Page 1

1 “Grounded: Creation and Economic Crisis” Ekklesia Project annual gathering, DePaul University, Chicago, July 10, 2009

The economy is on everybody’s mind these days – someone recently told me he went to an ATM and the ATM asked him if it could borrow a twenty till next week – but pastors and theologians and lay Christians are often reluctant to talk about it, for a couple of seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, we think that economics is too high above us, too esoteric and far beyond our expertise. On the other hand, we are told that economics is about mundane material matters, whereas theology is about spiritual matters, God, the soul, and so on; in this version, it is theology that is esoteric, and floats above the merely material. And so, for one reason or the other, or perhaps both, we pray for those hurt by the economic crisis, but keep any kind of analysis of the problem to safe platitudes. If we look carefully at these reasons, however, we will have reason to recover our courage. In the first place, it may be true that a lot of the current economic crisis is couched in esoteric terms that are difficult for non-specialists, and even sometimes specialists, to fully grasp. I certainly am no economist, and I find myself reluctant to wade into the waters of derivatives and hedge funds and credit default swaps and so on. But this complexity and esotericism is not a simple fact of nature. The complexity of economics in such cases is not like the complexity of neurology or particle physics, where the complexity of the science corresponds to the complexity of the physical world. In the world of finance, many types of complexity are wholly fabricated. Many kinds of financial instruments have only the most tenuous relationship to the physical

2 world; they are meant to make money not from any real, physical productive activity but from intangible beliefs and fears. Such financial instruments are a form of mystification. There is nothing esoteric about economic activity as such. When an economy functions on a human and personal scale, it is mundane and transparent to the simplest of people. This brings us to the second reason that pastors and theologians and Christian laypeople often avoid talking about economic matters. Is it perhaps too mundane? Is Christianity not spiritual and therefore either transcending or irrelevant to economic matters? The short answer is “no�; in fact it is Christianity, properly understood, that is more grounded in material reality than much of what passes for economics in our current situation. I was asked specifically to focus on the Christian doctrine of creation. I will explore how a true Christian understanding of creation gives us the basis for a theology rooted in material reality and an economic practice rooted in our participation in God. I will begin by trying to explain and diagnose the current economic crisis, showing that the crisis is based in a fundamental inability to deal with reality. So much of what has gone wrong economically is precisely in the displacement of economic activity from the mundane and the material. I will then examine the Christian doctrine of creation to suggest what a properly grounded view of material reality can contribute to our understanding of economics. Finally, I will end with a few concrete suggestions for Christian communities to live out this vision. I. The current crisis

3 Christians who face the current economic crisis with accusations of the age-old sin of greed are not wrong; there is plenty of covetousness for material goods driving the downfall. But I think that a deeper explanation moves in the opposite direction: the economic crisis is not driven by materialism but by a desire to transcend the material world. There is a deeper desire than the desire for stuff apparent in the current crisis. It is the desire to transcend the limits of the material world, to transcend the limits of the human body and of death, to be free from the scarcity and risk and dependence of a life that is materially based. There is no doubt that the buying and selling of things plays an important part in the global economy. But such things are incompletely described as material, for the economy is deeply imbued with fantasy. Let’s begin with a primer on the current economic crisis. Part of it is quite easy to understand; banks lent money to people who couldn’t pay it back. Historically low interest rates and aggressive – some would say predatory -- lending practices in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to a buying frenzy for houses. High-risk borrowers, people who could not qualify for loans in the past, were being sold on loans with no down payment required. They accepted the fanciful idea that home ownership was an entitlement of the American Dream, and homes would pay for themselves by rising in value. It was a great deal for all involved as long as house values continued to rise, and many borrowers bought into the fantasy that they always would rise. But the rise in house values was not based in any kind of extra-financial reality – the rise was fueled by the loans themselves, which created demand for houses, thus driving prices up. The story begins, therefore, at one significant remove from reality.

