars, even when these are created with the conviction that we are still worshiping the same God as in the beginning. If it weren’t for the prophets who unmask our idolatries, we would quietly and in good faith continue to create altars to honour the idols to whom we will give the name of YHWH and Jesus. The growth of the steles, of the works that celebrate success, the pride in the strength of the created empire, the increased number of members («Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors» Hosea 10,13) are not seen by the community as betrayal or, even less, as idolatry, but as praise of the charism and its fruits.
Yet the message of Hosea and the prophets is formidable and very clear: when people begin to multiply altars and steles, when they feel strong and powerful thanks to the fruits they are bearing, they already find themselves inside an idolatrous cult, even if they are not aware of it. The prophets, on the other hand, perhaps only them, know; and thus they criticize our empires, they sing of the desert, they sing of the movable tent, they sing of the bare wealth of the single voice. Because they know that only smallness and weakness can hear and accept an infinite promise of gratuitousness. Thus, they invite us to dismantle our towers, to destroy our altars and steles, and return poor and free wandering Arameans. However, as we love our illusions too much, we do not, and hence they continue their song.