The question is: What are the theological resources of the Christian tradition for understanding the production of wealth? The answer is: Apparently there are none. Apparently. That is, were one to run through a hypothetical index of two millennia of Christian theology looking for entries under the category of “Wealth, production of,” the findings would he pretty slim. Indeed, it is doubtful that we would find that category in our hypothetical index. Certainly it is not included in the standard dictionaries of Christian theology.
Irving Kristol was guilty of only slight hyperbole when he said of Michael Novak’s 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “Incredible as it may seem, this is the first book to provide us with a critical appreciation of democratic capitalism from a theological point of view.” True, in 1981 Robert Benne had published his The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism. The same year saw the appearance of George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty, which argued in what might be described as a theological mode that capitalist productivity is based upon altruism and ultimate trust. Going back to the latter part of the nineteenth century, we find that there was a rash of Christian literature extolling what Andrew Carnegie called “the gospel of wealth.” It would seem to be the case, however, that serious theological discussion of economics in relation to the production of wealth is a relatively recent development.
My purpose is to explain something of why this should be so. Another purpose is to suggest, the index makers notwithstanding, that the Christian tradition is rich in resources supportive of the production of wealth. However, for various and often complicated reasons, most Christian thinkers have not discussed those resources in connection with economics.
Something must be said about early Christian views toward the rich and riches, and about the earlier views to be found in Hebrew and Greek thought. The ancient Greek word for riches, found also in the New Testament and the Septuagint version of the Hebrew scriptures, is ploutos (from which the word plutocrat is derived). Suggestively, the root is the Indo-European pel, which means both “to flow” and “to fill.” At least etymologically, the connotation is one of dynamic movement, perhaps even of growth. In the Greek usage of these periods, however, ploutos connoted something much more static. To be rich was to have it, rather than to be in the process of getting it—never mind producing it. Ploutos was a sign of a happy life lived within a stable order under the blessing of the gods.
In Homer, nobility and wealth went together. Some scholars say they were identical. The gain or loss of wealth, and hence of nobility, was in the hands of the gods, for misfortune and guilt could no more be separated than fortune and virtue. In Homer, an apparently nice thing about being rich was that one did not have to work. That changed with Hesiod, who taught that work is not shameful but honorable. He introduced an ethical condemnation of the arrogant rich who despoil the laboring peasant, and thus the link between wealth and worth was no longer secure.
If the moral order was not as self-evident to Hesiod as it was to Homer, during the period from the pre-Socratics to Aristotle the entire social order was also unstable and very much in question. There was a tension between the social order and culture, between the individual and society. Experience taught that there were poor people who were cultured and rich people who were uncultured. Riches became only one way, and a very uncertain way, of seeking security against life’s uncertainties. The idea of striving for wealth became prominent, but the good man might decline so to strive, seeking rather the true wealth of virtue and wisdom. In Plato and Aristotle we discover a functional view of wealth; it is a means to be used in the living of the virtuous life. Membership in the polis was determined less by wealth itself than by one’s attitude toward wealth.
A suspicious attitude toward wealth, it becomes apparent, has deep classical roots. Aristotle thought moderate wealth better than great wealth, since it is easier to handle and less distracting from the important things in life. Plato went further, comparing material wealth most unfavorably with the true riches of wisdom, culture, and virtue. Some Cynics and Stoics radicalized this view by calling for the rejection of wealth altogether. Paidea, they taught, is possible only for the poor, since wealth and virtue are mutually exclusive. In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, their point of reference in thinking about material goods was no longer the polis but the individual. And of course they had quite reversed the earlier Greek view of the connection between wealth and nobility. Later Stoics, perhaps predictably, reestablished a more balanced view, acknowledging the advantages of being comfortably off over being penurious, while insisting that wealth was an adiaphoron that could he either good or bad depending on whether it was used to cultivate virtue and wisdom in harmony with the cosmic order. But the judgment was now well entrenched that riches are shadowed by a moral question mark.