4 But it gets worse. Banks know that they are in higher-risk territory here, so they come up with financial instruments which, they say, help to reduce and disperse the risks, otherwise known as passing the risk on to someone else. Thus begins what is known as “securitization,” which is the packaging of consumer debt, mortgages especially, for sale as investments to pension funds, hedge funds, individual investors, and other banks. These securities, called “collateralized debt obligations,” are marketed under the idea that, in grouping mortgages together by the thousands, the good loans will outweigh the losses from the bad ones. They are given Moody’s triple-A ratings. Thus are high-risk, undesirable, sub-prime mortgages repackaged and sold as safe investments. We have achieved one more level of remove from reality. The idea of a local banker sitting down with someone in his or her community and assessing the real needs and resources of that person before writing a loan now seems quaint and anachronistic. But it gets worse. These collateralized debt obligations are listed by investment firms and hedge funds and banks as assets, and used as collateral for borrowing more money. Interest rates are so low, they can borrow money cheaply and make investments with a much higher yield. So money is being made on borrowed money, and the money is being borrowed by using debt as collateral. In traditional banking – think Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” -- people deposit money in the bank, and the bank takes that money and loans it to other people (though of course bank reserve requirements have never been 100%). But now, banks and others were loaning out billions of dollars more than they actually had. The relevant euphemism here is “leveraging.”

5 But loans, even loans of money you don’t actually have, are still rather mundane and pedestrian compared to some of the more exotic financial instruments that were marketed. With all those people in debt, and so much resulting risk and insecurity, there must be a way to make money off of the risk and insecurity themselves. Thus were born credit default swaps, invented by J.P. Morgan in 1995. Imagine that I lend Brent one hundred dollars. I am a little concerned with Brent’s ability to pay me back, so I write a contract with Trecy in which Trecy promises to pay me back my $100 if Brent defaults. In exchange, I pay Trecy $10 a year. This is called a credit default swap. It is a form of insurance; I am insuring the loan that I made to Brent. The reason I need insurance on this loan, of course, is that I don’t trust Brent. I am willing to take risks on loaning money to unscrupulous or unstable parties like Brent because I can pass the risk off to someone else. Credit default swaps, in other words, only encourage my risky behavior. Trecy, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to make money off the risk and my lack of trust. But, as you may by now be ready to expect, it gets much worse than that. Mike also sees this opportunity to make money off risk and distrust, and he sees no reason why he should have to be a party to the original loan to profit from it. So he calls Kelly and says that, in exchange for $10 a year, he will pay Kelly $100 if Brent defaults on my loan to him. This is usually done through futures, betting that a company’s stock price will go up or down. Kelly is convinced that Brent will fail, so she takes Mike up on the deal. Brent, Trecy, and I don’t even know that Mike and Kelly are in on the action. This is like taking out an insurance policy on someone else’s house or car or life, someone you don’t even know. Or a better analogy,

6 perhaps, is simply gambling, like going to an off-track betting parlor and putting twenty bucks down on a horse. Except it’s worse than that, because unlike with most forms of gambling, there is no government regulation of these swaps, and so they are limited only by the extent of both parties’ willingness to wager. Congress passed a law in 2000, brainchild of Senator Phil Gramm, specifically prohibiting federal and state regulation of credit default swaps and other derivatives. The bill’s sponsors were aware of the resemblance of such swaps to gambling, so they inserted a clause specifying that the bill would "supersede and preempt the application of any state or local law that prohibits gaming ..."1 If Brent defaults on my loan to him, I would get $100 from Trecy. Depending on how much money Kelly was willing and able to wager on Brent’s failure, however, Kelly could collect millions or billions of dollars off of my loan to Brent. The market in these swaps is enormous, but no one quite knows how enormous because they are unregulated and don’t even need to be publicly disclosed. In fact, many parties don’t even know who has the other side of their wager; Mike could sell his side of the bet to a third party without even telling Kelly. Estimates of the amount in outstanding credit default swaps vary, but in September of last year Fortune magazine estimated $54.6 trillion, which, as Fortune pointed out, is greater than the world’s total annual economic output. Not bad, considering they started at zero in 1995. Fortune explains their rapid rise this way: You can guess how Wall Street cowboys responded to the opportunity to make deals that (1) can be struck in a minute, (2) require little or no cash upfront, and (3) can cover anything. Yee-haw! You can almost picture Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove climbing onto the H-bomb before it's released from the B-52.2

