This is the first post on Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money, the focus of our second book event (and a reminder that there is an interview online where he discusses the central themes of the book). This post is a bit longer than the ones that will follow, but, as with most introductions, it includes in a condensed form all the elements of the book. We look forward to the discussion that is going to follow and encourage everyone to read along as well as comment.
Before each section Goodchild has a short parable corresponding to the chapter that follows it. The parables share the same elements, but each time they are composed differently, and how they correspond to the sections is up for interpretation. Sometimes they seem to challenge the academic work being put forth and other times they seem to express it and compliment it. Because I enjoy these parables so much I will place them into the posts, hoping that for readers who have not yet purchased or borrowed the book, they will serve as an invitation to do so.
A Parable – On the Wish to be Immortal
If one were only rich, in a luxury mansion, surrounded by gardens and servants, enjoying the finest of foods, the most subtle of wines, the warmest of friends, the most generous of lovers, freed from care over maintenance of property, for all could be instantly replaced, freed from work, there being no need to work, freed from obligations, there being no need to seek favor, until one dismissed the servants, for there needed no servants, sold the mansion, for there needed no mansions, abandoned friends and lovers, for there needed no friends and lovers, and renounced even the knowledge that one was a homeless wanderer before one’s last penny had already gone.
So begins Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money.
In the “Preface to the US Edition” Goodchild locates his analysis in the crack between the story emancipation told about enlightenment and the secular age and the reality most human beings find themselves living in. For both a religious age and a secular age the question is that of human flourishing. In a religious age flourishing is expected by giving attention to the transcendent, to a certain renunciation of material needs. While in the secular age the attention shifts to the mundane, to human endeavor and agreement – which is to say the shift of attention moves from religion to economics.
The story is one of the self-liberation of humanity. But Goodchild says that this is unconvincing as “most lives remain preoccupied with material needs and social obligations. Perhaps these are obligations to clients, employers, landlords, or creditors (xii).” For the fact is that, while we certainly may live in a secular age, there is a certain ambiguity to the proposed dichotomy between the religious and the economic. For human welfare is dependent on cooperation and material distribution, and in most socieities, Goodchild says, the authority that “lends credit to such practices has been religious (xiii).” For there is a necessity of connection between the material distribution of resources and human conduct. “Those who renounce the world in favor of the transcendent are in practice just as concerned with the source of material welfare as those who labor in the fields, for they are concerned with the conditions of trust and authority. A religious age is no less concerned with the conditions of its existence than a secular age (xiii).”
Thus, while a secular age may function as if the universe were godless, it is only under an economic system that has made religious practices redundant that this is actually possible. This is how the connection between economics, the site of practical atheism, and theology begins to form. In the economic realm there are usually two impulses that create the conditions for a secular age – production (dependent upon industry and machines that are depdent upon fossil fuels) and consumption. These two conditions are the vehicles through which desire for growth (as wealth and pleasure) is constrained via effective demand. Money is then the third impulse alongside production and consumption, it is what practically limits desire and what gives authority for one to act on or partake in their desire. But this takes a specific form, it invents a new kind of money, one which is more than just the measure of value, but a new form of money that is created as debt.
“A debt is an obligation, a commitment to economic activity, and a commitment to repay in money. […] A market based on debt money is an immanent system of credits and liabilities, of debts and obligations, and it is capable of unlimited growth. It ensures participation and cohesion, with promises of wealth and threats of exclusion, through a system of social obligations. Debt takes over the role of religion in economic life (xiv).”
Goodchild, while locating a certain equivalence between the cult, transcendent God, or mobile money as the authority and source of sustenance in daily life, does locate an important difference between traditional religions and the use of money. Specifically, one does not consider money. Money is mundane. Money is a human tool towards the end of flourishing. There are no theologians of money who aim to investigate the practice of the faith, for money, unlike God, does not demand consciousness or attention, but only that one use it. Yet, this leads to a blindness, an unacknowledged ideology, “The only end for human life, which in practice is the making of money, is misperceived as human flourishing (xv).”
So the book is written with this goal in mind – to raise the faith in money to the level of consciousness. This task, he says, is not for economists, for it falls outside of any practical economic need (one can continue to make money without understanding it in itself, the market can continue to work without reference to itself). Rather, “the quest to understand the power of beliefs enshrined in money is an attempt to pursue a traditional theological quest, to understand the conditions of existence within our contemporary age (xvi).” Furthermore, it also calls for new practices of devotion, sacrifice, and conviction, not to return us to a prior religious age, but in the hope that another social order may be called forth.
Jesus of Nazareth
Goodchild begins the introduction with another parable, different from and much longer than the ones before each section, and it ultimately is a retelling of the temptations of Jesus by the Devil who is now cast as “Money”. The end of the parable sees Money taking on the characteristics of Christ’s transfiguration with Mammon declaring “This is my son, my beloved, upon whom my fire rests. Whosoever eats of his flesh and blood will have life in all its fullness (2).”
