Note: The new book Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life publishes papers delivered at colloquia that were held by the Oikonomia Network in 2019. This innovative, cross-disciplinary scholarly collaboration is now available in an inexpensive paperback.
This book is a step forward for an urgent conversation in theology. In our time, there is a growing consensus that theological knowledge ought to help cultivate authentic human flourishing in the church and, through the church’s participation in the cultural structures of the nations, in the world as well. The natural next step is for theological scholars to explore how their knowledge in its particularity – knowledge about such topics as what Proverbs and Paul say about poverty, Karl Barth’s encounters with capitalism and socialism, or how the gospel relates theologically to the cultural mandate – could contribute to the real-life flourishing of truck drivers, administrative assistants, stay-at-home parents or leaders in business and government as each of these carries out their daily tasks in a pluralistic and fragmented world.
In the past generation, the theological disciplines have been struggling to overcome the dismissive perception that they are just historical and technical studies. To do this, they must show that they provide knowledge – real insight – into the deep structures of reality. Through the works of Mirsolav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, Kevin Vanhoozer, Jonathan Pennington and many others, theological scholars are increasingly recognizing that in order to show that theology is knowledge, they must show how it can help cultivate human flourishing. That is the tangible test of whether the ideas produced by the theological disciplines really provide knowledge about reality. If theological knowledge is knowledge at all, it must be useful – though of course it has other value as well…
These recent realizations, naturally, build on older theological thought. Indeed, concern for how theological knowledge can serve human flourishing has always been part of the church’s reflection on God’s word, as some of the historical essays in this volume explore. More recently, the current interest in human flourishing grows out of prior work done by such figures as Richard Mouw, Dallas Willard and Lesslie Newbigin on the theological side, and Oliver O’Donovan, Graeme Goldsworthy and Christopher Wright on the biblical side. Even figures like John Howard Yoder and Walter Wink, who take a more unambiguously oppositional stance toward existing cultural structures, or contemporary “two kingdoms” theologians like David VanDrunen, who emphasize the distinctiveness of church institutions from civil institutions, incorporate a profound concern for authentic human flourishing at the center of their theologies. The disputed questions between Mouw, O’Donovan, Yoder and VanDrunen are not about whether theological knowledge should serve human flourishing, but about what theology tells us about human flourishing, and how theology can cultivate it.
Economic Wisdom against Fragmentation and Resentment
The background of all these developments is the fragmentation of cultures under conditions of advanced modernity, and the growth of polarized resentments that this fragmentation naturally creates. Cultures become fragmented in advanced modernity largely as a byproduct of developments that are in themselves good and necessary. Religious freedom and increased concern for human rights make it difficult to maintain a morally coherent culture in a way that is not felt to be unjust and oppressive; economic and technological development increase our power to isolate ourselves and to minimize negative consequences from bad behavior.
While the deepest causes of fragmentation are developments that in themselves we neither can nor should regret, this fragmentation constitutes a major challenge to human flourishing. Incoherent cultures lack the normal social conditions to support moral formation and ethical standards – the overcoming of our congenital tendencies toward materialism, complacency, narcissism and injustice. The breakdown of institutions that are essential to human flourishing is both a cause and an effect of fragmentation.
One problem of special importance is the division of cultures into mutually hostile groups locked in perpetual conflict. By far the easiest strategy for a social group to maintain a coherent sense of its identity and purpose under conditions of fragmentation is to identify an enemy who has hurt the group, and focus the energies of personal and social formation on the battle to “defend ourselves” (i.e., aggressively attack the other) and “take back what is rightfully ours” (i.e., forcibly seize resources and status symbols). Fragmentation also makes it easy to construct a plausibility structure for such resentments, as the loss of coherence, stability and power that every group experiences because of fragmentation can be blamed on the enemy. And, of course, resentment-driven conflict puts money and power into the hands of people who are skilled at cultivating resentment, and is thus a self-perpetuating enterprise.
However, advanced modernity also opens a path to a potential solution. While the old loci of social coherence are in decline, there is a new openness to action in a different social sector – a sector that is also less susceptible to takeover by resentment-driven conflict. Christian activity in that cultural domain can help coherence reemerge.
In the ancient world, political structures were the source of social coherence. As the advanced religions (the “Axial” or “world” religions) grew, a shift occurred. Religious structures joined with – or even supplanted – political structures as the locus of social coherence. Both these types of institutions are unable to create cultural coherence in a social world where people have the right (as a result of religious freedom and respect for human rights) and the power (as a result of economic and technological development) to believe whatever seems right to them about ultimate reality. Where people choose their own beliefs, religion is the subject of social conflict, and politics is the primary platform where that conflict is carried out – through proxy battles over the moral foundations of public policy, and sometimes more openly, through competition to seize political status symbols.
In the advanced modern world, to the extent that we have a common public life at all, it is mainly lived out in the domains of work and commerce. This phenomenon has a variety of causes. At the simplest level, among those whose primary vocations take them into the public square, the overwhelming majority do their work in the commercial world; political, religious, artistic and other kinds of non-commercial professionals are numerically small. In the frankly inegalitarian social world of premodernity, the non-commercial class could comfortably maintain itself as a social elite in spite of its small size. But the moral egalitarianism of the modern world demands that whatever the overwhelming majority of people in the public square are doing is the real center of public life. In other words, democracy in politics and the priesthood of all believers in theology not only reinforce each other, but work together to elevate commerce over both politics and the church as the locus of shared life. Another cause is the transformative power of wealth creation and technological development, for good and ill, unleashed by the modern economic regime of property and contract rights.
