Fasting, Finance & Science: the Economics of Abstinence

Fasting, Finance & Science

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? [Matthew 16.26 (KJV)].

The weight loss industry carters to millions of people seeking to drop a few pounds. Any new  product claiming to help us lose weight quickly gets space on stores shelves. How about spiritual fasting?

Spiritual fasting as a religious exercise offers unique spiritual experiences. Countless individuals have testified to the beneficial effects of abstaining from food.

Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity. [St. Augustine, On Prayer and Fasting, Sermon 72].

However, abstinence for the most part is incompatible with trade. There is no profit motive in true spiritual fasting, except Divine awareness. Spiritual abstinence cannot be sold, except perhaps in books and seminars. Pharmaceutical companies cannot produce abstinence in laboratories, package it, then market it to the world as a beneficial cure.

The biochemical, physiological and other changes that take place during fasting have been studied in only limited situations. They are often esoteric, mystical, or of an abstract nature. The reported properties of these mystical experiences remain obscure and not subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny.

Anyone who embarks on a retreat (uz’lah) from the world is fortified by God and protected by His guardianship. What joy there is for the person who has withdrawn with Him, secretly and openly! To do this, he must differentiate between truth and falsehood, love poverty, choose hardship and abstinence, and seize every opportunity for retreat. He must contemplate the outcome of his actions, seeing his incapacity for worship while worshiping as much as possible, abandoning pride, and constantly engaging in remembrance without showing heedlessness . . . [Imam Ja’far Al-Sadiq, The Lantern of the Path, Section 45].

Empirical Mysticism

Empirically, when we eat three meals a day – our cereal, toast and eggs, pizza and soft drink, hamburgers, steaks or fried chicken, our rice, ice cream and desserts – we reflect what we consumed in our thinking, speaking and actions. As we reduce food consumption, our physical behavior and mental activity undergo significant changes.

Unfortunately, as our affluence grows, our commitment to spiritual exercises shrivels. Our modern fasting resembles the feast days of our pious predecessors. Though we may fast, we continue enjoying affluent pleasures, rarely reaching for higher spiritual goal.

Can a mind engrossed in modern secular desires think deeply enough to experience the far-reaching benefits of a spiritual fast? Can a heart immersed in fashionable worldly allurements feel deeply enough to recognize the profound significance of fasting?

Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? … [Proverbs 30:8-9].

Time & Space for Science

God’s wisdom is not encompassed in our simple conceptions of reality. Constrained by time and space, we are far removed from full understanding of the Almighty Creator.

Nevertheless, God manifests sufficient regularity in His creation to allow us to reach a modicum of certainty in our understanding. We have documented what are termed “scientific laws” by which we regulate many material affairs and, thereby, assert a degree of authority over our environment.

Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: “Ye must have faith.” [Max Planck].

Science is most comfortable working within this discreet area of physical reality. It prefers having constants against which to measure cause and effect. It grabs materiality and analyzes it from every possible perspective, within its time and place dimensions.

The results are, at times, quite exciting and gratifying. Cures, inventions, progress all arise from this process. However, a microscopic or telescopic perspective cannot encompass a Divine reality.

Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations … To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view. [Max Planck].

Prior to the Enlightenment, science enjoyed an excellent working relationship with faith. In fact, most scientists had a sincere belief in God. Of late however, science has become more attached to economics than to religion.

The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal. [Pope Francis].

Today’s science and medicine can be considered industries. Many scientists and doctors are profit driven, including those who only seek fame and prize money.

A recent investigation by Consumer Reports Health indicates that the practice of healing hearts has become a money-making machine that too often favors profits over science. “We’re concerned that some people are having too many tests and too many treatments as a result, and some of that’s driven by profits, not good science.” [Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center].

This attraction to material well-being is not surprising when the foundation of scientific knowledge is also materialistic. When scientists concentrate exclusively on the material universe, they naturally seek to reward themselves for their efforts in a material way. With notable exceptions, modern science and modern business have the same goal: secular, material prosperity.

Have you seen him who makes his desire his god, and God sends him astray purposely, and seals up his hearing and his heart, and sets on his sight a covering? Who, then, will lead him after God [has condemned him]? Will you not then heed? [Quran 45:23].

Fasting and Commerce

What does this have to do with spiritual fasting? For a start, abstinence is inversely related to material consumption. It transcends material prosperity and academic protocols, flourishing in moral and spiritual realms, where modern economic and scientific disciplines rarely venture.

How can fasting bring profitable returns to companies whose officers answer to shareholders’ demands for increased earnings per share? Clearly, trade and commerce require products, consumers, merchants, markets and business transactions. To be busily involved in commercial activity is usually at odds with the objective of seeking God by abstinence and fasting.

Far removed from it [fire] will be the righteous, those who spend their wealth for increase in self-purification, and have in their minds no favor from anyone for which a reward is expected in return, except the seeking of the pleasure of their Lord, the Most High. And soon will they attain (complete) satisfaction. [Quran 92:17-21].

May Almighty God change our hearts and minds; may the understanding of God’s will increase, and may we be led along the path of those with whom God is pleased.

Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life … It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare. Why not turn to God and ask him to inspire their plans? I am firmly convinced that openness to the transcendent can bring about a new political and economic mindset which would help to break down the wall of separation between the economy and the common good of society. [The Joy of the Gospel, 203, 205].


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