Several friends helped my wife, Catherine, and me move into our first apartment, down and then up two steep and narrow sets of stairs. Three items seemed almost impossible to get up those stairs: a fragile old chest of drawers my wife had inherited from her grandmother, a queen-sized box spring, and an unfathomably heavy sofa bed.
We christened them the Ordeal of Delicacy, the Ordeal of Dimension, and the Ordeal of Strength. Twenty years later we remember those ordeals; the friends who cheerfully endured them with us, sweating and swearing on a hot June day; and the sense of relief when we managed to overcome each one.
A few years later, it was time to move again when my wife took the job she has held ever since. This time, the college that hired her covered the moving costs.
The professional movers went through the same ordeals on our behalf that our friends had gone through a few years before—sweating and likely swearing as well—but I certainly cannot remember their names, or even a hint of their faces. They were paid, fairly, to do a fair job. And once the job was done, they were gone.
This is the power of money: It allows us to get things done, often by means of other people, without the entanglements of friendship.
To this day, I owe my friends something for the move early in our marriage—at the very least, my thanks and my affection. Indeed, I already owed them something before the move. To be a friend is to be intertwined with someone else in a loose but permanent way.
But our relationship, such as it was, with the professional movers was different. It began and ended with a modern form of magic—a transaction that, without the slightest actual effort on our part, transported all our possessions from Boston to Philadelphia and set them down, unharmed, in our new home. The moment the movers placed the last box in our living room and departed, our dependence on them was at an end.
The experience was relationally weightless, imposing no burden and leaving no trace. It illuminates the most distinctive thing that money allows us—as well as its most seductive promise: abundance without dependence.
Money has contributed, genuinely, to human flourishing. It has facilitated the extraordinary exchange of value unlocked by the industrial and computational revolutions. A good job well done and fairly paid—as I believe was the case for the men who helped in our move—contributes to human dignity and the common good.
But money has not helped us to thrive as persons in the ways that matter most. It operates in a sphere where heart-soul-mind-strength complexes designed for love are simply not relevant. It is designed for a world where we do not need love, or even relationship, to get what we want. The more time we spend in the world that money makes, the more we become conformed to its image.
There is a name for this global system, the system that powers and is powered by the technological magic we all wield to some extent on a daily basis. It is an ancient name, and I have come to believe it is best understood as a proper name—that is, not just a generic noun but a name for someone.
The name is Mammon.
We encounter this name in one of Jesus’ most stark and unsettling pronouncements, rendered this way by the King James Version: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). In speaking about the danger of earthly treasure in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus describes Mammon as a rival to God, an alternative lord.
Mammon is an Aramaic word, and the apostles who preserved Jesus’ teachings generally translated them from Aramaic into the Greek their readers knew best. They could easily have done so with Mammon, using words for money or even wealth that have little negative connotation. Instead, they left this Aramaic word untranslated, suggesting that it had particular significance.
By the first centuries of the Christian church, teachers and bishops had concluded that in using the name Mammon, Jesus had in mind not just a concept but a demonic power. Money, for Jesus, was not a neutral tool but something that could master a person every bit as completely as the true God. Mammon is not simply money but the anti-God impetus that finds its power in money.
And the more we understand the distorting power of Mammon in the human story, the more it does seem to take on a will of its own. What Technology Wants, the title of the 2010 book by Kevin Kelly, seems like a slightly exaggerated rhetorical flourish—but a book called What Mammon Wants would have an enormous and terrifying plausibility.
For Mammon does want something very much indeed, because Mammon is ultimately not at all just a thing, or even a system, but a will at work in history. And what it wants, above all, is to separate power from relationship, abundance from dependence, and being from personhood.
This is why technology, adopted with such enthusiasm for its potential for human flourishing, so often seems to go strangely off the rails. As the Christian theologian Craig Gay perceptively observes in his book Modern Technology and the Human Future, technology does not exist primarily—and never existed primarily—to serve us or support “ordinary embodied human existence.”