That judgment is more ambivalent in the Hebrew scriptures, at least at the beginning. In Genesis 14 and 15, for example, the origin and increase of riches through the booty of war, dowries, and successful breeding are providentially guided. Wealth is the gift of God and a sign of his blessing (Deut. 28:1–14). Later, in the prophetic period, the moral question mark becomes much more prominent. This is undoubtedly related to a dramatic change in social circumstances. Jerusalem and Samaria were now royal cities, and the prophets were agreed on the moral scandal of there being a small stratum of plutocrats in a population generally marked by severe poverty. That is the depiction offered in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Micah. The prophetic outrage was exacerbated by particular violations of covenantal fidelity such as forced labor, the enslavement of fellow countrymen, and fraud by which widows and orphans were deprived of their rights. Isaiah in particular (5:14, 32–33) associates riches with pride and he prophesies that the pomp and glory of Jerusalem will go down to the underworld, its wealth will be scattered like chaff, the city will stand waste and empty, and the wives of the nobility will share the lot of the poor whom they had previously despised.
The still later Wisdom literature returns, in a somewhat commonsensical vein, to a more positive assessment of wealth, even suggesting that the getting (if not the producing) of wealth is assisted by a life of virtue. Drawing on practical experience, it is observed that a man becomes rich if he is economical (Prov. 24:4), industrious (Sirach 31:3), strong (Prov. 10:4), and refrains from wickedness. The benefits of wealth are security (Prov. 10:15), friends (Prov. 14:20), honor (Ecclus. 10:30), a full and happy life (Ecclus. 44:1–8), and the chance to give alms (Ecclus. 31:8; Tob. 12:8). Although tempered by this more appreciative view of riches, the prophetic critique is by no means lost. Especially prominent are warnings against the dangers of pride and of trusting in riches rather than in God. In Job and elsewhere, the question of theodicy is sharply raised—why the wicked should prosper while the righteous suffer want. During the intertestamental period this question develops in an eschatological direction, offering the hope of a Day of the Lord in which such injustices will be righted. It is this eschatological note that will dominate the New Testament understanding of riches.
In Matthew we encounter the young man who did not follow Jesus because he was attached to his great riches (19:22), which occasions the remark that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Here and elsewhere, however, it would seem that Jesus is referring not to a class but to Everyman. The great question is whether one is attached to the present passing order or to the new order that is to come and is, in Jesus, already proleptically present. Attachment to the present is marked by anxiety which, in the Sermon on the Mount, is the characteristic attitude of the pagan (6:25–32). In other words, the view of riches and every other attachment is not so much ethical as eschatological and theocentric. For instance, it is noted without comment that Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, and in the lavish anointing at Bethany it appears that poverty has no particular religious significance: “For the poor you will have always with you, but you will not always have me” (26:11).
In Mark and Luke there is a considerable sharpening of the critique of riches. In Luke especially, the rich are depicted as the opponents of Jesus, and there is a striking accent on the eschatological great reversal: those invited first to the feast do not share in it (14:24), the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away (1:53), and those who abase themselves will be exalted (14:11; 18:29–30). In the parable of the sower, “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” are the “thorns” that choke the word (8:14). Zacchaeus gives half his goods to the poor and restores fourfold what he had gained wrongfully, and this is held up as an example (19:8). Repeatedly, the disciples are assured that their surrender of riches now will result in gain many times over, both in this life and in the world to come. One can easily see how the gospel accounts amply supply the “liberation theologians” of our day with a rhetoric to be employed against riches and the rich. Whether their polemic is attuned to modern economic realities, and whether their proposed remedies are faithful to the New Testament’s eschatological promise, are quite different questions.
