The Alchemy of Sacramentality     Theologian Richard McBrien emphasizes sacramentality as the essence of being a Catholic. Sacramentality is an attitude or spirit in which we experience all reality as sacred. Unlike the confrontation of evil nature and the good soul, Catholics view nature as a world which God inhabits, and, with intelligent use of this world, we can see God's divine presence and become divine too (9-12). My parish priest reminded me that, "Your house, this football field, is just as holy as the Church. That's the key, I guess, in understanding the concept of incarnation." I have been trying to understand this concept for many years, especially since Catholicism is a very important make-up of my existence. This concept of understanding the world endowed with divine presence in order to advance to a divine nature is a little too abstract for me to understand. These reflections are designed to help me concretize a few ideas on sacramentality, based on the writings of Norman Austin, a classics teacher at the University of Arizona, and Georges Soros, an international stock trader, philanthropist, and philosopher. After some preliminary definitions of "sacrament and the self" by McBrien and Austin, I will review Soros's concept of reflexivity and alchemy. Understanding a successful stock trader's operating terms in the economic world will help us operate in the sacramental world.

    Richard McBrien views sacramentaliy as the bridge which helps you see the divine nature of the world, not just its material aspects, which exist only in linear time. Understanding our spiritual self is key to operating in an eternal world. In Norman Austin's study, Meaning and Being in Myth, each of us searches for self-realization or self-consciousness to find our place in the world and to be conscious of ourselves as integrated people who exist both as a subject ("Being") and as an object ("Meaning") in the world (3-5). Animals, such as salmon, live on instinct alone, the here and now. Humans exchange these instincts on living here and now, for a more problematic look at the past and future (6). Our goal is to transcend the instincts to be conscious of our place in the world. The Narcissus myth (the search, not the failure) is an essential archetype of this quest. We study our reflections in the world. The person searches for its authentic self in the "other."

    The self cannot, as Dewey remarked, find its unity in itself alone, but only in transcending itself. Or, in Hegel's terms, the self cannot achieve self-consciousness without the consciousness of the Other. Lacan put the problem another way: the individual self must find itself through a network of signifiers, which already being culturally determined, are in the field of the Other. Thus the self discovers itself only in alienation. Even Narcissus, who imagines that he can find himself without hazarding himself in the field of the Other, is doomed to only find empty images of himself, and on the very face of the Other that he shunned.

    The self searches for the authentic subject, but this subject lies hidden in the alien field of the Other. Seeing intimations of the subject everywhere, but finding the subject nowhere, the self projects another and larger self as the subject; that is, the gods, through whom it can envisage and realize itself. (3)

    The Ground of Being that the self seeks are representations of the subject, or the First Cause of Being, the "I" part of oneself, or the gods that consent to being. Austin calls these the numinous archetypes (numinous from the Greek referring to mysterious powers that "nod" existence up). This numinous, subjective part of the self is the divine or spiritual aspect which is trying to make itself known. We can only experience the "I" Being, part of us in the "other" or world of objects. Being is the subject and meaning is found in the objective world. Sartre accuses us of living in Bad Faith when we tend to treat ourselves as objects too much. He proposes Existentialism as a way to reinvent our subjective side which is in danger in a material world. Humans arrive at self-consciousness through participation in the world, and the world in turn becomes self-conscious in participation with human minds. It's a reflexive process. We shape the universe with our perceptions of what divinity is like, and the universe also affects us and how we see ourselves. We are prone to live in the "object" world and not see its divine presence, or its spiritual significance. This is where sacrament comes in. Sacrament, which in Greek times was an initiation into religion, bridges the gap between Object Consciousness and the Numinous Subject. Religious rituals imitate the sacraments, but Austin reminds us that the real sacrament is the understanding of the divine connections, for which you need grace, which cannot be commanded since it comes from the autonomous being which is God, or you (8). It is a reflexive action when we become aware that our perception of the world affects how the world really is. Here's where Soros can help us. The alchemical application of reflexivity to the financial world will lead us to the alchemical application of sacramentality in the eternal world.