7 Fortune’s account of traders’ motivations is perhaps overly jaundiced. Part of the problem lies in the fact that fund managers are compensated not on absolute performance, but on quarterly performance relative to the managers of other funds, as measured by share price. If conscientious fund managers refused to buy into the market in collateralized debt obligations and swaps, their short-term performance would lag, their funds would lose investors, and they would lose compensation. Bankers were similarly motivated by short-term performance goals to make risky loans in the first place. Compensation is the key here, but it is important to see that such concern for compensation goes beyond mere greed for money to buy things. In a world of abstraction, where products are intangible and all value has been reduced to money, monetary compensation is the sole measure of a person’s worth. Compensation is the only measure of identity in a world that has been financialized.3 And so it would seem that financial traders have turned the world into one gigantic casino. But it’s really much worse than that. At a casino, you can be reasonably sure that if you win at blackjack, the casino will have enough money to pay you your winnings. The casino has a reserve of actual cash to back up its bets. No such reserve is legally required in the swaps market, as it is in the real insurance market. Anyone can bet anything in the swaps market, if they can find someone willing to guess that they can cover their bet. The problem is that much more money is wagered than anyone actually has; remember, more in bets than the world’s total economic output. Trecy has guaranteed my loan to Brent, but Trecy has already spent the premiums or loaned them to someone else and has nothing to pay me with if Brent defaults. She was banking on her assets in collateralized debt obligations, but now they are

8 plummeting in value as high-risk borrowers begin to default on their mortgages and house values drop. When Trecy goes bankrupt, I’m in trouble with the credit ratings agencies, who see that I have a lot of unprotected loans outstanding. They lower my credit rating, making it harder for me to get access to real money. To make matters worse, I’m also up to my ears in the swaps market, insuring other people’s debt. I go bankrupt, and the whole system begins to unravel. When it does, it is often those who can least afford it who lose out. Managers of relatively stodgy mutual funds who resisted buying exotic securities at first eventually felt compelled to get into these riskier products late in the game, when prices were higher, and the more nimble hedge funds who serve wealthier clients were selling. Mutual funds were left holding the bag when the house of cards collapsed. But it’s worse than just collapsing. Since many bettors in the swaps market were betting on defaults, there is actually an incentive for many players to hasten the demise of companies by publicizing their problems and driving up the costs of insuring their debt by trading their credit default swaps contracts. On the other side, the government is trying to stabilize the situation by bailing out the most reckless of players. AIG had written $78 billion worth of swaps, based on money that it didn’t actually have. The government steps in to bail out a system it had deliberately refused to regulate. The high-risk world of corporate finance turns out to be not so high risk after all, because the government ends up covering all the lousy bets that AIG and others made. Where is the government getting the money? They are borrowing it, of course – in enormous quantities.


II. The spirituality of economics Now, if you’re like me, you’re feeling a little queasy. When I think about these matters, I get the same kind of feeling I get when looking down from a great height, from the edge of the Grand Canyon, perhaps, or from an airplane window, or really what I would imagine it is like to walk a tightrope between two tall buildings and see someone arranging pillows on the sidewalk far below. What has happened is that the economy has gotten detached from reality. There has been too much leveraging going on, which is basically trying to build assets out of debt, which is to say, out of nothing at all. This creatio ex nihilo is built entirely on perception. As in any pyramid scheme, it can be kept going only as long as the perception of growth is maintained. When this bubble of perception is finally burst, the fall from unreality to reality can be very painful, wreaking havoc in the real world.4 In order to see how theology can help in such a situation, it is important to grasp the prevailing economic paradigm as a kind of spirituality. What is important in all the preceding discussion of the current crisis is not just the underlying theme of greed for material things but the way in which the dominant paradigm takes flight from the material world. The aspiration of such an economy is not simply to make money. The deeper aspiration is to leave behind physical constraints and limits that are created by being a mortal creature in space and time. Let’s look at three kinds of limits that the prevailing paradigm tries to overcome.

