Economism vs Common Good Part Four

Economism vs Common Good Part Four August 29, 2022

Demythicizing the Myth of Economism

PT 3014. Common Good Part Four

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In this Patheos public theology series on demythicizing the myth of economism on behalf of the common good, we have thus far laid the methodological groundwork.

Politics vs Common Good Governing. Common Good Part One

Demythicizing the Myth of Economism. Common Good Part Two

Demythicizing the Myth of Economism. Common Good Part Three

What is creation?

Ecotheology when “it’s time to act”

Public Theology for the Common Good

Demythicizing the Myth of Economomism. Common Good Part Four

Just, Sustainable, Participatory, and Planetary. Common Good Part Five

Now it’s time to subject the belief tenets of the church of economism to discourse clarification, to good ol’ fashioned myth-busting.

Economism is not an exclusivist religion. You may be a member of what Richard Norgaard calls “the church of economism” and still keep your loyalties to Christianity or atheism or Islam. Because the tenets of economism are almost invisible, you may not even be aware that you are bi-religious. 

Here is a list of seven tenets I plan to lift from obscurity into visibility through discourse clarification.

  1. Freedom and the market require each other.
  2. Freedom belongs to the individual.
  3. Cost-benefit analysis applies to every dimension of living.
  4. Personal transcendence is achieved through greed.
  5. The American dream is attainable by anyone who works hard.
  6. Growth is our savior.
  7. Government restriction on freedom of production is evil, plain and simple

Economism’s Tenets of Belief 

The central dogma in the comprehensive myth dominating the econocene era is that all issues become translated into economic formulations. At least two competing sects vie with one another: the totally unregulated or free market sect versus the government regulated sect. Both are dialects of the one language of economese.[1]

Economism is a popular religion with a priesthood. You and I are the believers. The professional economists and their acolyte politicians in Washington provide the priesthood. Should we believe what our priests say?

Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

Within the priesthood with its academic and political belief system, we find the specific sect of economism Richard Norgaard and John Cobb detest, namely, the exclusively market-oriented neo-liberal school of economics. As Moses is to biblical religion and Gautama to Buddhism, Milton Friedman (1912-2006) at the University of Chicago is to the religion of economism. Friedman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976 and became chief economic advisor to U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Friedman has not distributed the equivalent of Moses’ Ten Commandments or Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Yet, the faith of economism has become creedal and its tenets apodictic. Most of us simply believe them at the presuppositional level.

Each tenet–what I call a mythologeme or doctrine within the creed–begins with a surface faith statement accompanied by a somewhat dangerous shadow side. In public debate, the missionaries for economism jockey to keep their faith tenets in the limelight so as to keep their shadows out of sight. Below are some tenets of economism which illustrate the economic faith at work.[2]

  • 1 Freedom and the market require each other. “Economic freedom is…an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom,” contends Friedman (Friedman 1962, 8). 

In the econocene era, we experience our freedom most clearly at the shopping mall or when searching for good deals on Craig’s List. Existentially, we construct our self-identity through consumption, by purchasing merchandise which identifies us with an economic class, with in-group fashion, or World Series Champs. Because we experience choosing what to buy, this convinces us that we have freedom of choice.

John Cobb, theologian

“The popular embodiment of economism is consumerism,” observes John Cobb (Cobb, The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank 1999, 1), Further, those who protect the market become viewed by us consumers as our champions of freedom.

Lurking in the shadows, however, is the dim awareness that even though we can choose what to buy we cannot choose what is put up for sale. Such awareness reveals the difference between consumers and producers. By buying freedom of choice in the retail market, shoppers end up buying unencumbered freedom for the producers.

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich aids the public theologian in discourse clarification. He makes visible what’s otherwise invisible. “The freedom of enterprises to monopolize the market likewise reduces the freedom of consumers to choose” (Reich, Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few 2015, 14).

