Which world?

by Richard Clutterbuck.

I’m writing this in the week I would usually have spent at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology, three days of mind-stretching presentations, renewed friendships and convivial conversation. But not, of course, this year. SST 2020 is one of the countless casualties of the Covid-19 crisis and ‘Theology and Borders’ will have to wait until 2021. I can’t claim that a cancelled theological conference compares with the many personal tragedies and financial hardships that surround us. Nevertheless, I’ll miss something that has been an annual stimulus to my thinking for over thirty years. Instead, I’ve been trying to get through some of the books I bought at previous conferences and somehow never got round to reading. Perhaps theology will, after all, have something to contribute to life after lockdown and its new normality.

One book that seems especially relevant to our present situation is Kathryn Tanner’s Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism. Based on her Gifford lectures of 2017, this is a short but densely-written work that deconstructs the current phase of finance-driven capitalism and offers a Christian alternative to its destructive and dehumanising processes. She begins with a reference to Max Weber, who famously coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ and linked the ideals of Protestant Christianity with the spirit of early capitalism. Weber’s argument may have had something in it, but contemporary capitalism, says Tanner, is very different; rather than producing goods or supplying tangible services, it is primarily concerned with extracting profit from financial markets. It is entirely dominated by decisions made in buying and selling stock, basing its value on the confidence of the market rather than on any intrinsic worth. What is needed now is a Protestant anti-work ethic to counter capitalism’s dire consequences.

In a series of chapters Tanner introduces the effects of this ‘new spirit of capitalism’ on the humanity of those who work for it and who live within its financial sphere of influence. Her charges are well-researched and damning. Contemporary capitalism expects the total commitment of those who work within its institutions. They are asked to shape their own ambitions and desires to those of the company, whatever the cost. Finance-based capitalism also distorts our relationship with time. It collapses both past and future into the present. The past is something we cannot escape. Companies and households burdened with debt can never be free of the obligations imposed by a system in which debts are repackaged to become a new financial product. As a result, we are chained to the past. Similarly, the future has no open reality. It, too, only exists as an aspect of the present. Risks are managed by the market to ensure that, whatever its future peaks and troughs, those who have assets now will continue to prosper. The result is a world that combines a herd mentality (in which everyone follows the market trends) with a radical individualisation in which human beings are pitched against each other as they compete for jobs, promotion and bonuses.

It isn’t difficult to see how inadequate this financial capitalism has proved in the Covid-19 crisis. Only the intervention of central banks stemmed the meltdown of financial markets and only the social contract between people and governments can mitigate the crisis in health and the threat to livelihoods.

Which brings me to the other side of Tanner’s book. Besides critiquing finance-driven capitalism, she sets out the way in which Christian faith can point to an alternative world and to an altogether better account of human flourishing. She takes some of the building blocks of traditional Christian theology: sin, conversion, forgiveness, resurrection, salvation, and fashions them into a hopeful and challenging vision. Christian faith frees us from a past of debt and sin and offers a future shaped by God’s promise of salvation. In place of capitalism’s insistence that nothing truly changes, Christianity can face the radical discontinuities of human history with a faith that embraces both death and resurrection. And in place of capitalism’s claim to shape our identity and make us compete with each other, Christianity gives us a shared identity in Christ. Because of God’s grace, we are not justified by our work, nor damned by our lack of it. As Tanner says,

“Christian beliefs about a shared origin and fate entail, in sum, a refusal of the privatizing of risk and reward at the heart of finance-dominated capitalism. One fails, morally and otherwise, in the company of others. And one gains salvation by God’s grace alone.” (p. 205)

Or, as we are constantly being told: ‘we’re all in this together’.

Of course, there is a wide gap between a somewhat abstract theological treatise and the practical outcomes that everyone is looking for in this time of crisis. Nevertheless, Tanner gives a fine example of what Christian theology should be about. She has made a serious and disciplined study of the economic world that she critiques. She has, without embarrassment, taken the traditional framework of Christian faith, and demonstrated its relevance for the situation in which we live. And she has made the grace of God in Christ the lynchpin of human flourishing. A post-Covid 19 new normal will require us to follow her example.

2 thoughts on “Which world?”

  1. I heard echoes here of Ann Morisy’s ‘Borrowing from the Future’. She was speaking / writing in 2011 specifically about the way in which the ‘impending crisis’ (which is arguably now the one we’re in) affects and will affected the lives of the young who are in effect born carrying a burden of debt.

    Sixty years ago I attended classes in economics for a few weeks because I was aware of my total ignorance of the subject. I left as baffled as I began, for two reasons. First, because when I asked why so much stress was put on the necessity for constant ‘growth’, and how in a finite world one society could go on growing unless another society were to shrink, the tutor dismissed my questions as naive. My second reason for being baffled was that he held me up to the class as an unproductive member of society. At the time I had three small children, I was doing all my own cooking, baking, washing, cleaning etc., as we did in those days, making all our clothes, looking after two lodgers, keeping open house for the church teenagers, singing in a choral society, doing a Methodist Study Centre course, and running a Sunday School with 125 children and 25 staff. I was UNPRODUCTIVE by definition because I didn’t earn any money.

    The mistake we made was way back when money ceased to be a means of exchange for goods and services and became a commodity. The system since then is built on sand.

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  2. I agree entirely with Richard’s and Kathryn Turner’s analysis of capitalism, and hope, like many others, that an economy based on profit may be replaced by an economy based on usefulness, with socialist or communitarian aims for a just and fair society. What I disagree with is Kathryn’s assumption that Christian concepts of sin, conversion, forgiveness, resurrection and salvation are the our only hope. Besides the fact that these concepts can be interpreted as individualistic, it implies that only Christianity has the answer and this excludes from consideration the social aims of other faiths.
    For me dialogue about theology stands or falls on the question of inclusiveness. The basis of my faith is that Jesus was inclusive and non-judgmental: The Good Samaritan, consorting with sinners, talking to a prostitute etc. show a radical inclusiveness that must have appalled the religious institution. I take it that if Jesus had not behaved that way he might not have been crucified, but promoted to the Sanhedrin!
    We could respond to radical inclusiveness by saying that it is impractical, but this leaves us with a dilemma – radical inclusiveness or social disorder! But what if this is the difference between motivation and practice (spirituality and praxis). It is probably a heresy, but I see Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Hinduism, Rastafarianism etc as practical responses to a spirituality inherent in all faiths, in fact all humanity.
    It is not that I don’t believe in sin, conversion, forgiveness, resurrection and salvation, but feel they are about responses to spirituality. I suggest the spirituality inherent in all humanity is secular. It is our awareness of the demand “written on our hearts”. The demand that we take responsibility, love, all we meet, and work for justice and fairness for all.
    I know “secular” is a loaded word so I would like to quote Levinas – who was an Hasidic Jew.

    The true life may be absent. But we are in the world.
    We breathe for the sake of breathing, eat and drink for the sake of eating and drinking, we take shelter for the sake of taking shelter, we study to satisfy our curiosity, we take a walk for the walk. All that’s not for the sake of living, it is living. Life is a sincerity.
    Life is terribly secular.

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