November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
In Devin Singh’s recent book Divine Currency, he argues that money has lent its logic to the structuring of doctrinal thought and that theology has returned the favor by loaning its prestige and mystique to monetary exchange. Early patristic texts, he points out, render God as an economic administrator and Christ as God’s currency, and these Greco-Roman ideas form the background to much patristic theological discourse such that even today our notions of money, management, and exchange inform and structure our models of divinity, visions of divine management, and conceptions of sovereignty.
The Other Journal (TOJ):In the introduction to Divine Currency, you note that you are trying to move past a shortcoming in recent theological treatments of economic phenomena, which tend to articulate a unidirectional relation between discourses. You explain that you’re interested in tracing out a bidirectional model of the influences of money and theology as a corrective of sorts. Will you elaborate on what you mean? What relationship between theology and economics are you envisioning here?
Devin Singh (DS): The majority of contemporary theological engagements with the economy appear to operate from the assumption that theological and economic discourses are hermetically sealed off from one another and that theology can thus be brought to bear as a pure and external set of claims and tactics to judge and correct the economic realm. Although I think that most critically aware theologians would reject the position that theology is pristine or untainted by context—indeed, the contextuality of theology and the theologian is a basic tenet of most contemporary, constructive theology—I don’t see this play out in practice when it comes to encounters with economy. With the exception of some critiques of the class privilege enjoyed by particular theologians, I find little acknowledgement of or engagement with the ways that economic factors have shaped and informed theological doctrine itself. If we are attempting to use theology as a tool to dismantle the master’s house—a house (oikos) that is, by all accounts, dictated by the concerns of economy (oikonomia)—we should consider whether it matters that such theological tools have been forged to some degree within this selfsame house. Thus, I’m trying to open up a conversation about what it might mean that we engage in theological critique and analysis of economy—and broader sociopolitical issues—using theological tools that are themselves shaped by these practices, ideas, and trends. Theologians are not troubled by pointing out how modern economic theories and practices have been informed by theology from the outset. I think this is important, and my work has attempted to do this as well. However, theologians are understandably less comfortable to point out that theological doctrines have likewise been affected by economic assumptions, theories, practices, and institutions, which is what my book tries to do most centrally, taking patristic thought and early doctrine as a case study.
TOJ: You argue that money is more powerful than we tend to believe. We might think of money as a universal or basic commodity that breaks open the possibility for trade in the market, but you suggest that its power greatly exceeds buying and selling. How do you see money working today?
DS: One of the most successful and widespread myths today, propagated by classical economic theorists in the 1700s, reinvigorated by neoclassical economists in the early 1900s, and still taught in economics classrooms today, is that money is merely a lubricant for the more fundamental and essential barter exchange of goods and services. We imagine a real economy of things and an overlay—or what has been termed a neutral veil—of money that makes these relays and networks function more efficiently. This vision of money worked well with the laissez-faire ideas of the market constructed in the 1700s by Adam Smith and company and then championed by Austrian School darlings Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman in the mid-twentieth century. Their aim was to naturalize market exchange, as part of the move to separate it from its political construction. Now we are so immersed in these ideas that we are like fish in water trying to understand what wetmeans. It has become hard to comprehend claims that question this seemingly obvious and commonsensical view that barter exchange is natural and fundamental and that money is a universal commodity that was established to ease frictions in trade.
What has become clearer today is that modern fiduciary money, which might be described as valueless tokens of exchange, is also fiat currency, or money decreed and established by a sovereign or centralized power—in our case, the nation-state. Historians of money can show that this has been the case all along, from Babylonian clay tablets to coinage in Greece: even when money seemingly had intrinsic value as gold or silver coins, it still operated by the decree of sovereign power; represented an independently instituted accounting system and set of weights, measures, and proportions; and was imposed from above with laws necessitating taxation and forbidding the destruction or falsification of currency.
