Kathryn Tanner: Constructing a “theological economy” to transform global capitalism

The biggest story of our time—an ailing economy, wounded by financial crisis and debt—has unfolded with little analysis or censure from the religious community.

Kathryn Tanner would like to change that.

Tanner, the Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at YDS, sees vital connections between Christian doctrine and the world’s economic endeavor. Both assert vigorous responses to the concepts of risk, security, value, abundance, the circulation of goods and other challenges of the human condition.

Yet vast numbers of Christians don’t customarily see the connection between theology and the economy—and the result is silence, fatalism or confusion before the rampaging forces of globalization, poverty and recurring crisis.

“Economics is a dominant force in our lives,” Tanner says. “If Christian belief and practice mean making our way through this world, orienting ourselves to this world, then we need to know what kind of world this is and how it actually works. And I think we have to understand it in the most intellectually responsible way we can.”

Tanner’s most recent work, an analysis of current-day financial markets, aims to show that Christian faith and practice can speak to the global economic system, its values and malfunctions. She says it’s time to muster the theological imagination to offer an urgent Christian critique of current financial excesses and propose an alternative “social architecture” that can nurture the human spirit beyond competitiveness and fear.

Tanner’s first major theological exploration of economics arrived with her book Economy of Grace (Fortress Press, 2005). There she argued that a “theological economy” has much to teach and can humanize global capitalism so that it benefits everyone and avoids crisis after crisis. From the Christian notion of God’s grace flows a torrent of ideas that could apply in practical ways to the “real” economy—non-competitive social relations, unconditional giving, a commitment to fulfill the needs of all in today’s thoroughly interdependent world market.

“Global capitalism can be changed and redirected by human decision,” she writes in Economy of Grace. “It is not the immovable object or implacable juggernaut that neoliberal economists would like us to think it is. The shape of capitalism has never been the pure product of economic forces but always the precipitate of additional social and political forces working together or against one another to push it this way or that.”

In the years since her book was published, the United States and the world have struggled through the Great Recession. The ordeal has been painfully illuminating, Tanner says. The power of financial markets is proving to be more immune to reform than she previously thought—and more and more detached from the real-life economy of goods and services. The markets are demonstrating, for instance, that great profits can be made by trading on the irregularities of interest rates and currency exchanges no matter how weak the overall economy is.

Nevertheless, the nervous system of such speculative financial markets—the instability, insecurity and anxiety that drive it—looks clearer than ever, she suggests, and it ought to be challenged. Christian doctrine is in a strong position to do that.

Tanner’s most recent research, the fruit of a yearlong Luce Fellowship this past year, analyzes the nature of financial markets and offers a Christian response to it.

“Christians,” she writes, “have a direct interest in, and critical perspective on, the organizational structure of financial markets and the incentives for action such an organizational structure foments, because Christian beliefs and practices (when suitably interpreted) offer a very different response to much the same problems of human life—insecurity and risk.”

Tanner says the last 35 years have seen exponential growth in financial markets for various reasons. One is the increased volatility of currency values, interest rates and stock prices, a source of fast and vast profits and equally spectacular losses. Another is the increased speed and mobility of unrestricted capital across national borders. Both these trends have created a third—the privatization of risk, which shifts the burden of coping with potential financial losses away from national institutions and onto individual market participants.

Against these conditions of self-absorbed risk and systemic anxiety, a Christian orientation on the world of profit and loss contains the power to free itself from incessant self-oriented insecurity, she argues. Belief in a Creator-Redeemer—confidence in God’s love, mercy and intentions for us beyond our own precarious daily fortunes—offers a fundamentally different understanding of risk and insecurity.

“Faith may be itself a risk, but what faith has faith in is an eminently secure source of profit: God,” she writes.

“Whatever the risks one takes there is a floor beneath which one cannot fall, established by God’s loving regard for one as one’s creator and redeemer. Benefits are assured in that sense, and such a belief is what gives one the confidence to take the risks of faith and hazard oneself in the eyes of the world; one needn’t fundamentally fear, as the risk-filled world of finance tells one to.”

And: “Swings between abject fear and false hope are avoided through confidence in an abiding source of divine love and mercy that lies beyond all the usual shifting, and in any case quite insufficient, presumed bases for reliable calculation of likely future outcomes.”

Tanner has three degrees from Yale—a B.A. in philosophy, an M.A. and Ph.D. in theology—and previously taught in the Department of Religious Studies. For the last 16 years, she taught systematic theology at the University of Chicago before joining the Yale Divinity School faculty last year.

She grew up in eastern Pennsylvania; her father was an accountant. But she says she turned her theological training to the subject of economics in earnest after 9/11.

“I wanted to try to get a handle on big global forces that are so dramatically affecting the world,” she says. “I had done a lot of work in social sciences already. But it’s the economy that is driving so much unrest and uncertainty.”

Helping her get a fix on the subject, she says, were anthropologists (such as Karen Ho, author of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, and Edward LiPuma and Benjamin Lee, authors of Financial Derivatives and the Globalization of Risk) who examine market forces as cultural and political phenomena, not just as technical matters or deterministic, impersonal forces.

Tanner, who serves on the theology committee of the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church, says it’s understandable that Christian voices are relatively mute on the subject of the economy. The reasons for the recession are complicated; there’s still no consensus about the exact causes of the 2008 financial crisis. Further, there’s a longstanding social assumption that economic matters are best left to the experts, not laypeople. Also, there’s an abiding feeling that nothing can be done about the cycles of crisis and prosperity except ride them out.

Tanner nevertheless hopes her arguments gain traction with Christian groups—as well as economists:  “I’m trying to engage economists on their own ground, but I also want to move beyond the sense of intimidation that economics has for people. The way economic forces unfold is not an inevitability. It never was an inevitability. Society makes choices. But as it is now, the economic system is not working for vast numbers of people. Christianity has something to say about that.”

November 6, 2011
About the Author: 
Ray Waddle