What Is the Math of Spiritual Goods and Why Is The World Such a Deadly Place Without It?

In an increasingly materialistic and secular world, a deadly math has set up. It is deadly because it has rejected the spiritual math of God and of spiritual goods.

What is meant by “spiritual math”? It is a math that recalls that spiritual goods, in themselves, do not admit of division and subtraction, but only of multiplication and addition. Rather than diminishing, spiritual goods grow when shared. And this is a critical math never to forget.

This “strange,” spiritual math is announced in the opening moments of the Great Easter Vigil. During the Paschal Proclamation (more widely known as the Exsultet) comes a line that speaks to the reality of the Paschal candle, of a Church now ablaze with hundreds of smaller candles lit from it and held by worshipers:

A fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing its light!

Yes, here is declared the divine economy, the mathematics of spiritual goods. The flame is divided but undimmed. This is a strange sort of division and subtraction; it’s not really division or subtraction at all, for nothing is lost and all is gained! We struggle for words to describe it. We speak of “division,” but really we experience something closer to distribution. And thus something “divided” becomes more, not less of what it is.

A modern analog of this insight is, “Hugs multiply when shared.”

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas expresses well this paradoxical math and the truth of spiritual goods:

Contrary to spiritual goods, material goods divide men because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number (Summa Theologica, IIIa q. 23 art. 1, ad 3um).

And he states the complementary truth, Spiritual truths can be possessed by many at the same time unlike material goods (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae q. 28 a. 4).

Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange comments on this same truth:

Therefore whereas the unbridled search for material goods profoundly divides men, the quest for spiritual goods unites them, and this union is all the more evident as we seek the superior spiritual goods. … When we give away money, we no longer possess it; when, on the contrary, we give God to souls, we do not lose him; rather we possess him the more (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol 2, Tan Publications, p. 141).

Beware a culture that loses the insight of spiritual math and has only material math before it. Indeed, what happens to a culture that becomes almost wholly focused on material goods and at the same time denigrates and marginalizes spiritual goods? Well, using these insights of Fr. Lagrange, divisions increase, fears of diminution increase, and power struggles ensue. There emerges a constant dialectic of scarcity and competition. Fears of “the other” grow; they take shape in things like identity politics, fear of overpopulation, worry about unemployment, etc.

Never mind that people don’t only take from markets and resources; they also add to them by contributing labor and talent and by buying products and services. And even more, a materialistic culture ceases to appreciate the less-material human resources such as ingenuity, creativity, love, generosity, altruism, hope, laughter, faith, confidence, and companionship. These values and virtues are not only important of themselves, but, even though metaphysical, they affect the physical world by enlarging possibilities through discovery and creativity.

But never mind all that. The material world focuses only (and necessarily) on matter, which is a diminishable quantity.

And here is the danger: with no spiritual math to balance the physical math, fears, divisions, and conflicts increase. Yes, because we forget the math of more spiritual goods (where things increase by being shared), there is little to balance our fears and the conflicts and power struggles that come from them.

It is no accident that as atheistic and materialistic philosophies multiplied in the early 20th century, there erupted a level of violence, war, and struggle of unprecedented proportions. Two world wars killed tens of millions, countless other wars and conflicts (mainly rooted in the “Cold War”) claimed millions more, and as many as 200 million were killed at the hands of Mao, Stalin, Pohl Pot, and others. Abortion has killed hundreds of millions more. Repressive population policies in China and elsewhere (through UN-sponsored organizations) have also prevented life through contraception.

So much of this violence has occurred based on the mere math of the physical order, in which there are only diminishable quantities. It is a math that says that there’s not enough for both you and me. Neither is there enough room for both your views and mine, because then my view/group might have to share resources with you/yours. Therefore you must be minimalized, marginalized, and if necessary, encouraged to leave the planet.

The secularists like to state that “more have died in the name of religion than for any other cause.” It is hard to understand how they can maintain this conclusion after reading the history of the bloody 20th century, which accumulated death tolls unimaginable in prior centuries. And these deaths were by and large in the name of materialism, not religion.

To be fair, people have died for religious reasons, and in not insignificant numbers. But it was not because of spiritual goods per se, but rather through their being too tied to material goods. Princes, popes, and rulers too often had property and power tied up in religious realities. And religious truth was also very tied to the social order and the distribution of power.

This is why Jesus warned that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. As such, He exemplified the danger of linking spiritual goods with temporal ones. In such settings, spiritual math is too easily swallowed up by material math.

As secular materialism spreads, so does its math of diminishing resources, the idea of the zero-sum game. In that sort of a world, you are my competitor, my enemy. When I forget spiritual goods like ingenuity and creativity, which can often overcome looming scarcities; when I discount other spiritual goods you bring to me such as companionship, artistic giftedness, faith, and the power of your prayer; then you are not just a threat to me—you are an unmitigated threat. Physical scales quickly tip in our minds when we forget that spiritual goods are in the balance and that they increase when shared.

But a secular word dismisses spiritual goods and thus ushers in a very dark fear. Welcome, then, to the culture of death: contraception, abortion, infanticide, physician-assisted suicide, punitive population policies, genocide, pogroms, eugenics, ethnic cleansing, and the selective abortion of “undesirable” children (the “wrong” sex or who have possible disabilities). The culture of death emerges in a secular, materialistic world where the only math is diminution.

