Divine Economy: Theology and the Market, by D. Stephen Long

October 3rd, 2013

Title:   Divine Economy: Theology and the Market

Author:   D. Stephen Long

Publisher:   London: Routledge, 2000.

Reviewer:   Josh Sweeden, Ph.D. student in Practical Theology

Steve Long provides a compelling argument of how economics ordered by theo-logic has been replaced by a fact-value distinction apparent in modern traditions beginning with Weber.  Long develops his argument by comparing and contrasting three economic traditions: The dominant, the emergent, and the residual.

The dominant tradition, which is most indebted to a Weberian strategy, is premised upon the analogia libertatis and therefore purports an economic structure (capitalism) which serves that end.  This tradition, seen clearly in the writings of Michael Novak, Dennis McCann, Max Stackhouse, and Philip Wogaman, employs the spirit of liberty seen in J.S. Mill and the human realism found in H.R. Niebuhr.  This combination creates a utilitarian ethic that justifies capitalism for two reasons: it provides the most sufficient system of individual liberty and responds most effectively to human sin.  As so named, Long presents the dominant tradition as the dominant economic system of modernity; determining still the understandings and approaches to economics today.

The emergent tradition arises in protest to the dominant tradition.  Often associated by a Marxist critique of capitalism, its presence is seen in many liberation theologies.  Long engages Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gustavo Gutierrez, Jon Sobrino, and James Cone as foundational writers of the emergent tradition.  While Long affirms the needed critique of the dominant tradition, as well as some of the correctives proposed by the writers of the emergent tradition, he concludes that the emergent tradition is indebted to the same Weberian strategy as the dominant tradition.  Based on protest, the emergent tradition, reflecting on social context and therefore starting with social science, recognizes the irreconcilability between capitalism and Christianity.  What it fails to do, however, is provide a substantive alternative.  Having its foundation is the analogia libertatis, scarcity, and human realism the emergent tradition is only an emergence within the dominant tradition—a different utilitarian option or consumer choice.

Over against the dominant and emergent traditions Long encourages the renewal of the residual tradition.  The residual tradition provides an economic order informed by theological categories of charity, justice, and virtue.   Important contributors to this tradition include Thomas Aquinas, Leo XIII, Bernard Dempsey, Alsadair MacIntyre, and John Milbank.  Under the guise of modernity theology has been subordinated to the social sciences, determining a fact-value distinction where economics becomes understood as what is (fact) and theology is relegated to a sphere of ought (value).  Long contends that this has been the assumed approach since Weber, though R.H. Tawney does show evidence of its beginnings coupled with the Protestant Reformation.  Unlike the dominant and emergent traditions the residual makes no distinction between the is and the ought.  This is what Long calls theological economics; the is does not maintain primacy over the ought, but is determined by the same telos.  This end is defined by the divine human drama to which Christology is central and beauty evidences God’s revelation.  From this end a substantive good can be determined.    It is this good that orders the economic relations of persons and communities.  Rather than being defined by scarcity, consumerism, and utility, theological economics are defined by abundance and gift.  As such, a theo-ordering of economics embodying true justice and charity must understand the economics of modernity as heresy and a threat to the church’s virtues.  The church must take an alternative posture to that of the modern economic world.  The church must resist the guise of modernity and the tantalizing (albeit false) notion of influence in the “public.”  As Long concludes, “Theologians must maintain the priority of their language over that of economists; just as the church must maintain its priority over the market” (270).

Summarizing the main argument(s) of this text does not do it justice.  Where my simple summary makes Long sound forthright and, one may argue, antagonistic, a careful reading of the text displays well articulated arguments that are both thorough and convincing.  There are shortcomings, of course, as well as sweeping generalizations at times; and while I don’t want to affirm the use of generalizations, I am not sure that Long uses them inappropriately; his generalizations may in fact be warranted.  I believe Long to be correct that theology has been debunked from having something to say materially, existing now only as a value.  Furthermore, economics, like many sciences, understands its role to be descriptive of what is, allowing the ever-ambiguous term liberty to determine somehow the relationship between fact and value. The church must embody an alternative economics to that of the modern traditions; it should maintain theological language as primary; and it must, if it to sustain itself, retain its traditioned understandings of charity, justice, and virtue.  Only this way can the church be faithful to its narrative which does, as Long clearly states, makes evident a particular notion of good.

The argument on which Long’s text stands names a tradition that is both substantive and residual.  Following Alasdair MacIntyre’s thesis in After Virtue, Long counters the residual tradition with traditions embedded in the “enlightenment project”—a failed project according to MacIntyre.  Naming a residual tradition ought to be freeing (assuming its articulated substantive good equates with its practices) and should provide general relief from fears of becoming out-narrated by rival traditions.  A constant fear of the subjugation of theology and the church can lead to another form of apologetics of which Long undoubtedly wants to steer clear.  So how does the church maintain a robust theo-logic without assuming a world (and traditions) bent on rivalry, competition, and extinction?   Is there any relief through its assertion that ultimately God reigns or that the church professes a narrative shaped by redemption and hope?  If rivalry of traditions is as fundamental and disconcerting as Long presumes, then it seems the task of theology is not so much to rival back (i.e. to play their game), but to faithfully live into the beauty and substantive good of its own (residual) tradition.