Economism vs Common Good Part Three

Economism vs Common Good Part Three August 19, 2022

Demythicizing Economism

Common Good Part Three

Silver Dollar

Just as the Philistine Giant Goliath bellowed threats to the cowering Hebrew army (1 Samuel1 17), economism has buffaloed and bullied our nation and our planet into surrendering to its myth. Might God raise up a humble warrior such as young David to engage the giant in combat?

Here, we will emulate David’s courage. Although the battle appears hopeless, we will carefully place two stones in our sling shot to attack the giant. We will select demythicization plus the common good. Will these hit their mark?

Continuing what we began in the previous posts–Politics vs. Common Good Governing: Part One and Economism vs. Common Good: Part Two— , we will engage in demythicizing economism. More commonly, we plan on myth-busting economism.

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

Goliath: Economism

By the Goliath economism we refer to a set of beliefs that functions mythically in our worldview. Our economic beliefs provide a conceptual set of presuppositions we assume to be true without critical reflection. Like lenses over our eyes, they determine our very perception of reality. These presupposed beliefs define our epoch as the econocene. “It [economism] functions as an unspoken worldview,” says law professor and founder of Baseline Scenario, James Kwak. Economism provides “a framework that people use for interpreting social reality, a style of thinking that shapes, consciously or unconsciously, their values and preferences”(Kwak, 2017, 10).

Following economist Richard B. Norgaard and theologian John B. Cobb, Jr., we dub economism’s beliefs to constitute a religious dimension within our culture. Whether or not we consciously realize it, we hold membership in the church of economism.

Recall our distinction between demythologizing and demythicizing. I do not engage only in demythologizing, which is a form of interpreting a myth while living within the myth’s world of meaning. Rather, by demythicizing economism, I intend to liberate us from the grip of thinking only in economic terms when confronting economic injustice combined with threats to planetary wellbeing. We need language and symbols and values that orient us toward a planetary common good. We need a supra-economic vision of a just, sustainable, participatory, and planetary society to guide the ethics of our institutions.

This is the third in our series on the common good. In the first I alerted readers to grass roots support for common good governing. In the second, I announced our agenda: myth-busting economism. Here in the third post, I will uncover and disclose what lies hidden before our very eyes, namely, the myth of economism.

 Is Economism a Religion? a Myth? or Both?

“Why are you wearing black?” I asked my teaching teammate in the Energy and Resources Program at the University of California at Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union, Professor Richard Norgaard. He was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and black shoes. I bet his socks were black too, but I didn’t check. We were co-teaching a course dealing with religious and ethical perspectives on environmental science. It had just dawned on me that this was the wardrobe he routinely wore to every class. I suddenly realized that I can be slow to observe the obvious.

Global Warming.

“I’m in mourning for our planet,” he answered.

“In mourning? Are you without hope?”

“Since the year 2000, I wake up each morning and ask myself what I should wear. When the thought enters my mind that today, just as yesterday, our nation is still in the grip of economism with its unrestrained greed and disregard for the future of our planet, I decide once again to wear black. I mourn.”

Economism is the term Richard Norgaard elects to describe economic theory as a religion in disguise. Worse. It is a destructive religion at that. Homo sapiens on Planet Earth have entered the Econocene era, he observes. We are at the stage in human evolution where human minds, beliefs, daily aspirations, institutions, and measurements of history are filtered and framed through a single dominating lens, namely, the economic narrative regarding what constitutes reality.

Economism provides the twenty-first century with its conceptual set, its worldview, its myth through which we understand ourselves and interpret the course of both personal and political events. Because of the totalization of the economic metanarrative, economism functions nearly invisibly as the religion which unites America if not the world across ethnic boundaries.

Economist Norgaard is not alone. With equal vehemence, process theologian John Cobb views economism as an idolatrous religion. “Economism functions today as our shared religion….From a Christian point of view, it is the idolatrous worship of mammon” (Cobb, The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank 1999, 1). Might Norgaard and Cobb agree on a theological analysis of the economy? Yes.

Richard Norgaard, University of California at Berkeley

Economist Norgaard has reluctantly found himself in the business of religion. He’d like to convert from economism to something better. Whereas the church of economism estranges the human race from Earth, Norgaard prophesies a vision of an as-yet-unnamed global moral renewal that readies us for reformation, or better, for supersession. Might public theologians and ethicists aid in this vision construction?