Rather, Gay argues, it has always been developed to serve first and foremost the generation of economic profit—whether or not it also contributes to real, personal flourishing. This is a subtle but important point. In many cases, technology does truly bring good into our lives. Hospitals use automated infusion pumps to administer precise doses of medicine according to a rigorous schedule, relieving human beings of a task that even the most dedicated nurses would find hard to perform consistently. When such benefit for human beings aligns with economic profit, technology “wants” it.
But technology also “wants” things that do not confer net benefit on any human beings other than the owners of technology companies. The insurance company that pays for infusion pumps can also gather medical data, divorced from both human context and human responsibility, in order to make more profitable decisions about what conditions—and perhaps eventually what individuals—it refuses to insure.
While these impulses are reined in to some extent by regulation, there is no doubt that, left to their own devices, the companies that deploy technology “want” this outcome too.
Sometimes the results are mixed. Human beings may well benefit, for example, by having access to unlimited amounts of recorded music from all over the world and from the whole history of recorded music. Sure enough, technology is glad to provide that—at an economic profit to the owners of streaming services, although not in a way that sustains more than a handful of actual working human musicians.
But human beings also benefit enormously from making music, which requires deep communal instruction, personal attention, and years of practice and preparation. This, alas, is a kind of benefit technology cannot readily provide—at least not profitably—so technology does not particularly “want” to help.
So we end up with the world we have, where more music is consumed than ever and less music is created—especially by ordinary people in economically sustainable ways—than ever.
What technology wants is really what Mammon wants: a world of context-free, responsibility-free, dependence-free power measured out in fungible, storable units of value. And, ultimately, what Mammon wants is to turn a world made for and stewarded by people into a world made of and reduced to things.
Thus, the reason for Jesus’ stark statement about God and Mammon becomes clear. We cannot serve the true God and Mammon, ultimately, because their aims are precisely opposed to each other.
God wishes to put all things into the service of people and ultimately to bring forth the flourishing of creation through the flourishing of people. Mammon wants to put all people into the service of things and ultimately to bring about the exploitation of all of creation.
What kind of place do we require to thrive as people?
If you and I are heart-soul-mind-strength complexes designed for love, we need a place where we can exercise our fundamental capacities—a place where we can channel our emotions and longings, be known in our unique depth of self, contribute to understanding and interpreting the world, and apply our bodies’ strength and agility to worthwhile work in all three planes of physical reality.
Above all, we need a place where we can invest ourselves deeply in others, come to care about their flourishing, and give ourselves away in mutual service and sacrifice in ways that secure our own identities instead of erasing them.
The name for this kind of place, I have come to believe, is the household.
This old, slightly musty word is the best option we have in English for something that was central to life in the ancient world and is still central to life in many cultures today. A household is a community of persons who may well take shelter under one roof but also, and more fundamentally, take shelter under one another’s care and concern. They provide for one another, and they depend on one another. They mingle their assets and their liabilities, their gifts and their vulnerabilities, in such a way that it is hard to tell where one member’s end and another
The household is the fundamental community of persons. Built on more than an isolated pair but encompassing few enough people that all can be deeply and truly and persistently noticed and seen, the household is perfectly sized for the recognition we all were looking for the moment we were born.
How do you know if you’re part of a household?
You are part of a household if there is someone who knows where you are physically today and who has at least some sense of how it feels to be where you are. You are part of a household if there is someone who moves more quietly when they know you are asleep. You are part of a household if someone would check on you if you did not awaken. You are part of a household if people know things about you that you do not know about yourself, including things that, if you did know, you would seek to hide.
You are part of a household if others are close enough to see you and know you as well as, or better than, you know yourself.
You are part of a household if you experience the conflict that is the inevitable companion of closeness—if someone else makes such demands of you that you sometimes fantasize about driving them out of your life. You are part of a household if you sometimes dream of running away, perhaps to a far country, so that you will not be so terribly well known.