10 1) Scarcity Scarcity is said to be a central problematic for the discipline of economics It is based on the idea of unlimited desires facing limited resources. For classical economists, economics will always be tragic because there will never be enough to satisfy all possible human wants. The infinite nature of human want is constrained by the finite nature of material resources. But the financialization of the economy, as it has been called, can be seen as an attempt to overcome the limits of the material world by making wealth multiply without any increase in real material production. Economists have been worried since the end, in the 1970s, of the post-war capitalist boom that growth and profitability have stagnated, because of overproduction, the high price of oil, and the physical limits on growth that ecological reality has imposed.5 Financialization is seen as an “escape route,� as Walden Bello puts it, an attempt to make money out of nothing when the real material economy runs up against its limit. Much of the growth in the economy has been in the financial sector, but it is not real growth; it creates profit for some but not new value. Profit depends on getting in early on speculative bubbles that inevitably burst, because they are based on perception, not reality. Financialization can be understood as an attempt to transcend the limits of material reality, to create ex nihilo. We have been sold on the imperative of economic growth at all costs. Such faith in growth is not just a material but a spiritual aspiration, an attempt to get beyond our damnable servitude to material reality, and so overcome human vulnerability and human limits.

11 2) Risk At first glance, one might mistakenly think that this type of economy embraces risk and vulnerability. There is certainly a recklessness to it, and the system as a whole is fraught with danger and insecurity. But in fact, as we have seen, the crisis was built on the attempt to defer risk or pass it along to someone else. There is certainly an attempt to profit from risk and vulnerability in this economy; high-risk borrowers were given loans with few safeguards. But securitization was precisely the attempt to pass risk along to someone else. There was no attempt, as in some forms of lending, to enter into a relationship of shared risk between lender and borrower. The whole point was short-term profit and the quick passing off of loans to others before the true risks became apparent. The system is based on the fantasy that people can be free of vulnerability, that profit can be made risk-free. The government helps to perpetuate this fantasy. Its role in the crisis is to absorb risk, to bail out the most reckless with borrowed money, which is only to defer the consequences of risk to some later time. What we seem to want from our elected politicians is to permit us to continue avoiding reality for as long as possible, to live on value borrowed from the future. And to live on value borrowed from the future is most fundamentally an attempt to cheat death. 3) Trust As we have seen, the economic crisis was built not simply on a failure of trust, but more fundamentally on the attempt to overcome the necessity of trust. The reason that loans needed to be insured is that they were made between parties who

12 lacked a basic sense of trust in each other. Any idea that loans depend on some kind of relationship in trust over time is gone in this model. Money can be made much more quickly if the necessity of trust is done away with. More than this, profit can be made from distrust itself, by offering to guarantee loans between mutually suspicious parties. Even more than this, money can be made in the swaps market from other people’s failures. Not only is it unnecessary to trust in another’s ability to succeed, but one can actively root for and even abet the other’s failure, and profit from it. From a spiritual point of view, what we see in this is an aspiration to freedom, understood negatively as freedom from obligation to others. The kind of relationships of dependence that limit human freedom, the necessity of community and reliance upon others, the stasis of an economy restricted to local, face-to-face encounters – these are seen as outmoded remnants of the economies of traditional societies and have no place in the contemporary economy. Independence and the ability to transcend the merely local are valued for their liberating dynamism. I have concentrated on the current crisis of financialization, but these Gnostic tendencies have been aspirations of the prevailing economic system for much of the twentieth century. Consumerism is famously prone to fantasy, most obviously in marketers’ mostly successful attempts to associate mundane products with transcendent qualities like independence, status, sexual ecstasy, youth, and freedom from necessity. [Sunkist orange soda, or retirement ads] The modern American “dream house” is precisely so-called, because it is not so much a material

13 thing but a marvel of transcendence of the material. Water, heat, cooling, communication, information, and entertainment appear at the touch of a button, while waste – enormous quantities of it -- magically disappears. The ecological consequences of this type of life are hidden, and excluded from the prices we pay. Products simply appear on store shelves for our consumption, without our having to labor to produce them or to even know who produces them and how. Globalization has long since removed actual material production from our sight and located it in some spectral periphery of grateful poor people who are just happy to have jobs. Transnational corporations not only seek to transcend the local, shifting from place to place in search of the cheapest labor and most lax environmental laws. As Naomi Klein says, they also seek to transcend the material world, to concentrate on brand management while leaving the “loathsomely corporeal” process of manufacturing to subcontractors.6

