Fiduciary Theology, The Straight Path, And Pre-Destination

October 30, 2020 Category: Religion

Fiduciary Theology:

From mice to homo sapiens, we are primarily motivated by a strict regime of punishment and reward.  As diligently as we all try to be principled, each of us invariably operates within an incentive structure.  So it’s no wonder that those deigning to control people en masse employ a regimen of carrots and sticks.  Such a regimen is, after all, the most straight-forward way to prevent people from getting out of line (that is: to get everyone to submit to the established order).

This is little more than a kind of existential graft; and, insofar as it conditions us, appeals to our baser instincts.  That it works so well attests to the Pavlovian machinery that is operative even in the brains of homo sapiens.  The carrot-and-stick approach to soteriology maps the crudest method of manipulation onto a grand, cosmic scheme.  It’s as if humans were only capable of operating at the level of lower primates (and, yes, even canines.  Employing this scheme may be effective in coercing people into compliance; but it does absolutely nothing to foster probity, let alone agape.

When assaying such transactional ethics, the questions arises: Is existential blackmail really the optimal catalyst for virtue?

As autumn turns to winter, children throughout Christendom are told that Santa Claus is watching them, making a list, and thus determining who’s been naughty and who’s been (sufficiently) nice…so as to ascertain who deserves presents come the Winter Solstice.  This puerile scheme seems to only work on puerile minds; yet we need only gussy it up with some snazzy narrative accoutrements, and–lo and behold–it works just as well on many adults.  Religion, it turns out, is just as much a prosthetic for morality as it is a prosthetic for spirituality.

Santa’s shit-list is merely a cartoonish version of a timeless motif–transplanting salvation vs. damnation in an afterlife with treats vs. coal in stockings.  As it turns out, the notion of a cosmic ledger goes back to ancient Egypt, where each man’s soul was weighed on a scale in order to determine his fate in the hereafter.

The 15th-century parable, “Summoning of the Everyman” (the Frisian variation of which was entitled, “Elckerlyc”) presented a familiar thesis: One’s good and bad deeds would be tallied by god–as if in a ledger book.

The monetization of redemption was taken to an extreme by the Vatican in the 15th and early 16th centuries, with the peddling of so-called “indulgences” (whereby votaries were hoodwinked into believing that they could buy their way out of sin).  The idea was that once could purchase “brownie points” so as to revamp the ledger.  (This gave a new meaning to “cooking the books”.)  The scheme is relatively straight-forward: Those who haven’t garnered sufficient favor are consigned to perdition; those who’ve curried sufficient favor are rewarded with eternal paradise.

With life being a test, such a point-system seems to made sense.  For ease of comprehension, fiduciary theology takes something qualitative (morality), and makes it quantitative (economics).  Probity vs. iniquity is thus understood in terms of profit vs. loss.  Motivation is made a function of payoff vs. fine.  Hence the godhead as book-keeper leitmotif we encounter in the Abrahamic religions.  Here, we are contending with a special kind of bookkeeper: one to whom we are eternally indebted. {2}

We EXIST at god’s pleasure.  He put us here to glorify and obey him.  Period.  The point of human life, then, is to worship (and thus please) the Abrahamic deity.

Thus “brownie-point” accumulation is the name of the game.  It comes as little surprise that the Catholic Church exploited this motif to sell off “indulgences” in order to raise cash for itself.  (The Roman Catholic Church was, after all, entirely about the mobilization of money and power.)  The commoditization of absolution was–of course–a swindle…perpetrated by a corrupt institution that had grown accustomed to making things up as it went.

The idea was that one NEEDED the Church, as it provided the only way to get oneself out of “debt”; thereby LITERALLY putting a price-tag on salvation. {3}  We should bear in mind this “debt” is not just pecuniary in nature.  When Christians tell us that Jesus (as the ultimate martyr) has paid our debts, it means he has atoned for an inborn EXISTENTIAL deficit: “original sin” (see Appendix).

