Though we talk about the arrival of a postmodern era, Modernism still has considerable influence in our discussions of theology and economics. Modernism was built on the idea of human autonomy and endless human progress (defined largely as material happiness) through the application of reason. I see two general influences that distort Christian reflection on these issues.First, there is the goal of achieving personal autonomy. Barry Goldwater, one of the architects of the modern conservative movement, wrote in the beginning of The Conscience of a Conservative in 1964:
“Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. … Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”Freedom is critical. There is wisdom here that Christians can affirm. But “always” is a pretty inclusive term. Furthermore, some see a corollary in this reasoning, which is that we have no responsibility for others. Does this libertarian pursuit of personal freedom ever run counter to other ethical imperatives Christians share? Probably so.
Over the past couple of generations, many conservative Christian circles have concluded that traditional institutions like the family are under attack by cultural elites in government, education, and the media. That has made conservative Christians common allies with those who oppose large government for economic reasons. Considerable effort has been made to wed these two small government factions together. Many have suggested that this wedding has led conservative Christians to unwittingly adopt something approximating economic libertarianism … more by osmosis than by careful theological reflection. That is likely true.
Second, there is the idea of conquering nature (even human nature) through reason and science, and managing it toward higher purposes. John Stapleford describes this Modernist impulse in Bulls, Bears, and Golden Calves:
[There is] faith in continual improvements in human nature. As people became more educated and as more of their basic physical needs are met, it is argued, they will be more community minded, more likely to make decisions on the basis of what is best for society rather than for themselves and their families.” (68-69)While material abundance has indeed blossomed there has been a growing sense that the abundance has come at the cost of too many other important values like community and the environment. Rising prosperity has hardly made people more community minded. But new solutions are still in terms of rational experts managing society toward more progressive objectives. The belief is still in continuous improvement of human nature and society. The framing language is “stewardship in pursuit of the common good.” We have been given the responsibility for creation care … and “we” frequently refers to humanity as a being with a collective mind rationally managing toward these outcomes.
Look closely at the word “economics.” Early nineteenth century thinkers adopted the phrase “political economy” to describe the science they wanted to create. Economy comes from the Greek word oikonomia, “household management.” These thinkers were taken with Greco-Roman sages who instructed others in the ways of household management. Their perspective was society as the household writ large, with positivistic analysis giving the wisdom to manage society toward more progressive outcomes. Later, the field simply became known as economics.
This extension of “the household” to all of society is a widespread in Christian thought as well. There is confusion over what a steward is. Paul Heyne* wrote that the word “steward” is frequently used to translate two very different Greek words. There is epitropos, a person who is a guardian of something belonging to another. Then there is the oikonomos, the household or estate manager with authority over all operations of the household, managing affairs to achieve the best outcome for the householder. One could conceivably have many guardians or administrators caring for designated responsibilities but there can only be one household manager. In Christian thought, the two have been combined.
Heyne frequently used two traffic networks to illustrate an important difference: Air traffic control versus the transportation network of any city. Air traffic controllers manage each vehicle, directing their every move while in motion, toward an outcome that is in the common good of the traffic. There are a relatively small number of vehicles to track. This is similar the role of the household manager.
There is no controller for a city’s transportation network. People move as they please without consultation of a controller or discernment with other commuters. That is not to say it is anarchy. There are rules that govern behavior while in transit. There are referees (the police) who enforce the rules. But there is no controller responsible for managing commuters’ behavior toward a common good. There is no way to have ground traffic controller, or household manager, in such an environment. This is similar to modern economic environment.
Many Christians claiming the mantle of Modernist critic have correctly chastised the idea of progress through economic growth alone and “value free” management of the economy. But unwittingly, they have retained the assumption that the economy is the household writ large. Instead of managing society toward economic growth, Christian ethics allegedly tells us that the “household manager” … who is never explicitly identified but seems to be a rational collective mind or a community of experts … should now manage society toward the common good.
The idea of a society governed by a household manager is simply untenable and offering critiques and solutions as if it were so is unhelpful. The idea that society can be viewed as the household writ large is deeply steeped in Enlightenment-Modernist ideology and distorts Christian reflection on economic issues.