III. Creation What does the Christian doctrine of creation have to say about these aspirations? We must begin by recognizing two basic features of Christian thinking on creation. First, material reality is good. Second, material reality is limited. Both of these truths issue logically from the fact of creation. Creation has some share in the goodness of God by virtue of the fact that it relies upon the being of God for its being. If God is all good, then the creation of God must also be good. God declares it to be so over and over in the first chapter of Genesis. And yet precisely because

14 creation is created, it is not Creator. It occupies a place on the far side of a yawning gap between Creator and creation. Creator and creation are not on a continuum of being, the latter emanating from the former. They are entirely different, wholly other to each other, as cause and caused. Creation is limited by virtue of being created. The Christian doctrine of creation therefore approaches material reality with a profound realism and humility, a recognition of the limited and dependent nature of creation. At the same time, however, because it also recognizes that creation is good, there is no need to try to transcend reality and try to escape our creatureliness. To be a creature of a good God is a condition to rejoice in, not rebel against. Finitude is not a condition from which we need to be saved because creation is not a falling away from God. The creation of something besides God is the beginning of a great, if tempestuous, love story, an erotic attraction of Creator and creature. Creation is not a one-time event, but a continuous and intimate sustaining of the creature in being. Thomas Aquinas stresses the absolute ontological divide between Creator and creature; God is not a thing in the universe, but is the sheer act of existence itself. Yet precisely because they do not compete for space, as it were, on the same level, the Creator and creature share the deepest intimacy. Because God must constantly cause being in each creature, and because being is “innermost” in each thing, Aquinas reasons that “God is in all things, and innermostly.”7 Creation produces both the greatest divide and the greatest intimacy between Creator and creatures. And “creatures” means not just human beings, but every material thing that has being.

15 Christians are often puzzled or bored or indifferent when confronted by the Torah’s obsessive concern with regulating every aspect of Israelite life. Does the holy book really need to tell us what to do when one ox gores another (Ex. 21:35-6)? Why are bald eagles detestable to eat (Lev. 11:13), but bald locusts are okey-dokey (Lev. 11:22)? The details of such passages might need some sorting out, but the overall point should not be missed: the Old Testament writers had an abiding concern with the materiality of life. There simply was no distinction to be made between spiritual concerns and material concerns. The realm of the material is not just an inert and indifferent means to spiritual aspirations. The salvation of the whole community is worked out not in some interior dialogue with God, but in the everyday interactions with the material world. All of creation is to be brought into conformity with God’s will. As Ellen Davis points out in her tremendous new book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, the law codes of the Old Testament – unfortunately one of the most neglected parts of the Bible for Christians -- are meant to habituate a deep awareness of, and rootedness in, one’s particular physical surroundings. The land, the trees, the birds and animals, all are meant to fit within the harmonious order willed by God. Work, eating, worship, sex, even what to do with one’s waste are all linked together in such a way that the life of the community with God is meant to fit into the actual physical landscape that the people inhabit.8 There is no divide between spiritual and economic matters, and the biblical writers would have found any such divide to be perverse or completely unthinkable. They recognized that

16 there is a “spirituality” embedded in all kinds of economic practice, whether we acknowledge it or not. According to Davis, there is no dichotomy in the law codes between the merely symbolic and the ethical. In Levitcus 11, for example, the overall effect of the restrictions on animal bloodshed and the careful and painless methods of slaughter is to show God’s compassion for all creatures. Humans are to mirror that compassion by keeping God’s good order and care for creation. In the Priestly theology of Leviticus 11, we see the beginnings of an ecological doctrine. The dietary instructions there carefully echo the Priestly creation account in Genesis 1, thus linking dietary laws with the ongoing concern for creation. The dietary instructions in Leviticus 11 also climax in a reminder of the covenant, of God’s bringing the Israelites up out of Egypt. Faithfulness to creation and covenant is inculcated in the very specific kinds of attention and care that humans pay to the mundane acts of raising animals and eating.9 For Christians, the erotic unity of God and material creation is affirmed in Jesus Christ. As Karl Barth argues, we do not begin with the reality of the physical world and then deduce that there must have been a creator. There is nothing given about the material world; Gnostics, and Hindus who believe the world to be nothing but the veil of Maya, stress the unreality of the material and the need to escape it. Barth says that we only know the reality of the material world through Jesus Christ, whose reality affirms that God does not want to exist alone. As Barth says, “Creation is the temporal analogue, taking place outside God, of that event in God Himself by which