And so it went: In the 15th century, the preposterous notion that one could purchase “time off” from purgatory (ITSELF a concoction of the Vatican) was peddled to the credulous denizens of Christendom–demonstrating that supplicants are willing to believe almost anything.  That such a scheme was categorically antithetical to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth was beside the point.  It required an iconoclastic friar in Wittenberg, Saxony to finally take a stand and say, “Enough’s enough.”

The phenomenon was nothing new: A church concocting superstitions to suit its own purposes.  That the Vatican’s modus operandi was diametrically opposed to the teachings of the figure it purported to follow did not deter its apparatchiks.  But even in its earliest form, Jesus’ following made use of the compensatory model of salvation.  Note, for example, Luke 18:22, where Jesus entreats his followers to sell all that they have; and in return they will have treasure in heaven.  In other words, avarice is not discouraged; it is just redirected.  The transactional element of soteriology is thereby retained.  For there needs to be “something in it for me”.  (Don’t distribute your Earthly goods to the poor because it is a beneficent thing to do; do it because it will give you bounty in the hereafter.)

Deferred gratification does not so much change the incentive structure of acquisitiveness; it simply resets the parameters.  It is all about being REDEEMED (in a hereafter) for one’s investment (during life).  In other words, it’s about cashing in one’s chips after one has played the game.  (The “catch” is that the House calls the shots; and–in the settling of accounts–the House usually wins.)

Depending on one’s performance in this trial, one will come out either ahead or behind. {1}

The Arabic term “thawab” is quite revealing, as it means the reward that accrues (over one’s lifetime) from pious conduct.  The favor curried with the overlord is essentially a kind of EQUITY.  The idea is that one “cashes in” (or, as the case may be, “cashes out”) on Judgement Day.

Using theology to quantify that which is qualitative is not uncommon.  Indeed, such a semiotic scheme goes back to the earliest civilizations–who “paid” for the favor of the gods by offering sacrifices (as gifts).  This was effectively a system of theistic bribery.  At one point, the Koran’s protagonist notifies us that he “ransomed” Abraham with a sacrifice (37:107).  The notion of a godhead demanding a human sacrifice was nothing new; and informed many soteriological musings.  Oftentimes, the more fanciful the narrative, the more captivating it ended up being.

In the midst of all this, the eternal question remains: How are we to measure “goodness”?  In response to the question: “What is the ultimate barometer for morality?” we want to be able to say “THIS is where you currently stand” in the same way that one might measure progress along a physical distance.  The Ancient Egyptians quantified “righteousness” in terms of another palpable measure: WEIGHT.  As mentioned above, they posited a LITERAL scale to weigh one’s heart against a feather so as to determine if one was worthy of the (Edenic) Field of Reeds in the hereafter.

The Abrahamic version of fiduciary theology is about ULTIMATE PAYOFF: Just desserts in the hereafter.  (After all, the afterlife is primarily about recompense.)  Religious obligations, then, are effectively indemnity payments.  As with Santa’s “list”, we are not allowed to see “the books”.  (We don’t get to audit the accounting because this cosmic CFO is considered unimpeachable.)  All we can do is try to remain in god’s good graces; and pray that he decides we’ve done a good enough job to gain admission into a celestial paradise.

Supplication, then, is an INVESTMENT.  Piety pays dividends.  Invest NOW to secure a magnificent reward LATER.  Thus the blandishments of Paradise is thought of a return on investment…deferred until after you die.  Paradise is the anticipated emolument.  (I explore the peddling of false hope in my essay, “The Island”.)

According to this fiscal cosmology, we are enjoined to live our lives as though we are perpetually in arrears; with an omniscient creditor leering over our every move.  The overlord has credited us with a lifetime in which to prove ourselves, and in return we owe him obeisance.  If we default on this “loan”, we will fall into delinquency…and be punished accordingly.  In this sense, damnation is effectively a forfeiture of salvation.  The sentence: eternal debtor’s prison.  Salvation and damnation are thereby thought of in pecuniary terms.

