Bringing Economics and Theology Together Again
by Marcus Braybrooke
Marcus Braybrooke is an Anglican Priest, a Peace Councillor and President of the World Congress of Faiths. This article is Chapter 5 of Promoting the Common Good: Bringing Economics & Theology Together Again by Marcus Braybrooke & Kamran Mofid, a dialogue between a theologian and an economist. Published by Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd., 2005. Used by Permission. . This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The basic agreement of all religions about core moral values is increasingly being recognized by religious leaders. It is urgent that these values are now translated into practical policies that will reduce the economic inequalities in our world, bring relief to the very poor, protect the environment and reduce the dangers of violence and terrorism. Such policies can only result from detailed co-operation between religious thinkers and economists, politicians, business leaders and members of other relevant disciplines. Interfaith dialogue should also be interdisciplinary dialogue.
Yet the thought of religion interfering with economic and political life will be greeted with alarm and protest by those who are afraid of the influence of extremists in the world of Islam or of conservative evangelicals in the USA.
One of the criticisms leveled at Islam by many Western writers is its failure to draw a separation between Church and State. This separation, however, has contributed to the privitization of religion and the virtual absence of moral considerations in political, economic and business life. The divorce of ethics from economics and politics is dangerous and some economists and business leaders are now recognizing this. Business Weeks chief economist has said that ‘A New Economy needs a new morality ... there’s a moral vacuum at the heart of the New Economy that needs to be filled.’1 The guru of the World Economic Forum, George Soros, has said the same, arguing that a purely transactional approach to economic activity governed by the principle of self-interest, which he labels ‘market fundamentalism’, is in danger of undermining social values and loosening moral constraints.2
This morality, I believe, should not be imposed. It needs to be consensual and it needs to draw upon the moral teaching of all the world religions and indeed should also appeal to those who have no belief in God. Several valuable attempts to articulate what is often called ‘a global ethic’ have already been made, but inevitably they are expressed in general principles. If they are to have practical influence they need to be applied to economic policy. Such application requires the combined efforts of theologians and economists.
Although it is true that Islam does not distinguish between the secular and the sacred, its position is more nuanced than Western critics allow. Islam affirms that the whole of life is under God’s control and that all human behavior should be in obedience to God’s will. A committed Christian might well say the same, but, in the West, secular society has made a distinction between the sacred and the profane. Sociologists have spoken of the ‘privatizing’ of religion in the West, by which they mean that religious adherence has become a leisure-time activity -- some people go to church on a Sunday, other people go sailing or shopping Religion is seen as a personal choice and should not interfere with politics or business. Indeed, a number of Christians seem to ‘compartmentalize’ their lives. Their religion is for their family life and weekends in leafy suburbs, but is irrelevant to the boardroom or stock market.
Muslims traditionally do not make a distinction between the sacred and the secular. It is the whole community which should submit to God. This concern for a society that is obedient to God goes back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. At first he met with hostility and ridicule in Mecca but in 622 CE he was invited to become leader of the neighboring town of Madina. There he tried to create a community obedient to God and from Madina, in due course, he attacked and captured Mecca, which was to be ruled in accordance with the teaching that had been revealed to him. Muhammad, like Calvin later in Geneva, tried to shape a society that lived in obedience to God’s word. The logic of this position is clear. If God is God, then all life should be lived in obedience to God’s laws.
The early caliphs inherited Muhammad’s role as ‘commander of the faithful’, but they were nor ‘messengers of God’, as the prophet had been. The early caliphs combined spiritual and temporal leadership -- as Christians would understand these terms. Gradually the political rulers of Islam lost their religious aura and the rulers came to be replaced, as the conscience-keepers of the community, by the ulama or learned men, who had studied the holy law in depth. In time only the first four caliphs came to be regarded as truly orthodox. The Umayyad dynasty (661-750) was seen as a reversion to secular kingship. The Abbasid caliphs, who ruled in Baghdad from 750 to 1258, had rather more prestige and some called themselves Khalifat Allah or God’s deputy, or even ‘the shadow of God upon earth’ -- phrases that would have shocked Muhammad. With the loss of effective power by the Abbasids in the tenth century, ‘all genuine political authority in the mainstream Muslim tradition’, writes Edward Mortimer, ‘was secular’, although developments in the Shi’ite tradition were rather different.3 In the Sunni world ‘virtue and justice’, Mortimer adds, ‘were no longer regarded as indispensable qualifications of a ruler.’ By the eleventh century most of the ulama were teaching that obedience was an absolute duty, even to an unjust ruler, since an unjust ruler was better than none at all.