                                                        The Theory of Reflexivity

    In his quest of self-realization, and a more real concept of the stock market, George Soros develops a theory of reflexivity. He distinguishes natural sciences from social sciences with natural sciences being concerned with a more objective world, where phenomena belong to one universe and the scientists' statements to another, where the phenomena serve as independent, objective criteria by which the validity of the scientific statements can be judged, while social sciences deal with events concerning thinking, decision-making participants, where there are criteria too, but where validation of hypotheses is not certain because you can never tell if the expectation corresponds to the subsequent event, or the subsequent event conforms to the expectation. In other words, there is a lack of separation between the subject matter and the act of thinking (32-33). Alchemy cannot work in the field of natural science because you cannot impose your will on the subject matter (base metals turned into gold), because the behavior of base metals is governed by the laws of universal validity, which cannot be changed by any statements, chants, or rituals (36-37). Decision-making is always based on an imperfect understanding of the situation, so you can never be sure in validating historical events with peoples' choices. The theory of reflexivity deals with social sciences, from which Soros uses economics as an example, but to which you can add philosophy, politics, and religion. Situations with hypotheses and conclusions can mislead us into accepting their validity since they have the label backing of "science." To him, social science is a false metaphor.

    The theory of reflexivity deals with participants thinking and the situation they think about. Soros's theory has two functions: the cognitive function where participants try to understand a situation; and a participating function where the participants' perceptions actually affect the situation. It sounds simple, but we rarely think in terms of the participating function. We'll follow Soros's use of the theory in the financial world in hopes of corresponding it to bigger game.

    In the stock market, the situation that traders try to understand is found in the fundamentals of stocks (earnings per share, dividends, assets, free cash flow) which affect the stock prices - the cognitive function. The participating function changes the stock prices into a "subject" which affects the fundamentals or situation of that company (50). The fundamentals affect the prices, but the prices affect the fundamentals at the same time. The market does not always reflect the situation, but in fact works the other way, and influences the way people treat the market. Events shape people's lives, and people's lives change events. This is history. Soros uses two terms in his reflexive observations: prevailing bias, the divergence of the course of events and the participants' expectations, which affect market prices positively or negatively, and an underlying trend which is composed of many factors which influence stock prices, whether the participants recognize them or not. Soros studies the currency and credit aspects of finance with terms such as strong and weak currency, interest rates, trade deficit/surplus, budget deficit, speculative capital inflow-outflow, non-speculative capital inflow-outflow, and strong/weak economy as factors which affect the underlying trend. The trend in stock prices, then, is a combination of the underlying trend and the prevailing bias. There is always a flaw in the participants' thinking. Reality is always different. When the flaw manifests itself, the prevailing bias will change, which will also reverse the underlying and overall trend of the stock (54-55). Soros uses reflexivity to show how stock prices influence underlying values. If the trend in prices goes up, everything self-reinforces. If prices reverse, the trend is self-correcting. Soros tries to figure if a reversal is only a self-correcting measure, or if the prevailing bias has changed, which will cause a continued down movement or a bust. The boom-bust sequence (self-reinforcing upward movement with occasional self-correcting downward curves followed by a big reversal) is the usual sequence of stock prices. Stock traders like my brother and Mr. Soros like to be able to predict when the big reversal will happen, thus making money on the way up (buying long) and on the way down by selling what they don't own in hopes of buying it later at a cheaper price (selling short). You need a reflexive "mentality" to operate on the economic material level, as compared to a sacra "mentality" for the spiritual level.

                                                            Variables in the Reflexive Process
(readers less interested in economic terms may wish to skip to the next section)

    The elements that you choose to study in the reflexive process are crucial to your success. In the reflexive equation, Fundamentals (the real values of stocks) <=> Stock Prices, Soros concentrates more on the Stock Prices' effect on the fundamentals. In order to see more of the trends and biases, he studies the effect of exchange rates and credit cycles on the fundamentals. For instance, a strong exchange rate discourages inflation: wages remain stable and the price of imports falls. When exports have a large import component, a country can remain competitive almost indefinitely in spite of a steady appreciation of its currency, as Germany demonstrated in the 1970s. (69)
The relation of the international exchange rate and domestic inflation (currency and credit are in surplus of available goods and so prices soar) are reflexive or even circular, not cause and effect. It is a "vicious" circle when your currency depreciates and inflation accelerates (70). The trade deficit gets larger, the capital you need to invest in assets is going out of your country, and your currency is buying less and less abroad (72). On the other hand, a "benign" circle occurs when the strong currency keeps the trade balanced, keeps speculative capital coming in, which keeps the interest rates on debts in your favor, which keeps reinforcing itself and staying above the budget deficit and trade deficit (72-76).