In other parts of the New Testament we find replays of conventional scriptural ambivalences about wealth. In 1 Timothy 6:17–19, for instance, wealth seems to have no particular moral significance in itself, but the rich are strongly cautioned against putting their trust in the uncertainty of riches. James, on the other hand, has a vigorous polemic against the rich, apparently based on the pastoral experience of rich Christians who lorded it over the rest of the community and had no compunctions about getting richer by exploiting their poorer brethren (2:1–9). The distinctive turn in New Testament usage comes with Paul, and is also reflected in Revelation. Paul seems quite relaxed about what the world calls riches, suggesting almost an “easy come, easy go” attitude. Wealth does not really matter that much one way or another, so long as one is not attached to it, and so long as one shares generously with those in need (2 Cor. 8:1–10).
The folly of the “wisdom” of the world (1 Cor. 1:2021) is in failing to recognize that the wealth that really counts is the wealth of God and of life in God. References to riches in Paul apply almost invariably to God, Christ, and the Christian community. It might be said that Paul “spiritualizes” wealth, but it is more accurate to say that he “eschatologizes” wealth and thereby radically relativizes its importance. Christ is the true plousios (2 Cor. 8:9), the word of God dwells “richly” in the community (Col. 3:16), and Christians are made rich through the poverty of Christ, which in the mystery of God is true wealth (Col. 1:27). For Paul, the eschatological reversal is not something just waiting to happen in the future. It is a way of living now that rejects worldly wisdom, which is prisoner to anxiety because it trusts in self and possessions rather than in God. Paul declares that, although poor, he makes many rich in the riches that really matter (2 Cor. 6:10). In this respect he is simply following Christ, who demonstrates that it is a law of life and salvation that the renunciation of one’s own rights makes others rich.
In their Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Hauck and Kasch write, “Of every possession of earthly holding one must say that it is not wealth or security but simply an instrument in the ministry of love, with no dignity of its own. This is the substance of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians.” At the risk of reaching, it does seem that in Paul we find a kind of fulfillment of the Indo-European root of ploutos, which, as mentioned earlier, means “to flow” or “to fill.” The wealth that matters, according to Paul, is that which flows from the riches of God through Christ and is already, in an anticipatory mode, “filled” with the glory that is to be. There are in Paul no sweated moralisms about riches or the rich. The injunction to be generous to others is emphasized, for to be anxiously grasping is to interrupt, as it were, the flow. The chief point, however, is that once one has understood the true location of riches in God, everything else falls into place.
There is in Paul what might be called an eschatological lightheartedness, even playfulness, with respect to the present order, including worldly goods. “I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29–31). However long the time may be, the Christian’s way of being in the world has already been transformed. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). This makes possible a kind of taunting of the world’s standards. “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:8).
While taunting the world’s standards, the Christian is not freed from obligations in the world; indeed he is freed to fulfill such obligations. This is evident in Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to give generously to help poorer brethren elsewhere. “The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Freed from anxiety, we can dare to be generous, “because God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:6–9).
This Pauline lightheartedness about economic matters has erupted persistently in subsequent Christian history, but it has been as frequently suppressed by sober-sided formulas for what would later be called “economic justice.” Many commentators have succumbed to the temptation of dismissing Paul’s relative indifference to economic justice—as well as to so much else that preoccupies politicized Christianity today—as a product of an “interim ethic” that assumed the imminent return of Christ in glory. It is doubtful, however, that Paul’s recommended attitude toward worldly affairs, including economics, was substantively affected by eschatological schedules. His is a way of “being in the world” that can be accepted or rejected whether history’s promised consummation is five years or five millennia removed.
In the biblical and subsequent Christian literature we find persistent jeremiads against the rich and against preoccupation with riches. In the last century and this, such strictures have been conventionally interpreted in a manner hostile to the capitalist mode of producing wealth. This too would seem to miss the point of the Pauline lightheartedness. The point is that wealth—having it or producing it—really does not matter that much. This point is missed both by the avaricious, who become captive to their possessions, and by religiously driven ideologues promoting designs for a just economic order. Both are in danger of attributing an ultimacy to something that is, at most, pre-penultimate. Both take wealth altogether too seriously. Of course, different attitudes toward wealth usually appear in mixed form rather than as pure types. The choice of poverty in monasticism, for example, can be depicted as a condemnation of worldly wealth, or as an exemplification of an eschatologically liberated way of life that radically relativizes the exigencies of money, and of much else.