  • 2 Freedom belongs to the individual. Freedom belongs to the autonomous individual who needs to be liberated from dependencies on government, family, tradition, and even neurotic habits. “Cooperation is strictly individual and voluntarily provided,” says Friedman (Friedman 1962, 14).[3]

Because fashion shops offer such a variety of merchandise and because we assume that choice is individual, our purchase choices either reinforce our family identity or liberate us from it. We become self-made through what we buy. The shadow accompanying individual freedom is denial of our relational interdependence not only with human community but also with the natural world. The question–should we value the natural domain as a common good?–cannot get asked.

There is no room for the common good in economism.[4] We cannot coherently ask whether Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was correct or not when he declared, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold 1946, 1986). Leopold’s moral maxim simply cannot be admitted into economism’s calculus.

John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology

Rethinking economism’s calculus is prescribed for a healthier ecology. “Without a healthy natural ecology there is not a sustainable economy and vice versa,” ecotheologian Mary Evelyn Tucker reminds us. “They are inevitably interdependent”  (Tucker 2015, 188). Our term for this is sustainability, as in our vision of a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society.

The shadow cast by this individualistic and anthropocentric tenet so darkens the human community and hides our inextricable dependence on the biosphere that our relationships recede from our sight. Discourse clarification tries to open an insight to see once again that we individuals belong within a larger web of life. At least according to Cobb and his scientific colleague Charles Birch. “Humans should recognize that their arrogance and their efforts to manipulate their environment are destructive of the web of life. In this perspective the need is for a deep spiritual transformation that will lead human beings to experience themselves simply as a part of the whole web and not as agents of purposive change” (Birch 1981, 65).

  • 3 Cost-Benefit analysis applies to every dimension of living. Everything has a price. If we can’t afford it, we become defined by our economic limits. If we can afford it, we believe we can enhance our freedom to become what we choose to be. This quietly persuades us that the value of all things is determined by their price.

Ethically, we become forced to choose between price and dignity. Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) made this clear more than two centuries ago: everything has either a price or a dignity. “A thing has a price if any substitute or equivalent can be found for it. It has dignity or worthiness if it admits of no equivalent (Kant 1956, 36). The reduction of all things to the market’s cost-benefit analysis systematically eliminates dignity. It eliminates the very concept of intrinsic worth

Here is what we can learn from Kant. To confront the ecological crisis, we must break the cost-benefit mythologeme to ask again about intrinsic value. “Discover and value the functioning of ecological systems and the biosphere to achieve their common good—their sustainability—now and into the future” (Schaefer 2005, 812).

To treat Earth as a planet with intrinsic value is the prescription to heal the damage done by cost-benefit analysis. We purchase a healthy environment by sacrificing jobs for workers, we are told by economism’s priests. A healthy ecosphere can only be the result of a trade-off, allegedly.

Richard Norgaard, University of California at Berkeley

According to economism’s myth, the health of our ecosphere is something to be purchased if the price is right. Any other value system which might treasure beauty, knowledge, health, longevity, or moral integrity for their own sakes becomes folded into the exclusive means of evaluating exchange, cost and benefit. What frustrates Richard Norgaard is that within the myth of economism one cannot get enough conceptual leverage to combat anthropogenic climate change on behalf of the future of our planet.

Daly and Cobb provide the leverage with an alternative model for economic thinking. “We call for rethinking economics on the basis of a new concept of Homo economicus as person-in-community,” and that community includes the common good shared by the entire web of life (Daly 1989, 164).

Since the 1970s, eco-ethicists have sought in vain to replace market values with the common good. “The snowballing effects of population growth, industrialization spreading to the Third World, the increasing exploitation of non-replaceable fossil and atomic fuels, the continuing push in all parts of the world to increase per capita consumption, the increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers and biocides to boost agricultural yields, are surely problems less in the realm of technique than in the realm of values…. [We need a] fresh vision of man’s place in and the common good of the biotic community of life in the future, for which we yearn and to which we make our present commitment” (Longwood 1973, 479). A value system with the common good in the center. That’s what we need if we are to march toward a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society.

