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.