free market as religion :: economics as theology

“Our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism makes it more apparent that the Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as ‘secular.’” (15)

It is important to pay attention to the conceptual employment of both “secularity” and “religion.” Both concepts have shifted their content so that they demarcate autonomous spheres of ethical thinking. “Religion” is an abstract term that enables the speaker to lump incredibly diverse worldviews together in a single term, and generally, to contrast them to something else. “Religion” is the corral which contains a certain motley collection of worldviews in order to open space for the “secular.” The “secular” on the other hand is the “real” world in which thought is reduced to basic material and utilitarian terms, without the distraction of (private) values, beliefs, or metaphysical constraints. Past traditions (with their encumbering and superstitious restrictions) and any sense of the intrinsic importance of wild beauty or freedom are “external” considerations, things for other people to worry about in private—after all we live in the real world, the public sphere. 

“Although it may offend our vanity, it is somewhat ludicrous to think of conventional religious institutions as we know them today serving a significant role in solving the environmental crisis. Their more immediate problem is whether they, like the rain forests we anxiously monitor, will survive in any recognizable form the onslaught of this new religion.” (15) 

In exchange for a deeply grounded identity and a place in the ecological whole of the planet, we receive the consumer frills of a culture burning all the world’s candles at both ends. This “plenty” for which we endlessly labor is, supposedly, heaven. Or at least a third-rate knock off. Because perhaps, in the end, this is the heaven we’ve been imagining since Dante—divorced from the world that we know, from rocks, trees, lions and lambs. The (unreachable, but always “close”) heaven of the Market is that insipid climate-controlled cloud where nothing interesting ever happens because we’ve finally isolated ourselves from all of nature’s unpredictability (btw, there’s harp music for $2, if that’s your thing). 

“Market capitalism began as, and may still be understood as, a form of salvation religion: dissatisfied with the world as it is and seeking to inject a new promise into it, motivated (and justifying itself) by faith in the grace of profit and concerned to perpetuate that grace, with a missionary zeal to expand and reorder (rationalize) the economic system [where its ‘good news’ has not yet reached].” (19)

The myth of “secularity” is that a society can exist without some fundamentally orienting value distinctions (even a plurality), without some basic ordering of perception, and interaction with, the world. As it turns out, it cannot—the basic order appears implicitly and unacknowledged rather than consciously. When the free market is understood as the source of these fundamental value distinctions, even though it is supposedly “secular,” one recognizes its religious function in our lives. One corollary of this is that the “Separation of Church and State” is revealed to be a myth—without even entering into a debate about evolution or prayer in schools. Our “State” has a deeply vested interest in the national Establishment faith, the progress of the market. 

“Until the last few centuries there has been little genuine distinction between church and state, between sacred authority and secular power, and that cozy relationship continues today: far from maintaining an effective regulatory or even neutral position, the U.S. government has become the most powerful proponent of the religion of market capitalism as the way to live, and indeed it may have little choice insofar as it is now a pimp dependent upon skimming the cream of market profits.” (21) 

The most pressing theological tasks of the present include “publicly” exposing the (invisibly) idolatrous invasions of the market into the life and well-being of the planet; and narrating a tradition with a strong sense of identity rooted in a deep and complex history—a community with open boundaries and a promiscuous invitation.

 

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All quotes from:

Loy, David. “The Religion of the Market.” In Visions of a New Earth: Religious Perspectives on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, 15-28 Ed. Harold Coward and Daniel Maguire. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

seven hundred billion

“Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.”

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National Conference of Catholic Bishops 1986, §24.

David Bentley Hart :: Nietzsche and the Market

In a book that I’ve enjoyed immensely, I came across what is likely the most ingenious footnote I’ve ever read. Hart is in the midst of an argument connecting the postmodern deconstructionist philosophers and the logic of capitalism, arguing that both reinforce the absolute freedom of choice for selves increasingly isolated and punctual. According to both, no power may be allowed to dominate the public space in such a way that choices are determined for the others—every identity is held in check by the inviolable “other-ness” of every other; thus, every self must be given the space to choose between all the possible identities available (all of them bound in place side by side as equivalent products on the shelf, each with a different wrapper). As Hart was dealing with Nietzsche in particular, he offered the footnote that delighted me at the tail end of this sentence: 

Nietzsche, however much he detested bourgeois values, perhaps knew not which god he served.

