Economics and theology: A methodological comparison

This post by David Graeber, which is satisfying in the way that harsh responses to spurious blogospheric “debunking” often are, seems to me to be of interest to theologians as well as economists. It traces the history of the idea that economic relations must have started with barter and then developed into money and credit, the anthropological discovery that literally no existing society has ever used barter as a primary means of exchange, and the economic profession’s response to that finding:

Economists have for the most part accepted the anthropological findings, if directly confronted with them, but not changed any of the assumptions that generated the false predictions. Meanwhile, all textbooks continue to report the same old sequence: first there was barter, then money, then credit—except instead of actually saying that tribal societies regularly practiced barter, they set it up as an imaginative exercise (“imagine what you would have to do if you didn’t have money!” or vaguely imply that anything actual tribal societies did do must have been barter of some kind.

Don’t we see the same thing when theologians are confronted with evidence that, for example, there can’t have been a historical Adam and Eve? The progressive among them accept this scientific finding, but then claim that the story of the fall represents a kind of transcendent structure of human experience, etc. — even though the logic of original sin and the model of redemption based on it depends heavily on there having been an actual, historical state of innocence that actual, historical human beings freely chose to betray.

25 thoughts on “Economics and theology: A methodological comparison

  1. It occurs to me that normally the burden of this kind of comparison would be that economics isn’t really a science but is just faith-based, etc. — but I’m taking it in the opposite direction: “Come on, theologians, you don’t want to be as bad as economists, do you?”

  2. Cheers for this. I make the point in my PhD – which is, of course, partly on the title of this post – looking not at theology and economics (ie what are the Christian stances on the economy?) but looking at the possibility of an immanent parallel theology in economics (or something like that).

    Example: everyone knows that David Card in the 1990s showed that increasing minimum wages didn’t produce unemployment and the findings are pretty robust. Yet, this is precisely what is taught in every economics 101 and occurs within every political debate on the topic. Another: everyone knows that behavioural economics is re-writing the methodological individualism of economics to the point that such premises are entirely unintelligible. Incorporating new data, economics never wants to disrupt its premises and political rhetoric therein.

    There is a point though Graeber doesn’t mention is that the primary methodological resource in neoclassical economics, Milton Friedman’s essay The Methodology of Positive Economics says that the premises of an economic model don’t have to be at all realistic, provided it can make accurate predictions – “the question whether a theory is realistic “enough” can be settled only by seeing whether it yields predictions that are good enough for the purpose in hand or that are better than predictions from alternative theories”. Which is pretty remarkable really considering how shit economics is at this.

  3. The comparison between economics and theology was drawn explicitly, repeatedly and eloquently by Georg Simmel in 1907.
    The idea that founding myths are mythological, necessarily stories is a bit older. It might be in a book that you might not have read called the Republic. I know it was not written by Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben, but it still might be worth checking out!

  4. Josh,

    At least two people here (myself and Anthony Paul Smith) are students of Philip Goodchild. We have done a book event on his work, and are all broad enthusiasts of his project I think it would be fair to say. Goodchild has written extensively on Simmel and his book The Theology of Money shadows and draws from his work.

  5. Adam,

    Would you say that theologians like Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, who consciously tried to construct intepretations of “original sin” that were not dependent upon the historicity of Adam and Eve, were engaged in a project bound to fail from the start? In other words, are you asserting that ANY attempt to construct an account of the doctrine of original sin (with correllative atonement theories) without a historical Adam and Eve – and thus, to the extent that we acknowledge Genesis 2-3 to be mythological, any account of original sin at all – cannot be theologically coherent (never mind compelling)?

    It seems to me that Western theology from Schleiermacher forward has offered numerous strategies for thinking something like “original sin” while acknowledging the mythical status of Genesis. By what criteria have these projects failed? Do they fail their own tests of internal consistency, or is their reconstruction of the implications of the myth just too feeble to be of interest to theology now? Or is it something else?

    I guess that I’m mostly looking for elaboration on your last statement.

  6. “There’s no need to defend ourselves against this asshole.” This should be some kind of credo.
    No seriously, how did you expand the concentric circles of assholes, fucktards and teabaggers who are worthy of contempt to people who point out parallels in Simmel and gently rib at your theorist pretensions? Who will you talk to?

  7. What was the point of the “gently rib” – why didn’t you point it out and leave it there? Weird way of conducting one self. Let me try it.

    “Which is pretty remarkable really considering how shit economics is at this. But then again, Graeber is an anarchist and this is a theology blog so what do they know about economics?”

    Nope, doesn’t work for me.

  8. Mainly because this sentence seems patently false:

    “the logic of original sin and the model of redemption based on it depends heavily on there having been an actual, historical state of innocence that actual, historical human beings freely chose to betray.”

  9. Josh, I’m so sorry that I’ve hurt your feelings!

    Hill and Robert, I’m going to refer you to Pannenberg’s discussion of this problem in Anthropology in Theological Perspective, from which I’m basically cribbing. If you want to know why I think that the traditional concept of original sin logically requires a historical Adam and Eve, you can read my chapter on Anselm in Politics of Redemption. As for modern attepts to reclaim the doctrine, in general they seem to me to be very individualistic and therefore, for reasons I lay out in PR, incompatible with the Christian logic of redemption.

  10. There’s Rahner’s approach, which IIRC says that there has to have been such a historical event at some point, but it could not have occurred the way the bible portrays it (since since disproves that).