You are part of a household if your return from a long journey prompts a spontaneous celebration. You are part of a household if, when you avoid a party because of your anger, pride, guilt, or shame, someone notices and comes outside to plead with you to come in.
This is the one thing we need more than any other: a community of recognition. While we must always insist that every human being matters whether or not they are seen or treated as one by others, we also know that no human being can flourish as a person unless they are seen and treated as one. And for that, the household is the first and best place. We need a place where we cannot hide. We need a place where we cannot get lost.
So much of the tragedy of the modern world comes down to this: Most of us do not have such a place.
Perhaps we once did, for a time. Maybe there was a home down the street, belonging to extended family or friends, whose back door was always open to us when we were a child; tastes of life under one roof that came with military service or short-term mission work; a year or two with roommates who did more together than just split the household bills. But because these arrangements are not expected to last, they readily dissolve.
Many of us have friends, but friendships that are not bound together by household life tend to remain thin and fragile in our mobile world—all the more so after the peak bonding years of
Many of us have families, but family is fragile too, and its most crucial stage—the raising of children from infancy to young adulthood—is temporary by design. A married couple with one or two children at home is the implicit cultural norm, but today it describes only a minority of the households identified by the United States census. And such a small family is barely large enough to really form the kind of community of personhood for which we are made, even before the children are grown and gone.
If you are looking for a single proximate cause of the loneliness that is epidemic in our world, it is the dearth of households.
Nothing can truly erase the fact that most of us live long stretches of our lives without the community of recognition we most need. And it should go without saying that merely having roommates—or a spouse or parents or children—is no guarantee at all, in Mammon’s realm, that we will be members of real communities of recognition, that there will be anyone who really knows us.
If we want to follow a different way, we need to begin by building households.
If you live with others, are there times in every day when you are together, building the fabric of a life in which you are seen and known? Are you engaged in activities together that engage your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Are you creating and not just consuming—in the kitchen, in the living room, in the garage, in the yard, or on the porch? Are there parts of your daily life where different members of the household contribute in ways that merge your individual gifts and needs?
Or are you, even if technically family, more like mere roommates, with each one cooking, cleaning, and caring for themselves? Are there ways you can provide for one another rather than assuming that each person will provide for themselves?
In some homes, the obvious answer to all these questions will already be yes—but in others, these questions can prompt significant redesigning of the patterns of daily life, from who does the dishes (and who does whose dishes, and how many people do the dishes) to whether the whole household sits down for dinner or goes outside for a daily walk.
And then, who needs to be included in these household practices—who needs to be invited further in? Do others have the key to your house and an open invitation to use it? Could family members who live at a comfortable distance be invited to a more uncomfortable but also more recognition-friendly proximity?
The coronavirus lockdowns, with their restrictions on school and childcare, led many families to create “pods” or “umbrellas” that covered a handful of parent and child units. How could those kinds of mutual relationships continue even when the lockdowns are past?
Even to raise these questions, at least for me and my house, is to raise a whole set of doubts and fears. Whom do I really trust enough to invite this close to my own life, my spouse, my children? How will I keep the privacy and untroubled autonomy that I have come to prize?
What risks will I be adding to my life if I invite people in closer than arm’s length, if I become dependent on others rather than exchanging payment for services that leave me formally unentangled?
But the truth is that only by pressing through and beyond these questions will we ever grow to have people we can trust outside our tightest inner circle.
The privacy we cherish is in constant danger of curdling into isolation. Even a few adverse events in our marriage or personal health, let alone the march of years and aging, could tip our current independence into terminal loneliness.
To build these kinds of households requires the very opposite of a quick fix. It is work that is patient, humble, and slow. And these households produce the very opposite of Mammon, with its fraudulent promise of abundance without dependence.
They create, through mutual dependence, the kind of abundance that cannot be counted or carted away—that does not rust and cannot be stolen.
Andy Crouch is partner for theology and culture at Praxis. This article is adapted from The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World. Copyright © 2022 by Convergent Books.
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