Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

Finances are spiritual issues. Budgets are moral documents. Are economic beliefs, then, theological statements?

In the introduction to their book How Much Is Enough?, a critique of systems of political economy geared towards blind growth, father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky admit that their entire vision of a better society ultimately rests on “a declaration of faith” (p.10, emphasis added).  They claim that “[t]o go from the pursuit of growth to the pursuit of happiness is to turn from one false idol to another” (p. 123, emphasis added). They praise Catholic social teaching  for moderating “against [both] state socialism and unrestrained capitalism” (p. 186), in addition to further comments on Christian Scripture, the Dharamsūtras of Brahman India, the Confucius and Tao philosophies of ancient China, and the contemporary pseudo-religion of Gaia.

They mention the theological bearings of great economists. They note that while John Maynard Keynes’ work focused on the gears and whistles of capitalism, Keynes always had “religion under the surface,” holding onto the hope that reckless capitalism would eventually pass away and usher in “the heaven of art, love, and the quest for knowledge” (p. 17). They reference Adam Smith’s rather detached view of God, (aka: “The Great Director of the Universe”), who “has merely set the machinery [of economics] in motion, leaving it to self-love to work its benefits” (p. 50).

With those quotes from How Much Is Enough? in mind, I want to make what may seem like a surprising turn to An Altar in the World, written by Episcopalian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Like the Skidelskys, Taylor is interested in questions of what the good life looks like, but she comes to these questions through the lens of personal spirituality rather than political economy.

Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.
Modest thrift store prices conceal the fact each of these items has an incredible manufacturing history, originating from a human network that spans across the globe, a simple reflection that has amazed theologian and economist alike.

Humor me this and read this quote of Taylor’s on the “spiritual practice” of paying attention to the “sacrament” of a mail-order catalog:

“First, there are the people who produced the catalog—the designers, the photographers, the models, and the copyeditors—along with the people who produced the goods inside. Some of those people live in Mexico and others in the Phillipines. In China, where cashmere goats are bred to produce sweaters for American consumers, traditional grasslands are so overgrazed that thousands of square miles turn to desert each year. If you could lay a laminated map of the world on the floor and put a pin in every place where something in that mail-order catalog came from, you might be amazed at how prickly the map became.” (p.31)

Got that? Good, because now compare that to this excerpt from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, where, instead of pins on a map, he is dropping exclamation points over his description of the assembly of a piece of clothing:

The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! (I.1.11)

Save for Taylor’s reference to nature resource overuse, both Taylor and Smith are saying the same thing, that there is an incomprehensible economic wonder caused by the division of labor.

In fact, Taylor probably did not do this intentionally, but throughout her chapters discussing various spiritual practices, she has a coherent (although not systematic) economic doctrine of her own regarding the concept of work, the factor of production sometimes called labor.

“Work,” Taylor says, “connects us to other people,” using the examples of the customer service agent and the oft-overlooked school custodian (p.114-115). The idea here is that the fruits of our labors are not often for us to enjoy; and, if I may run away with the text, the implication is that the whole purpose of economic theorizing is less about making a profit and more about understanding the fabric of human relations to each other.

But while Taylor affirms the value of work, she also moderates this claim. She laments the loss of Sabbath culture in the American South, starting in the 1960s when “gross domestic product had become the foremost indicator of the nation’s health and well-being” (p.128). With her elegant prose, she explains her logic: “[b]y interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying in picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart.” (p.131).

Taylor goes even further, describing when a blizzard ripped through town and stranded her and her husband on their Georgia farm. With no road and no electricity, the author had to put down her pen and become a physical laborer for the sake of her survival and the survival of those around her (p. 143). The lessons learned from those days become a two-pronged reflection on the value of physical labor and on exceeding one’s self-interest, admitting that “the people who do these things for a living are at the bottom of the economic ladder. If American culture admitted to caste, then these laborers would be the shudras” (p.146).

There is much more to say on Taylor’s concept of labor, but I have to stop there for the sake of bringing my thoughts full circle. Suffice it to say that Taylor could not talk spirituality without stumbling upon economics. And while this seems to happen mostly in the background, Taylor does at least once bring it straight to the forefront, claiming that “[i]f Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex” (p.131).

I don’t know what to make of the sex piece, but if Taylor is claiming that God is interested in economics, there are economists who are quite interested in (some sort of) God. The Skidelskys, in the second-to-last paragraph (so, rhetorically speaking, they really do mean it) of their entire book on money and the good life, write the following personal ad, albeit in reserved academic prose:

The basic goods…are not logically dependent on any single religious doctrine, but their realization is probably impossible without the authority and inspiration that only religion can provide. Most of the liberal reformers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were Christians; others were among those who, as Keynes said of himself, “destroyed Christianity and yet had its benefits.” Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to the pursuit of the common good? We doubt it. (p.218)

It may seem like a match made in heaven, but I think Christians need to pause for a moment and realize the implications of such an opportunity. How can we frame this not so that the church is a pawn of human progress, but rather that a healthier economics is the consequence of the church living into its mission of being a foretaste of things to come, being the salt of the earth?