17 God is the Father of the Son.”10 The covenant, which comes to fruition in the incarnation of the Son, is the ultimate proof of the reality of the material world, for God has chosen through Jesus Christ to bring into one the Creator and the creature. “Because God has become man, the existence of creation can no longer be doubted.”11 Here Barth is following the path blazed by Irenaeus in his controversies with Valentinus and Marcion.12 The Gnostics’ extreme pessimism about material reality caused them to posit a dualism between a supreme God, the God of Jesus Christ, who was responsible for the invisible spiritual universe, and a lesser God, or demiurge, identified with the God of the Old Testament, who was responsible for creation. Irenaeus strongly reaffirmed the doctrine of the incarnation and thereby affirmed the unity between the God of creation and the God of Jesus Christ. Against the docetic tendencies of the Gnostics, who could not affirm that Jesus Christ did indeed take on loathsome human flesh, Irenaeus argues that the Word was made flesh, “which had been derived from the earth, which He had recapitulated in Himself, bearing salvation to His own handiwork.”13 Irenaeus thus links creation and salvation, affirming at once the goodness of creation which came through Jesus Christ the Word and the final consummation of that creation in the union of the one true God and material creation in the incarnation. Irenaeus finds harmony between what Ellen Davis calls the “materialism” of the Old Testament and the central conviction of the New Testament that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. If the Christian tradition from its Jewish roots to its

18 consummation in Jesus Christ is materialistic, however, it is a very different kind of materialism than that with which modernity is sometimes labeled. Biblical materialism does not insist that the material as we know it is all there is, but that we are limited by our being mortal, material creatures in space and time, and we must therefore approach material reality with an attitude of humility. Modern scientific materialism, on the other hand, is the dangerous illusion that all is reducible to the merely material, and that science can eventually overcome any limits that the merely material might put in our way. Davis calls this kind of thinking magical, “For, despite its ostensible grounding in science, this form of materialism is strangely oblivious to what may be the most readily observable and nonnegotiable characteristic of our material world, namely, finitude.”14 We come, then, to the second important characteristic of the doctrine of creation: material reality, though good, is limited. It is clear from the first creation account in Genesis that all that is is dependent upon God for its existence. Humans are situated within this ordering of creation, not above it, though being made in God’s image does confer a unique status on humans. Humans are made in God’s image; only Jesus Christ is the image of God and therefore creator, as Colossians makes clear (1:15-16). The image of God is not a quality inherent in human nature. The image of God in humanity can be damaged or obscured, while basic human capacities remain. The image of God is a relational concept; bearing the image of God means being in right relationship with God and with the rest of creation, to know the Creator and to know ourselves as creatures. According to Athanasius, humans were made in God’s image “in order that through this gift of Godlikeness in

19 themselves they may be able to perceive the Image Absolute, that is the Word Himself, and through Him to apprehend the Father; which knowledge of their Maker is for men the only really happy and blessed life.”15 But as Davis points out, the relation is not just between humans and God; humans are enmeshed in a whole web of relationships with the rest of creation that have their origin in God. Humans do not simply stand “over” the rest of creation in a God-humans-creation hierarchy. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others have noted, the earth in Genesis 1 is a major actor, second only to God.16 God’s gift to the humans of “dominion” over the critters of the earth (Gen. 1:26, 1:28) is often taken as license to transcend the earth, to stand above it as one who dominates and exploits. But ownership of the land belongs to God and is never to be appropriated for private use, as God makes plain in Leviticus 25:23: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”17 The implication that humans transcend the land is also contradicted by the creation of humans in Genesis 2 from the dust of the ground (2:7). Humans are part of the earth and do not stand apart from it. Davis shows how the verbs in Genesis 2:15, commonly translated “to till and to keep” the garden, can be translated “to serve and to observe.”18 Humans are to protect and preserve the land, as well as to learn from it, for our knowledge is finite and must be attuned to our actual material surroundings in order to be in right relationship with the earth and with God. As Davis comments, “Adam comes to Eden as a protector, answerable for the wellbeing of the precious thing that he did not make; he is to be an observer, mindful of limits that are built into the created order as both inescapable and fitting. The