This means that anywhere money is being used we have to consider the structures of power that set it into play and enable it to function. This continues to implicate the state, politics, and legal apparatus. At a minimum, this unmasks the ideology of the independent, free, and spontaneous market propounded by early market theorists. Money inextricably ties market exchange to the heart of political authority. It also leads us to evaluate the hegemonic and ideological impact of exchanging tokens and using value systems that originate from such centers of sovereign power.
TOJ: In what ways do you see theology shaping money and monetary management?
DS: In my book I outline a number of ways this occurred with the rise of Christian empire in late antiquity, including the actions of an emperor who ostensibly sought to use money following the pattern of a divine redemptive economy. Beyond this, in our contemporary context, the redemptive impulses of theological economy remain in governmental structures that are charged with shepherding a flock of citizens. The very idea that economies should be managed to make sure subjects and populations flourish can be linked to these theological values that became inculcated in Christendom and were passed on to managerial nation-states.
The European colonial project also very much wedded a missionary impulse to spread the gospel and win converts to an economic impulse to exert dominion and extract resources, and plenty of studies have explored how these twin impulses worked rather seamlessly together. My suggestion is that these were not simply parallel and coincidentally compatible programs but two sides of the same coin, where a redemption theology structured by economic logic displayed itself materially.
These links between theology and monetary management may also show up in the Protestant subjects studied by Max Weber, those who tied entrepreneurial success and capital reinvestment to theological virtues and assurance of salvation. Or was it merely a coincidence that a primary way they asserted their status as elected by God, as those who had their heavenly accounts credited by grace, was to demonstrate their salvation through economic means? Theology also clearly shapes the use of money in today’s Christian circles when the ethics of stewardship and prudence are set forth, when “biblical models” for prosperity are propounded, or when Christian businessmen’s associations meet to discuss how to use money like Jesus the CEO.
A harder connection to show, but one I think can be done and is already being explored by contemporary historians, is the way in which theology might shape corporate practice and financial sectors. Certainly, corporate actors, bankers, and investment officers are trying to save themselves and their shareholders/investors through their activities, but the extent to which their assumptions are theologically shaped needs tracing. It’s clearer when these agents articulate explicit Christian beliefs that inform their financial dealings—for example, as described in Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart—but it’s harder to show when such actors claim no obvious or self-conscious value framework beyond the profit motive.1 This leads, then, to trying to show how the institutions such agents inhabit and the practices they embody, however ostensibly secular, are shaped by theological assumptions and even earlier ecclesial practices.
TOJ: And how do you see money shaping our theologies or visions of God?
DS: Recalling the fish-in-water analogy, I think we are so immersed in monetized theological systems that it’s hard to see. I would claim that money shapes our ideas of eternal reward, salvation as redemption, grace versus works, God as ruling lord and king, the value and worth of God (and humanity by extension), and more.
The grace, gratuity, and superabundance of God’s gifts are an interesting place to start because they are so often set against money and worldly economy. Yet I don’t think we would have a sense of gift and gratuity without constructing them in opposition to—and hence always in dialogue and mutual implication with—a distinctive realm of monetary exchange. We would also not have a sense of excess and overflow without a preliminary notion of quantification. It’s no coincidence that illustrations of grace in the Gospels often use money, such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard being paid equally or the ungrateful debtor having his debts forgiven. It’s not clear that money and gifts can be so easily separated as much of our modern theological tradition has tried to do.
Grace, as contrasted with law and judgment, also assumes monetized categories of recompense and just due. Studies of the origins of legal codes reveal links with early forms of monetization, where guilt is quantified, and justice is measured by compensation. It’s not clear that we have good ways of conceiving grace outside of economy or even the specific demarcations that money provides. Ideas of divine lordship and sovereignty, furthermore, trade on our assumptions about how a ruler might adjudicate such justice, as well as allocate resources and goods to the governed, which presume ideas of economic administration.
