Oh, the return of religion! Oh, the festivity!
Scholars of religion, theologians, religion reporters, faith leaders alike have commented repeatedly over the last decades or so—with the glee of victors—about the naivete of the secularization thesis. Rather than quickly and quietly receding from view, religious belief and practice are alive and well in the world, with all the challenges and ambiguity it brings. How could sociologists have been so naïve to think that religion would so easy fade away, that religion would be cast aside for science, for natural reason, for social progress? How reductionistic their view of religion was—they say—to have thought that the belief in God would shrink away, that religion itself would not adjust itself in the face of secularizing forces?
A central part of the secularization thesis was the idea that as western society became less agrarian and more industrialized, the twin processes of urbanization and modernization would eclipse religion by shaping people and communities towards social progress and scientific understanding, making religious belief redundant, idiosyncratic, and eccentric. The resultant freedom of the individual—the ability to think beyond and outside the normative strictures of religious dogma—would lead to explorations and understandings of the world and its wonders through pragmatism and profanity.
In 1965, Harvey Cox’s The Secular City became an instant touch-point for exploring the changes in religion brought by these shifts in culture, secularization, and modernization in particular. Cox understood the promise and peril of the secular in ways ahead of his time, and accurately prognosticated the many changes to religion during the decades that followed. He predicted even then the various ways that the secular would push religion into other spheres than it previously occupied—and the social and political unrest this would bring. Nevertheless, these shifts in religion towards the secular, he argued, should be welcomed by people of faith.
Harvey Cox’s latest book The Market as God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) may be read as yet another way to reflect again on that thesis and to ask whether the ambiguity of secularization lies in the way that religion often takes up residence in differing spheres of human life, imbuing its explanatory power and persuasive influence in new areas; in this case, economics, and more explicitly, the Market. The central thesis of The Market as God is that late modern society has deified the Market, with its functions explained and priorities defended in starkly religious with direct analogues to familiar Christian doctrines. “The purpose of this book,” Cox explains, “is to bring that theology out of the shadows. I want to demonstrate that the way the world economic operates today is not simply ‘natural’ or ‘just the ways things work,’ but is shaped by a powerful and global system of values and symbols that can best be understood as an ersatz religion.” (8)
There is much to commend about such a project. If we are honest, economics has always been theological. For example, Devin Singh’s brand-new book, Divine Currency (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018) details how even early Christians turned to the language and ideas of economics in order to make the case for their new, strange theological ideas. The power of money, of currency, of the techniques of transaction and the metaphors of exchange over social and political forms of life in the West originates from their theological use as a way of talking about God.
Commenting on the religious character of the market and money is not, in any way, new. So, what makes The Market as God worth reading? What about its argument can help us all better understand and respond to our current state?
Syndicate is very glad to bring you a discussion between the author of The Market as God, Harvey Cox and five leading voices in the area of religion and economics: liberation theologian Jung Mo Sung, theological ethicists Dan Rhodes and Christina McRorie, leading critical theorist Kenneth Surin, and religion and economics scholar Robert H. Nelson. Our panelists think differently about the book in question, but they speak powerfully and persuasively about what they found whilst reading The Market as God, and the kinds of questions it raises for economists, theologians, and ethicists.
Jung Mo Sung celebrates Cox’s work in The Market as God sees three areas upon which to build a more robust theological critique of the economy. Cox does well to argue that the logic of the market is undeniably religious but rushes too quickly past key concepts such as “transcendence” or “faith in the market,” both of which are necessary to offer a trenchant theological critique of market religion. Such a critique would expand on market idolatry, and offer compelling theological reasons, building on concepts of sacrifice (as Terry Eagleton has recently done) to further offer a negative account of the real material damage done to human life for the sake of growth, consumption, and efficiency.
Dan Rhodes and Christina McRorie deepen this concern, raising serious questions about whether the analysis extends beyond snark and wit to a real theological argument and as such, whether its effectiveness is undermined. McRorie questions the rhetorical way Cox uses “the Market” and suggests that rather than spurring us to action, The Market as God makes it seem as if the only thing one can do when faced with the Market is to see it for what it is. Rhodes also sees this as problematic and wonders with all the work Cox does to surface the business theology at work in market idolatry, why there is not a proposed counter-theology, beyond some vague appeal to “individual heroism” in the context of fragmented subjects with impotent political agency?
Interestingly enough, the self-proclaimed “heterodox economist” Robert H. Nelson doesn’t find Cox’s account of the Market to be sufficiently informed by economics, and as such, the interpretation of economy through religious concepts falls short. In short, the economics in The Market as God just is not descriptive thick or informed enough to hold the normative weight of Cox’s normative critique of market as idolatry. Nelson summarizes his view this way:
His use of the term “The Market” has little to do with anything an economist would understand as a market system. Rather, he is actually telling a story of a newly revived place of a devil in the world…Since “the devil” is not part of Cox’s normal vocabulary…he had to invent another name…. called “The Market.”
In the final essay, critical theorist Ken Surin lauds the Market as God for its accessibility, its fluency across disciplines (history, economics, religion), and for its sharp moral vision. Surin’s essay is a work unto itself, detailing the various global scandals produced by an institutional player in religion of The Market, Goldman Sachs, and the capitalist market system rigged in its favor. Here Surin points to a problem at Cox’s book: the scant mention of capitalism or how it may be overcome. Surin find Cox’s “theory/theology of restoration” in the closing pages of the book (de-hierarchization, pluralization, democratization, etc) to be a good place to start and even they will ultimately prove ineffective: “Capitalism is in crisis (though it is too early to say that the neoliberal model has died), but there is as yet no counter-capitalist mobilization, now that the names traditionally used to inspire this mobilization (militant, proletarian, even citizen) are no longer salient.”
These essays are strong and varied; they each speak with a powerful voice of their own which attests to the on-going importance of Harvey Cox and his work for contemporary theology and the study of religion in today’s world. You will need to read them all—and The Market as God!—to get their full effect and to learn their lessons.
I want to thank Dr. Harvey Cox for his willingness to engage our authors and contribute to the symposium. I am grateful also to the contributors for their careful and thoughtful work here. I expect the coming conversation unfolding over the next several weeks to be fruitful and substantive. Join us!