May 12, 2014 / Theology
Christians in the millennial generation are turning toward tradition, but deep tensions exist that may ultimately undermine this embrace.
June 4, 2007
[F]rom its inception, capitalism has been a force of cataclysmic transformation in one country after another. Capitalism has radically changed every material, social, political, and cultural facet of the societies it has touched, and it continues to do so. Understanding this revolutionary impact of capitalism . . . is a formidable and important intellectual task.
Peter Berger, The Capitalist Revolution1
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, which guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. It will be manifest to all the nations and kings that they are not gods, but the work of human hands, and that there is no work of God in them. Letter of Jeremiah 70, 51
Peter Berger is right. Understanding the revolutionary impact of capitalism on every dimension of life is important. Unfortunately, most efforts to understand the impact of capitalism stop with the question “Does it work?” Even when the question is, “Is capitalism Christian?” the overwhelming focus is on whether capitalism embodies the promise of material well being, at least to a degree greater than any of the viable alternatives. Elsewhere I have argued that the question of capitalism’s efficacy is better posed in terms of “What kind of work does it do?” and I suggested that even if capitalism delivered material prosperity it is still wrong for the work that it does on human desire and human sociality.2
There is, however, a problem, or a potential problem, with this way of approaching the question of capitalism and Christianity. After all, approaching capitalism in terms of the question “Does it work?” or better, “What work does it do?” is not clearly significantly different from the way modern consumers approach everything from relationships to cereal to taxes to worship, asking “What’s in it for me?”
The problem with such an approach is that it simply does not make any sense for those who have been joined to Christ. To borrow Paul’s language here, such an attitude is what we used to have. But we have been washed, we have been sanctified, we have been justified in the name the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11). In the waters of baptism, the old Adam, who was curved in on himself and so prone to questions like “What’s in it for me?,” dies as a new creation is born (Rom.6; 2 Cor. 5:17). And the new creation that appears in Christ is one that is filled by the desire, in the memorable words of the Westminster catechism, to glorify and enjoy God forever.
So what has this to with Peter Berger’s proclamation of a capitalist revolution? Berger invites us to consider how capitalism has impacted every dimension of life. This includes the theological. What has the capitalist revolution done to Christianity? We know from Adam Smith, who revels in this fact, that the capitalist revolution undercut the church’s practice of charity and consequently weakened its spiritual and temporal authority.3 But what has capitalism done to its confessions? To its theology? Its faith?
Here the invitation to consider the impact that the capitalist revolution has had theologically coincides with the problem of approaching capitalism in terms of “Does it work?” or “What is in it for me?” The question that should anchor Christian evaluations of capitalism (and any economic order, for that matter) is not finally the straightforwardly empirical or pragmatic but the theological. The first question put to any economic order should be not “Does it work?” or “What is in it for us?” but rather “Does it enable and enhance humanity’s chief end of glorifying and enjoying God forever?”4 Another way of putting this is to say that the fundamental question that should undergird all other questions we put to capitalism is, “With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly?”
Granted, at first glance this may strike us as an odd if not down right preposterous claim. It smacks more than a little of expecting spiritual things from an economic order. And is not this to expect too much from any economic order? Isn’t it the case, as one friend and parishioner angrily reminded me after a sermon one Sunday morning, that no economic order can or is meant to bear that burden?
That we find such an expectation odd only reflects how far we have moved away from our roots, where even one’s pots and pans were expected to be holy (Zech. 14:20). And if Paul was not lying when he said that we should glorify God in all that we do (1 Cor. 10:31), then economy is not exempt from holiness; whether we are on the clock, in the mall, or at church, our chief end is to worship God rightly. Moreover, that the economy has a spiritual depth, which might be associated with what the Christian tradition calls a “means of grace,” is not that farfetched; after all, capitalism’s Christian defenders constantly point out the theological or spiritual density of capitalism.
The title of this essay concedes Berger and company’s point, namely, that capitalism does indeed mark a cataclysmic change in all areas of life that is nothing less than a revolution. The title is also meant to suggest that capitalism is nothing less than a theological revolution, which is to say, it is a matter of confession as much as it is a matter of the management of material goods and services. The subtitle, however, introduces a note of dissonance. Playing on the phrase stamped on United States currency, this essay asks whether the ‘god’ trusted in a capitalist economy is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In whom do we trust? Which god? Is the theological revolution that capitalism effects faithful? Is it in harmony with the original revolution that is the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ?
When we ask if we are able to worship God rightly when our economic lives are ordered by capitalism, we are asking in effect, who is the God of capitalism? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah, the blessed Trinity, or is it some other god, fashioned by human hands like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed?
