The Sydney University Evangelical Union, for whom I work, is currently in the midst of a three-week campus mission. Today (Friday August 2, 2013) we held an event called ‘500 Seconds,’ where speakers had 500 seconds to talk about spirituality as it relates to a particular area of life. Here’s my contribution.
In our world, the economy is king. It governs governments, directs our fortunes, makes and breaks our hopes and dreams. Newspapers devote whole sections to it; words like debt and deficit, budget and surplus, inflation and consumer confidence dominate our front pages.
The financial report has become a fixed item on nightly news broadcasts. Political economist Randy Martin observes that
news broadcasts run a visual ticker-tape of stock prices at the bottom of their broadcast screens as if the modulations of equity prices were an EKG to the global body.
Martin, R., Rafferty, M. & Bryan, D., ‘Financialization, Risk and Labour,’ Competition & Change, 12 (2), June 2008, pp. 120–132
But this fixation with markets is more than an intellectual position: it’s spiritual.
In a fascinating investigation of modern capitalism, human geographer Nigel Thrift outlines the convergence between modern economic management paradigms and New Age spirituality.
In the United States $4 billion per year is being spent by corporations on New Age consultants.
Nigel Thrift, Knowing Capitalism, London: SAGE Publications, 2005, p. 42.
At a deeper level, we have a fundamentally spiritual commitment to economic growth. Growth, we’re told, will make poverty history, secure our superannuation and foster democracy around the world, leading to unprecedented and unending wealth for all.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor, Ross Gittins, sees a spiritual element to our obsession with growth. Each side of politics, he says,
professes to be just as devoted to the Great God GDP as its evil, uncaring opponents.’ While we might differ in our politics, most of us share a common spirituality: we worship growth.
The last thirty years has seen a major change in the contributions of various sectors of the economy to the gross domestic product of Western nations.
Between the 1950s and today we’ve seen the influence of manufacturing diminish as finance has become a key driver of economic growth. This accelerated from the mid-1970s. In Australia, the financial services sector has grown from 6% of GDP in 1975 to 10.5% in 2011. At the same time the manufacturing sector has fallen from 16% of GDP to 8%.
This shift is the result of reaching the limits of the growth that is possible on the basis of the material resources available to us.
As a result, the rate of economic growth in the West has been declining. During the 1960s the GDP of the developed world grew at a rate in excess of 4% per annum, and sometimes by as much as 6%. By the 1980s the GDP of developed nations had fallen to 3% per annum, and had fallen further to 2% per annum by the early 1990s.
The solution, according to some economists, is to separate economic growth from the use of material resources. This is called decoupling.
This in turn has led to a process of financialization, in which every value is turned into a financial instrument. Stock market trading increasingly involves buying and selling intangible financial assets like mortgage debts and insurance contracts. This generates huge profits without generating actual value—the money made only exists on a balance sheet.
In the words of Naomi Klein, as more and more companies have made money through trading financial products
Companies have gone on to rid themselves of their cumbersome bodies, and there is nothing more cumbersome, more loathsomely corporeal, than the factories that produce their products.
We’re pursuing continuous growth by detaching it from the material world.
Christian theologian William Cavanaugh agrees. Reflecting on the GFC of 2007-2008, he argues that
‘The financial crisis was not driven by materialism so much as by a desire to transcend material constraints.’
Our worship of growth is a spiritual aspiration to be free from the material world.
I have a different spiritual aspiration. I’m a Christian. My spirituality is shaped by the Christian story. This story leads me to conclude not that modern economics is too materialistic, but that it isn’t materialistic enough.
God made the world—that includes us.
Because he is good, what he made is good.
He made it all as a gift—for his Son and for us.
We are all recipients of the gift, but we’ve forgotten the giver who gave it.
In order to restore us to the giver, God became a human being in Jesus Christ. The eternal and infinite creator of the universe became material—he was an embryo, he experienced birth, he was a little boy who grew into a man.
That man was executed as an outcast, dying the death that was necessary for us creatures to be restored to the giver.
That same man rose from the grave in a new material body—and those who have faith in him hope one day to share in a resurrection just like his.
My spirituality, shaped by this story, isn’t interested in transcending the world. My spiritual aspiration is to give and receive as part of it. I share in the goodness of the world God has made. I revel in the material world, knowing that God was satisfied to become a part of it in Jesus.
For the Christian, the spiritual and the material aren’t at odds; spirituality is materialistic in the fullest sense of the world.
This spiritual aspiration moves me to cultivating contentment and community.
I cultivate contentment because God has given us the world to enjoy and to sustain us. I have shelter, I have food, I have work—all of these are gifts from God, and they are all I need.
But this contentment is only possible in community. God has given us this world, and it can sustain us—if only we’ll share its abundance with one another.
800 million people will go hungry today. There’s enough food in the world to feed them. The problem isn’t that global economic growth has slowed, but that in our rush to transcend our material constraints we’ve forgotten how to share.
Christian spirituality leads us to cultivate community by working to share with others the good gifts we have received from God.
Applying this kind of spiritual economics on a global scale is a complicated proposal. I think it should encourage us to consider what economists call a steady state economy, in which GDP stays at a sustainable level relative to the population, instead of growing.
After all, some of the great economists including Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and John Keynes saw growth as a temporary phase on the way to a world in which basic needs would be provided for and humans could focus on more important things. In his Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill wrote:
The increase of wealth is not boundless. The end of growth leads to a stationary state. The stationary state of capital and wealth… would be a very considerable improvement on our present condition. … A stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the art of living, and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds ceased to be engrossed by the art of getting on.
But however it might shape the global economy, our spirituality can shape our every day economic practices in the here and now.
How might contentment & community shape your economic relationships with your family? With the local grocer? With that homeless woman you walk past? With the farmers who produce your food? With the land that food comes from?
Whatever spirituality is for you, economics is a spiritual discipline. So when we think about econmics we need to ask ourselves what our spiritual aspirations are, and how they might shape our economics.