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 traditions 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 traditions 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. Aquinass 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 Churchs 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. Luthers solution, simply put, was to renounce the world and its competitive struggles and find refuge in a community of believers.
Max Webers famous Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that Protestantism actually incited capitalisms emergence. However, Nelson claims that Weber referred to the capitalism of the 18th century and later, by which time Luthers 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 Nelsons 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 Nelsons 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.