ESSAY: Reclaiming Economics for Christians

He has let us know the mystery of his purpose … that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10) 

This article first appeared in FAITH MAGAZINE, November 2007

In the prologue to the letter to the Ephesians (and in the parallel passage in the letter to the Colossians (1.15-12)), Paul’s primary concern is clearly the totality of Christ’s redemptive authority over his followers. The cosmological affirmation — that “everything” will eventually come under Christ’s sway — is not central, but serves to support the injunction to believers to rely solely on “his blood” (7) as their “gospel of salvation” (13). The claim that all creation comes from, through and for Christ has profound implications for Christians, especially for those who study the wonders of men and the world.

Because Christ should be in everything, everything should be Christian. That “everything” includes all academic disciplines, from the most humanistic to the most scientific. The Christian understanding of God, man and the world is necessary for all studies, no matter how well developed they may seem in their purely secular form. As grace perfects nature, the teachings of faith complete the workings of purely worldly reason. As John Paul II put it,

“The world and all that happens within it... are realities to be observed, analysed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process.”[1]

Such a Christianisation would not discredit all theories or change all work habits in domains generally considered to be non-religious. If, as Christians believe, all truth ultimately comes from God through Jesus Christ, then all roads of worldly enquiry should lead back towards the same ultimate source and conclusion, the truth of the Word. The findings of truly open-minded secular experts can generally be trusted because intelligent openness to reality is a basic Christian attitude. The Christian approach would ideally include the desire to uncover and probe the goodness, beauty and divine purpose of creation, as well as an emphasis upon the pre-eminence of love among men and the dire effects of sin on creation in general (see Romans 8.22) and on men in particular. The religious situation of the experts in question is less important than the commitment to the truth.

Of course, contemporary scientists (I will leave the humanities out of this article) do not cast their research in Christian terms such as beauty and sin, but in more secular categories such as laws and intuitions. However, the apparent gap between the modern scientific method and the Christocentric universe can be bridged without great difficulty. The biochemist finds rules which explain how one chemical interacts with another in the body. For the Christian, each of these rules is a speck of truth which reflects and participates in the order and purpose of “everything in the heavens and on earth”.

The call for a mutual support agreement between faith and reason has often been rejected, both by some of the faithful and by many scientists. The religious objections have mostly aimed to protect God’s sovereign freedom to do what He pleases with his creation, a freedom which, the dissenters argue, would be limited by the existence of universal and unbreakable laws of nature, or indeed of inevitable laws of history or human behaviour. This desire to emphasise the distance between God’s ways and the ways of creation is in many ways laudable, but it can easily sweep away the closeness of God to his creation and especially to man, who, according to the first chapters of Genesis, is made in the divine image.

Like the religious objectors, scientists wishing to separate faith and reason — a minority, but a noisy one — claim that nature, which they often think of as self-subsistent rather than as created, cannot be reconciled to God, whose existence they often deny. Such scientists emphasise the autonomy of the laws of nature rather than the freedom of a possible God. These laws are thought to exclude the possibility of anything beyond them, of any mystery of Being or of any God. They argue that reason, in the form of a modern scientific understanding, has definitively undermined faith. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who argues that science shows that God is a “delusion”, is only the latest and one of the loudest of this group of anti-religious propagandists.

Essentially, Dawkins and other anti-faith practitioners of the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and their derivatives) make two claims: 1) that everything can be explained in terms of scientific laws and 2) that those laws show that nature has no purpose, certainly no human-centred purpose. Both of those claims are philosophically incoherent. The existence of laws of nature cannot demonstrate the absence of a lawgiver, nor can the many individual regularities testify to the absence of a greater regularity or direction in the universe. Philosophers may argue whether physics and biology can definitively demonstrate the existence of God, but proof of the negative claim — that God does not exist or that men have no God-given purpose — is certainly beyond the competence of scientific reasoning.

The situation is different in the ‘soft’ social sciences – e.g. politics, anthropology, sociology and economics. In these domains, the anti-faith practitioners’ case against the Christological-cosmological claim is more subtle, but ultimately more dangerous. Few social scientists say, “The way men are is incompatible with the existence of God”. Rather, the professional rules of enquiry require that the human condition be discussed as if God did not exist. Respectful references to the reality of God, the supernatural calling of men, or indeed to any of the concerns which Christians consider fundamental to human nature are prohibited. Serious social scientists have no professional vocabulary to deal with the mystery of death, the human search for meaning, the moral struggle, the primacy of love or the drama of salvation. Religious beliefs and practices are observed and discussed, but treated as states of mind and social customs, mere human constructions unsupported by any transcendent reality.

