The cult of Mammon and the culmination of Advent

Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival into the world of an altogether different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom.

(Image: Soumyadip Sarkar/Unsplash.com)

We are now near the conclusion of Advent and the Christmas season fast approaches. In the spirit of Advent, I was watching a YouTube video recently about the meaning of the Nativity. Doing so, I was struck by the fact that in a half hour video there were ten commercials, for everything from cheap (yet spectacular) car insurance to pharmaceutical wonder drugs for intestinal bloating. No, I am not setting up here to engage in the usual diatribe against the commercialization of Christmas. I am no Grinch and I have no desire to steal the toys of all the kids down in Whoville. Christmas gift-giving can be magical, especially for kids, and the love and joy that families experience as they exchange presents on Christmas day is an important celebration of how much we care for each other, no matter how trifling the gift.

Rather, my irritation at those commercials isn’t that they represent superficialities—rather, the opposite. The issue is a deeper one than a mere concern for the ephemeral reality of consumerism. In reality, it is a problem I have with the sheer ubiquity of commercials in general as symbolizations of what it is our culture actually believes about what counts as the “really real”. They are the sacramentals of what Berdyaev called “the bourgeois mind” and Augusto del Noce referred to as “the bourgeois cult of material well-being”, which is the dominating ethos of our culture.

From the moment we are born, we are inundated with such images on every platform of our social interaction. They are “reality-making” exercises of an almost cultic dimension. The very essence of “cult” is that it “cultivates” even as it makes sacramentally present to us what we hold most sacred. They represent what enchants us most deeply (the “enchantments of Mammon” as Eugene McCarrer describes them), which is a materialistic worldview dominated by “scientism” and technology as the true religion of our cultural matrix.

What I am talking about is not just the commercialization and commodification of everything, but the entire ordo of our society structured around Mammon. And Mammon means more than just money; it is also the entire nexus of power and influence which is rooted in the generation of money. Our city centers are dominated by towers of glass and steel – the Cathedrals of our age – which define for us via architecture and geography the contours of what really counts as real and important. They are the citadels of our true enchantments and as such constitute the defining core of what St. Augustine called the “City of man” with its collective of concupiscence oriented toward the libido dominandi.

What we see in such a culture is not the overt rejection of God, but his nullification as the central enchantment of reality. It is the elevation of the counterfeit enchantments of the strong gods of our affective desires to a totalizing principle of divine exclusion. It is, as St. Pope John Paul II called it, the eclipse of God as a truly real presence in our social constructions. Millions of people might still practice some form of Christianity, but Christianity is now viewed as an entirely irrelevant matter of private, subjective choice—on par with choosing a cheeseburger over a fish sandwich.

All religions are now considered and treated as equal in the sense that all religions are viewed as equally trivial, having no real purchase on how we construct our social, political, and economic institutions. This time of year, we dutifully set up our nativity sets, right next to the luminous Santa. And when it is all over, we put them back in the garage next to the oily rags and golf clubs. Nor am I judging others here; I too am infected with this bacillus.

I feel it in my bones, which is why it irritates me. I am a leper preaching to other lepers.

What our culture demonstrates is that absent a public affirmation of our fundamental orientation to God we will, by a necessity of the logic of human nature, come to view human beings as merely very smart, relatively hairless apes, who wear clothes, have conservations, and watch “The View”.

Obviously, this is a far less noble view of humanity than that offered by Christianity. And one that leads to a very cynical approach to life in general and of human society in particular. Because, regardless of what the popularizers of the cult of scientism might say in their more poetic moments when speaking about the “beauty” of the cosmos and of science, the fact is this: if I am just an ape with a big brain and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t care, ultimately, about some gaseous and firey star ten billion light years away. Or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats. Or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles.

In other words, when you are told endlessly that there is no meaning to existence beyond the nexus of our material comfort and well-being, then you may well start to think that way. And then everything loses its flavor. Everything starts to taste like rice cakes. Therefore, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot bleach divinity and transcendence out of our social interactions and tell everyone that the whole affair of life is just an aimless and pointless accident—and then turn around and talk to us about the “moral necessity” of this or that urgent social cause. Why should I even care about the future of humanity itself? Why should I care about the ultimate destiny of ambulatory, bipedal, chemistry sets?

