21 July 2014

On Maintaining the Distinction between Utility and Value

[[Dear Sister, do you consider yourself "useless"? I read a post by a privately professed hermit who speaks of her own life that way. She believes that "doing is useful" and "being is useless." She also divides things into "good useless" and "bad useless." I am not sure I understand what she is getting at. What you wrote about "prayer warriors" and using prayer as a worldly "productive" tool reminded me of this hermit's posts and what I thought she might be saying. I wondered if you consider prayer useless or if you think of yourself that way?]]

No, I don't think of either myself or my life and vocation in those terms. I know both monastics and hermits who do use the term "useless" in a metaphorical or hyperbolic way to make the point that our lives are of value in a completely countercultural way, but when discussing the matter they are therefore capable of and are usually careful to achieve much greater nuance I think. Perhaps the references to good and bad uselessness as well as the distinction between being and doing is this hermit's way of trying to nuance her usage in this matter. In the sense that my life is not particularly utilitarian and cannot be used by anyone to support capitalism, consumerism, or any number of other "isms" for instance it is literally "useless." However, to the degree it is one of the most valuable ways of living, one of the most vividly countercultural, and one of the most hopeful for those who are isolated because of illness, bereavement, or other circumstances which marginalize or make relatively "unproductive," it is both prophetic and extremely "useful" in today's world --- though not in this world's ordinary or defining terms.

I have written about this before. One of the posts is the following:  Why Isn't your Vocation Selfishness Personified? I encourage you to check it out and if it leaves you with questions or raises more for you please do get back to me. With regard to prayer per se, no, of course I don't believe prayer is useless, but I would tend not to see it in merely or even primarily utilitarian terms. When we pray we allow God to shape and heal us, to call and commission us in all the ways God desires --- and thus too, in the ways our world really needs. Prayer is the primary way in which we become God's own persons, persons who love and speak and act as God would speak in our broken world. Even more strongly put, prayer is the way we become mediators of God's life and activity in this world. There is nothing "useless" in that but at the same time neither is prayer merely some tool we pull out of our utility drawer in order to shape and modify things (including God!) to our own specifications.

One thing I probably should comment on here is the motivation behind speaking of either prayer or eremitical life in these terms. If one really feels one's life is a waste of some sort, if one struggles with chronic illness for instance and is left feeling that her gifts are unused and her life is defined in terms of neediness while being unable to give back, then that person has to be extremely careful in the way she hears and adopts this language of "uselessness." No true monastic or eremite believes her life is valueless or worthless; instead she knows it is of infinite value -- and more, that her life is mysterious in the same way God is mysterious. She lives that life as graced and empowered response to the call of God. Even if she cannot immediately see the value of it she will trust that it is of immense value and contributes to God's overarching creation narrative.

There is no need to even see prayer or eremitic life as "useful". Because they are responses to and mediators of God's presence in our world they need no justification at all. Still, they ARE of value in our world and are gifts to it in ways and to an extent many other things are not. When a hermit like Cornelius Wencel, Er Cam, speaks of the eremitical life needing no justification he is not in disagreement with me when I stress the charism of the eremitical life for the isolated and marginalized. Instead we are speaking of two different dimensions of our lives, the first that of utility and the second that of value. (We may also both be distinguishing between treating something as utilitarian and secondarily recognizing its usefulness.) In any case, the distinction between usefulness and value is a critical distinction in our world, a distinction we must always be careful to maintain, because to confuse these two realities is at the heart of so much destruction that occurs so routinely today.


When we treat persons in terms of mere utility we often lose sight of their true value and become guilty of dehumanization (including our own by the way) and even murder --- in all the ways that can occur. This is especially a problem in societies which are capitalistic and stress consumerism, productivity, etc, but it can also happen in forms of ministry or piety when people are treated as "assignments" or "problems to solve" and their essential sacredness and mystery are forgotten in the process. The same is true when we approach those we would call "friends" in terms of our own needs and it is often true in the exploitative and utilitarian way we often approach God's creation in general. Further, when we treat tools as having some kind of ultimate value (including technology of all sorts!) then we have crossed the line into idolatry and will also find we have become incapable of seeing the world in terms of more transcendent (and fundamental) value.

When Genesis reveals mankind as stewards of creation this reveals us as those within Creation who maintain a true sense of the distinction between mere utility and true value. More, I think it reveals human beings as those who subordinate utility to value and in so doing set an example of both sacrifice and selflessness. A culture geared to utility at the expense of value is, or will inevitably become, a compassionless culture of death. One that maintains the distinction between utility and value and the priority of the latter will be and remain a compassionate culture of life and light.