Finding Spirituality in a Graph?

September 1992By Matthew Markovic

Matthew Markovic is an editorial analyst with a business information publisher in Cleveland.

Reaching for Heaven on Earth. The Theological Meaning of Economics.  By Robert H. Nelson. Rowman & Littlefield. 378 pages. No price given.

“You cannot serve God and mammon,” ancient wis­dom warns us. But that does not trouble Robert H. Nelson. On the contrary, Nelson argues that theology and economics are hopelessly intertwined in this world, as both offer a framework for perfecting hu­man beings, and that the economic ideas of theologians overlap with the theological ideas of economists more often than we would think. This nebulous area where they converge is termed “economic theology.”

In Reaching for Heaven on Earth, Nelson contends that there have been two major traditions in Western economic theology: the “Roman” and the “Protestant.” (These terms do not correspond to Roman Ca­tholicism and Protestantism, despite some commonality.)

The Roman tradition (of which the U.S. is an example) is based on such concepts as rationality, utilitarianism, opti­mism, worldliness, and the rule of law. This tradition’s in­tellectual progenitors have included such thinkers as Aristo­tle, Aquinas, Newton, Locke, Smith, and Keynes, as well as modern welfare state theorists. The Protestant tradition is rooted in such concepts as alienation, asceticism, pessi­mism, and the unreliability of law. This tradition’s intellectual leaders have included Plato, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, and Freud.

The Roman tradition, in brief, has emphasized prog­ress, reason, and moderation, with St. Thomas Aquinas as its central intellectual representa­tive. The Protestant tradition has emphasized irrationality and disorder, with Martin Luther as its central figure.

Private property is a key component of the Roman tra­dition, and Aquinas defended it (as did Aristotle) and seems to have come close to accepting the justness of a market price system. Aquinas’s main qualifi­cation was that avarice should be absent, and community interest should be served. He viewed material concerns as secondary to soul-saving, but nonetheless believed it neces­sary to address essential mate­rial wants before virtue could be achieved. All in all, Aquinas in the 13th century seems surprisingly in tune with our modern world. The one crucial difference, however, is the vastly higher regard in which we hold economic life.

Martin Luther initially re­volted against the Roman Catholic Church over a matter of 16th-century economic the­ology, the Church’s sale of indulgences to shorten purgatory and hasten full salvation. Luther viewed the path of the Church, and human history in general, as a long fall from grace. Economic institutions of­fered little to break that terrible fall. Trade, private property, markets, and economic self-interest were all means for sinning, and further retrogres­sion. Luther’s solution, simply put, was to renounce the world and its competitive struggles and find refuge in a community of believers.

Max Weber’s famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that Prot­estantism actually incited capi­talism’s emergence. However, Nelson claims that Weber re­ferred to the capitalism of the 18th century and later, by which time Luther’s brand of Protestantism was replaced by a Roman-like rationalist outlook. In the contemporary world, Nelson also argues, the older Protestant view has as­sumed secular forms, while the Roman Catholic Church has taken over leadership in the fight against modernism and worldliness.

Most of this book is taken up with profiles of dozens of theologians and economic thinkers in Western intellectual history, but it is often difficult to see how these portraits per­tain to Nelson’s central subject of economic theology. For one thing, this subject seems to re­late itself better to the econom­ic notions of theologians than to the theological trappings of some economists. He seems to be especially straining his thesis when he discusses 20th-century secular economists, such as Paul Samuelson, whose writings are as spiritual as a graph.

Reaching for Heaven on Earth is a wildly ambitious book, especially for a writer who is, apparently, a policy analyst without academic connection, and whose previous books have included such workhorse subjects as The Making of Feder­al Coal Policy. It is refreshing to see an economist make such a wide and deep use of intel­lectual history, and to attempt critical connections between theology and economics, sci­ence, and the contemporary world. But Nelson may have tried to do too much.

I also have several quibbles with him, such as his defini­tion of oligarchy as “rule by the rich.” The last time I heard, rule by the rich was called plutocracy. More impor­tantly, I had ongoing troubles with his “Roman” and “Prot­estant” terminology, which causes unnecessary confusion with our current conceptions of Roman Catholicism and Protes­tantism. Nelson insists on describing his two traditions as theological (even claiming that economists have become a new “priesthood” with a mission of perfecting material life on this earth). I would counter that these are broad intellectual tra­ditions primarily, with only some theological implications. I fear that Nelson has taken the self-inflating, theological-like rhetoric of economists far too seriously — and credulously — and has mistakenly concluded that others will share his awe.

More interesting is his dis­cussion of James Buchanan, a virtual unknown who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for economics and is a libertarian critic of the welfare state who represents, in Nelson’s terms, the Protes­tant tradition in contemporary garb. This economist wants to dismantle the welfare state, and favors radical decentraliza­tion. Buchanan argues that there is no sense of national community left in the U.S. (except in periods of war or cold war) and seriously raises the possibility of political se­cession by region.

Nelson likes the idea of secession very much. It may be an indicator of the state of American culture when an American Nobel laureate and a person of sense, like Nelson, are apparently endorsing se­cession from “a Roman civiliza­tion in decline.” I predict we will hear much more of such thinking in coming years.

Nelson envisions global institutions providing a sense of Roman order while local re­gions freely secede, in the name of creative Protestant disorder. Everyone will be completely free to form, or join, like-minded communities. States of various sizes will represent a variety of econom­ic, political, religious, and cultural viewpoints.

Such ideas are not science fiction, as the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia indicate. However, there ap­pears to be an opposite merg­ing trend in progress, most no­tably the looming single Euro­pean market. It is not yet clear if one or both or neither of these trends will prevail.

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