Today’s prosperity teaching makes a good case study of money shaping theology. God is unapologetically portrayed as a banker or financier, one who rewards economic risk and sacrifice. In prosperity teaching, theology is thoroughly monetized, as blessings are construed as literal payments one might receive or other goods one might miraculously acquire. It’s worthwhile to think about how such prosperity movements are not aberrations but more like tells or limit cases that reveal the truths submerged within mainstream and “orthodox” Christian thought.
TOJ: After tracing the history of coin minting, which was a means of demarcating a new ruler’s power and ascension, you articulate the ways that discourse is grafted into theological articulations of Christ. What do you mean when you say that Christ is seen as a “numismatic stamp” or “God’s coin”?2
DS: In that section of the book I bring together a number of parallel and at times intersecting conversations in early Christian thought about the image of God and emperor, as well as language of coining, stamping, and marking.
We have widespread patristic language and doctrine that depicts the Son as the eternal image and prototype of the Father. This provides a useful tool to explicate what it means that humans are made in the image of God: the Son who images the Father is that image after which humans are modeled. This is why Christ as the incarnate Son can be described as the perfect image of God, the one human who, as also the divine Son, exhibits the image of God without blemish and the one who helps restore the corrupted image of God in sinful humanity.
We also have patristic language of humans as coins of God, ones marked or stamped with the image of their issuing emperor. This is used to explain the worth and value of humans and also their origins and identity as belonging to God and reflecting God’s glory and kingdom, just as coins do for emperors in their territory. If we pause to ask how these human coins are stamped or minted, in whose image they are marked, we can refer to the above discourse of humans being made in the image of God the Son. This means that the imprinting device, known numismatically as the die with a particular type after which coins are stamped, is the Son.
When we follow the logic of incarnation, the Son taking on human flesh as the person of Christ now enters the human realm as the perfect and paradigmatic human who always also remains God the Son. If we described humans as coins, then Christ must also be a coin, since he is fully and truly human. Given the patristic claim that “what he has not assumed he has not healed,” used to explain why uniting the divine Son with sinful humanity works to redeem fallen human nature, we can extend a parallel logic numismatically.3 The paradigmatic coin image takes on the material stuff common to all coins, enters their economy of exchange as the ideal and standard bearing coin, and then works to heal or correct this network or economy of human coins, setting their weight aright and purifying their precious metal content. I thus show how the language of humans as renewed or restored coins is also discernible in some thinkers, giving evidence that this logic is at work. This idea of Christ as God’s central coin also leads nicely to discussions of ransom, where Christ is the central exchange currency of redemption.
TOJ: The last couple chapters of your book deal generally with soteriology and more particularly with Gregory of Nyssa’s ransom theory. You argue that monetary exchange is the primary lens through which Christian salvation is understood. Will you elaborate on that?
DS: There are many versions of ransom theory among patristic theologians. My point about Gregory of Nyssa’s rendition of the theory, which is one of the more frequently cited and fleshed out accounts, is that it is permeated with ideas of monetary exchange, moneylending, debt slavery, and redemption. It also incorporates political theological ideas of economic conquest and even colonization or annexation. My close analysis of his narrative of ransom shows that these ideas form part of the central conceptual scaffolding that gives his account coherence and logical force.
Ransom ideas are usually glossed over in exposition of early doctrine. Some modern theologians famously dismiss ransom, and related ideas of God deceiving Satan, as childish, absurd, or grotesque. Their narrative structure, personification of God and the devil, and blatant themes of economy, exchange, and trickery have repulsed many a modern interpreter. Yet it bears asking why they were so prominent and what their role may have been, particularly since soteriology has evolved and shifted throughout theological tradition and church history. By highlighting the monetary economic dynamics that ransom presumes and incorporates, I believe we can see one major suture point of money and theology.
