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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

15 Comments

  1. I found Dr. Carter’s comments interesting; I tend to think of capitalism as more idealistic or “utopian” than socialism. Capitalism allows the individual to choose for themselves the priority they place on material things, how they will balance material concerns with other things of value, and how they will use their financial resources; socialism, as I understand it, limits all of those choices with the intention of effecting the greater (collective) good. From my perspective, capitalism puts a greater faith in individuals’ ability to make good (moral) economic choices without a strong legal framework to enforce it. As to whether that plays out in real world today is another question.

    As I’ve considered these issues recently, I think a lot about division of powers as a necessary response to a fallen world; that is, “evil” people (i.e. those who act primarily with only their own self-interest in mind, and without regard to how they hurt others) will gravitate towards positions of power in order to maximize their own gain, whether the power is economic, political, or otherwise. It seems to me that division of power is theoretically compatible with both socialism and capitalism, and is a necessary safeguard against evil in humanity’s current state. That is why I am concerned with the effect and influence of big business on the world today, but do not necessarily see the expansion of government as a solution- to me, that is a prime example of “us[ing] dragons to keep wolves under control”.

    I think the best example the church can give of redeemed economics is reflected in the book of Acts- a group of individuals, collectively and individually voluntarily choosing to share their resources and give liberally to the poor, because of the transformation of their hearts and the convictions that followed.

    I hope these thoughts are helpful in forwarding the discussion.

    Reply

  2. Christopher Benson November 2, 2010 at 11:22 am

    There’s a tendency to neutralize the utopian content of the Bible through the technique of selective editing. The post-Fall world precludes utopia because of our sinful condition. But that’s not the only world. The Hebrew prophets anticipate another world that begins with the Incarnation. This world – “the kingdom of God” or “the new heaven and earth” – is utopian because of its eschatological orientation. If we’re always futurizing or privatizing this world, we will be an opiate rather than an irritant in the post-Fall world. Our charge is to be an enemy to economic oppression, injustice, and domination, regardless of whether that’s in a socialist or capitalist setting. In conclusion, we’re faced with a choice about which utopian vision will motivate us to act: the socialist utopia achieved through the government, the capitalist utopia achieved through the markets, or the Christian utopia achieved through the church (a harbinger of the eschaton).

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  3. Matthew,
    This is an excellent response. Thank you for it. It advances the discussion. We agree on enough to be able to isolate small points of disagreement which can be resolved. I will post a response to this response on my blog soon.

    In the meantime, thanks especially for pushing the comparison between capitalism and marriage. I want to follow up on that. Interestingly both the state and marriage “wither away” in the resurrection, in Pauline and Augustinian eschatology. And both are rooted in some way in creation. Specifying that “in some way” is important, as is specifying how eschatology affects the present without succumbing to an overly immanentized eschatology.

    Reply

  4. Aaah Benson… What to say, you gave me three choices and I suppose we should sign up for “Christian utopia” but this doesn’t really do much good for a businessman (like myself) who has to live in the dystopic reality of a post-market-meltdown. My objection to the current construction of this dialogue, however, has nothing to do with the practicalities/impracticalities of any of these systems. It has only to do with our (potential) mismatched definitions of “capitalism”. For example, when we say capitalism do we mean “frictionless trading between individuals” or something larger… like “Lockean-American-Liberty-as-a-business”.

    In business school we went to great lengths to disambiguate bad capitalism from good capitalism. I’m not sure most people are interested in this project though, so I’ll just end here. But, I hope that we can always take a step back and say “what are we really proposing to change”? Or, in other words, “to what lengths do we go to separate capitalism from Westernism/Americanism/Gordon Geckoism, and so forth.”

    Reply

  5. Christopher Benson November 2, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Mr. Meyer: On the contrary, the utopian vision of Christianity, grounded in creation and eschatology, does help a businessman like yourself because it gives you an alternative criteria to evaluate your business, not according to whether it merely creates wealth and productivity but whether it promotes justice and compassion.

    Reply

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by In His Service, Matthew Anderson. Matthew Anderson said: Good discussion happening here on utopianism and capitalism from an evangelical perspective: http://bit.ly/cgdk2f […]

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  7. … Still seems like a utopia has to be translated into other terms before it gets used. Good capitalism is precisely this. Since we know that when Christ reigns everyone will get justice & mercy, we say that both need to be possible in our system and allow liberty for the State (justice) to motivate human behavior AND individual compassion to motivate people (Churches, non-profits, etc.). When both elements (just a small piece of the puzzle obviously) are given the opportunity to stand on their own merits we let Truth adjudicate between competing ideas, businesses, etc. and acknowledge the Divine love of free-will by allowing as many choices as possible – that don’t impinge on others’ liberty.

    It’s motivated by a commitment to a utopian ideal, but it stops being utopian when it encounters the first human being.

    As an aside, it’s a fallacy to claim that one of the essential components of capitalism is primarily seeking “wealth and productivity” over and above anything else. The rise of “Stakeholder Theory” -as developed by libertarian capitalist Ed Freeman- demonstrates that many people can be convinced of the necessity of becoming “long-term greedy, not short-term greedy.” Since all Stakeholders are accounted for in the model, justice becomes a primary concern, as does compassion, because in the long-run companies that don’t reflect the values of their stakeholders will fail.

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  8. Christopher Benson November 4, 2010 at 2:55 am

    … Still seems like a utopia has to be translated into other terms before it gets used. Good capitalism is precisely this.

    Translated into what “other terms before it gets used”?