I offer one modest amendment to Norgaard’s description of economism as a religion. Although describing economism as a religion helps illuminate some aspects of our present situation, one point I wish to make is the following: if we employ the term, myth, as an analytical tool, we will gain more direct access to the near invisible manner in which economism governs today’s culture. I recommend we think of economism as a myth. By ‘myth” I mean a cultural mind-set, a frame of interpretation which heavily influences our view of reality.[1] My employment of myth overlaps largely though not exhaustively with Norgaard’s term, religion, and I hope it adds illumination.

Demythicizing Economism

Once designated a myth, economism becomes subject to de-mythologizing, to an interpretation that exposes its existential and moral underframe. The myth metaphor will prompt us then to de-mythologize–perhaps better, de-mythicize–economism, breaking its grip on the modern mind.

Isaiah 11. Is the Peaceable Kingdom only a heavenly dream? Or, is it God’s promised future?

In place of this myth I offer a biblical vision of God’s promised future, a transformed future prefigured in Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb (Isaiah 11). This prophetic vision opens the human imagination to ask two key ethical questions: (1) should the rich help the poor? and (2) does a vision of the common good bridge God’s eschatological promise with today’s economic possibilities? I will answer both of the questions in the affirmative.

These questions are important because postcolonial critics of the global economy liken the market to an enslavement from which we need to be liberated. According to R.S. Sugirtharaja, the postcolonial “task today is not territorial emancipation but freedom from the control of the market” (Sugirtharajah 2012, 134). The role that economism understood as religion or myth plays is akin to an opiate, as Marx and Lenin might aver, to inoculate us against the pain of environmental degradation.

The economic-environmental crisis drove John Cobb along with Nobel Prize winning economist Herman Daly to produce a most prescient book in 1989, For the Common Good. The delusion of Homo economicus as an individual with no regard for the welfare of the larger biosphere needs to be corrected with a new global economic system, they contend. “We call for rethinking economics on the basis of a new concept of Homo economicus as person-in-community” (Daly 1989, 164).      Each of us is a person-in-community, in community with the entire web of life that makes our planet green with fertility.

Economics as hidden religion? Really?

“Religion is inherently at play in public morality,” writes eco-justice ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda. “The question is not whether but how” (Moe-Lobeda 2013, 9). Uncovering just how our economic belief system functions mythically requires fanning away the dust cloud that hides it.

Why might one even suggest that economics could create its own religion? After all, economics deals with the material world whereas religion deals with what is spiritual, right? In addition, economics does not enlist church memberships or belief systems or moral codes, right? Economics is based on science, whereas religious people live out of faith, right? Economics can be sharply distinguished from politics and culture, right? No, none of this is right. In fact, all these assumptions kick up a cloud of dust which hides the invisible religious character of economism. Here is how Norgaard describes economism.

“Our concern here is with economism as a widely held system of faith. This modern religion is essential for the maintenance of the global market economy, for justifying personal decisions, and for explaining and rationalizing the cosmos we have created. This uncritical economic creed has colonized other disciplines, including ecology, as ecologists increasingly rely on economistic logic to rationalize the protection of ecosystems. More broadly, economism often works syncretically with the world’s religions even though it violates so many of their basic tenets. A Great Transition is needed to replace economism with an equally powerful and pervasive belief system that embraces the values of solidarity, sustainability, and well-being for all” (Norgaard 2015).

Even though ecnomism–the greed creed–is most dominant in the United States, Norgaard observes that economism has reshaped diverse cultures to become for the planet its “modern secular religion” (Norgaard 2015).[2]

John Cobb, Claremont School of Theology

Theologian Cobb provides a parallel definition: economism is “the belief that the economy is the most important dimension of human life, that the whole of society should be organized around it” (Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Call to Prophetic Action 2010, Chap 7). Once we get the economist and the theologian to agree on nomenclature, we are ready for creative mutual interaction.[3] We are ready for discourse clarification–we are ready for demythicizing economism–, one of the two main tasks of the public theologian.

Hermeneutic of Secular Experience

Within the frame of public theology, my own method for dealing with economism as a secular religion includes a hermeneutic of secular experience. This is a method I have employed elsewhere to analyze the structure of myths that model reality for modern and emerging postmodern culture. The hermeneutic of secular experience–a form of demythologizing, actually–identifies hidden or disguised dimensions of ultimacy which lurk below the surface of secular practices or ideologies, dimensions of ultimacy which interpret reality in such a way that they enlist faithful adherence.[4] Subsequent to this demythologizing of secular experience, I then try to de-mythicize the myth that governs so much of our social and cultural thinking.[5] First, demythologize economism. Then, demythicize economism.

