American Civic Life

Money, Meet Meaning 

By Amber Hacker and Tom Levinson
MMM Edited Selects June 2024 (34)

Twenty-five hundred years ago, a middle-aged man – a husband and father – walks miles across the Indian countryside to pay a visit to a teacher with an extraordinary reputation for insight. 

Then as now, the Indian landscape was dotted with gurus and spiritual teachers. But there’s something special about this teacher – his humility, his wisdom – that makes people travel great distances, at great personal risk, for a few minutes of his time. 

When the traveler at last arrives and his turn comes, he says (and we’re paraphrasing here): 

“Great teacher, I’m just an ordinary person, married, with a job and a few kids. What can you tell me that will help us be happy in this world and hereafter?” 

The teacher, who has come to be known as the Buddha (“he who is awake”), nods. He’s given this question some thought. 

“There are four things that are conducive to happiness in this world,” the Buddha says. 

“First: find a profession you know well, and in which you can be skilled, efficient, earnest, and energetic. 

“Second: save the money you’ve righteously earned through your hard work. 

“Third: make and keep good friends who are loyal, thoughtful, intelligent, and open-minded – and who’ll keep you out of trouble. 

“And fourth: live within your means, not spending too much or too little, avoiding both miserly hoarding and extravagance.”  

This vignette comes from a slim, highly readable book called “What the Buddha Taught,” by the late Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, professor, and writer, Walpola Rahula. 

If you’re keeping score at home, three out of four of the Buddha’s instructions about finding happiness relate to our financial life. And the percentage is even higher when you consider that one way good friends prove their mettle is by helping us avoid doing extremely unwise stuff — including in the realm of money. 

We’re curious: Does it surprise you that the Buddha’s teachings frame such a clear relationship between good financial decision-making and happiness? 

When you consider what your own religious or spiritual tradition teaches about how to live a fulfilling, meaningful life, do you imagine your relationship with money being high on the list? 

We come from different backgrounds and faith traditions – Amber is a committed Christian from North Carolina, Tom is Jewish, born and raised in New York City. We have very different faith convictions, but one thing we have in common is that we both think about and work with people and money, day-in and day-out.  

Our financial decision-making is indelibly shaped by, and anchored in, our religious commitments.

For each of us, our financial decision-making is indelibly shaped by, and anchored in, our religious commitments. That gets lived out in the big picture and in the smallest details: how we treat employees, clients, and competitors; the ways we temper our natural human desire for “more”; how we care for the least of us; and how we manage day-to-day finances for the people and organizations we work with, driven by a set of values and principles.  

It gets lived out in the Torah’s command to observe a weekly Shabbat, when we pause from our work and give thanks for the created world and our freedom.  

It gets lived out in the teachings of Jesus that one cannot serve both God and money (Mark 6:24), and to give sacrificially and faithfully (Mark 12:41-44).  

Too often, our contemporary religious life seems inclined to avoid the topic of money. We attribute this to a variety of factors: longstanding cultural taboos against talking openly about money; a commonly held sentiment that “the Market” is amoral, and that the ethical dimensions of financial markets can therefore be disregarded; and a millennia-old conviction that money’s at the root of some really bad stuff.     

But we invite you to consider, what if money were treated as a subject of spiritual relevance?  And by extension, what spiritual insights might our life with money offer us? In short – what can we learn about faith in finance, and what can we learn about finance in faith?  

It may seem counterintuitive, but in these ways, our financial lives are ripe for interfaith engagement. Whether it’s the Buddha’s teachings; or the ethical grounding of Islamic finance; the Sikh langar tradition, a community kitchen free to all; or the evangelical movements to eliminate personal debt – there is guidance for our financial lives, hiding in plain sight, amid our shared wisdom traditions. 

Interfaith America Life Director Tom Levinson is a Co-Managing Member of Park Piedmont Advisors and co-founder of family education and coaching firm, LK Advisors. Tom is the author of All That’s Holy: A Young Guy, an Old Car, and the Search for God in America, and his writing on religion, values, and American life has been featured in national magazines, newspapers, and on TV and radio.   

Amber Hacker is the Chief Operating Officer/Chief of Staff for Interfaith America. Amber’s passion for finance has earned her the nickname “Budget Hacker” in her work at the organization. She has been featured in Woman’s Day magazine on personal finance and has written for Harvard Business Review.