The Divine Economy & A Theology of Debt

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Adam Smith, The Theologian
This autonomous market position often claims legitimacy by invoking the memory of the English Puritans who came to these shores seeking religious freedom. Religious freedom is here associated with what C. B. McPherson characterizes as “possessive individualism,” which is a distortion of the Puritan mentality. The Puritan theologians who wrote about the economy actually discussed medieval notions like “just price” and “just wage.” Only within a broad post-feudal understanding were they precursors of Adam Smith.

When we come to Adam Smith, his works should be read as theological treatises and not just as economic theory. Although effectively secular in some assumptions, he is making a theological argument to explain not only how wealth can accrue to a nation but, as well, why some people will be impoverished. We shall come to see that the notion of a theology of debt is not strange at all because liberal and neo-liberal economic theory and practice operate within an implicit theological paradigm—and not just a theological, but also an anthropological framework.

According to the historian of religion, Charles H. Long, to be human is to engage in some form of exchange. Humans engage in exchanges with other humans, nature, and the unseen entities occupying the invisible realm. In so-called “primitive” societies, religion encompasses all these exchanges. Thus, Long understands religion as something encompassing the meaning people perceive in their interrelated exchanges with nature, other humans, and the invisible realm—and how they value and allocate the surplus of all those exchanges. In certain rituals, we observe the explicit awareness of a debt or obligation arising from these exchanges which maintain the relationship between the various parties. Gift exchange is one example and sacrifice is another. The Christian faith is predicated upon a profound exchange between humanity and God expressed in such statements as, “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son…” (John 3:16) or Paul’s “You were bought for a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Back to Adam Smith.

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Adam Smith (1723-1790) held his chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow at a time when Evangelical Christians dominated professorial appointments to that institution and comprised small but significant numbers of the British Parliament. Think of such social reformers as Chalmers and Wilberforce. Political economy was not thought of as an exact science operating impervious to moral and ethical considerations. Many conceived it as something that had to be managed to conform to what human reason could discern as the Divine economy (or the divinely-intended economy). This was attempted with great earnest because, it was thought, not to do so would subject the nation to divine judgment. Such was Smith’s theological context.

Smith argued that God had designed human beings to be free and, therefore, governmental impediments to trade violated God’s design. He also argued that individual human beings were most concerned with achieving their own happiness and enjoyment even at the expense of their fellow humans. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), he argued, more or less, that God had designed human beings to act from selfish motives that are ameliorated or balanced by an equal need for group approval. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he continued the argument that this human propensity should not be impeded because in the grand scheme of things the whole society and nation eventually benefit from the innovations and wealth created by the enterprising minority through the mechanism of the “invisible hand.” In this way Smith, through inversion, appropriated John Calvin’s notion of “Divine Providence” and secularized or naturalized it.

Save for the lone and tragic Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854), the excesses of the French Revolution made it difficult for European and white American theologians to imagine any possible alternative mode of human exchanges other than capitalism. Its argumentation gave it the appearance of the “natural” and it appropriated the eschatological from Christianity by guaranteeing ever-increasing wealth and progress to its converts. That this system of exchanges was predicated upon the colonization and enslavement of non-Europeans and exploitation of white workers went un-theorized and un-critiqued in any serious fashion until we encounter Karl Marx (1818-1883). Sadly, no Christian theologians were to comment upon W. E. B. Du Bois’ The World and Africa (1946) or Eric Williams’ Capitalism & Slavery (1944)—if they were even aware of these texts.


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