Economics in the Christian Worldview – Part 1

Christianity teaches that greed is evil.
Capitalism is the belief that greed is good.
Therefore, capitalism contradicts Christianity.

And that’s about as far as many Christians go in their analysis of economics. Some will look for examples of their premises. They’ll find a corrupt businessman who schemed his way through insider trading into bankrupting his company to line his pockets*. They’ll find a CEO who makes fifty million dollars a year and call it greed and corruption. His employees don’t make that much! They’ll assume that profits are driven by greed, coming at the expense of someone else, so that non-profits must be preferred to corporations.

The argument is flawed. Not in its reasoning, but in the premises. Christianity indeed teaches that greed is evil and anyone who would contradict this would contradict Christianity. But, despite the popularity of the opinion that capitalism is based on greed or somehow rewards it, the opinion is false. Not only false, but dangerous.

In a world of scarce resources which have alternative uses (to quote Thomas Sowell), we must have some sort of economic system in place. Of the many questions that we could ask about economics, the most important one is: Which system is best allocates these scarce resources? And by “best”, we mean, which one moves them to where the demand for them is highest. That is, in which system do we least feel the fact of scarcity? We must answer all other questions by the light of the answer to that one.

Today, I want to start a series of posts on economics and their relationship to the Christian religion. These will be informal essays. I’m not trained in economics, though I read books about economics as others might read fiction: for fun.

Revelation

Many Christians have strange beliefs about revelation. They’ll say that the Bible is the total sum of truth, that nothing outside of Scripture is true, or that the Bible is the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics.

These things are all clearly false. The Bible doesn’t contain the statement “the Bible is the total sum of truth”, and it would need to if that statement were true. Canada is north of the United States, yet the Bible doesn’t say so. The Bible doesn’t say anything about how to program a thermostat. If it were the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics, that would include the thermostat in your house.

All truth is God’s truth. That doesn’t mean all truth needs to be revealed by divine revelation. Some truth does, but we can learn a lot of things from observation and reason, both of which are given to us by God, who expects us to use them. The sort of divine revelation we have in Scripture is called “special revelation”. The sort of revelation we have access to by our senses and our reason is called “general revelation”. Scripture acknowledges general revelation throughout. In most passages, it even presumes it. Romans 1 is particularly clear about it.

The point is while we need to consult the Bible for what God says about economics, money, greed, and work, we also need to bring our knowledge about the world in as well, to understand what we should really believe. The Bible is not an economics textbook. The point of the Bible is not to tell people which system they should use to efficiently move scarce resources with alternative uses.

No one in history would have thought of the Bible as an economic textbook, either. Some books (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) may contain entire legal systems, but even they don’t read like textbooks, describing economics generally and then comparing competing systems. Beyond those books, no other portion of the Bible is given to the purpose of creating an entire civilization, and so economic ideas are mentioned incidentally everywhere else.

Good hermeneutics (interpretation) of Scripture begins by understanding the genre of each book, the intended audience of each book and how they would have understood it, and the meaning the author was attempting to convey. Every passage must be kept in context while attempting to figure these things out. The first task will be to find the passages that deal with economic principles (no matter how broadly). The second will be to apply a good interpretation to those passages.

So what does the Bible say?

Economics in the Bible

While the Bible isn’t a book about economics, it has a lot to say about money and economies. The passages which speak about money can be divided into a few groups.

Greed is Evil

Luke 12:15 says Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

And 1st Corinthians 6:10 says “…nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

It’s important to define greed, since the term can be ambiguous and is open to abuse. It is not greedy to want to acquire wealth to support a family. It is not greedy to think wealth is good or important.

In fact, greed is not a desire for wealth in the first place. Greed is intense, selfish, and unbalanced desire. It views the acquisition of wealth as an end in itself. Greed views wealth as more important than it really is. It’s the opposite of generous. Poor and rich people alike can be greedy, just as they can both be generous. This is a very important clarification, as will be seen.

Wealth is a Reward

For those who work diligently, wisely, and fairly, wealth comes as a natural reward. Proverbs 10:4 says “Lazy people are soon poor; hard workers get rich.”. Many other proverbs echo this: Proverbs 13:11, 14:23, and 20:13 for example. These passages and those like them show that wealth acquired dishonestly will usually disappear.

Proverbs 21:17 hints at a fundamental truth about wealth: that the actions and character which tend to make someone wealthy tend to be good things, while evil actions and bad character tend to make someone poor. These aren’t universal, but they are typical and reliable.

Money Must be Handled Justly

James 5:4 says “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”

When you owe people money for work they do for you, you are obligated to pay them. And if you have worked for someone else for a wage, they are obligated to pay you. Passages like this must be taken in proper context. The preceding verses, when used in isolation, appear to condemn wealth altogether, but verse four makes it clear that what is condemned is failure to pay wages, not wealth.

Generosity is good and stinginess is bad. To act justly with money, we need to be generous with what we have.

A Summary

There are hundreds of verses about money in Scripture, but they broadly fit into the three groups above. Money must be handled justly and wisely, wealth is often a reward, and greed is always evil. But how do we bring these principles together? What kinds of conclusions can we draw from these raw materials?

First, wealth is good. Often given as a reward, it is used to alleviate suffering, feed hungry people, and free our time to pursue things beyond survival.

Second, wealth is dangerous. Those who are wealthy can be tempted by their wealth to do evil things. They can hide from the reality of their own mortality, they can trust in riches, and they can imagine their wealth to make them better than those who don’t have as much as they do. Importantly, this seems to be a universal human problem. There aren’t intrinsically “wealthy people” and intrinsically “poor people”, such that a poor man wouldn’t be tempted in the same way if he won the lottery. In fact…

Third, wealth is usually acquired as a result of doing good. Many of the wealthiest people we can read about in Scripture acquired their wealth by diligently working and they learned to handle the increases of wealth little by little. It’s not unlikely that if they acquired their wealth suddenly, they’d have squandered it. Wealth tends to come to those who are capable of handling.

There’s a problem here. It’s almost a contradiction. Most people hold it in the back of their minds and never resolve it:

  1. Wealth (often) comes to those who do good things
  2. Wealth (often) tempts those who have it to do evil things

How do we resolve this? If wealth is good and God gives it as a reward, doesn’t that mean He then tempts us? If wealth is good, why does it cause evil? Is it a cycle where good people work hard, are rewarded, and become evil people?

We can’t answer these questions or this apparent problem without understanding economics and the history of economic ideas. Why do I say that? Part 2 coming soon!


*  One of the most well-known insider traders is the patriarch of the Kennedy family. One of the great ironies about economic corruption is that the party which bemoans free trade the most is the one most often involved in the corruption of free trade.

Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.