Four decades later while the religion of economism continued its repressive theocracy, in Laudato Sí Pope Francis provided the heterodox idea of a global common good. The Holy Father says flatly what needs to be said: §23. “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” Though cost-benefit reductionism threatens to devour us, the Holy Father trembles not. He challenges the myth of economism, so the common good and the health of our ecosphere become valued for their intrinsic worthiness. With the pope, dignity is back (Peters, Anticipating the Renewal of Earth: Theology and Science in Laudato Si 2017).

  • 4 Personal transcendence is achieved through greed. This is the Greed Creed. Greed is the gasoline that runs the global economy. The human person understood by economists as Homo economicus is engaged in a never-ending competition for resources. Money without morality becomes the exclusive orientating value. Individual greed becomes institutionalized without social responsibility, without factoring in the common good.

Rhetorically, Friedman excludes from economism’s value system any alternative to making money.

“Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible. This is a fundamentally subversive doctrine. If businessmen do have a social responsibility other than making maximum profits for stockholders, how are they to know what it is? Can self-selected private individuals decide what the social interest is?”

Purportedly, the competitive greed of all the individuals put together produces a well-oiled and harmonious global machine that spits out advancement, achievement, wealth, and meaning. Greed becomes morally justified because it contributes simultaneously to one’s own material advance as well as the growth of the world’s wellbeing.

An Invisible Hand, according to Adam Smith, transmutes individual profit motives into economic health for the entire society. “Every individual…intends only his own gain, and he is…led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention….By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

GREED. Robert Reich. University of California at Berkeley.

With the invisible hand, economism includes a doctrine of God, according to which divine providence transmogrifies your and my greed into a divinely graced economic system. You and I need not personally embrace the common good. God does it for us. Does this represent sound theology?

Not according to Yale theologian Kathryn Tanner. She decries the “incredible forms of income and wealth inequality that are associated with finance capitalism. And certainly those, the effects of those forms of inequality on healthcare outcomes, the COVID rates, et cetera, especially in Black and Brown communities has been overwhelmingly salient. So that’s obviously of continued concern.” The so-called invisible hand does not protect the poor from the greed of the rich.

Daly and Cobb fear what the doctrine of unbridled individual pursuit of wealth devoid of social responsibility supports. Daly and Cobb see a big difference between economism’s doctrine of God and that of traditional Christianity.

“Calvinism encourages other-regarding behavior as truly Christian even while warning against believing too readily in its reality. Catholicism encourages other-regarding behavior as a natural virtue. When Christianity was dominant, these forces checked blatantly self-seeking activity, although they certainly did not prevent it. But economists have taught us to think that checks on self-interest are both unnecessary and harmful. It is through rational behavior, which means self-interested behavior, that all benefit the most” (Daly 1989, 6).

But, as climatologists attest, this is not working. The invisible hand seems to be slapping us rather than guiding us.

The unrecognized shadow here is that greed is a form of sin. Greed is an ancient foe, forsworn to work us woe. “Greed is an idol,” wrote pioneer public theologian Abraham Kuyper in 1895. “The soul’s treasure is not gold but grace” (Kuyper 2022, 83).

It is as astounding as it is confounding that a “prosperity gospel” has arisen that baptizes economism. We can find worshippers of Jesus who measure their faith by their profits. Like wheat and tares, it’s a challenge to sift and sort genuine from false discipleship. Public theologian Benjamin Corey, a Patheos columnist, renders a judgment. “The prosperity gospel is a gospel of more, and that completely stands against what Christianity is about.”