    The other major factor in the reflexive process is the credit/regulatory process which affects changes in the trends, and can change a benign circle into vicious one and vice-verse. In the Reagan plan, which Soros describes as Reagan's Imperial Circle, the ever increasing inflow of speculative capital (for investment in assets) brought with it a slowly increasing rising interest. Repayment obligations slowly incur, making nonspeculative capital (useless $ going out to pay interest) outweigh incoming speculative capital. More money going out increases the budget deficit which in turn increases the trade deficit (importing more than exporting). The currency continues to weaken and the economy thus stays in a vicious circle (76). Reagan's economy was able to keep the speculative capital inflow over the trade deficit, which kept the US dollar strong for an extended time (113-118). He did this by borrowing. The Reagan Imperial Circle was benign in the center, but vicious on the periphery. We are paying now.

    Collateral, your debt worthiness, depending on actual assets or the ability to pay back, affects whether you will get the loan, but in the reflexive process, the loans and lending affect your collateral, your ability, whether real or potential, to pay back loans. In the stock market, equity is valued; in banking, it is collateral. On the international and national scene most people do not realize that unchecked lending leads to a corrosion of collateral values which will depress the economy (81-83). The answer to the lending crisis of 1982 was the "Collectives," a unified system of central and regional banks which allowed reserves to be kept so that lending could continue, and so that debtors would not default. Soros approves the solution and proposes an International Bank to regulate the lending system today.

    In his real time experiment from August,1985 to November, 1986, Soros describes how he built up his Quantum Fund using his reflexive strategies. He was right in predicting "The Golden Age of Capitalism" under the Reagan scheme, but was wrong by being too early in predicting when the national indebtedness would run its course. However, his operation was successful because he made huge advances when he was correct, and was able to recognize his mistakes more quickly when wrong. For example, he thought that the Reagan Imperial Circle would have a boom/bust trend, but instead realized it operated on a "brink/recoil" system (288-290). Like OPEC, the International Lending System, and the Budget Deficit, the Reagan Imperial Circle method goes to the brink, recoils, but never really recovers. Soros calls this brink/recoil model a self-defeating prophesy, because we expect the system to recoil, but can't be sure. Therefore the more confident we get, the greater the danger of bankruptcy (288).

                                                            The Alchemy Method

    Since Soros has a miserable record in predicting real world events, but a fabulous record in the financial world, he recommends the alchemical method of imposing his will to make real events transmutable to his own success. Factors that helped are the speculative gambling whose risk keeps you more conscious of what you are doing; the act of writing down his thoughts to help to clarify his process; and the combination of philosophical speculation and financial market speculation, his two great interests, engaging him more than either one on its own (302). This is a cross-disciplinary process of reading economics philosophically, and philosophy economically. The two areas will come together and be understood better than if approached separately. The alchemical method of understanding better the ever changing reflexive positions allows him time to take advantage when it works and to correct when it does not (303). The reason he does not call his method scientific is because his experiment influenced his successful outcome, while true natural science is more objective and concerned with validating hypotheses. He uses scientific methods of experimenting and gathering data and making hypotheses, but he rejects the "science" label which would indicate that his theory is universally valid."

I have argued that the reflexive processes cannot be predicted by scientific method, and the real time experiment was a deliberate attempt to explore an alternative method. To bring the point home, I have described the alternative method as alchemy. Scientific method seeks to understand things the way they are, while alchemy seeks to bring about a desired state of affairs. To put it another way, the primary objective of science is the truth - that of alchemy, operational success.(303) He concludes by relating the concept of reflexivity with the quest of self-consciousness and all the values that it involves. What we think has a much greater bearing on what we are than on the world around us. What we are cannot possibly correspond to what we think we are, but there is a two-way interplay between the concepts. As we make our way in the world our sense of self evolves. The relationship between what we think we are and what we are in reality is the key to happiness - in other words, it provides the subjective meaning of life. (362)     This enjoyable reflexive quest of being and meaning corresponds to Austin's sacramental connection between being and meaning, achieved with the help of grace. Soros's concept of reflexivity in the financial world points to concrete uses in literature and theology. The mentality of reflexivity is comparable to sacramentality in the theological world, and intertextuality in the humanities world.

                                                    The Alchemy of Sacramentality

    How do Catholics look at the concept of salvation? Do we see Christ as a hero-type, who saved us from damnation and from our sins? Thomas Acquinas and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain share this hero view of Christ. Or, do we see Christ as an example of how to become divine yourself, a more dynamic view of salvation, one shared by the philosopher Teillard de Chardin and Immanuel Mounier, the founding editor of Esprit, a French review started by Catholic laypeople in the 30s.