20 biblical writer does not subscribe to the fantasy that our society has embraced as an ideal—that human ingenuity runs up against physical limits only in order to overcome them.”19 The finite nature of the earth is not just a result of the fall, when Adam is told that the ground is cursed because of him (Gen. 3:17). Indeed, it may be the case that the curse is simply a consequence of Adam’s attempt to ignore or defy the limits imposed by material reality. The ground is cursed only insofar as Adam refuses to accept his own finite existence and his own place in the order of creation. The cause of the fall, after all, is the human refusal to accept the limit established pre-fall by the prohibition on eating from tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The very heart of sin is the temptation to “be like God” (3:5), to attempt to deny the limited nature of human existence and cross the divide between Creator and creature. The fall, in other words, is not the fall of humanity into finiteness; the fall is precisely the refusal of humans to accept finite existence as good. At the root of all sin is the attempt to avoid reality. The story of the Tower of Babel completes Genesis’ account of the consequences of the human attempt to deny the limits of creation. What is most pertinent for our purposes is the way that scattering is the consequence of humans’ attempts to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:4). Scattering is the result of the human refusal to acknowledge dependence on God or dependence on anyone else. The salvation of the Israelites is their belonging to the Chosen People; to be damned is to be cut off from God and from God’s people. If sin is a refusal to acknowledge

21 dependence, then salvation is to gather the scattered into the mutual care of the community.20 The gathering of Pentecost is the reversal of the scattering of Babel. It is of course the Christian hope and assurance that death with not have the final word, and a share in eternal life will be ours. But salvation in Christ is not simply the overcoming of the limits of human existence, especially death. Christ’s triumph is a triumph through the cross, an invitation to new life that begins by death to the self. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die to have eternal life (John 12:24). To be saved by Christ is to be joined to the suffering body of Christ. We do overcome death, but only insofar as the limits of the small self are overcome in dependence on God and on one another. The limits of the self are overcome by accepting membership in a body where, as Paul says, weakness is clothed with honor, and all suffer and rejoice together (I Cor. 12:14-26). As Thomas Merton writes about the coming of Christ, “The secret of the Advent mystery is then the awareness that I begin where I end because Christ begins where I end. In more familiar terms: I live to Christ when I die to myself. I begin to live to Christ when I come to the ‘end’ or to the ‘limit’ of what divides me from my fellow man…”21 To speak positively of limits -- of scarcity and mutual dependence and shared risk and trust -- is not to resign oneself to a tragically faulty creation, to accept that we not only have a jealous God but a stingy one to boot. Jesus “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). But Jesus talks about abundant life in the context of the sheepfold of which he is shepherd. To live abundantly is not to cut one’s self off from relationship with the sheep and the shepherd and the land, to

22 indulge in fantasies of freedom from the care of others and limitless material satisfaction without consequences. Abundant life is accepting the shepherd’s love and living in nurturing relationship with all of creation. In this sense, “scarcity” must mean something different than it does for economists. Steve Long and others have called into question the way that scarcity is used as a foundational concept in economics. In economics, scarcity results from the assumption that human desires for finite goods are unlimited. The problem with this assumption is not the idea that goods are finite, but that human desires for such goods are infinite. This is to write greed into the very nature of the human person, and to put all economic activity into a tragic mode where my desires must inevitably be in competition with yours. Scarcity is a valid assumption provided it is based on the recognition of the finite nature of goods, not the insatiability of human desire for finite goods. Our task is to “cultivate a finite desire for finite goods and an infinite desire for the only infinite good—God.”22

IV. Being grounded If we are to practice an economy that embraces both the goodness and the limits of creation, then we must be grounded. If see ourselves as made from God’s breath and the dust of the ground, we will see both ourselves and the material creation as invested with cosmic significance. Our work will be more than an instrumental relationship with the material, more than a means to give flight to our spirits away

