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

 

PalmercarpenterA

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”

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.

Should We Expect the Religious to be Successful?

There’s an interesting article in the current edition of The Economist, titled ‘Holy Relevance: Faith Can Influence Economic Behaviour, But Not Always Directly.’  The article cites some research which seeks to observe whether Max Weber’s sociology of religion plays out in the economic behaviour of religious people.

In short, while citing some interesting correlations between Islamic faith and capitalistic success, the article finds no research which presents a convincing case for the positive effect of any Christian tradition on the economic success of their adherents. The article concludes:

In the end, laws and institutions seem to make more difference to people’s worldly chances than the arcana of theology.

I’m not surprised. Any approach to economics from a Christian worldview must take into account the Lord whom Christians follow, Jesus Christ, who said things like:

No one can be a slave of two masters, since either he will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot be slaves of God and of money. (Matthew 6:24, HCSB)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40, HSCB)

Furthermore, those who became the leaders in the early Christian church said things like this:

Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27, HCSB)

In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret [of being content]—whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. (Philippians 4:12b, HCSB)

If I may paraphrase: Put no faith in the salvation falsely offered by wealth! Give generously, even sacrificially! Put others first! Be content with what you have; flee consumer capitalism!

While the New Testament certainly does not forbid Jesus’ followers from doing well in business, is it really a surprise that faith in the Suffering Servant doesn’t correlate with worldly wealth? The ‘worldly chances’ of Christians are played out in light of the heavenly certainties secured in Christ.

Following a God who associates with the lowly and encourages the same generosity He has shown in giving Jesus Christ, it is no wonder ‘the arcana of [Christian] theology’ has no correlation to business success. As the Apostle Paul says: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: although He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, HCSB).

The Salvation of Economics?

by monojussi

A brilliant article I came across yesterday. A must-read if you’re interested in political theology and/or political economy.

At the always excellent ABC Religion website, Roman Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh writes that ‘Only Christianity Can Save Economics.’ A key quote:

Economy is not a separate sphere of life that only intersects with the religious sphere when people act immorally with their money or are unable to meet their needs. The idea that theology and economics are two separate pursuits is a thoroughly modern idea, the product of the last 250 years or so, an idea that Christians traditionally would have found bizarre.

I was planning a series of posts later this year on the interaction of political economy and Christian theology (particularly eschatology) in the realm of finance. I probably don’t need to now, ’cause Cavanaugh has said it pretty well!