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Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics

God was never dead, as Nietzsche once proclaimed. He was simply recast as a concept and called Efficiency; the role of priest was assumed by economists.

That is only one of the insights in this fascinating new book by Robert H. Nelson. Subtitled The Theological Meaning of Economics, the volume is a fresh if iconoclastic look at the history of Western thought and how two main traditions in that thought have taken tums ruling the affairs of men since the days of the Greeks. It is also a look at how these two traditions influence us today and might affect us tomorrow.

Nelson has labeled the two great traditions the Roman and the Protestant. Thinkers whom he categorizes as Roman tend to believe deeply in reason, that mankind can improve his lot, find salvation even, by applying reason. Thinkers in the Protestant tradition do not have such faith. They see mankind as depraved and alienated, to be saved by grace or some other force outside its own power. They despair of the institutions set up to govern mankind, pointing out that such creations do not perform as intended (that is, as reason might dictate), but willy-nilly. They become bureaucratic, if not corrupt, and need to be overthrown.

Thinkers in neither tradition have given up the idea of paradise. The argument is whether it can be attained through reason and effort here during life on earth or only in some version of the hereafter, after death or revolution.

The Roman tradition, in Nelson’s analysis, begins with Aristotle and is with us today in the credo of the American welfare state. The Protestant begins with Plato, and today is found among those people turning against rapid economic growth and/or against welfare state institutions.

Aristotle’s thinking not only held sway during the Roman Empire, but was later reinterpreted and updated by Thomas Aquinas, thus giving legitimacy to the ways of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence Nelson calls this mode of looking at the world “Roman.” Plato, of course, was a great protester. So, too, was Martin Luther, who saw clearly that the church was not what it purported to be and launched a revolution against it. And so the label “Protestant.”

Some of Nelson’s categorizations are surprising. We find Milton Friedman and John Kenneth Galbraith not antagonists, but in the same Roman tradition. Both believe that reason can be used to improve the workings of the modern welfare state and thus mankind’s lot, bringing him closer to heaven on earth. And we find Herbert Spencer and Karl Marx in the same tradition, both protesting against institutions created by man by applying reason. Spencer called for the recognition of the forces of nature, Marx for revolution to get closer to heaven on earth.

Nelson is an economist by training, and one of his aims is to show the roots of modern economic ideas in these Roman and Protestant traditions. He points out that ideas about the benefits to society of private property date back to Aristotle and are discussed at length by Aquinas, the great theologian of the Middle Ages. Ideas about pricing, too, have a long history. Aquinas, for example, defined the just price in terms remarkably similar to our market price. The idea that money can be used to compensate victims of economic undertakings—neighbors of a tanning factory, for example—can be found in medieval Jewish rabbinical writings. Even the notion that the pursuit of private gain is evil has a lengthy history. Plato said it long before Marx and modern-day deep ecologists. There is, Nelson proves again and again, nothing new under the sun in terms of our ideas. Each has a long history.

In the centuries when the Roman tradition has held sway, the world has been fairly peaceful. But its governing mechanisms have tended to become stultifying, rigid, and self-serving, thus calling forth protest.

When the Protestant tradition has been ascendant, the world has often been subjected to war and chaos. A century of religious warfare followed Martin Luther, Nelson points out, and the wars of the 20th century followed Marx and Spencer.

Where are we today? The American welfare state, clearly in the Roman tradition, predominates but is under attack by protesters who, as always, have a point. The theological underpinning of the welfare state has been a belief in economic growth. One could believe in and work for continuous growth because it would provide more goods for everyone. The belief is of a secular religious nature in the sense that it has given meaning to life.

The protesters, many of them embracing environmentalism, don’t share that belief. They call for a halt to economic growth, in some cases to a dismantling of the results of prior growth. Many find their religion in nature. They are joined by other protesters, some libertarians, who find the institutions of the welfare state ineffective if not corrupt, in need of overhaul or overthrow.

In Nelson’s view, then, we are at a critical point. In the nuclear age the world cannot afford another round of chaos and warfare.

What to do? Nelson does not offer a blueprint. He puts forth some suggestions and calls for debate. He suggests a synthesis of the two traditions, impossible though that might seem. It might involve, he says, a worldwide recognition of some values—keeping the peace, for example, or providing disaster relief—with worldwide bodies to administer them along with considerable local autonomy. Presumably then the Roman tradition based on reason would prevail in the world at large while protesters could form their own states based on their own values and, of course, economies. The modern state might disappear, the right of free secession prevail.

In some ways the world is already moving in this direction. The Soviet Union has already broken up, and several Eastern European countries may follow. The United Nations is called on more and more frequently to send its peacekeeping forces to trouble spots.

Reaching for Heaven on Earth is an important book for two reasons: its clear-eyed look at where we are today, with the dangers we face if we don’t listen to the protesters; and its historical analysis which, like a good education, provides a framework for interpreting current events. It’s an analysis far removed from the outmoded left versus right. 

Jean A. Briggs is assistant managing editor at Forbes.

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