  11. More seriously, Josh — I’m searching the comments and it appears that you’ve left like four comments in the last year previous to this post, meaning that you’re a virtual stranger. So I have no point of reference for your “gentle ribbing” or more generally for how you intend your comments. From my perspective, you came out of nowhere and insulted me, in a pretty ignorant way. If that wasn’t what you intended to do, maybe you shouldn’t have left your stupid comment.

    If you want to know why I think your comment is so stupid, here’s a detailed gloss.

    The comparison between economics and theology was drawn explicitly, repeatedly and eloquently by Georg Simmel in 1907.

    Am I claiming to have come up with this parallel myself? No, in my very first comment I indicate that the parallel is pretty common. If you did any poking around in the blog, you would also know that, as Alex points out, we did a book event over Goodchild’s Theology of Money.

    The idea that founding myths are mythological, necessarily stories is a bit older.

    Not relevant — I’m saying that traditional Christian theology places a lot of weight on the Adam and Eve story being precisely historical and non-mythical. There are a lot of presuppositions that go into that, and hand-waving about how we should just understand it as a “myth” does not represent the necessary conceptual reworking, any more than presenting the origin of money out of barter as a “thought experiment” does.

    It might be in a book that you might not have read called the Republic. I know it was not written by Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben, but it still might be worth checking out!

    Badiou is not a major point of reference for me. More generally, if you knew my work at all or have been reading the blog or went to the trouble to look over my prominently displayed CV, you would know that I do a lot of stuff with pre-modern texts — I’m far from a one-trick pony with contemporary theory. You’d also know that I’m teaching at a Great Books school and, more generally, that I’m an educated person who obviously is familiar with one of the foundational texts of the Western tradition.

    I was honestly impressed by how comprehensively wrong-headed your comment was. To make so many stupid mistakes in so few words is an amazing feat! And your defense of it now is just icing on the cake, showing you to be completely tone-deaf and unfamiliar with how human interactions normally go — i.e., if a stranger insults me, I’m not going to give him the benefit of the doubt! You may want to read this, then stop whining at us and maybe contribute something of substance. Your comments before this post seem to have been pretty substantive, so I know you’re capable of it.

  12. Patrik, That seems analogous to a response Graeber mentions in the post: claiming that there must have been a barter phase at some point, even if none of the evidence indicates there was. In a way, I think Rahner’s defense is more honest than “formalized” conceptions of the fall.

  13. Obviously I hit a raw nerve. Sheesh.

    I read Graeber and thought, well, this is like the “state of nature” or other mythological constructs. What’s wrong with teaching that barter needs a coincidence of wants even if its never quite worked like that? Its not anthropological assertion but a mythological or even heuristic substratum. I would teach state of nature, social contracts, and coincidence of desires gladly.

    If these heuristics are the same as genesis: no idea. However, I am pretty sure that we do not need the historical Abraham to have wandered the streets of ancient Haran at this point in our lives. This is for a few reasons, most notably the concatenation of texts around the story and the calcification of meanings and resonances drawn from those texts which go on to underpin a corner of our world view.

    As a Jew, I might add that original sin does not need to have much to do with a historical man according to among others, Maimonides, Zerahiah Halevi, Ephodi and basically any rationalist Jewish philosopher. Kabbalah is a more nuanced picture which I am glad to discuss on my blog if there is interest.

    I am really not sure that there is equivalency between the mythological and the heuristic. And people make fun of me for reading Blumenberg and Heidegger all the time. No need to recite your CV and get one’s panties all in a bunch over a very mild criticism.

  14. Josh, Had your comment not been so beautiful in its own stupid way, I would have simply deleted it. And had you not come back to whine about your horrific mistreatment at my hands, I would not have explained why your insulting post was stupid and missed its target. You did not hit a raw nerve. A negative reaction is not evidence that you’re right — you have to grapple with the notion that maybe you, through your own fault, came across as an asshole despite your intentions to be gently ribbing or whatever.

    As for your substantive contribution, it doesn’t seem terribly relevant.

  15. Also, did you actually read the whole Graeber post, or just my brief excerpt? I’m guessing it was the latter. I’m being really indulgent with you here, given how flagrantly you’ve violated the comment policy — it’d be great if you contributed something of any value whatsoever.

  16. Adam, would your point on the historical event allow for something like a Ricoeurian ‘history’ which includes both ‘fictional’/’mythological’ narratives as well as ‘real’/’actual’ events? If not, how are you using the concept of history (I can’t get a hold of PR right now since it’s on a boat crossing the Atlantic)?

  17. I’m not trying to invoke those sophisticated notions. I’m talking about history in the sense of “shit that really happened.” For the traditional, Anselmian concept of redemption to work, there have to have really been two first parents who really fell into sin in real life and passed it down to all of us.

  18. Adam, I’ve read your chapter on Anselm, and I agree as far as that goes.

    But as far as your comments on 20th-century attempts to think original sin, I’m still unconvinced. I can perhaps grant that Tillich’s view of anxiety (leading into original sin) is open to the charge of being too individualistic, although I would probably not finally agree.

    But how would that charge be brought against Reinhold Niebuhr? The social character of anxiety is the whole point of his doctrine of sin, from _Moral Man and Immoral Society_ forward.

    And, quite frankly, I think that Pannenberg has made for himself a cottage industry of asserting that “X mythological story must be historical if Christian claims are to make sense,” and in my view he’s been collectively refuted by a truckload of contemporary theologians. Such claims, among other things, flatten “logic” into a rather univocal concept that is unequal to the plurality of the tradition’s ability to think metaphorically.

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