Two characteristics of greed make it a destructive threat that will never go away on its own: (1) mimetic desire–desiring what others desire only because others desire it–that propels greed beyond need in such a way that rivalry and then violence result. In sum, greed leads to violence. And (2) the satisfaction of wants becomes impossible because greed is insatiable. A theology that tells us to live an ungodly life and then expect God to make it right ought to be suspect.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will have none of this. He cannot endorse greed. He can only endorse personal virtue. Williams affirms the common good but adds more. He contends that the Christian theologian aspires to an economic philosophy that encourages personal virtue right along with the common good. “So the contribution of theology to economic decision-making is not only about raising questions concerning the common good…But we need also to look with the greatest of care at what is being assumed and what is being actively promoted by our economic practices about human motivation, about character and integrity.”

Literary Critic Rene Girard (Photo by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Let me draw out some additional implications of this greed principle. The greed tenet renders false the assumption on the part of many economists that the economy is a competition for scarce resources. Why? Because even without scarcity we would have competition and violence.  Because of mimetic desire, argues René Girard, (1923-2015), “violence is thus generated” (Girard 2002, 12).  Martin Luther personified insatiability as Sir Greed. “Sir Greed is such a jolly guest that he does not let anyone rest. He seeks, pushes, and hunts without stopping, so that he cannot enjoy his precious property for a single hour” (Luther 1955-1986, 16:16). What traditional theologians have learned is that once the greed monster has been let loose, it knows no end to its appetite. Greed will sacrifice the common good on its own altar.

  • 5 The American Dream is attainable by anyone who works hard. Freedom, according to the myth of economism, includes the opportunity for prosperity and success in terms of upward social mobility regardless of one’s status at birth. Historian James Truslow Adams gave this faith a name, the American Dream, in 1931. Accordingly, life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.[5]

The American Dream is made up of two components. Here is the first: the dreamer must be deserving of reward. Hard work is the purported criterion by which deserving virtue or merit is measured.

Here is the second component of the American Dream: the economic system–the market–can be relied upon to distribute rewards to the deserving. Whereas premodern religion relied upon the judgment of God to reward virtuous lives or meritorious works, in modern economism the secular market has taken over God’s role. God has lost the job as judge, and now the market separates the deserving sheep from the undeserving goats.

The shadow side is that the American Dream can become a frustrating nightmare for the so-called undeserving. Since the early 1980s, the class structure in the United States has been changing so that today only 1% of the population holds between 34% and 39% of private wealth, and the top 5% hold between 66% and 72%. The middle class is shrinking while the lower class is expanding (Dorrien 4/11/2011, 25). Working two jobs becomes the mark of the undeserving lower class, while windfall profits from hedge funds identifies the deserving.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

The situation is worst for an African American who is tacitly designated “undeserving” by an underlying racist ethos. “I have seen that dream all my life,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways (Coates 2015, 11).” But, this dream is limited to those of the purportedly deserving race. “The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a man” (Coates 2015, 60).

Even though hard work is the theoretical criterion of the deserving according to the American Dream, in practice the market discriminates against hard-working persons who may be born into the wrong race, gender, or other marginal group. For those who in their own strengths confide, their striving turns to losing.

  • 6 Growth is our savior. Continued and uninterrupted economic growth belongs to our destiny and will over time provide all that the human race needs: good health, financial security, maximum freedom, national dominance, and luxury. “Economism is the belief that primary devotion should be directed to the expansion of the economy….it is argued that economic growth makes possible improvements in health and education….market activities that make for economic growth also lead to democratic governments and civil rights,” observes Cobb(Cobb, The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank 1999, 28,29,30).

Economist Herman Daly dubs this growthmania. “Economic growth is both the panacea and the summum bonum. It is growthmania” (H. Daly 1988, 110). Daly’s alternative is a Steady State Economy with throughput and outpout within the limiting conditions of “finitude, entropy, and complex ecological interdependence” (H. Daly 1988, 114).]6\

Existentially, our zeal for economic growth elicits within us trust in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Some day, we hope, that invisible hand will hand us the same wealth we see touted by the billionaires in the daily news. Quiz shows and biographies of Silicon Valley heroes or billionaire presidential candidates inspire confidence in a myth which, regrettably, is for the majority only a frustratingly untrue narrative.