There’s a tradition of theology that loves to wax eloquent about how theology begins and ends with God or with Jesus Christ. I imagine its exponents believe they are somehow glorifying God by claiming it’s all about God. That’s disingenuous. The only reason anyone even cares about God or Jesus Christ is the promise that these ideas have something to offer. One can certainly be philosophically interested in the doctrine of God, but the force that Christianity held and continues to hold on the church and broader social imaginary has to do with its promise of something new, of some sort of rescue, of salvation via divine economy. And if the core of Christian salvation theory is predicated on monetary logic and economic themes, that seems pretty significant.
TOJ: Do you have any thoughts on how this narrative and history plays into or is abandoned in recent turns to cryptocurrencies?
DS: There was certainly a salvific aura around cryptocurrencies when they emerged on the scene, replete with utopian promise as the next stage of democratizing the economy. The inventors and early adopters of cryptocurrency hailed it as an alternative to the fiat money I recounted earlier. Such inventions are intended as an assault on centralization; they are an effort to diffuse sovereign oversight of money into network power, amorphous nodes of control that are harder to police.
In one sense, this follows the supposed trajectory of sovereign power in the modern age, with the king’s head being cut off and the royal remains being disseminated among the governed. Just as political sovereignty is supposedly being distributed and spread among the masses in participatory democracy—or at least as internalized, biopolitical strategies of self-policing—so, it might seem, economic power is being dispersed and decentralized. This view might need to ignore how legal systems and their enforcing states appear necessary to undergird trading networks or to realize the value conversion of cryptocurrency into commodities. Just as it’s the case that theories of empire and governmentality that celebrate the erosion of sovereignty need to be corrected with a view of fluid and decentered sovereignties that remain, the heralding of cryptocurrency as a way to circumvent sovereign control may need to be emended with analysis of the persistent ties to sovereign control and the diffuse, polycentric sites of policing that endure.
TOJ: In your book’s conclusion, you identify contemporary implications and manifestations of this theological and historical legacy, particularly in the context of Michel Foucault’s conceptions of pastoral power, biopolitical management, the emergence of capitalism, the managerial state, liberal governance, and contemporary debt practices. You conclude by noting that “This is an inheritance that calls us to account.”4 Will you speak to that a bit? What do you envision that process or call looking like?
DS: I take it that a major impulse in contemporary critical theory is an analysis of the thought patterns, practices, and institutions that surround and shape us in modernity, in an effort to redirect them toward more life-giving and productive ends. This includes calls for social justice, liberation, equality, and redistribution, as well as the correction of traditions and processes that feed inequality and social stratification. I take it that theology remains part of that tool kit of analysis and critique. I want to trouble theology as a tool for those who are quick to use it as the solution, to urge theologians toward greater self-examination of theology’s own implication in economy, and yet I also want to advocate it as a tool for those who don’t have it on their radar screen (e.g., most social and political theorists). Obviously this means that while I see theology as run through with economic logics, this need not disqualify it as a tool of analysis and critique.
TOJ: Your book articulates a fascinating, problematic vision of the Christian theological history and legacy. Are the historical pitfalls you sketch essential to the Christian theological imaginary?
DS: It might be philosophically interesting to imagine whether Christian theology in all possible worlds leads to and necessitates these imbrications with economy, politics, and power. But it seems to me that incarnation weds Christian theology necessarily to history, materiality, development, and change. Just as Christian theology has claimed that the specific idiosyncratic details of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus matter, a corollary might be drawn to the trajectories of Christian thought in history. In this sense, we have nothing else except the actual historical developments of Christian theological imaginaries, for better or for worse.
That being said, there still is no single history but a variety of streams and routes taken. For all the pitfalls and problems I try to highlight about theology’s implication with economies of power and sovereignty, others can and have pointed out theology’s identification with marginality, with the powerless and voiceless. All this needs to be considered. If we try to excise the pitfalls and blind spots of the tradition, what’s to stop the excision of the virtues as well? Rather than seek a pure space of essential Christian thought devoid of abuses, maybe the better alternative is to take it all together and sort it out the best we can in whatever given situation of analysis and intervention in which we find ourselves.