The irrelevance of God to social scientists may not be as obviously offensive to believers as the non-existence of God claimed by atheistic hard scientists, but the softer denial has a more pernicious effect than crude atheism on scholarly analysis. There are three differences.

First, the hard science of believers and non-believers need not differ in techniques or analysis[2], but the ‘methodological atheism’[3] of the social sciences ignores, and thus in practice denies, man’s need for holiness and redemption. To the Christian, such an atheistic approach to human nature is essentially inhuman, since men do not exist without a fundamental religious vocation any more than they exist in this life without physical needs, individuality or communities, all aspects of the human condition eagerly studied bysocial scientists. Indeed, Christians go further. Men cannot be understood without Christ, as John Paul II never tired of pointing out, referring to the words of Gaudium et Spes (22):

“The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

Second, while hard-science atheism falls at first philosophical hurdle, social-science atheism cannot easily be debunked. The claim that men’s actions and beliefs can be explained without any meaningful reference to God or to men’s radically religious nature is empirical, not ontological. The soft claim can only be rejected on the grounds of evidence about human nature and behaviour. However, evidence can always be disputed or rejected. It is never certain that a particular attribute is truly universal and not merely common or temporary. Alternatively, claimed motivations might be illusory. As anyone who has argued with a devout Freudian or Marxist can testify, there are methodologically atheistic explanations for everything.

Finally, social-science atheism strikes closer to the heart of the Christian claim than its hard-science cousin does. The physicists and biologists argue about what Pascal called the “God of the Philosophers and the learned”, which provides rules and order for Nature. But the God for whom men’s hearts yearn must be something more. Christians believe that suicidal despair is ultimately the only alternative to the God who offers love, forgiveness and salvation. Indeed, Christian revelation makes no sense unless men are understood in these religious terms. If methodological atheism can provide an adequate explanation of men’s ways, then there is no need, and ultimately no room, for Pascal’s “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”, who is indeed the God of Jesus Christ.[4]

A dubious history

Current practitioners of these human sciences are often almost unaware of the atheistic presuppositions of their approach. They see themselves merely as professionals following established protocols of research. But these rules and limits to enquiry can be traced directly back to claims about human nature that were originally offered with philosophically and polemically anti-religious intentions. A quick survey of the different disciplines shows that methodological atheism has been closely entwined with most of the social sciences since their earliest days.

Sociology: Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, claimed that the religious phase of history had ended, replaced by the higher truths of science. Comte was influential, insane and optimistic. The sociologists of the next generations were sane, gloomy and equally sure of the falsity of religion. Max Weber thought that the stripping away of the religious illusion was irreversible, but left the world “disenchanted”. Emile Durkheim believed that the decline of religion was dangerous for society because it caused men to abandon laws which they had respected as God-given. But again, for Durkheim the resulting “anomie” was the inevitable result of reason seeing through the meaningless claims of faith.

Politics: For close to a millennium, the most important political question for European political philosophers was the relationship between ecclesiastical authorities and their royal rivals, whose authority was also assumed to come from God. Modern political thinkers, however, have all but forgotten such disputes. Their starting point is the entirely manmade “social contract” of Locke and Hobbes. The slightly later doctrine of the “separation of Church and State” created an almost unbridgeable chasm between the laws of God and those of men. In the 19th century, Hegel, another father of modern political science, viewed organised religion as essentially seditious unless it was reduced to a propagandistic organ of the State.

Psychology: Christian psychology has a long and distinguished history, but the modern discipline was founded by Sigmund Freud, whose unconscious drives most certainly did not include a nature driving towards perfection by the infusion of grace. Rather, Freud considered religion to be an “illusion”. Some students of psychology trace their intellectual lineage to other founding ideas, for example the physical nature of mental conditions, the importance of men’s “self-actualisation” or of a set of mythical archetypes. God and his love have no place in any of these.

Anthropology: The founders of anthropology had to deal with religion, as the tribes they studied were very interested in religious questions, but the professionals generally limited their study to the sociological meaning of the various religious practices. Some anthropologists do respect distinctly religious ideas such as holiness and life-after-death, but many still try to explain religion away as no more than a shared ‘language’ for expressing social patterns, calming irrational fears or marking men as somehow different from animals.