On the shadow side, the idea of uninterrupted growth becomes a smokescreen that covers up current economic injustice. The alternative to growth would be immediate government administered distributive justice which appeals to a morality that transcends the economy. But distributive justice administered by government would be anathema, as the next faith tenet of economism as shadow religious myth makes clear.

The shadow cast by trust in economic growth is so dark that eco-theologian Chris Doran dubs it idolatry. “Economic growth is not merely Western culture’s new religion, but perhaps its chief idol. If we make appropriate sacrifices, then consider what economic growth is supposed to give us: a higher standard of living, more participatory democracies, significant alleviation of world poverty, and more leisure time are among its principal promises” (Doran 2017, 107).

Professor Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

Now, I must confess that I have a warm spot in my heart for this tenet of economism: growth saves. Why? Well, it appears to me that efforts to redistribute wealth so that the poor can survive because of the sacrifice of the rich is at best a pipe dream. It’s not likely to happen in our lifetime. Yet, through economic growth, all the poor have the potential for getting lifted up to survival level or above.  “I am not arguing against economic growth per se,” writes my Berkeley colleague Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, an ethicist who teaches eco-justice. She’s concerned that growth be pressed into the service of lifting up all the poor on our planet. “I am arguing vehemently against the assumption that growth unqualified is necessarily a good and that growth is an adequate and accurate indicator of economic wellbeing” (Moe-Lobeda 2013, 102).

Neither Robin Hood who robs from the rich to give to the poor nor appeal to change rich hearts by broadcasting the sad faces of the starving on social media will exact distributive justice on our planet.

A theological argument in support of guided and sustained economic growth is an implication of Christian anthropology when the human race is dubbed the created co-creator, a term coined by Philip Hefner. Human beings are creative. Growth is one thing we create. Edd S. Noell and Steven L.S. Smith observe: “Creativity is free and inexhaustible. Therefore economic growth can proceed, in principle—in the cultural and institutional contexts that allow free rein to creativity—forever.” Further, such ongoing growth can continue to enrich life on this planet in such a way that the environment is sustained and even healed. “A modern Christian case for economic growth is grounded in biblical values affirming the goodness of the material world, creativity, the Imago Dei, the dignity of labor and rest, and the exercise of economic freedoms in stewardship guided by wisdom in risk-taking. Such values embody a vision of human flourishing as being sustained in part by generating value-added in the stewardship task.”

Regarding inequality, even if the rich refuse to give to the poor, economic growth can in principle sweep the poor up the economic ladder to survivability. Economic growth provides surplus value.

  • 7 Government restriction on freedom of production is evil, plain and simple. The ready-to-hand instrument for economic justice is a government oriented toward the common good. Through taxes and spending, a conscientious government can ensure that each person’s basic need is met before some person’s excessive greed. Need before greed. 

Is such government action a tenet of economism’s belief system? Not on your life.

 “To the liberal,” writes Friedman referring more precisely to the libertarian, “the appropriate means are free discussion and voluntary cooperation, which implies that any type of coercion [especially governmental coercion] is inappropriate” (Friedman 1962, 22). The question is not whether government restrictions are wise or fair. Rather, the mere existence of government influence is to be denounced. “He who governs least governs best,” is the libertarian slogan. Today’s economism is a holdover of the laissez faire capitalism of the nineteenth century robber barons.

Imagine attending worship at the church of economism. Here’s what a visiting preacher might say about remedying inequality in the sermon. “Redistribution is not the only thing that a government can do with tax revenues; it can also spend money on services for society in general” (Kwak 2017, 105). But, here’s what the choir would sing in antiphonal opposition. “The idea that higher taxes discourage people from working and therefore make society worse off is probably the single most deeply entrenched tenet of economism” (Kwak 2017, 91). The result of believing this? Nothing changes.

