After years spent trapped in the academic equivalent of a singles bar, eagerly courting any discipline, no matter how unattractive the results, theologians have been trying to recover their reputation by being more particular about the company they keep. So how are we to explain a book like Theology and the Political: The New Debate , a 2005 volume that captures some of the world’s best theologians in a compromising relationship with the economic left? Are the anti-global Marxists Antonio Negri and Slavoj Zizek really more useful interlocutors than, say, Douglass C. North, one of the developers of what has come to be called New Institutional Economics?
Theology and the Political is a helpful book because it gathers in one volume a representative sample of very serious theologians”so why are they laboring so valiantly to impede the advance of capitalism and democracy? The contributors are associated with the British theologian John Milbank and his Radical Orthodoxy movement, which has staged an inspiring revival of Christian metaphysics. While some scholars challenge Radical Orthodoxy’s reading of history, I find its political ambitions much more troubling.
Take, for example, Kenneth Surin’s pronouncement: Zizek is quite right to insist that Christianity and Marxism are the only two real metaphysical alternatives to liberalism. This remark misses how Marxism, with its forced eschatological reading of history, is a Christian heresy, while classical liberalism, with all its mixed results, is a Christian achievement.
Classical liberalism sought to maximize individual freedom by minimizing political restraints on both the economy and the Church. It unleashed European economic power but had a mixed impact on religion. The triumph of the market both rejuvenated and demoted Christianity, which suggests that classical liberalism requires a nuanced providential interpretation. Radical Orthodoxy, however, treats classical liberalism as a failed form of philosophizing by turning its metaphysical modesty into a vice-a vice that only a refurbished Marxism can cure.
If Louis Althusser was right that Marxism is profoundly antihuman (he thought this was to its credit), then any surviving Marxists”even, or maybe especially, the neo-Marxists who have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union”need a lesson in individual rights more than a metaphysical makeover. The Radical Orthodoxy theologians, however, are as suspicious of liberalism as they are excited about Marxism. Many of them have been inspired by the dazzling if discombobulated brilliance of Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher known for manically blending Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism. Zizek is best thought of as a performance artist whose routine involves dropping Lacanian concepts onto items drawn from popular culture: Think of the comedian Gallagher using his Sledge-O-Matic to splatter pieces of watermelon on his eager audience.
Like a multinational corporation determined to penetrate every market, Zizek incorporates everything into his philosophy, from Stephen King to Oprah Winfrey. He has recently conscripted Christianity, calling himself a Paulinian materialist. Zizek assumes the Church and Marxism can be allies because they have a common enemy in the corrosive consequences of consumerism. Christianity, he hopes, can strengthen the Marxist ideal of a classless society, which has been rendered fragile by global capitalism. Christianity is at such a low point in Europe that Zizek can retrieve it without worrying that he might induce anyone to actually practice it.
You might not think serious theologians would be fooled, but you can read, for instance, Daniel M. Bell Jr. explaining, The struggle against savage capitalism must be waged at the level of ontology, for capitalism advances not merely by economic victory but by ontological capture. Meanwhile, Creston Davis and Patrick Aaron Riches try to complete the transition from commodity culture to a fully materialized socialism by demonstrating how the circulation of collectivized goods, more so than private property, reflects the excessive nature of the Christian economy of grace. Similarly, Philip Goodchild takes an eschatological perspective on money, which leads him to fantasize about how the Christian promise of ultimate fulfillment can undermine a system based on credit and contracts.
A common theme among these theologians is that capitalism is the material equivalent of metaphysical univocity, because its reduction of production to the flattened playing field of the market leaves no room for a richer, analogical understanding of reality. Milton Friedman, it turns out, has not only done more harm to the world than Marxism; he is also as philosophically misguided as Duns Scotus.
Graham Ward borrows”as do many such theologians”from another neo-Marxist: the anti-globalism theorist Antonio Negri, a militant revolutionary who wrote some of his best work while incarcerated in an Italian prison. Negri’s most original analysis concerns the decline of national sovereignty and thus the need for new structures to mediate international solidarity. You might think this means that global prosperity is inextricably linked to the continuing growth of Christianity as a stabilizing influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Ward, however, focuses on the way capitalism commodifies everything it touches, on the assumption that Marx’s theory of the fetish is more insightful than the Christian understanding of greed.
For John Milbank himself, the leader of the Radical Orthodoxy movement in theology, Christianity can redeem socialism by incorporating economics into a vision of transcendence that promises social cohesion without threatening violence. Milbank has always struggled to explain the economic payoff of his heavily platonized metaphysics of participation, though he writes with the Hegelian passion of someone who believes that social practices are not real until they have been given a fully rational explication. Socialism can succeed, he insists, if its materialism is given an adequate ontological foundation. Nonreductive materialism imagines matter as that which can itself occasion subjectivity and meaning, Milbank avers, because it is the site for the emergence of a spontaneous and unpredictable energy. That staunch defender of the market, Friedrich Hayek, portrayed capitalism as a spontaneous system that unleashes more human potential than governments can control, but I don’t think that’s what Milbank has in mind with his spontaneous materialism.
