Most human activities can be located along an imaginary line anchored at one end by “Spiritual” and at the other by “Physical.” We’d put praying near the spiritual end; reading and music would be its neighbors. As the source of both sensual pleasure and new life, sex might be mid-spectrum, while eating and other bodily functions belong near the physical end. Where do commercial transactions fit? Is exchanging money for something we’d rather have a spiritual or physical action?
Scripture teaches us to ask this question. Genesis opens telling us that God made the firmament ‘…and called it heaven’ in Genesis 1:7-8 and that God decreed ‘dry land’ and ‘called it earth’ in Genesis 1:9-10. In that case, what do the words ‘…God created heaven and earth’ in verse 1 tell us that we wouldn’t have understood from subsequent verses?
Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that in the Torah’s opening verse ‘heaven’ means all things spiritual and ‘earth’ alludes to everything physical. The idea is that to understand how the world really works, we must know that God created all things physical and all things spiritual and we need to appreciate both.
One way of identifying a spiritual act is by determining whether a chimpanzee would understand it. When I return home and slump into an armchair, my pet primate undoubtedly sympathizes. When I eat he certainly gets it. However, when I hold a newspaper motionless before my face for twenty minutes he becomes quite confused. Reading tends spiritual.
We’re always slightly uneasy about pursuits with no spiritual overtones at all. We subconsciously superimpose spirituality to avoid being exclusively physical and thus animal-like. For instance, we apply ceremony to virtually all activities performed by both people and animals.
Only people read a book or listen to music, hence these activities require no associated ritual. On the other hand, most animals eat, engage in sexual activity, give birth and die. If we do not confer a uniquely human ritual upon these functions, we reduce the distinction between ourselves and the animal kingdom.
Therefore, we celebrate the birth of a child often by a naming ceremony; no animal does that. Even if our hands are clean, we wash them before eating. We serve food in dishes on a tablecloth rather than straight out of the can, although the physical, nutritional qualities have not been enhanced. We even say a blessing. This is a human, spiritual way to eat; dogs are quite content to gobble food off the floor.
After encountering an attractive potential partner, wise people do not proceed directly to physical intimacy. An engagement announcement followed by a marriage ceremony serves to accentuate that all-important distinction; no animal announces its intention to mate and then defers gratification for three months.
The more physical the activity, the more awkwardness and subconscious embarrassment surround it. Nudism is practiced with a certain bravado in order to conceal the underlying tension. Famous photographer Richard Avedon shattered a barrier by capturing images of people as they ate. Frozen in the act of chewing, humans resemble apes rather than angels. Similarly, we express a normal and healthy reticence about bathroom activities. On the other hand, as purely spiritual occupations, reading and art evoke no discomfort.
Where on the spectrum do business transactions fall? A chimpanzee would not have the slightest idea of what is transpiring between proprietor and customer in a store. Economic exchange takes place only after two thinking human beings will it. The process must be spiritual. If we truly believe that, we should have no discomfort with buying and selling, whether our skills, services or products. Economic activity is another way in which we satisfyingly distance ourselves from the animal kingdom and draw closer to God.
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