Friday, October 28, 2022

Wesleyan philosophy 7a -- What should Christians think about economics?

It's been a few weeks. Next is economic philosophy in our series on a Wesleyan social and political philosophy (see bottom for posts thus far). What should Christians think about money and economics? 


How might we best exchange goods and services?

1. The problem with cultural influences on our Christianity is that we often cannot see them. Culture is the water in which we swim. We don't even notice it's there. This was the challenge of much missionary work before the late twentieth century. We often partially imposed an American culture that was intermingled with the gospel message without us knowing it. We were not able to tell that it wasn't actually part of the gospel. We had native Americans wearing buns and holiness dresses. We tried to tell European converts to become teetotalers. We told Africans and others how not to dance. 

Much of the American church has also interwoven a cultural version of capitalism into its faith without realizing it. Often, it doesn't fit very well. I consider myself a capitalist, but I believe in capitalism in part because I believe that human nature is fallen and corrupt. That is to say, capitalism functions on the assumption that people are self-oriented and will generally act in a way that they think is in their own individual self-interest. Since Christianity is more other-centered than self-centered, you can see that there is an inherent tension between the two worldviews at the core.

The philosopher Ayn Rand (1905-1982), who emigrated to the United States from the U.S.S.R., provides a good example of this dynamic even in the title of one of her books: The Virtue of Selfishness. In her philosophy, altruism is immoral because it messes up the system. I at least hope it is obvious that this worldview, while not as sinister as it sounds, is thoroughly unbiblical.

To make this clear, not only are Old Testament economics structured to provide for the poor (such as when farmers leave the edges of their field unharvested for the poor -- Lev. 23:22). The New Testament church sold their excess and gave it to those in need (Acts 4:34-35). Paul says not to be selfish but to look to the concerns of others above your own (Phil. 2:3-4). Ayn Rand, of course, was an atheist.

However, I know what Rand was getting at, and it is overall maximum human thriving. It is at least similar to what Adam Smith (1723-1790), the "father" of modern capitalism, was getting at in propounding the idea of a capitalist system. The idea is that if we each act in our own economic self-interest, a system will develop in the middle that is in everyone's maximum self-interest. I will argue subsequently that this makes sense in general but will devolve into oligarchies without careful guardrails.

2. I do believe that, in a democratic context, carefully structured capitalism is the best potential path to human economic thriving. However, I would also contend that Christian faith playing with capitalism is a little like playing with fire. We have to watch that our faith not get burnt in the process, not to mention the marginalized. To be compatible with Christianity, capitalism must be carefully structured to do what it was invented to do, which is not to make a small group of individuals incredibly wealthy but to lift society economically as a whole, bringing everyone along for the ride, so to speak. A "Christian capitalism" is like firemen trying to do a controlled burn that has to be watched very carefully. 

Both capitalism and socialism easily devolve into oppression. To lead to human thriving, both need to take place within a benevolent political context. Given such a context, I believe that a capitalistic-leaning system is far more likely to lead to overall human thriving than a socialist-leaning one. The story of communism in the twentieth century emphasizes the point.

The Bible and Money

3. The enigmatic Parable of the Unjust Manager is a good place to begin our discussion. What a strange story! A manager has been misusing his master's money. He's about to get canned. So what does he do? He does something we would consider corrupt--he cheats his master even more by writing off half the debts owed the master so the manager will have potential patrons when he is fired. What is strange is that Jesus commends him for his shrewdness!

As I have processed this parable over the years, I've concluded that the entire world of the parable is completely foreign to Jesus' world. The whole situation is like Jesus and his audience watching a movie about people completely different from them and the world of the people of God. In the thought world of the parable, the world of money is a foreign world to God's people. Get out the popcorn for this crazy story.

In effect, this is what Jesus' response is in Mark 12 to those who ask him whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. He asks whose image is on the coin. Then in effect he says they should give Caesar his coin back (Mark 12:17). The world of coinage has nothing to do with the kingdom of God. It is a foreign world to God's world.

Of course, money is far less avoidable in our world than it was in Jesus' world. We can hardly not engage with money. Jesus' world was still heavily agrarian, and it was possible to trade goods without much recourse to coinage. In Galilee, coinage was more the stuff of taxes than everyday exchange. It was easily tangential to one's life.

Money is not tangential to life in most of our contemporary worlds. We hardly have a choice not to use it and engage it. In that sense, we are forced in our world to play with fire. This fact makes it even more important for us to set down guide rails for a Christian engagement with money. And yes, I do believe that God has given some Christians gifts at multiplying money in ways that are completely ethical and can benefit the church and humanity in general.

The Parable of the Unjust Manager relates to a world that might have been terrifying to Jesus' audience. The Parable of the Talents might have had a similar feel to it (Matt 25:14-30). Playing in that world is like playing with fire. Those Christians who engage it should be careful and shrewd because that world can eat you alive.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward is unique to Luke. Luke is writing for Theophilus, probably an upper-class, possibly wealthy Roman official. The message that Luke may be delivering to Theophilus through Jesus is possibly that the money of the Roman Empire is something he should give away while being shrewd that it doesn't eat him alive in the process. It is a world that requires cunning.

more to come...




Philosophy of Religion

Philosophical Psychology


Social and Political Philosophy (How should we then live together?)