The shadow side of the utterly free market is this: once government removes itself from governing, the robber barons will immediately reappear. The free market will overnight become unfree. The Christian view of human nature, which includes the concept of sin, makes elementary the forecasting a world which devils fill.

The idea of a free market is part of the myth. And its mythical role casts a shadow that renders enlightened understanding difficult. “The free market is a myth,” contends former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (Reich, Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few 2015, 6).

This myth misleads us into formulating the issue as an alleged conflict: free market versus large government. In fact, the size of government is irrelevant. What is relevant is the list of rules for the market set by the government. Today’s growing disparity between rich and poor is due to the influence of large corporations on government which, in turn, legislates market rules favoring the rich and disfavoring the working class. If capitalism is to be saved, warns Reich, the government’s rules must be reset so as to insure a more equitable distribution of wealth (Reich, Saving Capitalism For the Many, Not the Few 2015, 218-219).

As Reich suggests, some social force in addition to the market is necessary to structure manufacturing and commerce around the common good? Would that force be government?

This question does not prompt theological critics of economism to leap immediately to total government control. “On the one hand, a strong case can be made…for the position that at least some autonomy of the economic realm vis-a-vis the political realm is a necessary condition for political and therefore even religious freedom,” writes David Ray Griffin. “On the other hand, this separation has encouraged all sorts of disastrous consequences…neither the present capitalist system nor some form of Marxist socialism…is acceptable” (Griffin 1988, 19).

This leads Daly and Cobb to proclaim, ” Our hope is to move forward to a new type of economy different from either capitalism or socialism as they have been understood in the past” (Griffin 1988, 20).

Beyond the Greed Creed to the Common Good

Just, Sustainable, Participatory, and Planetary Society.

The greed creed has no friends among the great religious traditions of history. Dharma scholar Rita Sherma reminds us.

“Amongst the diverse resources of religious worlds for such an effort are (1) an inherent critique of consumption and hyper-materialism by the sacred texts of almost all religions; (2) emphasis on community rather than self-centeredness; (3) elevation of simplicity rather than hyper-consumptive materialism; and (4) an integral relationship to nature espoused by sources as diverse as the Shinto philosophy of interrelated intricacy, Buddhist metaphysics, the theology of St. Francis of Assisi, Judaism’s principle of the Jubilee (the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita), and the human ecology of the Hindu Vedas” (Sherma 2022, 39).

By listing these tenets of economism replete with their shadow side, we have been engaging in discourse clarification. This must be the first step in dislodging the dominance of this belief system in our soul and in our society. “If we are to reduce the pernicious influence of economism in contemporary society,” says Kwak, “the first step is to call it out for what it is: a distorted worldview based on a misleading caricature of economic knowledge” (Kwak 2017, 186-187).

Let’s try to make this point another way. This list of tenets of economism constitute fantasy faith commitments. They do not rest upon reason or historical precedent. Nor do they adhere to any ethical theory which envisions a future oriented toward the common good of all creatures. Quite obviously, these tenets express the self-justification of the rich and those who aspire to be rich. If we interpret our everyday life solely through the lens of economism, we will become blind to the injustice borne by the poor and deaf to the cry of the environment.

Here is the decisive observation: “Market cannot solve hunger and poverty. They can only accelerate these scourges.” This is the judgment of M.A. Oommen, Distinguished Fellow, Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, Trivandrum, India. Extra-market morally regulated policy and action are required for economic justice.

Free market versus regulated market? Injustice done to the poor or unwillingness to pay for a sustainable environment are not in themselves necessary to a healthy global economy. As mentioned above, there’s a struggle going on between two schools of thought: the totally unregulated or free market school versus the government regulated school. Here’s the point: both are dialects of the one language of economese. There is an option for a priest in the church of economism to preach about a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society.