One way to find an answer to this question is to follow the lead of the early Protestant theologian Philip Melanchthon when he wrote, “To know God is to know God’s benefits.” Hence, for a clue to who the god of capitalism is we will look at what, according to capitalism’s Christian advocates, God does and does not do.
I. The God of Capitalism
The Christian tradition often parses the labor of the economic Trinity (that is, the Trinity for us as opposed to the Trinity in itself) in terms of creating, redeeming, and preserving. This is a salutary way to approach the question of capitalism and God. What do capitalism’s defenders say about God’s creative, redemptive, and preserving work?
The Creator who does not create enough
With regard to God’s creative activity, the bottom line according to capitalism’s theological defenders, is that God did not create enough. By and large, Christian defenders of capitalism accept as their starting point the commonplace characterization of the natural world as a place marked by scarcity. The world as it was created simply does not supply all that is needed. Some are quite explicit about this, as is Michael Novak, when he writes:
Creation . . . is incomplete, and humans are called to be co-creators with God, bringing forth the potentialities the Creator has hidden. Creation is full of secrets waiting to be discovered, riddles which human intelligence is expected by the Creator to unlock. The world did not spring from the hand of God as wealthy as humans might make it.5
God did not create enough; creation is insufficient. Apparently when God rested on the seventh day, God was punching out a little early. Creation was good, but not good enough. The created order is marked by scarcity. Most theological defenses of capitalism take this as a given, as a rather obvious matter of fact that usually requires no theological support at all. It is just the way things obviously are.
That theological defenses of capitalism can simply assume both the condition of scarcity and that this is entirely unremarkable is symptomatic of how deeply accommodated such accounts are to the prevailing secular discipline of economics, which, it is well-known, has little patience with any account of God or divine activity. Indeed, in the discipline of economics, to call something theological is a put-down, tantamount to placing something in the same category as belief in the tooth fairy or unicorns.
This accommodation is clear when one considers that this vehemently secular discipline of economics has as its founding axiom, the notion that the world is lacking, that it suffers from scarcity. As any economics textbook will tell you, the fundamental economic problem is scarcity.6 Indeed, as Lionel Robbins stated, in what is widely recognized as the standard definition of the discipline and which is reproduced almost verbatim in some theological accounts of capitalism, “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”7
What is striking about the dominant theological defenses of capitalism is that they so easily and uncritically adopt this starting point. God did not create enough. Hence, when we walk through the shadow of this world, we had better fear, for we do indeed lack.
A theological critique of this account of God as creator will have to wait; for the moment let us turn to how this capitalist god redeems.
The God who does not save
To speak of redemption or salvation in this-worldly terms is a tricky matter. Suffice it to say that when I speak here of salvation or redemption I am using those terms in a particular and incomplete manner to refer to what, if anything, God does to bring about the material well being of creation. To speak of redemption or salvation in this limited way does not preclude a fuller account that necessarily includes those aspects of salvation traditionally associated with heaven, eternity, and life after death.
Given the account of God as an incomplete creator, what do theological accounts of capitalism tell us about how God acts to redeem us from material deprivation, from sin, death and the devil, here and now? To be blunt, they tell us nothing. This is to say, they tell us that God does nothing to save or redeem the material world now. What is to be accomplished in terms of redemption here and now, what is to be experienced of the abundant life here and now, is entirely a human work.
This follows from the account of creation just outlined. Taking scarcity and the incompletion of creation as a starting point, redemption becomes a matter of supplementing or improving upon creation. Material well being is not a matter of distributing or sharing the abundant riches God has already given to us. Rather, as the passage previously cited from Novak suggests, it is a matter of humanity finishing the job that the Creator left unfinished. Specifically, material welfare becomes a matter of human productivity and efficiency, creativity and ingenuity.
God is not at work now in history redeeming us from sin, death and the devil. Thus, whatever is to be accomplished in this world in terms of redemption, in terms of the overcoming of sin in material relations, in terms of the renewal of human communion, is entirely a human task. To put to bluntly, Jesus does not change anything, as Novak makes clear:
The point of the Incarnation is to respect the world as it is, . . . and to disbelieve any promises that the world is now or ever will be transformed into the city of God. . . . The world is not going to become –ever– a kingdom of justice and love. . . . The single greatest temptation for Christians is to imagine that the salvation won by Jesus has altered the human condition.8
Such a marginalizing Jesus – and much of the Christian tradition along the way– is a second common feature of many Christian defenses of capitalism. Novak is admittedly one of the more extreme examples in his declaration that there will never be a new earth and that Jesus did not change the human condition.