23 from this tragically-limited, dependent mortal life. It will be a way of blessing the creation of which God has made us part. Many responses to the current economic crisis have advocated a greater role for the state in regulating markets. While I acknowledge that some types of state intervention can prevent some of the worst types of abuse, I don’t think that we should put too much faith in the state to save us. The interests of state and corporation have become too closely intertwined to expect the state to rein in the corporation.23 The state has instead taken on the role of enabler – the state is there to pick up the pieces when reckless market behavior leads to disastrous consequences. People do not so much look to the state to defend them against corporate power and financial predation; they look to the state to defer the consequences of a sick economy to some future time. As Wendell Berry has written, we should not expect someone else, state or corporation, to solve the problem, because the problem begins with the fact that we have already given proxies for almost all of our economic and political practices to them. We have given proxies to corporations to produce all of our food, clothing, and shelter, and are rapidly giving proxies to corporations and the state to provide education, health care, child care, and all sorts of services that local communities used to provide. As Berry says, “Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.”24 Solutions are not likely to come from governments and corporations. People must heal economic practices by bringing them back down to earth, giving local communities a direct involvement in discerning

24 what is necessary for the health of the community. This means acknowledging dependence on one another and sharing risk. It means being attentive to local forms of knowledge of people and land. It means reestablishing direct, face-to-face relationships between producers and consumers, as well as encouraging everyone to become producers – gardening, baking bread, making furniture, whatever it might be – to reconnect with the material world and not simply be passive consumers. We need to stop giving our money over to an abstract and destructive financial system, and put it to work locally through credit unions and co-ops that can make realistic and cooperative assessments of debt and risk. Churches are taking leading roles in fostering these kinds of grounded economies, supporting the kinds of local development projects, Fair Trade arrangements, credit unions, community supported agriculture projects, and other projects we will hear about during the conference. At issue here is more than how Christians can contribute to a sane economy. At issue is faithfulness to the Gospel. We need to stress that economy is not a separate sphere of life that only intersects with the religious sphere when people act immorally with their money or are unable to meet their needs. The idea that theology and economics are two separate pursuits is a thoroughly modern idea, the product of the last 250 years or so, an idea that the church traditionally would have found bizarre. How Christians relate to the material world is not a tangential or optional issue, but is at the very heart of practicing the Christian doctrines of creation and incarnation.



Quoted in Nicholas Varchaver and Katie Benner, “The $55 Trillion Question,” Fortune, Sept. 30, 2008.




I am deeply grateful to Irene Yu Lee, a former hedge fund partner on Wall Street, and currently a member of Grace Fellowship Community Church in San Francisco, for pointing this out to me. 4

For historical examples of such bubbles, see Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008). 5

See for example, Walden Bello, “Primer on Wall Street Meltdown,” ZNet internet magazine, http://, accessed June 26, 2009. 6

Naomi Klein, No Logo (New York: Picador, 1999), 22, 196.


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.8.1. Being is innermost in a thing because “it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing.” In other words, a thing could be blue and tall and hard and fragrant, but if it does not have being, the rest is for naught. 8

Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 82-3.


Ibid., 94-7. Davis contrasts this type of care with the horrific treatment of animals and humans in the U.S. meatpacking industry; ibid., 97-9. 10

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 52.


Ibid., 53.


Davis also notes that the part of scripture that most stresses attention to material creation, the Old Testament, is precisely the part that Marcion would shun; Davis, 82. 13

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.22.2


Davis, 37.


St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1953), 38 [§11].


Davis, 55-7.


See also Ps. 24: “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it.”


Davis, 29-30.


Ibid., 31.


On this theme in the Old Testament, see Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church?: Toward a Theology of the People of God, trans. Linda M. Maloney (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999), 51-60. 21

Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration: Meditations on the Cycle of Liturgical Feasts (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2009), 78. 22

D. Stephen Long and Nancy Ruth Fox, Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics, and Economics (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 42. 23

As Irene Yu Lee has pointed out to me, banks are currently pricing “toxic assets” at 90 cents on the dollar, while hedge funds are buying them for 20c on the dollar. The government is picking up the extra 70 cents. The hedge fund limited partners who benefit include some prominent Washington names. 24

Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003), 64.

Bill Cavenaugh  

Creation and Economic Crisis