Similarly—and contrary to many earnest arguments advanced about the connections between the Reformation and capitalism—it may be suggested that the Reformers’ articulation of the Pauline doctrine of grace assisted economic enterprise chiefly by underscoring the truth that worldly success does not matter that much, that it does not matter ultimately. In the Calvinist tradition, economic achievement may have been motored less by its being viewed as a token of election than by the fact that a grace-based Pauline lightheartedness about worldly achievements created “free space” within which a variety of “callings” could be exercised in good conscience. The question of ultimate salvation is already attended to by the utterly gratuitous mercy of God. That being the case, Christian “vocations,” also in the economic realm, are no longer a desperate quest for salvation but an exercise of grace-full insouciance in response to the gift already given.
The heavy breathing of the theologizing, moralizing, and even “salvationizing” of economic matters would seem to be a later phenomenon among Christians in the Reformation traditions. It is, for instance, dramatically evident in America in the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ironically, it is also evident in the liberation theology of some Roman Catholics who have embraced with enthusiasm this aspect of late Protestantism. What appears as theologized activism in the Americas frequently has its roots in European, notably German, thought. With respect to the Social Gospel, the influence of Albrecht Ritschl was enormous, and Americans would continue to depend on that stream of liberalism as made more accessible by English writers such as R. H. Tawney, F. D. Maurice, and William Temple, all of whom were adamant in opposing laissez-faire capitalism.
The conscientious determination to deny to economics its sphere of freedom is evident, for instance, in John C. Bennett’s Christian Ethics and Social Policy (1946). With respect to the themes encapsulated there, little has changed in the last half-. Bennett’s earnest moralizing of the economic sphere is to be found in the latest pronouncements on “economic justice” by oldline Protestant churches and, increasingly, by the Roman Catholic bishops in this country. Such pronouncements typically reflect an entrenched emphasis on the distribution of wealth rather than the creation of wealth, a greater concern for the means of production than for production. Indeed, in “harder” versions of this approach, there is a reversal of the Pauline view that economics does not matter that much. The economic structure, “systemically analyzed,” is taken to be determinative of everything else”including the allegedly illusory liberation proposed in Paul’s studied indifference toward economics.
Not surprisingly, theologized economic theories have been almost invariably socialist in their direction. It is not surprising because socialism is premised upon a refusal to accept the resistance of economics to “making sense,” especially theological sense. The taken-for-granted nature of this view is evident in Paul Tillich’s flat assertion, “Any serious Christian must be a socialist.” Similarly, in the past century the maxim has been widely affirmed that socialism is the economics of which Christianity is the religion. The assumptions implicit in this viewpoint were endorsed also by “neo-orthodox” theologians who were on most questions vigorously opposed to the Ritschlian tradition of nineteenth- liberalism. This was notably the case with Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Christian theologian of this century.
After World War II, when Barth was striving for an “evenhandedness” between East and West, his socialism was, at least in part, a strategy for ideological accommodation. In 1950 he wrote, “Anyone who does not want communism—and none of us do—should take socialism seriously.” In his great Church Dogmatics, however, Barth leaves no doubt that the grounding of his economic views goes much deeper than mere strategic considerations. Barth treats economics under the rubric of “work” and “labor” within the context of the doctrine of creation. Work is relentlessly teleological, directed toward definite ends, and this he calls the “criterion of objectivity.” The question to be asked of economic activity is: “Does the ostensible worker know what he wills and will what he knows?” What Barth calls “right work” is “obedience to the divine command.” This means that “all dilettante or botched work, however high and noble its purposes and however rich its material profit, cannot possibly be right and is not therefore obedience.”