Radical Muslims today reject these developments and insist that there should be no divorce between State and religion. They are therefore very critical of the lifestyle and secular policies of some Muslim rulers, often thought to be in the pay of the West. They have, with success in some countries, campaigned to replace legal codes, which they inherited from Western imperialist rulers, by the introduction of Shari’a -- often in its harshest and most conservative form. (Too often Westerners are unaware that there are four different classic schools of Shari’a law.) As in the early days of Islam, many Muslims want to live in an Islamic state. Moreover, although Muslims, when they are in a minority, are taught to obey the laws of the country where they live, some groups, like the Muslim Parliament in Britain, hope that their country of residence will in due course become Muslim.
The Secular and the Sacred in Christianity
In some ways, states where Islamic Shari’a law is rigidly enforced are reminiscent of mediaeval Christian society. ‘The order of society’ (in mediaeval Christendom), writes David Edwards, ‘was at bottom upheld by religion . . . It was God who decreed the acceptance of the rights and duties of each grade in society. Indeed a sacred order or a "hierarchy" was thought to exist in the whole of Gods creation.’5 Islamic societies were certainly not so hierarchical as feudal Europe but, just as the laws of Christendom were shaped by the Christian faith, so Shari’a law is based on the teachings of the Qur’an. In Christendom there were, of course, disputes about whether the sovereign or the Church should control society and at the Reformation there were radically different understandings of how to interpret the Christian faith. These differences were a cause of the prolonged religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
From the seventeenth century, in reaction to these wars of religion, some politicians began to ignore moral constraints and to base their policies on reasons of state’, which allowed a nation to deviate from the ethical norms required of the individual. Machiavelli (1469-1527) in his Il Principe (1513) had already argued for the ‘self-preservation of the state with all means and at any price’, which was equivalent to the ‘suppression of any morality with a transcendent basis from the field of politics’ f But it was under Cardinal Richlieu (1585-1642) that, for the first time, in Hans Küng’s words, ‘reasons of state guided solely by political interests took the place of confessional interests and ethical considerations.’7 Henry Kissinger, who greatly admired Richlieu’s ‘novel and cold-blooded doctrine’, recognized that it ‘was deeply offensive to the universalist tradition founded on the primacy of moral law . . . In an age still dominated by religious zeal and ideological fanaticism, a dispassionate foreign policy free of moral imperatives stood out like a snow-covered Alp in the desert.’8
Reaction to the wars of religion was also one of the factors which led to the separation of Church and State. For example, the United States of America, to which many of the first settlers had come to escape persecution, was, in 1791, the first Western nation to separate Church and State. Even today the teaching of religion in public schools is prohibited, although religious observance in the USA is far higher than in Europe. By contrast, in England there is still an established church -- the Church of England. In the nineteenth century, the bishops in the House of Lords used their votes to delay the emancipation of Catholics and ‘Dissenters’, and of the Jewish people. Today they will often be a voice for the various faith communities but their position is certainly anomalous -- but perhaps no more archaic than the House of Lords itself. In some Western European societies, such as The Netherlands, political life is partly molded by Church allegiance. By contrast, in Communist countries the Church was stripped of political influence and in some, such as Albania, the practice of religion was illegal.