Yes, death, the strangest therapy of all, becomes an increasingly widespread and supported policy in a material world bereft of the math of spiritual goods. And Dr. Death, a materialist through and through, is speaking to you and your children. He says,

“You are threat to me and mine. You use up what I might need. Meanwhile, you bring little or nothing to the zero-sum material world. You have to go, really. In fact, it’s too bad you ever existed at all. At least join me in making sure that many others never see the light of day.”

Beware the math of the material world, uninfluenced by the God’s math: the math of shared spiritual goods! The math of the material world is dark, dangerous, and deadly.

13 Replies to “What Is the Math of Spiritual Goods and Why Is The World Such a Deadly Place Without It?”

  1. Indeed, division is destroying the Church, what with the 33,000 denominations. Christians declaring themselves yet there is no unity. Subtraction-the removal of the babies from the supposedly the safest and protected place the baby can thrive, the mother’s womb. The baby being divided up with their parts sold as commodity by women who claim their rights being diminished. Politicians reducing their dignity just so they can uphold their party lines. Churches with less and less attendees. LORD show us the the spiritual math of YOUR Providence that we can learn that all things are from YOUR Goodness and Mercy.

  2. Awesome I’ve been mulling over the concept of a spiritual economy that grows out of social justice. Sometimes it’s easier to understand something when it’s missing. These days I think we are in a spiritual recession; to extend the metaphor. Just a thought, thanks again for an enriching post.

  3. There is overlap between the material and spiritual realms. Intellectual property can be subject to arbitrary restriction, and can be stolen where such restriction is legitimate. In the “material” realm, when the ancient Hebrews refused to obey God’s laws for them regarding tithing, He challenged them to be generous, to test Him for His reaction: “Put Me to the test … and see if I do not open the floodgates of heaven for you, and pour down upon you blessing without measure!” Because He cannot be outdone in generosity, the act of giving to the poor whose due it is to receive our surplus subjects material goods to spiritual math, in which both augmentation and diminution are true, effective operations. Three late revolutions, the Agricultural in the 18th, the Industrial in the 19th, and the Information revolution in the 20th century, all based in the essentially spiritual domain of knowledge, only served to increase starvation, poverty and ignorance, as men tried to build the City of the World rather than relying upon God to bring them to His eternal city. Therefore, the spiritual poverty which increasingly afflicts mankind is far more devastating than any merely material want.

  4. “This is why Jesus warned that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head. As such, He exemplified the danger of linking spiritual goods with temporal ones.”–That’s a good insight.

  5. A huge “thank you”, Msgr. Pope, for this rich food today! Our family found out that we’re losing our home next fall because our bank deliberately misled us in the mortgage process & our payment is being raised beyond what we can afford. In praying about the situation, I experienced a complete emptiness-no faith, no hope, no charity–nothing. Had never experienced that before & it led me to believe God had taken what little He’d given me. This morning while I was praying, He let me see the Holy Family in the cave where Jesus was born. No angels or shepherds–just Them. The peace, beauty & simplicity in that scene gave me hope! My husband & I agree that we can’t handle being a part of today’s world–it’s destroying us! Way more complicated than it has to be. We don’t understand the computer requirements for everything & don’t want to. We haven’t watched TV for decades & don’t miss it. We want to love God & His Church & His People, help those who need us like neighbors used to do. Do we sound like we’re nuts? Maybe! But, I think it’s time to disengage from today’s putrid society & live as simply as possible, in a way that pleases Our Lord & doesn’t cause us to fall into despair.

    1. Hi.
      Firstly, I’m very sorry to hear about your troubles – I will be praying for you. Secondly, it sounds to me that you’re embracing what has come to be known as the ‘Benedict Option’; a term coined by Rod Dreher for precisely what it is you’re contemplating. The ‘Benedict’ referred to is, of course, St. Benedict, who withdrew from the decadence of society in order to spiritually ‘re-charge’ and offer an alternative witness to the world. Put ‘Benedict Option’ in your search engine and you’ll see what I mean. God bless.

    2. God bless you Mega! This i the path to wisdom. For our world is in so many ways a swamp. When we go through such trials-i walked your path, we can find real meaning in our seeming desolations. Seeming because i have found that our God allows such things to afford us the opportunity to grow in Him. When i look back at 2006 and the loss of all my family and home, i can smile. For my life, as yours will be, is infinitely better, richer and so much more meaningful.

      i live in Abba’s Cottage as a renter, but it is home. A place of quiet, peace and such interior joy i can most days barely hold it in. i pray this for you and your family. Like you, i threw TV out, spending my days helping others less fortunate and in prayer. Every day i thank God for taking all from me and replacing it with Him and His love. Human houses are brick and mortar. God’s homes are castles of hope and love.

  6. Hi, I’m a Christian and I love Jesus and I know he loves me and I know I will go to heaven because I have excepted Jesus as my Savior and was baptized. That being said I am looking for a Church where abortion is ok and also homosexuality and same sex marriage as well as divorce. If it is a Church that has doctrine contrary to any of these, it is ok as long as Priests/Preachers and those in authority and others will turn their heads with a wink and a nob (you know what I mean 🙂 I like to help others and I do charity work now too and I am very accepting and loving of everyone, I think I would be a good fit in a church like this and would have a lot to contribute. If you will help me find the best of any of these kind of Church’s I would appreciate it so much! God bless you and peace be with you!

  7. Nice Aha moment.

    Love–the more I give away, the more I have. However, if I try to take love from others, the more I do that the emptier my heart becomes. This works in the exact opposite of material things.

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