Islam takes fiduciary theology to the extreme.  For the mindset of the Koran’s protagonist is pecuniary–for even his LOVE is compensatory.  In sharp contradistinction to Jesus’ message of universal love (read: god’s love for ALL his children is unconditional, as we are all sinners), the Koran’s protagonist says we must EARN is love, lest he withhold it (nay, revel in the humiliation of those who displease him).  His affections are thus given in return for supplication: Love as remuneration.  Over and over, the Koran reminds its audience that god ONLY loves certain people; and it frequently emphasizes whom god does NOT love (e.g. 2:190/276, 3:32/57, 4:36, etc.)  In fact, he harbors nothing but a seething contempt for those who decline to enter into the terms of exchange that he sets. {4}

And so it goes: According to the Koranic narrative, we find ourselves living a life of indemnity–with our souls as collateral.  The overlord maintains a harsh lien on each human life.  As debtors, each soul is held in escrow…until, that is, manumission upon death.  Receipt of this omni-waiver is contingent on the (superannuated) “equity” one has accrued over the course of one’s life.  Ergo the ultimate leverage is exacted.  There is no debt where the stakes are higher than when one is held in arrears to the Creator of the Universe.  

According the the Koran’s characterization of its own protagonist, the predicament is especially precarious.  A vainglorious master with a penchant for vindictiveness maintains bills of attainder on each and every human–an arrangement that is held over mankind’s collective head–as if a lien on human life itself.

Such fiduciary theology deals with what is effectively karmic equity–accruing bills of attainder along the way.  (One might even call this the commodification of karma.)  The “catch” is the omnipresent auditor.  We effectively find ourselves in a remunerative existence.  Such transactional ethics renders morality a fickle prudential affair.  By spending our lives doing X, we are LITERALLY SPENDING our lives.  Blessings are dispensations (or, perhaps, to be thought of as tax abatements).  So we find ourselves incentivized to be “good” in order to secure remuneration in on the Day of Judgement: the final settling of accounts.

Being pious is about earning the godhead’s favor (and thus earning rewards).  By abiding the Sunnah, we build credit.  It is an accumulation of brownie-points we can “cash in “ on Judgement Day.  “Qiyamah” is, after all, the final settling of accounts.  This requires thinking of deeds as debits and credits on a ledger: the so-called “illiyun” (a roster of the saved located at the highest level of heaven) and the so-called “sijjin” (a roster of the damned located at the lowest level of hell)…thereby making salvation / damnation the end-result of a TABULATION.

There is no Original Sin in Islam (see Appendix).  Each person begins life with an even “balance” in his account.  So he is neither in the red nor in the black.  This initial state is known as “fitra[h]”.  Each of us then proceeds from birth according to merits (via “ihsan”) and demerits (via “dhanb” / “khati’a”) that are accumulated over the course of one’s life.

This arrangement is pecuniary.  For it ends up being a system of accumulated “brownie points”, earned in proportion to how well we appease the godhead.  As if often the case, supplicants are convinced that we all OWE the deity tribute.  The retributive character of said deity means that damnation is a kind of “payback” for defaulting on our obligations (i.e. for rebuffing him).  Note that the Koran’s protagonist seems to derive immense gratification from effecting this “payback”; reveling in the fact that he gets to punish those who fail to appease him.

Piety might be thought of as sacred duty; and duty is a kind of metaphorical indebted-ness.  We are held in arrears until we pay what we are due (in the form of tribute).  That is, during life, our souls are held in escrow.  If we don’t fulfill our duties, we forfeit our souls.  (We are thus morally solvent at god’s discretion.)

According to this motif, pious deeds (including fasting, propitiations, and and zakat) are conceived as annuities for the ULTIMATE retirement portfolio.  One’s life, then, is an investment in which one can build equity (to be liquidates upon death).  In other words: Cashing in AFTER one has “cashed out”.