The situation differs from country to country. In some countries the Church still has considerable influence, but even where this is so it is disputed. It is therefore difficult to generalize about ‘secularization -- a word which itself is used in various senses. The term usually signifies the process by which religion loses social significance, but the emphasis may be on the relationship of Church and State or on the social influence of religion, or used to speak about individual belief and practice.9
The Enlightenment, with its assertion of the autonomy of human reason, is also a factor in the process of secularization. Many of the leaders of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon and Lessing, challenged Christianity. ‘Dare to be adult and let go of the church’s apron strings; trust your own reason and measure revelation against it; be prepared to use your own reason critically in any context, as Alistair Mason summarizes the Enlightenment’s challenge to Christianity.10 In Kant’s words, the Enlightenment was ‘the emergence of human beings from a tutelage to which they had voluntarily acceded.11
Hans Kung suggests that the Enlightenment led to the unprecedented progress of the sciences, a completely new social order and a revaluation of the individual.12 Today the Enlightenment approach is subject to strong criticism, especially from post-modernists, but it helped, for good or ill, to divorce political and economic thinking from a basis in a religious view of life.
But are the only alternatives religious zeal and ideological fanaticism on the one hand, and the absence of moral considerations and political cynicism on the other. Is there a third way? Indeed, Erasmus in the sixteenth century called for an ethically responsible, realistic peace policy, far removed from the mediaeval fanaticism of the Counter-Reformation or the cynicism of modern real politics.13
The key question for us, therefore, is whether politics and economics are autonomous, or whether they should have a basis in a religious or moral view of the world. Is politics just the pursuit of power and national self-interest? Is economics just the attempt to maximize wealth?
This has been a continuing matter of debate. The view that they are not autonomous was clearly put by the nineteenth-century Anglican theologian F.D. Maurice, who said his job as a theologian was ‘to dig, to show that the economy and politics have a ground beneath themselves, that society is not to be made anew by arrangements of ours, but is to be regenerated by finding the law and ground of its order and harmony and the only secret of its existence in God.’14 This has been the view of many church people, perhaps most notably Archbishop William Temple, as Kamran Mofid indicates, and is also expressed in Vatican documents. Such an approach is evident also in Judaism and Islam and among Socially Engaged Buddhists and a growing number of Hindus.
A notable attempt to bring moral values to bear on international politics was President Wilson’s peace program at the end of the First World War, with its famous Fourteen Points. Wilson was, however, defeated by the self-interested cynicism of Clémenceau and Lloyd George, which almost inevitably sowed the seeds of further conflict. Political realism became dominant in the mid-twentieth century and found its classical expression in Hans J. Morgenthau’s Politics Among the Nations, which was published in 1948. In contrast to what was labeled ‘historical optimism’, Morgenthau’s realist theory rejects the view that ‘a rational and moral political order, derived from universally valid principles, can be achieved here and now.’15 The starting point is that human nature is driven by different contradictory forces and ‘this being inherently a world of opposing interests and of conflict among them, moral principles can never be fully realized.’16
A similar attitude has developed in economic thinking. The ‘realist’ market theory, developed especially by Milton Friedman, stresses competition. The market should be autonomous and left to its own self-regulating forces, without State intervention or moral constraints. Essentially, individuals should be allowed to pursue their economic interests freely, whether they choose to do so in a selfish or generous way. In 1970 Friedman chose, as a title for an article in the New York Times Magazine, ‘The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits’.17
F.A. Hayek, who was well aware of the complexity of economic development, also rejected any external moral standard by which economic activity should be judged. Brian Griffiths, summarizing Hayek’s view with which he does not agree, says that for Hayek
Ethics are not immutable and eternal’, determined outside of the system, but the result of a process of adaptation to changing circumstances, namely cultural selection. It is precisely because there is no external moral standard that globalization is considered an autonomous and amoral process, without the need for any system of governance.18
Hayek sees the growth of capitalism, including its moral systems and institutions, as spontaneous and not related to any external system of morals. Brian Griffiths suggests that Hayek’s approach suffers from three weaknesses:
There would be no external standards of what is right and wrong, just and unjust, moral and immoral, by which its results could be judged; there would be no guarantee that, even in the absence of outside intervention, globalization would be a benign process; and there would be no assurance that in a free society, left to itself, we could count on an evolution of moral beliefs to generate values which would continue to underpin the market order.19
As we have suggested above,20 leading figures in the business and economic world are warning of the danger of a moral vacuum. Religious thinkers, I believe, need to be more vocal in their support of those who affirm the need for political and economic life to be based on moral principles. They should encourage their followers to apply their moral convictions to the business and political world.
