Thinking Theologically About Markets

For some of us, unfettered markets are the best means for reaching a just and prosperous society. For others, such means will only lead to inequality, exploitation, and misery. In either case, it is obvious that our opinions are heavily influenced by the political consequences.

But what’s wrong with that? If we don’t understand the political implications of our economic thinking, how can we ever hope to properly structure society?

Political considerations are indeed important, and they should certainly be considered as we continue to develop our beliefs about the morality of the market. But for Christians, such a narrow-minded approach leaves out one important component — namely, God.

In a recent post at First Things, Joe Carter eloquently makes this point, noting that although God’s sovereignty does indeed extendto the market, “we no longer think theologically about economics.”

As Carter explains:

While we Christians often form our views on such institutions as marriage and the family from our theology, we acquire our understanding of markets from our politics. If we subscribe to a progressive politics, we adopt the Left’s criticism of markets and support for government control over them. If we subscribe to conservative politics, we embrace the Right’s unquestioning allegiance to unfettered markets.

 

This is not to say, however, that various political positions don’t have value in our moral considerations. But as Carter notes, despite the value of conservative, progressive, or libertarian interpretations, “they all fail because they leave out the most compelling reason for putting our qualified trust in the markets: Because they are the primary means God has provided for us to carry out these economic tasks.”

Indeed, while the progressives pretend that morality will be achieved by tilting the material scales, conservatives and libertarians pretend that societal morality will come by simply “letting the market work.” The first option assumes that governments are capable of promoting proper morality, and the second assumes that markets are.

But all of this talk boils down to top-down coercion vs. supply-and-demand manipulation. The second option may indeed lead to better outcomes on a macro level (as I myself would argue), but such freedom is not a guaranteed path to a moral society. In either case, by ignoring the theological implications, we replace mechanistic scheming with true, individual morality (and more specifically, Christian morality). If we want such morality to translate into society as a whole, we must recognize that markets are fundamentally comprised of morally responsible individuals. Our political policies may indeed attempt to regulate or redirect our economic behaviors, but such manipulations cannot change our fundamental, overarching responsibility to God.

Carter attempts to pave a way forward by advocating what he sees as a “third way of viewing markets”:

What we need is a third way of viewing markets. We need a clear Christian vision that understands that markets are a moral sphere, contra the libertarians. We need to promote the idea that free individuals rather than government force is necessary to carry out this task, as the left often contends. And we need to realize that the “market” is not a mystical system that will miraculously provide for our neighbor, as many conservatives seem to think.

Note that Carter is not advocating a third way of approaching markets politicallyAs Jordan Ballor emphasizes in his commentary on the piece, Carter is instead arguing for an “alternative grounding, view of, and justification for the market economy.”

For conservatives and libertarians, this does not mean we should toss our political arguments out the window. This does not mean that the public benefits of market efficiency and specialization should be ignored. Instead, it means that at a fundamental level we must ensure that such views are grounded by and consistent with atheological understanding of the market.

As Christians, what is the overall, high-level purpose of the market? How does God see them in terms of their ideal, supreme usefulness? How does God view the market as a natural, organic feature of individual humanity and community interaction. Once we begin to ask these questions and understand their answers, we will be able to more effectively return to our contemplations of how the market can be leveraged as an institution geared toward promoting Christian morality.

As Carter concludes:

Most of all, we need to develop a coherent Biblically-based conception of how the market as a human institution can be used for the redemptive purposes of our Creator. Christians [need] to spend less time treating the markets as abstractions and more time working within them as models of Christ-like behavior.

 

It is a challenge to subvert our fallen nature, which constantly tries to see the world apart from God. We are particularly prone to ignore the supernatural when it comes to tangible, earthly things. But that’s the problem. We must understand that market is not merely a mechanism for organizing material stuff. It is an arena in which Christians are allowed to strut their stuff: to be salt and light, to succeed and prosper, to give and sacrifice.

The market can certainly achieve wonders apart from Christian theology, but such achievements are destined for destruction by moth and rust. It is imperative, then, that we leverage this God-given institution for His greater kingdom, and that can only happen if we ground economics — as we ground everything — in theology.

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