Urban planning: Cities and villages used to be built around churches and temples. Jane Jacobs, generally considered the founder of modern urban design, thought cities should take the everyday needs of people into account but did not mention religion or religious buildings in her foundational book.[5]

In all of these disciplines, the founders’ methodological preconceptions have generally been maintained or fortified. Religious motivations are never accepted as fully valid explanations for behaviour. The desire to do God’s will is replaced by some motivation that is considered more rational, logical or scientific, often one of which the actors themselves are not consciously aware. The motivations vary by discipline, but a short list would include the largely physical pleasure of the Utilitarians, the desire for survival of the Darwinians, the incestuous sexual cravings of the Freudians, the quest for power and class domination of the Marxists and the blind search for unlimited affluence of modern economists.

To a Christian, these claimed motivations have one common feature, disrespect for the centrality of morality in human nature. The orientation of men’s desires towards the eternal and unchanging good (an orientation which St. Thomas Aquinas treats as a definition of the nature of the human will), is now dismissed as part of a superseded “traditional morality”. Instead, the social scientists leave men under the sway or one or more morally objectionable guiding principles. Some anti-atheist dissenters have tried to introduce more sympathetic models of motivation — Marcel Eliade in comparative religion and of Paul Vitz in psychology, for example — but the anti-religious methodology is hard to avoid.

A call to action

The faithless reason of methodological atheism is dangerous to Christians, but it can be overcome. The task is not easy, because the atheistic explanations cannot exactly be disproved (“falsified”, in the language of the fashionable philosophy of science). They can and should be ridiculed for making insulting claims about men and their motivations, for relying on preposterous unacknowledged motivations and for denying the power of goodness, but ridicule of one set of explanations can only be truly effective if it is accompanied by a superior alternative. What are needed are Christian reconstructions of the various social sciences, remade to be in the true image of man. In other words, a new reason must be created, one which corresponds with the teachings of faith. For scholars, the need is quite practical. If Christian social scientists and teachers cannot rely on working practices that are based on men seen as social, religious and moral creatures, they will inevitably fall back on the existing models, based on men seen as individualistic, worldly and selfish. The result will be incomplete and sometimes immoral analyses.

The reconstruction is a complex matter, different for each of the social sciences. In anthropology and comparative religion, many conventional approaches are largely unpolluted by methodological atheism. Their findings, like those of truth-seeking biochemists, do not need to be challenged or rethought. In sociology, on the other hand, there seems little that does not need thorough reconsideration. The remainder of this article is a brief discussion of a proposed radical reconstruction of economics, the social science with which I am most familiar. It is based on a just published book.[6]

Economics as a test case

Economics might seem like a poor place to start a Christian fight-back against methodological atheism, since it deals largely with issues that Christians have generally considered of minor importance — the body’s daily needs and occupations. But its apparent low priority makes the case of economics a good trial for the thesis that the reason of the social sciences fails without the support of faith. If it can be shown that replacing methodological atheism with something better creates a more insightful and dignified approach to the relatively unspiritual domain of economics, then the case should be much easier to establish for other, higher disciplines.

In its anti-religious intellectual history and methodology, economics is like the other social sciences. The modern study of economics was started by Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher who emphasised the practical and gave almost no thought to men’s higher purposes. He was followed by Jeremy Bentham, the first Utilitarian and a man who had “the declared aim of extirpating religious beliefs, even the idea of religion itself, from the minds of men”.[7] In turn, Bentham taught John Stuart Mill, one of the first men in Europe to be raised as an avowed atheist. Mill’s economics were based on a vision of man as “a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained”.[8]

This “economic man”, as he came to be called, could hardly be more distant from the Christian idea that human nature is based on gift — life received as a gift from God, love given freely to other men. Sin, which would seem particularly relevant to economics — coveting your neighbour’s goods is basic enough to be condemned in one the Ten Commandments — is completely banished from the description.

Defenders of the standard approach to economics sometimes argue that when critics complain about “economic man”, they are attacking a straw man. They claim that modern economic visions of man are quite diverse. That defence fails on the evidence. Although there are many schools, a view of economic behaviour that can be reconciled with the Christian understanding is found in hardly any of them. The dominant “neoclassical” model reduces the richness of human behaviour into equations based on exactly the simplistic psychology of “economic man”. Dissenters’ models are hardly more respectful of good-seeking men. They are guided by a Marxist struggle for power, a Darwinian struggle for survival, Maslow’s hierarchy of self-actualisation or by some Hegelian vision of historical patterns. Only a tiny group of “social economists” aims at something higher, and they are far from the professional mainstream.

The more common defence of the standard approach starts by admitting that “economic man” is a simplification, but then argues that the one-dimensional immorality of seeking more for less is sufficient to explain the economic world. This defence fails in three fundamental ways.