The new power of commerce over social life is an opportunity for Christians. It means that a Christian view of economic life is essential to a modern Christian view of human flourishing. But it also means that Christians have the power to pursue human flourishing in a domain where openness to the creation of new structures is greatest, and the incentive structures that maintain conflict-driven resentment are relatively weak. There is, admittedly, a growing penetration of the “culture war” into commerce – but this is relatively recent and peripheral compared to the near-total multigenerational captivity of our political and religious structures. Commerce is to some extent colonized by the culture war, but the colonizers are not primarily economic actors; they are political and religious resentment machines.
Seeking Coherence across Disciplines
Theological scholarship can provide coherence in a fragmented world because it is a knowledge tradition with a supernatural source. Two thousand years of accumulated wisdom in understanding the Bible’s testimony have produced a living body of insight we can draw on today. Ancient and yet always new, grounded in eternity but capable of informing practical life, the accumulated theological wisdom of God’s people is the storehouse of the “big story” within which leaders can find truth, coherence and stability as they craft solutions to specific problems.
A key obstacle to coherence in the theological knowledge tradition – and hence to its contribution to human flourishing – is the separation of the theological disciplines from one another. There is nothing inherently wrong with the existence of multiple theological disciplines. However, when the different disciplines operate using deeply dissimilar conceptual categories and methods, integration will not occur for most people, and it will not come easily to the few who do pursue it. Under these conditions, theological knowledge has become as fragmented as the advanced modern world itself.
This is not a coincidence. The current structure of the theological disciplines does not create fragmentation by accident, but by design. It is fragmented, and fragmenting, on purpose. Advocates of an aggressive and uncritical embrace of modernization – Friedrich Schleiermacher foremost among them – designed the fourfold disciplinary structure (systematic, biblical, historical, practical) that now dominates the theological academy. It did not grow organically out of the two-thousand year theological knowledge tradition, but was invented in the nineteenth century by radical modernizers who saw the theological tradition as an outdated legacy the church needed to overcome to be relevant.
Thus, interdisciplinary work – as difficult and frustrating as it often is – is the only path to a theology that cultivates human flourishing. However, such work does not begin with immediate interdisciplinary interaction. It begins with each discipline considering the question of human flourishing for itself, and then bringing the results of those inquiries into interdisciplinary dialogue.
This book had its origin in three colloquia held by the Oikonomia Network in January 2019: theology, biblical studies and history. However, the chapters in this volume are not grouped by discipline. Rather, they are arranged in cross-disciplinary sections according to the three traditional “theological virtues” of faith, hope and love. Our hope is that this will stimulate the reader to see connections across disciplinary divisions – as, for example, between a biblical paper on the meaning of the mandate to “subdue the earth” in Genesis 1.27–28 and a theological paper on how the pursuit of human flourishing must be in harmony with the pursuit of flourishing for the nonhuman creation; or a biblical paper on poverty in Paul and a historical paper on Barth’s wrestling with the capitalism/socialism dilemma.
The first section, “Faith,” contains papers whose most immediate implications are doctrinal – or, in one case, apologetic. J. Michael Thigpen considers how pursuit of human flourishing, justice and even proclamation of the gospel can be seen as fulfilling the Genesis mandate to “subdue” the earth. Greg Forster traces the role of “the nations” in the Bible’s gospel metanarrative, and why this implies a need for a theology of public life. Lynn H. Cohick and John Anthony Dunne respond to the claim that Paul profited from slavery in his missionary work. Suzanne McDonald makes a theological case that flourishing must include all of creation, not just humans.
The second section, “Hope,” contains papers that trace the development of Christian thought and practice over time. Greg Forster examines a key theological claim in Augustine’s City of God that set the stage for much of both medieval and early modern Christian approaches to public life. Greg Peters reviews medieval thought and practice on the subject of “economies of salvation.” Nathan Hitchcock traces the interdependence of technology, economics and theology in the indulgences crisis of the early sixteenth century. Robert W. Wright holds up the enormous social role of nonprofit companies, many of which were religious, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The third section, “Love,” contains papers that focus on applied social ethics – including some historical cases where the focus is on ethical issues of enduring importance rather than on historical development. Daniel J. Estes looks at poverty in Proverbs, while John W. Taylor looks at poverty and justice in Paul. Jonathan Lett walks us through the challenging but provocative subject of Martin Luther’s writings on trade and usury, while Kimlyn J. Bender looks at Barth’s capitalism/socialism dilemma, which is also our own.
There is much more work still to be done. Reconnecting theological knowledge to the way people actually live their daily lives and do their daily work will be a generational endeavor. In the long run, deep reforms in the structure of the theological academy may be required. The next step toward this exciting and challenging future for theological scholarship is to go beyond the generic claim that theology should cultivate human flourishing, and show how it can do so in detail. The essays in this volume do this with wisdom, skill, faithfulness and compassion.
Note: Excerpt from Human Flourishing: Economic Wisdom for a Fruitful Christian Vision of the Good Life, ed. Greg Forster and Anthony Cross, Wipf & Stock, 2020. Used by permission.