According to a study commissioned by the German Reisebank AG in spring 2021, almost 29 million adults in Germany own gold in the form of coins or bars, on average 75 grams.
In his Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil speaks of ‘auri sacra fames’. This can be translated as ‘holy hunger for gold’, but also as ‘cursed hunger for gold’. What is it about this ambivalent fascination that money, especially in its embodiment as gold, exerts on many people?
Money and the magic of omnipotence
Economists usually ascribe the three functions of medium of exchange, store of value and measure of value to money in economic life. While all goods deteriorate over time, money remains fresh even after long storage and guarantees unchanged access to the world of goods. It distills their abstract commonality out of the immense variety of goods. This ‘core of value’ can be held on to, accumulated, but also converted back into useful goods. In this way, the possession of money provides the option of acquiring any concrete commodity at a freely selectable time.
Money confers the power to fulfil desires. All material ones, but also far beyond. Even the chance of obtaining many of the non-purchase-able things in life increases for those who possess money. The vernacular knows this when it says: money may not make you happy, but you can at least buy a yacht with it to sail into happiness.
Unlike most animals, humans are born physiologically premature. They are dependent on a supportive environment for several years after birth. They experience, some more, some less, some sooner, some later, the pain of lack, of the environment’s inadequate response to their needs. Accumulated money psychologically lures with the promise of being saved from repeating such experiences in the future. It offers the chance to build a kind of protective wall around oneself against the material threats under whose rule one must live.
The reference to the existential vulnerability of the human being is even more profound. Wherever he stands and walks, however brightly his stars may shine for him at the moment, he still has the transience of his little world, indeed of himself, breathing down his neck. “In the world you are afraid,” says Jesus in his farewell discourses (John 16:33). Adrift in the stream of life, man seems to be thrown a life preserver with money. The magic of omnipotence, a breath of eternity: “The wealth of the rich man is his strong city and like a towering wall – in his imagination.” (Prov. 18, 11)
Gold in the Bible
The Christian tradition, however, by no means uses images of money and gold only with this warning undertone.
Gold often appears in the Bible as a symbol of divinity and faithfulness to the corresponding inner longing that goes far beyond earthly wealth. For example, when Moses in the Book of Exodus (25th chapter) receives the detailed instructions for making the Ark of the Covenant, which guarantees God’s presence to the chosen people, gold plays an important role as a material. It is no different some 500 years later when the first Jewish temple is built in Jerusalem under Solomon (1 Kings 6 and 7). Not only the altar, the winged cherubim made of wood, but also the walls, floors and door leaves are generously covered with gold. Almost 1000 years later, the wise men from the east bring gold to Bethlehem, along with frankincense and myrrh, to pay homage to Jesus (Matthew 2:11). Finally, for the end of time, the New Jerusalem descending from heaven is described in the 21st chapter of Revelation as a city made in good part of gold.
The tension between this illuminating aspect on the one hand and the dazzling power that the glimmer of gold can radiate on the other is also present in an episode in the Acts of the Apostles. The action takes place one afternoon in Jerusalem, not long after the Passion, the Resurrection and the first Pentecost, i.e. in the time when the early Christian community is gathering. At an entrance gate to the temple, traditionally called the ‘Beautiful Gate’, sits a disabled man, paralysed since birth, who is carried there every morning to beg. The two apostles Peter and John want to go to the temple for afternoon prayer. The lame man asks them for alms. Peter looks at him attentively for a long time and answers: “Silver I have not, nor gold have I; but what I have I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ from Nazareth – get up and walk around!” (Acts 3:6). At the same moment strength comes to the feet of the lame one. Peter reaches out his hand and lifts him up.
So Peter does not give physical gold to the lame man, who believes in the importance of money, which would only serve to maintain something imperfect. He does not help him to set himself up a little more comfortably and to shield himself a little better against the adversities of his precarious life. But neither does he reject him in his desire, for what else is left for the lame one but to desire improvement? Peter just does not allow the lame one to continue to resign himself to the basic evil of his existence. He stimulates a deeper longing and thus leads reflexes and fears of existence beyond greed. It helps the lame one to focus on what he actually wants rather than what he thinks he needs.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
With money, a man can extend his reach to the edge of the world with all it has to offer. If he enjoys these earthly fruits without chaining himself to their transience, then he can certainly at the same time remain true to his true wealth and live in its fullness. The fascination with money and gold ties in with man’s intuition for that which points beyond him into the sphere of the perfect, but it reaches him in his state of lack and detachment. Stimulated longing goes astray when it submits to securing this deficient, fallen human condition.
On the other hand, the experience of one’s own lacklustre-ness in comparison to the golden splendour of transcendence can also give rise to the unconditional motivation to let it gleam in one’s own life. This inner orientation will then incidentally also show itself in the endeavour to learn the right way to deal with earthly gold.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described the human tendency to strive out of the limitations of the present as the inescapable ‘desire to desire’. One cannot escape the glamour of gold, the search for treasure. But it must be decided whether it is directed towards earthly treasures or towards ‘treasures in heaven’ (Matthew 6:20).