Having been immersed in and shaped by progressive, constructive theologies and liberationist traditions—which I continue to hold dear and consider my primary theological mooring points if I do anything like theology—my own vantage point in writing this book was one where the ameliorative aspects of theology and tradition appeared to be overemphasized. Evil, oppression, and marginalization were associated with the world or with problematic theologies, and what was proffered as truth, as good theology, were the liberative aspects. I wanted to counterbalance this and highlight how seemingly orthodox and mainstream theology is also implicated in the problematic socioeconomic and political formations under critique.
Furthermore, when thinking about the task of public theology, of speaking with and about theology to secular, confessional, academic, and nonacademic audiences, taking on orthodoxy directly seems important. Although the retrieval of suppressed and alternative voices and theologies is significant, I’m still interested in exploring and exposing the dominant narratives and inherited impressions of what counts as “orthodoxy” and mainstream or mainline Christian thought. Some audience members in the public sphere might be persuaded that a new, revisionist, radical theology is generative for them in terms of social change, but my very anecdotal impression is that to speak to the majority, one needs to engage the visions and viewpoints of the majority.
Again, I know scholarly readers will be quick to point out that there is no one story, that orthodoxy is agonistic, ambiguous, and evolving, but frankly I don’t think people outside of religious studies and theology care much about this quibble. Thus, I’m content to work within the provisional mythologies of a unitary orthodoxy and so-called regular Christianity if that means I can engage in immanent critique, critique from within. By taking on orthodoxy on its own terms, with its key claims and celebrated figures, and by showing the damage it has done, maybe internal change motivated by a persuaded majority is possible. I’m still cynical that any meaningful change is possible, but I think slight reconfigurations within the dominant transcript, rather than minority reports of alternative and suppressed visions, has a better chance of reaching a broader audience and leading to broad-based consciousness raising or conscientization. I understand, of course, that this is not an either/or option and that any retrieval of marginalia reconfigures the main story as well.
TOJ: If we are to take your text seriously and build on it, what must a vision of theology and theological possibility be moving forward, in the wake of confronting that historical legacy?
DS: I sympathize with this question immensely. As a person who thinks a lot about the question of public theology and the relevance of religion in the public sphere, I feel its pressure. As a thinker caught up in the broader debates about the public and practical relevance of the humanities and liberal arts, I also take seriously the question of practicability, action, and transformation. And yet, I want to resist the impulse toward application, if only momentarily, and offer a set of counterquestions: Why must we doanything now? What makes us think we can actually do anything new or different? What if all our proposed solutions are just fuel for the fire? What are we expressing and repressing in our scramble for solutions, results, and transformations?
As I note in my book’s introduction, I try to distinguish my approach from what I see as the general tendency in constructive theology to take the prescriptive turn. This is the move toward application, toward theoretical and/or social intervention and transformation. One reason for my resistance is sociohistorical. The Anglo-American theological traditions that shaped the United States, in particular, share many elective affinities with Western, capitalist, market-oriented ideas and business sensibilities that are results-driven, pragmatic, utilitarian, and set on endless innovation. Although it would be simplistic to collapse religious and economic discourses here, they have certainly informed each other in the short history of this nation. I worry that modern theological urges toward application and practicality, shaped as they cannot but help be by the tremendous economic forces in our midst that demand utility and instant relevance, are miming these broader logics.
A second reason I resist a practical response might be considered psychoanalytic. I stumbled upon this concern when thinking about Christian theology’s relationship to money. Why is the standard response in Christian thought to emphasize—quite often stridently—the difference and distance between theology and money? What are modern, constructive theological practices repressing in the swift move to application? What discomfort or uncanny unease are we disavowing and denying by quickly asking how to move from a perceived here to there? Might there be value in dwelling with that discomfort and tarrying with the tensions evoked? Christian thought’s repudiation of its proximity to money presented me with a microcosm to think about the broader tendency to move toward action, in this case the quick move toward supposedly prophetic confrontation and denunciation of money and worldly economy.
