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Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics
by Robert H. Nelson
Rowman and Littlefield, 378 pages, $24.95

For those unfamiliar with the historical emergence of the discipline of economics, it may seem that the subject matter of Robert Nelson’s book—the interplay between the mundane world of scarcity and the transcendent world of infinity—is oxymoronic. Those who have studied the historical development of economic thought, however, will agree with the conclusion of the renowned economic historian Joseph Schumpeter that the founders of scientific economics were the scholastic moral theologians and natural law philosophers. 

The appearance of this work, then, offers a needed reintegration of two critical disciplines and helps to combat the unnecessarily dualistic tendency that has encouraged theological ignorance of economics at the same time that it has prompted some economists and business leaders to see moral and theological matters as a threat to their domain, or at the very least as irrelevant to it. 

In taking an explicitly historical approach, Mr. Nelson hopes to “set modern economic theology in the context of a much longer history of theology, a large part of which is noneconomic.” His examination of the influence of theology on economics outlines two primary traditions, which he calls the “Roman” and the “Protestant” traditions. 

The Roman tradition is characterized by a positive disposition toward reason, a natural law perspective, and a “this-worldly, commonsensical, and pragmatic” approach to human needs. It begins with Aristotle and continues through Thomas Aquinas, Isaac Newton, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, up to the modern defenders of the welfare state like John Maynard Keynes. 

The Protestant tradition, on the other hand, is described as viewing this world in “deep alienation” from its original nature. Owing to this fundamental disorder, it distrusts rationality, relying instead on the “iron dictates of God or history.” Where the Roman school prefers gradual development, the Protestant school opts for revolutionary change. It begins with Plato and continues through Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin and the English Puritans, and Charles Darwin, and ends up with figures as diverse as Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. 

The interaction between economics and theology Mr. Nelson attempts is exactly on target. But despite his effort to soften the edges of the categories he employs by stating that he is merely attempting to “capture the essence” of the thinking of these figures, his taxonomy is somewhat suspect. 

According to Mr. Nelson, the tendency in the Roman tradition to believe in the reasonableness of the universe leads its proponents to advocate rational programs of economic management in the form of the welfare state. This, however, would account neither for the numerous figures who, while clearly falling into the Roman tradition, disown the welfare state, nor the undeniably Protestant defenders of it. The very existence of the whole Austrian school of economics represented by Boehm-Bawerk, Menger, von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard, which derives much of its thinking from the scholastic (Roman) tradition and gives very little place to centralized economic planning along Keynesian lines, belies much of Mr. Nelson’s thesis. 

In his view, the “Roman way of thinking is in large part the American way of thinking.” He also observes, along with the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray and Walter Lippman, that “the American republic was conceived in the tradition of natural law.” While this claim is true enough with regard to the roots of American public philosophy, the contemporary context is somewhat more confused, as he admits, and as the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas made apparent. If there is a clear connection between the Roman tradition and the welfare state, as Mr. Nelson contends, then it is odd that the modern defenders of the latter are so profoundly ignorant of natural law thought and so hostile to it. 

The problem extends beyond an intellectual lacuna: it evidences a conflicting view of society and indeed of man himself. Defenders of the welfare state may appear to place a high value on reason, yet their trust in reason does not fully extend to individuals, but only to the ruling elite whose job it is to mold society for its own good. Reason is trusted in the abstract, but not when it comes to concrete specifics. In this, advocates of the welfare state are far more Platonic than they are Aristotelian. 

Mr. Nelson fails to see the way in which such figures as Richard Ely, Thorstein Veblen, Thurman Arnold, John Kenneth Galbraith, and, of course, John Maynard Keynes—all of whom he classifies as sharing an essentially Roman-Aristotelian outlook—in fact represent a shift away from that tradition and are an aberration, not an authentic development, of it. The very description of an “American priesthood of experts” that is needed to manage the welfare state advocated by these figures should have a sufficiently Platonic ring to it to make this point. 

Having offered this critique, I hasten to add that, despite its flawed attempt to trace an intellectual pedigree from Aristotle to Keynes, this is an important book. Mr. Nelson’s identification of contemporary environmentalism as a fundamentally reactionary response to industrial productivity, for instance, is indeed timely Moreover, to the extent that Mr. Nelson attempts to place contemporary economic thought within the broader and more ancient context of Western theological thinking, he has succeeded, and does a critical service to both economics and theology.

Paulist Father A. Sirico is President of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo by Tim Evanson via Creative Commons. Image cropped.