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Utopia and Capitalist Christianity

November 2nd, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Dr. Craig Carter was gracious enough to respond to my write-up of the Wallis-Brooks non-throwdown.  Excerpts and brief replies follow.

What does it mean for society to be "consumerist" or "materialist"? What do these terms even mean? They do have a certain meaning when used within a Marxist analysis of the evils of capitalist society, but is that the same as their meaning within a Christian analysis of sin and sanctification? I suspect not. Many people use a Marxist approach to link economic growth, free enterprise, materialism and consumerism together as part of one great evil called capitalism. This seems to me to confuse matters greatly because the last two items on that list are sinful distortions of the first two items, which themselves are necessary to human flourishing.

I grant that I deployed the terms with a certain sort of looseness in hopes that everyone could get on with a casual recognition of them.   And it seemed that it works, as Dr. Carter (after raising the question) helpfully acknowledges that they are "sinful distortions of [economic growth and free enterprise]."  That is really all I meant to say, namely that the real vices of contemporary society can be decoupled from the economic structures that they currently exist in.  I'd co-opt Chesterton's pithy line about Christianity being tried and found wanting, but I have overextended it already.

But Dr. Carter worries I've gone off the rails in this bit:  "But it does mean that we need to reflect deeply about the best ways to eliminate materialism and consumerism from our structures of thought and our habits of life."

Dr. Carter suggests I've gone in for the Utopian fallacy, or the affirmation of a reality that is intrinsically impossible in our world.  He goes on to say:

Capitalism is an economic system designed for a fallen world in which Christianity has great influence and part of that influence in the cultivation of a healthy skepticism about the degree to which fallen human nature can be overcome in this age between the first and second comings of Christ. Capitalism can be viewed as a set of institutional arrangements designed to civilize greed in much the same way as marriage is designed to civilize lust. A system that understands that (1) humans are selfish and (2) humans are social and need each other to flourish and then comes up with a plan to make #1 contribute to #2 is ingenious. Admittedly, this is not a very Utopian view of the world; but that is not a bug, as they say, but a feature.

Dr. Carter grants that both capitalism and socialism are sub-Christian, but contends that socialism is more sub-Christian than capitalism.  I have no interest in the question. Instead, I am intrigued by attempting to formulate the outlines of an economic theory that isn't grounded in the response to the fall, but rather the renewed structure of creation in Christ.

To that end, where Dr. Carter sees similarities between capitalism and marriage, I am interested in the dissimilarities. Marriage clearly reaches back behind the fall to the original creation (which I know for a fact Dr. Carter agrees with).  But economic arrangements do as well, which suggests that if something like capitalism is true, we should tie it to the order of creation rather than understanding it as the best alternative in a world marked by the libido dominandi. Rooting our economic theory as a response to the fallen world is to establish an economics of negation, rather than an economics that is itself tied to human flourishing.  And that strikes me as problematic.

To put the question more starkly, Dr. Carter grants that Christianity can make capitalism work.  But can capitalism make Christianity work?  My worry is that inasmuch as capitalism takes its anthropological cues from an unnatural order (namely, humans under the domain of sin), it will ultimately undermine and work against the witness of the gospel through the Church.

Lingering in my mind is Jay Budziszewski's phrase:  if you use dragons to keep wolves under control, you eventually have to reward the dragons.  And then they do what they want.  As I wrote then, "As Augustine points out, by using bad motives we eventually destroy the vestiges of virtue that we attempted to preserve."

Again, I am not equating capitalism and socialism.  I am more interested in the question of whether capitalism is commensurate with Christianity, and how.  Perhaps there's a Barthian streak to my critique, but I want to maintain a healthy wariness of any system that ultimately comes in competition with an ethic that is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.   My sense--and I posit this all quite tentatively--is that our economics needs to be eschatalogically oriented without immanentizing the eschaton.  That probably opens me up to the Utopian critique, but it is a charge I might be willing to accept.  Jerusalem may be the pattern, but I make no claims about who constructs it or how it is built.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.