Business & Economy

What is a Christian Vision For Economic Life?

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Nathan McLellan

This article is the second in a series by Nathan McLellan on a Christian vision for economics. Nathan is completing a Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University. He holds a master’s degree in economics from Massey University and master’s degree in theology from Regent College. He was formerly the Head of Research at the Marketplace Institute Regent College and an economist at the New Zealand Treasury. He is the author of research on economic growth, productivity, and business cycles. He is also a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Maxim Institute.

The previous article (What is Capitalism?) suggested that capitalism is not only an economic system, but also an ideology or mindset that is based on a particular understanding of the human person and society. The goal of this article is to present a Christian vision for economic life and to challenge capitalism's understanding of the human person and society by addressing the question: what is a Christian vision for economic life? In other words, this article will provide an overall framework for viewing economic life—one that the author hopes the vast majority of Christians can agree upon—but not a detailed institutional and policy agenda (where there is likely to be legitimate differences of opinion among Christians).  

The Christian scriptures present a very different understanding of the human person and society, and, flowing from this, a different understanding of economic life, than that offered by capitalism. Rather than an autonomous individual, the scriptures present the human person as embedded in a series of relationships with others: with God, with other persons, and with the rest of creation. For example, in the opening chapter of Genesis, we see humans communing with God, with one another, and also relating to the rest of creation. Owing to the relational orientation of the Christian scriptures, the biblical conception of freedom differs markedly to that of capitalism. Rather than freedom from the other, the biblical understanding of freedom is primarily freedom for the other: for God, for other humans, and for the rest of creation. Bonhoeffer captures this notion of freedom superbly when he writes:


Freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means 'being-free-for-the-other', because I am bound to the other. Only by being in relation with the other am I free.[1]

Personhood is found in relationship with others and, hence, a person cannot be understood apart from society, nor society apart from the individual person, thereby avoiding the extremes of individualism, on the one hand, and collectivism, on the other.

Within this relational context, God has commanded humans: "To be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Gen. 1:28). Sometimes called the "cultural mandate," this command calls on humans to "make something of the world" in which God has placed them.[2] In other words, humans are called to be stewards: to take the gifts that have been entrusted to them by God and, through the effort of work, to cultivate these gifts so that they become more productive.

The vocational task—to be fruitful and increase in number, to rule and subdue the earth—suggests an environment of plenitude. The creation account in Genesis suggests that provision has been made to meet human needs, albeit that the creation needs to be cultivated in order for these needs to be met. This still requires humans to make decisions about where to allocate resources in order to meet human needs and wants. In this sense, humans still face the reality of scarcity. However, this contrasts with capitalism's understanding of scarcity that contends "no one has enough."[3] A Christian vision for economic life must ultimately reject the notion that the human person is comprised of unlimited wants that can never fully be satisfied. Instead, it embraces the notion that human fulfillment can be found in relationship with others in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore, the human person cannot be reduced to a "consumer": as a human one must consume, but to consume does not define what it means to be human. Moreover, given that God has created a world in which there are enough resources to meet everyone's needs, that poverty still exists is a result of current institutions, policy settings, and human behavior.[4]

The Christian scriptures also recognize the importance of place in the fulfillment of the cultural mandate: in the creation narrative, humans are placed within the cosmos; Israel is given a specific land as a gracious gift from YHWH; and Jesus comes to a particular people, in a particular time, in a particular place. In contrast, capitalism pays little attention to the role of "place" in economic life, and neoclassical economics has reinforced this tendency. In this connection, Shuman rightly notes:

For traditional economists and their critics, place was beside the point. The basic unit of analysis for microeconomics was the firm, and for macroeconomics the nation. Community, a level of organization somewhere in between, didn't really fit.[5]

"Place," then, is viewed neutrally: a blank canvas, or a shuffleboard upon which pieces can move around with ease. Place is important in as much as labour and capital, encouraged by the ideology of capitalism, move to those "places" where it can achieve the highest rate of return (i.e., to earn the highest salary/wage or profit). In comparison, giving due attention to place means taking seriously the unique locations, histories, traditions, and practices within which persons and communities continue to be formed.

The relational orientation that is found in the opening creation narratives is maintained throughout Scripture, from Israel's vocation to be a light to the nations, to Jesus' summary of the Law, to its final pages, where the vision of the new heaven and the new earth and the new Jerusalem, which has come down from heaven, is one of shalom (wholeness and peace): a picture of relational harmony between God, humanity, and the rest of creation. Although it is God who will ultimately bring this relational vision to its consummation, even in the presence of sin at the present time, humans are called to partner with God in working towards this end.

In the passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with economic life, the emphasis on relationship can be seen readily. For example, the Jubilee laws (Leviticus 25), which make family land inalienable and put limits on the unequal distribution of land (which would have been the principal form of productive capital in ancient Israel), are intended to remind Israel of her covenant relationship with YHWH and to support Israel's societal clan structure.[6] Hence, concerning the latter, Wright contends:

The primary purpose of the jubilee was to preserve the socioeconomic fabric of multiple-household land tenure and the comparative equality and independent viability of the smallest family-plus-land units. In other words, the jubilee was intended for the survival and welfare of the families in Israel.[7]

Economic institutions are intended to support the relational orientation of life in general; economic life is subordinated to an overarching relational understanding of life, for "when Jesus lays down the overarching moral principles of 'love God and love your neighbour,' he is pointing to the priority of relational over financial wealth, for love is a quality of relationships."[8] Or as Newbigin puts it, whereas capitalism enthrones an [erroneous] notion of freedom and socialism an abstract notion of equality, "what is fundamental [to the Christian understanding of life] is relatedness."[9]