Modern secularity, especially now that it has finally eliminated the last vestiges of true Christian influence in our culture, will continue down a path that is rooted in a fundamental and tragic misunderstanding of human nature. This will all continue to move forward under the banner of “science” and “progress” and “being woke” and “on the right side of history” with an increasing percussive force that will blast into dust all who get in its way. But it is hard to understand the conceptual content of what we mean by “progress” when we have been told there is no point to our existence. Progress towards what, exactly? Precisely because no coherent vision of what we mean by “progress” is possible in such a worldview, most likely, “progress” will be dumbed down to mean, simply and frighteningly, an inexorable movement toward eliminating the last restraints on our libidinous desires as choosing individuals, as well as the technological enhancement of the same. The Gulag is not our future. Disney-sex is.

You might say this is all too alarmist, and that there is just too much sanity and common sense and goodness in the average person to let this happen. But that is the thing about the illusions created by sins against truth. Such sins harm our nature, and they also cloud the mind. It robs us of our orientation to God and therefore places our mental focus just enough off center that the arrow will simply fly past the target entirely. In so many areas of life, in other words, we either get it right or it is wrong. We may not know it at the time, like a hiker who gets lost in the woods because of a false first step, but sinful behaviors will eventually lead to sinful attitudes, which thus become our “reality”. Have you ever met people who live lives of utter dysfunction and who are always in some kind of “crisis”, but they don’t seem to have a clue as to why? This is why. Paraphrasing Aquinas, sins against truth make us stupid.

It is precisely because most people are “good” in the conventional sense of wanting good things for themselves and others that they can be led into very destructive ideas and practices if evil is packaged as an attractive counterfeit. Even the sketchy serpent in Genesis had to first convince Eve that eating that dang piece of fruit was a “good thing” that she “ought” to desire despite what mean ol’ God said. God is a buzzkill, and the world gives us liberating shiny things. The hit song by Billy Joel—“Only the Good Die Young”—articulates this nicely: “I would rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”.

What is good becomes bad, and what is bad becomes good. Sins against truth cause illusions that invert reality through a regime of counterfeits. And Satan is the consummate liar. He knows nobody wants to be Hitler. You have to start small and build up to that through a series of clever commercials during the Super Bowl. That is why the best lies are lies that have an element of truth in them, and the best illusions are those that are not utterly fantastical, just as the best counterfeit $20 bill is one that looks shockingly close to the original. I can fool the clerk at the store with a well-made fake $20, but nobody is going to sell me squat if I hand over monopoly money.

Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival into the world of an altogether different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom. It is the intrusion into time and history of an idolatry-busting theo-logic of an infinite power born into a condition of social powerlessness. The infant Christ is already marked with the sign of death – a death that will “pierce the heart” of the mother that bore him. It is a death that will mark the end of the regime of death as Christ descends into the silence of the tomb and into the realm of Satan’s sting in order to destroy it from within.

The chains of the principalities and powers that bind us to the ordo of the libido dominandi will be broken. The strong gods of blood, soil, and disordered desire will have their enchantments demystified and exposed for the illusions that they are.

In their place arises a new enchantment, whose song is sung by an infant destined for Cross and Resurrection. The world’s wrath, symbolized by the blood-thirsty Herod, will miss its mark. And the world’s cynicism, symbolized by Pilate’s question “What is truth?”, will be outed as a sham sophistication rooted in a fetid swamp of worldly despair. O death, where is thy sting? A child’s entry into the world in the anonymity of a stable far from the corridors of wealth and power, has toppled its terror and smashed its horror chamber of illusions and lies.