In addition to being shaped by economic logic from the wider culture, I think part of Christian thought’s tendency to move so quickly to declarations of economic transformation derives from the anxieties caused by these inherited proximities. In some ways, my critique of this pragmatic tendency is tied up directly with my investigation of economic themes in theology, given the close relation between economic theology and the economic themes inherent in notions of practical utility and application. So if there is a first move here, it would be toward thorough self-assessment of both our inherited and newly constructed theological systems and governing images and metaphors for God, Christ, humanity, church, et cetera, considering the operation of economic logics. I don’t know that some kind of purge is possible or desirable—such a purge may even be destructively naive. But even a sort of sensitizing to the potent architectonic structuring metaphors and assumptions that derive from, assume, or redeploy monetary economic dynamics would enable more nuanced and thoughtful forms of response to present realities.
TOJ: What possibilities do you see in theological discourse given the history you’ve uncovered here?
DS: Because theology has always been implicated and bound up with economic realities, sometimes even playing a role in constructing those realities, it must operate from a position of consistent self-reflexivity and epistemic humility. Some theology—for instance, in the apophatic traditions—has been good about remaining self-critical about its claims about God, given divine difference and transcendence. But what does this look like when applied to the social realm? Such epistemic humility has a different basis to be sure. Partly, it’s based on an acknowledged ignorance, that we’re almost as lost about how the social world works or why it operates the way it does as we are about a supposed transcendent realm of the divine where theological predicates might align. Partly, it’s based on the acknowledgement that some if not many of the theological constructions and interventions offered over the centuries may have had unforeseen, negative consequences in the social world.
We also must examine the central metaphors used in theology to consider their impact, to ponder whether they are essential to the Christian imaginary and whether suitable replacements can be found. Just as the problematic effects of a sacrifice metaphor for salvation have been questioned, so too must the impact around economically portrayed redemption. Certainly, there are other ways to speak about salvation. Can they avoid economic logic? Should they?
Maybe, upon deeper reflection, some will conclude that money’s presence in theological systems is not a problem, just as some have concluded that Western philosophy would not have arisen without the money economy of classical Greece, that all forms of Western thought are inextricably bound up with money, that this is simply a given, and that there is no otherwise and therefore no cause for concern.
Others may conclude that stronger calls for transcendence are needed. If the implication of my study is that theology is bound up with economy, some will believe the only escape is a more strident plea for divine difference and otherness. Immanence just won’t do, and to save theology from money we must reiterate the radically other God. On the other end of this spectrum, many who have already concluded that immanence is what we must work with will see this as just another implication—just as theology is and has always been about immanence and about the human realm despite pretensions to speak about a transcendent other, so it is here specifically about the human economic realm and uses of money. Various tactics for dealing with this might emerge, depending, again, on what value judgment is made about money.
I’m happy to leave this to the constructive theologians to work out. I hope at least some will have interest in the implications of my study for the theological task, at least when engagement with money and the economy is in question. The comparison again to negative theology and divine predication is useful: just as theologians have accepted that while it is impossible to speak of God, one must continue to do so, the impossible possibility of economic theology is that while it is impossible to critique monetary economy from a pure or noneconomic space one must nevertheless continue to do so theologically. The key is to resist this becoming a banal truism that is repeated while business continues as usual and to instead let its implications inform how theology is done. My own sense is that theological critiques of the economy cannot be undertaken in the same way and that constructive theologies of this sort are on the brink of a more self-aware shift in idiom, key, form, and content, and I’m excited to see what develops.
Devin Singh is assistant professor of religion at Dartmouth College, where he teaches courses on religious thought in the modern West, philosophy of religion, and social ethics. He received his PhD in religious studies from Yale University, where he served as a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the humanities before joining the faculty at Dartmouth.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt, where he is working in the areas of theology and economy. He is the theology editor for The Other Journal, and he has written for numerous publications, including the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and The Other Journal. He is also the coeditor of Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.