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Theologizing Economics11/21/2007 14:49:21
One of the most engaging panels I attended this week at the American Academy of Religion was one called "Theological Readings of Economics." As uncomfortable as I was surrounded by the odd crowd of professional theologians way out of their economic league (as I am myself), the conversation was fierce and sparked a lot of questions in my mind. It served as a mirror against which I could reevaluate the tendencies my economic thinking has so far had (here and here) As ever, I can use all the help I can get sorting through these things.
First, a rundown of the positions presented:
First of all, I came out convinced for the moment that indeed it is possible and necessary to rethink certain basic economic assumptions. For example: profit and efficiency need to be maximized; economy is the chief goal of government; free markets conform to natural law (etc., etc.). There are other ways of thinking about the governance of society that seem to have been forgotten, and which may have great possibilities in the new age. Sociologist Philip Rieff famously proposed that "economic man" is only one epoch in the human story, which he places after the political and the religious, but before the psychological. The priority of self-interest, material salvation, and mechanistic distribution is a choice, not an imperative.
I might still draw back to Pierre Bourdieu's economic reductionism, in which not just money but also prestige, social capital, and other invisible accumulations account for the other modes of politics, religion, and even psychology. Even in this formulation, though, to describe all politics in terms of money economy, for example, is a misrecognition. Misrecognitions like this make it all the more clear why we need to be attentive to the forms of exchange we devote our lives to: this is the job of philosophical and even theological thinking.
I mean this: even if all life is really a kind of economic exchange, we still have the power to decide what as a society we value the most. At first glance, it seems like perhaps we have chosen to focus on money out of a kind of laziness in the circumstance of pluralism, a frustration with trying to agree on common values other than that.
That said, I am deeply suspicious of some of the theological programs currently being proposed. Milbank's the the most inflammatory and reckless of course; how would trusting finance to the churches solve anything or bring us anywhere past the very corruption that spurred the Protestant Reformation? This is a flight of hubris possible only for the truly fundamentalist. Berra's proposal is blessedly modest, but irrelevant for all but convinced Thomists. Oslington usefully reveals a kind of "intelligent design" of economic theory with the same uselessness as its analogy in biology.
Still, interesting things can emerge out of the encounter between theology and economics. This came through especially in the talks by Blanchard and Peters. But, unlike Milbank, I do not think that religion is in a particularly privileged position for rethinking economy. This panel made me all the more keen to look at work like environmentalist Bill McKibben's recent Deep Economy, which attempts to do this on rather secular terms. I have argued previously that economics is in a position to produce some powerful, integrative work in the coming years, and I think this calls for people from all sorts of directions to be attentive of it and willing to criticize it. As these theologians recognize, the economic assumptions our society holds are busy forming the future in their own image.
re: Theologizing Economics - 11/22/2007 00:51:04
re: Islamic Finance - 11/22/2007 12:45:00