Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture

Economists and Theologians in conversation

31 May 2019 - by Stephen Pickard

What happens when you put economists and theologians in the same room for a day? Can economists teach theologians and visa versa? It’s entirely understandable that they might be like ships passing in the night. In early May at the Centre a group of 14 Christians from the domains of economics and theology met for a consultation. It was the second such consultation over the last 2 years. Not surprisingly the participants came from a variety of walks of life and professional backgrounds. Some were primarily practitioners in business, church based welfare and policy organisations, professional actuarial work, Reserve Bank; others from the academy as teachers and researchers in universities along the east coast. Comments from the participants say it all:

‘The tendency to retreat into specialist enclaves, dominated by the issues and problems of our own particular interests and expertise, is hard to avoid; so many pressures (professional and personal) push in that direction. In a time of such global (and local) uncertainty, conflict and violence, this consultation seems to be a symbol and realization of a commitment to a search for understanding (and action) in a broader context.’

‘Of real fascination was the discussion of Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ and its possible relation to the idea of common grace or even of providence. I think this opens a wide space for theology to engage more effectively with economics.’

‘The effort to find areas of common ground between theology and economics in matters like virtues, values, human nature, goals (kingdom of God) and so on, was often a bit messy and unclear. But it was challenging and helpful for further engagement’.

‘Unproductive turf wars, aggravated by the tendency of disciplines to become empire builders and colonialists given the opportunity, are mitigated by dialogues such as this, building confidence in one another, and appreciation of the insights of the other discipline.’

‘The notion that even positive economics is subject to influences embedded within history and culture – even theology – was thought-provoking’.

‘Schumpeter's creative destruction and (more extremely) social Darwinism - is economics like this?’

‘The spill over of the language of economics into the prevailing culture and the framing of political and moral choices and the way we talk about community goals and purposes. This is an issue that should be of interest to theologians and that economists need to reflect on’.

‘Environmental and ecological theology addresses questions of human responsibility, and theological readings of the created order. This involves a very contemporary area of theological reflection that is currently generating a substantial literature using a variety of theological resources’.

‘I felt like I was understanding key issues better, and gained real illumination, e.g. on normative vs positive economics, and on the place of co-operation in competition, whereas not in monopoly—a breakthrough for my own work, where Milbank’s criticisms of competition as agonistic are important to counter.’

The consultation raised fundamental questions:

How can theology inform thinking about the relationship between ethics and economics?

How might we recover perspective and breadth in both theological and economic thought from paying closer attention to history and the development of thought in historical context?

What is the role of institutions in instantiating individual and collective behaviour in ways that are conducive to human flourishing, both morally and materially?

What is the relationship between competition, cooperation and monopoly activity?

A third such consultation is envisaged for 2020

It will probe a number of matters e.g. issues relating to ecology, theology and economics; the question of ‘growth’ as a seeming essential to market; the secularisation of economics in the twentieth century and the waning influence of theology and faith; historical perspectives on the interaction of faith and economics.

As one participant commented: ‘When two disparate and mildly suspicious groups get together, deck-clearing and establishing communication are important and can’t be hurried. I think we’ve done that now and can begin to really engage with the right material next time.’