Empirically, people rarely act in ways that economists consider rational. We are occasionally totally selfish, but more often some combination of rule-abiding, generous, ambitious, cautious and lazy. Unlike economic man, real men look for meaning more than for mere accumulation. Only in a few highly specialised situations, for example in some financial markets, can men be counted on to follow economic rationality. Even within finance, however, longer-term investors tend to have more complex goals and short-term investors tend to fall prey to irrational mob psychology.

Descriptively, the portrayal of the whole economy as no more than an agglomeration of economic men is deeply inadequate. Indeed, it misses almost everything essential about the actual workings of the modern industrial economy: the cooperation and trust of millions of total strangers required for efficient industry to replace self-sufficiency; the inevitable centrality of government in the complex human construction of a national or global economy; large corporations with their hierarchies, multiple and shifting purposes and fragile but definite unity. Also, economists rely on an individualistic notion of property which is too simple to describe the disposition of factories, roads and the other shared artefacts of the industrial economy. At a more profound level, the description of economic man is too simple to answer the fundamental questions of what residents of industrial economies do and should want to get out of their abundant consumption and their generally quite specialised work.

Politically, the conclusions of economists are frequently little better than bizarre. Early modern economists thought that near-starvation was an inevitable aspect of any economy, and should not be fought against. More recently, the maximisation of Gross Domestic Product and the rate of growth of this GDP have become the great economic good. But GDP is an almost meaningless agglomeration of crudely adjusted prices. It increases when more money is spent, whether or not the money is spent wisely. It ignores unpaid work, most noticeably the labour of mothers. At a smaller scale, the economists’ praise of what they call “markets” ignores the near irrelevance of the concept to the actual organisation of production, distribution or labour. Their focus on what happens at “the margin” ignores the great mass of economic activity. Perhaps the most irritating feature of conventional economics is its generation of an apparently endless stream of numbers, few of which represent anything easily recognisable as human.

In short, far from providing a clear explanation of how the economy works, conventional economics fails pretty much any test that it is given. It has not been able to predict recessions, guide development in poor countries or explain technological innovations. Its greatest accomplishment has probably been in monetary policy, but central banking and financial regulation remain far more arts than sciences. This failure has been recognised by many economists, but efforts to do better have been constrained, I believe, by the presupposition of methodological atheism. Even radical economists are reluctant to offer a non-numerical integration of economic activity with the rest of the human condition.

A new start

The reconstruction of economics has to start at the very beginning, with an appropriate description of economic activity. The conventional definitions are worse than useless: the study of scarcity (meaningless in economies of tremendous affluence), of equilibrium (a vague concept that is not particularly relevant to economics) or of monetary transactions (obviously inadequate to the non-cash part of economies). Reconstructed economics should start with the true subject of economic study, man.[9] In particular, economics is the study of two related aspects of the human condition: labour and consumption.

Labour is men’s humanising gift to the world. We labour when we give what we have and are in order to make the given world better and more meaningful for us. Labour includes paid work, but it also includes the many unpaid labours of love and service. It includes the direct domination of the earth, from farming to factories, but also the efforts required to create and maintain communities, to advance and spread learning and to keep mortal men close to their eternal destiny. It is not always easy to differentiate labour from its results – the musician’s labour of playing from the music he makes – but the economist is particularly interested in the effort, the toil and the skills.

Economics is also the study of consumption, our taking in of the world’s gifts, the raw gifts of creation which have been humanised by labour. We consume food, shelter and fuel, and, in some ways, we consume the services that are offered to us. However, the economic relationship of consumption is between the human consumer and the humanised world, not between two people. Personal relations are not the direct concern of economics.

Unlike the conventional view of economic activity as selfish, the reconstructed view of economics is centred on nearly symmetrical gifts — from men to the given world and from the world to men. This perspective makes the economic part of human nature worthy of a creature made with divine generosity in God’s own image. It also provides a solid foundation on which to build an accurate description of all economies, from hunter-gatherer to post-industrial. It gives dignified and human terms with which to analyse such economic tools as money, property, contracts, inheritance, taxation, labour skills, capital and environmental responsibility. In particular, production can be expressed in human rather than mechanical terms. It is the combination of men and the world: of men’s calling to dominate the world, their practical ability to do so, their interest in making the world serve their communities and of the world’s own potential to provide the stuff men need and want.