We first need to realize, at least in the academy, economists and theologians often take the top prizes for flaunting their disciplinary hubris. (Trust me on this, I was an interdisciplinary major in college). Economists, believing they have most scientific of all the social sciences, will often subsume political science, sociology, and history as just “applied economics.” Theologians are tempted to think that simply because they are good at talking about God that they are an licensed expert in every other topic, even though their secular authority has been eroding over the last many centuries. The relationship between these two power-disciplines is revealed by the Skidelskys when they admit, “Economics is not just any academic discipline. It is the theology of our age, the language that all interests, high and low, must speak if they are to win a respectful hearing in the courts of power” (p.92).

(Another potential point of conflict-conversation: economists tend to be world-class realists, while many theologians are exceptional idealists.)

If Christians are called to speak truth into today’s society, they need to learn how to speak economics fluently without letting economics become their first language. As many second language learners know, the process of stumbling over one’s tongue to make the right sounds comes with a strong dose of humility.

I had a few hours before my flight left from JFK Airport. I took advantage of the opportunity to be all touristy and walk around Lower Manhattan. While on Wall Street, just outside Federal Hall, I met this holdout from the Occupy movement (the banker-type just happened to get himself into the photo, but then scuttled off). Me and “Revolution” (as he calls himself) chatted a bit. He outlined what he was doing and what he believed in. He said that this was not his first time in New York, he had gone to Miami to join with the Occupy movement down there last winter. Only recently had he been able to return to New York. With a sigh of exhaust, Revolution asked if I had any money. “I could really use a cigarette.” Seeing that this was probably the one thing that could bring him a shred of joy in that immediate moment, I dug out my pocket change. At this, we shook hands as Revolution took off his mask for a brief moment. “Thanks. I’ll remember you. You were one of the good ones.”

But if we are to step off the ivory tower and into the world as it really is, I think we need to be acknowledging that in a postmodern world of fractured meaning, movements that look a lot like religion are being launched off a few fragments of economic belief.

Take the Tea Party movement. Yes, they have decent arguments for fiscal responsibility and free markets (although I doubt the average Tea Partier has delved into the supporting economic theories, depending instead on mantras excerpted from Atlas Shrugged.) But those arguments have combined with christianized and nationalistic myths about America’s history, along with anti-myth conspiracy theories about the current president. Grover Norquist is apparently now talking about an imminent second coming of the movement. Somehow the Tea Party has succeed in moralizing an issue such as the size of government, completely independent of what the government actually does and how this is accomplished.

Or the Occupy movement. They are driven by an incredible eschatological hope, that somehow their presence in the streets will bring about 1) a mass loan default that brings the no-good 1% to their knees and 2) inspires among the masses a utopian solidarity that sounds a lot like “love”. Zuccotti Park has become a sort of Mount Zion that the Occupy diaspora holds onto. Instead of borrowing the symbols of patriotism and Christianity, they have taken the Arab Spring, pop culture references like V for Vendetta, and some demonstrations of their own creation.

What we are seeing with the Tea Party and Occupy movements are not mere political causes. These groups are creating their own communities, rituals, resiliences. The fights for justice are narratives giving people a sense of meaning and purpose. If you did one of those fancy neurological scans of a Tea Partier or an Occupier in a moment of action, I think you would be seeing activity in the same part of the brain as a religious devotee in a moment of discipleship.

Except the “holy text” or “sacred tradition” is, well, faith in an economic world-view. The crusade for a political economy may be abstract and relevant enough to give a person a burgeoning sense of purpose, but I severely doubt this faith can sustain a soul for the entirety of life.

What, then, are the possibilities? Could pastors start taking classes in economics not merely to learn how to run their churches more effectively, but how to speak truth to a society that speaks the language of capitalist efficiency? How do churches embody a healthier economics inside their walls? Outside their walls? What would it take to communicate to Tea Partiers and Occupiers that, as big and important as their movements are, the gospel is bigger yet? 

Maybe these aren’t questions that turn your wheels. That’s okay. But I have to admit, they are beginning to turn mine.

Picture #1, “Recognition” by Orin Zebest, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Picture #2 is my own, can be copied or adapted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.


2 thoughts on “Horizons from the Nexus of Economy and Belief

  1. […] Economics is the theology of the modern age and, for better or worse, the ideology of capitalism currently reigns supreme. What capitalism has believed from the onset, and the world capitalism has created in its image, is that the “invisible hand” will do its work as long as we religiously pursue our self-interest. The gears of the world, we are implicitly taught, are dependent on us choosing to “maximize our preferences.” […]

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