Others tend to argue that Jesus was an apolitical and asocial figure unconcerned with the material world, focused only on the individual soul and its internal, spiritual relation to God.9 Still others argue that Jesus’ teaching made sense in a predominately rural setting and agricultural economy but is of limited direct applicability in the contemporary world.10 And yet others suggest that Jesus will only make a difference in the future, when the Kingdom of God finally arrives in its fullness to set all things right.11
Indeed, it is argued, Jesus and the early church belonged to an era when people just did not know that wealth could be produced. Nor did they have access to the kinds of technology that enable modern persons to participate in the redemption of creation by means of its technological transformation and re-ordering.12As a result, they tended to view matters of material well being in terms of the distribution and redistribution of goods. But, alas, so this story goes, thank God for Adam Smith, who realized that the solution to poverty was not a matter of distribution and redistribution but rather the production of more.13
Thank God for the technological innovations associated with the capitalist economy that enable us to break into the riches of nature that God had locked away from us.14 In this way, even as redemption becomes a human work, Adam Smith replaces Jesus Christ (and the early and medieval church with its vision of giving) as the bearer of the Good News of increased productivity.
Which clears the path for the final step in this capitalist via salutis (way of salvation), namely, the emergence of the corporation as the savior. Some prominent Christian advocates of capitalism go so far as to identify the modern business corporation with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, saying it is an incarnation of God for today with a religious vocation,15, while others call corporations “worldly churches” that we should embrace and love as we do the church as they pursue their holy vocation, which is producing more wealth, in and for the salvation of the world.16
In a world where there is not enough, capitalism’s god leaves us on our own to struggle and compete against one another to survive and, if we are among the fortunate few, to flourish.
The Market Sustains
According to capitalist theology, God deliberately did not create enough in order that we might be goaded by the fear of starvation and death to develop our talents and compete with one another for scarce resources. Following this logic that looks an awful lot like the survival of the fittest, God cannot intervene to redeem or save anyone from material deprivation because that would undercut the incentive to create and produce. Thus, any material redemption now will be the product of our successful production of wealth.
Yet even if God does not redeem us now and in this sense leaves us on our own to literally work out our own salvation, this does not mean that God has simply abandoned us or is completely uninvolved. At the very least, we are told, God holds out hope for a better future when the kingdom finally shows up or God inspires us to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so to speak, in accord with the mythical Protestant work ethic. This is to say, God encourages us to set aside the vices of the poor (apathy, resentment, envy) and accept our place in the capitalist order of things.
Besides serving as a sort of cosmic motivational speaker, God also acts to sustain us now economically through the workings of the capitalist market.17 Thus, the invisible hand of the capitalist market becomes the hand of providence. The market, being granted the status of a law of nature, functions sacramentally to transform the pursuit of self-interest into the greatest good for all.
Theologically, it is important to note what is being argued here. In keeping with the assertion that God does not redeem now, God’s providential sustaining becomes a matter of managing sin. There is neither hope nor expectation that we might be sanctified, released from captivity to sin. The means of grace and the way of discipleship are not about being graciously released from the power of sin. At best, Christianity is about motivation and consolation/absolution; not about healing and transformation and growth in holiness.
Capitalist theology is premised on the conviction that we are stuck in our sin, at least for the time being. Thus, it is simply taken as a given that, in the famous words of Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.”18 There is no sense that through God’s gracious healing of our sin-sick souls now, we might indeed begin to shed the old Adam who is curved on himself and, in the words of Saint Paul, not look to our own interests, but to the interest of others (Phil 2:4).
In this situation, where creation suffers from scarcity and humanity wallows in the pit of sin with no hope for redemption now, the market becomes God’s way of managing sin, managing life in the pit. In a sort of odd or perverse transubstantiation, the market takes the pursuit of self-interest and turns it into one of the building blocks of the greatest good for the greatest number. And to add to the perversity, in the same way, when the moral bar is set too high economically, say, along the lines of Paul’s admonition to altruism, it is said that that is a recipe for disaster.
This lack of faith in the active presence of God’s transformative/sanctifying grace now is lifted up as one of capitalism’s strengths and the source of its so-called “realism.” Moreover, those who dare believe that God might be active in history now through the Holy Spirit, the means of grace, and the disciplines of discipleship, for the sake of actually redeeming us from sin, sanctifying us, so that we might be conformed to Christ are uniformly denounced as “utopian” and frequently accused of being responsible for the great horrors of the twentieth century (as if the Nazis were the product of too much Christian faith and spiritual discipline!).