Of the four main social drivers–economics, politics, culture, and communication–the churches and other religious institutions may lack economic or political power but they have access to culture. The path to public policy for the church is through culture, and demythicising economism is the first step to influencing public reaction to, if not resistance to, the economy.

Just, Sustainable, Participatory, and Planetary Society.

With this method in hand, we turn now to economism in more detail to uncover the mythical framework through which existential and moral questions get posed. That we are dealing with the dimension of ultimacy is clear when we recall the rise of the discipline of economics over the last century. One of the founders of the market-oriented Chicago school of economics, Frank Knight, already in 1932 declared that economics would have to become the equivalent of a religion with basic tenets hidden from public view. “There must be ultimates, and they must be religious” contended Knight. He went on to propose that if someone were to question the purported “objectivity” of economic tenets the questioner should be treated as if in violation of what is sacred. “To inquire into the ultimates behind accepted group values is obscene and sacrilegious,” he added (F. Knight 1932). We today can see how nearly a century ago the discipline of economics was deliberately taking on dogmatic status with an authority that relegates criticism to heterodoxy (F. a. Knight 2015). Move over religion! Economics wants to take your place!

 When in religion a dogma is proclaimed, then it becomes easy to draw a line between orthodox and heterodox alternatives. This does not exactly apply to economism, however. What turns economic theory into the religion of economism is not outright dogma. Rather, it is the power of its submerged myth to screen the questions society asks. Its presupposed conceptual set functions to filter language and ideas in such a way that our mental assessments and values become pre-structured, so to speak. Relentless economic discourse fogs our minds with interpretations of reality offered hourly in radio, television, and internet communications. The televised Sunday morning worship services of the 1950s have been gradually replaced with stock market reports, economic projections, and investor hand ringing. Hunting bear has been replaced by bear markets, and milking cows with bull markets.

Economism’s Creedal Doctrines

Through discourse clarification, we can sift through what is said to the unsaid. We can search the presuppositions to find the dogmas. Here is what we find: the tenets of belief in the creed of economism.[6] On the one hand, these beliefs are promulgated as dogmas by the high priests of neo-liberalism. On the other hand, we the hoi polloi simply accept them as dogma, usually without question. This widespread acceptance makes them virtually invisible as creedal commitments. 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. (The Greed Creed)
  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.

What’s the Problem?

The problem posed by economism is threefold: (1) economic injustice; (2) ecological deterioration; and (3) degradation of the human soul.

Degradation of the human soul is almost forgotten by today’s progressive theologians. But, the soul’s health was paramount at the birth of liberal Protestant theology more than a century ago. Writing in 1895, Dutch public theologian Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) drilled down to the coveting of money in the human heart measured against the teachings of Jesus. “Everything stalks money. Everything thirsts for money. Virtually all senses and thoughts are set on acquiring money. To gain control over money people will use cunning and guile; they will cheat and deceive each other; they will risk the goods of their wives and children, and sometimes even the goods of strangers that have been entrusted to them. Everything is measured by money. Whoever is rich is a celebrated and honored man. This is just what Jesus does not want” (Kuyper 2022, 78-79). What does a healthy soul look like? “The soul’s longing and the heart’s desire must be focused on something entirely different—on spiritual goods, on heavenly goods, on the treasures that neither moth nor rust corrupt and where no thief can break through and steal” (Kuyper 2022, 79).

If we turn our soul toward spiritual flourishing, what do we get? We get ecodomy. Theologians Barbara Rossing and Johan Buitendag employ ecodomy within ecotheology to stress the kairotic dimension of the present moment in the face of God’s eschatological promises. By approaching the ecological crisis from an eschatological or even apocalyptic perspective,  the concept of ecodomy will “help us envision future hope for a new creation and life on earth. If ecodomy is eschatology put into practice, it can help us address the climate crisis. We can name our moment as a kairos moment, a moment of hope and urgency. And we can draw on the apocalyptic witness of Scripture to address this crisis, not with despair but with hope – hope for what the Gospel of John calls ‘abundant life’, hope for a renewal of the whole community of earth, the ecodomy, hope for ‘life in all its fullness’.”

What’s Next?

This has been Part Three on demythicizing economism on behalf of the common good. In Part Four of our Common Good series, we will explicate and analyze each of these seven tenets.

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: TedsTimelyTake.com.

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

[1] Where I employ the term myth, Charles Taylor uses social imaginary. With this term, Taylor intends “something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode…rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together  with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations” (Taylor 2007, 71).

