Consuming Production: A Thought-Bubble

^Look how happy this guy is to be at work, in his lovely, bright, open plan office! 

Ever since Adam Smith, our economy has had consumption as its goal: production is geared toward the consumption of what is produced as the driver of economic growth. The result (combined with the liberal individualist cultural stream that capitalism is a part of) has been the consumer culture we now inhabit. It is largely the consumption habits of the developed world that drive the global economy.

Production = work, i.e., what most people spend most of their time doing to make ends meet and to find and define their place in human community. For the vast majority in the world, work is a hard grind that our consumer culture largely hides as far as it can (think of the conditions in Apple factories in China).

In the developed world, on the other hand, many of us have jobs that we quite enjoy (even if that isn’t the whole story of our work). And, statistically, we are spending more and more hours doing that work. Apparently, we can’t get enough of it.

So, here’s my question/theory—one that I’m sure someone else has had before. Has consumer capitalism cannibalised production? That is, has it succeeded in turning even our productive labour (at least in the developed world) into an act of consumption? Do we “consume” our work as a means to personal fulfilment and self-definition? It works out very well for global consumer capitalism if it has in fact managed to do just that.

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Work, Economy, and Theology

 

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I’m working on my final-year research project, looking at a theology of work. It’s been a fun little exercise in bringing together the theological and exegetical skills that have been developed throughout college, with some of my own interests in Christian theological ethics and political economy.

The first full-length draft (15,000w) is due this Friday (yikes!), and the looming deadline has given me a little more clarity about the logic of my argument. Here are two short paragraphs describing what (I think) the project is about (today).

The experience of work is intrinsically connected to our conception of the economy.A theological account of work must therefore engage the concept of economy; that is, in order to give us practical purchase on the lived experience of work in our world as a significant sphere of Christian living, we need to give an account of how work and economy are related. Such an account, if it is to be properly evangelical, will resist the temptation to be founded in a single doctrine—such as creation or new creation—but will instead be shaped by the whole sweep of salvation history as it coheres in the good news of the redemption of creation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Such an account is suggested by the interplay of economy (οἰκονομία)  and good works (ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς) in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. There we find an account of God’s economy of redemption, fulfilled in his Messiah-Economist and displayed in the redeemed humanity of the church. Within this economy, the experience of work in a fallen world—work cut off from its social function, exemplified by the extremes of thievery and slavery—is redeemed and reoriented as a gift received from God. Thievery and slavery provide categories for Christian practical reason in the sphere of work as experienced in our late-Capitalist  context, and a basis for engaging contemporary economic thinking about labour, motivation, and identity.

Along the way we’ll touch on some political economic theories about work/labour (Smith, Marx, Polanyi, maybe Keynes), interrogate three contemporary theologies of work (Karl Barth in Ethics, Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit, and Oliver O’Donovan in Entering Into Rest), outline some precedents for a theology of economy (via M. Douglas Meeks’ God the Economist, Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy, and Giorgio Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory). Then — finally! — we’ll get to some bible stuff in Ephesians, before rounding it all out in a theological engagement with some recent works in economics (George Akerlof & Rachel Kranton’s Identity Economics and Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy.)

I don’t know about you—I’m excited. But that really might just be me.

Economics & Theology: A Conversation with Wayne Grudem

Unbelievable?Recently I had the privilege of taking part in a an episode of the UK podcast ‘Unbelievable?’, hosted by Justin Brierley, in which I discussed theologian Wayne Grudem’s new book on solutions to global poverty with Wayne Grudem himself. (Thanks to Justin for having me on the show). The podcast is now online, here. A special welcome to anyone visiting my blog for the first time, having heard the podcast – be aware that my blogging is both sporadic and diverse, but I hope you find something worthwhile!

The conversation with Professor Grudem gave me an opportunity to explore the intersection of theology and economics – a particular interest of mine – in a way that I haven’t for a while, and so I thought some follow-up blog posts might be in order. In my review of Professor Grudem’s book for the Bible Society I was only able to scratch the surface of these issues; in addition, some of Professor Grudem’s responses to my criticisms on the podcast were, I think, insufficient.

Continue reading “Economics & Theology: A Conversation with Wayne Grudem”

When Economics & Theology Don’t Mix: A Review of ‘The Poverty of Nations’

This piece was originally published by the Bible Society of Australia‘s Eternity Newspaper. You can read the original post here.

A review of The Poverty of Nations: a Sustainable Solution by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus. Published by Crossway.

All Christians can strongly affirm the premise of this book: God cares deeply for the plight of the poor, and the church must seek out ways to alleviate such suffering. Unfortunately, The Poverty of Nations represents an unpersuasively narrow engagement with economics instead of the robust economic and theological engagement that we need.

The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable SolutionTheologian Wayne Grudem and economist Barry Asmus seek to present ‘a sustainable solution’ for the poverty of majority-world nations. Their solution, in short, is a particular brand of free-market capitalism, characterized by continuously creating more goods and services in order to enter ‘a path of ever-increasing prosperity’ (p. 25). The authors seek to persuade their readers by comparing alternative economic systems with free-market capitalism and proposing a series of policies nations can adopt to move from poverty to prosperity. In addition, they seek to show how the Christian scriptures affirm the economic policies they propose.

Continue reading “When Economics & Theology Don’t Mix: A Review of ‘The Poverty of Nations’”

Spirituality & Economics: The Meaning of Growth

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.

Continue reading “Spirituality & Economics: The Meaning of Growth”

Money & Generosity

This article was first published at The LAS and was written for Christian University students.

We tend to be more stingy than generous. The first question that comes to mind when we think about generosity is ‘How much?’ This is usually a way out of generosity, a shady way of asking ‘how much can I keep?’ If we know how much we have to give, we don’t have to keep giving more.