Milbank valiantly prolongs the Marxist dream that a real plenitudinous infinite will produce a new man. He thinks that grace is more anti-economical than economical, in that God sustains us beyond our earning potential and disregards our debts. This divine anti-economy, when applied to the human condition, favors socialism over capitalism because capitalism accepts the laws of economic exchange while socialism works against them. The argument is perverse. We are expected to believe that socialism is better than capitalism at reflecting matter’s inherent longing for redemption despite the fact that socialism is so clumsy in transforming matter into social use.
It might be obvious, but we need to say that calling socialism an economy of excess does not make it so. Capitalism, in fact, ensures a more dynamic and expansive circulation of goods by honoring the way possession does not infringe on the goodness of creation. Exchange without possession, and the legal enforcement private property requires, offers an unconvincing account of the origin of personal responsibility and the stewardship of resources. Grace is excessive in the sense of being unearned, but human barter works best when prices are determined by the competition of the market.
Theologians who read the wrong kind of economists are not just wasting their time. They are also missing out on conversations that could be productive. Recent theories, such as those of the New Institutional Economics movement, have gone far beyond the reduction of human behavior to self-interested calculations of utility that was so common during the reign of rational-choice theory. New Institutional Economics began as an inquiry into the way ideas as well as incentives shape corporations. It takes only a small step from asking why some firms grow and others die to asking what cultural factors are conducive to economic progress in general. Under the influence of Douglass C. North, New Institutional Economics economists have taken this step by launching an inquiry into the necessary cultural conditions for economic growth. Religion, it turns out, is one of those basic conditions.
North, who was the corecipient of the Nobel Prize for economics in 1993, argues that Max Weber was wrong to trace capitalism back only to Calvinism”capitalism was simmering in both Protestant and Catholic countries before the Calvinistic combustion-but he was right to wonder why Christianity and capitalism have been so closely tied together. North confirms Weber’s insight into the transformative role played by Christianity’s positive view of the dignified use of nature for human benefit.
Indeed, North goes further than Weber, by examining what economists call the market paradox. Simply put, the market encourages a competitive spirit that can weaken social trust; yet without such trust, people will not participate in the market. Individuals have to learn how to become masters of competitive advantage while obligating themselves”and trusting others”to play by the rules. We take market behavior for granted today, but its development is one of the great achievements of the Christian West.
As North makes clear in his most recent book, Understanding the Process of Economic Change , how market economies develop is a pressing question for both the historian and the policymaker. There is little evidence that pouring money into developing countries has helped them much. If we can figure out how the West broke through to economic prosperity, then we will be in a better position to help other parts of the world achieve the same success.
When he is wearing his historian’s hat, North argues that the common culture of the Church was a necessary condition for the transition from personal to impersonal forms of exchange as Western trade expanded throughout the Middle Ages. More specifically, Christianity’s articulation of a thrifty individualism encouraged the growth of trade organizations that were not mired in tribal alliances.
When North puts on his policymaker’s hat, however, he does not always show that he has learned his own historical lesson. Rather than asking about the prospects for a universal culture to manage and stabilize global economic growth, he waxes eloquent about cultural pluralism. In place of offering financial aid, North wants, in effect, developing countries to buy into the moral relativism of the Western cultural elite. Consequently, he cannot see how Christianity has come to represent the developing world’s best hope for prosperity. Indeed, while North American intellectuals are busy dismantling the last remnants of Victorian morality, theologians in the South are constructing the cultural foundations for trust and self-discipline that make entry into the market productive and meaningful. Southern Hemisphere theologians preach against debt, praise thrift, and promote literacy among the laity. It is easy for the prosperous in the North to condemn the prosperity-preaching of the South, but the fact is that belonging to a community that promotes confidence in the future while teaching strict personal morality is crucial for financial success.
Adam Smith was fond of saying that nobody has ever seen a dog exchange a bone with another dog. He meant that only humans exchange goods for mutual benefit. Capitalism is uniquely human because it lifts us above the mere struggle for survival and forces us to reflect on our capacity to alter our environment. Capitalism is guilty of making our wants seem like needs and thus turning material objects into the stuff of our salvation, but it is also realistic in acknowledging that human solidarity cannot be achieved outside the making and trading of supplies and services. For that reason, capitalism has been a helpful corrective to theologies that portray salvation as an absolutely otherworldly affair.
At its best, capitalism imagines a world where the pursuit of the good involves the making of goods in a way that affirms both individual dignity and personal responsibility. It would be a shame if Radical Orthodoxy turned out to earn its adjective”and thus its right to be distinguished from ordinary orthodoxy”by its devotion to Marxism. Affluent theologians owe it to Christians struggling in the developing world to give them the same opportunity to develop prosperous economies as our ancestors gave us.
Stephen H. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His recent books include American Providence and Taking Religion to School .