If production is understood in this fully human and fully virtuous way, then industrial production appears as a triumph of the human virtues of cooperation, trust and intelligence. The fecundity of industry is one of the good fruits of the modern turn towards the world, a turn that has also fertilised many weeds of social and spiritual decay. Industry has supported an abundance of life, a spreading of education and the ability to share knowledge and love without concern for distance. Less significantly, it has also made life more comfortable.

Unreconstructed economists would find the claim of the lesser significance of comfort, relative to a good such as the spread of learning, inappropriate. They wish to leave such “value judgements” to the “market” of diverging individual opinions, each of which is rationally self-serving. In a reconstructed economics, moral judgements are not only possible but absolutely required. Although all human activity, labour and consumption no less than prayer or friendship, aim ultimately at the one good of serving God, different activities are more suited for different aspects of the good. The economist is responsible for the evaluation of economic goods.

I believe that the goods promoted by economic activity can helpfully be arranged in a hierarchy. At the top, I would place life. Neither labour nor consumption, both crucial for keeping people alive, can aim any higher. Economic activity plays only a minor role in the striving after goods that are worth dying for, for example the defence or promotion of faith and truth. Comfort is at the bottom of my list. It is a genuine good, crucially supported by economic activity, but it is a minor good. In-between are such goods as beauty and knowledge, which may be as important as life, or even more important, but which are more peripheral to economic activity.

Economists should also recognise that while we always aim for the good in economic, as in all human, activity, we are also morally weak. Sadly, sin shapes much economic activity. In Genesis, one of the first cited effects of the original sin is the difficulty of labour, which leads men to abandon, at least partially, their prelapsarian commitment to excellence in labour. Sin leads to distrust between men, so economies need to have rules and punishments. Sin distorts the universe, so men need to use their ingenuity to draw out the world’s gifts. Sin leads to erroneous judgements of the good that economic activity can provide: too little attention was paid to it in pre-industrial societies and too much is paid now. Sin converts consumption from necessity and delight into coveting and excess.

While moral judgements are added into this reconstruction of economics, some of the familiar tools of economists disappear. GDP and markets play no role. Marginal analysis is relegated to the margins. The inevitable battle between capital and labour, an especially important feature in Marxism, is replaced by disputes over the allocation of consumption and authority, disputes firmly set in a shared effort to make life good. Money, which is conventionally treated as a near-universal measure of economic value, plays only a peripheral role in human-centred economic analysis.

The reconstructed economics should help determine the direction of both individual economic decisions and corporate and national economic policies. The priorities need not stay the same as economies change. In my analysis, the coming of industrial prosperity has led to a great shift in the appropriate goal of economic activity, at least at the social level. A century ago, the most important task was probably the resolution of the “economic problem”, the inability to keep people fed, housed and clothed. That problem has now been solved in most of the world, although with no help from economists, who – with a few notable exceptions – seem hardly to have noticed the accomplishment. The great current economic challenges now are to make that solution universal, to find meaningful labour in the prosperous economies (in which so little labour produces so much) and to deal with the moral challenges brought by the too easy abundance of consumption.

Economics, even reconstructed economics, cannot explain fully how the economic problem was resolved. The increased efficiency of production and the creation of huge, largely economic communities were made possible by the advent of the modern worldview, a shift that can only be understood with the aid of other studies: history, psychology, sociology, philosophy and theology. Similarly, even reconstructed economists cannot face the current challenges on their own. They need intellectual help, but the other disciplines must first also be rebuilt on realistic human foundations. When a methodologically Christian sociology, psychology and anthropology join up with this reconstructed economics, it will be possible to see — through the world’s sin-darkened glass — that everything really is under Christ.

[1] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998), 16

[2] Some thinkers believe that the hard sciences, especially biology, need the same sort of reconceptualisation that I am suggesting for the social sciences. See the Institute for the Study of Nature for some texts.

[3] The term was coined by sociologist Peter Berger in his The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday 1967).

[4] The quotation is from the Memorial of Blaise Pascal, found sewn into the lining of his jacket.

[5] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1961). Jacobs later become somewhat more sympathetic to religion.

[6] Human Goods, Economic Evils; A Moral Look at the Dismal Science (ISI Books, 2008).

[7] James E. Crimmins, “Bentham on Religion: Atheism and the Secular Society”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 1. (Jan. - Mar., 1986), pp. 95-110.

[8] John Stuart Mill, Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economics, 2nd ed. (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1874) essay 5, par. 46, cited in Julie Nelson, Economics for Humans, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006, p 19.

[9] John Paul II’s Laborem exercens (1981) provides a starting point, although his analysis there is limited to work, rather than integrated with consumption.