The question then becomes, who provides the values? In the past, most societies have been shaped by a dominant religion -- or, in the twentieth century, by an ideology. Where people of more than one religion lived together, there was often a struggle for dominance. The subordinate group -- such as the dhimmi in the Muslim world or Jews in those countries in mediaeval Europe where they were allowed to live -- were tolerated under certain conditions. Indeed in Europe, where one Christian denomination was dominant, other Christians often suffered from discrimination and sometimes persecution.
Increasingly societies in the West are becoming multiracial and multi-faith. Some in Asia have been so for a long time. If one faith tradition seeks to dominate a multi-faith society, it is a recipe for social tension. Those who are the victims of discrimination will feel alienated and may seek to subvert existing political structures. In some cases they will do this by peaceful protest, sometimes by violent action.
A Global Ethic
Is there a third way? Without some shared values, a society falls apart. If there is no concept of truth, business agreements become impossible -- and indeed the presence of lawyers at every negotiation today are a sign that trustworthiness has been too much undermined. But even a legal system is an expression of underlying values. A society -- and this is also true of our international society -- needs values, but in a multi-faith society and world, if they are imposed by one faith community, even if it is the majority faith community, this will be resented and these values are likely to prove divisive. This is why it is urgent that faith communities articulate the values that they have in common in what is often now called ‘a global ethic’.
Many spiritual leaders recognize the need for such a global ethic. Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Jains and others, as well as Christians, have said ‘Yes’ to a global ethic.21 Let Pope John Paul II serve as an example. In 2001, he said:
As humanity embarks upon the process of globalization, it can no longer do without a common code of ethics . . . This does not mean a single dominant socio-economic system or culture which would impose its values and its criteria on ethical reasoning. It is within man as such, within universal humanity sprung from the Creator’s hand, that the norms of social life are to be sought. Such a search is indispensable if globalization is not to be just another name for the absolute relativization of values and the homogenization of life-styles and cultures. In all the variety of cultural forms, universal human values exist and they must be brought out and emphasized as the guiding force of all development and progress.22
The best known effort to produce a global ethic is the declaration that was signed by most members of the 1993 Assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. At a time of intense conflict in former Yugoslavia, and of communal trouble in India, the Parliament sought to show that religions need not be a cause of division but could unite on basic ethical teachings. Much of the immediate preparatory work for this had been done by Professor Hans Küng, but interfaith organizations for some years had been working to identify the basic agreement of different religions on moral values.23
It is important to be clear that the global ethic is not intended to be a substitute for the specific moral teaching of particular religions. Hans Küng himself says:
The global ethic is no substitute for the Torah, the Gospels, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Discourses of the Buddha or the Teachings of Confucius and other scriptures. [It is concerned simply with a] minimal basic consensus relating to binding values, irrevocable standards and moral attitudes which can be affirmed by all religions despite their dogmatic differences and can also be supported by non-believers.24
Certainly the ethical element in a religion has to be understood in the context of the whole. ‘The source of vision and motivation for people of religious belief is their experience of the supreme reality, the transcendent, or the divine.’25 Moral concern cannot be separated from inner transformation, but, as twentieth-century religious leaders of several traditions have insisted, such inner transformation also embraces a concern for the well-being of the whole society. Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The only way to find God is to see him in his creation and to be one with it. This can only be done by service of all, sarvodaya.’26 The Dalai Lama has also spoken of ‘compassion in action’ and Rabbi Soetendorp of the Netherlands has spoken of ‘prayers with legs’.27
Although for most believers their ethical conduct is part of their whole faith commitment, it is I believe possible to recognize fundamental agreements, which the global ethic attempts to express. Indeed, the Golden Rule is to be found in almost all religious traditions. In the same way, as I argued in the introduction to Stepping Stones to a Global Ethic, the contemporary concern for human rights, even if expressed in the thought forms of the Enlightenment, is grounded in faith traditions.28
