Christianity and Capitalism: Windows to Hell (Part 2): Why Christian Enthusiasm for the Free Market Doesn’t Make Sense



Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.  –Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

To explain how capitalism enables a “sick epectasis,” I need to offer a brief history of the liberal (i.e. “liberated”) market.

Pretty much every economist agrees that capitalism originated with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (a book which most partisans of capitalism have never bothered to read). Smith’s genius was in recognizing that the market is not a zero-sum game in which one person must lose for another to win. Two people, motivated by their self-interest, could both benefit from an exchange. A number of other ideas are connected to this basic insight.

Trade for personal benefit is natural and universal. Smith believed that in every society individuals would trade goods for profit as long as they were not impeded by some outside force, like the government. Thus there was no need to regulate the market because..

The market can regulate itself. If self-interested trade is our “default setting,” then market regulations or controls are unnatural and must be opposed. This also implies that…

God is a “hands off” Creator. If Smith was a Christian, he was heavily influenced by the deist idea that God instituted a good order to which we must conform. The free and self-regulating market is part of that order.

Later anthropological studies have called the first assumption and its second corollary into question. As for the third point, there is no way to prove it, but I find it problematic as a Christian. I worship a God who gets his hands so dirty, they bleed.

Marx had a point when he said that economic conditions shape what is “thinkable.” (If you don’t believe me, imagine how someone from the year 1710 would interpret the statement, “I am holding my mouse.”)

Capitalism is more than just a market.  It is a panoply of concepts and ideas that shape our everyday practices. In particular, it encourages us to think of the market as something we are a part of – whose immutable laws we are subject to – rather than something that is an expression of the kind of society we want to have. Thus we treat the market like God. It is omnipresent, beyond human understanding, and as far as our practical lives are concerned, omnipotent.

Maybe that’s why we work all the time to fill our homes with stuff in an attempt to fill our lives with meaning. In advanced capitalism, corporations pay advertisers billions of dollars a year to tinker with our insides, to psychologically manipulate us into purchase after meaningless purchase. This brings me to the Christian concept of epectasis.

The Cappadocian saint, Gregory of Nyssa, taught that the Christian life was one of infinite hunger for God that was never filled but always satisfying. It is an infinite journey into the infinite. This epectasis is like “good sex” (which should not be confused with creative sex). It is satisfaction that gives rise to more desire.

But advanced capitalism stirs desire by keeping us perpetually dissatisfied. The “liberated market” can give me an $8 bottle of drinkable wine, but its demands on my life make it hard to find someone to drink it with.

This does not mean we are not actors or agents in a capitalist economy, only that we are agents who have been trained to think and act in ways that may not always be compatible with our faith. For instance, self-interest is not the same thing as greed, but it is not the same as love, either. The self-fulfilling prophecy of self-interested exchange makes it very easy to compartmentalize my faith, so that some of my actions are dictated by love, while others are “just business.”

Thus I asked in my last post if it is possible to be a Christian and a capitalist, but that was a trick question. Mostly, I can only not be a capitalist in theory. In practice, it is much harder because I am born into a world of concepts and ideas and practices that shape me and raise me before I am ever capable of taking a step back and asking, “Now wait a minute…”

So perhaps the question we should be asking is not, “Can I be Christian and capitalist?” but, Is there a way I can learn to recognize and maybe even resist the assumptions and practices of a capitalist universe that butt up against my faith?


See “Christianity and Capitalism (Part 3)

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