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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Godliness & Greed: Shifting Christian Thought on Profit and Wealth

In the wake of the financial crisis that came to a head in September of 2008, people might have been wondering if sufficient moral constraints on the greed on Wall Street are available, even possible. The ability of traders to create complex derivative securities that are difficult for regulators to regulate, much less understand, may have people looking for ethical or even religious constraints. It would be only natural to ask if such “soft” restraint mechanisms really do have the puissance to do the trick.

Here’s the rub: the tricksters are typically the last to avail themselves of ethical or religious systems, and they the wrongdoers are the ones in need of the restraint. Blankfein said of his bank, Goldman Sachs, that it had been doing God’s work. About a week after saying that, he had to walk his statement back and admit that the bankers had does some things that were morally wrong. Although divine omnipotence is by definition not limited by human ethical systems, it is hard to imagine a divine decree telling bankers to tell their clients one thing (buy subprime mortgage derivatives) while taking the opposite position on the bank’s proprietary position (shorting the derivatives, beyond being a counterparty to clients). Divine duplicity seems to represent an oxymoron on a megascale rather than a justification for greed.

As the crisis erupted and was subsequently managed by public officials in government and new managers brought in to salvage AIG, I was researching the history of Christian thought on profit-seeking and wealth. I have since published an academic text on the topic. As the book is too recondite for sane people (i.e., outside of academia), I am writing a non-fiction book on the topic for a broader readership.

To whet the appetites of those of you who are waiting for the easier readable book, I present a brief account of my original research on the topic. Most significantly, I found evidence of a gradual shift in the thought between Aquinas and the fifteenth-century Christian Humanists (mainly in what is now Italy). Whereas early Christian thought had tended to stress the negative attitude toward riches—the camel being in extreme pain in getting through the eye of the needle—in the Renaissance Christian theologians tended to argue that being wealth is necessary for a Christian to exercise the godly practical virtues of liberality and magnificence (particularly the latter, which alone permits gifts reflective of God’s majesty).

Something had happened in the dominant Christian attitude on wealth that made the religion less of a buttress against greed because it had become possible for a Christian to be both rich and to go to heaven. Cosimo de Medici is a perfect example of a banker who was assured by the pope that a career based on usury would not necessarily bar a banker from entering heaven (assuming he gave financially to the Church).

The various Reformers can be read as efforts to pull Christianity back from being so close to incorporating love of gain, or greed. I looked at the (Standard Oil) monopolist and devout Baptist, John D. Rockefeller, to get a sense of how efficacious the Reformation was in attempting to arrest and reverse the momentum of the pro-wealth Christian paradigm.

Having sketched the shift and subsequent reactions of the Reformers, I turned my attention to trying to explain both the shift itself and the efficacy of the Reformation. I believe the increasingly commercialized environment since the Commercial Revolution does not provide enough of an explanation; I contend that one must look at the religion itself to find the roots of the shift and the results of the Reformation as concerns the religion's theological attitudes toward wealth. In other words, Christianity itself must be examined. As you read through the book, you could do worse than ask yourself: is there something deeper in Christianity at work in the historical shift in thought on wealth and profit-seeking?  You will find my theory in the conclusion. Undoubtedly, you will develop your own as you reflect as you read.

The main question I pose through the treatise is whether religion itself, as a phenomenon touching the human domain of existence, can hold us back from ourselves even when we least want it to do so. If so, then a religion operating in the human domain can operate as a wholly-other mechanism by which sins such as greed can be reduced in force or perhaps even finally extirpated. To expunge the sordid stuff from our banks and corporations, human nature itself would have to be radically changed. Perhaps the question is whether it is possible even if not probable for religion operating through human beings to accomplish this task, given that religion cannot but interact with the world.

 
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See related essay: "Religious Sources of Business Ethics"

The academic treatise: Godliness and Greed: Shifting Christian Thought on Profit and Wealth (Recommended only for scholars and students in the fields of (business) ethics, theology, and intellectual history). A related book on the same topic for the general (college) educated reader will be published soon (follow @wordenreport on Twitter to catch the announcement).