Newbigin on the Gospel and Western Economics

August 20, 2011 in Mark, Books, Justice, Mission, Theology by Mark

My leisure reading at the moment is Lesslie Newbigin’s thought-provoking Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Newbigin looks at the distinctives of Western culture, particularly the dichotomy between private and public spheres, with science and “facts” ruling the supposedly objective public space and religion confined to the subjective private realm of life.

He then examines many of the assumed foundations of Western culture, questioning whether they stand up to their own claims and logic, and asks the question of how a community convinced of the truth of the gospel can and should interact with this culture.

The whole book has given me much to think about, but I was particularly interested by this long-ish quote on free market economics:

The autonomous science of economics [developed] on the basis of the assumption that self-interest is a universal, natural, and calculable force analogous in this realm to the forces of gravity and inertia in the realm of physics, and that consequently it is possible to develop a science of economics that will be as mathematical and as independent of theology as is the physics of Newton. And since, for the eighteenth century, nature has taken the place of God and has inherited his benevolent character, it follows that the pursuit of self-interest will coincide with the purpose of God. …

Traditional Christian ethics had attacked covetousness as a deadly sin, and Paul had equated it with idolatry: the putting of something that is not God in the place belonging to God (Col. 3:5). The eighteenth century, by a remarkable inversion, found in covetousness not only a law of nature but the engine of progress by which the purpose of nature and nature’s God was to be carried out.

The enormous consequences that have followed from this reversal of traditional values are familiar to us. It has shattered the age-long assumption that the world we inhabit is basically stable and finite and that consequently economics is mainly about the sharing of limited resources. It has shifted the focus of attention from distribution to production. It has made us familiar with the idea of ceaseless and limitless growth, of unending possibilities of increased mastery over nature that provides increased resources of food, materials, and energy. This is a world in which economics is mainly about increasing production, and it is assumed that if everyone pursues his rational self-interest, production will grow and distribution will take care of itself. Two hundred years after the Enlightenment, we live in a world in which millions of people enjoy a standard of material wealth that few kings and queens would have matches then, but in which the gulf between the rich minority and the abjectly poor majority is vast and growing, a world therefore threatened as never before by destructive violence.

Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, pp109-110.

It seems curious to me that in church we talk about giving, sacrifice and denying oneself, but in our view of economics we can believe that if everyone looks after themselves then all will be happy. It seems to me that this view of economics is no more than a kind of social Darwinism, a survival of the wealthiest, whereby the greater good of society depends on the unimpeded right of all to pursue unlimited personal wealth and happiness at any cost. This is not only completely foreign to the themes of the Bible and the revelation of God’s character contained therein, but in a world of finite resources is bound to lead to exploitation of both the environment and of the majority of people who are unable to achieve this goal.

Before anyone accuses him (or me) of being a Communist, I should point out that Newbigin is equally clear that extreme socialism, which values equality over freedom (in contrast to capitalism which extols freedom over equality), is not the answer either, and proposes that we should rather adopt a relational view of society, politics and economics.

What are your thoughts?

Money and World