Money and the Meaning of Life
By Jacob Needleman. 
Doubleday: New York, 1991.
321 pp. $20.00 (hardcover).

“Tether your camel, then talk of God,” goes the old desert saying. Perhaps you know people who could use that advice—people who are afraid of the marketplace and find it distasteful. They are uneasy with its compromises and distracted by its excesses. They disparage their “day job,” and, as a result, they do not roll well with the punches of the material world. Other people, actively involved in the marketplace, have rip-roaring careers; they seem to make a living with their left hand while they have fun with their right. And then there are those who say there are only two things worth making—money and a soul.

What is the right balance between the material and the spiritual? And how can the effort of making money support a spiritual effort? Jacob Needleman doesn’t present practical answers to these questions in Money and the Meaning of Life. Nor is the book a course on esoteric economics. But by exploring these questions, he presents insights into living a life engaged in a spiritual search while at the same time giving Caesar his due.

Needleman’s thesis is that “the chief representative of ‘life on earth,’ the world of birth and death, the world we are born to, but not necessarily to die in—that chief representative is now money.” He says we are two-natured, one part “under the sun,” living in the material world, one part “over the sun,” potentially living in the world of the spirit, and points out that coins with religious symbols on one side and temporal symbols on the other have long been used to remind people of these two realms.

For Needleman, “Human life has meaning in so far as we consciously and intentionally occupy two worlds at the same time.” Since money touches all we do, a life without an understanding of money can be a life in hell, yet being in harmony with money can reinforce a spiritual effort. The task is to keep the satisfaction of these material needs in perspective. As Needleman reminds us, humans must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, no more and no less.

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