    Since we know that when Christ reigns everyone will get justice & mercy, we say that both need to be possible in our system and allow liberty for the State (justice) to motivate human behavior AND individual compassion to motivate people (Churches, non-profits, etc.).

    Are you relegating compassion to individuals alone? I think we can and should work toward economic and politics systems that are compassionate, especially to the weak and vulnerable (unborn children, immigrants, widows, orphans, single mothers, racial minorities).

    When both elements (just a small piece of the puzzle obviously) are given the opportunity to stand on their own merits we let Truth adjudicate between competing ideas, businesses, etc. and acknowledge the Divine love of free-will by allowing as many choices as possible – that don’t impinge on others’ liberty.

    Why have you capitalized and personified Truth? The proliferation of choices in itself does not strike me as a good. Moreover, we should acknowledge that a libertarian conception of freedom is only theoretically possible because my exercise of liberty will inevitably impinge on my neighbor’s exercise of liberty.

    As an aside, it’s a fallacy to claim that one of the essential components of capitalism is primarily seeking “wealth and productivity” over and above anything else.

    I don’t see why it’s fallacious to observe that an essential (or virtually essential) feature of capitalism is wealth and productivity. Where are the free market defenders who argue they are incidental?

    Reply

    1. Benson,

      If capitalism doesn’t have a soul because only people do, then can it be compassionate? : )

      matt

      Reply

  9. Mr. Anderson,

    First of all, let me say that I recently added you to my blog roll and have been enjoying your writing for the past couple of months. Keep up the good work.

    As for this post, I was struck by this comment of yours:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure what you could mean by an “economic arrangement” before the Fall given that it is my understanding that Adam and Eve knew no scarcity in the Garden. What economics is all about first and foremost is the study of scarcity — and in my mind capitalism is simply a system of trade that allows human beings to flourish the best in a world of scarcity (post-Fall).

    Reply

    1. Jeff,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ve read WWWTW for a while, and love it. You all do great work.

      That said, you’re right to suggest that I’ve read into the text to see economics in there. However, what I DON’T see is how if economics is “the study of scarcity” why it is necessarily a post-fall discipline. It seems the conflict between supply and demand hinges on the amount of resources relative to the number of people, and even before the fall there were finite resources and an expanding number of people.

      Does that help my case at all?

      matt

      Reply

  10. Benson,

    I capitalized the T in Truth here: “we let Truth adjudicate between competing ideas” because I believe God is an explicit participator in the exchange of ideas/words – Logos, Words, see John 1:1, etc. I’m just channeling Augustine here… Well, Plato too I suppose.

    Additionally, I said that wealth and productivity should not be elevated “over and above” everything else and then cited the heavyweight thinker Ed Freeman to support my claim. Ed’s claim -and the claim of, essentially, the entire faculty of UVA- is that capitalism isn’t really about creating wealth. And it’s certainly not about becoming more efficient (even though those things may occur). An attempt to summarize their position would be something like this: capitalism is a value creation system that functions by minimizing barriers to entry, maximizing human freedom, and maximizing access to markets. The proponents of this system are completely dominant in top-tier business schools. Best-selling business authors are also dominantly behind this model. See Francis Collins: “How the Mighty Fall” for a good explanation of how companies must not simply pursue “more” if they want to succeed in capitalism. This book also implicitly demonstrates that an essential component of success in capitalism is NOT going after ‘increasing shareholder value” but, instead, must balance the demands of all stakeholders. Also, for further reading on how successful capitalists must consider all members of their stakeholder community (pretty much the whole world) read Ed Freeman’s book “Managing for Stakeholders” – Yale Press.

    Reply

  11. Christopher Benson November 5, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    MATT & CHRISTOF: What’s up with this “Benson” salutation? Call me “Christopher,” “Mr. Benson” (as if we were in a St. John’s College seminar), or “the liberal, sort of, conservative guy” (as Christof has dubbed me), but “Benson” sounds like we’re on a sports team – and I was never one for team sports. Croquet or tennis anyone? ;-)

    MATT: “If capitalism doesn’t have a soul because only people do, then can it be compassionate?” Touché! I’ll eat crow.

    CHRISTOF: Thanks for sharing the book titles. I’ll make a note of them if I pursue that inquiry. You know a helluva lot more about business than I do, so I should shut up while I’m ahead – if I’m ahead.

    Reply

  12. LOL… good call Benson, er, I mean, Mr. Benson. Torrey is fairly serious about the last-name as first-name thing and, plus, if you’re always saying Mr. X, it’s just quicker to say X.

    To better subjects, though. I think it is interesting how the atmosphere of this conversation is shaped by the temporal/spatial/emotional relationships between interlocutors. The longer we interact, the more grace we develop (it seems) towards each others positions. Although this is not NECESSARILY so, it seems like a fairly common result of interaction among Christians. One cause for hope then (on having actual dialogue on a blog), it seems, is for people to get to “know” the person behind the comments (whatever that means) and add that unique information to the mix before responding.

    I guess this is all a long way of saying, Mr. Benson, I find your response humbling (“heaping coals of fire onto my head” comes to mind) and interesting… and not very common in the blogosphere. You might drive me crazy (sometimes) but I am less inclined to think poorly of you than I used to be, and more inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt as trust is built up (slowly) across many dozens, if not hundreds, of interactions.

    May we have more of this, and less of the typical bad blog interactions. God is for it. Amen.

    Reply

  13. Matt,

    Not sure if you see this comment, but I just stumbled on this old post of yours, and I think you best summarize the whole question with this:

    “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.”

    A hearty amen to your audacious hope! I’ll be sure to look through the rest of your dialogue with Dr. Carter.

    Reply

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