    The dynamic process has more possibilities than interest in ends. The linear time chain is potentially dangerous: the wish to get things done; wishing it were Friday; counting the pages you have left to finish in a book; wishing the semester to be over; or earning a million dollars. If you're on the process time chain, you like the doing, the form, the different aspects that comprise the activity. You rarely look to the end of the book, the end of the week, etc. This attitude is beyond time. It is eternal and sacramental. Soros's reflexive mentality keeps him passionately involved in the process of figuring things out in the face of the flaws of human perception.

    In the reflexive process, fundamentals or virtues such as earnings-per-share, assets, and free cash flow cause changes in the stock prices or values of what you own, but it is your values or the stock prices which also affect the virtues or fundamentals. A good attitude will be reflected by good performance, if the prevailing bias is not too far away from reality. I may not be a Mickey Mantle, but I can become a better player. Values (measures of worth, or abilities to measure worth) and virtues (qualities of goodness and capacities to act) will self-reinforce just as the opposite negative values and vices. What we're looking for is a trend to sacramentality, with an underlying trend of faith, hope, and love and charity in the processes of understanding these virtues in the real world. If I like a book and have faith in it, I will find many uses for it in my criticism and classroom . Faith and love seem to reinforce themselves with more of the same. If I see paradise as a place, there is more and more of a gap between my vision of it and the reality of it. Too much of a gap becomes a prevailing bias that will not able to be sustained.

    The two big areas of concern for Soros in the Financial world are the exchange rate of your currency, and credit/regulatory measures. In the exchange rate, your currency has to be strong to buy goods outside your country. On the other hand if it is too strong, other countries will cease being customers, and your trade deficit will cause inflation, and you'll buy less, etc. In economy, you have to keep the medium of exchanges flowing. In place of gold, Soros suggests oil. Currency means "flowing." In nature, you need air and water. In the sacramental world? Maybe it's faith, hope, and love. Too strong, or fanatacized, these virtues will lose grips with reality and won't be able to be spread around, thus a loss of charity.

    In the area of loans and collateral, we have to remember that it is the loans which will corrode collateral values. Therefore, we have to regulate the loans to keep a cash flow of capital. We do need loans to give us leverage, or more buying power, but we have to beware of the dangers of going over the margin. In our sacramental vision, paradise as a place could cause us to take out too many bad loans. We may sacrifice this life in hopes of a better supernatural life without realizing that the foundation of spirituality can only be built in the material world. In Sartre's The Wall, Pablo Ibbietta, a political rebel waiting to be executed, realizes he spent his life taking out advances on eternity and had understood absolutely nothing. The linear time chain is full of bad loans. Waiting until it's Friday is waiting for death. What should we take out loans for? Spiritual equity is built up in the memory where physical and mental processes are stored and put to use: borrowing ideas, reading books, listening to "successful" people.

    According to Soros, tribal societies are mired in a traditional mode of thinking; totalitarian societies are imprisoned in a dogmatic mode, and democratic societies are open to risk in a critical mode of thinking (323). Soros also laments the gap between the rich and poor in current "imperial capitalism" (183). He proposes some regulatory measures to insure that most participants in the democratic society have access to capital inflow. He proposes an international bank to regulate the world economy, to keep cash flowing, and to check borrowing. Too strict controls will stifle the economy - therefore the need to be aware of the reflexive process and to change all the time. What is this bank in sacramental terms? A bank is where we save money, where we can get loans, etc. A bank is what we build for security. The bank is our memory where we store knowledge for use. To be too protective of our memory is to lose it. The bank can also be the Church which is us. We build it to receive spiritual inflow of the virtues of faith, hope, and love based on Christ's example and spread these virtues around. Do we need change now? Are our shepherds guiding us to a sacramental vision? Prevailing biases are good - the signs of an open society. They are reflected in the market in economy, in elections in politics, and where in religion? In theology where Christ's teaching is interpreted in the current society.

                                                                                Works Cited

Austin, Norman. Meaning and Being in Myth. University Park and London: Pennsylvannia SU Press, 1990.

McBrien, Richard. Catholicism. New York: Harper, 1994.

Soros, George. The Alchemy of Finance. New York: John Wilkey and Sons, 1994.