* * *
The image of God that comes through some of the more prominent theological defenses of capitalism presents God as a kind of sadistic cosmic (anti-)Easter bunny, who deliberately leaves creation incomplete, hiding stuff, so that humans have to struggle and compete in order to secure their lives. The question is, if someone came along the road one day, proclaiming this god and saying, “Follow me,” why would anyone want to?
Put a little differently, where is the good news here? That God did not create enough? That we have to struggle and compete if we are to survive? That, at least for the time being we are stuck in our sin? That Jesus changed nothing now and perhaps not ever? This does not sound like good news. It does not sound like the gospel of Jesus Christ. It sounds like bad news. It sounds like old news. It sounds like Deism or Stoicism.
2. Confessing the Living God
The good news that Jesus announced, and the Father to which he prayed, offers a strikingly different vision of economy. It is the divine gift economy proclaimed by the church from the beginning and embodied in its economy, its works of mercy.19 Such an economy does not preclude practices of distribution, exchange, productivity, and even markets, although how such practices function and what they look like may be very different from capitalist forms of those practices. What does set this economy apart, however, is the character of the God who underwrites it, and this makes all the difference.
The God whom Christianity traditionally confesses is the Creator. And the blessed Trinity, in creating, provided enough for all our needs. Indeed, God has provided an abundance; more than we need. It is true, what the Psalmist said: the Lord is our Shepherd; we shall not lack. Thus, where people do lack and are in need, the cause is not God who did not create enough. Scarcity is not a natural condition. Rather, it is the consequence of sin and a mark of fallen nature. As Jesus suggests, the root of all scarcity, the true scarcity, is lack of faith (Luke 18:8).
Now, denying that scarcity is a natural condition raises several issues. By way of clarification it needs to be said that denying scarcity, its standing as a “given”, is not tantamount to denying the limits and boundaries of finitude. Such God-given limits, however, are not a matter of scarcity in the sense that scarcity implies lack and deficiency, whereas what God gives (even limits and boundaries) is a matter of fullness. Put differently, the God-given limits of finitude are not an instance of scarcity and deficiency; they are the form of our freedom.
Moreover, it needs to be acknowledged that in this time between the times, God’s abundance most often takes the form of resurrection and the assurance that in giving our lives to and for others, we actually receive life and that, although we may die, we will not perish (Luke 9:24). This point is worth stressing and clarifying. To say that scarcity is not a “fact” but a contingent product of sin and to assert that God provides is not to lay the groundwork for a “prosperity gospel.” It is not to suggest that we may never be called upon to suffer or go hungry. Rather, it is to suggest that though we may suffer and even die, we will not perish because God does provide, and abundantly so: God resurrects.
Christianity has also traditionally confessed that God redeems. And this redemption is not something that is safely cordoned off into an after-life or the future. As Paul says, we are the ones on whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11). Salvation is already present even if it is not yet present in its fullness or consummation. This salvation here and now is traditionally called sanctification. It is the growth in holiness that is simultaneously a gracious loss of sin. In other words, God is active now so that we do not have to be fundamentally self-interested, but as Paul admonished, we can indeed be fundamentally other-directed economically. Furthermore, insofar as this sanctification is a work of grace wrought in the body of Christ through the spiritual disciplines of discipleship, we need not fear turning into Nazis or totalitarian thugs because we are trying to be too good, as some of capitalism’s defenders would have it.
At this point, one might expect a treatment of God as Sustainer that contrasts with capitalist theology. However, I will offer no such treatment and for the simple reason that “sustaining” is not really an accurate term for what the Trinity does in the world.20 It is true that God keeps this terrestrial orb afloat, moves the sun and moon and other stars, makes the sun rise and rain fall every day on the good and evil alike, but God is not really about merely sustaining. To sustain something smacks of maintaining the status quo, and this is especially the case with God talk when Sustainer is juxtaposed to Redeemer. When Sustainer is set off from Redeemer, we are too easily tempted to think of God’s activity in the world in diminished ways. It is too easy to think, for example, like capitalist theology, that God redeems in the future but only sustains now. God sustaining becomes synonymous with God simply managing sin for the time being. But God is holy and will have nothing to do with sustaining or managing sin. Instead, the time that God gives us and the life that God upholds is entirely for the purpose of redemption (2 Peter 3:9; Rom. 2:4).
Thus, we cannot equate God with the invisible hand of the capitalist market, merely managing sin. Rather, God is active now in history to overcome sin, in the words of Scripture, as the stronghold of the oppressed, as the One who executes justice, who hears the cry of the poor and downtrodden. And this God is anything but invisible. We can discern God moving where God’s people are about the works of mercy, where God’s redeeming work is being done.