Sadly, our Church today, as has been the case so often before, often seems content to accommodate the false ordo of the strong gods in a vain attempt to find a place within the comfort zone of bourgeois mediocrity. Therefore, let us turn our eyes to the powerlessness of the Christ child and the reversal of power that he represents. And may our prayer, as this Advent soon comes to end, be that of his mother, who affirmed, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”


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About Larry Chapp 34 Articles
Dr. Larry Chapp is a retired professor of theology. He taught for twenty years at DeSales University near Allentown, Pennsylvania. He now owns and manages, with his wife, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania. Dr. Chapp received his doctorate from Fordham University in 1994 with a specialization in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He can be visited online at "Gaudium et Spes 22".

15 Comments

    • Very beautifully written article. So true that after some 2,000 + years man has not come close to escaping from his needs, wants and desires. God or Mammon ? Free will has doomed man.

  1. It can be overwhelming. That is, massive monuments to man’s ascendancy. Chapp asks to what? Personally, I don’t take issue with great structures, usually the mark of great cultures, Greek and Roman, medieval Gothic. Romanesque, Rome’s great basilicas. Although, when the mindset of people we live with colors our vision, it can indeed be overwhelming.
    Simplicity draws us in a jaded world. Therefore, let us turn our eyes to the powerlessness of the Christ child (Dr Chapp). Here we find the analogy of the builder of great religious structures [after all it was God who instructed David to initiate the work on the great Jerusalem temple]. Sacrosanct until Jews turned to mammon. Jesus told the Apostles not one stone would be left upon another foretelling the first apocalypse. When the Romans came with fervid vengeance it was perceived as the end of the world. The Apostles thought so.
    Does Chapp’s similar allusion to mammon worship, great structures symbolic of Fabro’s Christ in exile? So there are two sides to this greatest story. What will save us from a less gentle, more threatening majestic Christ appearing in the clouds with outstretched convicting arm. It’s Chapp’s appeal to return to the gentle child. The seeming impossible in the world as it stands. Except that we do our part by sacrifice and prayer. The cross, accepted with love for the salvation of our brothers and sisters [what greater gift giving than that?], can work that impossible miracle.

  2. You say “If I am just an ape with a big brain and an accidental byproduct of the cosmic chemistry of stardust remnants, then I really don’t care, ultimately, about some gaseous and firey star ten billion light years away. Or the “fascinating” mating rituals of fruit bats. Or the “poetry” of soil regeneration through dung beetle digestive cycles.” Yet I know a great many people that believe just that and care deeply about their fellow humans, love, art, beauty, and the wonders of the natural world. And they do so from the first emergence of sentience until death.

    • Hello, Steve. It’s my understanding that those same people accept the philosophy that empathy, ethics and the religious sense are the product of evolutionary survival traits enhancing reproduction. Overcoming the “local maxima”, traits “seeking” to barely eke out a rise over the previously advantageous trait, struggling to emerge just enough for reproduction purposes, might produce a degree of empathy, but hardly universal and far short of the “gift of self” (Mt 19:21, etc.) in the gospel. Such gift of self is intended for the social gospel, married spouses, liturgical worship, and every facet of one’s being.

  3. Bah, humbug! Chapp just doesn’t get it! We’ve arrived at market-place Nirvana.

    By the ADS which he disdains, it’s clear that we’ve actually arrived to where every family gets a new 5,000 sq. ft. house for the Holiday Season, or maybe a new Buick at 3.99% APR, or both! Not to mention the happy holiday gatherings, the showcase holiday living room, the ingestion of low-calorie beer, and our competing plastic smiles over the indulgent holiday dinner table. Or pizza, or both!

    Come on, Chapp, get with the program…

    And, why your UNDERSTATEMENT of other holiday blessings—the sarcasm over “soil regeneration through dung beetles’ digestive cycles”? The truth be told, we’re now into market-place soil regeneration by the composting of human remains through either bio-degradation or some kind of aqueous chemistry (take your pick!). The former process was first marketed in Washington (2019), then Colorado, Oregon and Vermont, and likely California (2027). So, the market-place retirement home is now ecologically closed-looped, with the residents rolled out the back door to ensure continued health of the potted plants in the front-door entrance lobby.

