Chapel Talk: Michael Gnozzio
Reading: Matthew 6: 24; 31-33
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
Today’s reading from St. Matthew is one of my favorites in the Gospels, but not because I find the message especially pleasant. Quite to the contrary. At a macro level, it’s a scathing rebuke of the materialist and consumerist values that define the modern society of which I am most certainly a part. And, at a personal level, I find it extremely difficult to take the message of the passage to heart. Those of you who know me well know that I’m not much for leaving things to chance. I plan and scheme constantly. I very much worry about what tomorrow will bring and how I can best prepare for the future. So, when I read an account of God saying, “do not be anxious about your life,” that sounds to me a lot more like harsh criticism than it does words of comfort.
No, the reason I like this passage is much more esoteric — it’s the reference to Mammon. In the translation of the Bible that we read this morning, mammon is spelled with a lowercase “m”; it just means “money” or “profit.” I think the story is much more interesting, though, if we approach it from a medieval worldview and image that, spelled with a capital “M”, Mammon here refers to an actual embodied demon. One of the seven princes of Hell who, at least implicitly, reappears several books later in St. John the Divine’s account of the apocalypse.
Whether or not John’s account is, in any sense, “true”, the story of a cosmic battle between warring factions of celestial beings has always at least seemed to me to be really good mythology. And so, when one of the primary villains of that story gets called out in a seemingly unrelated passage, that’s exciting for me. I like seeing that connection being drawn across time and space. The passage becomes at once more thought provoking and more terrifying.
By now, you’ve probably guessed that religion is something that’s pretty important to me. That wasn’t always the case.
When I first arrived on the Circle 19 years ago as a IIIrd former, this building and the things that go on in it were some of the things I found most challenging about this place. That continued to be true throughout my time here as a student, even while I was taking Dr. Kelly’s AP chemistry class — which was admittedly really hard. It wasn’t that I found chapel unfamiliar. My parents are Roman Catholic, and so I grew up going to church on Sundays and CCD on Wednesdays (at least until I started playing competitive ice hockey). I came into school having already memorized most of the prayers that we commonly recite here, and I knew that I was supposed to believe that a man named Jesus had died on a cross 2000 years ago to save me from sin, death, and eternal damnation. The trouble was, none of it made sense to me.
Sometime in middle school, I had decided that I was an atheist. I had three primary complaints about religion in general and Christianity in particular:
First, it seemed to me that religion was anti-intellectual and at odds with modern science.
Second, I rejected the idea of free will and felt that religion required it.
And finally, I was bothered by the problem of evil.
Why, if God is all loving and all knowing, would He create evil in the first place? And why was He ready to condemn me to an eternity of suffering for “choices” that He knew I’d make from the very moment He’d created me? From my perspective as an LGBT youth who felt rejected by the Church, the whole story seemed one giant contradiction that only served to compound human suffering; and I wanted no part in it.
Except, here, at this institution, and in this chapel, I was forced to see things differently. It was immediately obvious to me when I set foot on this campus that I was surrounded by the smartest people I’d ever met. They were anything but anti-intellectual, and yet, they seemed to take this whole chapel business very seriously — even the science teachers. My concerns about the necessity of free will dissipated as I learned more about Protestant rejections of it. And as I learned more specifically about the Episcopal Church, my protestations over the Roman Catholic church’s social stances seemed moot also.
I still didn’t have an answer to the problem of evil in general, but it was hard to miss the fact that Groton was decidedly a better community because of its shared commitment to religious life. Intellectually, I came to think of myself as agnostic, but emotionally, I liked coming to chapel. I liked singing the hymns (even though I have zero musical ability), I liked the ritual, and most of all, I liked wrestling with the idea that this world that we live in is more than just a collection of atoms following a pre-defined set of rules (even if it is that also).
Four years after I graduated from here, I moved to Boston to start working as a software engineer at a startup incubator. The work was, on a day-to-day basis, always interesting. I liked writing code, I liked the work hard / play hard culture that’s pervasive in the tech industry, and I liked solving the core math problems that live at the heart of making internet businesses successful.
One of the first things that I learned at work is that the internet is a really strange place. Those of you who take French or Spanish know that the romance languages have two different words for the English word “free”. One refers to liberty (free speech, for example) and the other refers to the cost of goods and services. When it comes to the internet, consumer expectations are generally that it should be free in both senses. The effect of this is that websites rely on advertising as their primary source of revenue.
This creates a really perverse incentive. Website owners get paid when you click on an ad that takes you away from their website. Conversely, they have to pay server and network fees while you’re accessing their content. In short, you’re a financial burden to them when you use their systems, and they make money when you leave. To build a successful internet business, then, you have to build something that’s good enough to attract people to your site, but not so good that they actually stick around for very long. Essentially, the website is bait that you use to catch an audience, and then that audience is your actual product, like a fish hooked on a line.
