"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 25, 2019

Can Christians Escape Capitalism? Do They Want To?

D. Stephen Long's discussion of Devin Singh's new book Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West (Stanford UP, 2018), 296pp. is found in the 15 February 2019 issue of Marginalia. He notes early in his review that "There seems to be no challenge to the distorting effects of capitalism available to theologians. There is only the flow of power through a theopolitical-economy, and we theologians cannot do much more than unmask it." That is very much my own frustration as well, as I noted, e.g., here in discussing the very insightful books of Todd McGowan. (Long's argument also bears close resemblance to MacIntyre's point, now nearly forty years old and coming in his discussion of Yeats' poetry as political philosophy, that there is no longer left to us any coherent political imagination outside the modern nation-state--or outside capitalism.)

It is not for want of trying to criticize capitalism, however, at least among theologians of the last three decades or so. Long begins by noting that Singh's is a critique advanced in part by some before him, most notably John Milbank and William Cavanaugh, as well as Daniel Bell, and before them all Dorothy Day's companion Peter Maurin.

Long does not mention--but I often have--the role that Alasdair MacIntyre plays in influencing Milbank, Cavanaugh, and many others. MacIntyre clearly had Day in mind when he argued that
Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them, something that many preachers and theologians have failed to recognize. And those Christians who have recognized it have often enough been at odds with ecclesiastical as well as political and economic authorities.
From here, Singh's book gets a good deal more complicated, and, according to Long's review, rather less than convincing. it seems the rage today--and among Christians, or at least concerning Christian topics this is especially true--to engage in these grand efforts at intellectual genealogy, as though that proves, much less solves, anything. I suspect my inner Freudian is impatient with these efforts because remembering is only one part of the triad--where is the repeating leading to working through? I suspect even more strongly my impatience is (Jordan Peterson call your office!) a result of being totally in agreement with Marx's eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

In any event, about Singh's book the publisher tells us this:
This book shows how early economic ideas structured Christian thought and society, giving crucial insight into why money holds such power in the West. Examining the religious and theological sources of money's power, it shows how early Christian thinkers borrowed ancient notions of money and economic exchange from the Roman Empire as a basis for their new theological arguments. Monetary metaphors and images, including the minting of coins and debt slavery, provided frameworks for theologians to explain what happens in salvation. God became an economic administrator, for instance, and Christ functioned as a currency to purchase humanity's freedom. Such ideas, in turn, provided models for pastors and Christian emperors as they oversaw both resources and people, which led to new economic conceptions of state administration of populations and conferred a godly aura on the use of money. Divine Currency argues that this longstanding association of money with divine activity has contributed over the centuries to money's ever increasing significance, justifying various forms of politics that manage citizens along the way. Devin Singh's account sheds unexpected light on why we live in a world where nothing seems immune from the price mechanism.

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