“What exactly is Christian about economics?”
I remember being asked that question a few years ago while taking a course on the political economy of capitalism and its relationship to the gospel. Even though I was a Christian who had studied economics, I did not have an answer. For me, economics was a mode of analysis. It was an exercise in mathematics.
I had an opportunity to re-engage with my friend’s question at a conference I attended last weekend. Jointly presented by Cardus and the Marketplace Institute at Regent College, the “God and the Global Economy” conference sought to explore the issues raised by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate. The encyclical explored the challenges faced in a highly technological, rationalized, and interconnected global economy. There is also a certain beauty in the document’s writing. While it has its moments of plodding exposition, it is also filled with soaring, high-minded prose evoking the best of the Christian soul: thoughtful, caring, considered ideas grounded in the reality of Christ and the hope of the gospel.
As Paul Williams put it in his opening remarks to the conference, “There is a Protestant catch-up to Catholic social teaching that has been going on for several decades . . . The hope [of this conference] is a deepening and increasing in the effectiveness and sharpness of Christian thinking about the economy.” My own engagement with these issues is grounded in both my training in economics and my interest in the issues surrounding Christian engagement in public life. As a participant, I was struck by the variety of contributors: theologians, journalists, researchers, economists, theorists, and practitioners. It was an impressive group of serious Christian thinkers, and the encyclical provided fertile ground to probe the issues inherent in the economic world.
The conference opened with a bang. The first paper, presented by Stephen Long of Marquette University, was intended to provide an overview of the encyclical in anticipation of the rest of the conference. It quickly became apparent that there would be no handholding for participants who had not done their homework. You had the sense of someone standing at the edge of a lake skipping stones across the surface. Long’s paper highlighted the idea that Christian engagement with complex social and economic issues must be grounded in what the encyclical calls a “new humanistic synthesis” between faith, theology, metaphysics, and science. The Eucharist was presented as the reigning paradigm under which such a synthesis must be developed. Reflecting on this question, I imagined an economics grounded in the giving and receiving of gifts. The ideas I was trained to consider in economics (self-interest, fairness, and efficiency) were no longer useful. Instead, I was replacing them with concepts like service, contribution, and meaning. I quickly realized that serious engagement with the encyclical would leave little of my economic training intact.
Fr. Raymond de Souza provided a Catholic response to Long’s paper, and their dialogue provided one of better ironies of the weekend: a Protestant defending the Pope from a Catholic priest. I was struck that their dispute was not grounded in confessional positions; rather, it was grounded in differences in technical expertise: Long was arguing as a theologian and de Souza was arguing as an economist. Nonetheless, their discussion was a fun romp through recent intellectual and theological spats within the Catholic Church. It served to highlight the tensions between the theological fraternity and the professional guild of modern economists. I left the opening session with a sense that if the conference produced nothing else, it would produce its share of fireworks.
The next big show of fireworks came the next morning. Paul Mills, a senior capital markets economist with the IMF, began the day with a presentation on capital and finance. He opened with a short summary of the relevant paragraphs of the encyclical and quickly concluded that there is little concrete that follows from it.
He then shifted to the question of finance in the Bible after summarizing his critique, saying that “we have elevated reason over Scripture.” Instead of appealing to reason alone, Mills argued from the Old Testament law that the basis of our economics should be relationships. He further argued that a relational economy would not permit interest-bearing debt. In the context of the financial crisis of the last two years, this was as radical an idea as I could imagine. Mills challenged us to imagine a world where there was no mortgage for your house, no student loans for your education, no credit cards, no corporate or government bonds, and no modern banking system. I could find no hole in his exegesis and was left with a challenge: how might we move towards this biblical ideal? In the discussion after the presentation, I came to believe that if we could eliminate the tax subsidization of debt, it would move us a long way in the right direction.
Challenging Paul Mills for the position of most radical paper was Regent College professor Iain Provan’s presentation on the obligation to care for creation. “At the heart of creation is a society, not an individual,” he proclaimed early in his presentation. “The Bible does not believe in liberal property rights.” We are called to tend and care for creation on its own terms, not to extract what we want. We do not own the gift of creation. God has given it to us to steward for a time—and he has set the terms of our stewardship himself. The Earth is not for us to carve up and control—it is for us to explore, tend and preserve. Putting this as starkly as he could, Provan quoted Ambrose of Milan: “For not only the ownership of the land, but even the sky, the air, and the sea, a few rich people claim for themselves . . . Do the angels divide the space in heaven, as you do when you set up property marks on earth?”
Reflecting on this paper, I was reminded of the attitude of Francis of Assisi, who treated the animals and the birds he encountered as brothers—partners in the proclamation of the gospel. I found it hard to swallow the idea that to be Christian, I need to reject the idea of property rights (which is central to the work I do as a real estate consultant). But it does seem from Acts that the first Christians did not establish property rights in their first communities. I only wished that Wendell Berry had been able to attend the conference to respond. As the patron saint of Christian agriculture in North America, Wendell Berry has been sharply critical of the instrumentalism of our society’s relationship with the created world. He grounds his critique in the same principals: human beings belong to communities and human societies are subject to the order of the natural world. In an interview with CBC Radio’s “Ideas” program, he summed up his position, saying that the “measure of science must be nature insofar as nature contains us, comprehends us, and ultimately judges our behaviour.” It is precisely the perspective the paper challenged us to adopt.
What might it look like for our communities to engage with creation as a partner and not a resource? Michael Pollan gave a talk in 2007 in which he challenged his audience to imagine the world from the perspective of other species. Sitting down to watch the video again after the conference, I found nothing inconsistent with Iain Provan’s challenge. Pollan tells the story of a farm in Virginia where industrial agriculture has been rejected in favour of an approach where the crops form a complex and sustainable ecosystem or permaculture. The complex relationships between the species result in organic crop yields which are multiples of the yields produced by intensively managed factory farms. Might Christians be at the leading edge of such exciting projects? What radical impact might this have on our economics?
In wrestling with these ideas, and processing the claims of Caritas in Veritate, I find myself somewhat disoriented. As one participant put it, “I am still confused, but at a deeper level.” The Pope has challenged the church to re-imagine economics as a realm of gift, not simply of interests. It will be difficult for the church to adopt these new ideas quickly. And in a world of technical specialization and expertise, the encyclical’s proposal of a new humanistic synthesis seems impossible.
It is not easy for me to imagine an economy without debt or the eclipsing of industrial resource extraction by serious attempts at creation care. But the gospel is God’s gift of hope in a world in need of salvation, and so I left the conference confident in that hope. I know that the conversations begun a week ago will continue and I hope that soon these seeds will bear good fruit as the Spirit empowers us to transform our culture.