New York Times
January 30, 1999
Beliefs Column: Carrying Economics Into Religion
By PETER STEINFELSOver the last 300 years, religion and economics have come to constitute distinctly different spheres, talking two conceptually different languages.
They may address each other, as when Pope John Paul II called again in Mexico City for solidarity with the hemisphere's poor.
But economists, however sympathetic to such appeals, bristle when morals get mixed up with economic analysis.
And theologians turn very nervous when someone like William James begins to talk about the "cash value" of religious beliefs, as if the sacred could be given a price tag.
Piping up from the religious side of the chasm, however, Jon P. Gunnemann has recently proposed that the migration of economic metaphors into religion and theology can be beneficial.
Professor Gunnemann, who teaches social ethics at Emory University, spent last fall at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School, and his argument appears in the latest issue of the center's quarterly publication, Religion and Values in Public Life.
To begin with, Professor Gunnemann notes that the Bible is full of economic metaphors, in talk of redemption, debt and bond, and, of course, in many of the parables of Jesus.
"We cannot help but think economically," he concludes.
Moreover, such religious use of economic concepts can have a beneficial feedback on economic thinking, or so he maintains in an inventive look at the concept of "capital."
Traditionally, capital was one of the three elements of production, along with natural resources and labor.
Capital was the translation of wealth into machinery, buildings or other equipment that increased the efficiency with which labor could transform raw materials into products.
Capitalism was the system under which the accumulator of such capital controlled production and had first claims on rewards.
Professor Gunnemann traces the recent expansion of the concept of capital among economists.
Environmental economists, for example, have come to talk about "natural capital" in reference to fossil fuels, soil, plants, animals and ecological systems generally. And then there is the even more widespread notion of "human capital," a term employed in analysis of how investments in education and training increase productivity.
This, of course, has given rise to talk of "social capital" or "cultural capital," referring to all the social, communal and moral resources that hold a society together and make it productive.
Which brings Professor Gunnemann to "religious capital."
"It can be argued that much of the modern economy depends on religious capital," on everything from the psychological renewal that churchgoers get from their weekly worship to the legitimation that religious teachings may provide for private property or capitalism.
This interjection of the language of economics into religion would seemingly be of little reassurance to those who suspect that such a process merely blesses the economic status quo.
But Professor Gunnemann proceeds to an analysis of just how different human and religious capital are from the customary kind.
The goods that human capital traffics in consist primarily of people themselves and the relationships among them, he says, and therefore "cannot be sold." And at least some of those goods, consisting of cooperative practices and virtues, are unlike many other goods in the sense that their possession by some people does not preclude their possession by others.
One could say that sanctity may be a rare good but not a scarce one.
Perhaps the difference between religious capital and the customary sort is made most striking when Professor Gunnemann observes that one source of the former "lies in the grace of forgiveness, the free canceling of debt."
"Without forgiveness and the rituals connected to it, religious capital and human cooperation could not be sustained," he says. Such abundance of grace "provides the symbolic and actual practices that build, repair and maintain human communities."
What generates religious capital? Well, a whole range of practices and institutions, from hymn-singing to prayer and meditation, the professor says; and ultimately, believers "name the source God."
Professor Gunnemann draws some practical conclusions from this analysis, and most are critical of the way that economic capital has been "living profligately off its natural and social inheritance, not bothering to inquire about its own sources."
Further, "the ownership of capital can never be absolute," he says. "At the very least there is a strong justification for seeing productive capital as a trust and taxing it in order to protect and mend natural and social capital." He believes his analysis may even point "toward a more egalitarian distribution of wealth."
Since Professor Gunnemann, at this point, sounds very much like John Paul II, some people may ask what was the point of his whole complicated exercise.
His answer is simply that "the migration of the metaphor of capital" to the worlds of nature, culture and religion opens economics to unexplored truths about itself.
Meanwhile, he takes comfort in a remark by John Kenneth Galbraith that economics has always been 95 percent theology and 5 percent science anyway.
Galbraith, of course, did not make that remark with the intention of complimenting either economics or theology.