The idea, then, is that those in arrears at the end of the test (a.k.a. life) are condemned to damnation.  As we’ll see in the third section of the present essay, according to the doctrine known as “qadar” (pre-destination), the process is “rigged”. {5}

45:22 tells us that the cosmos exists for the primary purpose of ensuring each of us is “recompensed for what has been earned”.  This is not “earn” in the idiomatic sense that the term is often used (“I studied hard, so I earned a good grade”); it is “earn” in the sense that one gets a positive or negative return on an investment, depending on how savvily one invests one’s “principle”.  In this case, the “principle” is one’s own life; and the r.o.i is one’s fate in the hereafter.

Ergo the cosmic scheme is all about MATERIAL INCENTIVES.  (Note, for example, how 76:12 specifies that Muslims’ recompense will include their very own set of “silken garments” and “gold bracelets”.  Why believe?  You get a prize!)  Indeed, “prize” is an accurate description, as those who fail to curry favor with god are repeatedly dubbed “the losers” throughout the Koran (e.g. 41:23-25).

Piety is consequently based on UTILITY.  Such a moral system sullies even the most noble acts.  For, effectively, it is all done for self-interested reasons (in order to curry favor with the godhead and thus receive rewards after death).  Thus, even the charity that is enjoined by the Koran is undertaken–ultimately–for selfish reasons.  It’s not a mitzvah; it’s an INVESTMENT…in which returns are expected down the road.  Judgement Day is thus mankind’s arraignment–the day on which the chosen will reap the proceeds from their “investments”.  Indeed, 11:111 notifies Muslims that they will be COMPENSATED by god.  The Koran effectively offers an existential investment plan.

At several points, fealty to the Abrahamic deity is described as an INVESTMENT (specifically: as giving god a LOAN).  Salvation, then, is seen as an r.o.i.  The idea is that god will multiply what you loan him (as measured in the currency of one’s “amin”) and give it back multifold.  And so it goes: In 2:245, 5:12, 57:11, 57:18, 64:17, and 73:20, we are instructed to give god a loan…so that we might earn equity on our principle investment.  (73:20 goes so far as to describe good deeds as “a loan to god”.)  35:29 and 39:50 both notify votaries that they can expect a “profit” in the hereafter.  After all, piety is all about garnering spoils for oneself.  

In this sense, the Abrahamic deity is a BROKER.  Heaven is effectively a return on investment.  Worship is an economic transaction from which followers should expect to PROFIT (35:29-30).  It’s salvation as investment banking. (!)

Lending credence to the Koran (pun intended) amounts to exalting a deity that–effectively–engages in existential extortion.  Rather than a broker of stocks, he is a broker of afterlife prospects.  But, like most brokers, he rigs the game…and is really only interested in his own aggrandizement.  Over the course of THIS life (“dunya”), votaries expect all the time / energy that they’ve invested in their supplication to pay dividends in a hereafter (“akhira”).

Human existence is thus reduced to a transactional affair.  Teleology boils down to return on investment (that is: just deserts).  The has appeal, as we all want to believe that everyone will eventually “reap what they sow”.  There is a satisfaction derived from the fact that everyone will eventually get what’s coming to them, that what goes around comes around, and that there will be a final reckoning.  (I explore how this yearning can be exploited in my essay, “Brink Porn”.)  This is literally a SETTLING OF ACCOUNTS.

In Islam, the Day of Judgement is repeatedly referred to the “Day of Recompense” (e.g. 1:4, 15:35, 26:82, 37:20, 38:78, 51:12, 54:46, 56:56, 70:26, 74:46, 79:34, 82:9, 82:17-18, 83:11, 95:7, etc.)  20:15, 36:54, 40:17/40, and 53:41 also speak of the hereafter in terms of “recompense”.  This is a way of–effectively–monetizing morality.  In fact, the term “recompense” / “wages” to describe the last judgement is used 82 times (in 77 different verses) throughout the Koran.  Verses like 3:185, 24:25, 26:145, and 53:31 reiterate that heaven is a matter of COMPENSATION (also translated as “payment”).  Either way, it’s ultimately about receiving “wages”.  Passages like 4:123 likewise describe damnation as compensation.  46:19 explains that there are degrees of reward and punishment so that god can “fully compensate” each person for what he did during his life on Earth.