 

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
[2] In the tradition of Paul Tillich, Francis Ching-Wah Yip similarly describes capitalism as a religious phenomenon. “Capitalism (or its spirit) is the unconscious faith or religious substance of bourgeois society and has the holy and ecstatic qualities that give it a religious character.” Capitalism as Religion: A Study of Paul Tillich’s Interpretation of Modernity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) 53.

 

[3] I reject the secularization hypothesis. Lutheran theologian, Guillermo Hansen, offers a more nuanced hypothesis. “After the great transformation of modernity, religion does not disappear—it only camouflages itself under a new disguise.”

 

[4] Alternatively, I could call my method political theology in the sense this term is used by followers of Carl Schmitt (Schmitt 2007). Accordingly, theological tools are employed to analyze the tacit theology at work in the nation-state. Another alternative would be the socio-theological method, which parallels the political. The “sociotheological turn means incorporating into social analysis the insider-oriented attempt to understand the reality of a particular worldview” (Juergensmeyer 2013, 944). To my knowledge, there does not yet exist a correlative economic theology.

 

[5] Developed from the work of Paul Tillich and Langdon Gilkey, the hermeneutic of secular experience was the method I employed for uncovering the structure of the gene myth during the era of the Human Genome Project (Gilkey 1976, 151) (Peters, Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom 2nd Ed, 2003). For a delineation of types of myth (Peters, God in Cosmic History: Where Science and Big History Meet Religion 2017, 96-99).
[6] Economism’s creed gets taught in Economics 101 as if it were a science. James Kwak summarizes. “The short summary goes like this: Both individuals and firms possess useful things of value, and they trade with each other in a “market” to get other useful things. Because nobody is ever forced to make a trade (in theory, at least), a transaction occurs only if it makes both parties better off. Under these conditions, prices naturally adjust until supply equals demand. The resulting set of prices makes everyone as well-off as possible. In other words, markets produce the best of all possible worlds”(Kwak, 2017, 18).

References

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

Clague, Julie. 2011. “Political Theologies Ten Years after 9/11″.” Political Theology 12:5 645-659.

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

—. 2010. Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Call to Prophetic Action. Nashville TN: Abingdon.

—. 1999. The Earthist Challenge to Economism: A Theological Critique of the World Bank. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Daly, Herman E. and John Cobb, Jr. 1989. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gilkey, Langdon. 1976. Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History. New York: Seabury Crossroad.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2013. “The Sociotheological Turn.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81:4 939-948.

Knight, Frank. 1932. “The Newer Economics and the Control of Economic Activity.” Journal of Political Economy 40:4 448-476.

Knight, Frank, and Thornton Merriam. 2015. The Economic Order and Religion. Manfield CT: Martino Publishing.

Kuyper, Abraham, 2022. On Charity and Justice: Collected Works in Public Theology. Bellingham WA: Lexham.

Kwak, James, 2017. Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality. New York: Pantheon.

Lee, Hak Joon. 2015. “Public Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology, by eds Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips, 44-65. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper.

Metz, Johannes. 1969. Theology of the World. New York: Herder and Herder.

Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia. 2013. Resisting Structural Evil. Minneapolis MN: Fortress.

Norgaard, Richard. 2015. The Church of Economism and Its Discontents. Online Post, ), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/the-church-of-economism-and-itsdiscontents .

Peters, Ted. 2nd Ed, 2003. Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom. London and New York: Routledge ISBN0-415-94248-0-415-94249-7.

Peters, Ted. 2017. God in Cosmic History: Where Science and Big History Meet Religion. Winona MN: Anselm Academic ISBN 978-1-59982-813-8.

Peters, Ted. 2017. “Demythologizing the Myth of Economism.” Journal of Lutheran Ethics. https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/1211 .

Peters, Ted. 2018. “Public Theology: Its Pastoral, Apologetic, Scientific, Politial, and Prophetic Tasks.” International Journal of Public Theology 12:2 153-177; https://brill.com/abstract/journals/ijpt/12/1/ijpt.12.issue-1.xml.

Peters, Ted. 2018. “Toward a Galactic Common Good.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Public Policy, by ed David Boonin, 827-843. New York: Macmillan Palgrave.

Reich, Robert. 2018. The Common Good. New York: Vintage.

Schmitt, Carl. 2007. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Slessarev-Jamir, Helene. 2011. Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America. New York: New York University Press.

Sugirtharajah, RS. 2012. Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism. Oxford UK: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Tracy, David. 1981. The Analogical Imagination. New York: Crossroad.

 

 

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: TedsTimelyTake.com. This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot. You can read more about the author here.

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