His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. “The Green Pope”

On the one hand, our problem is one of perception. We look through the lenses of economism to perceive reality. And we perceive a distorted reality. On the other hand, our problem is one of sin. The sin of greed dims the light so that what economism teaches is what we want to learn. Might repentance from sin lead to enlightenment? “We tend to call this an ‘ecological’ crisis, which is a fair description in so far as its results are manifested in the ecological sphere,” observes John Chryssavgis, speaking on behalf of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. “Yet, the crisis is not first of all ecological. It is a crisis concerning the way we perceive reality, the way we imagine or image our world.” In the next post, we will re-imagine our world as a just, sustainable, participatory and planetary society oriented toward the global common good.

Ted Peters

Ted Peters pursues Public Theology at the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and public policy. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His book, God in Cosmic History, traces the rise of the Axial religions 2500 years ago. He previously authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website:


This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot.

[1] Both John Neville Keynes and Milton Friedman agree on a key distinction between positive economics and normative economics. Positive economics aspires to be scientific and explains what is. Normative economics prescribes what ought to be. Economism is a myth enveloping global consciousness which presumes that virtually all-important human values must be translated into economic values, a normativity which appears to be scientific at the level of assumption.


[2] I have benefited in part by two differing lists of economism’s tenets. One is offered by Richard B. Norgaard, Jessica J. Goddard, and Jalel Sager, “Economics, Economism, and Ecological Crisis,” in the Routledge Handbook on Religion and Ecology, eds., Willis Jenkins, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (London: Routledge, 2016). The other is offered by John Cobb  (Cobb, The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank 1999, 28-30).


[3] Freedom is not for everyone, at least according to economism. “Freedom is a tenable objective only for responsible individuals. We do not believe in freedom for madmen or children” (Friedman 1962, 34). The individualist understanding of freedom, from the contrary perspective of Cobb, is inextricably tied to solidarity with the entire human race. “We are individuals, but we are individuals who participate in one another and cannot be saved in isolation” (Cobb, Process Theology as Political Theology 1982, 96)..


[4] “As liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements” (Friedman 1962, 13). In Friedman’s theory, the basic economic unit can be the household, not necessarily the individual. Be that as it may, the libertarian autonomy of each economic unit implies political anarchy, according to critic Andrew Chrucky. The very idea of independent individuals or households at liberty to initiate economic relationships could at best apply to pre-modern rural economies, not a modern industrial economy where every sector is already in interdependent relationship. Friedman “cannot be talking about any present industrial society: there are no societies with independent households in the industrialized world; all such societies are found in primitive, i.e., unindustrialized communities. So, he is imagining either a primitive society, an ideal one, or a purely fictitious one.” Andrew Chrucky, “Milton Friedman’s Hidden Anarchism in Capitalism and Freedom” (April 8, 2008) (accessed 4/8/2016). Friedman would defend himself by advocating that some government is needed to enforce law and maintain justice. “The consistent liberal is not an anarchist” (Friedman 1962, 34). [5] “The American dream is basically nothing other than the transferal of the European dream of America to American soil” (Moltmann 1990, 148). [6] Theologian Myoung-Ho Sin follows Daly. “Over the centuries, economic growth has contributed to liberating individuals from feudal hierarchical authorities and opened the way to abundant goods and services. Wealth, trade, and other achievements were of such importance that the negative effects were treated as a necessary price for prosperity and progress. But in recent decades, these positive effects have become less evident due to the rise of inequality while destructive consequences such as environmental degradation and human exploitation have become more obvious” (Sin 2022, 188).


Adams, James Truslow. 1931. The Epic of America. New York: Simon.

Birch, Charles, and John Cobb. 1981. The Liberation of Life. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chung, Paul. 2016. Postcolonial Public Theology: Faith, Scientific Rationality, and Prophetic Dialogue. Eugene OR: Cascade Books.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel and Grau.

Cobb, John. 1982. Process Theology as Political Theology. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox.

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About Ted Peters
Ted Peters pursues Public Theology at the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and public policy. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His book, God in Cosmic History, traces the rise of the Axial religions 2500 years ago. He previously authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: You can read more about the author here.

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