3. Conclusion: Confessing the Revolution
In whom do we trust? Who is in charge here? In which God do we trust? Capitalism’s chaplains congratulate themselves for being realistic. Realistic in confessing that God is not actively redeeming now. Realistic in asserting that we cannot be set free from sin and that the best we can hope for now is that our sin can be managed. Realistic in blaming scarcity on a god who did not create enough.
But in denying the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit here and now, they are not realistic but fatalistic – resigned to sin. And the god they imagine has more in common with a scarecrow in a cucumber patch than the Holy One of Israel and the Church, who creates and gives and redeems in superabundance.
Which means that capitalism is not quite the revolution that its advocates suggest. Instead, it is but one more example of the age old penchant that fallen humanity has for fashioning gods out of sticks and gold. It is but one more example of how what the New Testament calls the powers and principalities – in this case, economy – have been distorted so that they do not serve their created end, which is the renewal of the communion of charity between God and all of creation.
Thus, if we are to confess capitalism as a theological and not merely economic revolution, we should confess not the god of capitalism but the sin that is capitalism. We should confess and repent of the capitalist revolution for the sake of rightly worshiping the God who graciously inaugurated the original revolution in Jesus Christ, whose work of mercy meets the needs of all prodigally.
We should repent of the capitalist revolution that does not really change anything, only managing sin in a more efficient manner perhaps. And we should confess the original revolution that turns the world upside down (Acts 17:6) by setting us free from sin.
We should confess, lest we end up like those whose fate Jesus bemoans in his sermon on the plain, those whose imaginations were so impoverished that they desired nothing more than what this world’s economy offered. Why, Jesus laments, do they settle for so little, when God’s economy offers so much and when God wants nothing more than to give and give abundantly?
Let us stop bowing down before wooden gods, no matter how much gold and silver they have laid on. Instead, let us worship and enjoy the true God. Let us be about the work – the economy– of God which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
1. Peter Berger, The Capitalist Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1986), p. 3.
2. See “What is Wrong with Capitalism? The Problem with the Problem with Capitalism.” The Other Journal Issue 5. https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=55
3. See Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), Bk. V. Ch. 1. Pt. 3. Art. 3.
4. The point here is not that the impact of an economy on others is of no concern. Rather it is that the impact of an economy on persons and communities cannot be fully and accurately evaluated if it is not framed by the question of rightly worshiping God.
5. Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1982), p. 39. Emphasis added.
6. See Robert Benynon, ed. The Routledge Critical Dictionary of Global Economics (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 312-3; William J. Baumol and Alan S. Blinder, Macroeconomics: Principles and Policy, 5th ed (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, 1991), pp. 50-53; Edwin Mansfield, Principles of Macroeconomics, 7th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), pp. 5-6.
7. Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (London: Macmillian, 1952), p. 16.
8. Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, pp. 341-3.
9. See Robert Benne, The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1981); Robert Benne, The Paradoxical Vision (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995).
10. Max Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy (Grand Rapids, Wm B, Eerdmans, 1987), p. 120.
11. Richard John Neuhaus, The Catholic Moment (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).
12. Stackhouse, Public Theology and Political Economy, pp. 143-4.
13. This narrative is nicely summarized in Michael Novak, “The Root of All Evil No More.” At http://beliefnet.com/story25/story_2546.html Accessed 5/22/00.
14. Michael Novak, Toward a Theology of the Corporation (Washington DC: AEI, 1981), p. 37.
15. Michael Novak, “A Theology of the Corporation,” p. 203 in The Corporation: A Theological Inquiry eds Michael Novak and John W. Cooper (Washington DC: AEI, 1981).
16.Max Stackhouse and Dennis McCann, “A Postcommunist Manifesto,” pp. 486-7 in From Christ to the World eds, Wayne G. Boulton, Thomas D. Kennedy, and Allen Verhey (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994).
17. The adjective “capitalist” before market is important, for there are different kinds of markets, and to oppose a capitalist market does not mean all markets should be rejected. For a brief history of the market, see Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).
18. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 1.2.
19. See my “What is Wrong with Capitalism? The Problem with the Problem with Capitalism.” The Other Journal Issue 5. https://theotherjournal.com/article.php?id=55
20. For a profound treatment of the problems with “sustainer” language, particularly as it is used to replace the traditional Trinitarian name of God, see D. Brent Laytham, “God Does Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in God Does Not . . . ed. D. Brent Laytham, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, forthcoming).
Daniel M. Bell Jr.
Daniel M. Bell Jr. is a professor of theology and ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.