Why don’t theologians (particularly Mainline*) and economists get along? This has intrigued me for years. I’m still not sure I have the answer but recently I’ve had some insights I want to process out loud with you through this blog.
I believe economists are partly responsible for the problem. Attitudes stemming from the discipline’s origins in Nineteenth Century positivism are an issue. Theologians are also responsible. Christian ethics of the past have been constrained to micro-level transactions of individuals and families in their daily routines. The discovery over the last couple of centuries of how large human systems operate and the challenges this presents to Christian ethics has not been appreciated.
If you’ve ever been to a therapist, you know one of the questions they ask frequently is, “Does this feel familiar?” As I’ve reflected on the divide between theologians and economists I recently discovered that this does indeed feel familiar.
My father was a scientist. I was around scientists all through my childhood. I have a number of friends today who are in various fields of science. Yet I’ve also been in reasonably theologically conservative (by Mainline standards) environments most of my life. The question of evolution often emerges. I am a theistic evolutionist and I’m more persuaded than ever of the position. As you can imagine, that has the tendency to generate some “interesting” discussions. The conversation and interaction I have with Mainline theologians (and I include in this the pastors and scholars they produce) on economics is eerily like talking to conservatives about evolution.
Let me demonstrate some key themes. I suspect you know what I mean by evolution. By economics I’m referring to the widely held affirmation by most economists of the importance of supply and demand, price theory of value, free markets, and capitalism as the optimal economic system (though there is considerable variance on the implications of these issues that goes unnoticed by critics; more on that later.) I realize the following greatly oversimplifies but I think it will help highlight the patterns I see.
Mainline Theology and Economics – “Economics undermines the core ethical teaching of scripture about God’s love and justice. It strikes at the heart of Kingdom of God. It substitutes unbridled markets (greed and selfishness) and an “invisible hand” for God’s love and justice. It is deeply grounded in Modernist aims of autonomy from God.” Economists are theocapitalists.
It’s Just Ideology
Mainline Theologians and Economics – “Economics is a hopelessly anti-Christian ideology (Social Darwinism). There really is no need to become seriously acquainted with body of knowledge that underlies the positions.”
Spotlight the Fringe
Mainline Theologians and Economics – Frequently lifts up the most obnoxious or controversial economic thinker who has portrayed greed and selfishness as the basis of market capitalism and makes him/her the poster child for the position. (ex. Ayn Rand)
Mainline Theologians and Economics – Belief in market economics is viewed as symbolic of the conservative churches departure from the mission of God’s Kingdom. Being anti-market economics is an identity marker distinguishing oneself from conservatives.
What is interesting is that conservative theological types do not generally seem to have serious qualms about mainstream economics. I suspect this may be due to the focus of economics on large social structures while much of conservative Christianity is absorbed with the individual Christian life. Economics doesn’t seem to pose any direct threat to the authority of scripture or the challenge of “winning souls for Christ.” On the other hand, evolution poses a direct threat to what they see as the mission of God.
On the flip side, Mainline theological types do not generally seem to have serious qualms about evolution. It poses no particular challenge to their nonscientific and ahistorical reading of key scripture passages. It has nothing directly to say to the establishment of God’s Kingdom of love and justice. On the other hand, economics poses a direct threat to what they see as the mission of God.
So as I move into this series, my central focus is on theologians and pastors who hail from the Mainline theological milieu, though I know this applies to hosts within a variety of Evangelical environments as well. I believe that just as theological patterns of the past and severe misconceptions about science have hampered conservative theologians from coming to grips with science over the past couple of centuries, so have theological patterns of the past and severe misconceptions about economics severely hampered Mainline theologians in coming to grips with economics over the same time frame.
Can I capture the essence of what divides theologians and economists? I don’t know. But maybe with a little help from my blog reader friends we can learn more.
(* By “Mainline” I'm referring to the longstanding denominations that mostly reached their heyday in the 1950s and have identified with the National Council of Churches community like United Methodist, ELCA, PCUSA, Episcopal, American Baptist, UCC, Christian Church. Social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church also will be included as part of my discussion.)