Holy Trinity Cathedral - Theology - General

The Philosophy of Ownership

Archbishop JOHN (Shahovskoy) of San Francisco

1. Man can only possess that which belongs to God. The world is God’s creation and so is man. Man can in no way escape from God’s ownership. To whatever depths he may sink, whatever heights he may ascend – everywhere there is God’s ownership, infinite, inapprehensible, unfathomable . . . Pilate sinks to the depths of treachery: he is ready to give the Innocent Sufferer to be crucified. And what does he hear from the Divine Wisdom? "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above" (John 19, 11). Uniting in Himself and in all His words the fulness of the earthly and the heavenly, the Saviour indicated to Pilate, first, the Ceasars from whom he received his power, and also the Source of all power and ownership.

2. One may conceal oneself from God, from the sight of the Lord. Thus Adam hid in the bushes, concealing himself from God. This is the naive psychology of every sinner. "Adam, where art thou". . . "I hid myself . . ." Numberless years have passed since then, and the sons of Adam still imagine that they can hide from God. And they do ‘hide’ as best they can in the overgrown and tangled ideological thickets of this world’s culture – ‘private property’, ‘public property’, ‘state property’, ‘communism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘freedom’, ‘slavery’, ‘wealth’, ‘poverty’, ‘possessions’, ‘economic laws’ and so on, and so on.

3. At the basis of everything complex there must be simplicity. If this primary simplicity is absent, there is chaos instead of complexity. But if the fundamental simplicity is present, the complexity will be a harmony. It is only in the light of knowledge of the primary laws of life laid down by the Creator that our complex secular culture can come to resemble an harmonious orchestra in which there are no superfluous instruments, or at least a well coordinated machine with no superfluous parts.

It is only through the knowledge of these absolute laws that we can estimate all human conceptions and determine their true significance. The world always has belonged and will belong to God alone, whatever forces may be temporary masters of it.

But does this mean that man has not and cannot have any property? On the contrary, human property has its firm basis in the fact that there is property as such, and that there is a Master of it all. And if there is a true Master, that means property may be given. What a broad and deep basis for all true possession: In view of this basis it becomes comprehensible why one must not steal, must not appropriate anything, must not ‘grow rich’ and exalt oneself through anything.

All property belongs to God, just as life belongs to Him, and He gives property, just as He gives life.

4. Man is given ‘a talent’ – a span of physical life, of mental faculties, of spiritual possibilities. It is given not for burying in the ground, but for cultivating. The whole span of a man’s life may be compared to a plot of ground. His duty is not to lie idly on this God-given ground but to cultivate it, to make the most of the life given into his stewardship as a token of a better life, better soil. "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much". Only that which is ‘least’ is given to man. However great in his earthly eyes this ‘least’ may seem, however great other people might call it, it is very small by comparison with that which it prefigures. But even this ‘least’ must be put into use for the benefit of the world. This is why rich people who make a creative use of their wealth, while living humbly, are true Christians in spite of their "great possessions."

"Mine is only that which I gave away" said St. Maxim the Confessor. Gave . . . to whom? To God, to men . . . There are people who make no use of their wealth. Among them there are some who have ‘hidden it for themselves’, buried it in the ground, and there are some who have given it to God, believing that their duty is merely to distribute it in the world as justly as possible. This gracious stewardship of wealth finds different expressions. Some give their wealth away at once or by degrees. Others retain all the appearance of possession, but in their heart sincerely surrender it to God, so that their task is merely a fair distribution of it. It may take the form of ordinary economic enterprise, of a good industrial or agricultural business. In appearance it will be like all the works ‘of this world’, but in its inner content it will already be a small realization of the Kingdom of God . . .

Thus A. S. Khomiakov had land and serfs, and yet at bottom he was not his serfs’ owner but rather their solicitous father and indeed their servant. This is the psychology of all wealthy Christians: landowners, industrialists, factory owners . . . This too was the attitude of truly Orthodox Tsars.

When the Lord Jesus Christ said "he that is greatest among you shall be your servant" He meant by ‘greatest’ him who is rich, whether in money, or in rank, or in talent . . . "The greatest" must serve and not exercise power through gifts (material or spiritual) which have been entrusted to him for a time only.

5. All earthly possessions are short lived and "full of trouble", for no sooner do they come and man gets attached to them than they disappear, abandoning him to perplexity, pain, sorrow and death. They leave emptiness in their place, and dust in the place of man. But until possessions are replaced by emptiness they can bear "much fruit", even small possessions of the poor: the widow’s mite proved to be a greater value, a greater good force than the treasures of the Pharisees.

6. A man has less property than he thinks. It is only in his imagination that a millionaire owns his millions – in truth they own him. For the most part he is fettered by them, compelled to a certain style of living, bound up with a particular set of people, inevitably surrounded by flattery, envy, insincerity, obsequiousness, solicitations, attempts on his life – physical and mental . . . Is not this slavery, penal servitude, increasing in severity with the increase in wealth? Does that which can be bought for money amount to much? Can spiritual peace – the highest happiness – be bought?

7. But from another point of view a man’s possessions are far greater than he thinks. Every breath of air which gets into his lungs is his property, far more so than a coin in his pocket, for it directly supports his life. Every ray of sunshine that warms a man is his warmth, wholly united to him . . . And so in everything, in the smallest manifestations of life man is surrounded with property, with God’s gifts poured out upon him and transmuted into his very life. Great and glorious is this law which makes every man rich.