There is little of the Pauline lightheartedness, never mind whimsy, in Barth’s understanding of work. “We are either heart and soul in a thing or we take things easily. Tertium non datur.” Work is to advance significantly the human condition, although Barth allows that a proper end of work could include “even perhaps adornments of human existence.” The latter is a reluctant allowance, however. Some so-called work is nothing more than amusing others, and while Barth says he does not “grudge” people the need to make a living, he is not prepared to call “worthy and valuable work” those activities that depend upon “the stupidity and superficiality, the vanity and bad taste, the errors and vices of numerous other people.” He is certainly not prepared to describe as worthy work activity that is involved in the “almost unequivocally demonic process which consists in the amassing and multiplying of possessions expressed in financial calculations . . . i.e., the ‘capital’ which in the hands of the relatively few, who pull all the strings, may equally well, in a way wholly [outside] the control of the vast majority and therefore quite arbitrarily or accidentally, be a source of salvation or perdition for whole nations or generations.”
In such a system work is often “completely alien” to the worker, “being performed in the service of a sinister and heartless and perpetually ambiguous idol.” Capitalists who say that such a system is necessary to produce wealth and provide jobs must be told that their claim is unacceptable. If they cannot change the system, “then the question is to be addressed the more acutely to the state, to the government or Parliament, whether it is in fact politically possible or legitimate to allow the so-called economy to be administered in this free, or rather ineffectual, manner.” If the politicians are unresponsive, then appeal must be made to “the whole of human society,” for “in the last analysis, it is society which has to grant work and define its aims.” In the absence of clearly determined ends, “meaningless and nonsensical and worthless work constantly increases.” Since it is possible that the great mass of employees view their work “in what is at bottom a ‘capitalistic’ or unthinking way in relation to the question of ends,” it is not surprising that the owners and employers take advantage of that mindlessness.
Work must therefore be objective—that is, directed to proper ends, and worthy of human beings. It must also be “human work” in the sense that it is “a social act involving association and comradeship.” The vital claims of workers are fulfilled only if their work is “co-ordinated” with that of others. Some work may be done in happy and innocent freedom from this concern for coordination, but that is the rare exception. There are those who lift up the delights and benefits of competition, as though work were a contest in which the best receives the prize. but they forget that “the sphere of human work is not a playing field” (emphasis added). Economic competition becomes a deadly contest in which “the reward is no more and no less than existence itself.” “Hence,” writes Barth, “there is no fun in this contest.” Against such contest there must be a countermovement of setting limits on economic freedom, and “where the command of God is heard it will always be a summons to counter-movements of this kind.”
In Barth’s bleak view, work “under the sign of competition” sets one man against the other “with force and cunning, and there cannot fail to be innumerable prisoners, wounded, and dead.” Because of the unjust distribution of the ownership of the means of production, “it can hardly be denied that on the whole, at least in the West, the modern industrial process does in fact rest on the principle of the exploitation of some by others.” Barth wants to make clear that he has no illusions about the “solution” proposed by the socialisms of the East. What he describes as “state socialism” might turn out to be “only a new and perhaps even crasser form of the oppression and exploitation of man by man.” But for those in the West who live under the prevailing capitalist system it is necessary “to assert the command of God in face of this form, and to keep to the ‘left’ in opposition to its champions, i.e., to confess that [we are] fundamentally on the side of the victims of this disorder and to espouse their cause.” Barth says the Church should not “identify its message” with any economic directions, but a little later he declares, “The Christian community both can and should espouse the cause of this or that branch of social progress or even socialism in the form most helpful at a specific time and place and in a specific situation.”
The essentially socialist Barth declares that work must be objectively directed to ends, must be worthy, must be humanly coordinated, and must, in addition, be reflective and limited. It is on the last score that we encounter a break from the earlier assertion that the sphere of human work is not a playing field. In discussing the limits of work, Barth emphasizes that the worth of a human being is not exhaustively defined by his work, and he reflects especially on the dignity of the old, the sick, and the disabled. For all of us there is a need for the “Sabbath rest” from work, which we can undertake with good conscience for we know that “God is in charge.” This quite different view of work is elaborated in an extended note worthy of quotation:
Outward and inward work will be done with more rather than less seriousness once a man realizes that what he desires and does and achieves thereby, when measured by the work of God which it may attest, cannot be anything but play, i.e., a childlike imitation and reflection of the fatherly action of God which as such is a true and proper action. When children play properly, of course, they do so with supreme seriousness and devotion. Even in play, if a man does not really play properly, he is a spoilsport. We are summoned to play properly. But we must not imagine that what we desire and are able to do is more than play. Human work would certainly not be worse done, but both individually and as a whole it would be done much better, if it were not done with the frightful seriousness which is so often bestowed upon it just because fundamentally we do not think that we have to take God seriously, and therefore we must take ourselves the more terribly seriously, this usually being the surest way to invoke the spirit of idleness and sloth by way of compensation.