How can we be ‘cheerful givers’ (2 Corinthians 9:7) instead of keeping as much as we can for ourselves? The keys to generosity are to remember that God provides our daily needs and that Godly stewardship means being generous givers.

One of the most fundamental untruths our world teaches us is that there isn’t enough to go around. Any economics or business students reading this will know this idea as ‘scarcity.’ Economics is all about working out how to allocate resources in a world where there isn’t enough to go around. Because we believe this lie so easily we don’t want to give up anything we have. If we give it up we might never get it again!

In contrast to this idea, the scriptures teach us that God has not made a world of scarcity but of abundance. Read Ephesians 1:1-14. This magnificent passage lays out all the gifts God has given his people. In Christ we have every spiritual blessing (1:3): redemption, forgiveness, grace (1:7), an inheritance (1:11), hope (1:12), the Holy Spirit (1:13). Right in the middle of these great gifts we read that God gave them ‘according to his good pleasure that he planned in him for the administration of the days of fulfillment’ (1:9-10, HCSB) or ‘as a plan for the fullness of time’ (ESV). That word ‘administration’ or ‘plan’ could just as easily be translated ‘stewardship.’ (Another note for any economics & business students out there: the Greek word is from the root oikos, from which we derive the English word ‘economy.’) Did you notice what God has done with his gifts? He has lavished them on us (1:8)! God, then, is a steward of good gifts, and stewardship for God means to give good gifts out of the abundance that he has.

This should reshape how we think about stewardship. Often when we talk about stewardship in our churches we say things like ‘make sure you’re not a burden on others’ and ‘make sure you prepare for the future.’ This is often said to be the wise course of action. We keep more than enough for our immediate basic needs so that we won’t get into trouble in the future. But God’s stewardship is generous. He keeps nothing for himself but lavishes gifts from his abundance on us. Godly stewards don’t store things up to guard against a rainy day (which is futile—read what Jesus has to say about it in Luke 12:13-21). Godly stewards pray ‘give us today our daily bread,’ trusting God to provide, and out of their abundance give good gifts.

This is clearly the principle Paul has in mind when he writes to the Corinthians encouraging them to be generous. He asks them to give to their brothers and sisters whose basic needs are threatened by famine. ‘[This] is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality—at the present time your surplus is available for their need, so their abundance may also become available for our need, so there may be equality’ (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). His appeal to them is that they might display the character of the Lord Jesus: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich’ (8:9). To give generously is to be like the One whom we worship. The Corinthians had more than they needed; Paul encouraged them to use their abundance to give good gifts to those in need.

How then might you be a godly steward?

Think about what you need. Do really need another Playstation? Do you really need more shoes? Do you really need another overseas holiday? Do you really need to save for a house?

Think about what gifts you could give. Could you give more to the work of mission? Could you give more to the poor? Could you give more to brothers and sisters in your church family who don’t have your abundance?

Let’s not be legalistic; it is right to delight in the good things God has given. Enjoy his creation. You don’t have to give everything away. Paul is quick to assure the Conrinthians that he is not commanding them to be generous (2 Corinthians 8:8); rather he is encouraging them to be Christlike in their giving (8:9).

The Lord says ‘it is better to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35), because in giving you are behaving like your heavenly father. God is the giver of good gifts, and it is he who secures our daily needs for us. He has given us the rest so that we might become givers of good gifts too. How might you use your abundance to reflect the character of the Giver?

Financial Capitalism as Transcendent Spirituality

As some of you will know, I’ve been thinking at writing about capitalism and Christianity in preparation for a seminar at the Sydney University Evangelical Union’s Annual Conference. The seminar went well, thanks for asking!

In the seminar I tackled the underlying assumptions of capitalist economy, and showed how they’re in opposition to the basic assumptions of a Christian worldview, which I termed and presented as ‘God’s economy’.

Something else I’ve been thinking about for a while is the way in which ‘financialization’ (the transformation of non-material commodities into financial assets) seeks to transcend material constraints. William Cavanaugh has many useful things to say on this idea. Here’s a quote from a recent article on the ABC’s Religion & Ethics site.

We have been sold on the imperative of economic growth at all costs. Such faith in growth is not just a material but a spiritual aspiration, an attempt to get beyond our damnable servitude to material reality, and so overcome human vulnerability and limitation.

It is vitally important that the church begins to realise the spiritual dimensions of modern economics, and the ways in which they shape our thinking about living in the world. The Western church too easily falls into capitalist modes of behaviour instead of Christian ones.

Christianity & Capitalism: The End and Economic Imagination

As some of you will know, I’ve been working this year for the Sydney University Evangelical Union, a student organisation. As part of my role I’m running a seminar at the EU’s Annual Conference. The topic this year is eschatology. To my delight, I’ve been able to convince the senior staff to allow me to run a seminar which nicely combines my studies in political economy with my love for theology & Christian living. My topic (as above): Christianity & Capitalism: The End and Economic Imagination.

I’ve had to write a blurb, so that the students can decide whether or not they want to come to my seminar. Here it is. Let me know what you think!

Wealth is a problem. On this the Old Testament Law and prophets, the New Testament writers and Jesus himself are unambiguous. How, then, are Christians to live in a world where endless economic growth and rising living standards are the norm, where social outcomes are measured by dollar-value?

If you’re a Christian living in a capitalist world (hint: that’s you), you need to wrestle with these questions. Exploring ‘the End’ according to capitalism and ‘the End’ according to the Bible, we’ll see how God’s economy of abundant grace can free us to imagine economic practices that promote human flourishing.

A seminar for anyone who has ever wondered what the Bible has to say about wealth. Students of economics, business and political economy may find themselves challenged to rethink everything they think they know!