    As for morality-free SCIENCE, Albert Einstein himself records a conversation on the likely market-place nuclear arms race, of which he spoke with “an intelligent and well-disposed man.” But the visitor had already crossed that bridge…Said the visitor: “Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?” Hello! Wrote Einstein: “I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind” (“Out of My Later Years,” Philosophical Library, 1950, pp. 124-25).

    Market-place abortion at one end and nuclear holocaust and human composting at the other; what more can possibly be done in the name of desacralization? How about the neglected middle? How about secularist gender theory—and by clerics the suicidal extinction of all human sexual morality, and composting of the Church itself?

    Are Cardinal Hollerich and his twenty-four experts possibly “aggregating, combining, synthesizing” and compos(t)ing that synodal memo even as we speak?

  4. From St. Alfonse Liguori – Fourth Sunday of Advent
    Morning Meditation
    THE SALVATION OF THE LORD

    And all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Gospel of Sunday. Luke iii. 1-6).

    The Saviour of the world, Whom, according to the Prophet Isaias, men were to see one day on the earth — and all flesh shall see the salvation of God — has come. And He came on earth, says St. Augustine, that men might know how much God loves them. And how is it, O my dear Jesus, that Thou dost meet with so much ingratitude from the greater number of men?

    I.

    Adam, our first father, sins, and is condemned to eternal death along with all his posterity. Seeing the whole human race doomed to perdition, God resolved to send a Redeemer to save mankind. Who shall come to be man’s salvation? Perhaps an Angel or a Seraph? No, the Son of God, the supreme and true God, equal to the Father, offers Himself to come on earth, and there to take human flesh and die for the salvation of men. O prodigy of divine love! Man, says St. Fulgentius, despises God and separates himself from God, and through love for him God comes on earth to seek after rebellious man. Since we would not go to our Physician, He deigned to come to us, says St. Augustine. And why did Jesus resolve to come to us? Christ came, says the same holy Doctor, that man might know how much God loves him.

    Hence the Apostle writes: The goodness and kindness of God, our Saviour, appeared (Tit. iii. 4). The singular love of God towards men appeared, as the Greek Text has it. And what greater love and goodness could the Son of God show us than to become Man and a worm like us, in order to save us from perdition? What astonishment should we not feel if we saw a prince become a worm to save the worms of his kingdom! And what shall we say at the sight of a God made Man like us to deliver us from eternal death! The Word was made flesh (Jo. i. 14). A God made flesh! If Faith did not assure us of it, who could ever believe it?

    O my sweet, amiable, holy Child, Thou art at a loss to know what more to do to make Thyself loved by men! It is enough to say that from being the Son of God, Thou Wert made the Son of man, and that Thou didst choose to be born among men like the rest of infants, only poorer and more meanly lodged than the rest, selecting a stable for Thy abode, a manger for Thy cradle, a little straw for Thy bed. And yet few there are who know Thee! Few there are who love Thee!

    II.

    Tell me, O Christian, what more could Jesus Christ have done to win Thy love? If the Son of God had engaged to rescue from death His own Father, what lower humiliation could He have stooped to than to assume human flesh and to lay down His life in sacrifice for His salvation? Nay, I say more, had Jesus Christ been a mere man instead of One of the Divine Persons, and wished to gain by some token of affection the love of His God, what more could He have done than He has done for thee? If a servant of thine had given for thy love his very life-blood would he not have riveted thy heart to him, and obliged thee to love him out of mere gratitude? And how comes it that Jesus Christ, though He has laid down His very life for thee, has still failed to win thy love?

    Men appreciate the good graces of a prince, of a prelate, a nobleman, of a man of letters, and even of a vile animal, and yet these same persons set no store by the grace of God — but renounce it for mere smoke, for a brutal gratification, for a handful of earth, for a whim, for a nothing! What sayest thou, my dear brother? Dost thou wish still to be ranked among the ungrateful ones? Go, seek for thyself one who is better able than God to make thee happy in the present life and in the life to come. Go, find thyself a prince more courteous, a master, a brother, a friend more amiable, and who has shown thee a deeper love. O Lord, who is like to thee? (Ps. xxxiv. 10). O Lord, what greatness shall ever be found like to Thine?