In that aside, a wiser Barth (or so I would suggest) would seem to be taking back much of what he had earlier urged with such “frightful seriousness.” Here we detect the working out of a Pauline lightheartedness more in accord with Barth’s more usual way of radically relativizing the pretensions of the present time’s sweated exigencies. There is a necessary whimsy in the living of the Christian life, since we know that “God is in charge,” and we are by no means sure what he is up to in the contingencies of history. While the gravamen of Barth’s discussion excludes whimsy from the consideration of wealth, it is featured very prominently in his understanding of human creativity in other spheres. His treatment of Mozart is an outstanding case in point.
The creative order, says Barth, is ambiguous, containing a Yes and a No, but we are not always able to sort out the positive from the negative. But no matter. “If God Himself has comprehended creation in its totality and made it His own in His Son, it is for us to acquiesce without thinking that we know better, without complaints, reproach, or dismay.” And here, in a longish but moving aside, he reflects on Mozart:
Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment, or edification but food and drink . . . . Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express as he did . . . . In the face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence . . . . He heard concretely and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God . . . . He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little hits of horn, metal, and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying, and sometimes in harmony . . . . Mozart causes us to hear that even on the [negative] side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect . . . . Mozart has thus created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could. This is the point which I wish to make.
And the point that I wish to make is, quite simply, that Barth’s discussion of work and the economy in the fourth volume of his treatment of creation would be much more persuasive had he brought it into closer conversation with what he says about Mozart and creation in the third volume. Barth depicts Mozart as an exemplar of Pauline lightheartedness who dared to act upon the knowledge that “God is in charge,” and that his creativity is theocentric and eschatological—which is to say that it is freed from the teleological calculations of social utility. This, one might suggest, is the freedom that Barth should more clearly have related to the economic sphere in connection with the form of creativity that is the production of wealth. The wonder that Barth accorded to aesthetic creativity he was not willing to extend to economic creativity. He readily acknowledged a “hidden hand” in Mozart’s work, but not in the work of others that might equally be said to bear witness to the goodness of creation.
The connections that Barth does not explore are suggestively developed by another theological giant of this century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His view of human creativity, also in the economic sphere, is not only theocentric but insistently Christocentric. Our labor is not a creation out of nothing, like God’s creation, but “a making of new things on the basis of the creation by God . . . . The first creation of Cain was the city, the earthly counterpart of the eternal city of God. There follows the invention of fiddles and flutes, which afford to us on earth a foretaste of the music of heaven.” The extraction and processing of metals, the building of homes, and all our other activities are, whether we know it or not, a readying of the world for the coming of Christ. “Through the divine mandate of labor there is to come into being a world which, knowingly or not, is waiting for Christ, is designed for Christ, is open to Christ, serves Him and glorifies Him.” Although all this is under the sign of Cain, it has nonetheless been redeemed. For the Christian, the shadowed side is, as Barth said of Mozart, “behind him.”