Various authors, from diverse Christian traditions, have worked this overarching Christian narrative into a more systematic form. For example, from a Roman Catholic perspective, John Paul II has highlighted the primacy of relationships in his personalist account of economic life.[10] Likewise, from an evangelical protestant perspective, Schluter and Lee have emphasized the importance of relationships in their political philosophy of "relationalism."[11] In addition, the understanding of economic life that emerges from the Christian scriptures also has resonances with some "secular" thinkers, although they would not build their argument from a biblical foundation.[12]

In an attempt to draw out the main points of difference between capitalism and a view of economic life that emerges from a Christian perspective, the table below summarizes some of the main points from the foregoing discussion. (Some of the points listed in this table are discussed in more detail in two forthcoming articles). Yet the essential difference between capitalism and a Christian perspective of economic life can be reduced to saying that the former has a truncated or distorted view of personhood. The human is viewed as an autonomous being—she is "an island unto herself," unless she voluntarily chooses to engage with others—with the result that society is seen simply as a collection of atomized individuals, rather than the reality that a human is embedded in a network of relationships in a particular place.

The irony is that, despite placing the individual at the center of its schema, capitalism actually downplays the personal in economic life. But what would happen if the personal were taken seriously in thinking about what and how goods and services are produced, what we consume, where production takes place, and such like? One commentator thinks, "we might be inclined to ask who these people are [who are producing goods and services], under what conditions do they work, and what are the environmental consequences of producing these goods."[13] As he acknowledges, however, "in general, capitalist societies do not encourage these types of questions."[14] In contrast, a Christian perspective on economic life does.

Table 1: Capitalism and a Christian Understanding of Economic Life

 

Capitalism

A Christian View

Fundamental orientation to the world

Scarcity

Plenitude

Assumptions about the human person

 

 

Autonomous individual 

Motivated by self-interest to fulfill unlimited wants 


Finds fulfillment in (material) consumption and leisure

Interdependent person

Motivated by self-interest and benevolence to fulfill the limited needs and wants of oneself and others

Finds fulfillment in relationships (friendship): with God, other persons, and the rest of creation

Virtues required to find human fulfillment

Virtues: prudence and, to some extent, fortitude and justice

Virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice (cardinal); faith, hope and love (theological)

Assumptions about society

A collection of individuals who voluntarily agree to enter into a social contract with one another


 


Social, economic, and political institutions are designed to maximize the consumption of goods and leisure. Maximizing economic growth becomes the overriding societal goal

A creation reality: humans are embedded within societies. The human person cannot be understood apart from society, and vice versa. Human societies (and, therefore, the human person) are embedded in particular places and have unique histories and traditions

Societal institutions are designed to promote social, economic and political 'goods' that contribute to enhanced relationships

Societal values

Freedom from others

Competition

Mobility and the global

Material Wealth

Freedom for others

Competition and cooperation

Rootedness and the local

Well-being

This sketch of a Christian vision for economic life remains at a general level. It provides a high-level critique of the way capitalism understands the human person and society and suggests a basic orientation for thinking about economic life. It still leaves many detailed questions unanswered. The remaining two articles consider how this Christian vision might address two questions of particular importance: i) what role should markets play? and ii) what are the implications of this Christian vision for business?

Footnotes

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 63.
  2. Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Intervarsity Press, 2008), 23.
  3. William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 91.
  4. The author recognizes there is debate as to what should be considered human necessities. Although there is insufficient space to discuss this issue, the author is in basic agreement with Catholic social thought that "every man (sic passim) has the right to the goods that ensure his subsistence and the subsistence of his family," and that subsistence means "something more than what is needed to eat and be clothed." Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, "For a Catholic Vision of the Economy," Journal of Markets and Morality 6, no. 1 (2003): 11.
  5. Michael Shuman, Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age, 1st ed. (Routledge, 2000), 38.
  6. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (IVP Academic, 2006), 291–2.
  7. Ibid., 295.
  8. Michael Schluter, "Is Capitalism Morally Bankrupt? Five Moral Flaws and Their Social Consequences," Cambridge Papers 18, no. 3 (September 2009): 2.
  9. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 118.
  10. See, for example, John Paul's papal encyclicals Laborem Exercens and Centesimus annus in Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1992).
  11. Michael Schluter and David Lee, The R Factor (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993).
  12. See, for instance, Shuman, Going Local. Also Nonaka, Ikujiro, and Hirotaka Takeuchi. "The Wise Leader." Harvard Business Review 89, no. 5 (May 2011) and their call for a "new communitarian approach to capitalism."
  13. Paul Bowles, Capitalism, 1st ed. (Longman, 2007), 4.
  14. Ibid.

Works Cited

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
  • Bowles, Paul. Capitalism. 1st ed. Longman, 2007.
  • Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1992.
  • Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.
  • Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Intervarsity Press, 2008.
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
  • Schluter, Michael. "Is Capitalism Morally Bankrupt? Five Moral Flaws and Their Social Consequences." Cambridge Papers 18, no. 3 (September 2009): 1–4.
  • Schluter, Michael, and David Lee. The R Factor. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993.
  • Shuman, Michael. Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age. 1st ed. Routledge, 2000.
  • Sorondo, Marcelo Sanchez. "For a Catholic Vision of the Economy." Journal of Markets and Morality 6, no. 1 (2003): 7–31.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative. IVP Academic, 2006.

Source: Marketplace Institute



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