    Love, then, love, O souls, love this little Child, exclaims St. Bernard, for He is exceedingly to be loved. Great is the Lord, and exceedingly to be praised! The Lord is a little One and exceedingly to be loved!

    O my dear Jesus, how is it that Thou dost encounter such ingratitude from the greater number of men? In the time past, I, too, have not known Thee; but heedless of Thy love, I have sought my own gratification, making no account whatever of Thee and of Thy friendship. But now I am sorry for it. I grieve over it with my whole heart. O my sweet Child, and my God, forgive me for the sake of Thy Infancy. Thou knowest my past treasons; for pity’s sake do not abandon me or I shall fall away even worse than before. O Mary, great Mother of the Incarnate Word, do not thou abandon me! Thou art the Mother of perseverance and the stewardess of divine grace. With thy help, O my hope, I trust to be faithful to my God till death.

  5. I just want to point out that Jesus Christ made wine (out of water), at the insistence of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that wine was poured into mouths of people celebrating a wedding, and that wine went down into their stomachs and became digested and parts became integrated into the bodies of the drinkers, and resulted in pleasures of the mind/brain. Our bodies and brains are made of mammon. That’s a fact we must deal with. Even the Apostle Paul enjoyed his lunches sometimes, I imagine. And yes, we have souls, too. So, we must feed both our mammon bodies and our heavenly souls, just as Jesus said to give to Caesar what is his, and to give to Heavenly Father what it his. Maybe I’m a little bit disagreeing with Dr. Chapp, on the ground that he’s promoting a too rigorous asceticism for lay people. I think Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa sometimes promoted a too rigorous asceticism. The cat will meow, and cow will loo, and the dog will have his day.

    • The origin of the greek word for “mammon” shows a different meaning than the one you are use–it is the “treasure a person trusts in”. The point is one of “trust” (or faith); do I trust in God or in some treasure. I think this meaning will help some to explain the essay.

      • (1)
        A good point made by this reply.
        (2)
        My comments above are unsatsifactory.
        (3)
        Mammon is not an exact synomyn for “the flesh,” though there is or can be some overlap in meaning.
        (4)
        We say “The Word became flesh,” speaking of Christ, and that does not mean that the Word became mammon.
        (5)
        And yet, the Word did come to live among mammon and the servants/worshippers of mammon.
        (6)
        So, I admit I find all this perplexing and beyond my comprehension.
        (7)
        I will study and pray, and will probably remain ignorant, but might, by the grace of God, make some progress in understanding someday.

  6. The origin of the greek word for “mammon” shows a different meaning than the one you are use–it is the “treasure a person trusts in”. The point is one of “trust” (or faith); do I trust in God or in some treasure. I think this meaning will help some to explain the essay.

    See “HELPS Word Studies” (e.g., https://biblehub.com/greek/3126.htm).
    3126 mammōnás – a Semitic term for “the treasure a person trusts in” (J. Thayer) who is transliterated as “mammon.”

    [3126 (mammōnás) is probably an Aramaic term, related to the Hebrew term ̓aman (“to trust,” J. Thayer).]

  7. When my wife suggested that we have a neighborhood “Open House Christams Party” instead of buying expensive presents for each other I thought our sons would never go for it. But they said fine and yesterday we had about 60 guests come in and out of the house to wish each other a Christmas greeting and eat snacks of chilli, pan de povo, wontons, choclate bark, tamales, yaki-tori, home-made salsa and chips, etc. that we made, bought or someone brought with them. Who cares if we spent over $1,000, our house is now a mess and that our legs hurt from hosting, serving and cooking because mammon be damned, this is celebration of the birthday of our Lord and Savior. Many signs point to this consumption society and me-me-me society based on seemingly endless prosperity coming to end next year – So all good Christians be of Cheer.

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