This confident, playful participation in creation, says Bonhoeffer, has its own integrity and freedom that must be protected, especially by the government and from the government. “Government maintains created things in their proper order, but it cannot itself engender life; it is not creative.” People are creative in carrying out the divine mandates in labor, family, and the community of faith. Government is not the subject or originator of these fields of human endeavor. “If it asserts its authority beyond the limits of its assigned task it will in the long run forfeit its genuine authority over these fields.” Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, understood the danger of the totalitarian temptation to have the state impose coordination (Gleichschaltung) upon the society. Against the claim of the state to represent, indeed to he identical with, “the people,” Bonhoeffer asserts that “in Scripture there is no special commission of God for the people.” The Christian knows, says Bonhoeffer, “that the people grows from below, but that government is instituted from above.” Creativity, growth, a serendipitous discovery of possibilities—all of these are exercised in the arena of freedom that is from below, from the actions and interactions of free persons who are, knowingly or not, participating in God’s continuing creation.
Other formative Christian theologians of this century have seemed to share Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the fortuitous nature of economic growth and well-being. A recent and generally sympathetic study of John Courtney Murray chides him for having had little to say about economic justice, a subject that has become theologically de rigueur in the last three decades of Christian-Marxist dialogue and liberation theology. One suspects that Murray did not spend much time on “economic justice” because he was not sure what it meant, and that he offered no prescriptions for the creation of wealth because he knew none—other than abiding by the restraints inherent in what he called “the American experiment in ordered liberty.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, on the other hand, had a very thoroughly developed theology of socialist economics in his earlier years. In his mature years he abandoned his socialist enthusiasms and expressed grudging admiration for the productivity of economic liberalism. It seems, however, that neither Murray nor Niebuhr was tempted to write a theology of economics—Murray because it seemed quite unnecessary, and Niebuhr because in that effort he was once burned and twice shy. Economics, one might suggest, appears as the dismal science precisely because it is in such stark contrast to the freedom of economic activity, which is anything but dismal. Efforts to theologize economics tend to produce dismal theology.
Economics, like some other aspects of life, is too important to be taken seriously. At least one should be careful about taking it with theological seriousness. A theologically informed appreciation of economic life and the production of wealth should be marked by a sense of whimsy and wonder in the face of the fortuitous, contingent, chancy, and unpredictable realities of economic behavior. Such an appreciation will have less to do with Karl Barth’s criteria of economic justice and more with what Johan Huizinga describes as Homo Ludens. To suggest such a connection between wealth and whimsy, between productivity and playfulness, is not to say that economics is of little consequence or unworthy of our attention. Intelligent playfulness, however, is only made possible by faith—just as Pauline lightheartedness is only thinkable on the far side of the Cross, and just as Mozart could do what he did only because the intimidating anxieties about ultimate rights and wrongs were, by the grace of God, behind him.
The economic sphere is a playing field, after all. Jeremiads against pride, greed, and avarice will always be in order. People can take the game too seriously, just as the Mets can take the pennant too seriously and lose both the pleasure of playing and the pennant. Of course, at the time it is being played, the game may be totally engrossing and almost painfully earnest. If the game is not to consume the entirety of one’s life, its time must be limited by other times; this is the profound wisdom of the Sabbath rest. Any game, including economics, can become an idol to which we surrender our existence, at which point it ceases to be a game. This truth applies as well to the wealthy stockbroker as to the overly earnest small entrepreneur, and to the poor campesino who resigns himself to what he believes to be his economic fate. In each case, the tragedy is that the game has become a god.
Theologians and preachers should be in the business of urging people to play fairly, but should not presume to claim any privileged knowledge about rules of economic fairness that are not derived from general virtues for living decently. Above all, players need to be reminded that it is only a game, albeit an essential game. Christian theology, one may conclude, says the most important things about economics when it is not trying to make sense out of economics. Barth, for example, writes most wisely about economics when he is writing about Mozart. Opening a new pizza parlor, designing a new widget, or manufacturing a better automobile are all somebody’s Violin Concerto in D Major. It may not be our idea of Mozart, but then the people doing those things didn’t ask our opinion. If we asked for their opinion, we might discover that they don’t think too highly of people who write essays for journals such as this, either. So, if we are not moved to applaud one another’s enterprises, we can at least refrain from jeering and wish one another well with the diverse games on which we all depend—we more obviously on theirs than they on ours.
Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things.