Business & Economy

Book Review of Economy of Grace


Mark Sampson

Economy of Grace is a short yet bold book that provocatively enters the debate about the appropriate relationship between theology and economics. Kathryn Tanner’s desire is to develop a “theological economy” to highlight what she considers to be the deficiencies of capitalism. She engages this issue in three distinct stages. First, she looks at the theoretical framework needed to consider the significance of theology for economic matters. Following this, she constructs a theological economy based on grace, in conversation with the philosophical and theological discourse around “gift”. She concludes her book by illustrating some of the impacts a theological economy would have on economic policies in the contemporary global economy.

Tanner recognizes that any theological approach to economics needs to wrestle with the appropriate method prior to any constructive work. Modern economics has isolated itself from any ethical—let alone theological—influence. It is, therefore, not necessarily evident how the two should be combined. Tanner is unequivocal in her opinion that Christianity has an economic vision for the whole of life and that consequently, “every theological category and topic is of direct economic import.” Tanner, however, is wary of the tendency—in the functionalist approach of some social theory—to reduce the link between religion and economics to semantic analysis. This approach considers “money” and “grace” to be essentially similar in character where money is the tangible expression of grace poured out. Tanner effectively uncovers the problematic element of this reductionist approach. She alternatively opts for a formal, structuralist approach where there is the possibility of comparing grace and money without assuming they are similar. Though she is critical of much of the reductionist tendencies that remain in this approach, Tanner considers that this approach enables the possibility of seeing the radical difference between the distribution and circulation of grace and money. Tanner’s central contention is that the former establishes a non-competitive market in goods. This is a unique aspect of grace that calls into question the competitive framework—replete with injustice and status rivalry—of capitalism. Tanner argues that this undercuts the entire basis of capitalism, provoking the possibility of imagining a radically different economy.

This idea is developed by arguing that a helpful way of viewing capitalism is through the lens of property and possession. In a capitalist society, property is considered to be private in the sense of complete and exclusive ownership. As such, one can do with their property as one pleases as long as it does not impose upon the property rights of others. According to Tanner, this means a capitalist economy brings with it the right of unlimited appropriation of property by an individual. This notion of exclusive ownership extends to, and is based on, the idea that one “owns” oneself—that one’s person is one’s property. One, therefore, has the right to sell one’s labour and make contracts. The strength of this understanding is that it is considered to be natural—the very basis of human society. Tanner strongly disagrees, arguing that this approach creates a condition of scarcity, which lies behind the logic of competition in a capitalist society. For Tanner, the rethinking of “self-possession” has the potential to uncover the inherent injustices in a capitalist society.

Tanner looks at two approaches to the notions of self-possession and absolute private-property that appear to be somewhat different to capitalism. The first approach is that of 17th century philosopher, John Locke, who develops a notion of private property oriented towards the public good. The other approach is that of archaic societies with economies of gift-exchange rather than market economies. Tanner considers both to be ultimately unhelpful for developing a theological economy. Locke’s approach is theologically weak and remains tied to the notion of self-ownership. Gift-exchange societies are also of little benefit, as Tanner dismisses them as essentially contractual, competitive economies (basically quasi-capitalist) with a different name. The only answer for Tanner lies in a theological understanding of grace, which is based on God’s way of giving.

God’s giving, which for Tanner is paradigmatically made known through the life of the Trinity, is unconditional, non-competitive, and universal. As such, God’s gifts are for all; in some sense, property rights must extend to all. Tanner points out that God gives out of abundance and not need. As there is no lack in God, there is no return-gift that can be made to God. The appropriate “return” is to pass on gifts to others. This results in non-competitive relations of abundance, of fullness. Tanner uses the two natures of Christ—his divinity and humanity—as the paradigmatic shape of how fullness can exist between parties without one party lacking. This approach radically changes notions of ownership, in that ownership is shared. In a real sense, others own you, and you own others.

Tanner admits that she expects the charge of practical irrelevance—such is the radical nature of her theological proposal. She seeks to counter the charge by outlining a number of practical implications of her theology. These include a call for universal welfare provision, based on the notion of God’s unconditional giving. She also argues for the reduction of the unfair advantage held by Western nations in trade negotiations with non-Western nations, based on the notion of non-competition.

This is a provocative book and, as such, has engendered a significant amount of criticism. Despite her attempt to displace such criticism, it is easy to charge Tanner’s work with the critique of naive idealism. However, this is to miss the point that Tanner is attempting to create an alternative theological imagination regarding economics. In order to create room for this imagination, Tanner has portrayed the relationship between Christianity and capitalism as deeply antithetical. One of her strongest points is that theology can serve society by mitigating the paucity of imagination in contemporary society about an alternative economic vision to that of capitalism. Tanner provides a theological alternative that suggests capitalism is not the “end of history.”

Tanner’s book is, however, ultimately disappointing. Perhaps this is because there is much promise in the book that remains unfulfilled, particularly in the last section. Tanner is right to suggest that notions of property are central to the capitalist vision, and is also right that these assumptions can and should be challenged by the Christian faith. Theologically, though, Tanner should perhaps adopt a greater degree of epistemic humility in her interpretation of the inner working of the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ. There are certainly other resources, notably in the apostle Paul’s theology, for constructing a theology of ownership and social relations. What I find most concerning is the absence of any ecclesial implications. Tanner jumps directly from her constructive theology to policy changes in the global economy. There is no mention that the church is called to embody the alternative economy that she elucidates. Tanner is unfairly dismissive of those who reduce a theological economy to “church practices” (88). Without grounding her proposal in the life of the Christian community, her ideas become abstract and ultimately unhelpful. Her theological conviction of a universal, unconditional, and non-competitive economy ends up being “embodied” in proposals and not people. This might account for the disappointing “application” chapter.  Tanner makes no argument for why God’s unconditional gift-giving implies full state welfare provision. She appears to assume that this is an obvious extrapolation. Tanner even defends globalization as being somewhat similar to the universalizing aspect of grace. These interpretive “jumps” are problematic in themselves, but they also are surprisingly tame.

Despite this criticism, there is much within this book that is of great value for those seeking to interpret and respond to capitalism. Tanner’s argument is at its strongest in considering how theology can construct an alternative imagination to that of capitalism.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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