Thus Faith is essentially an act of commerce.  3:25 explains that a soul is PAID what it EARNS.  In 2:103, 6:157, 7:180, 9:95, 10:52, 16:97, 21:29, 27:90, 28:84, 34:33, 35:36, 37:53, 45:14, 45:22, 46:14, 46:19, 47:36, 52:16, salvation / damnation is described as “recompense” (recompense that is “paid”).  One EARNS damnation / salvation (6:120 and 6:160), and will be recompensed accordingly.  34:47 goes so far to say that we can expect “payment” for our services to god.  (6:146 even explains that Jews were “REPAID” for not having the appropriate diet.)

In several Koranic passages (e.g. 4:94), god entices us with the promise of “spoils”.  In many other passages, he instructs us to “REMIT” evil deeds (e.g. 3:193, 3:195, and 4:31).  2:280 and 4:92 conceptualize charity as a remittance.  2:184 notifies the reader that “for those who can afford [charity], there is a RANSOM”.  (57:15 notifies us that no ransom will be accepted for the damned.)  The end of 2:102 explains the theology in terms of “profit” and “trafficking”, describing “evil” as “the price for which they will sell their souls”.  Thus, one’s dealings with the divine are couched in economic terms.  Let’s briefly explore the examples of this throughout Islam’s holy book.

9:28 promises that god will enrich votaries from his bounty.  So if you are impoverished, it’s because god has ordained you to be.  (As discussed, pre-destination includes designation of one’s wealth and social ranking.)

2:207 even enjoins us to “sell” ourselves in the cause of god (as a means of seeking his approval).  “Goodness” is treated as a currency (2:272 tells us that whatever we “spend of good”, it will be “repaid” to us by god).  Even mercy is treated as a currency, kept in a “depository” (38:9).  We can take all this figuratively, of course.  But it is a strange idiom nevertheless.

In 11:15, god says to those who displease him that he will “fully repay” them.  3:177 tells us that we “purchase disbelief as the price of faith”.  3:161 tells us that “every soul will be paid in full what it is owed”.  Meanwhile, 39:70 promises votaries will be “paid in full”.  8:60 and 34:39 explain that whatever you SPEND in the name of god will be FULLY REPAID to you.  This makes sense, as the protagonist of the Koran refers to himself as an “accountant” (e.g. 21:47 and 33:39).

God, then, is to be thought of as an ACCOUNTANT.  In 27:75 and 34:3, we’re told that he keeps a record of all things (so that he can keep track of who to reward in the end).  God the accountant thus has a literal “register” (e.g. 34:3 and 50:4).  That is: He keeps a LEDGER.  Like a cosmic Santa Claus, the Creator of the Universe keeps a log-book of who’s naughty and who’s nice.  And, as discussed earlier, per the doctrine of “qadar” [predestination], like an unscrupulous CFO, he fixes the books.

To recapitulate: The Koran reminds us repeatedly that god is keeping a REGISTER.  There are, in fact, TWO registers.  The record of the damned is located in “Sijjn” (83:7-9), while the record of the saved is located in “Illiyun” (83:18-20).  Presumably, since everyone is already pre-selected for each fate, these records have both already been completed.  (You, the reader, have been listed on one of them since the beginning of time.  Your destination is a foregone conclusion.  Welcome to the cosmic lottery.  Good luck.)

Meanwhile, mercy is something that one SPENDS (2:16, 17:100, 34:39, and 34:47).  In this way, the Abrahamic deity is rendered a broker of all existential transactions.  Our souls are essentially held in escrow until Judgment Day…when the settling of accounts is performed.  We can take all of this figuratively; but even then, the theology betrays a glaring anthropomorphization.  (Are we to suppose that god wears a monocle as well?)  In 4:81, god is even referred to as a “trustee”.