There is, as I said a moment ago, some really interesting math that goes into optimizing this sort of business. Frankly, if you can solve the relevant math problems well, you can make a lot of money. With that money, you can then buy more information about your audience, allowing you to come to even more efficient solutions. In industry speak, this creates a “virtuous cycle.” What that really means is, “the rich get richer,” largely by convincing people who don’t understand how the game is played that they need to buy things that, in truth, they don’t really need.
And that, I’m afraid, is actually a pretty charitable synopsis of how the internet works. Once you know the details, the story actually gets much darker. I don’t have time to go into those details here, but I will suffice it to say that a lot of the internet economy is based on data and revenue sharing agreements (between ostensibly legitimate, law- abiding companies), that are built on abusive, malicious, and illegal activities that are whitewashed through layers of intermediaries. If you’d like to know more about exactly what I mean, stop by my office sometime. I’d be happy to say more. You might also consider searching YouTube for the CollegeHumor video entitled, “The Terrifying Cost of ‘Free’ Websites” — it’s really well done. The upshot is that we now live in a world where we are all under constant surveillance, sometimes by some pretty unsavory characters.
To be clear, I don’t want to give you the impression that everyone who works in tech is fundamentally villainous. Pretty much without exception, my coworkers at my old job were extremely intelligent, liberally minded, and a lot of fun to be around. They were, by most measures, “good people” who were just interested in doing their jobs well. We were all eager to make comfortable lives for ourselves and our families, but, to a person, nobody intended to hurt anyone else.
Unfortunately, not intending to do harm isn’t the same as doing no harm. Besides the fact that lots of people are hurt by the exponential growth of inequality in society, at this point, there’s also no denying that the ad based internet economy has been weaponized to undermine our democratic institutions. If I am honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that I, not all that indirectly, helped a foreign power install as Leader of the Free World a man who has undermined the credibility of the free press, vilified minority groups, and refused to condemn Neo-Nazis. The issues here are broad and this is just one example in which my roll was not at all unique, but shared culpability doesn’t make something unproblematic. In truth, we are all guilty of dangerous complicity that is even more troubling if we consider whence the internet derives.
The pioneers of my grandparent’s generation worked tirelessly to develop computers that would help end a world war. The innovators of my parent’s generation figured out how to miniaturize those computers into personal devices that could be networked together. The internet was supposed to democratize information and educate the masses. On our watch, my peers and I have allowed it to become an increasingly centralized tool for spreading misinformation. Our willingness to allow that to happen has been driven by an insatiable appetite for wealth and profit. Our thirst for material goods has been such that we’ve been willing to dedicate our lives to a cause we don’t believe in (getting people to click ads), just because it’s lucrative.
And so, we come back to the Gospel of Matthew.
When I moved to Boston after college, I started attending Mass at the Church of the Advent, an Episcopal Church on the flat of Beacon Hill. The Advent is a pretty special place for a lot of reasons. Among them is the fact that it was the childhood parish of a certain William Amory Gardner, who, as many of you know, was one of Groton’s original Masters. He was also the donor of this chapel and is buried in the basement.
At first, going to church was mostly a social thing for me. I missed the sense of community that this school gave me, and the Advent helped fill that void. Over time, though, I found myself starting to see sense in ideas that previously seemed to me absurd — particularly the claim that, “No one can serve two masters.”
As my anxieties about material things led me to do things at work that I felt increasingly uneasy about, talk of angels and demons started sounding less and less like mythology and more and more like the best way to describe the feelings I experienced as I went about my daily life. While these feelings were not themselves proof of the existence of God, they did create in me the mindset that ultimately led me to seek Confirmation.
I still can’t tell you that I have a full explanation for why there’s pain and suffering in the world (I don’t think anyone can), but my perspective on the nature of evil has shifted dramatically. I now no longer view it as some external corrupting force that needs to be explained away. Instead, I see it as something that’s inseparable from what it means to be human. I believe that, to understand who I am and why I’m here, I have to grapple with the fact that I’m very flawed and very selfish. Instead of asking, “why would a perfect God create evil in the world?”, I am now much more interested in the question, “why would a perfect God create a creature like me?” The most plausible explanation I’ve encountered to date comes from C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves. He suggests:
“God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. ... [He] is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ him. Herein is love.”
If Lewis is right and the very definition of love is made known to us through our own imperfection and wickedness, then I think the only question that matters is this: “How do we respond to the unmerited gift of divine love, as we experience it in the world around us?” I don’t think there’s any one right answer to this question, but as I reflected on it in the context of my own life, I found myself led to the idea that my response ought be one of worship and service. And I found myself drawn back to the place that first introduced me to the idea that service to others is service to God.
Now, coming back to this chapel day after day, week after week as a member of the faculty, it strikes me as not at all coincidental that it was today’s reading from Matthew that ultimately called me back to the Circle. The message of the passage is embedded in the very first word of our school motto. To those of you who are students here now, I leave you with a question closely related to the one I asked a moment ago: for whom will you live your lives? Will it be God or Mammon whom you call master? In my experience, only one of them offers perfect freedom.