How Christianity challenges economics

Peter Grimwood describes how Christian values and truths contrast with the values of contemporary economics, and how the church has influenced economic thinking in the past.

Years ago now while still just a teenager, I attended my first economics class at the London School of Economics. The graduate teaching assistant introduced the course and the positive science. It deals in facts, not values. Equations and graphs were to be our tools, just as they are the tools of physicists and chemists. Value-laden discourse was and is, she explained, heresy.

Allow me to introduce myself to you as a fully signed up heretic.

The difficulty with this approach is that this kind of positive economics is based on assumptions about human behaviour that are not critically examined. There are in fact values lurking inside the so-called science – deliberately hidden, you might say. Markets as understood in secular society – our society – presuppose a world of individuals seeking material prosperity for themselves, to the exclusion of every other consideration. This is the key belief of our secular religion. But do such individuals really exist in the way positive economics assumes they do? Perhaps individualism is just a fiction.

We Christians might as well substitute quite openly our values for the hidden values of the positive economists. But we have an even stronger argument for a Christian input into the world of economics: an argument based not on values but on facts. We believe that the world was created by God and is sustained by him in acts of love. That’s a fact. That’s how we Christians see the world. It’s a fact, albeit an alternative fact. Christianity isn’t and should never be imagined to be a set of values by which the secular religion – the worship of money – is topped up. Capitalism with a nice smile! Something for Sunday!

Let’s bring Jesus into the picture. His teachings include many comments on the economy of his time and our time too. He has more to say regarding the economy than he has explicit teachings about prayer. Perhaps the key text is Matthew 6:24. You cannot serve God and money. Money is the one thing that guarantees access to all the benefits, pleasures and goods of modern life. Money has taken the place that God once held as the source of the value of values. When someone in the PCC says “we must be realistic”, this is usually an appeal to the constraints imposed by the budget on the availability of money. No longer is God the ultimate reality, money has become the ultimate reality. Whose reality are we talking about?

We might also consider how Christian values are contrary to the values embedded in positive economics and its offspring econometrics. Here’s a quick list:

  • Christianity calls us into a community. There is such a thing as society after all. We call it the body of Christ.
  • Christianity calls us to be focused on others, not on ourselves. It’s not all about me.
  • Christianity affirms the abundance of life not in terms of material goods acquired but of spiritual blessings. And among these spiritual blessings is joy, by which we faithful Christians are continually surprised, to coin a phrase.
  • Christianity has a bias to the poor, not a bias to the customer.
  • Christianity affirms as a fact that this world is God’s. He made it not only for us but for all his creatures. He continues to care for it as Jesus points out in his teaching. We therefore have special duties to each other and to all our sisters and brothers within creation.

This is where the word “enough” comes into the conversation.

Thou bringest all again; with thee
Is light, is space, is breadth and room
For each thing fair beloved and free
To have its hour of life and bloom.

Dora Greenwell

So wrote the poet Dora Greenwell.

Or this from Samuel Taylor Coleridge

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There’s one more thing I need to say. You will probably have heard people say that religion is one department of life, like art or science – and that it is playing the part of a busybody when it lays down principles for the guidance of other departments, whether in art or science, business or politics. Those in your congregation who read the daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph will be familiar with this opinion. This is an entirely modern view.

In truth Christianity has for hundreds of years offered a commentary upon the economy and the organisation and nature of society. A particularly low point occurred in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth when the Church ceased to speak of these matters and preferred to speak only of the direct relation of the individual soul to God. But then there was a reaction and Christians began to take up causes such as the emancipation of slaves, prison reform, the end of child labour in factories and mines, housing reform, unemployment and a concern more generally for the condition of the working class. Many of the leaders in these fields are commemorated in the Church of England’s calendar of commemorations.

A high point in this reaction came with the publication of books like Religion and The Rise of Capitalism by R H Tawney in 1922 and Christianity and Social Order by William Temple in 1942. Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. Both of these books are still in print and are in their own way classics.

The influence of these folk and the work of those who followed them played a great part in the establishment of the welfare state, the NHS, and the emphasis placed by post-war governments on full employment and extended opportunities for education and social equality.

Since 1980 there has been a reaction in the other direction. Politicians have begun to declare that they don’t do God and even left wingers have become entirely comfortable with the idea of people aspiring to be “filthy rich”.

But now once again the old prophetic voices are being heard once more, and new voices are joining in to swell the chorus of those calling for peace, justice, compassion and the integrity of creation. The Joy in Enough Project in general and the Plenty Programme in particular is just one part of this swelling chorus. Will you, and your community, be part of it?

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