Goodchild goes on from here to describe the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching on wealth within the history of religions, focusing mainly on his lack of asceticism. “Jesus, by contrast, warned against wealth while feasting and drinking himself. The kingdom of God was a feast promised for those without wealth (2).” The lesson of this is that Jesus was not targeting the subjective enjoyment of wealth, but wealth as a principle of power or judgment. While the Church and its theologians have tended to couch Jesus’ teachings about wealth in an individualist hermeneutic relating to interiority, Goodchild asserts that his meaning is both radical and transparent. Following Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19-24 Goodchild sets up the competition between God and wealth along three lines: time, attention, and devotion. This is what is at stake in money’s hold over the contemporary age, the way in which it shapes our time, attention, and devotion. By shaping these it thereby shapes the value of values itself. Unveiling this God-like characteristic of money and investigating how this value of values is manifest in human life forms the twin problems of Goodchild’s study.
Bank of England
What is the challenge to Jesus’ teachings against wealth as measure of power and judgment? Goodchild locates money’s advance over God in the setting up of the Bank of England. For, while money is created through the cycle of loans, debts, and repayments, the stability of that system depended on the confidence of individuals in individual banks. The Bank of England, however, became a central bank where the value of money was underwritten by the state itself and its power to raise taxes. This inspired new confidence and thereby monetary stability such that it became the model for all central banks. From this point money advanced over God – “Money has the advantages of immediacy, universality, tangibility, and utility (11-12).”
This mutation of money comes to exercise a spectral power that exceeds all human powers, which Goodchild separates into six particular aspects:
- The value of money is transcendent – it is a promise, taken on faith, and only realized to the extent that this is acted out in exchange. The value of money cannot be held.
- Money is both a means of payment and a measure of prices.
- Money is only “value in motion”, meaning one has to invest one’s money to be profitable. One has to assent to the system of money, that is exchange, in order to have money.
- Wealth brings access to power (military, information, public consciousness, political influence, funding).
- Speculative profits can be made only on the basis of continued production and consumption. In other words, for the system of money to work it demands continued exploitation of resources through the colonization and commodification of the world.
- This increase in production and profits requires increased investment and debt. “The spectral power of money lies ultimately in its nature as debt (13).”
Theology of Money
This spectral character of money is what evokes the necessity for a theology of money. But it is clear this will not be a “theology” in the usual sense of how it is practiced in the universities today. The Christian tradition is “of limited service in so far as it concentrates on subjective attitudes towards wealth (14)”. And it will not be a normal economic treatise on money because economics has tended to cast itself as an objective science serving as a functional instrument. The method then of this theology of money will be philosophical. But this philosophical method will not follow the Lockean metaphysics, which undergirds economic thought, of a threefold division between objects, subjects, and knowledge. For there is a paradox in the notion of truth that this system claims to put forward – truths cannot be demonstrated because they are never present in their individuality and permanence. “No truth can be demonstrated independently of a system of thinking enacted at a particular time (15).” The second paradox says that truth must be evaluated objectively, that they have no value as such, and yet they are only taken as truths when they can be (via evidence) repeated, public, and exchangeable. Furthermore, money exceeds this philosophy because it circulates between and participates in all three dimensions. While the modern tripartite division of reality depends on a deus ex machina to unite and coordinate the three realms, money already effects their interaction. Money is the very condition for this philosophical system and thus what money is exceeds this “scientific” conception of knowledge that economists lay claim to.
Goodchild’s method, following that of Bergson and Deleuze, is also threefold:
- Rejecting the notion that the truth of money can be found in a series of atomic, discrete facts, it will be assumed that what is most interesting about money are the concrete relations it forms and mediates within specific contexts: an ecology of money.
- Instead of assuming money is independent of thought and time, it will be assumed that what is of most interest is its temporal nature itself embodied in interest and speculation.
- Instead of assuming that the truth disclosed about money is already truth, it will be assumed that what is of most about money is what is promised by the truth of money. The truth of money is found in debt.
Goodchild ends the introduction with some remarks about the scholarship of the book. He aligns his analysis with that of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, while indicating thoughout the book his differences with them (neither the model of money as “the great wheel of circulation” (Smith) nor as “the general equivalent” (Marx) is accepted as convincing). He takes these philosophers as his model for their ability to explore implications and to unfold tendencies beyond what pure economists aim to do.
He then outlines the book, which I will extremely condense here:
- Part I, “Of Politics”, aims to introduce and contextualize the treatise of money that follows it.
- Part II, “A Treatise on Money”, is the central part of the book that provides a philosophical investigation into the nature, function and promise of money.
- Part III, “Of Theology”, is the conclusion of the book and explores the practical or embodied consequences that arise from Part II.
Reflections/Questions: The ambition of the book is striking and, to me, inspiring. While I accept the metaphysical framework of the work, it is clear that most economists or those philosophers working in the post-Lockean tradition will find it unconvincing. I’m curious what readers found convincing and what they found unconvincing. Is Goodchild’s critique of the modern theory of truth, for instance, replaced by another theory of truth or is it simply a kind of positing of an experienced truth? I am also interested in a meta-question relating to the work being done here between theology and philosophy. Clearly the book claims in the title to be a theology, but the method is claimed to be philosophical. Is this then a philosophical investigation of theology (in this case of a living and unacknowledged theology)?