It may be that attempts so far to articulate universal human rights and to identify a global ethic have been too much expressed in Western thought forms. This does not invalidate the efforts, but it indicates that wider participation is necessary to improve them. Both the books, For All Life, which Leonard Swidler edited, and Testing the Global Ethic, which Peggy Morgan and I edited, include comments on the global ethic from members of several world religions. The task, as Leonard Swidler makes clear, is not complete:
But when the Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic is finally drafted -- after multiple consultation, revision and eventual acceptance by the full range of religious and ethical institutions -- it will serve as a minimal ethical standard for humankind to live up to, much as the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Through the former, the moral force of the world’s religions and ethical institutions can be brought to bear especially on those issues which are not susceptible to the legal and political force of the latter. 29
Does the global ethic appeal only to those with a religious faith? Hans Küng made clear that the intention was that it should be convincing and practical for all women and men of good will, religious and non-religious’.30 The underlying principle, therefore, was that
. . . every human being must be treated humanely . . . This means that every human being without distinction of age, sex, race, skin colour, physical or mental ability, language, religion, political view, or national or social origin possesses an inalienable and untouchable dignity . . . Humans . . . must be ends, never mere means, never objects of commercialization and industrialization in economic, politics and media.31
For me, as a Christian, this emphasis on treating every human humanely resonates with words attributed to Jesus: ‘I came that they might have life and have it in all its fullness.’ 32 Augustine said, ‘The glory of God is man fully alive,’ and several Christian writers have claimed that Christianity is the true humanism. Likewise members of other faiths have shown that there is support for the global ethic in their tradition. Certainly the principle ‘treat every human humanely’, which is really the Golden Rule, can be found in most faith traditions, although the scriptural or theological support for this statement will be particular to each faith. It is also a principle that should appeal to many people who have no belief in a transcendent reality.
It is, of course, a very general principle and in the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic an attempt was made to give it more substance. Four ‘Irrevocable Directives’ were affirmed, based on this fundamental demand that every human being must be treated humanely.
1 Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
2 Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order.
3 Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness.
4 Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.
‘Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order’ is, of course, still very general. People of faith may disagree sharply about how to implement this. Indeed, this can be seen in current debates on how to make globalization good. For example, the Hindu reformer Swami Agnivesh puts the dilemma very clearly:
There are two radically different approaches to dealing with the issue of human greed. The first is to put in place checks and balances so that the predatory and exploitative instincts In human nature do not become socially subversive. This approach is centered in law. . .
The second approach, however, rejects this assumption and assumes that the persistence of greed and its power over individuals and societies stems from a materialistic world view. If lust for material acquisition can be tempered with love for one’s fellow human beings and accountability to God, it becomes possible to deal with the problem of greed effectively.33
This is a question that needs to be discussed together by religious thinkers and economists -- especially economists who are themselves people of faith.
There are many other and more practical issues that also need to be discussed by religious thinkers and economists. Some religious leaders call for those in the affluent world to adopt a simpler lifestyle. But would reduction of consumption in the West, on a large scale, really transfer resources to those who live in poverty, or would it trigger a recession? What is the goal of development? The views of the World Bank and of faith communities are often very different?
A great deal of study and discussion is taking place, but groups often work in isolation. A center is needed to ensure that the fruits of these efforts are better coordinated and communicated to the faith communities so that they have a real impact on a dangerous and divided world. There is a feeling among some interfaith activists that the 2004 Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona, for all its achievements, missed the opportunity to be the catalyst for this necessary development.