8. In order to enter into the harmony of the world that became discordant but is now being put into tune again, a man must in all conscience (and not merely with his intellect) recognize God’s power and himself become God’s property, since the universe already is His property. Numberless myriads of worlds, suns, stars, innumerable septillions of lives move within the limits laid down by the Creator. Stones, water, air, earth, fire, obey immutable laws which man may detect, which are for him ‘to discover’ . . . What for? For the sake of learning how to live rightly in accordance with these laws. Submission to physical laws is only a symbol of submission to God’s spiritual laws. Just as physical nature reveals itself to man in natural science, physics, chemistry, mechanics, cosmography and so on, so spiritual nature is revealed in the Gospel. Observing the subordination of physical nature to God, man must learn to subordinate his spirit to Him.

9. A sober-minded and unprejudiced man naturally thinks and sees that his earthly possessions are more than ‘relative’ . . . Centuries melt away and so does all human property on earth. All earthly ‘rights’ of individuals, cities and nations – the right to own land and goods, even the right to live – disappear into thin air.

The only thing indestructible in the universe is the Divine power which creates the worlds. All else is fragile and destructive. And it is destructible simply in order that men should not regard the destructible as indestructible. In the life of the world to come, when "the wheat is gathered," i.e., when men who were righteous and loved God will be gathered from all the ages – no one will be in danger of loving the creature more than the Creator, and then once more, as in Paradise, the destructible will become indestructible. But no one will deify eternal and indestructible nature. All will contemplate the glory of God alone and in its unutterable light see the whole of existence and find their undying life eternally renewed.

10. This state is impossible for us on earth, for we always love someone or something more than God. Our heart is ‘adulterous’ in the deepest religious sense of the word. This is why the Saviour (Who never spoke unjustly) called men "an adulterous and sinful generation". Fallen humanity is attached to transitory values, cleaves to the pleasures of this world, to its illusory wealth and its equally illusory glory. If it were not for worms, rust, moth, locusts, stench, corruption, suffering and death – the world would be a living hell. Some people fancy that the reverse is true: if there were no pain and sorrow on this earth it would be ‘paradise’. But it would be hell. The sinfulness of earthly flesh is covered by earthly sorrows. The blessed salt of suffering preserves human spirit from decay and eternal death. It preserves it in people who understand and accept Christ’s ‘narrow way’.

This is why all the ways of the Lord are blessed for the righteous, "true and righteous altogether," in the words of the Psalmist. Thus, blessed is the Cross of every life on this transitory earth.

11. Human life finds its highest expression in complete devotion to God. As man is freed from "the pride of life, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes" (from materialism of every sort) he becomes more and more ‘transparent’ to God, so that the purest Spirit of God may dwell in him. And when man is completely transparent, free from all pride, from all sinful fondness for oneself and the world, God’s property – the world – will become his property, and ‘having nothing’ and not even belonging to himself, he will "possess all things" as St. Paul (2 Cor. 6, 16). God will abide in man and will make his life rich and restful. This serene harmony of life is the Kingdom of God.

12. The sequence of temporal life is given to man as a ladder for ascending to eternal life. Only he who is faithful "in that which is least (the temporal) is faithful also in much" (the eternal). While we are still here on earth we must learn to live the eternal life. Those who are not grafted to God’s Vine (John 15, 5) cannot live. Mounting the ladder of earthly life and earthly values (i.e., drawing away from them) we enter into the Kingdom of God. But if a man draws away from the values of the world in a wrong direction (e.g. a despairing man, a suicide), he falls into an abyss.

13. The material world is a ‘staff’ for the sick soul, its anchor, the point of application of the primary forces of the spirit – a staff which helps us to ascend to God, if we know how to use it. Everything in the world is created or is permitted for man’s benefit and he can convert even the most trying and painful manifestations of earthly life (sometimes, indeed, better than any other) into a path to paradise.

14. The material world provides endless means of salvation, of attaining God. But such means are open only to the disinterested. For those who seek gain, the world is nothing but a net and fatal snare.

15. Property based upon love of God and a free heart is blessed. Property that is a gift brings a blessing with it. Usurped property brings down a curse. Possession may be avaricious or disinterested; avaricious possession is selfish, and disinterested – eucharistic. True human possession is to be found only in eucharistic property which comes from God and goes back to God through man. Only this spiritually-light possession which does not weigh down the spirit, which does not nail us to temporal life or attract us to sin, can be called ‘blessed’. Truly it is blessed, whatever form it may take – possession of talents, gifts, things, lands, other people. All this is blessed – when it is in God. And all this is accursed when it separates us from God and makes the world into a god.

16. Eucharistic possession means everything for which people can thank God – and those through whom God gives it. Such gratitude implies both faith in God and the recognition that He is the Master of life. Through gratitude for life and for everything – the highest and most perfect expression of which is the Eucharist – man ascends to a new life, to the Kingdom of God. The infinitely small values of this world, salted with gratitude to God, become man’s eucharistic property and remain ‘his’ forever as something new and great, transferred beyond the portals of eternity.

17. Property is a conductor of love, Divine and human. But men often make it a conductor of hatred for God and man. It is not property that is at fault, not the fact of possession, but evil possession or evil desire for possession.

18. Man is called to subdue the earth (Gen. 1, 28), and he is to inherit the earth (Matt. 5, 5).

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 1-New Series, No. 3, July 1957, pp. 2-6.

Last modified: July 22, 2006 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.