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Theology and Economics

Theology and Economics

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There are so many reasons for theologians to be contemptuous of economists and for economists to be contemptuous of theologians.

Tormented by physics–envy, economists want nothing to do with soft–‘n’–squidgy theology. The more historically–alert among them know that the two disciplines were once very closely related (as Keynes reminded William Temple when the latter sent him a draft of Christianity and Social Order). But that just makes the problem worse. Theology is the embarrassing country mouse who comes to town only to tell his street–wise urban cousin how to run the joint. Aspiring to the sciences itself, economics resents any intrusion from the now–tattered figure who once paraded herself as Queen of those disciplines.

For their part, nicer theologians sit in judgement on economics for its dismal, earth–bound unimaginativeness, its satisfaction with external behaviour as an indicator of human desires, its incurious indifference to the inner states that comprise authentic humanity. By contrast, the more ideologically–colourful ones straightforwardly view economists as engineers busily engaged in maintaining the planet–roasting, poor–grinding machine that is global capitalism.

Theology and Economics, edited by the Reverends Jeremy Kidwell and Sean Doherty, is not only alert to these tensions but generated by them. Originating in two dialogues initiated by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, its intention was to bring together a number of experts from each discipline (very few are people are expert in both) and explore difficulties and opportunities for dialogue. “We observed in our discussion that neither theology nor economics tends to think of themselves as porous disciplines”, the editors say in their introduction (3), which is a polite way of saying people were surprised to find themselves sharing a room with one another.

The book is divided into three sections – ‘Swords’, ‘Plowshares (1) Resources for Collaboration’ and ‘Plowshares (2) Visions of the Common Good’. The first of these is conceived as a “brush–clearing exercise”, though ‘blood’ might have been more accurate than ‘brush’, and ‘letting’ closer than ‘clearing’. The volume is to be commended for accommodating discordant voices in dialogue and they are most in evidence here. Michael Pollitt, Professor of Business Economics at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, for example, is bullish in his defence of economics (his chapter is entitled “What do theologians need to know about economics?”). His tone is uncompromising and his arguments not always entirely persuasive. “High income allows individuals to become ‘post–materialist’”, we are told on page 29. Having just spent an afternoon at the Westfield shopping cathedral in Stratford, this does not ring true to me. “Governments can fail just as easily as markets”, we hear on page 32 – a brave thing to say, at least in the UK, so soon after the great crash.

Worse than this, the tone can sound heartless. “Cutbacks to the benefits system have two economic effects – they reduce incomes of the poor, but they also incentivize work and reduce dependency.” (31) This, I guess, is technically true, but the ease with which it detaches these two economic effects from a third, more obviously meaningful one – namely that benefit cuts also make life tougher and more miserable for those forced to come to terms with the consequences – is liable to erode rather than build economics’ humanist credentials.

Malcolm Brown, Head of Mission and Public Affairs at the Church of England, offers a robust response to Pollitt and others in his conclusion to part 1 (each section ends with a short response), accusing him of setting up “a series of Aunt Sallies” (84), and pointing out that “only if we accept that the society of strangers is a complete description of our condition can we accept the kind of economics presented by [Andy] Hartropp and Pollitt is the last word.” (88) Part 1 makes for bracing and engaging reading, but firmly underlines how wide the chasm between the two disciplines is.

Part 2 begins to try and cross it, although the contributions here are quite a mixed bag and it’s not always clear how useful the ‘resources’ for collaboration are. Matthew Arbo offers a tightly focused and difficult essay on Adam Smith’s theory of progress, while Jeremy Kidwell contributes an engaging but peripheral–feeling chapter on John of Chrysostom “as a model for resourcing the tradition in reflection on the common good”.

Andrew Henley (109) gets closer to the heart of the matter when he points out that from the perspective of Christian theology, “the absence of an external teleology in economic analysis is problematic.” This absence confines economics “to the consideration of behaviour and activity of the economic agent that seeks only to further the private well–being of that same economic agent. It implies an essentially static and ahistorical perspective on issues of fairness and justice, and it largely confines itself to considerations of individual rationality.”

This, surely, is where the dialogue needs to begin if it is to be fruitful. It echoes Andy Hartropp’s plangent remark from his opening chapter that “one might have thought, a priori, that Christian economists and theologians could at least agree on the ‘good’ without too much difficulty. Evidently, however, this is not the case.” (21) The question of the good rests on the question of the human, and it is the differences here that need to be engaged if dialogue is to move forward. As Paul Williams says in his response to Part 2 “we need a background account of human behaviour that is far more comprehensive than the reductionist anthropology of modern economics and against which any modelled approximations can be assessed”. (159) It seems that for theology and economics to get on together, they both need to start speaking the lingua franca of anthropology.

This is not an alien tongue. Indeed, both disciplines have been slipping into anthropology from their earliest days. Talking of the good and the human is emphatically not to introduce conceptions where none have existed heretofore. It is rather, to paraphrase Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s play The Bourgeois Gentleman, to discover that we’ve been speaking anthropology all our lives without ever formally recognising it.

Not only, then, is this switch in discourse potentially fruitful and perfectly natural, but it is urgent. Paul Williams points out, as others have not been shy of doing over recent decades, that “the modern account of economic behaviour, told in slightly varying forms by proponents of liberal capitalism and neo–classical economics, functions itself as a moral tradition that shapes virtue…it has a clear meta–narrative rooted in the importance of freedom of choice for the individual rational economic agent, is oriented toward a distinct teleology, concerned with maximizing utility and is fuelled by the ‘virtue’ of self–interest.” (159) In other words, not only is the anthropology underpinning “neo–classical economics” a live moral tradition itself, but it is also a harmful one. Rational Economic Man has a certain ethic, a certain tradition of virtue, and it’s not a particularly nice one.

If this shift in focus begins, as it were, to mine the resources needed for hammering swords into plowshares, the final section starts fashioning the material. Helpfully, it is graced with two of the best essays in the book in doing so.

Donald Hay and Gordon Menzies put forward a dense but rewarding assessment of the model of human nature in economics, suggesting that the model of “rational economic man” (and “rational choice theory”) are “fatally flawed”, inaccurate and ultimately dehumanising. They then draw on various resources, including Catholic Social Thought, to put forward “a more comprehensive model of human motivation and resources.” (192)

This is a big task, as is Nick Townsends’ masterful chapter on moving to “a post–capitalist economy”, an unhelpfully sweeping title for a chapter that is precise in its analysis of ‘capitalism’ (as distinct from business or market exchange), and which then, drawing on Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, puts forward an admirably concrete set of suggestions for transcending the capitalist model in favour of post–capitalist corporations – “legal forms for business that enable them to specify ends other than profit maximisation” (212) exemplified by the B–Corps movement. 

This review has, on reflection, made Theology and Economics sound more unified than it is. The besetting problem of all capacious, multi–authored collections that begin in the seminar room is that they are just that: collections, interesting yet frustratingly disparate. The problem is exacerbated when, as here, the uniformly Christian participants have, as Wilde said of the Americans and English in The Canterville Ghost, “everything in common with [one another] except, of course, language”. Nevertheless, the collection is to be commended for not shying away from what it calls, in its first sentence, the “troubled relationship” between the two disciplines, and if it fails to leave the reader with anything like a serviceable plowshare, it does at least indicate how one might be forged.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Theology and Economicsedited by Jeremy Kidwell and Sean Doherty is published by Palgrave.

Image from, available in the public domain



Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently ‘The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable’ (Bloomsbury, 2017), ‘The Evolution of the West’ (SPCK, 2016) and ‘Atheists: The Origin of the Species’ (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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Posted 17 March 2016

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