Why economists would benefit from a little Christian sensitivity

Why do economists need a Christian sensitivity? The obvious answer would be to instil in them a sense of compassion, while the suffering caused by economics does not compare to that caused by the most brutal of political ideologies it is on the same suffering causing spectrum. The spirit of the Reverend Malthus has always inspired economists and never more so than today. Population growth he believed would always tend to outstrip the resources needed to food, clothe etc. the ever growing population. Therefore his first conclusion was that there must always be the poor, as there was never sufficient wealth in any economy to enable all to have an adequate standard of living. He also saw disease, famine and war as the saviours of mankind as they kept the population within bounds. While economists particularly those in the British Treasury have persuaded politicians of the need for the first, they have not yet tried to persuade of the need for the second. There is another answer and that is economics is one of the best examples of arrested thinking, so common in contemporary Britain. What concerns me is the immaturity of thinking of contemporary economists, their overly simplistic reasoning.

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The inspiration for my reasoning is Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling), in that book he bemoans the practice of Christianity in 19th century Denmark. He writes that the Christian intelligentsia regarded an afternoons reading as sufficient to acquaint them with the essentials of Christianity. This he compares unfavourably with the Christian Fathers who spent a lifetime trying to understand Christianity and who even at the end of there life said their understanding was limited and flawed. Just like Kierkegaard’s Christian intelligentsia economists suffer from the same intellectual arrogance. They just know, they have at hand the answer to all society’s problems. The comment that the answer was worked out on the back of an envelope is intended as an insult but with economists as a statement, the truth of economics can be distilled down to a few sentences that could be written on the back of an envelope. The best metaphor that describes contemporary economics is that it arrested thinking that has never really progressed beyond that if the schoolboy. This school thinking is demonstrated in the words of the Shadow Chancellor, who spoke with glee when he said his cuts to public spending would leave the public sector reduced to its bleeding stumps. As with a schoolboy no thought of the consequences of his actions for the people of an austerity hit economy. Military terminology can be applied as for the modern economist the people are unfortunate collateral damage, who suffer for some greater good.

Economics unlike contemporary theology is a closed subject, the truths are already known and its the work of the economist to apply those known truths correctly in their analysis of any given problem. In a closed subject such as economics, no new thinking is needed because all the fundamental truths have been discovered, all that is required is some tinkering to achieve perfection. Theology by contrast is an open subject, all the truths are not known and those that are are but imperfectly known. It would be ridiculous for any theologian to claim to know the mind of God, yet Christianity has been a closed subject many times in the past, when it claimed this knowledge. It has an unfortunate past record of persecuting and killing those who did not accept the acknowledged truth. Galileo Galilee was silenced by the church for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, that the earth was the centre of the earth, by the simple expedient of showing him the instruments of torture. Unlike my predecessors as a theologian I claim to know little about God, I am a negative theologian a theologian who admits that God is unknowable. However this does not mean negative theologians have no knowledge of God. They have knowledge of the presence of God in human society, the means by which the unknown makes themselves known. They can glimpse aspects of God’s nature and explain it to others. The aspect of God that I know is the good, the good that characterises all good actions. Good can never be explained except through good actions and as a Neo-Platonist I believe that within all these good actions, there runs an indefinable good. It is a good I know but whose essence I can never adequately explain. All I would claim is that I know something of God’s nature as in is known through the medium of human existence. I am looking through a very dark glass which obscures most of the truth, what a much better theologian than myself called the ‘cloud of unknowing’. What I do know is the limits of my knowledge. I only know a little of one aspect of God’s nature and I shall spent a lifetime trying to develop that understanding.This is unlike an economist who does know and they even know what forms of economics are in error, something I would never claim about other religions. To paraphrase Uriah Heep, I am ever so humble, whereas the good economist possesses the arrogance of truth.

A negative theologian such as myself is keenly aware of the limitations of their knowledge, whereas all economists are positive theologians, who are aware that they know everything and have little if anything to learn about the world. Whereas the truth is the opposite the theologians have spent centuries studying the nature of God and the few truths they know are greater than the imagined truth of economics. Economists have discovered one economic truth, the market and having achieved that they think they know all economics. What they need instead is the perspective of the negative theologian, which one of ignorance. The truths of theology are but a small part of the truths of Christianity, and therefore they are open to any approach that might shed new light on the ultimate truths. Economics needs similar enlightenment it needs to seek new ways to go beyond the few truths it has discovered. When doing a thousand piece jigsaw I always try to fit together first the pieces that make up the edge of the jigsaw and give it its shape. Having put together the outline it is tempting to think that the main task has been done, yet the jigsaw remains a hollow square, with most of the content missing. Economists are in the same position they have some awareness of the outline of the economy, but they are largely ignorant of its content. The pieces that make up the content are missing from the jigsaw economy. Only arrogance prevents them from seeing the truth. What economists lack is humility, if they acquired this very Christian virtue the practice of economics would improve immeasurably.

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