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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Ross Gittins, Christians and Economics

Studying political economy this year has had my mind in overdrive. As a precursor to some things I want to write about when semester is over, have a read of Ross Gittins’ take on a recent Christian critique of capitalism.

I’m a little frustrated that Gittins hasn’t actually said what he thinks about the critique. Without going into any detail, I think the moral critique made of capitalism in the article is fairly sound (except, perhaps, for reading too much into Jesus’ parable of the talents).

I’m not sure I agree with this, though: ‘Schluter’s conclusion is that Christians need to search urgently for a new economic order based on biblical revelation.’ I think Scripture does have things to say about economics. However, I think the primary responsibility of the Christian is to advocate for justice (including good family relationships) within the existing system, rather than recreating the economic order.

Much more to say…

Capitalism, Liberal Democracy & Social Justice: Who Really Cares?

I have just seen Michael Moore’s new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I thought it was quite good. It is, of course, entirely specific to the United States, and the financial practices portrayed are less acute in Australia. We must look massively over-regulated from the vantage of Wall St.

The thesis of the documentary is that capitalism is an evil which is incompatible with liberal democracy. The film does a great job of drawing attention to the human impact of the decisions and practices of banks and corporations. It also illustrates how the middle and working classes can be trapped in horrific economic circumstances through no fault of their own, and largely through the greed of those who control the primary financial levers.

Capitalism: A Love StoryI don’t think capitalism is the root of all evil. In attempting to think about economics within a Christian biblical worldview, some tenets of capitalism are clearly held (for example, private ownership: Leviticus 25, Acts 5:1-10). Elements of other economic systems are also affirmed, particularly the call to give generously and sacrificially from our own wealth to meet the needs of others (2 Corinthians 8 & 9, cf. Exodus 16). No economic system is prescribed by the biblical authors; rather we are to wisely steward what God has given us.

However, the film makes the vitally important point that capitalism and liberal democracy cannot exist peacefully side-by-side. At some points they will clash. Economics and politics are not separate. If democracy is for the good of all, then it must place some limits on capitalism; unless we hold capitalism as the more important, which a Wall Street Journal columnist interviewed in the film does openly.

So, that’s the film. What really interested me, though, was the response in the cinema. I saw it in Newtown, and 80% of those in attendance were middle aged, middle class urbanites. Socially aware. Environmentally conscious. Bush-haters (one woman verbally recoiled whenever the former President appeared onscreen). Exclamations of dismay and disgust were (rightly) uttered as weeping mothers recounted their evictions. The film ends with Moore calling those who are watching to join him in a growing social movement against the powers of capitalism. There was applause at the film’s end.

But will anyone really make a difference? It strikes me that even if some who were present do write a letter to the federal government calling for tighter regulation and support those who lose their homes in conversation and via petition, many would be less willing to buy a house for a dispossessed family, or take them in. In a political system with strong government intervention, it is easy to leave ‘helping people’ up to the state. This often severely limits our social consciences. Welfare? Yes, but as long as it doesn’t cost me anything.

The biblical approach to wealth is clear. What we have is not our own. Do not seek wealth, and be radically generous. How do urban, socially aware, middle-class whiteys like me stack up? Are we hungry for justice, or simply angry with those who are wealthier than we? Have we realised that we can’t all be ‘rich,’ or are we finding new ways to justify our own wealth by comparing it to that of others?