And here is the note itself: 

Nietzsche’s avowed god, Dionysus, is of course an endlessly protean and deceptive deity and a wearer of many masks. When he makes his unannounced appearance at the end of Beyond Good and Evil, as its secret protagonist, whose divine irony has occultly enlivened its pages, he exercises his uniquely divine gift, the numinous privilege of veiling and unveiling, concealment and manifestation; he is the patron deity, appropriately of the philosophical project of genealogy. But perhaps another veil remains to be lifted, and the god may be invited to step forth again, in his still more essential identity: Henry Ford. After all, Ford’s most concise and oracular pronouncement—“History is bunk!”—might be read as an exquisite condensation of the theme of the second of the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen (…). And there could scarcely be a more vibrant image of univocity’s perpetual beat of repetition—of eternal recurrence, the eternal return of the same—than the assembly line: difference here is certainly not analogical, but merely univocal, and the affirmation of one instance is an affirmation of the whole. It is moreover, well documented that Ford was a devotee of square dancing, which is clearly akin to (perhaps descended from) the dithyrambic choreia of the bacchantes; Ford was a god who danced. 

Hart’s argument is, of course, quite serious, but it is refreshing to see someone argue with such a wry smile visible between the lines. And one can hardly help but laugh at the picture of Nietzsche as the devotee of a square dancing magnate of the auto industry. 

David Bentley Hart,  The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 435. 

 

varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality”

Series Index

I’ll admit that it has taken me longer than I would have liked to get around to writing a summary of my thoughts about the conference (which was now a month ago!), but “late” and “never” are still two different categories.

The first thing that I’d like to offer comments on deals with the papers offered by many of the conference speakers. A common theme among many of the presenting scholars was a search for something along the lines of a “secular spirituality,” though the shape of that quest was portrayed diversely by those considering it a worthwhile goal.

Simon During described in great detail a particular moment in which a novel’s main character finds an ordinary street corner, on an otherwise drab afternoon, to be suddenly and spectacularly remarkable. He refrains from attaching any meaning to the conjunction of cement, pavement, tufts of grass in the cracks, and sunshine, but nonetheless finds the sheer existence of such a scene, its “here-ness,” to be an uplifting and motivating experience. The unlikeliness of the whole thing coming together in just this way is cause for something like reverence—but it is a reverence entirely bound within the scene itself. During calls this a moment of “mundanity” and he speaks of the “mundane” as something which exists outside both the religious and the secular.
Continue reading “varieties of secularism :: comments (1) “secular spirituality””

the promise of political salvation :: politics as religion

The other day, one of Barack Obama’s speeches lit-up all my “political messianism” warning lights.

In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

To be parsimonious, I’m pretty sure that I can refute that statement with two words: Manifest Destiny.

Whether or not you think there has ever been anything false about American hopes depends, more or less, on whether you are driving the covered wagon or lying in the ruts and reservations left behind. If you have not seen the speech/music video in which the line appears, you are in for a treat. Here is a political liturgy that tells us where power lies, and who we ought to become:

My main point, however, is to point to an excellent interview: Paul Kennedy speaking with John Gray on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Ideas. The program is available for download (scroll down to “Utopian Dreams”), and presents Gray’s argument that the “secular” politics of the last two centuries have co-opted religious devotion and eschatological expectation in grand narratives that order human life in the present. He is speaking as much about neo-conservative agendas for the triumph of democracy as the Marxist end-times revolution. Politics is at its best, he insists, when it aims toward the modest goal of helping folks get along. The program is well worth your listening.

“we have no objection in principle to people eating” :: starving is good for you… [but not us]

I came across an abolutely stunning interview today with an official in the Zimbabwean government. The interview was conducted at the end of July, I’m posting it here not because it’s new, but because any embarrasment for the tyrannical government in Zimbabwe is one step closer to its removal. By God’s mercy, may the next leaders of Zimbabwe be wiser than these.

In the course of this interview, the official actually compares the starvation rampant in Zimbabwe (and attributable to government violence and mismanagement), to Ghandi’s political fasts. He actually says that the government officials are eating well (because of all the important things they have to do) and imposing a fast on the nation for the people’s health. Continue reading ““we have no objection in principle to people eating” :: starving is good for you… [but not us]”