And so it goes: The Creator of the Universe treats his relationship with mankind as a business deal.  9:111 describes the covenant with god as a transaction.  The verse specifies that “God has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for [the assurance] that they will have Paradise.”  Ergo, the way one lives one’s life amounts to a kind of business strategy.

God goes so far as to announce that one can buy him off.  In 2:271, he offers to give “indulgences” (absolution of sins) in exchange for zakat.  Of course, this is a much more noble proposition than what the Catholic Church did eight centuries later (whereby indulgences were purchased by paying off the clergy).  Even so, the scheme proposed in the Koran is rather specious.

Now, of course we should take into account the fact that terms like “owe”, “invest”, “pay (back)”, “spend”, “price”, “earn”, “profit”, and “recompense” can be used IDIOMATICALLY.  That is to say, we could take this wording figuratively.  But taken together, all the passages cited here point to an explicitly economic framework for understanding the damnation-salvation schema.

The choice of employing this explicitly economic idiom makes sense, as MoM was a merchant; and many of his first followers were merchants.  Consequently, the authors of the Koran (like MoM himself) were predisposed to cast things in terms that most resonated with the target audience (to wit: those who’s lives were oriented around mercantile activity).  The prohibition against usury ALSO makes sense, as GOD is the only party with which one should engage in such activity.  Earning interest is the sole province of the Abrahamic deity; so engaging in such activity with other men is naturally to be considered blasphemous.

It is no surprise, then, that the first Mohammedans adopted the “business deal” idiom when articulating the terms of salvation / damnation.  This interpretation is not a matter of taking an idiomatic expression too literally.  Nor is it a matter of missing the idiomatic nature of the original phrasing (in CA), which may seem more “economic sounding” after being translated into English.  Obviously, these articulations are idiomatic.  The point is to note the use of THIS PARTICULAR idiom–which comes through after translation because it is, indeed, in the CA–is itself an odd way to frame an ultimate explanation.

Metaphors are useful for making concrete what is abstract.  That is, they have DIDACTIC utility.  Problems arise, though, when we cease recognizing a metaphor AS a metaphor; or, on the other hand, pretending that something that was NOT INTENDED as a metaphor is “only a metaphor”…whilst others SEE that it was not intended as “only a metaphor”.

If the book is to be taken at its word, the case STILL needs to be made that the Creator of the Universe would have favored this particular idiom.  Considering god was not a merchant (and he presumably foresaw that his target audience would not all be merchants), it is peculiar that he opted to articulate things in this particular way.

Yet the motif has widespread resonance.  Note that a transactional treatment of salvation / damnation is even used in Judaism.  The Hebrew New Year (Rosh Hashanah) begins on the month of “Tishrei”.  Yom Kippur starts nine days later; and involves a day of fasting; as well as abstention from impure acts (no sex, no dancing, no bathing, etc.)  Such abstinence is seen as a means of spiritual purification; as it is a matter of penance…just as is the case with Muslims during the lunar month of Ramadan.  Meanwhile, Jews expurgate sins by throwing stones into a body of water…just as Muslims do with the “jamarat”.

The notion of absolution via abstention goes back to the Hindu tradition of fasting: “Ekadasi”.  Ancient Egyptians also had ritual of fasting as a means of purification.  Roman Catholics would later adopt their own form of the routine–instituting “Quadra-gesima”: the forty days of “lenz” / “lentin” (a.k.a. “lent”) leading up to the commemoration of the resurrection (scheduled at springtide, the conventional season for re-birth).

But salvation is about far more than mere penitence.  One’s very way of life (“din” in Arabic) must be brought into alignment with the prescribed regime.  This is often thought of in terms of a (straight) “path”.  It is this timeless idiom to which we now turn.

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