The editors of Interreligious Insight ask readers to
Imagine a world in which religious and spiritual communities regularly and creatively engage with other powerful and influential institutions to build a better future for all. Imagine a world in which the deepest wisdom and values of the great spiritual traditions touch the critical questions of the age, and in which religious communities are in deep and thoughtful dialogue with experts on all those critical questions.35
We need to make this vision a reality. If those who believe that economics should serve the good of all people, and should be based on and reflect the moral values upheld by the great religions, are to have a practical impact then religious thinkers and economists need to work together on derailed policies which embody these moral values. It will then be possible, as with the Jubilee 2000 campaign, to focus on specific issues and win popular support. It is time for the global ethic and talk of Globalization for the Common Good to move from the conference hall to the political agenda.
1. Michael Mandel in Business Week, 25th February, 2002, p. 115.
2. Quoted by John Dunning in Making Globalization Good, p.32, referring to G. Soros. The Crisis of Global Capitalism, Little, Brown & Co. London, 1998, p.75.
3. E. Mortimer. Faith and Power in the Politics of Islam, Faber & Faber, 1982. p.37.
5. David L. Edwards, Religion and Change, Hodder & Stoughton, 1969, p.57.
6. H. Munkler. Machiavelli, Frankfurt, 1982, pp.283 and 281, quoted by H. Küng, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, SCM Press. 1997, p.17.
7. H. Küng, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, p.16.
8. H. Kissinger, Diplomacy, New York, 1994, pp.62 and 63.
9. Hugh McLeod, ‘Secularization’ in the Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. Adrian Hastings, Oxford University Press 2000, pp.653-4.
10. Alistair Mason, ‘Enlightenment’, in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, pp.200-1.
11. I. Kant, Werke VI, 53-61:53, quoted by H. Küng, The Religious Situation of Our Time, SCM Press, 1995. p.684.
12. H. Küng, The Religions Situation, p.687
13. Quoted by H. Küng, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, p.20, with reference to his Christianity, C IV5.
14. Quoted by S.C. Carpenter, Church and People. 1789-1889, SPCK, 1959 edn, Part II, pp.317-18.
15. H.J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, New York, 1948, 1961 edn, p.4.
16. H.J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, p.4.
17. New York Times Magazine, 9th September 1970, quoted by Küng, p.191.
18. Brian Griffiths, ‘A Christian Perspective’ in Making Globalization Good, ed. John Dunning, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 168.
19. Brian Griffiths, p.168.
20. See p. 43.
21. See Yes to a Global Ethic, ed. Hans Küng, SCM Press, 1996.
22. Pope John Paul II in an Address to the Papal Academy of Social Sciences, 27th April 2001. Vatican website.
23. See Stepping Stones to a Global Ethic, ed. Marcus Braybrooke. SCM Press, 1992, and For All Life, ed. Leonard Swidler, White Cloud Press. Ashland, Oregon, 1999.
24. Hans Küng, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, p.109.
25. See Millennium Challenges for Development and Faith Institutions, Katherine Marshall & Richard Marsh, The World Bank. 2003.
26. Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan.
27. Quoted by David Johnston in Interreligious Insight, Vol. 2, No. 4, October 2004, p.15.
28. Louis Henken said that ‘all major religions proudly lay claim to fathering human rights.’ Louis Henken, The Rights of Man Today, Westview Press, 1978, p. xii. Likewise, Section 4 of the report Poverty and Development says that ‘the present articulation of human rights is a secular formation of the spiritual notion of the dignity inherent to each person, and thus has its grounding in the basic principles of all religions.’
29. For All Life, ed. Leonard Swidler, p.18.
30. A Global Ethic, ed. Hans Küng and Karl-Josef Kuschel, SCM Press, 1993, p.21.
31. ibid., p.23.
32. John 10.10.
33. Swami Agnivesh in Subverting Greed, ed. Paul Knitter & Chandra Muzaffar Orbis 2002, pp.50-l.
34. See Millennium Challenges for Development and Faith Institutions.
35 Interreligious Insight, Vol. 2, No. 4, October, 2004, p.7.
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