One of the pervasive themes of Everything Must Change is that economic systems that emerged during the time of the Enlightenment, and subsequent eras, are a marked departure from (if not anathema to) Kingdom visions for humanity.
…Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the Enlightenment was to distance humanity from creation, or in Lenardo Boff’s terms, to place ourselves over and above and against it rather than with it and alongside it and for it. Great pains were taken in recent centuries to describe how different and distant human beings were from animals, even when evolutionary theory suggested that we were part of one family tree. This distancing of humans from creation was no less strong in religious communities, and no doubt there were some good reasons for it. But there were some poor reasons for it too.
The industrial world is driven by its own imperial, colonial framing stories, we need to remember, and these narratives thrust Europeans in to the world to conquer, plunder, profit, and control. Non-Europeans were “savages,” not neighbors and fellow human beings in God’s world. God’s creation was no longer “brother sun and sister moon,” but instead, a store of raw materials buyable at a price to exploited by industrialists. In the theological wing of colonialism, God no longer cared about sparrows and wildflowers; God cared for people’s souls (and perhaps only for some special “elect” people’s souls), each of which would be extracted like a Hostess Twinkie from its cellophane wrapper either at death or at the end of the world. (137-138)
Is our modern economic system a consequence of the Enlightenment? Economic historians are not of one mind on the specifics of the origins of the modern economic system and why it emerged in Europe, but common central themes do emerge. Nearly all of them are rooted in values and events that predate the Enlightenment. Many have their roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Here are a few influences:
1. Linear Time – Throughout the ancient world, time was understood as a cyclical phenomenon with episodes endlessly repeating themselves, just as with the cycles of nature. Humanity was in a framing story that frequently equated worship of the gods with compliance to these cycles. Judaism, with its vision of a “genesis” extending on the establishment of the Kingdom of God, created a linear flow to existence.
2. Progress – Linear time carried with the idea of processing toward some end. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all carry with them the idea of processing through time. But only Christianity has the idea of progressing through time (i.e., the Kingdom emerging). Both Judaism and Islam have law-giving writers (Moses and Mohammad) whose followers “look back to” so they may keep the law given once and for all time. Christianity has Jesus who offers the vision of a coming Kingdom and has his followers orient themselves toward living as if the coming Kingdom were in the present. The Kingdom in both the testaments has the idea of restored shalom, which includes (but is by no means limited to) the idea of economic prosperity. The story of the Bible begins in a garden and ends in garden-city, symbolizing the inclusion of the material contributions of humanity and human institutions in the New Creation.
3. Reason – Jews can read what Moses wrote. Muslims can read what Mohammed wrote. But Christianity can’t read what Jesus wrote because he did not write anything. What we have are multiple witnesses (testaments) to what he said and did, and a record of the early churches struggles to put his teaching into practice. This very means of revelation compels us to reason our way to the truth in the context of covenantal communities. Furthermore, the orderliness of God in Creation, who is not of Creation, gave rise to the idea that the natural world can be studied and comprehended. Study and manipulation of the natural order is not a violation of sacred objects but rather a quest for understanding that brings us closer to the mind of God. It is a maturing of our stewardship role as junior partners in God’s on going mission of bring creation to its fullness. Science is the methodological application of reason to learning about the natural order.
4. Risk – Assessing the possibility of calamity or success in complex undertakings in the ancient world was generally not possible because events were believed to be in the hands of the gods or the fates. Because Christians believed he world was ordered by God, future events and their contingencies could be assessed and risk values assigned to various options. This risk assessing ability began to emerge by the 1400s as sea exploration and trade began to become ever more complex and risky. Risk assessment is at the core of capitalist activity.
5. Individual Worth – The idea of each individual created in the image of God departed from ancient views that saw the individual as someone who exists at the pleasure of the state. The seed of the image of God concept eventually grew to the point of supplanting justifications for slavery and instituting care for those at the margins of society, including the unborn and unwanted infants. It gave grounds to the idea that human beings have a measure of God given autonomy, including in the production and use of wealth.
6. Property Rights – The Old Testament law and New Testament events take for granted the idea of property rights, with the caveat that God is the ultimate owner of all that is and has expectations about how we will use resources entrusted to us. Stewardship is inseparably linked with owning property as we see in the inalienable land ownership arrangements in the Jubilee Code of Leviticus 25.
7. Limited Government – The Old Testament theocracy civil structure was highly decentralized with families, supported by clans, supported by tribes having responsibility for daily living. Economic historian David Landes notes that when Korach challenges Moses leadership in the desert that Moses defends himself against charges of usurpation by saying, “I have not taken one ass from them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” (Numbers 16:15) When the Israelites demand a king, Samuel relents but he warns them what a king will be like and of his own leadership quips, “Whose ox have I taken or whose ass have I taken.” (1 Samuel 12:3) Hierarchical power players were considered a threat. This egalitarian decentralized form of community is suggested again in the New Testament era but with the entwining of the Church with the Roman state in the fourth century, hierarchical power structures were brought into existence. It wasn’t until centuries later, with innovations like the printing press and people having the ability learn the Bible for themselves, that we began to see a rediscovery of the egalitarian tendencies of the Bible.
All of these factors and more created an environment for present economic systems to emerge.
By the twelfth century, elements of the modern banking system were in place with banks based in northern Italy having branches throughout modern Western Europe. Share ownership in rudimentary corporations (although without limited liability) emerged. Double entry bookkeeping was coming into being. Small manufacturing operations were springing up everywhere in rural areas where waterwheel powered equipment was used for everything from shaping metal, to making cloth, to grinding grain. Much of this technology was spread by Cistercian monks as they diffused technology across the continent and became Europe’s technological advisors. Small assembly and manufacturing operations were springing up in the suburbs around European cities. Many of the basic elements of economic theory, like the idea of price being determined by supply and demand, had been worked out by the Scholastics. All this was prior to, or contemporary with the Reformation, and certainly prior to the Enlightenment.
Elements of the Reformation contributed to the emergence of greater respect for personal liberty and personal property but my basic point is that proto-capitalism existed well before the Enlightenment. Adam Smith, writing in the late eighteenth century, was notable not because he had conceived of anything particularly new, but because he had eloquently described what people had witnessed was emerging over past generations. Enlightenment proponents wrote a counter narrative about the origins of what was emerging and cast themselves as the originators the new economic age that had broken free from the “Dark Ages,” a term now discredited by historians as Enlightenment propaganda used to aggrandize their own contributions.
There is no question that from the Enlightenment on there have been strong forces that have sought to bend economic action toward the achievement the autonomous-self. But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with economic growth (or progress). The basic elements of modern market economies are actually so deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethos that it is hard to imagine there emergence without it.
What troubles me about McLaren’s framing of the issues is that I get the sense that he wants us to believe that for millennia humanity went about living carefree lives attuned to nature. Then the Enlightenment came along, ripped people out of their bucolic bliss, drove people into poverty, purposefully went to work on the destruction of nature, and created a modern dystopia of oppression, poverty, death and destruction. This just is not true and projections of current realities unaltered into the future don’t warrant his claim unsustainability. Hopefully, my earlier post have demonstrated just how precarious life was prior to the rise of modern economies and how astonishing is the breadth and depth of prosperity that is sweeping across the planet. We are far from utopia, but I believe McLaren radically under appreciates the good that has transpired over recent centuries and is all too ready to through the market driven economic growth baby out with the Modernist bathwater.