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The odd couple?
Economics and theology—an interfaith conversation
The long intractable argument between those who know God and those who know Mammon proved to be no more amenable to a solution at Boston College in early October than it was during the days of the Hebrew prophets. Theologian Paul Knitter set the stage for a renewal of that discussion at the University’s third annual Symposium on Interreligious Dialogue, with a lecture that cast the nominal heirs of Adam Smith (“profits”) and leaders of the world religions (“prophets”) in sharp relief.
The Paul Tillich Professor at Union Theological Seminary, Knitter characterized the free market economy as “a religion in dire need of dialogue with other religions,” when he spoke to a crowd of close to 300 Boston College students, faculty, and visitors in the Heights Room during the opening of the October 7–9 weekend meeting, which was sponsored by the theology department, the Church in the 21st Century Center, and the School of Theology and Ministry.
Affable and avuncular, Knitter, who is known for his studies of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue (including his influential 1985 book No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions), delivered a broadside against unfettered free market capitalism—for creating a world in which “the starved live and die alongside the stuffed” and “islands of opulence exist in oceans of poverty,” he said. He then called for more frequent and expansive conversation among economists and theologians interested in economic development.
“I speak to you as a Christian theologian” who hasn’t formally studied economics, acknowledged Knitter. He dispensed with the notion that only economists and business leaders are qualified to analyze and criticize the economy, comparing it to “the claim that you have to be a pope or bishop to know what the Catholic Church really believes.”
“My description of ‘the state of the economy’ consists of what I think are three ‘undeniables’: the suffering billions, the endangered planet, and the handicapped invisible hand,” said Knitter, concluding, “justice is not being served.”
Knitter underscored his points with quotes from left-of-center economists (Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz), the late historian Tony Judt, and liberation theologist Frei Betto, OP. He showed graphs taken from bioethicist Peter Singer’s 2002 book One World: The Ethics of Globalization and from economist Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization (2004) illustrating strong, country-by-country correlations between economic inequality and mental illness, social immobility, and poor health. “If one of the central purposes of any market system is to organize and facilitate the production and exchange of goods and services so that the basic human needs of all can be met and general well-being fostered,” he posited, “our present free market economy isn’t measuring up to its self-assigned task.”
He said he believes each of the major world religions seeks to balance “self-interest” with “other-interest,” striving, along different paths, toward the ideal of economic democracy.
“For the religious offspring of Abraham—Jews, Christians, Muslims—’to know God is to do justice,’” Knitter said, quoting Jeremiah. In the monotheistic traditions, justice “must be embodied in the structures, laws, and practices of the state and the marketplace,” while in Indic traditions, inner peace and compassion lead to justice and “economic flourishing,” according to Knitter. “For the religions that were conceived and nourished in China—Taoism and Confucianism—a society and economy will flourish and do well only if they recognize incorrigible differences, and then seek to keep those differences in a balancing relationship,” he recounted.
For Knitter, the question to consider is not if but to what extent the world’s free market economy has failed. “Whether we believe that the invisible hand has been amputated and must be replaced, or broken and can be fixed, or handicapped and in need of external help,” he said, “I trust that we can all agree that our present economic system, within this country and around the globe, is in clear and profound need of reform.”
Neither of the invited respondents to Knitter’s plenary, Tufts University economist Jenny Aker and Joseph Kaboski, the Seng Foundation Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, shared the theologian’s sense of alarm and urgency about the world economy. And both pushed back, politely but unequivocally, against his characterizations of free market economics—not to mention economists themselves.
“The free market has not failed as a religion because it has never pretended to solve economic inequality,” said Aker, a development economist who worked in Africa with Catholic Relief Services. She pointed to the distinction between economic efficiency, “which emphasizes the size of the economic pie” and equality, “which emphasizes how you divide the pie.”
“Free markets aren’t always bad and interventionist markets aren’t always good,” said Aker. “It really depends upon the country, the context, and the causes of economic inequality.” Redistributing land in one context might make sense, she said by way of example. “In others, it might be disastrous.”
“I’m going to make an argument here that if we are going to have an interreligious dialogue about economic development, we have to be a bit agnostic about economics,” Aker added, eliciting some chuckles in the room.
Kaboski was less deferential. He dismissed Knitter’s assertion that modern economics is a religion, saying it reflected “a prejudice of discipline.” Unfortunately, Kaboski said, “Paul’s [presentation] conveys little understanding of economics, economic language, [and], most importantly, what economists do.” He continued, “Economists don’t spend their time reading Adam Smith. . . . It’s sort of a little secret that a lot of economists have never read The Wealth of Nations. The ‘invisible hand’ doesn’t play a role in our thinking.
“Most of us are neither ideologues nor social theorists,” Kaboski said. “Our field is very mathematical. . . . We collect and analyze data, write down and test models, we measure the impact of policies. That’s what we do.”
Kaboski said he welcomed dialogue about free markets and religion. “Without religion,” he said, “we cannot answer the two big questions: ‘What is a good life, and what is a good society?’
“There isn’t an economist in the world that would ever state that low wages or high unemployment are a goal,” Kaboski noted. “I’m a University of Chicago–trained economist, and I don’t know a single person pro financial crisis, pro global warming, or pro poverty.” Nevertheless, he added, “What a horrible world it would be if we asked economists to give us our moral principles and asked theologians [to offer] ways of attaining them.”
Read more by Maureen Dezell