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.